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When Atheists Attack
March 15, 2009 8:29 PM   Subscribe

The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming.

American Religious Identification Survey, 2008
posted by leotrotsky (166 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
another tidbit: In 1990, Catholics accounted for 54% of all residents of Massachusetts. It's now at 39%. Thanks Bernard Law!
posted by leotrotsky at 8:30 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the ARIS:

"The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million "Nones." Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent "Nones," leading all other states by a full 9 points.


"Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly," Keysar said. We now know it wasn't. The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union."

posted by leotrotsky at 8:34 PM on March 15, 2009


What bout Ross Douthat!?!?!?!111
posted by delmoi at 8:38 PM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


What I want to know is how many people stopped believing in God in the period beginning 2001, and ending in 2009. For some reason, I think a LOT of people fell in that category.

I wonder why...i wonder why...
posted by hal_c_on at 8:39 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's Alvin Plantinga, whose work is analytically rigorous enough to please even (some) nonbelievers. There's Kauffman, whose work is naturally caricatured by some as too new-agey and specious, and yet whose broadly Whiteheadean metaphysics is not without depth. Acorss the pond there's the recently deceased Sprigge, whose work was well received and comes out of a British idealist metaphysical tradition. And among many Buddhist thinkers, I would single out Red Pine as being not entirely out of step with the Mertonian tradition. Finally, in France, the work of Marion deserves mention: his phenomelogical approach to traditional theological questions has proved influential.
posted by ornate insect at 8:49 PM on March 15, 2009 [11 favorites]


America has leading intellectuals?
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:53 PM on March 15, 2009 [9 favorites]



"Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly," Keysar said. We now know it wasn't. The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union."


Muahahahaha, excellent. The Gay Agenda is going exactly as planned.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:54 PM on March 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


What are you implying, hal_c_on?

I wonder if the economic stall is affecting religious giving. Secular donations and NGO funding has taken huge hits since the stockmarket deflation. I wonder if God-ly people are still willing to give money to those who need it when the economy is hurting.

I just upped my BC-SPCA monthly donation because I know people are going to use the economy as an excuse not to give five, ten bucks to charitable orginizations and keep buying $5, $10 daily coffees.
posted by porpoise at 8:57 PM on March 15, 2009


For people interested in this topic it might be worth checking out the excellent bookThe Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church by Christine Wicker. Wicker points out that while many people were saying how the Christian Right was rising if you looked carefully at the numbers in the churches they were losing people from Sunday schools, which she uses as a key identifier of people who were committed to the church. She also points out that Evengelicals fib about their conversion numbers and at any rate were largely converting people who were already Christian and who would be born again, get bored and fall away from their church and then get born again with some other church later on.
posted by sien at 8:58 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thank God!
posted by carping demon at 9:03 PM on March 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure where the OP gets the idea that the measure of strong Christian writing is decisively anti-atheist: none of the authors he mentions were really that obsessed with refuting atheism but rather with defining Christianity for their age and time. In each case, that often meant disagreements with other Christians, not atheists.

Look, academics are rarely famous; theologians even less so. But, its certainly premature to call the age of Niebuhr dead; indeed, this may well be the age of Niebuhr. Merton's books are still doing pretty well on Amazon, last I checked.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:07 PM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


FWIW, I should clarify my previous comment: Plantinga is the only American intellectual I listed who is defending a more traditional view of God. Kauffman's arguments are more broadly panpsychist and not explicitly monotheistic; same, perhaps even more so, with the UK's Sprigge. Red Pine is a Buddhist for whom God is not really important at all, and Marion is French (thus falling out of the purview of the point in question). So I suppose Plantinga is the only one I could think of who fits the bill of an American intellectual-believer, and he's not read very much outside of philosophy or theology anyway.
posted by ornate insect at 9:11 PM on March 15, 2009


Apologies: on re-read, I realize that it's not the OP's opinion per se, its Sullivan's.

Still, Sullivan's got a huge problem here: Merton died in 1968. O'Connor in 1964. Niebuhr in 1971. When your religion is 2000 years old, 50 years is hardly an age, it's a heartbeat. Merton is the Merton of our age.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:13 PM on March 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


I wonder how much of the evangelical growth of the last 10 years was attributable to the rise of many in the middle class to the echelons of the upper middle class, and needing a spirituality that matched their anti-intellectual but voraciously consumerist personal philosophy. In other words, how many needed t o attend a church where they would hear the message that its wrong to give money to the homeless because they'll just use it for something immoral.

Now that the system that nutured their indolence is unravelling, I wonder how many will abandon their "faith" now that they need a helping hand. Prosperity gospel, my ass.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:15 PM on March 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


"What I want to know is how many people stopped believing in God in the period beginning 2001, and ending in 2009."

Apparently about 1,713,000 people (0.7% of the population). Roughly the number of Americans who came to identify their belief as atheist or agnostic between 2001-2008.
posted by dgaicun at 9:15 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


In case it wasn't clear, I didn't mean to suggest that Niehbur, Merton, et al are anti-intellectual, but that the evangelical rise of the last ten years is superficial and has nothing to do with these men.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:17 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When your religion is 2000 years old, 50 years is hardly an age, it's a heartbeat.

Eh, it's 2.5% of the total duration. If a heartbeat represented 2.5% of your life, you'd live about 40 seconds.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:22 PM on March 15, 2009 [25 favorites]


Also: it's not just that we have fewer intellectual-believers or literary-intellectual-believers, it's that our culture is less broadly intellectual and humanist and edifying overall than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. A TV show like Crossfire, with animated intellectual guests like Vidal and Chomsky, is pretty much inconceivable now. Publishing trends are reflective of this as well.
posted by ornate insect at 9:23 PM on March 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


In other words, the number of Americans who don't believe in God jumped from 0.9% in 2001 to 1.6% in 2008. It almost doubled.
posted by dgaicun at 9:27 PM on March 15, 2009


I'd be more impressed by Sullivan's argument if he bothered to define what he meant by terms such as "leading intellectuals" and "serious Christians". Does Alasdair MacIntyre count? Having gone to Notre Dame myself, I can attest to the fact that the Catholic intellectual tradition in this country has hardly gone bankrupt.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:27 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thomas Merton was awesome.
posted by Wataki at 9:27 PM on March 15, 2009


The Christian Science Monitor piece Sullivan references is short and worth reading.
posted by milkrate at 9:30 PM on March 15, 2009


AdamCSnider: If by "count", you mean "has written a highly-regarded, incredibly frequently cited book on ethics," than MacIntyre counts.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:43 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


The days..are over...Flannery O’Connor..

Too bad.
posted by stbalbach at 9:46 PM on March 15, 2009


I wonder if God-ly people are still willing to give money to those who need it when the economy is hurting.

Those who need it? No. To build another fucking mega-church and proselytize: Yes.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:53 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thomas Merton was a great guy.
posted by phrontist at 10:07 PM on March 15, 2009


Religious people give far more money to both religious and secular charities than secular people, so this kind of righteous indignation looks more like ignorant bigotry.
posted by dgaicun at 10:07 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Right, so the group that decimates social services because its "socialist" has a guilt-trip. I wonder how much money society would need in the form of charities if these people werent spreading the social evils of conservatism, anti-abortion, small government, bullshit magical thinking, intolerance, creationism, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, ant-gay, anti-semitism, etc in the first place? Much less I imagine. I dont care if Fred Phelps gives a million dollars to PETA. He's still wrong and he's still doing social harm regardless of the money exchanging hands.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:26 PM on March 15, 2009 [14 favorites]


good riddance. so long as the atheist cadre doesn't consist entirely of bastards like chris hitchens... though he's welcome to hurl empty bottles from the backbenches from time to time.
posted by klanawa at 10:27 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Aye, but atheists pay more taxes*, as it is the government's role to promote social welfare.

*Actually, only more than Christians. Jews and Hindus make fat bank.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:32 PM on March 15, 2009


Hah! I knew it! I've been noticing an increase in the number of people around me willing to identify themselves as atheists over the past decade or so. At first I thought it was just a sign of my peer group getting older, but I guess it's a definite trend.
posted by heathkit at 10:34 PM on March 15, 2009


I really don't know where to begin...Sully, What the eff is up with that headshot? That is problematic. Please fix it, you vain twit.

Something seems off with all the reporting on this data and I think I've discovered what it is. The reporters are forgetting to add that Atheist is primarily defined as Asshole, Non-believer being a distant, distant second. Which they would know if they read metafilter because nobody would ever forget to tell them!
posted by birdie birdington at 10:39 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


At first I thought it was just a sign of my peer group getting older, but I guess it's a definite trend.

Those two options are hardly mutually exclusive.
posted by treepour at 10:54 PM on March 15, 2009


I wonder why...i wonder why... it's Web 2.0 isn't it?
posted by mattoxic at 10:56 PM on March 15, 2009


If by "count", you mean "has written a highly-regarded, incredibly frequently cited book on ethics," than MacIntyre counts.

Actually, he's got multiple books that are highly regarded and frequently cited:

After Virtue (of course)
A Brief History of Ethics (a very good survey)
Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry
Dependent Rational Animals

posted by jayder at 10:59 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


America has leading intellectuals?

Nope. We're all ignorant. We all love Jebus. And if you say otherwise, we'll burn down your farm.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:23 PM on March 15, 2009


I remember in middle school reading a 1969 (or so) issue of Time magazine, referring to a previous issue that had on the cover "Is God Dead?" or something along those lines (I was young, I was looking for pictures of bare-chested women, I was not paying particular attention.)

The percentage of believers in the US is roughly a sinosoidal graph. There are times of intense belief- the second great awakening, the 1940's and 50's. Perhaps the 80's, but I'm not sure. There were periods of intense disbelief- the 1880's (Robert Ingersoll was the highest paid orator at the time), the 1960's and perhaps the 2010's, we'll see. As much as Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. might look for the end of religion, it didn't happen then, it's not about to happen now. I'm heartened to see this shift, as I believe it's coming at the right time when we need an increased focus on rationality and science and a rejection of the belief in miracles and divine aid. (And because I believe that an upswing in nontheism/deism will help the gay rights movement.) But don't expect American fundamentalism to curl up and die. It may contract, shed believers, but it will come back in full force in 50 years or so, unless we somehow, magically turn into a European power in the meantime.

As much as I would like to see Christianity in the US become like Christianity in western Europe, I feel, that like Huck Finn, reports of its death have been grossly exaggerated.
posted by Hactar at 11:27 PM on March 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


"Right, so the group that decimates social services because its "socialist" has a guilt-trip....abortion...creationism...Kurt Cameron... gays....stem cells... GOP... Limbaugh... IRAQ BUSH IRAQ IRAQ AAAUUGGGHHH"

Ooook, that's a lovely rant there. But, any suggestion or assertion that religious people are less personally charitable with their time and resources than secular people is false and based in bigotry. Any other character or ideological flaws that religious people or specific religious people might demonstrate is immaterial to this. The perceived enlightenment of your position in the culture war doesn't mean you can or should demonize groups of people in any way you see fit, fairness and facts be damned.

"I dont care if Fred Phelps gives a million dollars to PETA. He's still wrong and he's still doing social harm regardless of the money exchanging hands."

It would mean he is right and doing social good in one area, and wrong and doing social bad in another area. A response to this hypothetical revelation like "I'll bet the recession means he'll wear a fur coat to his next fag-bashing rally" would indicate a surreal inability to process any information that threatens one's ability to fully hate.

Incidentally, Fred Phelps probably isn't into PETA, but he was, crazily enough, an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
posted by dgaicun at 11:36 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

Can someone clarify this for me? 1.6 percent of Americans are atheists, except for the times when 12 percent are atheists?

What I think I'm reading is that 1.6 percent self-identify as atheists, yet 12 percent say they do not believe there is a God, but don't self-identify as atheists. What do those people self-identify as? Is this like the opposite of Jews For Jesus - Christians Not For Christ?
posted by tzikeh at 11:49 PM on March 15, 2009


Incidentally, Fred Phelps probably isn't into PETA, but he was, crazily enough, an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

Not to asplode your argument or anything. I don't particularly care, but calling Fred Phelps an "important figure" in the Civil Rights Movement diminishes those who actually, in reality (not on Wikipedia) important figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Aren't we throwing the word "important" around a bit lightly here?
posted by IvoShandor at 11:49 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


YMMV
posted by dgaicun at 11:56 PM on March 15, 2009


What I think I'm reading is that 1.6 percent self-identify as atheists, yet 12 percent say they do not believe there is a God, but don't self-identify as atheists. What do those people self-identify as? Is this like the opposite of Jews For Jesus - Christians Not For Christ?

Maybe they think atheism is a statement of smug self-assuredness. No telling where they could have gotten an idea like that.
posted by shii at 12:04 AM on March 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


Can someone clarify this for me?

One night, a distinguished gentleman was walking down a dark alley in Belfast. Suddenly a masked man jumped out in front of him, waved a gun in his face, and asked, 'Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?' The terrified gentleman stammered, 'W-w-w-well, I-I-I am actually an atheist.' 'Well now', responded the gunman, with what appeared to be a twinkle in his eye, 'would you be a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?'
posted by dgaicun at 12:12 AM on March 16, 2009 [14 favorites]


The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious muscular Christians are over.
posted by benzenedream at 1:27 AM on March 16, 2009


A suggestion: rather than used the loaded and confusing monikers "athiest" and "agnostic", this poll should rather be using the much better term "non-believer". I think if they had, the numbers for those would be much higher.
posted by zardoz at 1:30 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's Alvin Plantinga, whose work is analytically rigorous enough to please even (some) nonbelievers.

This would be the man whose response to "You have no rational reason to believe in God" was to redefine belief in God to be empistemically basic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:10 AM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Maybe they think atheism is a statement of smug self-assuredness. No telling where they could have gotten an idea like that.

Me either, it's not like theists heavily imply that it is every time the topic comes up or anything.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:11 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't believe there is a god, of any flavor, but if you ask me if I'm an atheist, I'd probably say no. Why? Because I don't *refuse* to believe in a god. I just haven't seen any evidence that'd convince me that there is one. Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented. That's as rigid and absolute a position as any priest might have, which is why I can't call myself an atheist. I'm more flexible than that.
posted by jamstigator at 2:22 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof"

Um ... says you. I consider myself an atheist, and that isn't my position at all. In fact, it's an utterly ludicrous position. Does anyone in the world actually adhere to it? I can't imagine very many do.

Feel free not to call yourself an atheist if you like, but please do not define me by a silly interpretation of the word.
posted by kyrademon at 2:26 AM on March 16, 2009 [17 favorites]


...Evengelicals fib about their conversion numbers and at any rate were largely converting people who were already Christian and who would be born again, get bored and fall away from their church and then get born again with some other church later on.

Thus, the rising numbers of bored-again Christians.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:17 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


...how many needed t o attend a church where they would hear the message that its wrong to give money to the homeless because they'll just use it for something immoral.

Are there actually any churches that give that message?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:19 AM on March 16, 2009


As much as I would like to see Christianity in the US become like Christianity in western Europe

While I get the impression that Austria is kind of... different, I've noticed that they seem to be pretty big into the whole Jesus thing here. I've been proselytized on the street, four different kids in my dorm are studying religion or are going to be priests, most of the girls wear crosses, and there's Jesus-on-a-cross on lots of trees when you get out into the country.
There seems to be a lot more religion in schools as well.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:41 AM on March 16, 2009


I get the feeling that these polls will systemically under-report non-believers until such a point where a lack of belief in (a) g/God is socially acceptable in most of America. As it stands now, I think there are probably a significant number of people who are non-believers, but when asked, they'll answer with the religion they were brought up in.

This is partially because religion is cultural as well as spiritual. You can't really escape having been brought up Catholic or Jewish, for instance. In America, though, to many people, saying "I'm a non-believer" is like coming out of the closet, so to speak. It requires them to come out from the safe, vague, default beliefs of their home culture, and admit that they don't believe.

One day, when lack of believe is no longer "shameful" or something to be "admitted," but just is how people are, more like eye color than race or sexual orientation (though, I'd like to see those become like eye color too!), I think people will be more likely to report being non-believers. As this will, of course, be gradual, I think that well explains some of the gains on these reports.
posted by explosion at 3:51 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Why? Because I don't *refuse* to believe in a god. I just haven't seen any evidence that'd convince me that there is one. Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented. That's as rigid and absolute a position as any priest might have, which is why I can't call myself an atheist. I'm more flexible than that.

Um, you've come up with a crazy definition of atheist that neither I nor any atheist I've ever met would agree with.

Seriously, where does this stuff come from? Look, I know that if you put 3 atheists together they can (happily) spend an hour arguing as to what exactly "atheism" means, but if you entered the conversation and dropped that turd of a definition into the mix, they'd just look at you strangely.
posted by the bricabrac man at 4:10 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof

Bullshit. I'd say if real, undeniable proof of God existed prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins would be the first to admit they are wrong. He has certainly said as much. I certainly would.

Fact is there is no such evidence and there is unlikely to be. Do you have any evidence to bring to the table to prove otherwise?
posted by twistedonion at 4:11 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


also

Because I don't *refuse* to believe in a god.

I've never met an atheists who refuses to believe in God. It's like refusing to believe that spaghetti grows on trees, who actively refuses to believe such things?
posted by twistedonion at 4:15 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


sorry, should have been an atheist, not plural.
posted by twistedonion at 4:16 AM on March 16, 2009


I wish people would quit equating non-Christian with atheist.
posted by jbickers at 4:25 AM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't understand people who call themselves atheists. Why go around defining yourself by what you don't believe?
posted by autodidact at 4:26 AM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I don't believe there is a god, of any flavor, but if you ask me if I'm an atheist, I'd probably say no. Why? Because I don't *refuse* to believe in a god. I just haven't seen any evidence that'd convince me that there is one. Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented. That's as rigid and absolute a position as any priest might have, which is why I can't call myself an atheist. I'm more flexible than that."
People like you are why God had to put a teapot in deep space.
posted by edd at 4:27 AM on March 16, 2009


I don't understand people who call themselves atheists. Why go around defining yourself by what you don't believe?

For the same reason superheroes are called "crimefighters" and the Anti-Defamation League exists. Atheism isn't just a blasé lack of certainty or caring about what's beyond the veil, but rather a relative certainty that there is no God or higher power. It stands opposite an aspect that is present in nearly every culture world-wide. If people called themselves "abolitionists" for standing against slavery, what's wrong with calling oneself an "atheist"?

I personally don't usually call myself an "atheist" specifically because it's taken on this certain loaded characteristic, and prefer just to say "I don't believe."
posted by explosion at 4:33 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented.

Oh hardly. I'm an atheist, and if you presented me with *any* "proof" (in the scientific sense) I'd reconsider my opinion. There are no "proofs" of any quality because the existence of god(s) cannot be proven and that is the whole fucking point of believing in something utterly hysterically wrong.

As for the counter-examples of leading theist "intellectuals," they are to a one jokes among real scientists. Philosophers don't count. They make shit up for breakfast.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:35 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your examples are both groups who are actively against something. Crime fighters fight crime. Anti-defamers are anti-defamation. I'm not anti-religion. I just don't believe that bullshit. So lately, semantically correct or not, I choose to avoid the "atheist" label. I despise broccoli, am I an afloretist?
posted by autodidact at 4:37 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh and for the record I much prefer "non-religious" if you must label me. I know it means pretty much the exact same thing, but like you I find the term "atheist" really gets religious nitwits, and even some non-religious false humbles, all riled up.
posted by autodidact at 4:41 AM on March 16, 2009


I don't understand people who call themselves atheists. Why go around defining yourself by what you don't believe?


Hmm. Maybe because I am fucking sick of "believers" defining me (or my society) by what they "do" believe when it is so patently wrong as to be dangerous to me (and my society)? I define myself as a "Marxist" too, which means I "don't believe" in the sustainability of capitalism as a mode of social organization. Just because I "don't" believe in "god(s)," doesn't mean I don't have any positive beliefs. I do. They are called reasoned opinions based on the preponderance of data. I *do* believe the earth is around 6 billion years old; that modern homo sapiens emerged very late in the history of life on this planet; that life can be explained without recourse to supernatural causes; that humans ought to be humbled by their poor knowledge of nature, not emboldened by it to propose fantasies as "explanations."

I also define myself as a civil libertarian because I *don't* believe in racism or class domination.

I define myself as a scientist because I *don't* believe in fairy tales.

But debating this subject on MeFi has become tiresome. It's the same arguments every time. Hell, that's been true of this same debate since the 18th century at least, and arguably since the first hominid thought to invoke spirits s/he couldn't see to explain phenomena s/he couldn't understand or control.

It always comes back to this for me, and I've never seen anyone on the pro-god side respond with anything but bluster.

You say there's a god, huh? Prove it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:44 AM on March 16, 2009 [16 favorites]


If you can be convinced by proof that there is a god, then by definition you are agnostic -- you are unconvinced but retain the ability to be convinced. You are, as they say, on the fence. There are three positions, one for each side of the fence, and one for those who sit on the fence. Priests and 'people of faith' on one side of the fence (we KNOW there's a god), atheists on the other side (we KNOW there's not a god), and agnostics sitting on the fence and wondering which side they should climb down on, if any.

An atheist is someone like the protagonists in the book Inferno (Niven & Pournelle). Walking through what appears to be a version of Dante's hell itself, they come up with ways that their walking through hell *doesn't* have anything to do with religion, even as they are slapped in the face with a reality that says they are wrong. (And they're good at it too, which is what makes it an interesting read.)
posted by jamstigator at 4:47 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


America has leading intellectuals?

Yes, of course, we steal only the best!
posted by Pollomacho at 4:54 AM on March 16, 2009


An atheist is someone like the protagonists in the book Inferno (Niven & Pournelle). Walking through what appears to be a version of Dante's hell itself, they come up with ways that their walking through hell *doesn't* have anything to do with religion, even as they are slapped in the face with a reality that says they are wrong.

Sorry, I don't think your definition is very accurate. I wonder if that's your real opinion or you're just trying to get people to say they're actually agnostic so that you can do some bullshit verbal gymnastics and say that their doubt is a form of belief. Atheists would be convinced by evidence, they just aren't looking for it, aren't expecting it, and place the likelihood of ever seeing it down below the level where they need to overqualify the position by calling themselves agnostics. Only schizophrenics are not convinced of the concrete reality in front of them. You can bet if God appeared to me, I would fall to my knees.

(Guess what though? He ain't gonna because he's as real as Santa Claus)
posted by autodidact at 4:57 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


America has leading intellectuals?

You might want to check out world university rankings. I'll leave the googling to you.

Their criteria are fairly rigorous.
posted by Wolof at 4:58 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well Jam, I don't know why I'm bothering, since it's clear that in your mind, you're right and all these people who actually call themselves "atheists" are wrong, but here goes:

I call myself an atheist because I lack belief in god. I'm not on the fence about it any more than I'm on the fence about the existence of leprechauns -- I lack belief in 'em.

Now, if a leprechaun were to hop on up to me and lead me to his pot o' gold, I may reconsider what I know about leprechauns.

I don't "KNOW" there is no god. I simply lack belief in him -- the concept of "god" (as it is described in all the world's religions) just seems plain silly to me. I don't call myself "agnostic" because that term doesn't really get across to people that I find the idea of "god" really silly. Honestly, I don't understand why you have trouble seeing this?

meh...if your answer is "the only accurate definition of atheism that exists comes from a science fiction book I once read", don't bother.
posted by the bricabrac man at 5:02 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Read the article. Don't get it. This could be because I am not an evangelical or conservative Catholic, and those seem to be the two flavors of Christianity being discussed? Prominent modern Christian thinkers to me include people like Spong, Ehrman, Nouwen, Beuchner, Taylor, Bruggemann, Borg, Verhey. None of them are the stereotypical Christians being discussed here. They are regularly accused of heresy by the people you're complaining about. Many of their writings would be quite interesting to people who are interested in thinking about ethics in a broken world or understanding the ways Christianity has been twisted to serve conservative ideologies.

Is the problem that these people don't get any press in our Fox News and People Magazine world? What does it even mean to be a leading US intellectual now? Can you name some? It seems like our country mostly hates intellectuals of all stripes.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:15 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


My beliefs are atheist. A-theist. Without god. Any attempts to claim that the word means anything beyond "without god" are ridiculous and unworthy of engaging.

I think a big part of the problem is that there's so many ideas about divinity, theism, atheism, and whatnot that they run into our human tendency to try to categorize everything. That's not always a bad impulse- our understanding of chemistry, for example, would be lessened without the periodic table- but like the human pattern-finding ability activating inappropriately and causing pareidolia, our categorizing functions sometimes fuck up. So we say "this means this and that means that", and in the process we tend to start misusing words. There are many ideas and attitudes about belief, disbelief, epistemology, and so forth that are compatible with a lack of belief in god. When we take one particular set of such attitudes and beliefs and assign it to such a generic and broad term as "atheism" and say "that is what atheism means, and that alone", I think that harms the discussion. We should, when dealing with broad, basic terms, resist the urge to give them highly specific meanings.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:20 AM on March 16, 2009


LOLXIANS and all that... But we atheists are left with what some philosophers call "the super-ultimate question": Why should something exist rather than nothing?

Dawkins correctly points out that to say it was made by a God who has always existed ducks the question - and that one might as well say the Universe has always existed. But I think he's wrong when he says that the theory of evolution made it possible for the first time to be an intellectually satisfied atheist.

Unless and until physics can give us a handle on the super-ultimate question, atheists are just guessing like everybody else. Though, to our credit, we're less preoccupied with making sure the queers ride at the back of the bus.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:40 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why should something exist rather than nothing?

It simply does. Teleology is a pointless endeavor.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:42 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Atheists are some of the the only people who take God seriously. For most everyone else, these questions of existence are best avoided, because their religion is a wish-fulfilling fantasy and to look too closely would destroy the magic. I don't dismiss the idea that there could be some sort of intention behind the existence of the universe, but every religion's conception of that intention is laughably absurd.

I can't think of any leading intellectual. But there sure are a whole hell of a lot of clever people writing books and blogs. Perhaps we have democratized public intellectualism.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:57 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


explosion religion is cultural as well as spiritual.

I would go further and say religion is almost entirely cultural, and rightfully should be studied in an historic, sociological, anthropological context. I would define real spirituality as a quest for absolute truth, which often involves rejecting the customs and traditions of one's elders, sifting through different "-isms" with scientific rigor, learning, adapting, evolving, growing, throughout one's lifetime.

By self-identifying as one thing and not another, by defining one's self as This and Not That, is how blind bigotry perpetuates itself.
posted by Restless Day at 5:59 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you can be convinced by proof that there is a god, then by definition you are agnostic
Oh, baloney. An atheist is not someone who believes THERE IS NO GOD AND THERE CANNOT POSSIBLY BE ANY HYPOTHETICAL PROOF SHOWING OTHERWISE. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe there's a god.

Meanwhile, most actual definitions of "agnostic" -- you know, from dictionaries -- say that an agnostic thinks that the question of god-or-not is not only unknown, but also almost certainly unknowable. So if anything, the person who you mention, who "can be convinced by proof", is anything but an agnostic.
posted by Flunkie at 6:06 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


LOLXIANS and all that... But we atheists are left with what some philosophers call "the super-ultimate question": Why should something exist rather than nothing?
I fail to see how theists are not left with exactly the same question.
posted by Flunkie at 6:08 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world.

Dream on.
posted by blucevalo at 6:16 AM on March 16, 2009


I consider an agnostic to be a weak-kneed atheist. They acknowledge that there's no proof that God exists, but then fail to drop the theory in the dustbin.
posted by DU at 6:29 AM on March 16, 2009


what some philosophers call "the super-ultimate question"

I can't tell whether these philosophers are kind of dorky, or whether they're Super Plus Awesome to the Max!
posted by Hermione Dies at 6:30 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, most actual definitions of "agnostic" -- you know, from dictionaries -- say that an agnostic thinks that the question of god-or-not is not only unknown, but also almost certainly unknowable. So if anything, the person who you mention, who "can be convinced by proof", is anything but an agnostic.
To add to this:

Furthermore, even if you use a looser meaning (such as "thinks that it's theoretically possible that there is a god, and that it's theoretically possible that there is not a god") -- which you seem to want to do -- your reasoning is still off base.

You're arguing from the assumption that atheism, theism, and (your definition of) agnosticism are disjoint sets, without any possible overlap ("There are three positions, one for each side of the fence, and one for those who sit on the fence", you say). That's fundamentally wrong.

There's nothing about the meaning of "atheism" that makes it incompatible with the idea that "I could be wrong". Nor is there anything about the meaning of "theist" that makes that incompatible with the idea that "I could be wrong".

So, if you want to take your flawed definition of "agnostic" to its logical conclusion, virtually everyone on earth is an agnostic. Many of those agnostics are atheists, and many of those agnostics are theists.

And on preview, DU's got it spot on about many people who self-identify as agnostic and shove it in the face of anyone who dares say the word "atheist".
posted by Flunkie at 6:39 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the dividing line largely has to do with whether people actually apply intellectual rigor to all aspects of their life.

Also, 'atheist' does not mean that you wouldn't under any circumstances think there was any sort of deity. 'Atheist' simply means you don't think there's a deity, generally because there's no proof of one. I'm an atheist, and I'm an atheist because there is no evidence to suggest the existence of any sort of deity. There are no deities.
posted by kldickson at 6:47 AM on March 16, 2009


It simply does.

This being the answer that everyone, from atheists to Christians to frustrated parents, eventually come down to giving.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:27 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


jamstagator: If you can be convinced by proof that there is a god, then by definition you are agnostic -- you are unconvinced but retain the ability to be convinced.

No. Agnostic according to the definition laid out by Huxley is simply the admission that existing evidence leads to an equivocal position. Both atheists and theists since the early days of the 20th centuries have staked out positions based on an admission of agnosticism. Liberal theists on the one hand take a moral position that it is better to take a leap of faith, while atheists (including Bertrand Russell who first developed much of the rhetoric of Dawkins) stake a claim to doubt as a reasonable default position.

And of course, there are people like me who have read Huxley and think that he's basically taking the philosophical piss and staking out a contrarian position for the sake of being contrarian. I'm much more inclined to agree with James that, as a practical matter, you either act as if there is a God concerned with your actions or you don't.

Formal agnosticism in my opinion is pretty much a position that has been rendered outdated by pretty much most modern and postmodern epistemology that is quite comfortable with the reality of hard limits on our ability to know. If contemporary atheists are wrong for admitting that their lack of belief in god(s) is merely a working assumption based on available evidence, then they are in good company along with Russell and Asimov.

Joe Besse: Unless and until physics can give us a handle on the super-ultimate question, atheists are just guessing like everybody else. Though, to our credit, we're less preoccupied with making sure the queers ride at the back of the bus.

Well, I'm not convinced that it's a question that needs to be answered. Secular humanism (not entirely to be conflated with atheism) tends to cherish open questions and mysteries as avenues for future discovery. But pragmatically speaking, very few of the open theories to explain the origin of the universe will have much of an impact on humanity. Feynman once noted that the problem of getting water to the poor neighborhoods of Brazil was not a scientific one, as the engineering aspects of transporting water is very well understood, but the humanistic once are a matter of moral will and ethical consience.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:33 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


humanistic ones, not humanistic once
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:36 AM on March 16, 2009


jamstagator: An atheist is someone like the protagonists in the book Inferno (Niven & Pournelle). Walking through what appears to be a version of Dante's hell itself, they come up with ways that their walking through hell *doesn't* have anything to do with religion, even as they are slapped in the face with a reality that says they are wrong. (And they're good at it too, which is what makes it an interesting read.)

If your conception of atheism comes entirely from a fiction novel, then you distinctly lack the qualifications to have an informed conversation about a 3,000 tradition of philosophical thought, much less make mock-authoritative claims about how terms are defined.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:42 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Priests and 'people of faith' on one side of the fence (we KNOW there's a god)

I'm pretty solidly on the theist side of the fence myself, but I think anyone who says they KNOW whether God exists is full of grade-A horseshit.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:49 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


So if atheism is (thankfully) on the rise, does that mean we get to see some atheist characters on TV who aren't snarky, world-weary assholes?
posted by brundlefly at 7:50 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Speaking of leading Christian intellectuals - if there are any theists here who can give a reasonable explanation or defense of Van Til and Bahnsen style presuppositionalism, without the winking rhetorical questions and smug shit eating grins that usually accompany it, I'd be grateful.

re: Plantinga: I'm not sure if I understand the probabilistic foundation of his evolutionary argument against naturalism - there's some discussion of it here that I could just about follow -
posted by fleetmouse at 7:50 AM on March 16, 2009


Unless and until physics can give us a handle on the super-ultimate question, atheists are just guessing like everybody else. Though, to our credit, we're less preoccupied with making sure the queers ride at the back of the bus.
Last I heard, no one offers any explanations for this: theism simply swaps "god" for "the universe" and defines god as eternal. This is a bit like lamenting that atheists haven't run a one-minute mile, without noting that theists define a "minute" as "however long it takes to run a mile."
posted by verb at 7:53 AM on March 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Given the laws of physics as we know them, a supernatural being, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, cannot exist. Cannot.

If such a being exists, then every known law of physics would have to modified -- and therefore render all of scientific knowledge we've accumulated so far useless. Which means we wouldn't be able to fight disease the way we do, create networks of computers (or computers themselves) the way we do, or even develop and use internal combustion engines.

Yeah, I *know* there's no God. Or gods. But that's fine.
posted by grubi at 8:00 AM on March 16, 2009


Oh, goody. A war of definitions.

I think a strong element in the rise of unbelief is simply that Pascal's Wager has ceased to function. Relatively few churches seem to teach the "doubt and be damned" doctrine much anymore, with any vigor at least. There's no longer the sense, among many Christians, that to honestly doubt God's existence or the literal truth of the Bible or that the Creator hates gays is to commit an unpardonable sin. People aren't afraid anymore (of God's wrath, that is - the fear of social ostracism is still quite alive and well) to doubt, and even to openly doubt.
At the same time, I think many elements of our culture encourage us to be less willing to commit to straight-up presumptions about the universe. Let's be frank - knowledge is contingent. This will be driven home regardless of whether you are listening to postmodernists talking about the cultural biases of science or physicists going on about the latest theories of everything, all of which conflict with each other and with common sense. So there's a tendency to hedge, to keep in the back of your mind the fact that anything you think you know might be wrong. The difference between "non-believers" on the one hand and self-described (and seemingly confident) atheists and theists is less, I think, that the latter really are, on the whole, more certain of themselves, but that they are more emotionally invested in that worldview and (more importantly) feel some sort of moral responsibility to crusade for their respective causes, because godlessness/religiosity is seen by them as a socially detrimental phenomenon.
The battle is between two forms of moralism, while a large chunk of the American population looks on and wonders whether this really matters all that much. It certainly doesn't strike them as likely that it matters to God anymore.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:01 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


brundlefly: So if atheism is (thankfully) on the rise, does that mean we get to see some atheist characters on TV who aren't snarky, world-weary assholes?

Oh, yes that would be so nice. I was sort of into Bones for a while until I realized that every episode will contain some little nugget linking Bones's dysfunctional social relationships to the fact that she's feminist, well-educated, childfree or atheist.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:01 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hate that the terms "atheist" and "non-believer" even exist. Does anyone have to identify themselves as non-hollow-earth believers, or acthuluists?

I don't build my worldview around the nonexistence of a magic beardy-man any more than I base my diet on the absence of pork flavored lettuce. However, if anyone can produce even mildly convincing evidence for either, I'd be very interested.

Though, really, if some god made its existence known, it wold really suck a lot more. I mean, we'd know for certain that the pain of life and everything fucked up in the world were inflicted on purpose! I mean, fuck you, man! What an asshole God would be!
posted by cmoj at 8:05 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, yes that would be so nice. I was sort of into Bones for a while until I realized that every episode will contain some little nugget linking Bones's dysfunctional social relationships to the fact that she's feminist, well-educated, childfree or atheist.
Well, to be fair, her Catholic partner is a hypocritical lunk who thinks "introspection" as a special kind of anthrax.
posted by verb at 8:11 AM on March 16, 2009


If such a being exists, then every known law of physics would have to modified -- and therefore render all of scientific knowledge we've accumulated so far useless. Which means we wouldn't be able to fight disease the way we do, create networks of computers (or computers themselves) the way we do, or even develop and use internal combustion engines.


I don't see how this follows. It is possible that all those phenomena occur, not due to the laws we have posited at present, but because of a set of other laws which we have not discovered yet. Phlogiston theory did very well in predicting and explaining how combustion, rust, and metabolism worked. But, as it turns out, the "laws" that the theory posited were eventually replaced by better "laws" which explained not only those phenomena but a great many others that phlogiston couldn't explain. Rusting didn't cease to occur, nor did it cease to be explicable.

Historically speaking, if there's one thing we can count on it is the fact that every known law of physics will eventually, in fact, be modified to some degree. We've tinkered with Newtonian physics, we've tinkered with General Relativity. If we ever do come up with a Theory of Everything (or if we can decisively test the viability of some of the present contenders for that title), I don't doubt that we will have found a set of new laws which may entail throwing out the main tools we have used hitherto to explain the way the physical world works. This won't mean that our technology will stop working - it will just mean that this technology was developed using theories that were false, but useful within a certain limited sphere of operation - just as phlogiston theory was useful within a very limited sphere of chemical experimentation.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:12 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


AdamCSneider: I think a strong element in the rise of unbelief is simply that Pascal's Wager has ceased to function.

Well, Pascal's Wager ceases to function once you realize that it exists in many religions, with the possible exception of some flavors of pure-land Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists argue that optimal human rebirth is so astronomically rare that it's folly to spend it at something other than dharma practice.

The difference between "non-believers" on the one hand and self-described (and seemingly confident) atheists and theists is less, I think, that the latter really are, on the whole, more certain of themselves, but that they are more emotionally invested in that worldview and (more importantly) feel some sort of moral responsibility to crusade for their respective causes, because godlessness/religiosity is seen by them as a socially detrimental phenomenon.

Well, no. I'd much rather break bread with Obama as a person of faith, than Hitchins as an apologist for aggressive ethnocentrism. My crusade is simply for the right to live free from arbitrary discrimination on my own terms. Unfortunately, it seems that many people prefer to support their own position by attacking strawatheists.

cmoj: I hate that the terms "atheist" and "non-believer" even exist. Does anyone have to identify themselves as non-hollow-earth believers, or acthuluists?

Well, I just don't get the objection here, perhaps because I come out of a field where such a-terms are very useful for defining chunks of the world: anaerobic, amorphous and asexual come immediately to mind.

Of course, atheism and theism are not worldviews. One can be an atheist and a stoic, Pragmatist, epicurean, existentialist, Marxist, or Randian Objectivist. One can be a theist and identify with one of dozens of religions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:16 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pascal's Wager is a terrible argument and it is tragic that anybody finds it convincing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 AM on March 16, 2009


I rather disagree. One of the brilliant things about General and Special Relativity is that the equations nicely collapse down to their Newtonian versions when the effects of extremely high velocities and gravitational fields are vanishingly small. Einstein expanded Newton's world rather than contradicting it, and this expansion was critically necessary to its success.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:21 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, no. I'd much rather break bread with Obama as a person of faith, than Hitchins as an apologist for aggressive ethnocentrism. My crusade is simply for the right to live free from arbitrary discrimination on my own terms. Unfortunately, it seems that many people prefer to support their own position by attacking strawatheists.

Fair enough.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:23 AM on March 16, 2009


There's Alvin Plantinga, whose work is analytically rigorous enough to please even (some) nonbelievers.

This would be the man whose response to "You have no rational reason to believe in God" was to redefine belief in God to be empistemically basic.


Heh, that's right, I remember reading Plantinga now. He's the guy who thought that since the logic worked out* so that "p is possibly necessary" implies "p is necessary," and it was possible that God (a necessary being) existed, he must therefore necessarily exist.

Setting aside the vast distance between the Christian deity and a being who's existence is necessary, but is otherwise unspecified, the argument is still absurd. All it really implies from a formal standpoint is how difficult it is to prove that something is possibly necessary.


*in modal system S5, that is.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:51 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The collapse of Christian intellectualism is due to the refusal of Christians to confront the full implications of scientific approaches to religion and spirituality. They have retreated from public discussion into private faith. The non-religious have been complicit in this, allowing a place for private faith within a public discussion that is in every other respect scientifically grounded. Neither religionists nor secularists show any willingness to thoroughly investigate the phenomenon of Christianity.
posted by No Robots at 9:06 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


KirkJobSluder: I see what you mean about useful distinctions. I guess I'm expressing frustration that I have to apply a label to myself to indicate that I don't believe in a specific irrational thing. Maybe it has more to do with my upbringing (I figured out very early that religion was crap and only after that asked and found out that my parents were (are) atheists), but I feel like it implies that the default is to believe in some religion. I could make an argument that it is the default, since most never get to make the decision, but since I was never indoctrinated either way there was no default.

Also, I mean worldview in a broader sense. Maybe ego or zeitgeist are better words.
posted by cmoj at 9:21 AM on March 16, 2009


Well, it's not just lack of belief in any old irrational thing. It's a lack of belief in something that's been a central feature of a large chunk of Western thought.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:40 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I believe the preferred term is now 'Bright'
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:44 AM on March 16, 2009


I'd like to go out on a limb and suggest that there is more to Christianity in America than charismatic evangelicals with mega churches and TeeVee evangelists.
posted by mecran01 at 9:45 AM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Atheists, Christians -- get a room already. Sheesh.
posted by rough at 9:45 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Given the laws of physics as we know them, a supernatural being, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, cannot exist. Cannot."

One assumption here is that God would be governed by the laws of physics, that is that god would be a part of the physical universe. That is in no way a necessary part of a belief in God.

If such a being exists, then every known law of physics would have to modified -- and therefore render all of scientific knowledge we've accumulated so far useless. Which means we wouldn't be able to fight disease the way we do, create networks of computers (or computers themselves) the way we do, or even develop and use internal combustion engines."

What? Since when do bad laws render "all scientific knowledge useless?" Newton's laws are wrong, was his work useless? All of the laws of physics known today are certainly wrong in some way (if for no other reason than the simple fact that at some point down the line we'll have better instruments and be in a position to improve the precision of our laws). So, are we unable to combat disease now? Does my computer not work?

Hyperbole like this does not further discussion.
posted by oddman at 10:03 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented.

Could somebody please respond to this!
posted by Falconetti at 10:07 AM on March 16, 2009


Atheists are those who cannot, under any circumstances, be convinced of the existence of a god, regardless of the quality of the proof with which they might be presented.

It looks like the term you're looking for isn't 'atheist,' but 'willfully ignorant fool.' If God Herself pulled back the clouds and started tossing candy down, along with little notes that said 'Sorry for being so silent all these years! But I for sure do exist!' I don't think Dawkins or anyone else would refuse to be convinced of the existence of a god. But that doesn't mean they aren't atheists.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:11 AM on March 16, 2009


Falconetti, several of us have responded to it already.

If Jamstigator were to come back and admit he's had a misguided, kinda-crazy idea in his head of what atheists are, well I suppose that 'd be some sort of minor miracle.
posted by the bricabrac man at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2009


"It looks like the term you're looking for isn't 'atheist,' but 'willfully ignorant fool.' If God Herself pulled back the clouds and started tossing candy down, along with little notes that said 'Sorry for being so silent all these years! But I for sure do exist!' I don't think Dawkins or anyone else would refuse to be convinced of the existence of a god. But that doesn't mean they aren't atheists."

I would. It's vastly more likely that some highly technologically advanced civilisation has got my brain in a jar and having fun messing with a simulated universe which I've been wired up to in the manner of the Matrix than it is that there's a God.

I would be extremely difficult to convince that there is a God. Not impossible perhaps but it'll take more than miraculous M&M precipitation.
posted by edd at 10:48 AM on March 16, 2009


I would be extremely difficult to convince that there is a God. Not impossible perhaps but it'll take more than miraculous M&M precipitation.

My point is that there's a difference between having firmly-held beliefs and refusing to acknowledge new information that contradicts those beliefs.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:00 AM on March 16, 2009


Does anyone have to identify themselves as... acthuluists?

Fools, and the uncomfortably sane.

ia ia fhtagn
posted by FatherDagon at 11:00 AM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I would be extremely difficult to convince that there is a God. Not impossible perhaps
If an omnipotent entity exists, it could convince you that it is God. It could convince you easily, as if you were the most willing-to-believe human alive. That's part of what "omnipotent" means.
posted by Flunkie at 11:01 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Falconetti, several of us have responded to it already.

I thought it was a joke about how the whole thread seems to be revolving about one trollish comment.
posted by kolophon at 11:45 AM on March 16, 2009


One assumption here is that God would be governed by the laws of physics, that is that god would be a part of the physical universe. That is in no way a necessary part of a belief in God.

How can God exist everywhere all at once and somehow be completely unobservable?

If you assign no attributes to God, then how can he exist? If he has no shape, no form, no mass, no anything, how can he exist? And if you do define attributes and those attributes are completely unobservable, how can he exist?

Everything that exists by definition is observable in some way.

If God exists, but only outside this universe, how can he affect this universe? Can something outside of a universe affect what is in it? How can it effect what is in the universe without being in it? How can it affect that universe without being manifest in that universe? If a universe is defined (in part) as being ruled by a specific set of physical laws or rules, how can something exist within that universe that does not or cannot adhere to those rules? Or how can something not in that universe affect anything within that universe while failing to adhere to those rules? Wouldn’t a failure to adhere those rules mean one of two things: the rules are changed or the rules are meaningless? If the rules have changed, then that would mean said entity would be adhering to the new rules (which means it cannot exist outside all rules; there is some set of rules it must obey). If the rules are meaningless, then, essentially, there are no rules. And if there are no rules, then there is no observable behavior that can be predicted, and therefore there is no scientific method.

Newton's laws are wrong,

No, as has been explained, they were not wrong, merely incomplete.

Hyperbole like this does not further discussion.

What is it you're *really* trying to say?
posted by grubi at 12:24 PM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


This discussion was a lot more interesting when it was on topic.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:47 PM on March 16, 2009


So... should we panic or unpanic?
posted by chairface at 1:42 PM on March 16, 2009


I hate that the terms "atheist" and "non-believer" even exist. Does anyone have to identify themselves as non-hollow-earth believers, or acthuluists?

Meh-thodist, here.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:07 PM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm Futilitarian - our motto is "It just doesn't matter..."
posted by Karmakaze at 2:58 PM on March 16, 2009


I'm not gonna go around calling myself a "bright". That is the worst goddamn label they could have come up with. Thank Daniel Dennett for that one.
posted by autodidact at 3:16 PM on March 16, 2009


As much as I would like to see Christianity in the US become like Christianity in western Europe

My only experience with Christianity in Western Europe was living in Germany when I was 18, and I made friends with these girls on a class trip to Paris. Well, when we got back to Germany and I started hanging out with them on a regular basis, come to find out they're evangelical Christians. They took me to a "coffee house" that was really a youth group completely with a sermon from some preacher dude and they were honestly members of True Love Waits.

It was the same as my experiences with fundamentalist Christians in the US. Except with beer. Being German, they did at least have beer.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:47 PM on March 16, 2009


How can we talk about atheists on TV and not mention Gregory House?!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:52 PM on March 16, 2009


Personally, I've always liked to assume characters on TV are atheist until they say otherwise. Atheism is the natural/default state (found in babies and everything!), so unless a character is established as religious, I have no reason to assume religion.
posted by explosion at 4:42 AM on March 17, 2009


Well, it's not just lack of belief in any old irrational thing. It's a lack of belief in something that's been a central feature of a large chunk of Western thought.

Right, but that's not my problem.
posted by cmoj at 3:33 PM on March 17, 2009


I hate that the terms "atheist" and "non-believer" even exist. Does anyone have to identify themselves as non-hollow-earth believers, or acthuluists?

Why do we have a term for "amusical" anyway? Shouldn't we just call those people "rational" and everyone else "crazy trance cultists"?
posted by shii at 1:24 AM on March 18, 2009


"If you assign no attributes to God, then how can he exist? If he has no shape, no form, no mass, no anything, how can he exist? And if you do define attributes and those attributes are completely unobservable, how can he exist?"

We can easily assign attributes to God that are non-physical, take omnipotence as an example. Of course, if you insist that the only real properties are physical ones then you are both begging the question and being unnecessarily narrow minded. What sort of physical characteristics does modus ponens and the number two have?


"Everything that exists by definition is observable in some way."

Well, that's not obvious. I mean, observability isn't a part of the definition of "existence." Which is to say that the concept of observability isn't related to the concept of existing in the way that the concept of being unmarried is related to the concept of being a bachelor. What kind of thing might exist with no observable properties? I couldn't say, but it's at least logically possible that such a thing can exist.


"If God exists, but only outside this universe, how can he affect this universe? Can something outside of a universe affect what is in it? How can it effect what is in the universe without being in it?"

Short answer: miracles. Longer answer: by some accounts omnipotence allows one to do things that are even logically impossible.


" If a universe is defined (in part) as being ruled by a specific set of physical laws or rules, how can something exist within that universe that does not or cannot adhere to those rules? . . ."

If the laws of the physical universe are a subset of the laws of what is real, for example, there might be any number of things that behave in accord with the greater set of laws and thus are unencumbered by physical laws. Furthermore, there may be physical things which are empowered by these over-arching non-physical laws to act in ways which seem to defy the more obvious physical laws. Imagine a universe with non-physical minds and psycho-physical bridge laws.

iSure, If you think that the physical laws are the whole story, then this is an absurd possibility. However, it isn't even the case that physical laws are the whole story in our universe: physical laws are in fact a subset of both logic and metaphysics (This is all assuming that one is a realist about laws. If we deny that claim, then there isn't any mystery to puzzle over.)


"No, as has been explained, they were not wrong, merely incomplete."

OK, how about Descartes's laws of motion, then? Or Aristotle's view of procreation? Or Lamarck's theory of mutation and adaptation? Regardless of one's views of Newton's laws (and I assure that many agree with my assessment of them), my point stands: bad laws do not have the outlandishly disastrous effects that you outlined.


"What is it you're *really* trying to say?"

That you've made some hyperbolical and unwarranted assumptions, exactly what I said the first time.

Look if you are really just saying that physicists are unable to account for the non-physical using nothing but the laws of physics, then I agree. Who wouldn't? But that's an awefully boring claim to make and it certainly does not entitle you do deny the existence of God.
posted by oddman at 4:41 PM on March 18, 2009


What the hell is the "non-physical"? You're claiming I'm stretching definitions and being narrow-minded... but you don't even notice you're willing to introduce illogical and impossible concepts into the discussion. "Miracle"?

Jesus, the religious are an odd bunch. "I know it can never be seen or proven or is neither logical nor probable... BUT IT DOES SO EXIST. And it defies every known law of physics!"

Dude, seriously. Observability IS a fundamental part of existence. If God exists, SOME evidence would have turned up by now. Even a smidgen. Because, yes, if it exists, it can be observed in some way. We may not be able to observe it yet, but it has to be observable; that is to say, we have evidence. It may not be directly observable, but it would leave some evidence of its existence: which is what we mean when we say 'observable'. The thing is, no matter how much more we end up learning about the universe and its properties, not one shred of evidence has been brought forward for the existence of this magical ghosty man. But, no, sure, miracles.

What sort of physical characteristics does modus ponens and the number two have?

What sort of existence does the number two have? It exists only as a concept, not as a real thing. I submit that the number two and God are equally real: neither has physical form, and neither has any power or sentience.

Faith is a fucked-up thing.
posted by grubi at 5:27 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


"What the hell is the "non-physical"? . . . you're willing to introduce illogical and impossible concepts into the discussion."

Are you serious? You're trolling me right? Non-physical entities may or may not exist, but to say that they are impossible is utterly ridiculous. For one thing the logical is not limited by the physical. Isn't that obvious?


What sort of existence do laws of physics have? Are they real?

Also, don't you find nominalism to be utterly impoverished?
posted by oddman at 10:10 AM on March 19, 2009


What sort of existence do laws of physics have? Are they real?

Sure, they're real. Because they can be observed.

No-one's trolling you. You appear to be trolling me. I've gone on and on about how if God exists, there would have to be evidence, and you seem to be implying that God is real as a concept... which is weird, since no theist believes in God as a concept, but as a living thing.

Also, don't you find nominalism to be utterly impoverished?

Can't say. Not familiar with it.
posted by grubi at 10:33 AM on March 19, 2009


Oddman, if you're arguing that God as a concept exists, then you're right. But then anything you can think up exists as a concept.

In this light, or in the alternate light, nothing you've said makes sense or constitutes a logical argument.
posted by cmoj at 2:15 PM on March 19, 2009


grubi, since you've stated that real, existent, things have location and other physical characteristics kindly point me toward the law of gravitation. I'd like to take a picture of it.

As you asked of God "If he has no shape, no form, no mass, no anything, how can he exist?" Can provide me with the shape, form, and mass of any law of chemistry? Any at all, your choice.

Furthermore, you are, frankly, wrong to say that you observe laws. What you see are the effects of various laws. You can't use the latter as a substitute for the former.

cmog, what I'm arguing is that non-physical things are not impossible unless you limit possibility to what is merely physically possible. This is an unwarranted and arbitrary limitation (and renders the impossibility of the non-physical a boring tautology).
posted by oddman at 5:43 PM on March 19, 2009


Oddman, it's already been expressed that
I've gone on and on about how if God exists, there would have to be evidence, and you seem to be implying that God is real as a concept... which is weird, since no theist believes in God as a concept, but as a living thing.

-grubi
You're reiterating rather than addressing the argument.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2009


oddman, I'm curious what the "end point" of your argument here is. If you're suggesting that fundamental rules of the universe should be called "God" it's an interesting idea worth entertaining, if only for novelty's sake.

But if you're suggesting that the rules of the physical universe -- the patterns that we discern by observing the consistent behavior of things --- are equivalent to the 'God' spoken of by most religious believers... well, that stretches things to the breaking point. Perhaps Buddhist thought could be considered close to that, but anything approaching the traditional monotheistic religions is right out.
posted by verb at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2009


We can easily assign attributes to God that are non-physical, take omnipotence as an example.
Or, for example, existence.
posted by verb at 6:22 PM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


PG, I've said nothing about concepts other than that a concept of something non-physical is not incoherent simply for being about a non-physical thing. A point with which grubi seems to disagree. I have certainly never said that God is a concept.

verb, I'm not putting forth any positive story here. I'm not presenting an argument for the existence of anything in particular. At this point, I'm simply pointing out that rules aren't physical things in themselves. Yet, many reductive physicalists, like grubi, believe in rules, e.g. the laws of physics, adamantly while rejecting things like God because He is said to be non-physical. I think that the cases are similar and warrant consistent, equal treatment. If a non-physical X is deemed unable to exist because it is non-physical, then a non-physical Y ought not to exist for the same reason.

A side note for verb, the second idea that you put forward, about God being the rules, is pretty similar, in spirit, to what Spinoza argued for.
posted by oddman at 7:33 PM on March 19, 2009


Even if it isn't a requirement for something to be physical to exist, don't you think it requires EVIDENCE in order to exist?

Chemical laws, physical laws... these things do have evidence. There is something that allows you to verify their existence (as you seem to define it). The question remains: where's the evidence for God.

And tell me how God, an ominipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being (not a concept) can exist WITHOUT any evidence or physical form.
posted by grubi at 5:29 AM on March 20, 2009


Besides, "laws of physics" being a truly existent thing is kind of faulty. The laws of physics are, to be sure, concepts. Concepts that help describe and predict the behavior of matter and energy. In and of themselves, do they exist? Or are they merely descriptors for other things which exist? Exist physically?

That's a different argument, though.

You're just not going to have a BEING that effects the universe physically without it having some physical form. A sentient creature of some sort, which is effecting things around it AT WILL... and somehow not having physical form? Or any evidence that exists?

Good luck with that.
posted by grubi at 5:39 AM on March 20, 2009


Grubi, as I said earlier we don't directly observe natural laws (of science or anything else), we observe the effects of those laws. We don't see the law of gravitation. We see things falling toward the ground. From this effect we infer that there is a law controlling some of the behavior of bodies.

The problem with using this sort of observation as evidence for the existence of a law is that you cannot prove the existence of a particular cause from the fact of an effect. For example, we cannot prove the existence of Napoleon from the stunning French military victories the late 1700s. At best we can say that the French had at least one seemingly brilliant general. Of course, there are lot's of other candidate explanations. (They had two brilliant generals, or their enemies were spectacularly inept, are two obvious alternatives.)

The same is true for laws. So, no, there is no way to verify the existence of a law. We can, at best, assume that laws support certain effects and argue that this assumption is warranted and reasonable, but we cannot prove it to be so.

Finally, who get's to decide what counts as evidence? You've been arguing that physical effects count as evidence for non-physical laws. Many, many, many people would happily argue that the existence of the universe, and any number of other tangible effects e.g. the birth of a certain man, are observable evidence for the existence of God. (Asking how he can exist without a body is a mistake akin to asking how Pi can exist without being a rational number.) But this last bit is really just a derail on my part. It is not a central part of my argument against your initial claims about laws and God.
posted by oddman at 5:56 AM on March 20, 2009


To your point about the nature of laws, many people are realist about their existence. I've been arguing against that position. If you aren't, you've been writing as if you are.

"You're just not going to have a BEING that effects the universe physically without it having some physical form. A sentient creature of some sort, which is effecting things around it AT WILL... and somehow not having physical form? Or any evidence that exists?"

If you except the premise that only physical things can effect other physical things, then of course you are right. Where do you argue for that premise?
posted by oddman at 5:59 AM on March 20, 2009


Which, this discussion is one of the reasons why I find the whole enterprise of arguing against theism to be a futile endeavor. Apologetics these days seem to be primarily about moving the goalposts, so while you might start arguing against the claim that God worked certain miracles that are to be taken as historic fact, you end up arguing against incoherent or moot things like, "ground state of the universe" or "prime mover" or "epistemological necessity." At which point, you end up in a semantic battle about the utility of calling those things according to a term with a ton of anthropomorphic baggage.

Oddman: From this effect we infer that there is a law controlling some of the behavior of bodies.

Well, I think there is a serious language slip here. A "law" is essentially a very strongly supported theory. It's a model, usually quantitative but sometimes quantitative description of how the universe tends to act in certain situations and with certain parameters.

verb: But if you're suggesting that the rules of the physical universe -- the patterns that we discern by observing the consistent behavior of things --- are equivalent to the 'God' spoken of by most religious believers... well, that stretches things to the breaking point. Perhaps Buddhist thought could be considered close to that, but anything approaching the traditional monotheistic religions is right out.

Yes. To be specific, Christianity depends on the premise that God did something at certain historic points of human history. Without the historic claim that at some point in humanity's past, man offended God so much that the relationship between the two was strained, the historic claim that God sent his only Son to save humanity becomes moot. (This, BTW, is not just an atheistic criticism of Christianity.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:24 AM on March 20, 2009


what I'm arguing is that non-physical things are not impossible unless you limit possibility to what is merely physically possible. This is an unwarranted and arbitrary limitation (and renders the impossibility of the non-physical a boring tautology).

Being unable to rule something out is not the same as having any reason to believe that something is true.
posted by cmoj at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2009


A side note for verb, the second idea that you put forward, about God being the rules, is pretty similar, in spirit, to what Spinoza argued for.
In the sense that Spinoza called the observable natural world "God," to the point that his views were considered synonymous with atheism, yes.

Thanks for reiterating my point.

The only evidence we have of a supreme being is the fact that our universe is an ordered one. We can accept that our universe 'just happened', or we can complicate things by arguing that a supreme being 'just happened' and subsequently created the universe. Something had to spontaneously emerge, or be ever-present, in either case. The supreme being theory just kicks the "We don't know how it happened" can down the road a few feet and pretends things are solved.

Occam's Razor cuts close.
posted by verb at 11:32 AM on March 20, 2009


cmoj, that if certainly true.

KJS, that is one definition of the term law. It is a definition commonly used by scientists and many others, certainly. But there is an older, though still relevant and in use, sense of the term in which laws are thought to be real things with full ontological status. This is the sense which supports the claim that laws have a causal role in the world.
posted by oddman at 11:32 AM on March 20, 2009


But there is an older, though still relevant and in use, sense of the term in which laws are thought to be real things with full ontological status. This is the sense which supports the claim that laws have a causal role in the world.
Can you offer an example of one of these ontologically 'real' laws? A law that does not simply describe the consistent behavior of the universe, but that actually acts as a causative agent?
posted by verb at 11:48 AM on March 20, 2009


verb, I'm not sure what you mean by an example. They are the sorts of laws that deterministic models are predicated upon. The laws that force things in the world to behave in certain ways.

When a student asks why does the pressure of a gas increase when the volume decreases, one might respond by saying something like: well there is a law of the universe, that we approximate with Boyle's Law, which makes it so. (Is that what you mean by an example?)

(Now, I won't speak to the merit of such an explanation, but one benefit of it is that it keeps things like the many instances of a phenomenon from being coincidental. That is, it's not just an accident that every time we observe a decrease in volume we see an increase in pressure. The descriptive model understanding of laws can't offer an such assurances, since by definition it's merely a description of what has happened and cannot fix future events. )

Remember that I'm not arguing that this is the way the world is. I'm merely arguing that the case for reductive nominalism isn't anywhere near as clear as it's made out to be.
posted by oddman at 12:16 PM on March 20, 2009


Define "reductive nominalism".
posted by grubi at 12:53 PM on March 20, 2009


When a student asks why does the pressure of a gas increase when the volume decreases, one might respond by saying something like: well there is a law of the universe, that we approximate with Boyle's Law, which makes it so. (Is that what you mean by an example?)
Something like that, yes. In the above example, I think it's fair to say that anyone calling the "Law beneath Boyle's Law" equivalent to God is operating outside the bounds of what people refer to as 'religion'. Hell, I'm an atheist and I'll call gravity 'God' if it makes for an amusing semantic game. That doesn't mean anything has changed -- just that I'm playing word games.

This was my point above: the 'God As Natural Law' construction is not compatible with mono or polytheism as it is understood by those systems' adherents. The comparison is sometimes made in the practice of apologetics, but only for the purpose of flim-flammery. None of them are actually willing to accept such a limited concept of 'God.'
(Now, I won't speak to the merit of such an explanation, but one benefit of it is that it keeps things like the many instances of a phenomenon from being coincidental. That is, it's not just an accident that every time we observe a decrease in volume we see an increase in pressure. The descriptive model understanding of laws can't offer an such assurances, since by definition it's merely a description of what has happened and cannot fix future events. )
The model you describe is nothing but the descriptive model plus denial. Which, I suppose, does make it a lot like God.
posted by verb at 1:42 PM on March 20, 2009


Links from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a well respected source.
Reductionism (the link is to physicalism, but in this context they are basically the same thing).
Nominalism.

The short explanation is roughly something like this:
Nominalists argue that everything is concrete, i.e. spacial-temporal.
The physicalists (reductivists) argue that all things whether seemingly physical or not are, at bottom, just physical things (or, more permissively, all things are explained by the physical).

The terms are perhaps slightly redundant (though in full rigor they are diferences) but amount to the notion that everything that is, is physical.

I've taken this to be your stance, and it is not one that is definitively right. It, at very least, should be argued for rather than taken as the default position. The links do a good job of highlighting some of the problems with them.
posted by oddman at 2:17 PM on March 20, 2009


oddman: When a student asks why does the pressure of a gas increase when the volume decreases, one might respond by saying something like: well there is a law of the universe, that we approximate with Boyle's Law, which makes it so. (Is that what you mean by an example?)

Well, most of this argument is based around the premise that at some point those of us who could be accused of reductive nominalism, (although I'm more inclined to consider materialism to be a reasonable default assumption pending evidence that so far, no apologist for the supernatural has been able to produce), would choose to blackbox something and say, "it's just a law." Boyle's Law works as an approxmation of the net results of billions of individual electrons exchanging virtual photons, and thus, exerting a force on each other. What happens beyond the quantum descriptions of the electromagnetic? I don't know. Perhaps it is god, but if so, that proves to be a very meager god indeed.

The existence of open questions just beyond the range of what we know, or even, beyond the range of what we theoretically can ever know, is simly not a problem for those of us who love the questions. So I'm constantly baffled by the demand that atheists must produce a sweeping theory of everything in order to have a defencible position. I think it was a defensible position in pre-Christian times when what lay at the other end of the continent was little more than rumor.

And again, I'm not one to argue that everything must be explained ultimately in terms of the physical. No physical science can prove that there is an infinity of real numbers, or that human beings have a moral right to life, liberty and the persuit of happiness. But there also, the arguments for the necessity of a divine spirit strike me as weak, arbitrary, and reducible to other principles that don't require using god or similar concepts.

I won't make the argument that materialism is "definitively right," I will make the argument that until someone comes up with compelling evidence that a deity is sufficient and necessary for any of the problems that stump me, that my skepticism is sound, reasonable, and in practice, fairly modest.

And in fact, I find this to be a somewhat oppressive and hypocritical demand that one can only profess atheism if one can show one is definitively right. Apologists can't both stake the claim that religion requires a leap of faith beyond evidence and proof, and fault me for not making that leap.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:07 PM on March 20, 2009


"And in fact, I find this to be a somewhat oppressive and hypocritical demand that one can only profess atheism if one can show one is definitively right."

I find that to be an entirely reasonable position. The burden of proof ought to fall on everyone's shoulders equally.
posted by oddman at 5:53 PM on March 20, 2009


The burden of proof falls upon the one making the claim of existence, always always always. The inverse would require that we give a fair hearing to any random idiocy that somebody thought up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:34 PM on March 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, PG, that is true, but why shouldn't we endorse the position that, in general, the burden of proof falls upon any person claiming that things are a certain way? If a person believes X, whether X is the existence of God, the truth of physicalism, or anything else, then that person bears the burden of proving their claim (if that person wants to rationally convince others).
posted by oddman at 7:42 PM on March 20, 2009


The burden of proof lies upon positive claims precisely because positive claims can be proven.

And you know, I've noticed that theists always engage in this special pleading when it comes to their own belief, but hold other claims of equal plausibility to the usual standard of positive claims requiring proof. If I told you that invisible, intangible, room temperature pink dragons existed all around us, imperceptible but everpresent, you would write me off as a loon and insist that I prove it. Not for a second would you entertain the notion that there was any burden of proof whatsoever upon your head to prove that invisible, intangible, room temperature pink dragons don't exist all around us, imperceptible but everpresent. The only reason you insist on the burden of proof being upon the atheist is because you yourself believe in god and, like most people with a pet theory that doesn't hold up to logic, are unable to engage the question honestly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:21 PM on March 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


"The burden of proof lies upon positive claims precisely because positive claims can be proven."

I don't disagree with this. An early version of my last post used the term "positive claim" instead of the world being "a certain way." I changed the language to try to avoid a bit of jargon. Perhaps that makes you think we disagree? In any case I see physicalism as a positive claim and thus still bearing the need to be proven.

I have argued that all abstract entities ought to be treated equally, that believing X to be immaterial is not incoherent, and that physicalism isn't an unproblematic, obviously true conception of the world. Certainly physicalism can be furthered (though not fully established) by proving that God doesn't exist. Of course, the two tasks are obviously not equivalent.

If you were to present proper arguments that indicated that the pink dragons served to explain something in the world or that they play an important role in a reasonable metaphysical system, I certainly would admit that, in order to show that my view of the world is better than yours, I would have to prove that the pink dragons don't exist.

For example: I'm not an Aristotelian (sure no one is anymore, just go with it). However, his metaphysical system was, at least, a roughly coherent attempt to understand the world. If someone came to me and mounted some new argument for the existence of Aristotelian forms, I would indeed take his position seriously and feel the need to prove him wrong.

You seem to be unwilling to grant that theistic and non-reductive beliefs are coherent, and thus like arguing for pink dragons, but this is simply false. There are a number of legitimate reasons for incorporating God and/or abstract entities into our view of the world. For example, Platonism is a viable, contemporary view that makes use of abstract properties. If a Nominalist wants to make the most convincing case for his own position, he really ought to take the Platonists assertions seriously and prove that they are wrong. (And vice-versa.)
posted by oddman at 9:03 PM on March 20, 2009


"like most people with a pet theory that doesn't hold up to logic, are unable to engage the question honestly."

Can we stay away from the personal attacks? That would be super.
posted by oddman at 9:05 PM on March 20, 2009


In any case I see physicalism as a positive claim and thus still bearing the need to be proven.

Physicalism is not a positive claim. The physical is the base; it is the only thing you have any legitimate reason to believe exists, the only thing that you have any right to speak of. Physicalism is the ultimate negative claim.

If you were to present proper arguments that indicated that the pink dragons served to explain something in the world or that they play an important role in a reasonable metaphysical system, I certainly would admit that, in order to show that my view of the world is better than yours, I would have to prove that the pink dragons don't exist.

I don't believe you.

For example: I'm not an Aristotelian (sure no one is anymore, just go with it). However, his metaphysical system was, at least, a roughly coherent attempt to understand the world. If someone came to me and mounted some new argument for the existence of Aristotelian forms, I would indeed take his position seriously and feel the need to prove him wrong.

I think you're referring to Plato, and no, his metaphysical system was not coherent. That's why it lies abandoned and discarded, forgotten by all except philosophers.

(Glibness about Christianity being Platonism for the masses notwithstanding.)

You seem to be unwilling to grant that theistic and non-reductive beliefs are coherent, and thus like arguing for pink dragons, but this is simply false. There are a number of legitimate reasons for incorporating God and/or abstract entities into our view of the world.

There are no coherent theistic systems; all run into massive unresolvable paradoxes and illogic. You are begging the question and simply making bald, false, obviously unexamined assertions which underlie your worldview. You have done an excessively poor job of arguing in this thread, and the fact that your worldview is built upon these assumptions is at the heart of it.

For example, Platonism is a viable, contemporary view that makes use of abstract properties.

It isn't, though. It's riddled with contradictions and problems that have been known for many, many times the length of your life. You don't know nearly as much as you think you know.

Can we stay away from the personal attacks? That would be super.

No, no, no, fuck that. If you're going to be dishonest and crap at logic and argumentation, I'm not going to pat your head and say how wonderful you are. You are very poor at this and have a mass of unexamined assumptions and poor reasoning underlying your beliefs on this, and it is making it impossible for you to make sound arguments. Just because it hurts your feelings to point this out is no reason not to do so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:40 PM on March 20, 2009


Sorry PG I thought you were actually informed about what we were discussing.


1) You think I'm a liar? That's swell. I didn't realize that we knew each other so well that you could form an informed opinion about me.

2) When I mentioned Aristotelian forms, I very much meant Aristotelian and not Platonic forms. I know the difference.

3) Platonism as the term is currently understood and as I am using it in this thread is a contemporary metaphysical view that argues for the existence of abstract entities. It is only barely related to Plato's philosophy. It has problems, like any other metaphysical view, certainly. I would never say that it doesn't. However, I do know what I'm talking about when I say that it is coherent and that it is a respectable contemporary theory.

4) You seem to think that I'm waging a sort of stealth campaign, that at some point I'll spring my trap and say "A ha! Thus God!" I won't. Of course, you think I'm a liar. So, you think I'm lying about this. That's your hang-up not mine.

5) Physicalism, is in fact, not in anyway shape of form the default human view of the world. It is no one's common sense view. Everyone believes in qualia, in intentionality, in free will, etc. when they are naive about philosophy. That view, the pre-theoretical view, is the default view. Any view that argues against the pre-theoretical must be argued for. It takes an awful lot of reading and studying to come to believe that physicalism is right and that the a great deal of our experiences are illusions.

6) It's amusing that you dismiss several theories on the grounds that they are plagued with problems and riddled with contradictions. Physicalism is itself filled with many, many irresolvable problems. Go look at the links from the SEP that I inserted upstream. Do you really think that philosophers have come up with a metaphysical system that was problem free and obviously right? Really? Trust me if they had we'd all know about it. (In the past when philosophers have come up with really good explanations that were clearly better than the competitors we all readily signed on; see, for example, mechanism/atomism or Hume's analysis of induction, or just about any development in Logic.)

7) All I've been doing in this entire discussion is challenging others to consider whether their default positions, which are sometimes blindly and adamantly asserted, are really as unproblematic and consistent as they imply. That's it. Go back and look at what I've actually said instead of building strawmen out of what you think I'm implying. We disagree, that's fine. Kindly point me to any fallacious reasoning that I've offered.

8) I have been strident and perhaps overly so at that beginning. Sorry grubi. However, I've tried to be civil in this discussion. I certainly have not attacked anyone. Thanks for reciprocating.
posted by oddman at 10:42 AM on March 21, 2009


Well, I'm not going to address the whole bugaboo regarding physicalism, given how many of my peers within atheism have acknowledged that subjective human experience can't be easily handwaved away, I find it to be a bit of a straw man.

I will argue that reductionism in general (including the methodological materialism advocated by people such as Russell, Dawkins, Wilson, and Schermer) has proven to be hugely successful as a framework for looking at problems. The view that much of our world can be explained as complex elaborations of very simple principles has yielded many of the advances in knowledge that we enjoy. And not that this is necessarily all physical, the cryptography system that makes our current economy possible is an elaboration of certain axiomatic statements about numbers.

The cases in which "and god" add insight, clarity, or better predictions to those systems have generally been fairly weak.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:05 PM on March 21, 2009


KJS, you make good points. I definitely agree that invoking God to explain how physical systems work is unlikely (to pit it mildly) to make things clearer.
posted by oddman at 3:38 PM on March 21, 2009


The cases in which "and god" add insight, clarity, or better predictions to those systems have generally been fairly weak.
My impression -- from the earlier portions of the conversation, at least -- are that oddman was arguing that 'a godlike force' could be classified with many of the same fundamental principles and axiomatic statements. Or, perhaps that all fundamental principles and axiomatic statements could be grouped together and called 'God'.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what he said.
posted by verb at 8:33 PM on March 21, 2009


oddman, I was gonna do a point by point, but then I came to this passage, and my response to it, and honestly I think that pretty much sums up my response:

Kindly point me to any fallacious reasoning that I've offered.

That's been the bulk of my involvement in this thread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:02 PM on March 21, 2009


Again, the fact that we disagree about various things does not mean that I've committed a fallacy.

Come on PG, help a benighted person. Point out my fallacious reasoning.
posted by oddman at 8:51 AM on March 22, 2009


Back to the original question -- modern Christian intellectuals. I'd say Bono but that would invite a stupid argument. Certainly Sufjan Stevens.
posted by msalt at 10:22 PM on April 7, 2009


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