Skip

Speaking in tongue
July 7, 2009 3:07 AM   Subscribe

The Alpha Course has been a widely popular - and controversial - initiative by the Church of England to get people more interested in the Church. In 2000, the Jewish journalist Jon Ronson attended a course to see what was going on.
posted by mippy (197 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait... the CoE is behind this? I thought they were best summarised as "well, the Bible is an allegory, and God may or may not exist, but He is an Englishman.. would you like a biscuit? More tea?"
posted by acb at 3:19 AM on July 7, 2009 [13 favorites]


I think it's worldwide now, but Alpha have been advertising on city buses and at railway stations for years now.
posted by mippy at 3:22 AM on July 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Lordy. (unintentional).

Well, to paraphrase Mr Jordan, if being a freaky-deeky helps these people with their court reporting etc, power to em.

Personally, I'm kind of surprised peeps can't see the social pressures behind all these culty techniques, but hey, if it makes them more generous, more loving, more charitable people, then

"h͚̥̬̳̦͎̳̝̲̔̓́͛͜ů̥͈͓͎ͤ͋͌̌̀͘r̜̾̍ͣ̈ͯͥ̆͝͠b̦̺̤̖̗̗̙̪̅͆͗ͥ͛̀̚͞l͎̤̰̠̱̺͓̠ͨ́̂́͘e͌̋ͫͩ͌ͩ̉̋ͪ͝҉̠̳͕ ̵̦̞͍͎ͬ̑͒̊͌͂b̖̻̬̃ͣ̌͆ů̵̧͓̣̖̼̇̇͟r̷̼͈̝̠̎̌ͤb̳̜͙͔̖̝̪ͩ͋̌ͥ̋̔̊͢͡ͅl͔̰̺͓͌̈́e̢͍͓̻ͯ̀̌͊ ̶̱͚͛̎̈́̈́͘r̲̄ͥh̶̫͒̎̌͘ṵ̵ͨͩ͂̂̒͡k̡̪͓͇͔̃̈́̌͑̿̅́͘͢ͅi̶̡̙̥͖̣̾̽ͣ̏̾ͨ̚ǩ̯̹̝̪̑͌͞k̐̊͛̎̈́̋̉͏͙̭̕i̺̦̜͍̓̊̍̽̏͞k̥̪͇͙̟̲͈͕͊ͨ͘͟i̺̦̥̜̱͕͒̐̓͒̏́͡k̑ͮ͏̵̦̠̱!̻͉͔̭̭̉̉͗̓̃̒̃͂̕͝!̱̝̼̟̻̞͍̅̒̈́̑ͭ͘͜͞!̉͒̓̊͑͂̂҉̹̱̺!̨̣̟̦͍̪̙̮̤̃ͯ̄̉̃" I say, "h͚̥̬̳̦͎̳̝̲̔̓́͛͜ů̥͈͓͎ͤ͋͌̌̀͘r̜̾̍ͣ̈ͯͥ̆͝͠b̦̺̤̖̗̗̙̪̅͆͗ͥ͛̀̚͞l͎̤̰̠̱̺͓̠ͨ́̂́͘e͌̋ͫͩ͌ͩ̉̋ͪ͝҉̠̳͕ ̵̦̞͍͎ͬ̑͒̊͌͂b̖̻̬̃ͣ̌͆ů̵̧͓̣̖̼̇̇͟r̷̼͈̝̠̎̌ͤb̳̜͙͔̖̝̪ͩ͋̌ͥ̋̔̊͢͡ͅl͔̰̺͓͌̈́e̢͍͓̻ͯ̀̌͊ ̶̱͚͛̎̈́̈́͘r̲̄ͥh̶̫͒̎̌͘ṵ̵ͨͩ͂̂̒͡k̡̪͓͇͔̃̈́̌͑̿̅́͘͢ͅi̶̡̙̥͖̣̾̽ͣ̏̾ͨ̚ǩ̯̹̝̪̑͌͞k̐̊͛̎̈́̋̉͏͙̭̕i̺̦̜͍̓̊̍̽̏͞k̥̪͇͙̟̲͈͕͊ͨ͘͟i̺̦̥̜̱͕͒̐̓͒̏́͡k̑ͮ͏̵̦̠̱!̻͉͔̭̭̉̉͗̓̃̒̃͂̕͝!̱̝̼̟̻̞͍̅̒̈́̑ͭ͘͜͞!̉͒̓̊͑͂̂҉̹̱̺!̨̣̟̦͍̪̙̮̤̃ͯ̄̉̃".


Shame about the rampant homophobia, though.
posted by smoke at 3:42 AM on July 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Cake or death!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:52 AM on July 7, 2009 [12 favorites]


Praise be, smoke, you've been seized by the power of the Lord - at least, I'm assuming that was typing in tongues...
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 3:52 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"'I'm not hypnotising anybody,' he says. 'I don't know anything about hypnosis.'"

No, you just don't know that you're hypnotising people. Not the same thing as not hypnotising them.
posted by cthuljew at 3:53 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wait... the CoE is behind this?

Not exactly (although I understand your humorous skepticism). While it originated with a CofE pastor, and is heavily associated in the UK with Anglicans, it's actually being run by many Christian faiths now, and presents a general, common-denominator sort of Christianity.

The "controversy" is largely quibbles about doctrinal matters, dressed up in hyperbole. ("I am concerned that Alpha is contributing to the undoing of the Protestant Reformation through the promulgation of ecumenism disguised as Christian Unity!") As for allegations of "brainwashing" - well, if it is, it's a peculiarly gentle, English sort of brainwashing, at best peer group pressure rather than coercion. More interesting is Alpha use of speaking in tongues and (apparently) praying for healing, charismatic practices that are largely absent from mainstream Christianity. That's an extraordinary thing to come out of the CoE, and an aspect largely invisible to the general public. Unfortunately, Ronson's article only covers the healing in passing.
posted by outlier at 3:59 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're in the UK or know how to fiddle with proxies, you can watch the episode of his Revelations TV series which covers the Alpha Course.
posted by permafrost at 4:11 AM on July 7, 2009


""First of all," says Nicky, "I have many wonderful homosexual friends. There's even an Alpha for gays running in Beverly Hills! Really! I think it's marvellous! But if a paedophile said, 'Ever since I was a child I found myself attracted to children', we wouldn't say that that was normal, would we?" A small gasp. "Now, I am not for a moment comparing homosexuals with paedophiles"...."

No, that's exactly what you just did.
posted by edd at 4:12 AM on July 7, 2009 [16 favorites]


From the Ronson article: Nicky says that Jesus could not have been just a great human teacher. When he was asked at his trial whether he was "The Christ, the Son of the Living God, he replied: 'I am.'" Nicky's point is this: a great human teacher would not claim to be the Son of God. "You must make your choice - either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else he's a lunatic or, worse, the Devil of Hell. But don't let us come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He hasn't left that open to us. He didn't intend to." This final logic (a quote from one of Nicky's heroes, CS Lewis) is impressive to me. It remains in my mind.

Or option no. 3, he didn't say that. This trial, were there minutes taken? Were copies circulated afterwards and initialled by the participants? Or are we perchance reliant upon extreme 3rd hand, years after the event hearsay?

Also, if I remember correctly, Jesus was particularly cagey about calling himself the son of god. Actually just checking all four gospels in the King James version, it looks like Nicky Gumbel is flat out lying. Or is he a lunatic? Or a devil of hell? Or just misreported perhaps?
posted by leibniz at 4:17 AM on July 7, 2009 [10 favorites]


"well, the Bible is an allegory, and God may or may not exist, but He is an Englishman.. would you like a biscuit? More tea?"

Never take a biscuit from England, her's are usually pretty bad. Still, if you want permission remake one of her TV shows you gotta choke them down.
posted by America at 4:40 AM on July 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Alpha courses are held in Christian churches of almost every denomination. Most of those denomination don't approve of "speaking in tongues" and some of the other more colorful supposed manifestations of the Holy Spirit. So it's worth bearing in mind that this element of Ronson's experience is probably not shared by the vast majority of people who attend Alpha courses.

It's also not attended exclusively by agnostics; many churches encourage their members to attend to re-connect with the basics of the faith. I've attended a course myself in that scenario.

I think to be fair, Alpha does offer a genuine and safe opportunity for people to explore issues of faith. There is a great respect for the beliefs of agnostics and atheists who show up. Obviously the course is there to advance Christian belief, but an atheist could comfortably attend the whole course, never once compromise their beliefs, freely express their opinions, and always be welcome and encouraged. The acceptance and openness is not cynical, but genuinely intended.[1]

However, there is one problem with the Alpha course that is rarely remarked upon; it is rather boring. The pacing is slow and the exposition labored. I guess it works for some people, but I would guess that the average mefite - whatever their beliefs - has already spent some time thinking about life's purpose (or lack thereof) and wouldn't enjoy being spoon-fed the basic questions.


[1] Of course since all kinds of churches run Alpha courses, and some churches are notably bigoted, your experience may vary.
posted by standbythree at 4:55 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


A week-by-week "review" of the Alpha course, from the perspective of an atheist. Very long, but good reading.
posted by puppygalore at 5:06 AM on July 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


This was the particular passage by Josephus on Jesus which was quoted. Its veracity is somewhat questioned.
posted by rongorongo at 5:13 AM on July 7, 2009


Considering that Josephus quotes the Genesis creation story as fact and proceeds from there, I think we can put aside anything Jospehus did not credulously observe himself. That aside, if this isn't just CofE-style Scientology I'll eat some carmelized Onions (and I HATE carmelized onions)

Even the "Criminal" was the most wealthy and influential criminal. It's like shaking up eton and tossing in the godfather of a crime syndicate and saying "everyone who is disillusioned should just accept that God loves you and you should hate the gays" Then about 1% of them do, just because.

I've been to these "Churches" where religion is a lifestyle and not just a philosophy, they are (to my critical eye) dangerous hotbeds of potential violence and certainly no small amount of elitism, "my God is not only bigger than your God but he also makes me better than you" I once listened to a Pastor give a 10 minute sermon about all of the community members from the Church who hadn't showed up, he named them by name and ran them down for not being there that day. Knowing as I did that at least one family was out due to the father dying of Cancer, I could only stare open mouthed at this insane person.

It seems that the writer is simple credulous and just accepts that Nick isn't just another hustler looking for that Dollar (or Pound in this case) which is too bad, as I think from this side of the page it's pretty clear.
posted by NiteMayr at 5:40 AM on July 7, 2009


Also, if I remember correctly, Jesus was particularly cagey about calling himself the son of god.

There are times, especially in the book of Mark, when someone else recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus tells them to keep it quiet. There's a long complicated discussion as to why that is (I think the answer is something about wanting his identity to be revealed at the cross). Still, he wasn't all that cagey about it:

They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?"
He replied, "You are right in saying I am."
(Luke 22:70)

Or, take a look at most of these verses.

And even though Mark presents Jesus as being somewhat secretive about his identity, Mark himself is very clear, right from the start. And his is the first gospel.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)

Plus, Matthew, Mark and Luke all record God directly referring to Jesus as his son. (Matt 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 9:35.)

And if you are just looking for the phrase "Son of God," you might miss things like:

Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?"

"I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
(Mark 14:61-62)

Rather than turn this into a full article, I'll just say that while, of course, I understand that you aren't necessarily going to believe the gospels, honest people should at least acknowledge that the are all very clear in their assertion about the identity of Jesus. The bit about him being the Son of God didn't come from a long historical development. It's present in the first line of the first Gospel, not to mention the earlier Pauline literature, like Romans 1:9.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:54 AM on July 7, 2009 [12 favorites]


> It seems that the writer is simple credulous and just accepts that Nick isn't just another hustler looking for that Dollar (or Pound in this case) which is too bad, as I think from this side of the page it's pretty clear.

Yes, it's so much easier to judge people when you've never actually met them. Ronson had the disadvantage of spending a lot of time with Nicky and people who knew Nicky, which automatically means he knows nothing about Nicky. You, however, having read the article, are uniquely qualified to pronounce on Nicky's true nature. Thank you for enlightening us.

Thanks for the post, mippy; I knew nothing about this group, and the Ronson piece was a good read.
posted by languagehat at 5:54 AM on July 7, 2009 [9 favorites]


just accepts that Nick isn't just another hustler looking for that Dollar

There are certainly charlatans out there who use religion cynically as a means to make money, and I don't honestly know whether Nicky Gumbel is one of those. But I think you make a mistake if this is your default assumption about all Christian leaders. Most live modest lives of sacrifice to serve their parishioners and the God that they believe in.
posted by standbythree at 6:03 AM on July 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Alpha courses are held in Christian churches of almost every denomination. Most of those denomination don't approve of "speaking in tongues" and some of the other more colorful supposed manifestations of the Holy Spirit. So it's worth bearing in mind that this element of Ronson's experience is probably not shared by the vast majority of people who attend Alpha courses

Thanks for that clarification. The speaking in tongues was the only truly strange part of the whole article. Shorn of that, the Alpha course looks much like one would imagine it to be and much like it professes to be: a mild, non-confrontational introduction to Christian belief. Which leaves little for anyone to get angry about ...
posted by outlier at 6:09 AM on July 7, 2009


Around 2001, these people were everywhere in New Zealand. Posters on every street corner, and all over the universities. What creeped me out was that nothing in Alpha's public advertising mentioned that it was a course in Christianity. The posters offered things like a free hot meal, an opportunity to have meaningful conversations, a break from the stress of daily life. I had friends who thought Alpha was some sort of social inclusion course run by the government, or perhaps some kind of university study group. Obviously the courses' aims would have been obvious once they actually started, but I wonder how many of the converts initially had no idea that they were signing up for something religious.
posted by embrangled at 6:28 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pater Alethias: Still, that's at best 20 or 30 years after the death of Jesus. In this past century we have the example of Halie Selassie I as nice dude turned inadvertent messiah to millions premortem. Is it such a stretch to think the legend of a great man could be embellished over a few decades in a largely oral bronze age tradition?

But lets say Jesus said all the wonderful things attributed to him and firmly believed himself to be the son of god. At first glance this might seem like an improbable mix of characteristics, but think of all the other faiths with largely similar messages whose proponents believed themselves to be divinely inspired. What did Jesus say that was so profound that sets him apart?
posted by phrontist at 6:34 AM on July 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


I have direct experience of this kind of thing. I was converted (born again) at an almost exact simulacrum of one of these away-day seminars in a country house in Sussex in about 1981 (I was 16 going on 17). Everything was the same down to the speaking in tongues. It took me about three years to finally shake free of the whole thing.

There is no doubt in my mind AT ALL that what we went through and what Ronson described (to a tee) was brainwashing. The people who ran these things, who I won't name, but they were regular C of E, deliberately worked on the most emotionally vulnerable people (including me). It was absolutely relentless and at that age I had no real way of countering it.

I still feel angry about this. What happened subsequently was that my friends (who were converted alongside me) and I were thrown out of the church group because we began asking difficult questions which genuinely troubled us (the biggest one was whether everyone else was REALLY going to Hell).

De-converting was an interesting process. I started to realize that my faith made no intellectual sense at all. This frightened me, because we were taught that apostasy was a sin against the Holy Spirit, and therefore unforgiveable, and a direct route to Hell. So for a long while I lived with painful cognitive dissonance, forcing myself to believe things which I knew intellectually were nonsense.

Then one morning I woke up, and I simply said to myself "I don't believe a word of this", and that was that. I had been terrified of what it would feel like, but in fact that morning I had the greatest feeling of freedom I have ever had in my life. You know how people describe suddenly seeing the world differently -- the colors more vibrant, the sounds more intense? That was it.
posted by unSane at 6:41 AM on July 7, 2009 [33 favorites]


Remarkable; I had never heard of this program before (I'm in DC, US) and just happened to notice a sign for it outside an Episcopal church in my neighborhood this past weekend.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:48 AM on July 7, 2009


If you were the most brilliant being in the entire universe - second only to God Himself; if you were omniscient and omnipresent; if you indeed had divine power; if indeed you were the Chief of the Angels, Lucifer, the Light Bearer...

...would you let your marketing department cast you in the role of vomit spewing head spinning Linda Blair possessing vile demon "Bleah! Bleah! Bleah! I'm the Devil!!!"?

No.

You wouldn't.

And neither has the divine personification of Universal Evil.
posted by Xoebe at 7:20 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


My parent's Baptist Church - Atlantic Canadian, Lutheran-ish prude rather than evangelical southern neon-cross - has been running an Alpha course off and on for years. They're just about the tamest things I've ever seen.

They're not really aimed at converting non-believers either. They're more of a gentle nudge to stray sheep.

That said, it could just be the version at my parent's church. They're not exactly the type to allow speaking in tongues in their "House of God."
posted by radgardener at 7:34 AM on July 7, 2009


till, that's at best 20 or 30 years after the death of Jesus. In this past century we have the example of Halie Selassie I as nice dude turned inadvertent messiah to millions premortem. Is it such a stretch to think the legend of a great man could be embellished over a few decades in a largely oral bronze age tradition?

And don't forget the fact that all the supernatural parts of the story are almost certainly cribbed from the myths of Osiris and Mithras.

I read a great little story once that I found on the Internet shortly after the death of Jerry Falwell. In it, Falwell dies, and finds himself in a sort of clinical waiting room, and a nice older black lady behind a desk eventually calls his name and talks with him about his "case". In the course of this, she takes Falwell back in time and shows him the actual, historical Jesus: basically the ancient equivalent of a loony standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board with "THE END IS NEAR! REPENT!" written on it and randomly screaming at people. She pretty much tells him "you see, Jesus was really just kind of a crazy asshole." Then, of course, she reveals herself to be God, and eventually sends ol' Jerry to Hell.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:47 AM on July 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


 He says we must not take an unhealthy interest in horror movies, ouija boards, palmists, healers, and so on

And yet, from my knowledge of these fields, he uses incredibly similar techniques. I wonder if he's really a shut-eye or just a good actor.
posted by splice at 7:49 AM on July 7, 2009


posted by unSane at 9:41 AM on July 7 [10 favorites +] [!]

What is the opposite of eponysterical?
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:53 AM on July 7, 2009


A week-by-week "review" of the Alpha course, from the perspective of an atheist. Very long, but good reading.

It's interesting... he makes some great points, and sometimes the Christians concede the points, but it doesn't make a difference; as the saying goes, you cannot reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into.

I have been arguing with some conspiracy theorists lately and it's the same thing. It doesn't matter how many holes you poke in their narratives about the New World Order's vaccine mediated genocide or a plane not hitting the Pentagon. It slowly dawned on me that I was criticizing a religion, not a perspective on current events.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:02 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've done quite a bit of reading into hypnosis and learned to do some stage hypnosis. The description of the "speaking in tongues" bit is textbook; the leader may not know anything about hypnosis, but that's exactly what he's doing.

Also, the thing about "spiritual healing" right at the end makes me extremely angry. Cold reading and the placebo effect can dispel people's worries and reduce symptoms, but the example of just praying for "a worrying lump" in someone's left breast is directly endangering someone's life.

I have no problem with people promoting their beliefs, but this article outlined a programme of manipulation and potentially dangerous bullshit. I dearly hope that the real thing isn't as bad as this article painted it.

(great post, mippy)
posted by metaBugs at 8:08 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Praise be, smoke, you've been seized by the power of the Lord - at least, I'm assuming that was typing in tongues...

He appears to have typed that with his tongue, which is not quite the same thing. I see little boxes with shit like 03 on the top and 54 on the bottom.
posted by pracowity at 8:13 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


For every advertisement of crap like this, I really want to get a poster from the American Humanist Association or at least the NCSE and plaster it up.
posted by kldickson at 8:28 AM on July 7, 2009


I have no problem with people promoting their beliefs, but this article outlined a programme of manipulation and potentially dangerous bullshit.

This was exactly how I felt. If people wish to draw comfort and inspiration for being better human beings from a book - whether that be the Bible, the Koran or the Hitchhiker's Guide - then that's all good. Jesus seems a pretty decent role model, after all. However, when that leads to persecuting human beings for making human choices, or telling those who draw from a different book or none at al that they are evil and damned, that is where religion and I part company.
posted by mippy at 8:31 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


As one who was raised Catholic (but spared the schooling), flirted for a while with full-on atheism and have come to believe that laissez-faire agnosticism is the only sane position to take at cocktail parties, I can't help but throw in with the following trinity of observations ...

1. What did Jesus say that was so profound that sets him apart?

This is made me laugh out loud.

2. And don't forget the fact that all the supernatural parts of the story are almost certainly cribbed from the myths of Osiris and Mithras.

almost certainly - Says who? There is no certainty in any of this. It happened (or not) over 2000 years ago in a time before photocopiers. You might as well say that this is almost certainly what really happened at the Sermon on the Mount.

3. Wait... the CoE is behind this? I thought they were best summarised as "well, the Bible is an allegory, and God may or may not exist, but He is an Englishman.. would you like a biscuit? More tea?"

This reminds me of a Jethro Tull song.

"And the bloody Church of England - in chains of history - invites your earthly presence - to the vicarage for tea"
posted by philip-random at 8:58 AM on July 7, 2009


Jon Ronson's Them is pretty good. It culminates in his accompanying Alex Jones as they sneak into Bohemian Grove- Ronson and his buddy are nervous to be there uninvited, but Jones is flipping out and hiding in the bushes and shit. It's pretty great.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:00 AM on July 7, 2009


He appears to have typed that with his tongue, which is not quite the same thing.

WE ARE THE TONGUE OF A THOUSAND BLADES EMPTY PITCH ROLLS FROM THE UNKNOWN MOUTHS ZALGO COMES HE COMES
posted by FatherDagon at 9:05 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ronson's always good value. Thought I've not read the article yet I was a bit disappointed by the tv program - which had been oversensationalized as the 'shocking revelations coming up as some of the group make big changes' turned out to be SPOILERS one of them becoming a bit more spiritual, and another taking communion for the first time, possibly by getting it the wrong queue.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:10 AM on July 7, 2009


I saw the Revelations documentary Permafrost mentioned. At one point, a couple of the agnostics, including one woman who definitely had a spiritual bent, said 'This has really put us off organised religion.' That made me very angry. Alpha's sub-fundie nonsense isn't the best of organised religion in the UK. The C of E at its best is forgiving, inclusive, intellectual and, well, decorous.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 9:32 AM on July 7, 2009


Jon Ronson's article reminded me of Derren Brown's instant conversion (part 1, part 2, an explanation by someone on Youtube). How easily we are manipulated - you would think surely governments and corporations have done research into these techniques and used them.
posted by catchingsignals at 9:37 AM on July 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Jim: [Disguised as a priest, he is asked to give a speech to the town. Caught off guard, he begins to reads from a brochure stuck in his Bible that's titled "An Encounter with a Bear"]

Have you ever felt alone, with no one to rely on? Danger on every hand, in a world fraught with danger, and when I looked into my pocket, what did I find? What did I find?

[flips the brochure over - it's an ad for Remington Rifles. Panicked, Jim beings to improvise]

Jim:
Nothing... There's nothing there. It's all in your head. Look, they can take the money from you. They can take the position from you. People turn their back on you. Everything happens to everybody!
And you ain't gonna find nothing in your pocket to stave it off. Nothing can stave it off!
Power doesn't do it. Because you never have enough.
Money? I don't know. You know anyone who's got enough money?

[holds up his Bible]

Jim:
Is God good? I don't know.
All I know is... something may give you comfort.
And maybe you deserve it.
If it comforts you to believe in God, then you do it. That's your business.
posted by concreteforest at 9:59 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


More on the phenomenons described in Ronson's article: glossolalia, speaking in tongues; faith healing.
posted by catchingsignals at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2009


So... a Guardian article from October of 2000?

*checks watch*

*checks calendar*
posted by indiebass at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2009


rongorongo: This was the particular passage by Josephus on Jesus which was quoted. Its veracity is somewhat questioned.

NiteMayr: Considering that Josephus quotes the Genesis creation story as fact and proceeds from there, I think we can put aside anything Jospehus did not credulously observe himself.

rongorongo's link is good, but I wanted to come here and say it a bit more bluntly: when people quote Josephus' supposed statement that Jesus was the Christ, it's the most ridiculous of mistakes. To know this, you only have to know that the only manuscripts of Josephus for at least a thousand years were maintained by Christians—Jews wouldn't touch him for a long time; so, gosh, isn't it odd that this Jewish guy whose books Christians have been copying for years just happens to say very nice things about Jesus?

Not to mention the fact that a man who ought to be known as a Saint, and would be, if it weren't for the persecutionary tendancies of a certain pope and the stubbornness of the church in general—I'm speaking of Origen Adamantius—declared directly that Josephus didn't say that Jesus was the Christ. Given that the church was engaged for several centuries in attempting to burn Origen's books, I'd give more creedence to his testimony than to the treasured copies of Josephus' histories housed in official church libraries.

In fact, I know a fair number of Christian (Evangelical, even) classicists, as my brother is one of them. They are a trusty and dubious people, but I don't know a single one among even them that actually believes that this Josephus quotation is genuine. The Wiki page is entirely too “even-handed;” it's pretty much unanimous in the field that this is perhaps the premier example of textual corruption.
posted by koeselitz at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm with radgardener in my experience with Alpha. The middle class, middle of the road, suburban United Methodist church that we used to attend does Alpha almost every year.

In this congregation, the only difference between Alpha and a straight educational course on Christianity is that Alpha focuses on building community among the attendees and facilitators: in addition to listening to presentations, they eat dinner together each week (beware the power of the casserole!), go on a retreat together, and are generally encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings in the discussion after the talks.

For many people with no or negative church experiences, the supportive community aspect is the part of the positive church experience that they've missed. For others, it just makes it easier for them to integrate into the congregation, should they decide to become more active, because they've already gotten to know a few people. The latter applies as well to newcomers as to people who are nominally already affiliated with the congregation, and in fact, the majority of the attendees, from what I've seen, are in fact already nominally affiliated (e.g., have attended the worship service a few times, but nothing much more).
posted by tippiedog at 10:37 AM on July 7, 2009


In case I wasn't clear enough: 'middle class, middle of the road, suburban' was intended to indicate that speaking in tongues and faith healing are well beyond the norms of this congregation.
posted by tippiedog at 10:44 AM on July 7, 2009


Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there. - E. H. Gombrich


It's good to listen and learn. But it's no substitute for doing your own homework.
posted by Fezzik's Underwear at 10:59 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pater Aletheias- right you are, I missed that one. Jesus totally says he is Christ in that bit. Still it is easy to miss (and I don't count the gospel authors' assertions of Jesus' divinity for this argument). It gets at one of the things that always puzzles me about this thing. I mean, if you are god, and you are going to significantly interfere with human history by becoming embodied in a human being, why do it in such a rubbish way? Why tell just a couple of people, in one particular country, in one particular historical epoch, without writing it down somewhere? Why make the evidence for the claim so contrary to reasonable standards? It's just so weird, or rather, just so transparently a human construction.
posted by leibniz at 11:21 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you were the most brilliant being in the entire universe..Lucifer...would you let your marketing department cast you in the role of vomit spewing head spinning Linda Blair possessing vile demon "Bleah! Bleah! Bleah! I'm the Devil!!!"?

If you're trying to lull people into believing you don't exist that you might more easily corrupt them, what better way than lots of popular entertainment that makes the whole idea of a devil seem ridiculous?

What did Jesus say that was so profound that sets him apart?

Most Christians have traditionally believed that, while Jesus said many great things, it was what he did -- God becoming a human being and his subsequent death and resurrection, which have, somehow, effected some change in reality making possible the redemption of humanity from evil -- that set him apart.
posted by straight at 11:23 AM on July 7, 2009


It gets at one of the things that always puzzles me about this thing. I mean, if you are god, and you are going to significantly interfere with human history by becoming embodied in a human being, why do it in such a rubbish way? Why tell just a couple of people, in one particular country, in one particular historical epoch, without writing it down somewhere?

Well, he did spark a movement that is still sweeping the globe 2000 years later. Few people have achieved such "rubbish." And, as I said previously, Christians (for the most part) think that Jesus effected some change in reality that makes possible the redemption of the world, regardless of how many people know about or understand it.
posted by straight at 11:28 AM on July 7, 2009


It gets at one of the things that always puzzles me about this thing. I mean, if you are god, and you are going to significantly interfere with human history by becoming embodied in a human being, why do it in such a rubbish way? Why tell just a couple of people, in one particular country, in one particular historical epoch, without writing it down somewhere? Why make the evidence for the claim so contrary to reasonable standards? It's just so weird, or rather, just so transparently a human construction.

Or it's just the fucking way a god would do it.
posted by philip-random at 11:29 AM on July 7, 2009


Most Christians have traditionally believed that, while Jesus said many great things, it was what he did -- God becoming a human being and his subsequent death and resurrection, which have, somehow, effected some change in reality making possible the redemption of humanity from evil -- that set him apart.

Ah, but now we're back to everyday humdrum circularity. Believe in Jesus over the off-brand messiah because he sacrificed himself (though what self-inflicted pain, or any temporal experience, could mean to the Ultimate Ground of Being is confusing, to say the least...) so that we may free ourselves from original sin. Why do we believe in original sin? because... Jesus (sort of) tells us so?

Apologetics is weird stuff. Just look at the name.
posted by phrontist at 12:04 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


he did spark a movement that is still sweeping the globe 2000 years later

I highly doubt Jesus would recognize the wildly diverse modern day successors of his ragtag religious group that seemed to believe in the very imminent end of the world (he certainly didn't talk like he was starting a long term movement). It's like Radiohead claiming Pythagoras as an influence.
posted by phrontist at 12:11 PM on July 7, 2009


"You must make your choice - either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else he's a lunatic or, worse, the Devil of Hell.

Whenever someone would confront me with this argument I would just say "okay he was a lunatic thanks here are your brochures back" and I never quite figured out why the argument was supposed to be compelling or impressive. Am I missing something?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:20 PM on July 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


leibniz: I mean, if you are god, and you are going to significantly interfere with human history by becoming embodied in a human being, why do it in such a rubbish way? Why tell just a couple of people, in one particular country, in one particular historical epoch, without writing it down somewhere? Why make the evidence for the claim so contrary to reasonable standards?

Without knowing it, I think you've hit upon one of the central meanings of Christianity. The point of the whole thing is that the Christ appeared to people in one particular country, in one particular historical epoch; that's how humans live. We're limited to a specific time and place; we don't live for thousands of years or exist in hundreds of different cultures, we each have a single time and place. The point is that the unlimited, the infinite, chose to immerse itself in our limited, finite existence; and that we have access to things like knowledge, love, and true joy through that immersion. A popular misconception about the meaning of Christianity is that the Christ became a man; he didn't—this is the teaching of the church from the earliest times to today—he became mankind itself. So we all share in the things that happened in his life. There can't be ‘better evidence;’ this has to do not with the way Christianity is devised, but with the way human beings have knowledge about the world. Think about it: if God had put up a big, beautiful stone monolith that had carved upon it in many languages the words “HEY THERE EARTH PEOPLE: I'M GOD, AND JUST SO YOU KNOW I'M GIVING YOU REAL TRUTH BY WAY OF THIS JESUS GUY—IF ANYBODY ELSE COMES AND TRIES TO TELL YOU THEIR RELIGION IS TRUE, DON'T BELIEVE IT, AS THEY'RE JUST BULLSHITTING YOU, SRSLY OK THX B-BYE!” then I wouldn't believe it for a second; sorry, but it's too easy to make monoliths. Other signs are similarly doubtful. The only thing that would really work would be a god that gives an update to everyone every day on what's going to happen or what we should do about various troubles. But human life wouldn't really be human life if we had that.

Furthermore, I don't believe that Christianity declares anywhere that the son of God didn't appear to other peoples in different forms.
posted by koeselitz at 12:32 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


phrontist: …though what self-inflicted pain, or any temporal experience, could mean to the Ultimate Ground of Being is confusing, to say the least…

Again, that's the whole point of Christianity. In fact, pretty much the only assertion Christianity really makes is this one: the Ultimate Ground of Being has embraced pain, pleasure, limitedness, momentariness, finitude, temporality, and all the experiential qualities our particular lives have, and has embraced them in such a way that we now take part in the Ultimate Ground of Being. Any ‘Christian’ teaching beyond that is extraneous and unnecessary.
posted by koeselitz at 12:37 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


…meanwhile, I'm finishing this article, and it just gets worse and worse:

As Nicky says these things, I think about my own life, about how my wife and I were told we couldn't have a baby - about how awful those years of infertility were, how every month was like a funeral without a corpse - and then we did have a baby, and thought that our son, Joel, was a gift from God.

The moment I think about this, I hear Nicky say the word "Joel". I look up. Nicky is quoting from the Book of Joel: "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten." Later, I tell the group what happened. "Ahhh," they say, when I get to the part about us having a baby. "Ahhh," they say again, when I get to the part about Nicky saying Joel, and reading out an uncannily appropriate quote.

"Well?" I say.

"I don't know," Nicky smiles. "I think you should let it sit in your heart and make your own decision."

"But what do you think?" I say.

"If I had to put a bet on it," he says, "coincidence or message, I'd say definitely, yes, that was a message from God."


Christians out there, let me warn you and adjure you to remember: this statement is tantamount to heresy, and is not Christian. People who can read signs of messages from God are prophets—what kind of credulity would you need to believe that Nicky Gumbel is a prophet? What dishonor do you do to the actual prophets by believing this? God speaks in mysterious, hidden ways—as such, a coincidence involving a name like this is no more a sign of God's will or God's action than the death by children of starvation on the African continent is a sign that God hates black people.
posted by koeselitz at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry, even though Christianity is awfully popular and everything, it's just not popular enough to convince me that the goal could be get everybody to believe in Jesus so they wouldn't go to Hell. And obviously people are supposed to have revelations and everything, but it's hardly the same as God walking around telling people he's God.

Also, why change reality? Was it not good enough to start with?

Meanwhile, some big monoliths would be nice.
posted by leibniz at 12:55 PM on July 7, 2009


>This is made me laugh out loud.

But you didn't deign to share the painfully obvious answer with us, I see. Are you familiar with the scriptures of other faiths? If not, go read them, because the implication of your statement (that the Bible is unique among the world's holy books in containing spiritual wisdom) is profoundly ignorant. If you are familiar with other scriptures, please tell us what's so obviously superior in the Bible.

almost certainly - Says who? There is no certainty in any of this. It happened (or not) over 2000 years ago in a time before photocopiers.

But we have some idea what the cults of Osiris and Mithras and the original cult of Christ believed and practiced, and we know the chronological order in which those cults occurred. If a later cult has features that are extraordinarily similar to those of an earlier cult (or to those of many roughly contemporary cults, as is the case with Christianity), it's reasonable to assume that the later cult borrowed those features from the earlier one.

Just because it was a long time ago and they didn't have Kodaks doesn't mean basic tools of reason are impotent against the problem.

Anyway, why should it be surprising that early Christianity would borrow heavily from existing religious traditions? This is the rule, not the exception, with new religious movements—they're never cut entirely from new cloth. Rastafarianism drew heavily on Christianity; syncretic faiths, by definition, draw on existing traditions (usually those of a native population combined with those of an occupying imperial power); even UFO cults borrow their imagery and their messianic proclivities from the culture around them.
posted by ixohoxi at 1:41 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or it's just the fucking way a god would do it.

Ha ha! The crazy fucker.
posted by fleetmouse at 1:48 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Does the Bible prescribe a sentence of death for false prophets, or am I remembering incorrectly?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2009


Wow, this thread is giving me the heebie jeebies.

The central distinctive belief of Christianity is that Christ was in some non-trivial way (ie in a different way from you and me) God and that he rose again on the third day, again in some non-trivial way (ie, not simply by being recycled by bacteria, say).

In order to swallow this, it is more or less necessary to believe in the existence of sin and a fallen human nature, and of a God who created a huge mess and then decided to save it by sending his son, who was also himself, to be sacrificed while pretending to be a human being, while deliberately withholding dispositive evidence of any of this, and damning those who choose wrong to at worst Hell and at best nothingness.

I mean, come on, it's bollocks. It really is.
posted by unSane at 2:15 PM on July 7, 2009


Again, that's the whole point of Christianity. In fact, pretty much the only assertion Christianity really makes is this one: the Ultimate Ground of Being has embraced pain, pleasure, limitedness, momentariness, finitude, temporality, and all the experiential qualities our particular lives have, and has embraced them in such a way that we now take part in the Ultimate Ground of Being. Any ‘Christian’ teaching beyond that is extraneous and unnecessary.

Well, what's the difference between "ground of being" and Spinozistic substance? If God is substance then he's already embraced all those things and everything took part in the ultimate ground of being from the get-go - we have only to recognize that it is so.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:15 PM on July 7, 2009


leibniz: Sorry, even though Christianity is awfully popular and everything, it's just not popular enough to convince me that the goal could be get everybody to believe in Jesus so they wouldn't go to Hell.

Me neither. That's not the teaching of Christianity; it's never been, not from the early church on down. You may meet some ridiculous nutters who think this, but they hardly represent the whole of ‘the Christian tradition.’

That which today is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients and has never ceased to exist from the origin of the human race until the time when Christ himself came and men began to call ‘Christian’ the true religion which had existed all along.—St. Augustine

We have been taught that Christ is the First-begotten of God and have testified that he is the Logos of which every race of man partakes. Those who lived in accordance with the Logos are Christians, even though they were called godless, such as, among them, the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus and others like them. Those who lived by this Logos, and those who so live now, are Christians, fearless and unperturbed.—St. Justin the Martyr

Glory to the memory of Lao Tzu, the teacher and prophet of his people! Glory to the memory of Krishna, the Buddha, the royal son and inexorable teacher of his people!—St. Nikolai Velimirovich


…so this phrase you use—that “the goal” was “to get everybody to believe in Jesus so they wouldn't go to Hell”—isn't exactly a very good summary of what Christianity is or means to people who believe in it.

leibniz: Also, why change reality? Was it not good enough to start with?

He didn't change reality. He was was reality; from the beginning to the end he is. If the Uncreated is going to penetrate reality, well, it has to happen at some point; and while, in the context of time, it may seem as though that point constitutes a change, in the truest sense that ‘change’ exists in all times and places. Christianity is merely an expression of the existence of a connection between the infinite and the finite in all times and places.

leibniz: Meanwhile, some big monoliths would be nice.

You want monoliths? Fine. Jesus was killed, and yet a few days later he came back from the dead—that couldn't have happened if he wasn't divine. Muhammad recited all of the revelations, and they were ordered perfectly even though he recited them at different times, and even though he was wholly illiterate; this is a sign of the divinely-breathed nature of the Quran. God led the Jews out of Egypt in the guise of a pillar of fire, and fed them with bread that fell nightly from heaven.

Also, L. Ron Hubbard discovered the truth about health and about the human psyche; Mary Baker Eddy uncovered the new science of scripture; Charles Taze Russell was given the gift of divine prophecy and understood that we are undergoing the last days; and Joseph Smith was given a set of golden plates containing a new scripture and a special stone with which he could translate them.

See, the trouble with miracles as proof of the truths of faith is that there are plenty of unexplained phenomena that probably have perfectly normal explanations. None of the things in that last paragraph are really miracles; they're only pointed to as ‘signs’ by the adherents to their various religions. I said earlier that I think it's silly when Christians say they see “signs from God” all over the place; it's the same thing when anybody does. The interesting thing about the nature of miracles is that their power lies not in their irrefutable nature (nothing in our world is irrefutable) but in the effect they have on our consciousness—a miracle is more about what it reveals to you about the universe and the powers within it than about something impossible being done as a sign.
posted by koeselitz at 2:17 PM on July 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, the either/or Jesus being Christ, or a loony, is a total canard.

He could simply have been wrong.
posted by unSane at 2:18 PM on July 7, 2009


Also, the either/or Jesus being Christ, or a loony, is a total canard.

He could simply have been wrong.


So if someone came up to you and insisted, repeatedly, that they were the holy son of God, "loony" wouldn't be your first thought. Riiiiiiiiight.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:20 PM on July 7, 2009


fleetmouse: Well, what's the difference between "ground of being" and Spinozistic substance?

The only difference between the Christian Ground of Being and Spinoza's “nature” or “substance” is this: that Spinoza's “nature” is entirely and completely comprehensible to the human mind, although this is a potential and not an actual reality. To put this in another way, Spinoza's god follows its own rules, and is therefore of necessity consistent with itself.

If God is substance then he's already embraced all those things and everything took part in the ultimate ground of being from the get-go - we have only to recognize that it is so.

Indeed he has embraced those things—but the Crucifixion is a part of that because the whole point is that the universal has momentary expression. However, I don't dispute that this is all that we have to recognize, and that if we recognize this we are Christians as much as anyone who calls himself such. This has, again, always been the teaching of the Church.
posted by koeselitz at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you can read the book of Job and still believe in god (or that god is good and worthy of worship if he does exist), you have a very different brain than mine.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:36 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


To put this in another way, Spinoza's god follows its own rules, and is therefore of necessity consistent with itself.

But so is the Christian God, because by definition He's perfect and therefore consistent. He doesn't act in a manner contrary to His nature. And this constancy is what many Christian apologists throw in the faces of nontheists, using the problem of induction to undermine the non-Christian worldview. (I'm not saying this is orthodox or even smart, just making an observation)
posted by fleetmouse at 2:48 PM on July 7, 2009


Whenever someone would confront me with this argument I would just say "okay he was a lunatic thanks here are your brochures back" and I never quite figured out why the argument was supposed to be compelling or impressive. Am I missing something?

Originally, C.S. Lewis made the Mad/Bad/God (or Liar/Lunatic/Lord) argument to counteract the notion that "Jesus was a good chap, but not the Son of God". You can imagine that, in England back in 1943, that might've been a position held by quite a few people, perhaps even people who'd think of themselves as Christians. It gets you the respectability of religion without having to believe in that supernatural stuff.

Josh McDowell is responsible for making Lewis's argument into a general apologetic for Jesus's divinity. Andrew Rilstone's useful article explains what's wrong with it, but you've already got the nub of it. A commenter on my blog reckoned it needs an alliterative counter-argument: Mistaken/Misquoted/Mythical, or similar.
posted by pw201 at 2:55 PM on July 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


How strangely convenient that out of all the religions of the world, and all the ones that don't exist but could, it should be a religion common in your culture, probably common in your own family, that turns out to be the one true faith. What are the odds of that?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:59 PM on July 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Nicky's point is this: a great human teacher would not claim to be the Son of God. "You must make your choice - either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else he's a lunatic or, worse, the Devil of Hell. But don't let us come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He hasn't left that open to us. He didn't intend to." This final logic (a quote from one of Nicky's heroes, CS Lewis) is impressive to me.

It's not terribly impressive to me. Why should I assume Jesus is not a lunatic? If Jesus is the son of God, that pretty much leaves every other major religious prophet as a lunatic.

Seriously, if that's the strongest argument he's got...

Well, he did spark a movement that is still sweeping the globe 2000 years later. Few people have achieved such "rubbish."

Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu...
posted by rodgerd at 3:01 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, he did spark a movement that is still sweeping the globe 2000 years later. Few people have achieved such "rubbish."

Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu...


Robert Baden-Powell? Just because it hasn't been 2000 years yet doesn't mean it won't. You never can tell.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:06 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Seriously, if that's the strongest argument he's got..."
It's the False Trichotomy or False Trilemma, it has C.S. Lewis to blame for it and it's about as weaksauce as Pascal's Wager. It is no foundation for faith, even less foundation for truth. It's the kind of thing that should be dismantled in a school religious education class - it was in mine anyhow (which goes to show that religious education in the school system is not necessarily to be feared if taught well, which mine was, thanks Mr Evans)
posted by edd at 3:13 PM on July 7, 2009


Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu...

Haile Selassie, Brigham Young, L. Ron Hubbard, Elvis, Sarah Palin...
posted by unSane at 3:17 PM on July 7, 2009


On review: that's an awesome rephrasing of it, thanks pw201 and your commenter.
posted by edd at 3:17 PM on July 7, 2009


By the way, I spoke in tongues (quite a lot) and prophesied and I can say with ultimate authority that the tongues were gibberish and the prophesies I made up on the spot.

The singing in tongues thing is very pretty though, on-the-fly modal harmonization mostly in fifths because that's all most people can manage, but with the musicians throwing in some sixths, thirds and sevenths. You hear it in quite a few religious contexts.
posted by unSane at 3:23 PM on July 7, 2009


Wait, wait, speaking in tongues isn't speaking in the lost language of Sumer? Damn you, Stephenson!
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:25 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


ME: This is made me laugh out loud.

xohoxi: But you didn't deign to share the painfully obvious answer with us, I see.

I was responding to the question, "What did Jesus say that was so profound that sets him apart?" I guess I found it funny because Jesus (assuming he existed) was nothing if not unique. Doesn't pretty much everything he is claimed to have said set him apart? I mean, even if wasn't the Son of the God, he certainly shook shit up and is arguably still doing so today.

ixohoxi: Are you familiar with the scriptures of other faiths? If not, go read them, because the implication of your statement (that the Bible is unique among the world's holy books in containing spiritual wisdom) is profoundly ignorant. If you are familiar with other scriptures, please tell us what's so obviously superior in the Bible.

I'm not completely unfamiliar with some of the scriptures of some other faiths. Do I believe that the Bible is "unique among the world's holy books in containing spiritual wisdom"? God no. But it certainly does offer unique spiritual wisdom, particularly the Gospels. Three things come instantly to mind:

1. the bit about judging not lest ye judged.
2. the bit about turning the other cheek
3. the bit about turning water into wine, lest a perfectly good party should come to a sudden end.
posted by philip-random at 3:32 PM on July 7, 2009


How strangely convenient that out of all the religions of the world, and all the ones that don't exist but could, it should be a religion common in your culture, probably common in your own family, that turns out to be the one true faith. What are the odds of that?

Oh please. That's just a particularly mathematically ignorant form of ad hominem. What are the odds that of all the people who've ever thought about physics, it would be Albert Einstein who thinks up the theory of relativity? Pretty convenient, don't you think Mr. Einstein? Isn't it much more likely that you're mistaken?

What are the odds that of all the sperm cells that could have fertilized your mother's egg, the one that would create your genome would have done it? What are the odds you actually exist? Surely it's much more likely that you don't?
posted by straight at 3:42 PM on July 7, 2009


So if someone came up to you and insisted, repeatedly, that they were the holy son of God, "loony" wouldn't be your first thought. Riiiiiiiiight.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:20 PM on July 7 [+] [!]


Well, the funny thing is that this has actually happened to me and so I can give you an answer, and not the one you expect.

I've probably told the story elsewhere, but anyway, short version: I was researching a film about mental illness and was told I *absolutely had to* meet a man, we'll call him Ted. Nobody really explained why, except that I would want him in the film.

Well, I eventually tracked him down. He was a librarian, happily married, and absolutely charming.

We went off to eat some pizza. He turned out to be well read, very funny, and completely, utterly sane.

I was extremely disappointed, as I had a film to make.

Well, anyway, we were about halfway through pizza and discussing Shakespeare when he said, to my great surprise, "I don't think much of Shakespeare".

"Why ever not?" I asked him.

"Because I created him", he said.

And he then proceeded to lay out, in meticulous detail, why he was God.

Believe me, he had thought it all through.

He didn't mind me asking questions, at all. I got the impression he was used to it. We covered miracles, angels, reincarnation, everything. I don't remember the details but his answers were entirely rational, given that you believed he was God in the first place.

I do remember the answer to one question though.

"If you're God", I asked him, "why don't you have any disciples?"

He smiled a big smile. "Well, you're here, aren't you?"

I am still haunted by this guy. Like I say, he was completely and utterly rational except that he believed he was God. (He was diagnosed with 'encapsulated delusions' or 'encapsulated schizophrenia' or something). There were times when I and other members of the crew had discussions about whether he really was God or not. We certainly never figured out any way of proving he wasn't and his own, very pleasant, certainty was unshakeable.

He even told jokes against himself. His favorite concerned his equally funny and charming wife who went with him one day to visit a new psychiatrist. Ted told the new guy in his usual way how he was God, and answered the usual questions. The psychiatrist sat back in his chair, considered this for a while, then turned to his wife and said "And what about you, Mrs XXX, do you believe your husband is God?"

To which she replied: "Do I fuck".

Ted's comment to me: "She'll come round."

So anyway, Ted was one of the least loony people I've ever met. I've no doubt that a couple of thousand years ago he could well have convinced a group of followers. He was a nice, articulate man and if you'd written down his opinions they'd have made a lot of sense. And he'd probably have gotten himself crucified at some point too.
posted by unSane at 3:42 PM on July 7, 2009 [10 favorites]


(Oh yeah, he was in the film too, and he was great. It was called NO ASYLUM and went out on C4 in the UK in I dunno 1990 or '91, in the CUTTING EDGE strand).
posted by unSane at 3:48 PM on July 7, 2009


>I was responding to the question, "What did Jesus say that was so profound that sets him apart?"

Perhaps you misread the question. phrontist was asking what set Jesus apart from other self-proclaimed prophets, not from other people in general.

1. the bit about judging not lest ye judged.

2. the bit about turning the other cheek


Seriously? You think that messages of tolerance and pacifism are unique to the Bible? Really?

Please see: ahimsa, Gandhi, and the Jains, to name the first three things that come to mind. There are plenty of scriptures that are waaay more emphatic about non-violence than the New Testament.

3. the bit about turning water into wine, lest a perfectly good party should come to a sudden end.

This is a matter of material, not moral doctrine. Even so, I'd be surprised if this feat wasn't ascribed to other prophets.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:03 PM on July 7, 2009


Dhammapada, verse 252:

"It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one's own. A man broadcasts the fault; of others like winnowing chaff in the wind, but hides his own faults as a crafty fowler covers himself."

(Cf. Matthew 7)
posted by ixohoxi at 4:17 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh please. That's just a particularly mathematically ignorant form of ad hominem. What are the odds that of all the people who've ever thought about physics, it would be Albert Einstein who thinks up the theory of relativity? Pretty convenient, don't you think Mr. Einstein? Isn't it much more likely that you're mistaken?

But theories of physics, unlike religions, are independently verifiable and can at least be demonstrated as useful if not true. On the other hand the power of Christian prayer doesn't appear to be any more potent than the power of Hindu prayer.

What are the odds that of all the sperm cells that could have fertilized your mother's egg, the one that would create your genome would have done it? What are the odds you actually exist? Surely it's much more likely that you don't?

Well, AFAIK there aren't multiple other people running around also claiming to be the one true him, so the parallel to a "one true religion" doesn't work. No one's claiming that a particular reassortment of genetic material is any more significant in hindsight than any other roll of the dice.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:18 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jesus (assuming he existed) was nothing if not unique.

Not really. There were tons of prophets, spiritual teachers, cultists, etc. running around and building up small followings in those days.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:21 PM on July 7, 2009


Jesus (assuming he existed) was nothing if not unique.

Not really. There were tons of prophets, spiritual teachers, cultists, etc. running around and building up small followings in those days.


Now, now. You've taken me out of context. I did follow that up with the assertion that "even if he wasn't the Son of God, he certainly shook shit up and is arguably still doing so today." This is more than can be said for the tons of other prophets etc of his day.

Seriously? You think that messages of tolerance and pacifism are unique to the Bible? Really?

Please see: ahimsa, Gandhi, and the Jains, to name the first three things that come to mind. There are plenty of scriptures that are waaay more emphatic about non-violence than the New Testament.


Gandhi came along well after Jesus so he doesn't really count. As for ahisma and the Jains, thanks for the schooling but according to the wiki page ... "Violence in self-defense, criminal law, and war are accepted by Hindus and Jains." That's not exactly turning the other cheek, is it?

Finally, having reviewed my initial comment, it does read as a little self-impressed and snarky. Apologies for this. I do tend to have a short leash when it comes to the profound need of some to (for lack of a better word) discredit the Jesus of the Gospels. Whether he was the Son of God or not (or whether he even existed), his Story is still very much alive and it's one of the best ones that we (humanity as a whole) have.

And now, I shall drink some wine.
posted by philip-random at 4:39 PM on July 7, 2009


his Story is still very much alive and it's one of the best ones that we (humanity as a whole) have.

That was cool how you pretended that this STORY (I put it in all-caps because I just love it so much, even more than you, I love it the most) of his wasn't taken wholesale from existing sources, and your rebuttal is just a "nuh-uh" with your fingers in your ears.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:26 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ted's comment to me: "She'll come round."

Can I friend him on Facebook?
posted by catchingsignals at 5:45 PM on July 7, 2009


By the way, I spoke in tongues (quite a lot) and prophesied and I can say with ultimate authority that the tongues were gibberish and the prophesies I made up on the spot.

I've done both as well. No gibberish, and nothing made up on the spot.

The counterfeit does not disprove the genuine.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:42 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


1 Corinthians 1:21-31 (New International Version)
21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."[a]

posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:45 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


But theories of physics, unlike religions, are independently verifiable and can at least be demonstrated as useful if not true.

And, in fact, tend to be discovered and developed independently. Many people were working on theories that looked like natural selection when Darwin published, and, perhaps more notably, calculus was developed independently.
posted by rodgerd at 6:45 PM on July 7, 2009


I've done both as well. No gibberish, and nothing made up on the spot.

Great to hear. What language were you speaking and what did it mean?
posted by unSane at 6:45 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've done both as well. No gibberish, and nothing made up on the spot.

You also insist you've had prophetic dreams, so please excuse me if I don't regard you as an experty on the topic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:09 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


so please excuse me if I don't regard you as an experty on the topic.

My main point was that neither was unSane.

People make fun of what they don't understand. Few of you understand this particular world.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:37 PM on July 7, 2009


What makes you think that my experience is counterfeit and yours genuine?

Perhaps mine is genuine and yours is counterfeit?

Let's let other people decide rather than slinging insults.

(To claim something counterfeit as genuine is of course counterfeit, and to claim something counterfeit as counterfeit is genuine)
posted by unSane at 7:51 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


People make fun of what they don't understand.

And sometimes say it's going to hell!
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:53 PM on July 7, 2009


That was cool how you pretended that this STORY (I put it in all-caps because I just love it so much, even more than you, I love it the most) of his wasn't taken wholesale from existing sources,

I'm not pretending anything. I have no claim to proof either way. And so what if it was taken wholesale from existing sources? It's still a great story which, 2000 years later, is all we're really left with. This is pretty much how folklore has always worked, isn't it? Stories passed around, updated, fused, confused ... eventually written down (or not).

and your rebuttal is just a "nuh-uh" with your fingers in your ears.

I don't have a clue what you're getting at here, which is fine if confusion is your goal. I can stand a little confusion.
posted by philip-random at 8:48 PM on July 7, 2009


It strikes me that the veracity of the historic proof or non-proof of the uniqueness or veracity of the existance and divinity of the Being Y'shua ben Miriam, commonly known as "Jesus," is a separate point from the article itself.

The article itself seems to be about, "whether or not you believe in Jesus is beside the point -- what do you think of the Alpha group, are they fucked up or what?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:40 PM on July 7, 2009


It strikes me that the veracity of the historic proof or non-proof of the uniqueness or veracity of the existance and divinity of the Being Y'shua ben Miriam, commonly known as "Jesus," is a separate point from the article itself.

Couldn't agree with you more, and yet it seems all discussions even remotely concerned with what's-his-name are destined to eventually meander down the proof/non-proof road, not unlike how all Michael Jackson discussions eventually stumble into the molestation realm (did he or didn't he?). There ought to be a term for this phenomena and perhaps there is.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 PM on July 7, 2009


Koeselitz. Yes apparently Jesus came back to life, but rather than running up to Pilate or the temple in Jerusalem and saying, "hi there!" he showed himself to some of his friends a few times and then disappeared a short time later. It's just stupid.

I've also heard before the idea that the effects of Jesus ripple backwards in time. For the sake of argument I won't argue with that. My argument is just that there's lots of people who were not affected, and for good reason (given the evidence) and that orthodox Christianity thereby condemns them. I'm pretty sure it says in the bible that only through Jesus are you saved.

Everything else you say just reveals that you don't follow an orthodox Christian line so isn't relevant to the point I'm making. I'm not attacking spirituality in general here (that's a different debate).
posted by leibniz at 12:47 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


and yet it seems all discussions even remotely concerned with what's-his-name are destined to eventually meander down the proof/non-proof road

The Alpha course is all about "proving" something to people, and with particularly awful and naive arguments, so the tangents aren't as tangential as you might think. I mean, if the FPP was about Ray Comfort, don't you think a discussion of his banana argument would lead to a discussion of the soundness and validity of apologetics in general?
posted by fleetmouse at 5:52 AM on July 8, 2009


(then again the Alpha course is also about simply getting folks into a group in a church to engage with the idea of God, and most folks aren't as bristly and persnickety-pedantic as mefites - we're not really the target market here)
posted by fleetmouse at 5:57 AM on July 8, 2009


Everything else you say just reveals that you don't follow an orthodox Christian line so isn't relevant to the point I'm making.

Perhaps you would like to provide a clear explanation from original sources explaining what is and isn't orthodox for every point of doctrine, including which sects both historical and modern meet your definition.

I'm pretty sure it says in the bible that only through Jesus are you saved.

John 14
1"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God[a]; trust also in me. 2In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going." 5Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" 6Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Yeah, so what do you think that means? There have been whole books written about that passage. One obvious interpretation is that there's space in all those rooms for lots of different people. There's no reason Jesus couldn't prepare a place for everybody, including those who have never even heard of Jesus.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:55 AM on July 8, 2009


There's no reason Jesus couldn't prepare a place for everybody, including those who have never even heard of Jesus.

Other than, say, the last sentence in the passage, in Christ's own words?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:32 AM on July 8, 2009


That sentence appears pretty open to interpretation, don't you think?
posted by hydropsyche at 7:42 AM on July 8, 2009


I guess I should be more explicit: there are two places that I see as quite unclear. What does "comes to the Father" mean? In stereotypical modern Christianity that's "goes to heaven" but what that is has never been that clear from things Jesus said. Jesus talks about "the Kingdom of God" or "the Kingdom of Heaven" pretty much exclusively in parables, and so we have no concrete description.

What does "Except through me" mean? In stereotypical modern Christianity that's "you have to be a Christian". In cartoon modern Christianity that's "you have to have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior." But it's not at all clear that Jesus isn't just saying, "I'm going to prepare this awesome house for a whole bunch of people. Anybody who comes to the house, it will be because I got it ready." That does not seem to say, "only people who believe in me in a specific way that will be defined by a pope/Martin Luther/some fundamentalist pastor in the US will get to come to the house." It just says, "Jesus is getting this house ready." And once again, it says it in parable.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:48 AM on July 8, 2009


Hey, I've got an idea. Rather than take the words at face value, let's invent possible hidden meanings that will satisfy the liberal Christian desire for inclusiveness. It's way more likely that when he said "only through me" he meant "indirectly because of me" than that he meant what he said.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:56 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, the only reason you think "only through me" is unambiguous is because you've been conditioned to read it a certain way by the preaching of a particular sect of Christians.

If you read it without that interpretive framework, hydropsyche's reading seems just as straightforward and literal as yours.
posted by straight at 9:16 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, your reflexive anti-Christian bias makes you stupid. Jesus did say, in effect, "only through Me". However, to make a cheesy computer analogy, think of a Unix pipe. In this analogy, what is meant is that Jesus must be one of the processes in the pipe, and that the pipe won't work if Jesus isn't in it. But Jesus is not necessarily the first process in the pipe. (I think it's fair to say that having other processes ahead of Jesus is not necessary, and that it's probably more efficient for Jesus to be the first process, though. Some other processes might introduce errors and violate the protocol.)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:40 AM on July 8, 2009


hydropsyche did you read what koeselitz said?? I've a feeling that endorsing Mohammed's revelations and the preachings of L. Ron Hubbard are not orthodox christianity.

Meanwhile, I'll allow that there are different possible interpretations of the passage you quoted (although the 'only' looks pretty exclusive to me- you must have some relation or other with Jesus). My point is that it he could have quite easily made it unambiguous, being God and everything (and contrast this with the relatively clarity of Plato). Vagueness is a traditional tool of the charlatan.
posted by leibniz at 11:20 AM on July 8, 2009


Pope Guilty, your reflexive anti-Christian bias....

ANTI-Christian? Seriously?

Are you sure? Because arguing THAT hard for Biblical literalism and against moderation is something I've only seen Fundamentalist Christians do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on July 8, 2009


Pope Guilty loves to aim his flamethrower at the wonderful straw men the Fundamentalists set up for him. That doesn't mean he's for them.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:36 PM on July 8, 2009


Pope Guilty enjoys watching people cite the Bible on one hand and insist that it's not totally reliable on the other.

Pope Guilty enjoys watching people argue about sacred texts like they were useful guides to reality or useful guides to behavior.

People Guilty isn't really into the third person, but he could learn to like it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, your reflexive anti-Christian Time Cube bias makes you educated stupid.

There, fixed that for you.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:03 PM on July 8, 2009


Don't hijack my felicitous turn of phrase for your own obsessions.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:22 PM on July 8, 2009


Pope Guilty enjoys watching people cite the Bible on one hand and insist that it's not totally reliable on the other.

The Bible is as reliable as the wind. It's always blowing one way or another. Or as Bob Dylan said ...
posted by philip-random at 8:43 PM on July 8, 2009


Pope Guilty enjoys watching people cite the Bible on one hand and insist that it's not totally reliable on the other.

You realize that fundamentalists make a similarly ignorant argument against evolution when they say "Evolutionists cite Darwin on one hand and insist that he's not totally reliable on the other."
posted by straight at 8:36 AM on July 9, 2009


Evolution does not require appeals to authority, straight. Nobody actually does cite the presence of something in Darwin's writings as sufficient reason to believe it. Liberal Christians often do, however, use the Bible as an authority to argue from on one hand and then insist that it is not authoritative on the other. This is highly entertaining, and a further example of how religion fucks up your cognitive processes by forcing the believer into special pleading.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:42 AM on July 9, 2009


You're right, Pope Guilty, that there's no fundamentalist Darwinists in the same way that there are fundamentalist Christians, but is it really that hard to understand the logic of believing the Bible contains records of extraordinary events, records that are largely trustworthy, but not necessarily "inerrant" in the way fundamentalists insist?

I'm not asking you to believe those records here, just to admit that such a stance isn't by itself irrational cognitive dissonance. And also maybe to recognize that this stance toward the Bible (rather than the fundamentalist one) is historically the mainstream of Christianity, not just some modern "Liberal Christians" trying to explain away their faith in the face of skepticism -- although that beast certainly exists as well.
posted by straight at 12:03 PM on July 9, 2009


Such a stance relies entirely on one giant-ass argument from authority, so no, I'm not about to "admit" that it's not irrational in and of itself. Your house can be solid as a rock, but as long as it's built on sand (if I may borrow a metaphor), it's not sound.

And what it comes down to, for me at least, is that it's contemptible and infuriating to see people on the one hand believing in things due to their being in the Bible (and that is where the beliefs come from, unless you'd like to show me the chain of logic and empirical observation that ends in "therefore, [specifically Christian beliefs]") and on the other insisting that they can simply choose which bits to believe in. It's bad enough to argue from authority (and any belief in Biblical stories has to have its base in an authority argument, because somewhere in there has to be a belief that the Bible is a legitimate source of knowledge in and of itself). It goes from fallacious and irrational to insulting when people smirkingly argue from authority and then impugn the authority, purely based on which mode (argument from authority or not) is beneficial at the moment.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:08 PM on July 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I just want to read his article on Parisian wife swapping.
posted by delmoi at 10:36 PM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


And what it comes down to, for me at least, is that it's contemptible and infuriating to see people on the one hand believing in things due to their being in the Bible (and that is where the beliefs come from, unless you'd like to show me the chain of logic and empirical observation that ends in "therefore, [specifically Christian beliefs]") and on the other insisting that they can simply choose which bits to believe in.

What we're saying, though, is that there are two different types of Christians. The one's you're angry at do in fact do what you are upset with ("The Bible is inerrant! ....Except for this part that makes me look bad!").

But there is another type of Christian, who believes in the spiritual dogma -- i.e., that there was a Being named Jesus who they believe was the Son of God, and that belief in this God and following the example set by this Being is a model for their own life -- but they approach the rest of the Bible from a place of wanting to remember the context in which it was written, and seek to adapt it to the present ("okay, yeah, it says something in there about being good to your slaves, but that was over two thousand years ago and society has changed somewhat since then, so let's figure out what a modern-day analogy would be -- ah, I know, maybe apply it to if I'm a business manager and I have employees"). This kind of Christian is the majority, in fact.

It sounds like you are denigrating the latter kind of person for not believing the whole of the Bible as inerrant, which baffles me, because -- really, why is that a problem for YOUR life? Such a person also rarely lets his religion affect his voting, so that wouldn't influence you....such a person also doesn't preach to others, so THAT wouldn't influence you....so I'm confused.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:10 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty, Christians got the sort of analytic reading that you're objecting to directly from the rabbinical tradition and midrash. It's thousands of years old, not like we just made it up this decade.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:25 AM on July 10, 2009


Pope Guilty, you must've a hard time in your history classes. Because here you have all these history professors writing enormous timelines of events in the distant past, all based on the authority of a handful of ancient sources, but then they turn around and impugn the authority of those sources by reading them critically and sometimes even doubting that they got all the details right!

Seriously. The idea of reading an ancient text as if it's possibly a reliable account, but not necessarily 100% reliable isn't irrational. It's the only way we know anything at all about the distant past.

Sure, the stakes are higher and weirder with the Bible, and there's even more agendas and axe-grinding than you typically find when a bunch of historians are arguing over a text, but it's the same principle.
posted by straight at 8:10 AM on July 10, 2009


But there is another type of Christian, who believes in the spiritual dogma -- i.e., that there was a Being named Jesus who they believe was the Son of God, and that belief in this God and following the example set by this Being is a model for their own life

This is still an argument for authority. Were it not for the Bible and other Christian texts, you would not have these specific things to believe in.

The idea of reading an ancient text as if it's possibly a reliable account, but not necessarily 100% reliable isn't irrational. It's the only way we know anything at all about the distant past.

Except that historians compare ancient texts, look for inconsistencies, and compare the texts- and here's the important part- against the rest of our historical knowledge. Troy was long considered a legend because there was no reason to believe in it beyond its presence in ancient literature. It was not good historical practice to believe in Troy before the ruins were discovered. Christians do not apply this standard to Christ; the descriptions of his life and actions are taken as at least semi-reliable despite a total lack of reason to do so. Given that the only contemporary non-Christian text which so much as mentions Christ is a passage that has long since been proven to be a forgery, you cannot claim that the Bible is on a level with, say, Herodotus.

There's also the fact that once you start in with the tack you're taking, you have to justify why you don't regard the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas as being similarly reliable. I mean, surely you've done enough research and reading to rule out all of the other ancient scriptures as semi-reliable sources before deciding that Christianity was justified, right? Otherwise you wouldn't be making the argument you're making, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is still an argument for authority. Were it not for the Bible and other Christian texts, you would not have these specific things to believe in.

You know who else says things like this? Fundamentalist Christians.

Christians do not apply this standard to Christ; the descriptions of his life and actions are taken as at least semi-reliable despite a total lack of reason to do so. Given that the only contemporary non-Christian text which so much as mentions Christ is a passage that has long since been proven to be a forgery, you cannot claim that the Bible is on a level with, say, Herodotus.

Scientists also don't apply the Scientific Method when it comes to talking about whether The Beatles Or The Rolling Stones Were The Most Awesome Band Ever.

....You know why? Because science is not music.

That's the same reason why moderate Christians don't apply historic standards to the Bible -- because they don't think the Bible is history. The only Christians who do that are -- sing it with me if you know the words -- the radical Fundamentalists. The moderate Christians, the ones I'm telling you about, simply aren't doing the things you're accusing them of doing.

....I thought the No True Scotsman fallacy was something only fundamentalists did.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:24 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


From AA to Alpha - "I'm taking the Alpha Course, Christianity's answer to philosophy classes. Follow my progress every Friday over the coming weeks"
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:40 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


He's not so much jumping on the bandwagon as running after it, shouting "wait for me!" as it disappears over a distant hill.

Alpha courses will be filled with sarcastic teenage boys, full of thought experiments, dismissive one-liners and jolly facts about scriptural history. I'm not sure that they haven't deserved it.

On the other hand: free meal and an excuse to talk gibberish.

Scientists also don't apply the Scientific Method when it comes to talking about whether The Beatles Or The Rolling Stones Were The Most Awesome Band Ever.

Some of them do, though in the end their experiments always seem to prove it's Metallica.
posted by Grangousier at 12:50 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know who else says things like this? Fundamentalist Christians.

Well, that sure makes it wrong, doesn't it? They're wrong about everything.

That's the same reason why moderate Christians don't apply historic standards to the Bible -- because they don't think the Bible is history. The only Christians who do that are -- sing it with me if you know the words -- the radical Fundamentalists. The moderate Christians, the ones I'm telling you about, simply aren't doing the things you're accusing them of doing.

Except very clearly they do no matter how rhetorically inconvenient it may be to admit that, or else it wouldn't be Christ they worship. They wouldn't use that name, wouldn't believe Christ to have the qualities the Bible ascribes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:12 PM on July 10, 2009


*sigh* Pope -- they're not unilateral about that. They're Christians, they're not The Borg.

But if you're so determined to Be Right that you can't see that you're agreeing with the very people you oppose, I can't do anything but shrug and say "whatever you say."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scientists also don't apply the Scientific Method when it comes to talking about whether The Beatles Or The Rolling Stones Were The Most Awesome Band Ever.

No, of course they don't, who mentioned scientists? Historians however, have very well established standards for supporting historical views to varying degrees of certainty. The life of Jesus is not well established compared to many other accepted historical events.

That's the same reason why moderate Christians don't apply historic standards to the Bible

It could also be said that moderate Christians have very low standards for matters of such hypothetical importance. The specific details of the Beatles' lives aren't particularly relevant for enjoying some great music - it's not like the joy of listening to one of their tunes hinges on spectacular facts about who they were as people.

That is precisely the case for Jesus though. Lots of people think Jesus was a swell dude, but as C.S. Lewis pointed out (as we've covered upthread) the whole point of christianity is that what he said carries the ultimate weight because he is claimed to be the son of god.

Moderate/Liberal Christians, which I'd define as those willing to depart from the established meaning of the text, believe in something highly amorphous compared to so-called "fundamentalists". As with all Christianity they have to lean on personal revelation, but unlike the fundies, they can disregard the text when it doesn't suit them. From the outside, this looks preposterous. Whatever a community of believers feels like is okay, with none of the tireless self questioning of rationalists (it's faith!) or the external checks of fundamentalism (this is what the book says, this is what my grandpappy believed, and I'm stickin' to it!). Oppressing women not cool in society at large any more? Ah, well, I prayed on it and I don't think that's essential to the faith. Gay marriage? It's only in the Old Testament, and it's barely even mentioned - besides, gay people are so cool! Some are willing to go so far afield they don't believe in hell or satan. It looks suspiciously as though they're trying to cherry pick all the fun bits, and wind up humanists with hopes of heaven.
posted by phrontist at 12:29 AM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


>Scientists also don't apply the Scientific Method when it comes to talking about whether The Beatles Or The Rolling Stones Were The Most Awesome Band Ever.

No, of course they don't, who mentioned scientists?


....I was creating an analogy.

From the outside, this looks preposterous. Whatever a community of believers feels like is okay, with none of the tireless self questioning of rationalists (it's faith!) or the external checks of fundamentalism (this is what the book says, this is what my grandpappy believed, and I'm stickin' to it!). Oppressing women not cool in society at large any more? Ah, well, I prayed on it and I don't think that's essential to the faith. Gay marriage? It's only in the Old Testament, and it's barely even mentioned - besides, gay people are so cool! Some are willing to go so far afield they don't believe in hell or satan. It looks suspiciously as though they're trying to cherry pick all the fun bits, and wind up humanists with hopes of heaven.

Firstly, it isn't as simple as "I prayed on it and it felt okay."

But secondly -- and more importantly -- I don't understand why you would care whether this looks preposterous to you. What someone else believes neither picks your pocket nor winds your watch, so if they ARE humanists with hopes of heaven, and believing thus gets them through the night, to what end would criticizing their beliefs by telling them "Oh, but if you're Christian you have to believe things exactly to the letter" actually get you?

The reason this baffles me is because the non-Christians, or non-theists, I speak to who object to Christianity do so on the basis that "because they are trying to let their religions dictate public policy" -- but I've been speaking precisely about Christians who DON'T do this. And then the non-theists try to essentially argue that "they're not really Christian"!

And to me, THAT looks preposterous -- "All Christians are jackasses!"

"....What about the majority who aren't?"

"....They don't count!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:26 AM on July 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty won this argument ages ago. You just haven't realized it yet.

There's only one claim in the new testament that matters: jesus rose from the dead. The evidence for that extremely strong claim comes from only an extremely unreliable source (even by the standards of ancient history). You can pick at the details as much as you like, but once you have reason to doubt any part of the bible you have reason to doubt this central claim, and given the stakes, we should not give it the benefit if the doubt.
posted by leibniz at 8:49 AM on July 11, 2009


Pope Guilty won this argument ages ago. You just haven't realized it yet.

Funny, I was about to claim precisely opposite, and NO, I'm not a particularly true believer. I'd say the Pope fought damned well but EmpressCallipygos nails him/her right at the end there with ...

"What someone else believes neither picks your pocket nor winds your watch, so if they ARE humanists with hopes of heaven, and believing thus gets them through the night, to what end would criticizing their beliefs by telling them "Oh, but if you're Christian you have to believe things exactly to the letter" actually get you?"

I single this out because many moons ago I lost a similar (and ongoing) argument to a non-fundamentalist Christian friend by applying much the same logic (ie: If the Bible says it then YOU MUST BELIEVE IT if you call yourself a Christian, so there). His frustrated response was basically, "How dare you tell me what I do (or don't) believe? Fuck off!"

There's only one claim in the new testament that matters: jesus rose from the dead.

There's truth to this although, as stated, I'd say it comes across as hyperbolic. I'd word it more along the lines of, "Jesus rising from the dead is the pivotal claim of the Christian Bible."

The evidence for that extremely strong claim comes from only an extremely unreliable source (even by the standards of ancient history). You can pick at the details as much as you like, but once you have reason to doubt any part of the bible you have reason to doubt this central claim, and given the stakes, we should not give it the benefit if the doubt.

I'm guessing that most so-called Liberal Christians would not waste their time arguing that there's any serious "evidence" of the resurrection, certainly not of the scientific or historical kind. And yet this doesn't shake their faith. They believe in the profound and mysterious value of it anyway because, quite bluntly, it works for them, it helps them to be better people who have a generally positive influence on their world. These are the real stakes, are they not?
posted by philip-random at 9:39 AM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do we agree on the following? If you don't think jesus rose from the dead, then you're not a Christian.

We can then ask: why do you believe jesus rose from the dead?
If the answer is: because the bible says so, then that looks like a pretty bad belief.

If the answer is: because it just seemed plausible to me, then we can point out that you wouldn't even have thought of it without a historical tradition which derives beliefs from the bible. Moreover, the only reason to find this belief plausible at all* is that the testimony of others is sometimes a good guide to the truth.

To assert with any rationality that what you believe is true, you have to be sensitive to the basis of that belief. If I believe that John did x only because he said so, and then he denies it, then I should stop believing it. Similarly, if your belief is based on the testimony of others, and you find that their testimony is ultimately reliant on a very unreliable source, then you should equally give up the belief.

Quite frankly, you're not allowed to believe in what works for you. That's dishonest and cowardly.

*It's not prima facie plausible for instance.
posted by leibniz at 10:23 AM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Quite frankly, you're not allowed to believe in what works for you. That's dishonest and cowardly.

1. I don't call myself a Christian, just an agnostic who happened to get all my early "mystical training" from Christians, so Christianity tends to be something I know a little about.

2. As a functioning agnostic, let me just say that it's profoundly obnoxious of you to tell someone what they are (or are not) allowed to believe. Adding liar and coward to the mix just makes your position more inflammatory.

3. If your concern is that their belief is somehow impacting negatively on your ability to live your life in a free, virtuous and thoughtful way, then please word your critique from that perspective. Otherwise, you're just looking for a fight.
posted by philip-random at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2009


I was talking generally. But I'll just reiterate- believing stuff just because it works for you = prejudice. It should be condemned in the harshest possible terms.

Also, I don't usually bother too much about other peoples' religious beliefs. I think it's ultimately a personal matter. But in this case a debate was going on. And in general the world would be a better place if we all used our reason more.
posted by leibniz at 1:08 PM on July 11, 2009


But I'll just reiterate- believing stuff just because it works for you = prejudice. It should be condemned in the harshest possible terms.

Okay then...

And in general the world would be a better place if we all used our reason more.

You have no proof that the world would be a better place if we used our reason more -- you have no proof that people's emotional needs would be met. Emotion rarely responds to reason.

Believing that "the world would be a better place if we all used our reason more" is something you clearly are doing simply because it works for you. And I condemn your belief as divisive, cruel, self-centered, and ignorant, and when you go on to say that you "don't bother too much about othre people's religious beliefs," you are being hypocritical.

....Were those harsh enough terms to condemn you with?

For the record: I do not actually believe that you are divisive, cruel, or hypocritical. The worst I actually believe is that you may not be aware of some unconscious prejudices that are possibly preventing you from realizing the contradiction in what it is that you're actually saying. I honestly don't give a shit what anyone on here believes -- all I do give a shit about is whether everyone has a complete understanding of what everyone else believes. Agree or disagree with it if you like, all I ask is that people are accurate about it. And using the "no True Scotsman" strawman against liberal Christians is being inaccurate about how the beliefs of these Christians actually works.

Besides, it leads me to think that, your protestations to tolerance aside, that you actually in truth don't want to tolerate them -- because if you really didn't care what they believed, why would you be engaging in this debate in the first place, instead of just shrugging and saying, "well, my friend Sid thinks that way, and it works for him, so whatever"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:59 PM on July 11, 2009


leibniz: But I'll just reiterate- believing stuff just because it works for you = prejudice. It should be condemned in the harshest possible terms.

Bullshit.

And, if I may say so:

I am a Christian, but I'm no evangelical. In fact, I call them heretics, and I've said so to their faces. I have no illusions about why; I understand that I harbor some bitterness about my own childhood in their hands, and I try to be open and up-front about that bitterness so that I can get it out of the way and talk to people in a sane and civilized way.

But even so: evangelicals will disagree with you, they will tell you that you're wrong, they will tell you that your error will earn you damnation. As simplistic as this reasoning may be, at least the evangelical will disagree with you and even argue with you for the right reason: because she or he believes that your soul is in peril, and wishes to do you good.

Certain Christians (I'm thinking of Dostoevsky, for one) believe that there is no basis for moral or ethical thought without religious faith in god; in other words, that a ‘secular’ ethics or morality is not possible because faith in God is in some sense a necessary predicate to moral thinking. Now, I wouldn't necessarily argue that, although I see some reason to believe it; and I don't intend to argue it now. I frankly hope that it's not true. But you seem to give those Christians more evidence for their thesis that secular humans are not truly moral when you cynically and crassly argue for the harshest condemnation of Christians.

The point of discussing these things is, in the lowest case, in order to provide the benefit of our thoughts and opinions to those with whom we converse. In the highest case, discussion aims at learning something new and at bettering ourselves and becoming human beings more whole. Forgive me if I'm mistaken, but somehow, from your tone, I doubt that either of those purposes are in your mind when you argue this point. And I think we can all see plainly that Pope Guilty has little intention here beyond recapitulating his bitterness and sarcastic disdain for other human beings so long as they disagree with him on this point.

The truth is of great value; but if you believe that that value is contingent on convincing everyone to believe it, well, you're likely to be disappointed. Look at history; hardly ever have human beings in general been even half correct, even about the things closest and most obvious to them. It makes one wonder if one's own beliefs and opinions are correct—or at least it ought to.

Also, I don't usually bother too much about other peoples' religious beliefs. I think it's ultimately a personal matter. But in this case a debate was going on. And in general the world would be a better place if we all used our reason more.

True. But there are Christians who claim that they use their reason to the greatest degree possible. St. Thomas Aquinas is only the most illustrious and brilliant example.
posted by koeselitz at 3:24 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


And I think we can all see plainly that Pope Guilty has little intention here beyond recapitulating his bitterness and sarcastic disdain for other human beings so long as they disagree with him on this point.

Are you that full of hate that you can't have your ridiculousness pointed out without projecting it all over everyone? My argument in this thread has been that liberal Christians are dishonest in their reasoning, and that their dishonest arguments- and their smugness about it, like the smugness that suffuses and shines through your comment- is infuriating.

And honestly, this thread reinforces my underlying point- that religion damages one's ability to engage in reason- wonderfully. Every time a logical fallacy is pointed out, the response is derailment or special pleading. To someone who's committed to belief, I'm sure it's very convincing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:45 PM on July 11, 2009


I don't understand why you would care whether this looks preposterous to you. What someone else believes neither picks your pocket nor winds your watch, so if they ARE humanists with hopes of heaven, and believing thus gets them through the night, to what end would criticizing their beliefs by telling them "Oh, but if you're Christian you have to believe things exactly to the letter" actually get you?

Because I'm not a solipsist, and care about what others think and feel.

I think attachment to ideas like a personal god and prayer cause a great deal of suffering for the individual. Furthermore, I think they're often (but not always) an indicator of habits I see as leading away from the truth. But of course, I could be wrong...

At a purely person-to-person level I'd like my exchanges with people to be mutually beneficial, and if I don't agree with you I'd like to get to the bottom of the matter - figure out whether our conflict of opinion is substantial (as oppose to, say, a matter of talking past one another) and then try to disabuse myself or the other person of delusion. What is the point of conversing otherwise? Agreeing to disagree is just defeatism (which, given the finitude of our time to argue, makes sense at some point, but not at the outset).

Do I lie awake thinking about it? No, I realize I can't take the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I try to help where I can. I thank you for doing the same, and I hope I can debate without coming across as scornful or mocking. That's really not my intent, though I can be careless with language at times.
posted by phrontist at 5:33 PM on July 11, 2009


But you seem to give those Christians more evidence for their thesis that secular humans are not truly moral when you cynically and crassly argue for the harshest condemnation of Christians.

While he may not be motivated by the highest ideals of compassion, he in the end just exchanging heated words and this is hardly the kind of thing I thing I think you should consider someone grossly morally deficient for.
posted by phrontist at 5:40 PM on July 11, 2009


Furthermore, I think they're often (but not always) an indicator of habits I see as leading away from the truth. - I forgot to mention that I think it a great ethical good to help people to the truth.
posted by phrontist at 5:44 PM on July 11, 2009


Pope Guilty: And honestly, this thread reinforces my underlying point- that religion damages one's ability to engage in reason- wonderfully. Every time a logical fallacy is pointed out, the response is derailment or special pleading. To someone who's committed to belief, I'm sure it's very convincing.

As far as I can tell, there haven't been Christians arguing their point in this thread for a good three or four days. You can't blame us for whatever's happened here.
posted by koeselitz at 6:19 PM on July 11, 2009


phrontist: While he may not be motivated by the highest ideals of compassion, he in the end just exchanging heated words and this is hardly the kind of thing I thing I think you should consider someone grossly morally deficient for.

You're right that it generally doesn't do that much harm (although the amount of harm it does is underestimated, in my opinion) but my point wasn't that he's morally deficient, per se—it's that I often wonder what purpose these contests serve. At least evangelicals are transparent and straightforward on this point; but I honestly have a hard time seeing the purpose people are aiming at in prolonging an argument like this. It seems like it makes the most sense to engage in discussions either to learn something or at least to help someone by bettering them.
posted by koeselitz at 6:21 PM on July 11, 2009


All else aside, if you think Aquinas's works are brilliant or illustrious examples of reason, y'alls is in some deep-ass shit. That motherfucker couldn't reason himself out of a Kleenex box.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:25 PM on July 11, 2009


I forgot to mention that I think it a great ethical good to help people to the truth.

I imagine that this is the one point that everyone currently involved in this situation would agree on. But is The Truth found via rationality and reason rigorously applied, or is a more mysterious (dare I say "mystical") exploration required?

My gut tells me the ultimate answer (should we ever find it, and assuming it's not 42) will likely be found through some weird fusion of both these approaches. So please do keep on arguing.
posted by philip-random at 6:28 PM on July 11, 2009


It helps nobody to pretend that nonsense is sense and unreason is reasonable. To do so is not "respectful" or "tolerant" or "helpful"; it is insulting in both directions and encourages unreason to flourish and spread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:29 PM on July 11, 2009


My gut tells me the ultimate answer (should we ever find it, and assuming it's not 42) will likely be found through some weird fusion of both these approaches.

Well hell, if your gut says it, that's got to be useful.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:30 PM on July 11, 2009


And honestly, this thread reinforces my underlying point- that religion damages one's ability to engage in reason- wonderfully. Every time a logical fallacy is pointed out, the response is derailment or special pleading. To someone who's committed to belief, I'm sure it's very convincing.

...And here is where your point falls down --

I'm not even Christian.

I'm not "committed to belief." I'm committed to empathy, tolerance, acceptance of others' rights to free expression, acceptance of others' search for comfort, and I'm most of all committed to everyone having the right to do whatever the hell they want in peace without other people being a dick to them.

You going to scoff at that too?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos, if you're not a Christian then the arguments presented by myself, Pope Guilty and phrontist are not directed at you.

Meanwhile I am amazed at the reaction to my previous statement about prejudice. It makes me think that it hasn't been understood. You can't just say 'I believe this' without any concern about the basis of your beliefs, and if you are aware that there are serious reasons to doubt that basis, then even worse. By the same token, one could assert that blacks/jews/gays are inferior and that they should be persecuted.

Now this general principle doesn't apply to fundamentalist Christians, since they point to the bible as the basis of their beliefs. So we can go on to argue about whether that's a good source of beliefs. The point also doesn't apply to believing something on the balance of evidence, or even based on some personal revelatory experience. It just says, that you can't believe something just because it works for you, or makes you feel better. It is a call to state what you do base your beliefs on.

Now I believe 'there's a reason for everything' (the principle of sufficient reason held by Leibniz, which is why I have this username). This belief seems equivalent to saying that everything is connected or coherent. I think this is my strongest belief, which means that it would take an overwhelming revision of all my other beliefs to give it up. It also means that if sufficient reason could be given, I could change any of my other beliefs, even my belief in the existence of the world. Ultimately, the belief takes on the status of a research programme, to keep looking for explanations even when things seem random. This commitment seems comparable to faith in some ways. Yet even this is not a case of believing something just because it works for me. It is justified (in an admittedly circular fashion) because in my experience of the world I have found that things can be explained, and things are connected. Also, the existence of anything truly random just makes no sense to me (again, this is just a manifestation of the commitment to the principle of sufficient reason).

Now there's a certain sense in which if you don't share this commitment to looking for whatever we have most sufficient reason to believe, then we just can't communicate (though it need not be your strongest belief). Perhaps a fundamentalist would equally say that if I don't trust the bible then there's no way for us to communicate. As phrontist said above, it is very useful to see if we can pin down the disagreement to a disagreement in how our beliefs are based. If we could establish that this is where the difference lies then we can give up the debate, though I find it hard to believe that anyone sane could really not believe in explanations, I wonder how they get along in the world at all.
posted by leibniz at 1:00 AM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos, if you're not a Christian then the arguments presented by myself, Pope Guilty and phrontist are not directed at you.

I know they're not. But they are directed against other people I know and care about, and that's good enough reason for me to try to defend them. They're also directed against other people in the world, and that's also good enough reason for me to try to defend them.

Now this general principle doesn't apply to fundamentalist Christians, since they point to the bible as the basis of their beliefs. So we can go on to argue about whether that's a good source of beliefs. The point also doesn't apply to believing something on the balance of evidence, or even based on some personal revelatory experience. It just says, that you can't believe something just because it works for you, or makes you feel better. It is a call to state what you do base your beliefs on.

And yet I doubt that very few of the moderate Christians would say that they believe in Jesus "just because it works for me," or anything that mealy-mouthed. In fact, they would probably all reveal some kind of personal relevatory experience -- perhaps a small one, arrived at through personal reflection -- but a relevatory experience. So, again, we have a case where the debate is missing the truth of what the people we're debating about actually believe. And I ask myself exactly what it is that has led the debators so astray in their misinformation, and the only options I can think of are either deliberately overlooking the majority of Christians just to make a point, or having been SO affected by prior experience with one or two particularly noxious Christians that they've projected those traits onto all Christians, and are so defensive that they're not even noticing that these moderate Christians actually like that.

Either way, though, we still have a case where the debate is stating that "all Christians do X, Y, or Z", and when the counterargument "but these people are Christians and they don't do that" is raised, the response is "then they don't count as Christians." Which is just silly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


It just says, that you can't believe something just because it works for you, or makes you feel better.

I think I started this contentious ball rolling. The original context was thus:

They believe in the profound and mysterious value of it anyway because, quite bluntly, it works for them, it helps them to be better people who have a generally positive influence on their world.

I was paraphrasing something a good friend (a self-professed "Non-aligned Christian") once said to me concerning his "conversion". To make a very long story short, he was about 21 at the time and had been trapped in a sort of existential paralysis for more than a year (a not untypical young-man dilemma). He was questioning absolutely everything (including his own sanity) in an attempt to come up with some kind of rational/reasonable explanation for the complex mystery that is best summed up as THE MEANING OF LIFE. He didn't socialize anymore, just read books, watched TV and thought a lot, about everything. His job at the time was night janitor at a community center, so his isolation was pretty much complete.

Then one night while lying in bed one night, completely distraught, unable to sleep, he had an epiphany along the lines of, what if I just stop worrying about all this unresolvable shit and just believe in the Jesus I once believed in as a small child (ie: accept a worldview revolving around the notion that there was a good guy in charge of everything and, if you lived well, he'd look out for your immortal soul)? And (here's the key point in all this) what if instead of wasting all my energy on this self-centered hole I'm digging for myself, I invested it all in getting out there, engaging with the world, doing everything I can to hone my talents and contribute to making the planet a better place.

Well, that's exactly what he did, and guess what, in his own words, "It's worked for me." and I'm inclined to agree. The guy's not rich but he is what I'd call fulfilled and one of the most reliable, most generous, most talented, most thoughtful and fun people I've ever known. And no, he almost never talks about Jesus in mixed company because he knows how inflammatory that can be.

The moral of the story: his life turned around precisely when he stopped searching for a rational, reasonable MEANING, and just got on with it, took a leap of faith and committed to the great and imponderable mystery.

And now, because it's Sunday morning, please join us in this short hymn.
posted by philip-random at 9:41 AM on July 12, 2009


Optimus Chyme: All else aside, if you think Aquinas's works are brilliant or illustrious examples of reason, y'alls is in some deep-ass shit. That motherfucker couldn't reason himself out of a Kleenex box.

Everybody thinks that nowadays. It seems to be popular to read old books that have a good deal of depth or breadth to them, smirk, and toss them aside as though they were stupid.

If you really and truly have tried to see some value in Aquinas and failed, and if you'd really like to read something of his that is more thoroughgoing, straightforward, and inspired, I recommend Armand Maurer's fantastic translation of my favorite work by St Thomas Aquinas, the Commentary on the ‘De Trinitate’ of Boethius, which is published in Faith, Reason and Theology [questions I-IV] and The Division and Methods of the Sciences [questions V and VI]. It's brief, it's a good deal more readable than that other Aquinas work often assigned, and it is, I believe, a careful and concise statement of his core contributions to philosophy. Barring that, the Summa Contra Gentiles is a very worthwhile encapsulation, and is also much briefer than the other Summa.

However, if you were forced to read three or four questions from the Summa Theologiae and, hearing everybody else in the class dismiss it, and seeing that you didn't really understand why the hell anybody would write that way, you decided that you just didn't like Thomas Aquinas because he said things that you didn't understand but that, given that he was a medieval and a theologian and a ‘systematic philosopher’ and just generally a combination of things that everybody loves to hate nowadays, and that it would be quite easy to do so, since you probably wouldn't ever have to read him again…well, if you're just dismissing him based on that, I can't help you. All I can say is that the Summa Theologiae is certainly not (in my opinion) his best work; that it's very difficult to read because given sections are intentionally written in a simplistic and one-dimensional way, so that St Thomas can discuss everything in its proper place and focus only on the matter at hand; and that, when I read other works of his (especially the Commentary on ‘De Trinitate’) my eyes were opened to a thinker that is very unjustly maligned in our age.

But what can I expect? We're extremely provincial nowadays; provincial in the sense T. S. Eliot was indicating when he said that it was easy to avoid provinciality of place but very difficult to avoid provinciality of time, the vague suspicion that anyone who was born more than a hundred years ago was probably an idiot. I myself am no exception, and I have to struggle daily not to write off people of the past unjustly.
posted by koeselitz at 1:05 PM on July 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


philip-random: The moral of the story: his life turned around precisely when he stopped searching for a rational, reasonable MEANING, and just got on with it, took a leap of faith and committed to the great and imponderable mystery.

Christianity (like every religion) consists in a partaking of a sacred tradition of ethical, political, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, a tradition that has lasted many centuries and been part of billions of lives. As such, it will have many forms, and will provide a living framework for different sorts of people. The Advaita Vedantists express one apparent difference in the approaches to spirituality which different types of people seem to require by saying there are two types of spiritual seeker: the bhakti and the jnani. The bhakti, or devotee in worship, experiences the sacred tradition in the way your friend did, philip-random—he approaches the divine by letting go of ‘meaning’ and the search for understanding and by placing himself in the hands of the most high.

I only wanted to say this in order to point out to those who may misunderstand the very breadth of Christianity that this is not the only way. I don't condemn those who find faith and guidance by ‘letting go and letting God,’ but at the same time I have never in my life found that path satisfying, though I know that Christianity as it is does provide a way that fulfills me. In short, contemplation, rationality and reason, dialectic, and thoughtfulness is very important to many people, and is at the heart of what Christianity means, in my belief; and, although there are many paths, this is obviously the one that shines brightest to me.

I can probably express this best by quoting an extraordinary fellow named Frithjof Schuon. (He was Swiss; they have very strange names sometimes.)
The notion of mystery and an obligatory anti-Hellenism have given rise in the Christian climate to the idea of the “natural” character of intelligence in itself; [but] if human intelligence is created “in the image of God”, it cannot be purely and simply, and therefore exclusively, “natural”, for the very substance of intelligence is opposed to being so. The human spirit is natural in its contingent operations, but supernatural in its essence; there is no reason whatever for saying that human thought is not capable in principle of adequation to the transcendent Real; certainly, it could never in fact attain thereto by its own powers, but this is only an accidental affirmity. The very existence of the theologies is proof of this; as soon as a dogma or mystery is called into question, the theologians know very well how to defend it. Thought or logic, reviled while in the service of a foreign religion or of a wisdom derived from that immanent Revelation which is the Intellect, suddenly becomes good for something and is robed in the purple of the infallibility and prestige of the Holy Spirit.

To say that a truth is situated “beyond logic” can mean only one thing, namely, that it does not provide in its formulation the data which would allow logic to resolve an apparent antinomy; and if it does not provide those data, it is because they are too complex or too subtle to be expressed in a single formulation, and also because it would be disproportionate and useless to provide them, since the formulation in question has the virtue and aim of awakening intellection in those who are capable of it.
—Frithjof Schuon, The Fullness of God [edited and translated by James Cutsinger] pp. 109-110 (emphasis mine)

posted by koeselitz at 1:48 PM on July 12, 2009


leibniz: …I believe 'there's a reason for everything' (the principle of sufficient reason held by Leibniz, which is why I have this username). This belief seems equivalent to saying that everything is connected or coherent. I think this is my strongest belief, which means that it would take an overwhelming revision of all my other beliefs to give it up. It also means that if sufficient reason could be given, I could change any of my other beliefs, even my belief in the existence of the world. Ultimately, the belief takes on the status of a research programme, to keep looking for explanations even when things seem random. This commitment seems comparable to faith in some ways. Yet even this is not a case of believing something just because it works for me. It is justified (in an admittedly circular fashion) because in my experience of the world I have found that things can be explained, and things are connected. Also, the existence of anything truly random just makes no sense to me (again, this is just a manifestation of the commitment to the principle of sufficient reason).

Now there's a certain sense in which if you don't share this commitment to looking for whatever we have most sufficient reason to believe, then we just can't communicate (though it need not be your strongest belief). Perhaps a fundamentalist would equally say that if I don't trust the bible then there's no way for us to communicate. As phrontist said above, it is very useful to see if we can pin down the disagreement to a disagreement in how our beliefs are based. If we could establish that this is where the difference lies then we can give up the debate, though I find it hard to believe that anyone sane could really not believe in explanations, I wonder how they get along in the world at all.


I respect your response, and in part I have to say that I'm sorry that I indicted you so harshly. There are different meanings of the phrase “must be condemned in the harshest terms;” you clearly mean it in a civil way, in the sense that you believe it to be a harmful thing and would abjure those you care about against it. Point taken.

I've been thinking a bit about the terms we're using to discuss this; we're talking (at least in part) about whether people should believe a thing “because it works for them.” It's struck me how odd this question, and our approach to it, is in the context of a discussion about Christianity.

Why? Well, because, traditionally, the notion that ‘we should believe whatever works for us’ is specifically condemned by the Christian tradition, and indeed in some ways embodies one of the largest factions which are opposed to Christianity. To be specific, the notion that ‘we should believe whatever works for us’ is actually a pragmatist conception; many American philosophers have defended this proposition, among them C. S. Peirce, John Dewey, William James, and (most recently) Richard Rorty. Pragmatism can be summed up—simplistically and somewhat too briefly, of course, but summed up nonetheless—in a phrase of William James':

…the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking…

John Dewey also defined truth, if I recall correctly, as ‘that which gives satisfaction,’ meaning ‘satisfaction’ in a relatively broad sense.

I am not a pragmatist. In fact, I disagree most strongly with their tenor and intentions for philosophy; they are fond of saying, for example, that philosophy has led us nowhere and that what we've learned so far is that knowing truth doesn't really matter; it's all about enjoying the journey. Also, Richard Rorty makes a pretty big deal about his idea that ‘truth’ and democracy don't really go together, since (to his mind) anybody who believes in a truth is biased and prejudiced against anybody who believes in a different truth. This is all hogwash to me; but it's interesting hogwash in that it captures in many ways the cast of the American mind. One of the silliest things about the pragmatists to me has always been their disdain for religion of any kind; they proclaim boldly that people are allowed, nay obligated, to believe whatever they find convenient, and yet when they come upon the subject of religion they tend to mumble something about it ‘not appealing to me’ or, in Rorty's case, make a tortuous argument about how, even though he's not supposed to know what works for other people, well, in this case and this case only he's allowed to dictate what people believe.

So: if you want to argue against the proposition that we should believe whatever works for us, then you're not in large part going to have to argue against Christians, who historically have often taken an almost perverse pride in the pain and suffering which their ‘religion’ inflicts upon themselves and others—that is, a perverse pride in how little Christianity really works for them. No, your opponents in that argument will be the pragmatists.

But such is the thoroughgoing modernization of the American mind that modern ‘Christians’ have become enamoured with all sorts of ideas that are actually somewhat contradictory. For example, many Christians nowadays are apparently Kantian in their belief that we can't know anything about God at all and we just have to believe in him and trust him. The case at hand is another example of that: not to rag on philip-random (I'm not here speaking of him) but I've met many Christians who put on relatively postmodern airs and like to defend themselves limply by saying ‘hey, it works for me.’
posted by koeselitz at 2:20 PM on July 12, 2009


He didn't socialize anymore, just read books, watched TV and thought a lot, about everything.

Then one night while lying in bed one night, completely distraught, unable to sleep, he had an epiphany along the lines of, what if I just stop worrying about all this unresolvable shit and just believe in the Jesus I once believed in as a small child (ie: accept a worldview revolving around the notion that there was a good guy in charge of everything and, if you lived well, he'd look out for your immortal soul)? And (here's the key point in all this) what if instead of wasting all my energy on this self-centered hole I'm digging for myself, I invested it all in getting out there, engaging with the world, doing everything I can to hone my talents and contribute to making the planet a better place.


His conclusions, as stated, are a complete non-sequitor. They are unnecessary for engaging the world and making the planet a better place.

As Feynman put it...

You see, one thing, is I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I'm not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, "Why we are here?" and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can't figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don't have to know an answer, I don't have to...i don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly.
posted by phrontist at 9:21 PM on July 12, 2009


a leap of faith and committed to the great and imponderable mystery

These things are not one and the same. Taking a leap of faith is the exact opposite of comitting yourself to mystery - it is banishing some aspect of mystery by force of will.
posted by phrontist at 9:24 PM on July 12, 2009


not to rag on philip-random (I'm not here speaking of him) but I've met many Christians who put on relatively postmodern airs and like to defend themselves limply by saying ‘hey, it works for me.’

As have I, and I always wonder what they mean by that. How can you, on hearing your belief questioned, respond not with clarifications or explanations but with "hey, it works".

Perhaps they mean it stands up to internal reflection? Then why respond this way when challenged, why not explain the ways in which it makes sense to them internally. Ah, but explanations must come to an end somewhere (for non-fidiests as well) - and perhaps they draw the line of obviousness earlier than I do. Jesus being the son of god, perhaps, is obvious to them in the same way that, say, my hand existing is to me. This is extremely alien to my experience, as the son of god claim is something I don't feel I understand at all, but I'm inclined to take them at their word in a spirit of good faith. But I've often been left to wonder whether they understand what they're professing.

Perhaps the debate between the theist and nontheist comes down to a difference in metabelief - in their stance on what constitutes a belief "working" for them.
posted by phrontist at 9:44 PM on July 12, 2009


phrontist: As have I, and I always wonder what they mean by that. How can you, on hearing your belief questioned, respond not with clarifications or explanations but with "hey, it works".

Perhaps they mean it stands up to internal reflection? Then why respond this way when challenged, why not explain the ways in which it makes sense to them internally. Ah, but explanations must come to an end somewhere (for non-fidiests as well) - and perhaps they draw the line of obviousness earlier than I do. Jesus being the son of god, perhaps, is obvious to them in the same way that, say, my hand existing is to me. This is extremely alien to my experience, as the son of god claim is something I don't feel I understand at all, but I'm inclined to take them at their word in a spirit of good faith. But I've often been left to wonder whether they understand what they're professing.

Perhaps the debate between the theist and nontheist comes down to a difference in metabelief - in their stance on what constitutes a belief "working" for them.


I disagree completely. Why? Because, as I said above, the whole notion of ‘I believe what works for me’ is not a specifically Christian idea; in fact, it's traditionally anti-Christian. My point was that the only reason it's been adopted by any Christians at all is because society is so incredibly unconcerned with self-contradiction, and because church leadership has become so stupid and misled that it can't really have any influence (which at this point is actually a good thing) on what Christians think.

I've met a few Christians who argue that way; but I've met many more non-Christians—sometimes atheists, usually agnostics, who will say the same thing: that they believe what they believe specifically because it works for them and it's convenient. In fact, some days I worry that this is simply the default belief in America today, at least when it comes to explicit responses to challenges about beliefs and opinions. And this is not a new phenomenon; as I also said above, it first found expression in the United States something like a hundred and thirty years ago, although whereas very few people were ready to accept those ideas in their time, nowadays many seem to have discovered the sheer convenience of shrugging when challenged about their opinions and saying, “hey—works for me.”

The people who most commonly express these ideas are of two types, neither of them predominantly Christian, in fact both of them predominantly non-Christian. The first is the common and clueless, the people who just pick up on this because it's convenient and it's easy, and because they have the vague impression, maybe even a kind of fleeting hope, that our reverence for equality and freedom means that they are by right absolved from the painful and uncomfortable duty they have to explain themselves and their opinions, since others are not allowed to be ‘prejudiced against them’ merely because of their opinions.

But there is a whole lineage of thinkers who consciously defend these propositions (as much as such propositions can be defended.) I speak of the pragmatists; the greatest recent work (in the last 50 years, anyhow) of whom is probably Richard Rorty's masterwork Philosophy and The Mirror Of Nature. Someone who is more familiar or more endeared to these thinkers may correct me—it's been a few years since I've read it—but a general and extremely simplified encapsulation of Rorty's ideas in this book would be: he argues that nature, far from being a set of sense experiences which we parse and can derive truth from, is actually a mirror that simple reflects what we want to see; in other words, there is no truth but only thinking which invents truths as it chooses. This is of course in some ways a restatement of the ancient Protagorean dictum: “Man is the measure of all things.

None of the pragmatists, either—none that I know of, anyhow—is religious, either. I can't remember exactly what Rorty says about religion—I know he doesn't say much—but in discussing its impact on his childhood and development, I do remember he seems to feel as though religion is entirely irrelevant. People of this school can actually argue very effectively, in a certain way; instead of being about what is correct, argument is for them about what we are allowed to say by the rules. Whereof we cannot speak, there we must remain silent. So Rorty manages to be quite glib in many places about his opinions and the opinions of others; it simply seems to him that others shouldn't believe what they believe because it's contradictory or impractical, but that he can't really be challenged because people are allowed to believe whatever works for them.

So, no, I don't think this is a Christian thing. If anything, when we meet ‘Christians’ who talk like this, it's an example of the weak-willed modern Christianity that soaks up whatever outside influences it's exposed to.
posted by koeselitz at 3:11 AM on July 13, 2009


I think you've analysed that quite well koeselitz.

I don't know much about pragmatism, but I think that in some varieties at least, belief justification requires more than making one feel happy or meaningfully connected to the world. It also requires practical engagements with reality.

Meanwhile, here's a critique of Rorty (also mentions religion as an example of how we stop being interested in certain questions).
posted by leibniz at 3:36 AM on July 13, 2009


POINT: And (here's the key point in all this) what if instead of wasting all my energy on this self-centered hole I'm digging for myself, I invested it all in getting out there, engaging with the world, doing everything I can to hone my talents and contribute to making the planet a better place.

COUNTERPOINT: His conclusions, as stated, are a complete non-sequitor. They are unnecessary for engaging the world and making the planet a better place.

You speak rationally. And yet he, through his incomplete confused 21 year old version of rationally pursuing a Meaning To Life, had encountered nothing but confusion, disconnection and despair. It clearly was not working for him. And then having chosen faith, (and it was most definitely a conscious choice), why woe and behold! he had something that was working for him by which I mean, as stated above, he was again engaging with the world, making a positive contribution to his family, his friends, his community. This, to me, is the most pragmatic of justifications - The Proof Is In The Pudding as it were.

These things are not one and the same. Taking a leap of faith is the exact opposite of comitting yourself to mystery - it is banishing some aspect of mystery by force of will.

A believer (in anything) is making a choice, consciously or otherwise, to accept a certain "Truth" based on incomplete information. How is this not an acceptance of mystery? Notice, I dropped "commit" as the relevant verb as I can see that being contentious.
posted by philip-random at 9:19 AM on July 13, 2009


Apologies first: leibniz, my reaction to the debate was not so much to the content of the debate itself, but rather to what I was perceiving as an "ax-grindy" tone that I thought the debate was taking. However, I now see that only certain individuals tend to take such a tone, and you are not one of them, so my apologies.

Now then.

I've met a few Christians who argue that way; but I've met many more non-Christians—sometimes atheists, usually agnostics, who will say the same thing: that they believe what they believe specifically because it works for them and it's convenient. In fact, some days I worry that this is simply the default belief in America today, at least when it comes to explicit responses to challenges about beliefs and opinions. And this is not a new phenomenon; as I also said above, it first found expression in the United States something like a hundred and thirty years ago, although whereas very few people were ready to accept those ideas in their time, nowadays many seem to have discovered the sheer convenience of shrugging when challenged about their opinions and saying, “hey—works for me.”

Interestingly, I'm wondering if, if we met in person, you would accuse me of this same trait; however, I don't quite think it applies. I can definitely see where you would, despite the fact that I DON'T believe what I believe simply because it is convenient.

I'm not so sure that such a vague, hand-wavy response is about apathy. It's definitely not in my case -- my spiritual life is just highly, highly individual. But, it is there. I've always regarded my religious self as a very real thing -- but also a very PERSONAL thing. I was a very fervent Catholic when I was a girl, and I still feel its influence on me at times. However -- because I do not agree 100% with Catholicism, I feel that I cannot, by any rights, call myself Catholic. Because, well, I'm not.

The problem is that I can't really call myself 100% anything. In my early 20's, I read up on the faith traditions of a number of different religions, and different parts of different religions resonated with me on some deep level. My cosmology is influenced by elements of Catholicism, the Quakers, Judaism, Hinduism, Sufi Mysticism, neo-Paganism, old Celtic beliefs, and even secular humanism.

I can definitely understand why such a mishmosh would look, to someone who is not me, as if I'm just blithely picking and choosing amongst different faiths for "whatever works" -- however, it is not. I have seen it more as customizing a faith for myself -- I tried 100% of the tenents of Catholicism, but some bits of it didn't seem to fit with the conception of God and the Numina of the world as I understood it; then I heard something else from Sufiism, and that one element fit better. The only analogy I can use for "it fit" was the difference between owning a shirt with collars that were just one inch too loose, and getting the collar tailored just perfectly; the core of my spiritual expression hadn't changed, I just found a better outlet for one part of it.

I also believe that the problem we run into with different religious schools of thought is that we are trying to use language to describe something very personal and very individual -- and beyond language. Mysticism doesn't always fit into language all that neatly, and we have to fall back on clumsy metaphors. And that's all any religious text is, I believe -- metaphors for describing powerful -- and individual -- ideas, concepts, and emotions. No one is ever going to 100% know what it is like to be walking around with my head, heart, and soul. I can try to use language to convey all of that to you, but at a certain point, my words aren't going to fall short and I'm going to have to throw up my hands and say that I can't explain it. I may indeed fall back on "well, this is what works for me" when I do -- but a great deal more thought went into it than is implied.

Also, what does and does not work for a given individual is ITSELF an important element of my own cosmology. I am indeed theist, and the Deity I believe in is one who respects the individuality of each one of us. Part of that involves tolerating whichever clumsy metaphor we may each best understand when it comes to Understanding What It Is God Is Trying To Tell Us; to me, God holding us at fault for not hewing to one or another religious tradition 100% would be like someone finding fault with me because I speak English, but not French. Or, more accurately, for understanding English, but not understanding English medical jargon. The Deity I believe in understands each of our minds work differently, so if we don't understand God's message through one channel, but we understand via another channel instead, God's Own Self is the one who says, "okay, great, whatever works for you."

So I would also indeed be saying that "this works for me," not as a hand-wavy exercise, but rather as an acknowledgement that what works for me is probably NOT going to work for you, because I am me and you are you -- and God had a reason for creating us both thusly different, and I don't want to interfere with that.

So I would posit that the people you've run into who shrug and say "works for me" when challenged about their opinions are either trying to spare you a very lengthy theological summation, such as I have given above, without boring you to tears; or they cannot articulate what it is they do believe; or they may still be mulling over what they do believe and aren't ready to talk about it yet; or they regard their inner spiritual life as an intimate, private thing. There may be some who just don't give it thought, but I would posit that that is more a character trait of an individual, rather than a character trait of a certain religious group (i.e., the people who shrug and say "hey, works for me" would be doing so no matter what religion they professed to -- they just haven't thought all that much about it, because they don't think much about anything at all).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:54 AM on July 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, you're changing the subject.

You said it was irrational for non-fundamentalists to look to the Bible as giving them information about God unless they (like fundamentalists) believe every word of it.

I pointed out how, on the contrary, it is the way all history is done: to say "I have reasons to think this source is reliable, but probably not infallible."

You then change the subject to give some arguments for why you think the Bible is not as reliable as some other ancient texts. We could argue that subject, but it really doesn't have anything to do with your either/or ultimatum. The point is, no historian says about any ancient text, "You must either believe every word of this, or none of it at all." You have to be careful arguing with fundamentalists; you may unconsciously adopt some of their fallacious ways of thinking.

And then you offer another version of the same argument, that if I think the Bible is worthwhile, I ought to think *every* ancient religious text must be equally worthwhile. That's like saying, "If you think Dave's story is true, then surely you must believe Bob's story, and Larry's, and Sally's? I mean, surely you can't decide if Dave's story is true before you've listened to every other possible story."

Maybe what you mean is "I suspect your reasons for giving credence to the Bible are no better than a Muslim's reasons for believing the Koran." That claim, at least, would make sense, but it again would be a different sort of argument. You'd end up saying, "I think your judgment is faulty, I disagree with you," instead of, "You are logically incoherent, religion has damaged your ability to reason."
posted by straight at 3:09 PM on July 13, 2009


EmpressCallipygos, I appreciate your defense of non-fundamentalist Christians, but I think perhaps you are claiming to speak for more people than you do. There is more variety among Christians that you are allowing for. Not everyone who is not a fundamentalist thinks the Bible has no historical content.

I don't think the Bible is infallible in the sense that fundamentalists do (a doctrine that was invented in the last couple centuries as a defensive response to higher biblical criticism). But I do think the resurrection of Jesus really happened as a historical event. I think it explains the origins of Christianity and the existence of the New Testament better than any of the alternative historical theories.

Historically, the majority of Christians have been neither fundamentalists nor have they held the kind of "it's all metaphorical / I believe whatever works for me" type of beliefs that leibniz et. al. have been discussing above.
posted by straight at 3:16 PM on July 13, 2009


I pointed out how, on the contrary, it is the way all history is done: to say "I have reasons to think this source is reliable, but probably not infallible."

You then change the subject to give some arguments for why you think the Bible is not as reliable as some other ancient texts.


No, what I did was point out that religion and history are not the same and that the religious do not apply the standards and use the methods that historians use. The methods of historical research cannot be used as an epistemic justification for beliefs which have not been formed in the way that historians form their beliefs.

And then you offer another version of the same argument, that if I think the Bible is worthwhile, I ought to think *every* ancient religious text must be equally worthwhile.

Close! The argument is that you are choosing which books you believe in arbitrarily and have no basis for preferring one fiction to another beyond, well, you want to believe the one. You simply haven't got a reason to believe one over the other, particularly since there is no evidence whatsoever that what Dave, Bob, Larry, and Sally are saying is true or reliable in any way and each of their stories is roughly as believable as JRR Tolkein's.

I think it explains the origins of Christianity and the existence of the New Testament better than any of the alternative historical theories.

Really? What better explains the origins of the ancient Egyptian religion and the existence of their scriptures than Osiris being murdered by Set and resurrected by his wife and son? What better explains the origins of the old Sumerian religion than Tiamat's flesh and blood becoming the earth and waters? What better explains the origins of the ancient Greek religion and the existence of their mythology than Cronus devouring his children and then being forced to vomit them up?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:52 PM on July 13, 2009


This is a great conversation.

As an aside: I've meaning for a while to point out something about a term which keeps getting bandied about—fundamentalist. Now, I'm not picking at language vainly here; it's only that I object strongly to the meaning behind the word. I know that this is essentially the term of art used to refer to a certain breed of evangelical in the US today, but to someone like myself—that is, someone who sees himself as a Christian but sees these evangelicals as, at best, very confused about what the Bible says and what the tradition means—it strikes a dissonant chord. To call these people fundamentalists is to say that they understand and hold to the true fundamentals of the Christian religion, or at least to imply it; whereas it seems to me that they probably couldn't handle any sort of fundamentals at all.

I don't mean this as an admonishment or a request that people speak differently—I understand what people are saying either way, and I don't take any offense. I mean more to point this out, as I think it's interesting; the word, the roots of which I would imagine date back to the time of Voltaire, is intriguing because it sets up an opposition between people who believe the Bible is fundamentally true and people who don't. It strikes me that such an opposition probably isn't realistic; for example, there are many ways in which so-called ‘moderate’ Christians might sometimes be much closer to the tenor and import of fundamental Christianity than ‘fundamentalists’ will ever be. But maybe that's a matter of opinion; if you really believe (I think Pope Guilty does—and I mean no insult by this, PG) that Christianity is fundamentally a religion of ignorance and boorishness, then you may very well believe that ‘fundamentalists’ really do get the point.
posted by koeselitz at 5:25 PM on July 13, 2009


EmpressCallipygos, I appreciate your defense of non-fundamentalist Christians, but I think perhaps you are claiming to speak for more people than you do. There is more variety among Christians that you are allowing for. Not everyone who is not a fundamentalist thinks the Bible has no historical content.

That was entirely due to poor word choice on my part, then. I do know well that there is a whole scope of different types of Christian belief, with difference of opinion on everything from the historiocity of the Bible to the proper age for Baptism, and everything in between.

I was actually attempting to confine my argument to the "you call yourself a Christian, therefore you must believe everything in the Bible is 100% accurate, Right?" assertion. In general, it's incorrect that every Christian accepts the Bible as 100% accurate; the more nuanced answer is, of course, that there is a huge scale of opinion and belief on what percentage is literal fact, what is metaphor, what is historic and what is not; and there is even a range of opinions on what "historic" actually even means in tis context.

I just didn't get into the finer detail because such conversations run the risk of making it sound like you're about to say "it depends on what the definition of 'is' is", and people start drowning in semantics. But I apologize if my attempts to simplify got too crude.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 PM on July 13, 2009


if you really believe (I think Pope Guilty does—and I mean no insult by this, PG) that Christianity is fundamentally a religion of ignorance and boorishness, then you may very well believe that ‘fundamentalists’ really do get the point.

It's not so much Christianity as religion in general. I take empiricism to be the only epistemology which provides even a semblance of accurate, reliable information about reality. Everybody who drops two different weights in a vaccum will find that they drop at the same rate. Everybody who applies electrolysis to water will get hydrogen and water. And so it goes.

Religion fundamentally demands that you hold certain beliefs in your conception of reality which cannot be justified empirically; many religious beliefs specifically contradict empirical evidence. This means that you basically have to denigrate empiricism in favor of something else, which to my mind means choosing to discard rationality- or as close to it as we can come- in favor of something else.

Now, that doesn't mean that all atheists are smart or all religious people are stupid, or that all atheists are smarter than all religious people. What it does mean, in my opinion, is that religious people have sort of a conceptual block which very specifically interferes with rationality and can cause them to believe- and do- highly irrational and counterproductive things because they value that particular belief above all else. I've spent a couple of hours typing up and throwing away metaphors for it- I think a metaphor would be very helpful to illustrate it, but I can't come up with one that's both interesting and useful. The closest I've come to is the idea of a cartographer who insists that a particular valley be left off all maps and who invents enormous chains of poorly-formed logic, many of which contradict the basic principles of mapmaking, to justify it. It's not just that religious people are irrational in a particular way. It's that religion fucks up your reasoning capacities due to the unreason necessary to justify it, in large part because religions tend to demand the highest priority in your belief system. Not all religious beliefs fuck you up to the same degree or in the same way, but if you hold a religious belief and discuss things that pertain to it, or that use the same parts of your reasoning ability, you're going to run into problems where your allegiance to the belief- and the unreason that allegiance necessitates- interferes with your ability to reason properly. Some people will choose to discard the belief in favor of reason, and some will choose to discard reason in favor of the belief. To my mind, the latter is never a good thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:39 PM on July 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think a metaphor would be very helpful to illustrate it, but I can't come up with one that's both interesting and useful. The closest I've come to is the idea of a cartographer who insists that a particular valley be left off all maps and who invents enormous chains of poorly-formed logic, many of which contradict the basic principles of mapmaking, to justify it. It's not just that religious people are irrational in a particular way. It's that religion fucks up your reasoning capacities due to the unreason necessary to justify it, in large part because religions tend to demand the highest priority in your belief system.

I'll trade you analogy for analogy.

I think it's more like a cryptozoologist, who's certain that there is an undiscovered species of fish off the coast of Madagascar. He has not caught one yet, but he's heard lots of tantalizing anecdotes; local fishermen in the area recall having seen 'weird-looking' fish that they just didn't know what to do with so they threw it back. Or their nets had half-eaten carcasses from fish they didn't recognize. There's no way to know, until they pull up one -- or even just get a tissue sample -- whether what these fishermen are pulling up are a new species, or half-eaten old species that just decayed in a certain way. In one sense, there is utterly no proof that there is anything down there.

And yet...he just knows that there's something down there. It's enough for him to keep looking. He knows better than to actually claim it as fact and publish something in a scientific journal, but....he's seen enough to want to keep looking. Moreover, he's seen too much to be comfortable about giving up on it -- if he gave up and turned back now, he knows he would always regret it, because dammit, there's something there. Only time will tell whether that something is just a squid or if it's a new coelocanth, but there's something.

Actually, I think these two analogies are telling. Because if you compare those analogies, it looks like where you see delusion, I see curiosity. You see a closed mind; I see an open one. You see someone who's set in their ways; I see someone who's open to a possibility.

Then again, you were having trouble coming up with the right metaphor, you said. Maybe you didn't know that's how I'd take your metaphor. maybe that's not what you meant by it, but I am just a different person and processed your metaphor differently from the way you were anticipating.

Funny, I can think of another text that people do that with....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:01 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty - EmpressCallipygos ...

Nice. Love your last comments. I think you're both onto something. Maybe just a vampire squid lost in a valley of denial ... but definitely something.
posted by philip-random at 9:25 PM on July 13, 2009


And yet...he just knows that there's something down there. It's enough for him to keep looking. He knows better than to actually claim it as fact and publish something in a scientific journal, but....he's seen enough to want to keep looking. Moreover, he's seen too much to be comfortable about giving up on it -- if he gave up and turned back now, he knows he would always regret it, because dammit, there's something there. Only time will tell whether that something is just a squid or if it's a new coelocanth, but there's something.

Actually, I think these two analogies are telling. Because if you compare those analogies, it looks like where you see delusion, I see curiosity. You see a closed mind; I see an open one. You see someone who's set in their ways; I see someone who's open to a possibility.


I think this metaphor fails because it's not like it's just the guy out there looking for this mysterious fish. He's going back to shore and demanding that everyone drop what they're doing to go find this goddamn new fish. This new fish is going to solve all their problems, you see. And you better start looking for this fish, too:

"But Abe, we have plenty of fish - there are cod and herring and tuna and they're all delicious."

"Fuck that tuna shit! You're going to give up fishing for herring and join me, or I will personally take you out to the middle of the sea, tie you up, and drop you into the depths to be swallowed up forever."

"Abe, is it possible that you are wrong about the strange hypothetical fish?"

"Questioning the new fish is a crime against the new fish!"
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:21 AM on July 14, 2009


I think this metaphor fails because it's not like it's just the guy out there looking for this mysterious fish. He's going back to shore and demanding that everyone drop what they're doing to go find this goddamn new fish. This new fish is going to solve all their problems, you see.

I'm not talking about evangelical traditions, OC. Not all theists are evangelical about it, you know.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 AM on July 14, 2009


I'm not talking about evangelical traditions, OC. Not all theists are evangelical about it, you know.

Or as my aforementioned Christian friend defines himself, "I am a non-evangelical, non-fundamentalist Christian, unaligned." I believe he currently attends a United Church because he likes the particular Pastor's sermons.
posted by philip-random at 8:29 AM on July 14, 2009


No, what I did was point out that religion and history are not the same and that the religious do not apply the standards and use the methods that historians use.

You're still missing my point, which was simply that your assertion that I must either believe every word of the Bible or none of it was ridiculous. I thought that transposing your statement to another context (history) would make it easier to see why, but you just keep getting distracted into making comments about how religion is or isn't like history.

Close! The argument is that you are choosing which books you believe in arbitrarily and have no basis for preferring one fiction to another beyond, well, you want to believe the one. You simply haven't got a reason to believe one over the other, particularly since there is no evidence whatsoever that what Dave, Bob, Larry, and Sally are saying is true or reliable in any way and each of their stories is roughly as believable as JRR Tolkein's.

Only if you think that the only valid bases for believing someone's story are empirical, and that all other ways of exercising judgment are arbitrary.

If Dave tells you a story that you have no way of checking empirically, I don't agree that the decision of whether or not to believe him is no different than a coin flip.

You think the story of the resurrection is ridiculous, but not because you have some evidence that it didn't happen. You just think it doesn't fit with what you know about the world. You think alternative explanations are more plausible. A judgment call. But not an arbitrary one.
posted by straight at 11:31 AM on July 14, 2009


You're still missing my point, which was simply that your assertion that I must either believe every word of the Bible or none of it was ridiculous. I thought that transposing your statement to another context (history) would make it easier to see why, but you just keep getting distracted into making comments about how religion is or isn't like history.

You're arguing by analogy and I am showing you how the subject and the thing you're trying to analogize it to are not alike, thereby rebutting your attempt to argue by analogy. This is perfectly valid argumentation- one person making an argument, and the other showing that argument to be invalid.


Only if you think that the only valid bases for believing someone's story are empirical, and that all other ways of exercising judgment are arbitrary.

They may not be arbitrary, but their outputs aren't even vaguely reliable, and preferences for them are... perhaps I should say not "arbitrary", but rather "grounded in criteria other than utility".


You think the story of the resurrection is ridiculous, but not because you have some evidence that it didn't happen. You just think it doesn't fit with what you know about the world.

Ahh, the good old "You skeptics are so closeminded! You refuse to believe in anything that contradicts what you already know!" canard. It's not so much that it doesn't fit with what I know about the world (it doesn't, but that's not the central point) as it is that to accept the resurrection would require rejecting pretty much everything we know about physics and biology and all that. If dead flesh can have life restored to it by magic, then everything we've observed and figured out about reality is wrong. On the one hand, the sum total of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, an extremely unlikely story without a shred of credible or reliable proof. Gee, which one makes sense to accept?


A judgment call. But not an arbitrary one.

You're right, it's not arbitrary. There isn't an epistemic method or principle that beats empiricism for sheer quantity, quality, and reliability of results. My preference for empiricism is due to that. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm not sure what you're getting at by mentioning arbitrariness, since I've been pointing out that your preferences are the arbitrary ones. Your pointing out that my preference isn't really conducive to your argument.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:04 PM on July 14, 2009


to accept the resurrection would require rejecting pretty much everything we know about physics and biology and all that. If dead flesh can have life restored to it by magic, then everything we've observed and figured out about reality is wrong.

Or ... reality was invented by some god or other and, for the most part it churns along as per the "known laws of physics", but every now and then the god (or gods) mess around with things for some godlike reason creating deep weirdness such as resurrections and the like. I mean, they do call these things "miracles".
posted by philip-random at 7:47 PM on July 14, 2009


Well, for that matter, there's also the fact that everyone, even those who claim the Bible isn't really reliable, goes to "Christ was resurrected because he was God or similar". Why is that more likely than his death having been faked with drugs? Or maybe aliens did it, or pagan magic, or psychic powers, or maybe Jesus was really a machine elf. Perhaps a homeopathic remedy did it!

I mean, as long as we're speculating, it's not like any of those explanations are more likely than another... or more likely than a person who, had he actually existed, would have been in the writings of what's his name, (Josephus?), that guy who there's pretty much zero chance would have not mentioned him but never did?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:31 PM on July 14, 2009


You're arguing by analogy...

That was an illustration, not an argument. I was just hoping that by seeing your statement in another context you would see it was nonsense. Here try this:

"That thing you're looking at there, you must accept that it is either infallibly right or completely, utterly wrong. There's no other option."

Can't you see that's a ridiculous statement to make about pretty much anything? The fact that fundamentalists make the same false dichotomy is no excuse.

You're right, it's not arbitrary. There isn't an epistemic method or principle that beats empiricism for sheer quantity, quality, and reliability of results. My preference for empiricism is due to that. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm not sure what you're getting at by mentioning arbitrariness

I believe that the resurrection happened, and you believe it did not. But these are not empirical beliefs. We can't test them in a lab. There's no decisive proof one way or the other. But our beliefs are not chosen arbitrarily. We didn't flip a coin to decide. We used our judgment about whether this story seems believable, whether the source seems credible, whether it fits with our overall understanding of how the universe works.

I'm not sure what to call this kind of judgment or reasoning, or how exactly it works, but we use it all the time when we form opinions about things that we don't have enough empirical evidence to know for sure: Is this person lying? Is the difference in murder rates between Europe and the USA attributable to gun control or other factors? How well does advertising work? Does violence in the media have a causative effect on violence in real life? Did FDR's social programs help end the depression, or was it mostly ended by the war? Will reducing my carbon footprint help mitigate climate change?

Some of these are, in theory, empirical questions, but most of us have opinions on these subjects even though we really don't have enough evidence yet. But I wouldn't say those opinions are arbitrary or irrational either. We have reasons and evidence, but we disagree about how to weigh them.
posted by straight at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I believe that the resurrection happened, and you believe it did not. But these are not empirical beliefs. We can't test them in a lab. There's no decisive proof one way or the other.

I don't think that's a good point. The resurrection is an empirical claim; something happened. And we do have normal ways to justify belief in those claims such as first person reports. Pope Guilty has indicated that if there were severval independent and contemporary reports of the resurrection (or even one would be nice), then he would be more likely to believe it, even though it is implausible on other grounds.

Meanwhile, concerning this demand that either you believe the whole bible or none of it...

One argument is that if you think by the standards of historical evidence you shouldn't believe some parts, you have the same reason not to believe lots of other parts. Your consistent options are to either not believe any of them, or to give up those standards of historical evidence. If you choose the latter option, you can cherry pick as much as you like for all we care.

There was also a debate concerning the vagueness of certain passages. So you can justifiably say that the bible is clear about some claims (e.g. the resurrection) and vague about other claims (e.g. needing to believe in jesus in order to escape hell) and have degrees of confidence in your interpretations accordingly. We can then argue about whether the passages are really vague or not. I suggested that it is odd that a text designed to guide human existence, inspired by God should be vague at all.

Pope Guilty also made a general point:
Liberal Christians often do, however, use the Bible as an authority to argue from on one hand and then insist that it is not authoritative on the other

The claim is that any Christian is logically compelled to regard the Bible as authoritative, since it is the only source of their essential belief that Jesus was Christ/resurrected. Is the Christian then allowed to claim that the bible is authoritative about some things, and not others? It is hard to see by what standard you could decide which bits are authoritative and which bits are not, without undermining its authority in general. That is, if you use a standard other than authority (internal plausibility, prejudice whatever), then really that was what was always deciding your belief... but you must be appealing to authority for at least the essential belief... so contradiction.

But maybe I rely too much on the claim that only authority can give you the essential Christian belief? What if I believe in the resurrection based on a combination of authority and personal revelation? Other parts of the bible are then not confirmed for me by both, so I can discard those parts. In response, I'd have to demand both that authority was necessary and sufficient for belief in the resurrection, and that no other source could justify that belief in a way that wasn't superfluous. It looks like the bible is at least necessary (no one has come up with the belief without at least indirect access to the bible). But perhaps it isn't sufficient without inner revelation. This seems ok.

Alright, it looks like any non-fundamentalist should never appeal to the bible's authority as the sole source of any of their beliefs.

Meanwhile, what the fuck is personal revelation?
posted by leibniz at 2:33 PM on July 15, 2009


I'm not sure what to call this kind of judgment or reasoning, or how exactly it works, but we use it all the time when we form opinions about things that we don't have enough empirical evidence to know for sure:

I believe that you have just defined "belief". Some of us "believe" in the Resurrection. Some of us "believe" in the Big Bang. Some of us "believe" in contrails. There is no absolute proof of any of these things.

Is the Christian then allowed to claim that the bible is authoritative about some things, and not others? It is hard to see by what standard you could decide which bits are authoritative and which bits are not, without undermining its authority in general.

An ex-fundamentalist friend of mine (still a friend that is, no longer even a believer) says that it all gets down to the last few lines of the New Testament wherein it is stated that everything in this book is true and if you mess with a single word of it, yrrr bound for hell etc (or words to that effect).

Meanwhile, you've got the Red Letter Christians who focus mainly on the specific teachings of JC himself (the red letter bit referring to New Testament verses in certain editions of the Bible being printed in red to emphasize that these are the actual words that Jesus is alleged to have spoken). As it was explained to me, they tend to view the Old Testament as basic (and long-winded) preamble (including a detailed tribal history of the Jews), followed by the Gospels which are "The Shit" (to use a lazy and inappropriate euphemism), which are followed by everything else which is basically a detailed history of how various functionaries inserted themselves into the situation.
posted by philip-random at 4:48 PM on July 15, 2009


The claim is that any Christian is logically compelled to regard the Bible as authoritative, since it is the only source of their essential belief that Jesus was Christ/resurrected. Is the Christian then allowed to claim that the bible is authoritative about some things, and not others? It is hard to see by what standard you could decide which bits are authoritative and which bits are not, without undermining its authority in general.

Well, yeah, unless you read a couple basic articles about what the Bible actually is in the first place.

See, the Bible isn't a single unified tome -- it was never meant to be. It's kind of like -- you know how there's the "Portable [blank] Reader" book collections where they take a lot of works by one writer or one group of writers and put them all into a single volume? That's what the Bible actually is -- it's not a single book, it's like "The Portable Early-Judeo-Christian-Writings Reader." Some of the sections were intended by their original authors to be athoritative -- but some were intended to be illustrative fables. Others were songbooks. Others were collections of letters. The Book of Revelations was a retelling of a mystic vision. The Book of Proverbs was precisely that. And who the hell knows what the Song of Songs was supposed to be -- I'm half-convinced it was a little porn thrown in to keep people interested. But the reason many Christians regard parts of the Bible as metaphor is because they were always supposed to do that. It's only later that the idea of everything being 100% equally valid was introduced.

Expecting someone to automatically accept all parts of the Bible as 100% equally authoritative is like expecting someone to accept both The Origin of Species and Lord Of The Rings to be equally scientifically plausible, simply because that someone has both books on the same bookshelf in their apartment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:42 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"That thing you're looking at there, you must accept that it is either infallibly right or completely, utterly wrong. There's no other option."

Can't you see that's a ridiculous statement to make about pretty much anything?


The issue, ultimately, is that you have beliefs which do not have a source or a cause outside of a particular source. That you have those beliefs demands that source, for there is no other reason to believe in them. Clearly, you believe that the source is authoritative on some grounds (or else you would not hold those beliefs which cannot be justified except by appealing to the authority of the book) and not on others. My point is that you cannot argue by authority on one hand and then impugn that authority on the other. I do not know how to make it any more simple.


Some of these are, in theory, empirical questions, but most of us have opinions on these subjects even though we really don't have enough evidence yet. But I wouldn't say those opinions are arbitrary or irrational either. We have reasons and evidence, but we disagree about how to weigh them.

Except you have no reasons nor evidence beyond its presence in unreliable (by your own admission) books and, most crucially, your desire to believe that it is so. That seems to me to be outweighing all other concerns.


I believe that you have just defined "belief". Some of us "believe" in the Resurrection. Some of us "believe" in the Big Bang. Some of us "believe" in contrails. There is no absolute proof of any of these things.

If you want to get skeptical enough, there's no "absolute proof" that we didn't just pop into existence five minutes ago with false memories of the preceding argument implanted in our heads and a vampire Slayer for an older sister.* I'm pretty sure nobody denies the existence of contrails, though.


As it was explained to me, they tend to view the Old Testament as basic (and long-winded) preamble

And boy, do Jewish people appreciate that attitude!


But the reason many Christians regard parts of the Bible as metaphor is because they were always supposed to do that.

That's a lazy as hell excuse that elides the question at hand. If the resurrection wasn't in the Bible, it wouldn't be a part of Christianity- straight up. The sole reason it's believed in is because it's in the damn Gospels.



*Season five and six haters can suck it!
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:26 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


But the reason many Christians regard parts of the Bible as metaphor is because they were always supposed to do that.

That's a lazy as hell excuse that elides the question at hand. If the resurrection wasn't in the Bible, it wouldn't be a part of Christianity- straight up. The sole reason it's believed in is because it's in the damn Gospels.


And my point is that the damn Gospels are not the whole damn Bible, and the parts of the damn Bible that are not the damn Gospels weren't supposed to be taken damn literally, and most damn Christians know that, dammit.

Do you actually have a damn point or are you just trying to be damn argumentative?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 PM on July 15, 2009


and the parts of the damn Bible that are not the damn Gospels weren't supposed to be taken damn literally, and most damn Christians know that, dammit.

So we're not intended to believe that David was the king of Israel after Saul?

What is your point, Empress?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:21 PM on July 15, 2009


My point is that, contrary to this statement which YOU made:

And what it comes down to, for me at least, is that it's contemptible and infuriating to see people on the one hand believing in things due to their being in the Bible (and that is where the beliefs come from, unless you'd like to show me the chain of logic and empirical observation that ends in "therefore, [specifically Christian beliefs]") and on the other insisting that they can simply choose which bits to believe in.

is that Christians don't "simply choose which bits to believe in". The reason why all Christians don't regard 100% of the Bible as 100% accurate is because they were never supposed to. Yes, some parts were written as historic texts at a given time in history. And yes, many Christians do regard THOSE PARTS as historic commentary. But -- that doesn't mean they therefore have to take EVERY SINGLE LAST PASSAGE as historic commentary. I gave some examples of Bible texts that were not in fact (I notice you overlooked that). So Christians who take the Song of Solomon as metaphor, or Paul's letters to the Galatians as commentary instead of historic fact, are not "choosing which bits to believe in". They are contemplating and drawing their own conclusions about texts which were only just commentary to begin with. The Christians who think of the subtext underneath the Bible passages they read aren't "choosing what to believe in" out of a sense of convenience, they are using their brains and analyzing the texts. Only with the people who don't think about it would you find people saying "it's in the Bible so I believe it".

Actually, it looks to me like you're more upset that everyone in the world hasn't come to exactly the same conclusion about the Bible that you have. And frankly, unless you are working on a Ph.D. in theology, I'm not sure why you would expect that they would.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 PM on July 15, 2009


Pope Guilty: So we're not intended to believe that David was the king of Israel after Saul?

Not necessarily, no. I feel compelled to step in here and point out that Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, the greatest rabbinical authority, as the saying has it, since Moses himself, argued passionately and persuasively that parts of the Bible were necessarily metaphorical if they were to be true. As such, the notion that the Bible is at least partially metaphorical is a central tenet of Judaism and, I believe, also of Christianity.

C.S. Lewis agreed with me on this: the only thing in the Christian Bible that can't be a metaphor (for the book to have the significance it claims) is that Christ was God and Man. Even the necessity of the resurrection is arguable—it is his simultaneous Godhood and Manhood that are the central fact of Christianity. Aside from that, I really don't think it would make a difference if God was incarnated as a cab driver in Brooklyn—and who's to say he hasn't been?
posted by koeselitz at 4:02 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The issue, ultimately, is that you have beliefs which do not have a source or a cause outside of a particular source. That you have those beliefs demands that source, for there is no other reason to believe in them. Clearly, you believe that the source is authoritative on some grounds (or else you would not hold those beliefs which cannot be justified except by appealing to the authority of the book) and not on others. My point is that you cannot argue by authority on one hand and then impugn that authority on the other. I do not know how to make it any more simple...Except you have no reasons nor evidence beyond its presence in unreliable (by your own admission) books and, most crucially, your desire to believe that it is so.

This is kind of a cliche analogy (yes, argument by analogy, please critique it as such!), but I think it is a valid one.

The only source of my belief that my wife loves me is her own testimony. Maybe she secretly loathes me and just keeps up appearances for the sake of the kids or something. It's possible. But I believe her. Yet I don't believe her because I think she's some infallible being who never lies or is mistaken. I believe her because I find what she says convincing on this particular point. Even though I have no evidence beyond her testimony and, most crucially, my desire to believe that it is so.

There are other factors that go into that decision -- her behavior, what I know about people in general, etc., but they are not "proof" of anything; it's still basically a judgment call.

I think there's something similar going on when I read the New Testament. I don't have to think that it's some magic infallible book in order to find it's testimony about Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection convincing.

There are other factors -- the behavior of the movement (Christianity) birthed by this story (and I'm sure we have strong disagreements in our opinions about that movement), how the story fits with and makes sense of the rest of what I know about people and life in general. These aren't proof, but I think they contribute to what makes my decision to believe the New Testament an exercise of judgment rather than an arbitrary, irrational decision.
posted by straight at 10:50 AM on July 16, 2009


The only source of my belief that my wife loves me is her own testimony.

So the only reason you have to believe that your wife, someone you see every day and spend massive amounts of time with and talk to all the time, loves you is that she says she does? See, I would think that if she's your wife, her actions would speak louder than her words, and you of all people should be in a position to evaluate her actions. I know whether my girlfriend loves me or not not because there's tons of empirical evidence supporting it.

There's tons of evidence that my girlfriend loves me. There's no evidence that there was a person named Jesus Christ, that if there was such a person he was anything but human, or that he rose from the dead. Not a scrap of it except books which you yourself admit are unreliable, and which were written by people with a vested interest in convincing people that those things were true. Believing one and not the other isn't arbitrary, it's just not being foolish.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:30 AM on July 16, 2009


So the only reason you have to believe that your wife, someone you see every day and spend massive amounts of time with and talk to all the time, loves you is that she says she does? See, I would think that if she's your wife, her actions would speak louder than her words, and you of all people should be in a position to evaluate her actions.

Yeah, that's....kind of missing the point.

I know whether my girlfriend loves me or not not because there's tons of empirical evidence supporting it. There's tons of evidence that my girlfriend loves me.

How do you know your girlfriend is not just very, very, very good at faking it?

This is straight's point -- the "evidence" you are looking at is, by the very strictest definition of the word, circumstantial. Unless you can develop ESP and actually look into your girlfriend's thought patterns, you don't REALLY know whether she really loves you or if she's just exceptionally good at faking it. But the weight of that evidence which you DO have is enough to convince you that it is a reasonable assumption. So, you believe it, to a point that it seems ridiculous to you to believe otherwise. But, still, the only evidence you have is observations about behavior patterns and her testimony, which aren't first-hand knowledge of her state of mind.

This is straight's point -- that sometimes it is possible to believe things even though there isn't evidence that would stand up in a court of law.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on July 16, 2009


I have no interest in metaphorically surviving my death.

Nor do I suppose that a Christian metaphorically believes in Jesus and metaphorically uses the bible to guide their behaviour.
posted by leibniz at 2:14 AM on July 17, 2009


Regarding evidence and emotions:

First of all, the evidence that our various girlfriends/wives love us would stand up in court.

Second, your standards of evidence are based on a false Cartesian assumption regarding mind and knowledge. In normal cases, when I see perceive someone's expression of emotion, I directly perceive the emotion in their face or voice. I do not infer it. I can be tricked of course. But in those cases, I was simply not having the relevant perceptual state. I just thought that I was. This can be a difficult point for people to grasp. The idea is that these two states are not the same mental state which just happen to have two different external correspondences. They are fundamentally two different kinds of mental state.

Moreover, regarding a long term social emotion like romantic love, it is to a large extent constituted by our mutual interpretative activities. That is, we mutually tell a love story about ourselves; about how various episodes of emotion and action and belief line up and how it should guide our behaviour accordingly. Again, if I was a brain in a vat who was just programmed to believe that I was engaging in all this mutual interpretative activity, I would not be experiencing love.

Now although I have made this big distinction between real and illusory cases, it is still admitted that I might not know which state I am in. But these kinds of beliefs are not static instantaneous events but gradually become clear in our interactions with the world. The kinds of radical sceptical cases you mention just aren't relevant to deciding which state I am in, and besides, it is overwhelmingly the best explanation (even if it doesn't satisfy artificial standards of mathematical certainty) that things are largely the way I perceive them to be.
posted by leibniz at 2:44 AM on July 17, 2009


I have no interest in metaphorically surviving my death.

That's well and good. However, others may feel differently.

I thought this went without saying, but those of us -- well, at least this is true of me -- those of us arguing this point are not trying to convince you "omigod you should totally be theists yay". We are not trying to teach you to AGREE with this line of thinking, only to understand why someone who participates in it and partakes in it is not necessarily a brainless idiot for believing this.

It is a foreign mindset to you -- I get that. You have made it abundantly clear that it is foreign to you. All I am trying to do is get you to understand that just because it is foreign to you, that doesn't mean that it is therefore invalid -- because for others, it is a mindset they do understand and they do take to. Your own mindset is equally as foreign to them as theirs is to you. Their own mindset feels equally as logical to them as yours does to you.

Now, there are boorish folk who do try to persuade you that your mindset is wrong and try to give you the come-to-Jesus talk, and it's natural that you would recoil at this. Hell, I do too, and I am a theist. But I'm afraid that their boorishness is coloring people's ability to see that a) the vast majority of Christians, or theists in general, don't do that, and b) their boorishness is a distinct and separate thing from their beliefs, and the beliefs should not be judged by the same critieria as their poor manners. Strip away the boorishness of the few, and all you have left is a mindset that you find foreign -- and religion is far from the only thing someone can have a foreign mindset about, and yet somehow we all find away to just live and let live about those other things, so perhaps we ought to do this about religion as well, and save our ire for those who are just acting like dicksmacks in the specific.

And before anyone leaps in and says "but what about the Christian teaching of the Great commission where Christians are supposed to preach and spread the good word of the Gospel and yadda yadda yadda" -- yes, Christians are encouraged to "spread the good news." But again, there are many ways to do that as well -- and there are many Christian teachers throughout the history of Christianity who have taken many different stances on this as well. I'm reminded most of something St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said -- that a Christian should preach always, but only use words when absolutely necessary. And most Christians behave in this way -- letting their lives and their actions do the preaching and letting others invite the questions, rather than pushing themselves upon you. The ones who are pushing themselves upon you are just being dicksmacks in general, and their dicksmackishness is a separate issue.

On a tangent: I think the word "dicksmack" is a fine one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ooh, and I just saw a way to bring this back within shouting distance of the original topic!

The Alpha Course, as far as I can see, is targeted towards people who sign up for it expressly, rather than the guy chasing people down and breaking into their homes and forcing them to comply. It does indeed sound somewhat odd to me, and I don't really see what the inherant appeal would be except for those who are already thusly inclined, but until we uncover the $50mil embezzlement scheme where we learn its founder has been funding a brothel in Thailand or we find that the Alpha Course is being made required for every House of Commons member, I'm comfortable just kind of raising an eyebrow at it all and saying, "uh...okay, well, it sounds weird to me, but if you dig it, I'll just leave you to it."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:04 AM on July 17, 2009


EmpressCallipygos, once again you are misinterpreting an argument presented in this thread. Just to make it painstakingly clear, I was making a rhetorical point intended to highlight the silliness of metaphorical interpretations.
posted by leibniz at 1:09 PM on July 17, 2009


EmpressCallipygos, once again you are misinterpreting an argument presented in this thread. Just to make it painstakingly clear, I was making a rhetorical point intended to highlight the silliness of metaphorical interpretations.

And just to make it painstakingly clear from my end, we were not asking you to stop thinking metaphorical interpretations were silly -- we were asking you to accept that some people don't think they're silly, and that this does not necessarily make those people silly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:30 PM on July 17, 2009


[um, little bit of "get a room" going on here, please don't call people idiots, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:51 PM on July 24, 2009


« Older “Tom Williams, The Kid”   |   Doesn't Suck Because It's Not My Favorite Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post