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March 20, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

[pdf] Clergymen in the closet -- not because they are gay; because they don't believe in God. Here's a followup.
posted by grumblebee (162 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
This resonates so deeply with me, in so many ways. Though I'm not a member of a church, I'm sure I would be furious if I was and found out that the church's leader was faking his beliefs. I've been conned before, and it's a terrible feeling. On the other hand, I sympathize with anyone who is scared to reveal who or what they really are. It's only been recently that I've felt safe admitting to friends that I'm an atheist, and I grew up in a secular community. Part of me feels like as long as these guys are doing a good job, it shouldn't matter what they really believe. But I'm pretty sure if I was religious, my religion would be partly about truth and honesty. And I'd be devastated if I discovered that my leader didn't possess a devotion to these traits.
posted by grumblebee at 12:39 PM on March 20, 2010


I would think that the biggest problem would not be the lie as such. Rather, I would be most bothered by a nagging suspicion that the whole thing must be nonsense if an atheist can rouse apparently spiritual feelings and carry on the whole ruse for years without being struck down by a just and jealous God. And in a more rigid tradition like Catholicism, one would wonder about the validity of the sacraments: is a confession to an atheist priest effective? What about the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist? Am I really married in the eyes of God if the officiant didn't believe what he was saying? Etc.

Of course, the rationalization is that God, all powerful as he is, can use anything, even an unbeliever, for his glory, so I don't know that there would necessarily be much lasting impact.
posted by jedicus at 12:50 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


And I should clarify that I don't know that there would necessarily be much lasting impact on the individual congregants. Rationalization is an extremely powerful thing, and I daresay that religious adherents are well practiced in the art. But obviously there would be a tremendous and lasting impact on any minister or priest who outed himself or herself as an atheist.
posted by jedicus at 12:55 PM on March 20, 2010


If a mod wants to remove the middle part of my post, I don't have a problem with it. I mostly wanted to share an article that moved me.
posted by grumblebee at 12:55 PM on March 20, 2010


I removed the middle part which was more bloggy and a little editorial for the front page and added it to your first comment, grumblebee. Carry on.
posted by jessamyn at 12:57 PM on March 20, 2010


What strikes me most forcefully about this on a quick read is that the first three of the five pastors interviewed don't seem unhappy at all. Rather, they seem to see what modern-day "new atheists" and contemporary fundamentalists miss, but that Karen Armstrong understands, along with centuries of monks and theologians and mystics and ordinary religious people: religion in its deepest form is not primarily a question of belief but a question of practice, a doing rather than a thinking. For vast swathes of religious history, even in those pre-scientific places where people did believe in the factual claim of an anthropomorphic god, there were plenty of them for whom that was not the definitional keystone of their religiosity.

The ones who do seem unhappy seem unhappy because this belief-focused idea has taken over a sufficient number of their colleagues that they fear being ostracized — not because the core of why they were drawn to religion has somehow been exposed as a fake.

Dennett's introduction (including his remarks on Armstrong) suggest that he just doesn't grasp this basic notion: for him God can be either a factual claim or a woolly metaphor, but it cannot be an orientation towards the world, a way of being.

And thus the Dawkinsites and the creationists continue to have their quarrels, entirely unaware of how monumentally irrelevant such quarrels are, while everyone else, including these good pastors, gets on with the actual living of spiritual life...
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:01 PM on March 20, 2010 [24 favorites]


In a way, I really don't have a problem with clergy who have come to be a disbeliever. One's relationship with God is quite often spoken of as a journey, implying an on-going evolution of one's faith. I find it highly understandable that a person, even clergy, could, over the years, come to a position where they no longer believe. To me, that would be indicative of an honest journey. Not the result, necessarily, but, rather, the evolution of one's faith. I'd be more apt to trust the witness of someone who allows for deep valleys along their journey of faith, than I would be toward someone who claims to have had no low-points in their journey.

So, should someone who has come to the determination that there is no God be driven from the clergy? I suppose, technically, they answer is 'yes'. However, it would seem to me that, in the matter of outreach to the lay population, clergy who has seriously grappled with these questions would be a far more "real" human and convincing witness.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:01 PM on March 20, 2010


And I should clarify that I don't know that there would necessarily be much lasting impact on the individual congregants.

I don't by that there's a general type of congregant. There are too many church-goers for that to be true. I imagine they'd react in the varied ways that human being react to anything painful: some would get angry, some would get sad, some would brush it off, some would go into denial...
posted by grumblebee at 1:02 PM on March 20, 2010


I imagine they'd react in the varied ways that human being react to anything painful: some would get angry, some would get sad, some would brush it off, some would go into denial...

And no doubt there would be varied immediate reactions, but I was speaking to the lasting impact. I suspect most churchgoers would ultimately self-interestedly rationalize the situation by deciding that the lying priest could not thwart God's will or even that it had been a part of God's plan all along. After all, if churchgoers can regularly shrug off things like the death of an innocent child then I don't think an atheist priest would present too much a challenge.
posted by jedicus at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2010


And in a more rigid tradition like Catholicism, one would wonder about the validity of the sacraments: is a confession to an atheist priest effective? What about the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist? Am I really married in the eyes of God if the officiant didn't believe what he was saying? Etc.

I remember reading about this in regards to priests in medieval times, some of whom were distinctly unacceptable (a murderer was the most extreme example) and whether it meant all the sacraments they ministered were invalid. I think the general rule was that if as long as they were a genuine priest at the time, the god worked through them and there was nothing to worry about. Of course this was meant as a general psychological ease to believers, as otherwise they had to settle that perfectly good people would have gone to hell because of a rogue priest.
posted by Sova at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2010


gwtter, I'm very curious as to how you can separate religious "doing" from religious belief- or indeed, how religious "doing" has any meaning beyond, say, prayer and meditation. Any religious act is going to be informed by belief; without that belief, you'd have no idea what counted as a religious act!
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:11 PM on March 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


One of my favourite 20th century poets, R.S. Thomas, was for most of his life rector of a remote country parish in North Wales; his poetry about or addressed to a God he found at best absent or withdrawn from his Creation combined with his works considering the lives of his parishioners constitutes a powerful exploration of some of the dilemmas touched on in these articles, though Thomas was never an atheist I should hasten to add.
In some ways it's odd for me as a reader as it's not a dilemma I share, but the sheer power of the inquiry into something that so clearly matters carries you along anyway regardless of your own take.
posted by Abiezer at 1:16 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


And in a more rigid tradition like Catholicism, one would wonder about the validity of the sacraments: is a confession to an atheist priest effective? What about the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist? Am I really married in the eyes of God if the officiant didn't believe what he was saying? Etc.

This was a big issue during the 4th century, but I think it's more or less settled now. The issue then was whether sacraments were valid when administered by someone who had renounced their faith under persecution. The Church held that the sacraments were valid, and I assume the same rule would apply here.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:17 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've wrestled with belief during my adult life, and the things that keep me on the side of belief versus atheism are, I will admit, totally subjective and perhaps even psychotic.

That said, I am a believer. Whatever.

The thing that has always struck me is that there aren't more people who are scared away from faith by seminary than there are. In the independent studies I've done into such subjects of the Trinity, transfiguration, the nature of Christ, etc., the more I look into it, the more it becomes apparent that the essential tenets of faith are at best fuzzy concepts and not really understood or believed by the people who have studied them most.

I guess I have no point other than.... I can see where a pastor could lose faith. I can also see where he could see a personal lack of faith as irrelevant to his calling to lead others in their faith. I see it not as being disingenuous, but really quite the opposite. It's a genuine attempt to fulfill a commitment made to God (even a God he perhaps no longer believes in) as witnessed by those around him.

It is currently popular to be binary in faith- you either believe or you don't. I think for many of us there is a whole spectrum in between: Belief in a plane of existence beyond this realm, but not accepting all the standard churchy interpretations of it, for example.
posted by Doohickie at 1:18 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


As noted by YoYo Yossarian in Catch-22 to the pastor who told him he no longer believed in god: why let that bother you? It's a good job if you have to be in the military.
posted by Postroad at 1:20 PM on March 20, 2010


Any religious act is going to be informed by belief; without that belief, you'd have no idea what counted as a religious act!

I have to disagree. I am, at my core, a "scientific-extinctionist", meaning that I place very little stock in the actuality of a "spirit realm" or afterlife or whatever. But I find that my psyche and worldview is richer when I try to find appropriate metaphors through which to interact with my environment as it changes with the seasons. I don't see what I'm doing as religious. I don't even see it as very serious. But I do see a value to it, feeding the Jungian unconscious within my brain and helping achieve more depth than when I do not honor the passage of time.
posted by hippybear at 1:21 PM on March 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


I was speaking to the lasting impact. I suspect most churchgoers would ultimately self-interestedly rationalize the situation by deciding that the lying priest could not thwart God's will

Oh, if by "lasting impact," you're talking about shaking their faith, I agree that would be rare. It's rare for anything to convert someone to or from theism. It happens, but it's rare. But there are other sorts of lasting impacts of feeling conned.

he just doesn't grasp this basic notion: for him God can be either a factual claim or a woolly metaphor, but it cannot be an orientation towards the world, a way of being.

Though I'm an atheist, I agree that Dennett and co. often don't seem to get this.

But, to be fair, I think that to most people, atheists and theists, the truth is much fuzzier than you make it sound. Clearly, these clergymen, happy or not, feel that they would be rejected by their own parishioners if they were honest about their FACTUAL beliefs. This suggest that there are plenty of religious people who also feel like "physics" of religion are at least somewhat important.

I've heard many Christians -- and I'm not talking about fundamentalists -- say that it's paramount to their whole doctrine that Christ ACTUALLY rose from the dead. I am sure that there are plenty of Christians who view the resurrection as a metaphor, but there are many that don't. I also understand that, whether a Christian views Jesus as a Christ or a myth, that issue is not likely to be the core of his day-to-day life as a Christian. But it is, surely, a FACET of the Christian experience for many people.

I wish that Dennett's crowd did things differently (I wish they wouldn't take such a strong anti-religion stand), but, as I see it, since they are (mostly) scientists, part of their job is to evaluate claims about the physical world. If I were Dennett, I would make it really clear that whatever rituals people want to follow is their own business, but if, in following those rituals, they are going to make factual claims that intersect with the domains of science, it's my duty to speak up when I feel those claims are false.
posted by grumblebee at 1:22 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is a great read. And though I'm an atheist, I've never had a problem with the idea of "God" as an emergent property of a society of people, like a kind of "team spirit," but more than that. Anyway, some of these quotes were just plain fun to read:
His intention was to become more skilled at defending his faith, but as he tried to “step back” to look at Christianity from a non-believer’s perspective, he found that he became more swayed to that point of view.

“If God is God, he’s big enough; he can handle any questions I’ve got. Well, he didn’t. He didn’t measure up! And that sounds, you know, so funny, because if I heard somebody else saying that a year ago, I’d have thought, ‘You are such a sacrilegious person. God’s going to strike you dead by lightning or something!’ I’ve actually thought and tried to pin-point, but I can honestly say that intellectually, from within the first few weeks of my studies, I thought, ‘Wow! Could this be true?’"
That's just so cool. That's how debate is supposed to work.
posted by Xezlec at 1:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


I don't see what I'm doing as religious.

Then I don't think we actually disagree.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:37 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: Yes, I am probably guilty of huge oversimplification, and I have no real way to settle the question of the relative numbers, either now or in history, of "belief-based" religious people versus the other kind. All I really want to emphasize is a) that I do think, for reasons I can't necessarily express well, that the "doing" of spirituality is more essential, more profound, more fundamental (though that's an unfortunate term), and b) that the debating of factual claims is far too often a massive distraction. Not always, though.

Pope Guilty: gwtter, I'm very curious as to how you can separate religious "doing" from religious belief- or indeed, how religious "doing" has any meaning beyond, say, prayer and meditation. Any religious act is going to be informed by belief; without that belief, you'd have no idea what counted as a religious act!

I'm at the limits of my capacity for putting this into words but I think what I would say is that it is a way of doing, not a question of specific acts. Not sitting down to pray or meditate, but living prayerfully or meditatively. You might still ask how you can tell whether you're living like that or not — but here we swiftly run into the problem that putting the transcendent into words is ultimately impossible (or only very approximately doable) by definition, because we're dealing with what's left when you put concepts (like language) aside...
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:37 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


“If God is God, he’s big enough; he can handle any questions I’ve got. Well, he didn’t. He didn’t measure up! And that sounds, you know, so funny, because if I heard somebody else saying that a year ago, I’d have thought, ‘You are such a sacrilegious person. God’s going to strike you dead by lightning or something!’ I’ve actually thought and tried to pin-point, but I can honestly say that intellectually, from within the first few weeks of my studies, I thought, ‘Wow! Could this be true?’"

If you believe that God strikes the sacrilegious down with lightning, your faith is probably pretty shallow to begin with, yanno?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:38 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do think, for reasons I can't necessarily express well, that the "doing" of spirituality is more essential, more profound, more fundamental

I agree with that. And I think you're saying something that transcends the theism/atheism debate: we are sensual creatures. Conscious thought is a layer on top of sensation. Humans have huge array of sensual needs (you can call some of them "spiritual needs" if you want), and those needs -- and the ways we fulfill them -- don't map all that well onto language.

You don't need to discuss anything as lofty as religion to realize this. Try to talk about hungry and satiation in any concrete way. Yes, we eat to stay alive, and you can talk about the mechanics of biology and nutrition. But you can't really talk about the qualia of hunger without resorting to layer upon layer of abstraction.

Religious people have a feeling that is something like hunger. (I suspect they do. I am not religious, so I'm guessing.) Unfortunately, they often DO try to talk about the feeling and the rituals that surround it as if they are based in non-abstractions, as if they are based in fact.

When I say "unfortunately," I only mean in the sense that it leads to anger between (some) atheists and (some) theists. It's not perverse to talk about the basis of "doing" as if it's fact based. Those facts may be true or they may be false, but, for many people, I suspect it's key that they cling to them as if they're true.

It's very hard to LIVE a ritual and not talk about the foundations of that ritual as if they are facts. We evolved to interact with physical objects and to think in terms of historical events that actually happened. If you have the ability to "do" without worrying about the foundational "facts," then you are a rare beast.

Let's say that suddenly, all theists said, "I just realized that there isn't actually a God, but that doesn't matter, I'm going to pray to Him anyway, because it's the 'doing' that's important." I'm guessing that a very small number of them could live this way -- particularly if "living this way" meant holding the idea that "God doesn't actually exist" in their minds most of the time.

Since the "doing" is more important to most theist, it's not important for them to think about the facts most of the time. They accept those facts and move on. Usually, they only have to re-think the facts when a skeptic calls attention to them. At that point, the "doing" is threatened.

Bottom line: the spiritual need is strong for many people, and, for many of those people, "facts" aid the "doing." I agree with you that for the majority of those people, it's the doing that's important, not the facts. But the facts are needed for the doing.

And that's where we run into trouble. Because we have another group of people who have jobs that involve evaluating facts as "first class objects."
posted by grumblebee at 1:58 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Can an atheist priest make holy water?
posted by Human Flesh at 2:04 PM on March 20, 2010


Deeply interesting. Thanks for this post. As a Christian who has agnostic tendencies, but who still wants to stay in the church (for the community, ritual, and the general feeling), this is great.

If anything, I think this shows that they aren't hypocrites, but instead deeply faithful in their own way. As has been said above, both fundamentalists and militant atheists could learn a lot from these guys.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


PS: Let me just make it clear: I'm as liberal a Christian as they (generally) come. I don't have an issue with gay marriage or any other kind of marriage so long as the people are unrelated and consenting. And I'm moderately pro-choice, since legal abortion prevents more suffering than illegal abortion, and I feel like the path of less suffering is wiser to follow in these grey areas (especially considering that the bible itself doesn't take much of a stance). And it's just plain moping about the loss of Christian privilege when people say that Nativity scenes and the Ten Commandments should be in public places.

In short, it's generally irrelevant to modern politics, save for the stuff about closing the gap between rich and poor. I'm sure Pat Robertson will move on to that once abortion is outlawed and the gays are officially deemed subhuman HAMBURGER.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:15 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The best understanding I've come to on this is expressed well by Kierkegaard, a devote Catholic who would readily admit that many of the things in which he had strong faith are almost certainly untrue and unworthy of belief. If there was believable evidence, or even a logical possibility for some of these things, then move them over into the science column. Faith is something else.

Faith is not a requirement for membership in the Catholic Church, although it would be nice if you could muster up a little hope and charity. The ritual of baptism, for instance, depends on the certification of the required authority, and the performance of specified actions. The priest's state of mind is irrelevant as long as his authority has not been revoked by the Bishop, and the ritual is performed correctly.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:26 PM on March 20, 2010


It's been a pet theory of mine for years that some significant proportion (10-25%?) of Christian clergy are non-believers, partly because they think about religion all the time, and partly because they see how the sausage is made.
posted by lathrop at 2:27 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rather, they seem to see what modern-day "new atheists" and contemporary fundamentalists miss, but that Karen Armstrong understands, along with centuries of monks and theologians and mystics and ordinary religious people: religion in its deepest form is not primarily a question of belief but a question of practice, a doing rather than a thinking.

Sure, but people do things for a reason. When you scratch the surface of the "doing" of religion, you often find the very kind of "thinking" and "belief" you're claiming isn't the issue. "It is a way of doing, not a question of specific acts. Not sitting down to pray or meditate, but living prayerfully or meditatively" simply shifts the question from "why should we pray" and "what does praying involve" to "why should we live prayerfully" and "what does that involve". At some point, the answers to these questions become believing/thinking answers, not doing answers. Even cultures which do not place much value on Christian-style "belief" still have thinking-based reasons/stories/beliefs which place their religious actions in context -- religion is more than just "doing" all the way down.

In contrast, what Karen Armstrong wants to do is assume some axioms of some religions (like, for instance, the Golden Rule), and at the same time claim that a) they are part of some universal ur-religion and b) the religious thinking behind them, and thus behind the ur-religion, is unimportant. As far as I'm concerned, this is cake-and-eat-it-tooism of the highest order -- you end up with a "spiritual" version of the old story where Mom always cuts the ends off the roast, because Grandma always cut the ends off the roast, because Great-Grandma always did... all because Great-Great-Grandma had a pan too small for the roast.

If religious thought were truly insignificant compared to religious action, then most religions would have long ago forgotten why they cut the ends off the roast. Most religions would never have bothered with holy books or oral tradition, because that thinking stuff's not the point, it's all about living prayerfully. Instead, we live in a world absolutely steeped in religious thinking... so much so that some can claim that it never had much to do with the "actual living of spiritual life", just as fish are uniquely free to deny the existence of water.
posted by vorfeed at 2:28 PM on March 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Faith is not a requirement for membership in the Catholic Church

Those who know better, please chime in. I know that faith is not required of anyone who was baptized in a state of grace, such as a baby. Some declaration of faith may be required of adult converts.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:46 PM on March 20, 2010


Most religions would never have bothered with holy books or oral tradition, because that thinking stuff's not the point, it's all about living prayerfully. Instead, we live in a world absolutely steeped in religious thinking... so much so that some can claim that it never had much to do with the "actual living of spiritual life", just as fish are uniquely free to deny the existence of water.

I don't think I (or Karen Armstrong!) would claim that the texts and traditions have nothing to do with the true value of religion — but rather that these texts can be intended to trigger shifts in consciousness and perspective rather than simply communicating arguments or reasons for action or beliefs that should be adopted. They are approximations of transcendent religious experience, expressed through words, which are the only real vehicles available.

Again, we can argue about how many people at this or that time in history have actually felt this way about religiosity. But I think this needs to be recognized as at least one legitimate way of enfolding texts, stories and narratives into a tradition in such a way that it really could remain a "doing" all the way down.

(By the way, I'm an atheist, in the sense that's usually meant. The only reason I don't go around describing myself as one is that it implicitly defines me as opposed to a kind of religiosity that simply isn't reflected in almost any of the actual religious people I know.)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:02 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


[yawn]Yes, it's so startling to learn that educated people don't believe in fairytales, but pretend to in order to get and keep a job.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:16 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I want to say something here, but my story is so long and tangled, I'm having a hard time condensing it. Here's the "short" version, half of which can be found scattered throughout my previous comments:

At age four, I begin telling people I am going to become a preacher. In retrospect, I think that had a lot to do with me wanting not to become like my brutal abusive father. I had an image of ministers as good, gentle men, and I thought if I became a minister, I would be a good man, too.

Age eleven, I deliver my first public speech at school, and find out that I am a naturally gifted orator. I take this as confirmation that I am supposed to be a minster.

Age sixteen, I am preaching once a month for my tiny home congregation while they are between ministers.

Age 20, and I am having a big faith crisis. I was a fairly precocious undergrad student, and by my senior year I was encountering the truths about the Bible that most people don't get until seminary. I thought about changing majors, but I was a semester away from a Bible degree and a long way away from anything else. I finished the degree, and told the school to mail me my diploma. I didn't hang around for graduation.

Age 25, I've constructed a liberal approach to the faith that makes sense to me and lets me keep what I love about faith without having to hold on to the things that were intellectually grating. I enter seminary.

Age 31, and I'm preaching for a church with 500 in attendance on Sunday mornings. People are predicting that my next congregation will be over 1000. I'm speaking at big conferences, and if I want to be comfortable and famous in my denomination, the potential is certainly there. That seems to be the career path that I'm on.

But internally, things are changing for me. Before, I was kind of an amorphous liberal, in that I had rejected fundamentalist and evangelical approaches to the Bible, but I hadn't felt like I really had to flesh out in detail exactly what I did and didn't believe. But now I'm becoming increasingly settled in a more specific kind of theological and political liberalism. A few years before I would have said that it really didn't matter whether the virgin birth happened or not, but now I'm settled in the belief that it didn't. And while I hold on to a literal resurrection, I am also willing to admit—at least to myself—that my reasons for believing that work well enough for me, but they wouldn't be persuasive to someone without my pre-existing desire to believe it is true.

I start looking for a more liberal church to work with, which in my denomination means a smaller church. There's no escaping the reality that the big mega-churches are either Olsteen-esque temples to self-fulfillment or steadfastly conservative culture warriors.

So, at age 36, I move my family across the country—way across, from New Mexico to North Carolina, to preach for a congregation that is close to the most liberal one in my denomination. At that church, I can reveal a lot more of what I actually believe, though not all. I last there just over two years before they and I come to a barely-amicable parting of the ways due to some entrenched systematic dysfunctions in their leadership structure.

That was January. Now I'm a stay-at-home Dad, living off my severance pay and my wife's income while we figure out what comes next. One thing we are certain of--we are definitely finished trying to do ministry in our previous denominational context. That is over. There's no place further left to move without changing denominations. So the options are try to start over and build a completely new network in a liberal denomination (which is a pretty significant uprooting), go back to school and train for a new line of work (while still paying the loans on 120 hours of graduate seminary education), or try to find a satisfying job that I can get with only theological training and ministry experience (no luck so far).

Dawkins commented here: The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation?

I wouldn't encourage any thoughtful young person to go into ministry for precisely that reason. And it really hits you from multiple angles. First, if your beliefs change significantly, like mine did, you either have to keep a whole lot of uncomfortable secrets or do some pretty radical moves either geographically or denominationally to a place that might be a better match. But secondly—and this is the real dilemma I'm facing—there are certainly plenty of opportunities for someone with my training and experience to preach for a more liberal denomination. The doors are open if I want to walk through them. But I don't want to be a liberal preacher. I don't see the point. One of the ministers interviewed talked about Christianity as a means to another end. I understand that, but that doesn't work for me. That's way too diffuse. I would rather work directly in poverty relief or counseling or tutoring or whatever than knowingly put on a false framework to try to get to some good purpose indirectly. When I was an evangelical, preaching was exciting, because it was about upholding a black and white truth about who God was and what the world is. Boldly defending deeply held truths is highly purposeful. Convening a gathering to meditatively reflect on the symbolic meaning of non-literal stories which may or may not lend insight into the character of a God who may or may not be there doesn't have nearly the same appeal.

It frankly sucks being in a line of work where if your beliefs change you either have to keep it to yourself or find another way to make money. Thoughtful people who are open to reading widely and examining their beliefs should just stay out of ministry. There's too much at take if you veer too far from the accepted orthodoxy. And seminary education doesn't really prepare you for much else. I'm reasonably bright and a pretty good thinker, and I've developed good leadership, communication and administrative skills--but who's going to hire an ex-preacher for a professional secular job? I'm frankly at a loss. My default plan has been to go back to school for a counseling degree, but do I really want to do another 48 hours of graduate work, and then 3000 hours of supervised counseling after that, from ages 38-41? Can we even afford it? I'm scrambling for other options.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the creation of a fund to provide retraining and support for those who find their consciences can no longer permit them to fulfill the duties of a minister.

Yet another reason for me to love him. If he actually set that up, I would consider that a great and worthy ministry.

In the meantime, who really knows what I honestly think on a variety of important issues better than anyone at any church I've ever worked for? The folks here on Metafilter that I've gotten to know (in real life or just through this forum) and have put up with my essay-length comments for three and half years. When online atheists know me better than my parishioners, that should be a clue that it's time to move on. And, yes, interacting with you guys has probably made me more liberal and less orthodox than I would have been otherwise. Thanks, I guess.

Now find me a job.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:27 PM on March 20, 2010 [131 favorites]


     “You would come in bleeding from the street and tell me six days it took to make a universe?”
     “On the seventh He rested.”
     “You would talk of angels? Here?”
     “Of course here. Where else?” I was frustrated and puzzled, close to shouting.
     “Why not armies that would fìght in the sky at the end of the world?”
     “Why not? Why are you a nun anyway? Why do you have that picture on the wall?”
     She drew back, her eyes filled with contemptuous pleasure.
     “It is for others. Not for us.”
     “But that’s ridiculous. What others?”
     “All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”
     “Pretend?”
     “Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”
posted by mistersquid at 3:27 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love it when people start their comment with a [yawn]. It makes me feel like I belong to a special sort of site where complete indifference is interesting enough to communicate.
posted by Dumsnill at 3:27 PM on March 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Like her co-author, philosopher Daniel Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell, she is an atheist who is nevertheless a sympathetic and fascinated observer of religious practices and attitudes.

I don't know about Linda LaScola, but "sympathetic observer" does not seem like a very honest characterization of Dennett. How much stock would you put in a study by William Dembski and Philip Johnson privately and anonymously interviewing biologists who no longer believe in evolution?

And in a more rigid tradition like Catholicism, one would wonder about the validity of the sacraments: is a confession to an atheist priest effective? What about the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist? Am I really married in the eyes of God if the officiant didn't believe what he was saying? Etc.

Note they didn't actually find an unbelieving Catholic priest who would talk with them. I'm having trouble finding an official statement about this in the current RC Catechism, but Thomas Aquinas pretty strongly argues that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the belief of the priest:

http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4064.htm

The Anglicans have a similar doctrine (from the 39 Articles of Religion):
XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

What strikes me most forcefully about this on a quick read is that the first three of the five pastors interviewed don't seem unhappy at all.

The first three pastors belong to more liberal denominations which make room for a much wider variety of opinions and where there are a lot of people who take attitudes like the one you attribute to Karen Armstrong. Their individual congregations might be upset by their beliefs, but their denomination as a whole may officially tolerate them. If Jack Spong can remain a bishop while writing books about how God doesn't really exist, these guys may see nothing wrong with their position.

It's the last two guys who are in denominations that are much more concerned with orthodox belief who feel more uncomfortable, and whose position may be more dishonest and fraudulent. I'd like to think I'd be willing to quit my job and find other work before I'd live that way, but most of us are braver in our own minds than in actual practice.
posted by straight at 3:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


How much stock would you put in a study by William Dembski and Philip Johnson privately and anonymously interviewing biologists who no longer believe in evolution?

You are actually saying these words? And saying that this is a good reason to distrust Dennett? Because it seems as if you are.
posted by Dumsnill at 3:41 PM on March 20, 2010


None of the ten commandments say: "Thou shalt believe these teachings are factually true."
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:47 PM on March 20, 2010


Sure, but people do things for a reason.

Yes, but I think part of the point of much of the discussion above is that the nature of people is to find a reason for what they are doing, and since there are a lot of different people with a lot of different ways of thinking, if you have (say) a million people who all follow (say) one and the same religious practice, you are going to have close to a million different reasons for doing so.

This idea helps explain why religious or spiritual practices across the world which share certain practices (meditation/prayer/inner contemplation being a notable one) diverge sharply in their specific beliefs about those practices.

As soon as you start doing an activity like that, you start to develop a whole set of beliefs and explanations for it. But many of us (though not all, for certain!) would say the activity is the core and beliefs/explanations peripheral--in the sense that you can do the same activity, with the same overall effect, under a variety of explanations and beliefs about that activity.

On the other hand, for any particular individual, who has strongly linked the activity and his/her particular beliefs about it very strongly for an entire lifetime, the activity and the beliefs about it are not very easy to separate at all.

And that is one reason for the very, very strong attachment we humans tend to have to our religious beliefs.

And it's also one reason that perfectly reasonable, rational, and ordinary people can easily develop very strong religious beliefs, that they are utterly and completely convinced of, and yet which many other people (also reasonable and rational) will see as complete nonsense.

At the core of most any set of religious beliefs are some practices that do indeed have a powerful affect in creating a sense of well being, fostering self-esteem, helping a person create a positive place for themselves in society, and having a host of other very practical, tangible, and ordinary day-to-day benefits.

And so those practices are very 'true' (or effective, at least, if you prefer to think of it that way) even if the package of religious beliefs that happens to go along with the practices are complete bunkum.
posted by flug at 4:02 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it is fundamentally a lie for a clergyman to receive pay for being a clergyman and yet not believe in God. For that matter, it's a lie to do it for free.

Nothing the least noble about it. If you don't believe you aren't qualified to hold the position. It's like practicing medicine without a license. Doesn't matter how well you can go thru the motions, does it?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:03 PM on March 20, 2010


None of the ten commandments say: "Thou shalt believe these teachings are factually true."

Given the context, it's strongly implied.
posted by longsleeves at 4:04 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I was fifteen, I went to confession for what turned out to be the last time. All I had to tell the priest was that I didn't believe in his god. He didn't seem surprised, didn't become angry or even upset, he just asked me gently not to give up on faith, and to try to be a good person even without it.

I suspect a lot of priests at least have doubt, even if they are not complete secret atheists.
posted by longsleeves at 4:05 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's like practicing medicine without a license.

it's really not. There is a licensing body that determines whether you are or are not allowed to practice medicine. There is also, I believe, one for clergy. The people who allow their clergy to preach can decide that pretty much whatever they want is grounds for being able to preach or not preach. And they may not decide that a belief in a god is as important as other things. There are plenty of rabbis who do not strictly believe. It's all about priorities, and about what it means to be faithful to a varied and complex tradition.
posted by jessamyn at 4:11 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Poking around the Catholic rule book: "Heretical or schismatical ministers can administer the sacraments validly if they have valid Orders, but their ministrations are sinful."

Note that being heretical or schismatic involves active anti-church behavior. From what I'm seeing the emphasized quality for ordination is grace, not faith. Grace is administered by the Holy Spirit, the most mysterious and ineffable character among the three. The Holy Spirit doesn't sit in judgment of worldly activities and conditions, he responds to good intentions and receptiveness to goodness in all it's forms.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:26 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pater: I would love to find you a job, and I hope that Dawkins does set up that fund. Perhaps you should think of doing a project that would suit your outlook, skills, and experience, and try and get it funded through Kickstarter. I know that plenty of people here at Mefi and at Kickstarter would be interested in whatever you come up with, and I'd be happy to throw down $100 for whatever you choose.
posted by adrianhon at 4:28 PM on March 20, 2010


grumblebee: If you have the ability to "do" without worrying about the foundational "facts," then you are a rare beast.

I don't think so. Lots of people play games of pretend, of one sort or another. When you read a novel you suspend your disbelief and experience emotions appropriate to situations that never really happened. When you play a roleplaying game you make up someone who you want to be and respond as they would respond to a given situation... and a lot of people get some pretty intense experiences out of these things, even though they aren't real.

Of course, you can put a novel down and stop believing in it whenever you like; you're not supposed to do that with a religion. But I don't think the precise attitude you take toward the premises makes much of a difference, as long as you accept the premises, and experience what they imply.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:39 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


they seem to see what modern-day "new atheists" and contemporary fundamentalists miss, but that Karen Armstrong understands, along with centuries of monks and theologians and mystics and ordinary religious people: religion in its deepest form is not primarily a question of belief but a question of practice...

Atheists get this. They also get that mass practice is effectively the same as belief. The fact that they don't "really" believe in a god certainly doesn't bring any stoned witches (or their modern equivalents) back to life.
posted by DU at 5:07 PM on March 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Pater Aletheias — thanks for sharing. You've consistently been one of the smartest and sanest voices on religion on this site, and I admired the hell out of your comments even back when I had you figured for a lifelong liberal preacher with a whole denomination on your side. Knowing the whole story just deepens that admiration.

I hope you find something soon. And if you do go the route adrianhon suggests and start raising funds for an independent venture, I'd be honored to throw in some dough.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:58 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


In 1930, Portuguese author Miguel de Unamundo wrote the short story "Saint Immanuel the Good, Martyr". It gives an impressive account of a village priest and his justification for continuing to keep his parishioners "in the dark" while he himself had lost his faith.

Too lazy to read? Check out the plot summary HERE.
posted by ameca at 6:10 PM on March 20, 2010


Russian Orthodoxy requires that ritual be followed, but doesn't require that the person carrying out the ritual be a paragon of faith. A lecherous drunken priest is still a priest. Of course, then ritual becomes important, and when Orthodox ritual was changed by the Patriarch Nikon, bad things happened. As part of the atheist black sheep branch of an Orthodox family, I noticed that no one cared what we believed, as long as we went to church.
posted by acrasis at 6:18 PM on March 20, 2010


Pater Alethias, I was hoping you'd comment here. Thank you for your insights and moral courage. You're one of the people here I respect most, and you've risen a few notches higher still. You can tell your 4-year-old self you turned out to be a very good man indeed.
posted by Quietgal at 6:25 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Whoah, StickyCarpet... please be careful in expounding on Catholic doctrine and history.
The best understanding I've come to on this is expressed well by Kierkegaard, a devote Catholic
Kierkegaard was not a Catholic. His family belonged to the Danish national church and he was buried from it, though he refused to receive communion when in the hospital before he died. His brother was a bishop in the Danish national church.
Faith is not a requirement for membership in the Catholic Church, although it would be nice if you could muster up a little hope and charity. The ritual of baptism, for instance, depends on the certification of the required authority, and the performance of specified actions. The priest's state of mind is irrelevant as long as his authority has not been revoked by the Bishop, and the ritual is performed correctly.
Baptism does not require authority from a bishop and need not be performed by a priest (one does not even have to be a Christian to baptize validly).

Faith is a requirement for adults. You're required by the ritual to make a profession of faith before you are baptized. In the case of infants, this is made for you by your sponsor.
Those who know better, please chime in. I know that faith is not required of anyone who was baptized in a state of grace, such as a baby.
Someone not baptized is not in the state of grace. Restoring man to the state of grace is the effect of the sacrament, even on infants.
Poking around the Catholic rule book: "Heretical or schismatical ministers can administer the sacraments validly if they have valid Orders, but their ministrations are sinful."

Note that being heretical or schismatic involves active anti-church behavior.
It is true that " being heretical or schismatic involves active anti-church behavior." But non-belief is anti-Church behavior. Catholics hold that belief is an act of the will. To refuse to believe is sinful and all sin is held to injure the Body of Christ, which is the Church. You may or may not be culpable, but it's anti-Church behavior in a sense.
From what I'm seeing the emphasized quality for ordination is grace, not faith. Grace is administered by the Holy Spirit, the most mysterious and ineffable character among the three.
Yeah, if you're saying faith isn't a requirement before someone can be ordained a Catholic priest, that's not true at all.
posted by Jahaza at 6:31 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The whole Karen Armstrong "Religion is just what you do not what you actually believe" people are vastly at odds with the overwhelming majority of religious people on the planet, as far as I can tell. It's like instead of trying to debate the existence of religion, it's like they redefined the terms until there was no more argument to be had.

Then, having basically agreed with non-religious people, then they say that the atheists "Don't get it" (an example from this thread:
And thus the Dawkinsites and the creationists continue to have their quarrels, entirely unaware of how monumentally irrelevant such quarrels are
). Yes, since you redefined all the words, there's no debate, the debate would then be pointless. But that hardly matters when you're only talking about a slim minority of educated 'religious' people vs the vast majority out there. It's also very condescending.
posted by delmoi at 6:42 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thoughtful people who are open to reading widely and examining their beliefs should just stay out of ministry.

I really liked what you wrote Pater Aletheias. Are you really suggesting that ministry be left to thoughtless people who are closed to reading and examination of their beliefs? Maybe the problem is the obsession with orthodoxy rather than ministry? Do you believe that it's impossible to transmit spiritual knowledge?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:59 PM on March 20, 2010


Goodness, Pater Alethias. My sympathies, and best wishes.

I have two nephews, young, bright, good men, both went straight into the ministry. I suspect that they may face similar struggles at some future point, if they're not already.

It is a terrible thing to lose the comfort and strength of your belief. So terrible that I have never been able to quite do it. I have had experiences I cannot categorize as anything but transcendant, but that I'm sure could be slotted into some sort of plausible psychological scenario by anyone who wanted to do so.

I believe and I don't believe, and I find complete unbelief as impossible a task as going back to the days when I believed without question. I don't know if that means I have hold of some truth, or am a victim of an evolutionary quirk in my brain. The howling of an empty, pointless universe may be the real truth, but that does not make me strong enough to listen to it for long.
posted by emjaybee at 7:07 PM on March 20, 2010


All this stuff about religion as pure praxis is a little strange to ex-evangelicals like me. I used to believe in a personal God. I don't any more. To continue to practise would seem pointless and dishonest. I have very little idea of what conceptions of God like Karen Armstrong's actually mean (I've read her books, and concluded that she doesn't either, though the books are worthwhile in any case), so such a God-concept could not motivate me to continue to call myself a Christian.

Dennett's professionally interested in what people believe and what they say the believe, because of his work on the intentional stance and belief in belief. I've only read his popular works, but it seems that Dennett looks at the way religious beliefs don't work the same way as mundane beliefs (an observation which goes back at least to Hume). He adopts the stance, and concludes that assuming religious people believe in belief in God is a good intentional explanation of their behaviour, including speech where they claim to believe in God. So it's not surprising that he's interested in a survey of Christian ministers who have themselves worked out that that's what they're doing.

All of which makes me wonder about my own former beliefs. Looking back, (as I do here under "Wasted Youth", if linking to my own blog isn't too gauche), there were some odd things about them, and they're exactly the sorts of things Dennett or Georges Ray would point to: Christians anticipate that the likeliest prayers to be answered are things which could happen anyway, they don't behave as if they're actually being watched all the time, and so on. Dennett may well be right, although it certainly felt like belief at the time.
posted by pw201 at 7:17 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I believe and I don't believe

I often suspect that some of the battles between atheists and theists are language confusions over what "believe" means. Because of the way I'm built, I am unable to parse "I believe and I don't believe." I sort of feel like I know what emjaybee means by that -- until I really think about it. Then I realize that the statement is almost gibberish to me (and I say that with no disrespect: I'm sure it's a very meaningful statement to emjaybee -- and probably to a lot of other people, too).

I can't think of anything I both believe and don't believe, and it's hard for me to imagine what such a state of mind would be like. Maybe this is mincing words, but I can TOTALLY understand what it means to FEEL like God exists and also FEEL like he doesn't (or to waffle between the two feelings). There are tons of things I'm ambivalent about, in terms of how I FEEL about them.

But to me, belief is a different thing from a feeling (thought it may be influenced by feelings). So there are things I know, things I believe (which sometimes means the same thing as "know" but also encompasses things I assume to be true, even though I don't have sufficient evidence to be absolutely sure) and things that I don't know. I could understand it if someone said, "I don't know if God exists, but sometimes I feel like He does -- and other times I feel like He doesn't."

I'm an atheist now, but as a kid, I was an agnostic. SO many people told me that was a "cop out." Which totally confused me (and still does.) To me, it was just descriptive. I wasn't copping out. I really didn't know whether or not God existed. But I suspect the "cop out" folks were using language in a different way from me. I still don't really understand what they were getting at.
posted by grumblebee at 7:25 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was an agnostic. SO many people told me that was a "cop out." Which totally confused me (and still does.)

I'm kind of agnostic (heh) on the existence of agnostics simply due to my lack of understanding about what agnosticism actually entails in real life. How does agnosticism affect your life? What makes an agnostic's life different from a theist's or an atheist's?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:53 PM on March 20, 2010


All this stuff about religion as pure praxis is a little strange to ex-evangelicals like me. I used to believe in a personal God. I don't any more. To continue to practise would seem pointless and dishonest.

Well, Evangelical Christian praxis probably doesn't make sense to engage in as a serious atheist. From what I understand, cultivating belief is the goal of most Evangelical practice, and a prerequisite for the rest — not much room for a willing nonbeliever there. But the point is that there are other religious practices that don't have the cultivation of belief as a goal or a prerequisite, and atheists can participate in those in ways that are quite fulfilling.

Just for starters, there are religious practices for cultivating all sorts of other states of mind besides belief in a personal God. Sometimes it's because the target state of mind is held to be a virtuous one — compassion, say, or gratitude, or hope, or humility. Sometimes it's because it's held to be good for you in some more esoteric way. A lot of religions, for instance, have practices that are about cultivating some sort of uncertainty, which is supposed to — and, hell, probably does — lead to wisdom.

Often, these practices wind up being valuable even without a belief in God to motivate them. Sure, you can say to yourself, "I'm gonna meditate on humility when I pray because God wants me to be humble." But you can just as easily say "I'm gonna meditate on humility because gosh darn it, humble people are awesome for totally secular reasons." And you can go and do the same meditation either way.

Does that still count as religion? Well, it's not the sort you're accustomed to, and I notice a lot of people actively dislike calling this stuff religious. But imagine a Catholic monk, say, losing his faith in God and yet continuing to live under the rules of his order because he admires the state of mind and the personal character that those rules are intended to cultivate. I think it would be awfully strange to say there's nothing religious about his life. And at a certain point I'm not sure it matters whether you label what he's doing as religious or not. He's getting a deep, transformative benefit out of the practices, and that benefit seems much more interesting and important than the label we decide to put on it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:56 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pope Guilty, when I was an agnostic, it had nothing to do with my lifestyle. It was a word that (accurately) described my mental picture re God. I DIDN'T KNOW whether or not He existed.

I'm sure that there are agnostics that live as if they were theists, agnostics that live as if they are atheists and many who do something mixed or in-between. For me, it meant that God wasn't important. I neither worshipped Him nor cared if He didn't exist. God just wasn't part of my life, one way or another. Nor was religion. I didn't love or hate religious people.

It's like if I asked you what book George Clooney is reading right now. You would accurately say, "I don't know" and be mystified if I said, "That's a cop out." You also might reasonably say, "I don't care what he's reading. It has no impact on my life." When I was an agnostic, my life was about going to school, reading books, watching movies, hanging out with friends, etc. Other than as a matter of academic interest, I just didn't care if God existed or not.

But there are other agnostics who are active "seekers," trying to resolve the mystery of whether or not God exists.

I STILL don't see why you would have a problem with a purely descriptive term. What would you call someone who doesn't know whether or not God exists? Isn't it useful to have a word for such a person?
posted by grumblebee at 8:03 PM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thoughtful people who are open to reading widely and examining their beliefs should just stay out of ministry.

I understand the spirit in which Pater Aletheias said this, but it should be said that there are lots and lots of thoughtful ministers who read widely and examine their beliefs. And, of course, many of them do not come to the conclusion that their religious beliefs are false.

The whole Karen Armstrong "Religion is just what you do not what you actually believe" people are vastly at odds with the overwhelming majority of religious people on the planet, as far as I can tell.

I submit that your experience is pretty limited then. Even the idea that there is a single category of "religious people" that encompasses Baptists, Catholics, Unitarians, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Jainists, Confucianists, Wiccans, Sikhs, and Scientologists is pretty suspect and in practice tends to try to jam everyone into a Christianity-shaped box.

Confucianists don't, in general, believe in or worship any gods. Are they religious? Beliefs are important to Buddhism, but they are more beliefs about the metaphysical nature of the universe than belief in a god or gods. Many Buddhists would say it's more important what you do than what you believe. Some Hindus believe in one god, some in many gods, some in no gods, some that everything is god. Which of those count in your "overwhelming majority of religious people on the planet?"
posted by straight at 8:09 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Baptism does not require authority from a bishop and need not be performed by a priest (one does not even have to be a Christian to baptize validly).

Interesting, I did know that Last Rights can be given without ordination in an emergency. By bishop, I just meant that he's the one who enforces who is or is not currently ordained, no? But this non-priest doing the Baptizing, must that person have been Baptized? I thought that that was only allowed if the child's death was immanent.

Faith is a requirement for adults. You're required by the ritual to make a profession of faith before you are baptized. In the case of infants, this is made for you by your sponsor.

My brother, a lapsed Catholic, married a super-Catholic in a cathedral in Rome, with a hand signed personalized declaration from the Pope read by a Cardinal. He was counseled that his lack of faith was not a deal killer in light of his having been baptized as a baby, as opposed to being a convert.

Me: Those who know better, please chime in. I know that faith is not required of anyone who was baptized in a state of grace, such as a baby.

Jahaza: Someone not baptized is not in the state of grace. Restoring man to the state of grace is the effect of the sacrament, even on infants

Yeah I should have remembered that, thanks.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:13 PM on March 20, 2010


I understand the spirit in which Pater Aletheias said this, but it should be said that there are lots and lots of thoughtful ministers who read widely and examine their beliefs. And, of course, many of them do not come to the conclusion that their religious beliefs are false.

You are right, of course. And conversions to-belief/away-from-belief are relatively rare, but it DOES seem like a career risk. When someone chooses to become a cop, I take it that they are counseled that getting killed or injured on the job is a possibility, and that they should think about whether than can accept that risk before going to the academy.

Are seminarians told that if they ever loose their faith, then ... "sucks to be you."

I will admit, I am abnormally obsessed with job security, but the idea that I could -- or should -- leave my job because of an uncontrollable change in mindset is terrifying to me. Small as the risk might be, having read this article, I would avoid a career as a religious leader, even if I was deeply devout and talented at doing all the stuff clergymen do.
posted by grumblebee at 8:17 PM on March 20, 2010


I can't think of anything I both believe and don't believe, and it's hard for me to imagine what such a state of mind would be like.

Can you imagine hearing two people give what appear to be sincere, genuine, honest, and contradictory descriptions of an event? You listen to the first person, and you believe her. You listen to the second person. His story is also believable. But they contradict each other. What do you believe?

A lot of religious people find themselves in a situation like that. They find themselves strongly convinced of the truth of two (or more!) contradictory things, with no clear way to decide between (or among) them.
posted by straight at 8:20 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The howling of an empty, pointless universe may be the real truth, but that does not make me strong enough to listen to it for long.

Weirdly, that's exactly how I feel when people challenge my Transhumanist leanings. There are people who claim that pointlessness doesn't make life any less worth living, but I have never found a way to feel that way, at any level of consciousness. My response, I guess, is that the universe is not empty; it contains us. Nor is it pointless; it is what we make of it, and we can make it a better place and a more interesting place if we want to. A universe full of people doesn't exactly howl. It just kind of whines about itself a lot.
posted by Xezlec at 8:22 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can you imagine hearing two people give what appear to be sincere, genuine, honest, and contradictory descriptions of an event? You listen to the first person, and you believe her. You listen to the second person. His story is also believable. But they contradict each other. What do you believe?

A couple of years ago, I found myself in this exact situation. I can't go into the details here, but here's an analogy to the situation (which, in real life, it had nothing to do with infidelity).

My friend George was publicly accused of cheating on his wife, Amy. Amy presented her evidence, which seemed really damning. Then George defended himself, and his defense seemed sound. All of my friends either rallied around George or Amy. The Amy camp was CONVINCED George was a cheater; The George camp was convinced he was innocent. I was trapped in-between, with no way to resolve my feelings.

Something about my psyche makes this happen to me often. I am only talking about when I'm faced with subjects that can't be decided via evidence. I am not saying that I need evidence to take action. I can act arbitrarily. I can flip a coin. I'm talking about feelings.

At least with the people I've known, I've noticed that most of them have some mechanism inside them that will ultimately topple them one way or the other on an ambiguous issue. They WILL come to a belief that George cheated or that he didn't cheat.

A minority of us will remain unsure.

So, yes, I understand the FEELING. But that's still different from BELIEF.

Do I feel like George cheated? Well, yes and no. Sometimes. When Amy is speaking, I do. When George is cheating, I don't.

Do I BELIEVE George cheated? No. I don't know if he did or not. If this makes sense, I am not sure how I feel, but I AM sure that I don't know whether he cheated or not.

Belief is not a 100% intellectual process for me, but it has a strong intellectual bias. Even at the times that I really feel (very strongly) like George must have cheated, I don't BELIEVE that he cheated. I just have a strong feeling. (On the flip side, I BELIEVE that atoms exist, but I don't feel like they do. I've never seen one or felt one.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:35 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


grumblebee, I may have been speaking a bit poetically; a more accurate way to describe my position would be "at some moments I believe, at some moments I do not". Those moments can follow very quickly on one another, making the process feel somewhat simultaneous.
posted by emjaybee at 9:13 PM on March 20, 2010


I used to believe in a personal God. I don't any more.

I wish I still believed in my own personal Guardian Angel. The protection offered in the basement at night far outweighed his look of disappointment when I sinned.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:50 PM on March 20, 2010


It's like instead of trying to debate the existence of religion, it's like they redefined the terms until there was no more argument to be had.

You say that like it's a bad thing.
posted by flabdablet at 10:47 PM on March 20, 2010


The article and discussion are fascinating to me because of my upbringing (my father is a Protestant minister who is a sincerely decent and caring person, very intelligent, well-educated, and also quite orthodox in his Christianity, though neither politically or theologically conservative), but even more so because I am someone who has sincerely considered ministry as a vocation (and it has been suggested to me as a vocation to consider many times) and rejected it fundamentally because I feel like my own theology is so unorthodox (I half joke that I can't figure out whether I'm an apostate or a heretic) that I could not properly serve as a minister in a the mainstream protestant church I'm a member of and I don't want to leave that church to become, you know, a Unitarian or something (for the sake of discussion, I'd roughly define Christian orthodoxy as adhering literally to the tenets of the Apostles Creed).

I consider myself to be devout, certainly a Christian, and my church is a deeply valued social and spiritual home for me as well as a locus where I can contribute to service to people in need. So I have a very personal (though not maybe particularly representative) sense of this strange dichotomy between what can be acceptable for a person to believe and still justifiable consider themselves to be a Christian as opposed to what is necessary for pastors to be able to carry out their jobs and still feel honest and true to themselves.

Being in a generally liberal Protestant denomination I see this as part of a broader conflict that in the main the higher leadership isn't particularly dealing with at all: where the line is drawn on orthodoxy or whether it is drawn at all, whether we talk about these lines (such as scripture as literal versus partially literal e.g. Genesis is an allegory but Jesus really was born of a virgin and rose from the dead and also is God versus scripture as pure metaphor and tradition). I don't think this is a particularly calculated position; at best I think it attempts to acknowledge the variety of religious experience and the fundamental (and unavoidable) mystery of anything that could validly be called transcendent (or the "gentle fog" of pluralism as Dennet rather condescendingly and uncharitably puts it)... but at worst I also see it as basically pushing a large can clearly labeled "worms" under the bed with one foot while saying "moving on..." And I have sincere doubts that Christianity as a substantial social hegemony more than another couple centuries in it, essentially because of this: because while I do not see orthodoxy as necessary for adherence to Christianity, I do suspect that it has been a fairly fundamental component in the successful spread and social endurance of the religion as an organized body and social institution. Outside of increasingly separatist Fundamentalist-type organizations, true orthodoxy will die a long, unmarked death of benign neglect, and nothing will replace it, and the slow but steady contraction of membership that has been afflicting most mainstream Christian denominations for decades will just keep on keeping on.

I don't know how I feel about that.

It's easy for me to get riled up when it seems that honest efforts to rationalize sincere religious experience with the rational scientific facts of phenomenological reality and the pragmatic histories of religion and scripture are written off by non-believers as, not to put too fine a point on it, basically dishonest intellectual jiggery pokery. Then again, I really don't know whether people like myself are particularly prevalent or honestly important to Christianity as it exists today in society. I certainly feel for these people discussed in the article that have to face these questions all tied up with their livelihoods and familial relationships and professional identities.
posted by nanojath at 11:56 PM on March 20, 2010


honest efforts to rationalize sincere religious experience with the rational scientific facts of phenomenological reality and the pragmatic histories of religion and scripture are written off by non-believers as, not to put too fine a point on it, basically dishonest intellectual jiggery pokery

Can you expand on that?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:00 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do have to observe though:

Dawkins commented here: The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation?

What other career indeed?

Oh come on, nanojath that's not the same thing at all! No, of course, of course it isn't. Look at me, I just practically defended a horrible racist just to score some bullshit rhetorical point.
posted by nanojath at 12:10 AM on March 21, 2010


honest efforts to rationalize sincere religious experience with the rational scientific facts of phenomenological reality and the pragmatic histories of religion and scripture are written off by non-believers as, not to put too fine a point on it, basically dishonest intellectual jiggery pokery

Can you expand on that?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:00 AM on March 21


No, not at half past 2 am, not when I'm going to have to get up with the kid at 6 or 7 or whenever he decides to instantiate **TOTAL**FIVEYEAROLD**ENERGY** and then (oh the rich irony) get him to Sunday School by 9 and I signed up to usher this Sunday...

And I'll be completely honest, Pope, based on my experience of your past history on religious topics here, while I can certainly expand my thoughts on these topics at great and perhaps egregious length, I sincerely doubt it would particularly edify either of us to discuss the matter, based on long experience of such discussions in my past. I've pretty much lost my appetite for adversarial rhetorical wrangling (though it's a wagon I fall off on a sadly regular basis) and as far as I can tell when I did engage in it, it never did anyone much good. If you really want to talk belief with me feel free to hit me up via one of the various avenues of communication available via my profile, that goes for anyone else up in here as well.
posted by nanojath at 12:29 AM on March 21, 2010


gwtter, I'm very curious as to how you can separate religious "doing" from religious belief- or indeed, how religious "doing" has any meaning beyond, say, prayer and meditation. Any religious act is going to be informed by belief; without that belief, you'd have no idea what counted as a religious act!

You might be an atheist, but you are a very Christian atheist.
posted by atrazine at 12:37 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do I feel like George cheated? Well, yes and no. Sometimes. When Amy is speaking, I do. When George is cheating, I don't.

Sounds like a case of Schrodingers Tomcat.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:14 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, I feel I should expand on my comment and make it a little more general.

Faith as the key to religious experience is not only very much a Christian belief (though not exclusively so), it is a belief most associated with Evangelical Protestants. Many American Atheists, even the ones that don't come from an evangelical background, base much of their mental archetype of what a religion is on Christianity as it is practiced by American protestants.

Most other religions, and in fact, other Christian denominations do not hold faith to be nearly as central, certainly they do not think of it as the most important part of their religion.

To tell you the truth, the zeal of capital A American Atheists seems a little weird to most Europeans. Probably because for non-believing Americans, the religious are a constant political presence with real power, and because many Americans are raised religious and then deconvert.
posted by atrazine at 1:21 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


The folks here on Metafilter that I've gotten to know (in real life or just through this forum) and have put up with my essay-length comments for three and half years.

"Putting up with"? More like "delighting in".
posted by rodgerd at 2:17 AM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


As a militant atheist, I really appreciated this article. I've often wondered about the parish priest at the church I grew up in, and thought that he was kind of equivocal in his religious statements (especially when compared to his strident opinions on social justice and football and the X Files and just about every other subject I evern heard him speak about).

I totally understand the phrase in the article "I prayed myself into non-belief", because that's what happened to me. It starts with a disagreement over church policy, then over some doctrine... you read as much theology and apologetics as you can. And the more you learn, the less you can justify a belief that seemed so natural and right just a short while ago.

I read all five stories, and think that each of them is in denial, some more happily than others. If I'd had a family depending on me to maintain my religion in order to support them, or loved ones who'd have been devastated by my atheism, I'm not sure I would have gone all the way either. This not-quite-religious but not-quite atheist but definitely-not-agnostic limbo seems like a coping mechanism. And it's telling that they say they want to bring more people round to their way of thinking but aren't actually doing much to acheive that. I wish them luck figuring a way out of their situation - it must be hugely stressful to deal with that level of dissonance. And they seem like really nice guys, people who want to help others but have landed in the wrong place.
posted by harriet vane at 2:34 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


atrazine: "75To tell you the truth, the zeal of capital A American Atheists seems a little weird to most Europeans. Probably because for non-believing Americans, the religious are a constant political presence with real power, and because many Americans are raised religious and then deconvert."

I have often wondered about the British Clergy of the Victorian era; the clergy was simply one of the very few professions considered acceptable to the upper class. If you were not the oldest son set to inherit everything, you could chose to enter the military, the law, or the Anglican Church. Furthermore, the pulpits were usually under control of the landowner in the area who would hand over "the living" (the income) of that church to their friends and relatives. It doesn't seem as if religious feeling entered into it. I imagine a great many of these churches were led by clergy who gave little or no thought to God.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:31 AM on March 21, 2010


75To tell you the truth, the zeal of capital A American Atheists...

Dawkins and Hitchens, who are probably the two biggest "capital A Atheists," are British.
posted by callmejay at 7:43 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Karen Armstrong school reminds me of somebody who's been caught lying. "What is this 'truth' you speak of? How narrow-minded you are! Who cares whether what I said is, technically, 'true.' What matters is the love in my heart, not whether what I say is actually 'true' or not! 'Truth' is subjective, anyway. I may have 'falsified evidence' and 'falsely accused a man of theft,' but come on. Who among us can say he's never bent the truth?"
posted by callmejay at 7:49 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


You are actually saying these words? And saying that this is a good reason to distrust Dennett? Because it seems as if you are.

Dennett is a philosopher. This "study" is, at best a minor contribution to sociology of religion, but is really more like journalism. (It's being "published" by Newsweek & the Washington Post.) These are fields in which Dennett is an amateur. And frankly, the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate he has an interest in this topic that goes beyond finding another stick with which to beat his ideological opponents.

An amateur doing research on a topic for which he has a huge axe to grind? That's a textbook recipe for bad scholarship.
posted by straight at 8:05 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Karen Armstrong school reminds me of somebody who's been caught lying.

I would ask if that's also your opinion of Buddhists, Jainists, atheistic & pantheistic Hindus, and a bunch of other world religions.

But I think atrazine's response is really more to the point. You might be an atheist, but you're a very Evangelical Christian atheist.
posted by straight at 8:12 AM on March 21, 2010


An amateur doing research on a topic for which he has a huge axe to grind? That's a textbook recipe for bad scholarship.

Fine, and he hasn't exactly been quiet about his atheism. But comparing him to blatantly dishonest people like Dembski and Johnson is what I have a problem with. That seems to suggest he is intentionally misleading people.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2010


game warden to the events rhino: religion in its deepest form is not primarily a question of belief but a question of practice, a doing rather than a thinking

This.

Although I am an atheist I am rather fond of the neopagan movement because a lot of those people get this. They are trying to reinvent something we have forgotten and which ancient cultures took for granted, the idea that religion can be syncretic -- that religious ideas are about myth and ritual and practice, and they can all be valid while appearing mutually exclusive because they are effective, not literally "true."

Syncretic religions are not threatened or challenged by other religions, they frequently incorporate each others' mythology and rituals if those seem useful. If someone else's rituals or mythology don't seem useful they still aren't threatening; they just don't get used by you. It is understood by all that there are many "gods" and one that speaks to another person might not have any use for you, and vice-versa, and that's just fine.

I have been invited to participate in rituals by people who were well aware of my skepticism, who did not care about it, and I felt welcome and comfortable. By contrast I know I would be considered an heretical fraud if I were to, for example, take Mass in a Catholic church. (And I am well aware of Christian rituals, having been raised Baptist and educated in a Catholic high school -- a common combination in New Orleans.)

Ask yourself if a study like this would have been necessary for the Romans. Would anybody have felt weird that the guy making a sacrifice to Jupiter didn't actually believe Jupiter was a real guy with a beard sitting on a real Mount Olympus taking in the spectacle? If you asked such a question the priest himself would probably have given you a long lecture on the nature of myth and the danger of gullibility.

When you get the idea of syncretism the insistence of monotheistic religions on truth, unity, and exceptionalism seems childish and stupid. These aren't very sophisticated religions, their fundamental concepts are immature and incompatible with a diverse society. The ritual tools they offer are overly simple, overly dependent on a bureaucratic heirarchy, and very resistant to being extended in ways that would be useful.

But these new religions are really good tools for a few people who want to manipulate the rest of us, and so they have pretty much taken over the world.
posted by localroger at 8:46 AM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


These are fields in which Dennett is an amateur. And frankly, the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate he has an interest in this topic that goes beyond finding another stick with which to beat his ideological opponents.

An amateur doing research on a topic for which he has a huge axe to grind? That's a textbook recipe for bad scholarship.


This would all make sense to me, had I not actually read the article, which starts with a disclaimer, plainly stating that the research is anecdotal: "While we couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, the very variety of their stories, as well as the patterns discernible in them, suggest fascinating avenues for further research on this all but invisible phenomenon." After which, the bulk of the article is quotations from the clergymen.

(Every day, I read far more sensationalized stories by professional journalists. Take the average cancer "cure" story. It is the inversion of what Dennett wrote. It starts by screaming MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH and then, way down in the second-to-last paragraph, it quietly remarks that the "cure" is years away from being practical. Dennett has done the opposite. He has weakened his thesis at the outset. To me, this is a sign of intellectual honesty trumping showmanship.)

I read the article as more of a character study than anything else. Maybe Dennett intended the article to be used for political ends (the way Dawkins is using it), but if that was his intent, he failed. I have shown it to many people, atheists and theists, all of whom got different things out of it. This thread is a testament to that.

To me, the only way this article could be bad journalism is if Dennett fabricated the quotations or omitted major parts of the interviews that would have given a totally different picture of the interviewees' points of view, had they been included. If that's what you're implying, you're making very serious charges. Which might be true, but I'd like to see some evidence of them.

I guess the major point of contention might be the article's suggestion that the small sample of atheist clergymen interviewed are "the tip of the iceberg." For my money, the article makes it crystal clear that this is indeed just a suggestion -- one that will require more research to verify or disprove.

Ironically, my Christian friend thinks that the iceberg almost definitely exists, whereas I -- the atheist -- am skeptical. I asked him why he thinks there's a large number of atheists in the clergy (a claim that seems unlikely to me), and he said that it's partly due to the Vietnam war, which prompted many people who weren't religious went into the seminary to escape the draft.

An interesting claim.
posted by grumblebee at 8:52 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


But these new religions are really good tools for a few people who want to manipulate the rest of us, and so they have pretty much taken over the world.

localroger, I thought there was much truth in what you wrote, until that last sentence, which struck me as flippant.

Bad people have always used religion as a means to dominate and manipulate. Religion is multifaceted and many different sorts of people have used it, been used by it, opposed it, been involved with it and stood aloof from it.

I don't know why we've moved from a doing-based theism to a more logo-centric one (if, in fact, that is what we've done), but the reasons are surely more profound and varied than "because that has allowed evildoers to manipulate us."

Couldn't it be equally about a general trend towards science and materialism that's invaded Western Culture for much of its recent history? In most disciplines, one has to appear "scientific" in order to be taken seriously. All sorts of academic fields abuse scientific-sounding language to justify their existence. In order to survive, maybe religion has had to do the same thing.

I bet most Christians would be very uncomfortable saying, "I don't care if the stuff I 'believe' is all made up. Whether it's true or not doesn't matter to me at all." It's unfortunate, but that goes against the spirit of the age -- and I don't think that's just because powerful people are being manipulative.
posted by grumblebee at 9:08 AM on March 21, 2010


Ask yourself if a study like this would have been necessary for the Romans. Would anybody have felt weird that the guy making a sacrifice to Jupiter didn't actually believe Jupiter was a real guy with a beard sitting on a real Mount Olympus taking in the spectacle? If you asked such a question the priest himself would probably have given you a long lecture on the nature of myth and the danger of gullibility.

I think you give the Romans far too much credit! They really did believe that the gods existed, and that they were the cause of natural phenomena. This was not a society that understood evolution, physics, and cosmology the way we do today. They were quite concerned by the possibility that atheists might offend the gods.
posted by Xezlec at 9:28 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Couldn't it be equally about a general trend towards science and materialism that's invaded Western Culture for much of its recent history? In most disciplines, one has to appear "scientific" in order to be taken seriously. All sorts of academic fields abuse scientific-sounding language to justify their existence. In order to survive, maybe religion has had to do the same thing.

In The Bible: A Biography, Karen Armstrong argues exactly this.
posted by Xezlec at 9:29 AM on March 21, 2010


Dawkins and Hitchens, who are probably the two biggest "capital A Atheists," are British

I wasn't including the UK in my definition of Europe, but I should have specified that.

Nonetheless, it is true, and of course it is also true that neither of them were ever religious. As I said, it's just my impression, but I always get the feeling that Atheists in the US are much more oppositional in their thinking than in England. Where most people are just generically non-religious in the same way that they don't believe in fairies or unicorns. It's all just "meh".
posted by atrazine at 9:32 AM on March 21, 2010


Xezlec, but even from your own link, the offence was to refuse to offer incense to the emperor.
posted by atrazine at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2010


atrazine, part of that is because in America (at least in my experience), you couldn't say you were an Atheist in public until very recently (you still can't in many places). If you did, at best you'd be hated; at worst you'd be violently attacked. I still worry about it sometimes, and I live in NYC. I feel pretty safe admitting my (lack of) belief in public, but I wouldn't be totally surprised if someone took a swing at me upon hearing it.

So you have all these atheists who have been closeted for decades, and all of the sudden the are able to be out about it, and so they are lashing out at some real (and some perceived) forces that kept them in the closet for so many years.

I have mixed feelings about Dawkins and co. I wish they would be a bit more tolerant of religious people. At the same time, on a personal level, I am glad they have allowed me to be who I am with less strife.

When I lived in England, in the early 90s, the situation was different in an interesting way. You couldn't easily admit to being an atheist in public, but that wasn't because it was heretical. It was because in general English ethos was suspicious of anything extremist (it would have been equally weird to claim to be fervently religious). Atheism seemed like a sort of rude lack of restraint.
posted by grumblebee at 9:41 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now find me a job.

You write a book about your faith and the path you've taken it, and I'll lend a hand editing it. My instinct is that your story will speak to a lot of your fellow citizens.

I wonder if it'd be possible to leverage the entire MeFi ecosystem to get it published. I'll bet there's enough talent and resources here to do the job...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:41 AM on March 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


A large portion of, say, France, can't be relied on to support the idea that nonbelievers are subhuman, so I can imagine why that would be.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2010


nanojath: PG isn't the only one who's curious to hear you expound and expand on this; especially after that last, longer comment of yours - my curiosity's definitely piqued!

straight:
An amateur doing research on a topic for which he has a huge axe to grind? That's a textbook recipe for bad scholarship.
Faraday, Mendel, Evans, Priestley, Jefferson, James O. Hall and a multitude more say 'hello!'
posted by jtron at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2010


grumblebee, I didn't mean that last sentence to be flippant at all; if you look at the history of monotheistic religions there is a very clear trend of powerful people turning their core principles away from ideas that personally empower believers and toward making them instruments of social control. This was a very clear motivation for many of the decisions made at the Council of Nicea, including the suppression of Gnosticism. It's a very clear motivation for the suppression of vernacular translations of the Bible. The Protestant Reformation was largely a rebellion against this suppression of the individual's right to have a direct relationship with the Divine that might not be mediated by the (at that point very notably godless and corrupt) Church.

Xezlec has a point that the Romans might not have been the best example of polytheistic syncretism, as they were a notoriously literal people about everything, but they certainly understood that their gods weren't necessarily the only gods, even if they thought their gods literally existed and that the state of not having any gods at all might be dangerous. Even the ancient Jews who came up with the idea of only having one God for themselves don't seem to have thought no other gods existed.

A better example would have been the ancient Egyptians, who had a rich history of incorporating conquered peoples' religions into their own instead of imposing theirs by fiat.

The reason so many modern Christians are hung up on belief is that the Church had become so hung up on power and heirarchy and control that it wasn't doing the religion thing very effectively any more, and the Protestant reformation came with a critical mass and at a time of weakness when the Church was unable to respond by its usual historic method of just killing all the heretics. These people saw the rituals as hollow and manipulative, which was a pretty fair assessment, and responded by rediscovering the Gnostic method of connecting with the divine via personal epiphany. This means Protestant Christianity is about personal experience and belief in a way that it isn't in most religious frameworks, because they lost everything else in the schism and that means if you don't have those powerful feelings you pretty much don't have a religion at all.
posted by localroger at 10:16 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Xezlec, but even from your own link, the offence was to refuse to offer incense to the emperor.

It said: "At times of crisis, people became alarmed at signs of atheism that might offend the gods, with disastrous consequences..."

My point is that the Romans did not see their religious beliefs as not likely to be literally true, something you'd have to be gullible to believe, or just as stories to teach values and traditions or something like that. No, they actually believed that this was the way the world worked. They were sincere in their belief. I think the evaporation of the literal belief component from religion is mostly a modern phenomenon, a result of the progress of science in explaining things. Obviously, literal belief was not always as dogmatic as it is today, but the assertion that a Roman priest would have considered the belief that Jupiter was an actual person to be a sign of gullibility seems like a modern conceit to me.
posted by Xezlec at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


As shocking as this may be to some, this isn't shocking to me at all. I've known atheist priests and ministers for literal decades. I've known more than a few priests who became priests while not believing in deity, but wanted to work within a large social institution from which they could do good.
posted by Chasuk at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2010


Confucianists don't, in general, believe in or worship any gods. Are they religious?
Uh, no. Why would they be? There's nothing particularly religious about Confucianism. That would be like calling
You say that like it's a bad thing.
Yes, believe it or not redefining the terms does not make the underlying argument go away. All it does is waste everyone's time.
What other career indeed?

Oh come on, nanojath that's not the same thing at all! No, of course, of course it isn't.
Right, it's not the same. Primarily because it wasn't a change. He was probably always a racist. But more to the point, yes coming "out of the closet" as a racist, or anti-Semite, or homophobe, pedophile, whatever will probably result in the loss of any prestigious career. What does that have to do with anything? Dawkins was obviously not talking about switching to beliefs that are socially unacceptable.
But I think atrazine's response is really more to the point. You might be an atheist, but you're a very Evangelical Christian atheist.
But the problem is that, you know, Evangelical Christians (as well as Muslims and lots of other religious groups who "believe" things) are the ones who atheists actually disagree with. So what if most of their arguments are aimed at them? If you have some other religion that does not make any actual statements about the world, or universe, or metaphysics or whatever, then obviously you can't "not believe it" because not believing in it is no different then believing in it.

So it is, in fact, irrelevant. And since these people have no theoretical disagreement with Atheists, one might wonder why they spend any time complaining about them. If you don't believe that religion is anything more then what you 'do', then why would you care if someone is an atheist or not? Unless you think everyone else should do as you do for no reason. Which is in itself rather problematic.
posted by delmoi at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


esprit de l'escalier: "
I really liked what you wrote Pater Aletheias. Are you really suggesting that ministry be left to thoughtless people who are closed to reading and examination of their beliefs? Maybe the problem is the obsession with orthodoxy rather than ministry? Do you believe that it's impossible to transmit spiritual knowledge?
"

I think that there are plenty of good, competent people who don't have the same drive that more academically oriented types have to relentless test their beliefs. I know a bunch of them, and they are good preachers. They love Jesus, read their Bibles graciously and help a lot of people along the way. The are relationally gifted rather than analytically gifted. I wouldn't call them thoughtless at all, and some of them are very bright. But they aren't in danger of straying uncomfortably far from their foundations. They got into ministry because of their love for the relational aspects of ministry, and as long as those are still present, they'll be satisfied in their work.

Others of us don't mind the people work--in fact we may rather like it--but what attracted us to ministry was more the search for truth. We wanted to be on the forefront of the quest to understand the scriptures and to search out the mind of God. For those people, I say they should do what I wish I had done, and just get a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern studies or philosophy or sociology and leave pastoral ministry to the true believer types.

That might not be the way things should be (and I certainly know of exceptions to this advice), but I think that's going to be the reality for most people with my temperment. If you're a TJ on the Myers-Briggs, leave ministry to the FPs.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


emjaybee: "
It is a terrible thing to lose the comfort and strength of your belief. So terrible that I have never been able to quite do it. I have had experiences I cannot categorize as anything but transcendant, but that I'm sure could be slotted into some sort of plausible psychological scenario by anyone who wanted to do so.

I believe and I don't believe, and I find complete unbelief as impossible a task as going back to the days when I believed without question. I don't know if that means I have hold of some truth, or am a victim of an evolutionary quirk in my brain. The howling of an empty, pointless universe may be the real truth, but that does not make me strong enough to listen to it for long.
"

Yeah. I guess I should clarify that I'm not quite in the same boat as the folks in the study, because I don't identify as an atheist. I'm not an unbeliever. I've had those transcendent experiences, too, and I think it's useful to interpret them within the Christian tradition. I definitely hold myself as a Jesus-follower, and I think his model of hopeful but self-sacrificial living is the most purposeful way I can think of to live. But I'm very liberal in my approach to the faith and to reading the scriptures, and that is causing me much the same discomfort that the outright atheist pastors are having. And, as I tried to articulate before, I can understand why being a conservative preacher is meaningful. You're in the center of the important work of defending the truth. But when you move to the far left and you aren't concerned about defending orthodoxy, the priorities shift in such a way that a ministry career just doesn't seem like the best use of your time. At least, that's how it worked for me.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:34 AM on March 21, 2010


straight: "I understand the spirit in which Pater Aletheias said this, but it should be said that there are lots and lots of thoughtful ministers who read widely and examine their beliefs. And, of course, many of them do not come to the conclusion that their religious beliefs are false."

Sure. The majority will be just fine. And it's hard to quantify the risk. But ministry is a career with high burnout rates anyway, and for a certain intellectual personality type, it's probably fair to say that the odds of holding on to the beliefs that you started seminary with long enough to last you through a career are no higher than 80%. I would counsel those folks--and I don't think they are that hard to spot--to go with their second career choice, which is probably academia. In fact, if some young seminarian says to me, "I'm wavering between ordination or a Ph.D.", the fact that he or she is attracted to the Ph.D. is almost enough by itself to make think they should just go that route.

Of course, my bias is that I wish someone had told me that 12 years ago.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:44 AM on March 21, 2010


I've known more than a few priests who became priests while not believing in deity, but wanted to work within a large social institution from which they could do good.

Oh, the bitter reality when it appeared.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:45 AM on March 21, 2010


harriet vane: "

I read all five stories, and think that each of them is in denial, some more happily than others. If I'd had a family depending on me to maintain my religion in order to support them, or loved ones who'd have been devastated by my atheism, I'm not sure I would have gone all the way either. This not-quite-religious but not-quite atheist but definitely-not-agnostic limbo seems like a coping mechanism. And it's telling that they say they want to bring more people round to their way of thinking but aren't actually doing much to acheive that. I wish them luck figuring a way out of their situation - it must be hugely stressful to deal with that level of dissonance. And they seem like really nice guys, people who want to help others but have landed in the wrong place.
"

This reminded me of the old Upton Sinclair line: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Xezlec,

I think we actually agree. The majority of Romans absolutely believed in the reality of their gods, but what they feared and punished was not complying with the rituals - precisely because they did believe the gods were real. They just didn't believe that their gods would judge them for their "faith", I can't think of an example of a Roman or Greek god from mythology that could even see inside someone's mind. What people in the mythical stories were punished for is showing disrespect or even worse, not sacrificing appropriately.
posted by atrazine at 12:18 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


atrazine,

Ah, the faith vs. works thing. Got it. Yes, you may well be right about that.
posted by Xezlec at 12:51 PM on March 21, 2010


But the problem is that, you know, Evangelical Christians (as well as Muslims and lots of other religious groups who "believe" things) are the ones who atheists actually disagree with. So what if most of their arguments are aimed at them? If you have some other religion that does not make any actual statements about the world, or universe, or metaphysics or whatever, then obviously you can't "not believe it" because not believing in it is no different then believing in it.

But you were criticizing Karen Armstrong because her religion doesn't fit in an Evangelical-Christianity-shaped box. And it's not that Buddhists (for example) make no metaphysical claims, it's just that they are different sorts of claims. Your critique of Karen Armstrong is very close to claiming a Buddhist is weaseling out of the whole religious argument by claiming to believe stuff that isn't the usual Evangelical Christian doctrine that your talking points are designed to refute.
posted by straight at 1:17 PM on March 21, 2010


It is understood by all that there are many "gods" and one that speaks to another person might not have any use for you, and vice-versa, and that's just fine.

This is still a belief, though, no less so than "it is understood by all that there is only one God, and that He speaks through the Church." Believing that there are many gods does not preclude actually believing in the existence of those gods. The idea that having many gods and/or myths (or, on preview, contacting them through "works" rather than "faith") means you don't really believe in them strikes me as inaccurate and Christian-centric.

Again, when you scratch the surface of doing-rather-than-thinking, you find thinking. Like I said earlier, if these religions were primarily about "effective myth and ritual and practice", they would have eventually lost the religious framework (i.e. the belief that the myths are true and/or that the rituals have real-world effects) which went along with the practice. They didn't.

Some of the neopagan movement is (sometimes) like this, with the myths viewed as nothing more than instructive stories, and the rituals viewed as a form of mental exercise or therapy... but as far as anyone can tell, the original faiths they are trying to revive were made up of people who believed in the existence of their gods. As do many neopagans, for that matter.

Syncretic religions are not threatened or challenged by other religions

As others have pointed out, that's false. Syncretic religions may or may not be threatened or challenged by other syncretic religions, but if you challenge their central belief (that there are many gods), that's often viewed as a threat. Conflicts over this happened in Rome with the Christians, they happened in Egypt with Akhenaten, they happened in India between Hindus and Muslims, and they happened over and over in Northern Europe until the Christians finally suppressed them.
posted by vorfeed at 1:23 PM on March 21, 2010


Faraday, Mendel, Evans, Priestley, Jefferson, James O. Hall and a multitude more say 'hello!'
(1) The commenter I was responding to was saying "Are you really questioning the integrity of Daniel Dennett?" Which I took as an appeal to his professional credentials, which is why it was relevant that this work is outside his professional field.
(2) Faraday's study of magnetism, Mendel's study of genetics, Jefferson's study of archeology, none of those are instances of an amateur stepping into a field about which they have a long-standing ideological stance to defend.

When you saw the headline "Dennett interviews clergymen who don't believe in God" did you have any doubt what slant the article would take? Did you expect to find hard hitting questions like "Don't you think what you're doing is fraudulent?" Are you at all surprised that the closing paragraph begins, "These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago"? Might not a less biased interviewer suggest that genuine bravery would entail publicly stating their beliefs and living with the consequences?
posted by straight at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2010


I would ask if that's also your opinion of Buddhists, Jainists, atheistic & pantheistic Hindus, and a bunch of other world religions.

I've got nothing against genuinely atheistic "religions," although I think even now, Westerners like to pretend that Buddhism for example is more atheistic than it really was, historically, because it's convenient to have an atheistic alternative to the Western religions. It's the dishonesty of pretending that beliefs that have been absolutely central to the major monotheistic religions are actually not really that big a deal and that atheists who point out that those major monotheistic religions are, you know, not true, are suggested to be "missing something."

But I think atrazine's response is really more to the point. You might be an atheist, but you're a very Evangelical Christian atheist.

Because Catholicism isn't founded on certain obviously untrue beliefs? Because Eastern Orthodoxy isn't? Orthodox Judaism (the religion in which I was raised, by the way?) Islam?

Yes, Evangelical Christianity focuses more on faith than the others, but the others take faith as a prerequisite.

What are the FIRST TWO commandments? Don't kill? Don't rape? Don't steal? No, they are (varying slightly by denomination:)

"I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me."

If you prefer to take the good while leaving the false, that's fine by me. But don't tell me I'm missing the point when I say it's false.
posted by callmejay at 1:48 PM on March 21, 2010


vorfeed:
This [that there are many valid gods] is still a belief, though, no less so than "it is understood by all that there is only one God, and that He speaks through the Church."
...
As others have pointed out, that's false. Syncretic religions may or may not be threatened or challenged by other syncretic religions, but if you challenge their central belief (that there are many gods), that's often viewed as a threat.
Well duh. If my belief is that all beliefs (including both mine and yours) have a fundamental validity that should be respected, and your belief is that only your belief has any validity and that mine (including both my personal beliefs and my belief that all beliefs have some validity) must be suppressed, then we are going to come into conflict. Not because I don't respect your belief, but because your belief requires you to disrespect mine. To put it simply, your belief is rude.

And saying that the resulting conflict is the my fault is just self-justifying nonsense.
posted by localroger at 3:09 PM on March 21, 2010


And saying that the resulting conflict is the my fault is just self-justifying nonsense.

I'm not talking about "fault". I'm talking about the fact that syncretic religions do have beliefs, beliefs which are threatened by other religions. "My belief is that all beliefs (including both mine and yours) have a fundamental validity that should be respected" is a belief, not just a practice, and it's one which is quite obviously not compatible with the idea that "syncretic religions are not threatened or challenged by other religions".

Besides, not all the examples I pointed out were a simple case of monotheists-attacking-the-poor-polytheists. History is full of syncretic polytheists who made war on other religions, up to and including other syncretic polytheists. Pretending otherwise is self-justifying nonsense.
posted by vorfeed at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2010


localroger, I am confused by what you mean by "validity."

The world is not flat, it's round. If a Flat Earther says that the world is not round, I'm not going to say his belief is "invalid," because I don't know what that means. However, his belief is false.

Saying that it's false WOULD be rude in a casual social context. For instance, I would never tell someone at a dinner party that his belief (in whatever) is false. But surely it's not rude, in general, to say that the world isn't flat. That's just a statement of fact.

But a Flat Earther might be genuinely threatened by such a statement, and I think that's what vorfeed is talking about. Like him, I have a hard time seeing the difference between the Ancient Egyptian theists and modern-day theists. They both had/have doctrine. They both were/are threatened if that doctrine comes into question. Which, again, suggests that there is a dogmatic/intellectual component to religions, even if it's not always the main component.

I don't think there's anything perverse about feeling threatened IF you are making a truth claim and IF you care about whether or not other people join you in accepting that truth claim. If you want the people around you to believe that Zeus exists, it's not very helpful if someone else is claiming he doesn't.

Someone who is 100% in it for the "doing" would have absolutely no problem with an atheist suggesting it'a all founded on a fiction. But I have never met anyone like that in real life. I HAVE met people who say, "You know, maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but it makes me feel good, so I do it." But even those people (who are the minority) seem to have at least SOME stake in the truth claims of their their religion.

You can be aware that some drug you're taking MIGHT be a placebo and still benefit (or feel you benefit) from it. But if someone proves to you that it DEFINITELY is just a sugar pill, then it's much harder to enjoy the experience. I think that many people are okay with ambiguity (it might be true; it might not), but because in ambiguity there's hope (it MIGHT be true!)

If someone said the opposite of what you're saying -- that religions (or good religions, or strong religions or religions of the past) were all about dogma and not at all about practice, I would find that equally wrong. Religions are -- and always have been -- complex things. They grip both the heart and the head (and the dancing feet). For some people, they grip the "doing" more than they grip the thinking. For others, it's the opposite.

This is true of every great human system I can think of: storytelling, music, math, religion, sports, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 3:46 PM on March 21, 2010


grumblebee, matters of faith are not like the roundness of the Earth. By definition, as it's usually used, faith means belief in something that can't be proven; once you prove the thing your belief isn't faith any more, it's just common sense.

Insisting that your belief in something that can't be proven is more valid than my belief in something different that can't be proven is at best rude. Insisting that your belief in something that has been proven wrong is more valid than any un-proven-wrong belief is objectively insane.

vorfeed, while it's true that there have been wars between polytheistic cultures those wars have usually been obviously due to some resource or territorial conflict, not a desire for one group to impose its religious views on the other. When the Romans conquered you they might tax your estate and conscript your kids and enslave you but they generally didn't bother messing with your gods. If the Egyptians conquered you they actually made a point of learning about your gods so they could add your gods to their pantheon. If the Vikings raided your village they might kill you and take your women and kids as slaves but they weren't usually too het up about your refusal to honor Frigga.

It is also the case that a lot of individual members of religions that don't require religious belief do have faith, not because the religion requires it but because it's just a common human thing to do, and you could make a good case that some of the exercises practised by certain religious orders are meant to discourage this and promote skepticism and humility toward the unknowable. There are entire self-identifying Buddhist nations which have elevated Buddha to a station I think he specifically sought to avoid and discourage, but ultimately religions are made of people and people are perverse and if they are to be successful religions have to be structured to take that into account.

To recast the difference in a way that might be more obvious, if I believe that all humans have dignity and are worthy of respect, and you believe that only people whose skin is the same color as yours have dignity and are worthy of respect, our beliefs are not in any meaningful sense equivalent. Similarly, if my religion advises tolerance toward all other religions, and yours advises intolerance to all religions except itself, when we come into conflict there is in fact fault to be found and it lies with you, and that is something which should be obvious to any reasonable person.
posted by localroger at 4:07 PM on March 21, 2010


Insisting that your belief in something that can't be proven is more valid than my belief in something different that can't be proven is at best rude.

I hate it when people bring The Easter Bunny and Santa into these discussions, because it is generally an insulting way of infantilizing theists. I don't mean to do that. I have great respect for many theists, but, sorry, I am going to evoke the Easter Bunny in an attempt to make a point clear.

Are you saying that it's rude for me to insist that The Easter Bunny doesn't exist, even though I can't prove that it doesn't exist?

(Again, just so we're clear, it IS rude for me to claim it at a dinner party. I'm asking if you think that, in general, I must keep silent about my firm conviction that the Easter Bunny doesn't exist. If I say that I THINK he doesn't exist, that may be polite, but it doesn't really describe my mindset. I KNOW he doesn't exist. Someone else might say, "No, you THINK you know that, but you don't really know it for sure." Fine. We have different definitions of what "know" means. Via my definition, I do know.)

We get into a real problem, that, unfortunately comes up without anyone trying to be rude, based on people's differing versions of what a fact is.

God doesn't exist.

Before anyone flies off the handle, I want to be clear that I NEVER say that -- in that way -- even in non-casual conversation. I'm saying it here, because this is a very specialized conversation. Normally, I would say "I don't believe in God," but that's a polite dishonesty. In my cosmology, it makes just as much sense to say God doesn't exist as it does to day nine-legged dogs don't exist. If it makes sense for me to say the latter, it makes sense for me to say the former.

I won't waste time here going into why I'm just as sure that God doesn't exist as, say, I am that nine-legged dogs don't exist (unless someone really wants me to). It's due to an acceptance of Occam's Razor and some other things.

So for me to simply speak what I hold to be true facts (not suspicions or beliefs -- FACTS), I must be rude and challenge someone else's faith. So I generally choose to soften my speech, but that softening comes at some personal cost. And at times I feel a of that childish "THAT'S NOT FAIR" when I hear so many theists asserting God's existence as a fact.

In the end, we agree that if something is unknown or unknowable, it's odd at best (and rude at worst) for someone to claim to have definitive knowledge about it. Where we differ, I think, is whether or not religious claims fall into that category. If I thought it was unknowable whether or not God (or gods) exist, I would be an agnostic. But I'm not, I'm an atheist. To be polite, I pretend that being an atheist is, for me, sort of like being agnostic. But it's not (at least of me). I KNOW God doesn't exist. I don't want to disrespect anyone, but that's my state of mind.
posted by grumblebee at 4:33 PM on March 21, 2010


But you were criticizing Karen Armstrong because her religion doesn't fit in an Evangelical-Christianity-shaped box.

No, I was criticizing her criticism of atheists for not using words the same way she does, and instead using them the way most people in our (English speaking) societies do. I don't care what Karen Armstrong thinks, why would I?

I'm just responding to this snarky "Karen Armstrong knows that atheists and evangelicals don't know WTF they're actually talking about" sentiment, expressed in comments like this:
Rather, they seem to see what modern-day "new atheists" and contemporary fundamentalists miss, but that Karen Armstrong understands, along with centuries of monks and theologians and mystics and ordinary religious people: religion in its deepest form is not primarily a question of belief but a question of practice, a doing rather than a thinking
...
And thus the Dawkinsites and the creationists continue to have their quarrels, entirely unaware of how monumentally irrelevant such quarrels are, while everyone else, including these good pastors, gets on with the actual living of spiritual life...
posted by delmoi at 4:59 PM on March 21, 2010


When you saw the headline "Dennett interviews clergymen who don't believe in God" did you have any doubt what slant the article would take? Did you expect to find hard hitting questions like "Don't you think what you're doing is fraudulent?" Are you at all surprised that the closing paragraph begins, "These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago"? Might not a less biased interviewer suggest that genuine bravery would entail publicly stating their beliefs and living with the consequences?
posted by straight at 3:32 PM on March 21 [+] [!]
I didn't have any doubts or expectations one way or another, not being familiar with Dennett's work. Instead, I went in with an open mind, and found a terribly interesting article. I'm not sure what you mean by "less biased" here, aside from that Dennett wrote this article without starting from the same set of assumptions as you hold. I definitely don't think that telling people going through this sort of crisis of faith, being, and belonging that they're not "genuinely brave" is at all helpful, empathetic, or productive.

As to your point about the contribution of amateurs, it would seem contingent on how you define "an axe to grind." Mendel's spent years of passionate thought in the garden, ten years among the peas, figuring out the mysteries of inheritance, apparently wouldn't be, but Dennett's interviewing some clerics who've wrestled with faith is? Is this a case of "no true axe-grinder?"
posted by jtron at 5:38 PM on March 21, 2010


grumblebee: I hate it when people bring The Easter Bunny and Santa into these discussions

Then why did you? I certainly never mentioned them.

Are you saying that it's rude for me to insist that The Easter Bunny doesn't exist, even though I can't prove that it doesn't exist?

I would consider the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny proven, for values of "proven" that involve adult people who aren't obviously mentally ill.

God doesn't exist.

There is a lot of evidence, particularly at the anecdotal and personal level for individuals you might meet, that you are wrong. There are powerful and common feelings and perceptions which are often interpreted as evidence that God (or some other invisible conscious power) exists, and a lot of people take the most obvious interpretation of these experiences. Of course these experiences could also represent a common perceptual defect, like the ones that make casinos work. I would not consider it proven (or, at our current state of the art, provable) that such experiences aren't what they seem. In fact, while I'm very sure that no God of the Judeo-Christian omni-list variety exists (mainly because Mandelbrot erased the last vestiges of a need for It), I am not at all sure that those all too common human experiences don't represent something other than malfunctioning wetware, that the Universe might be a very different thing than scientists think it is and that it is only in certain states of mind that we glimpse past some perverse illusion into a normally hidden truth.

I don't consider that latter possibility likely, but I don't consider it impossible either. And so I cut a certain amount of slack for people who choose to run under that assumption, as long as they're cool with my usually running with the other idea.

And I don't think it would be rude to tell the Easter Bunny believer that they might want to at least consider the possibility that the experience that seems to validate their belief wasn't what it seemed. I would however consider it very rude to tell them directly, after they relate such an experience and its importance, that their experience certainly wasn't what they think it was.
posted by localroger at 5:48 PM on March 21, 2010


I am not at all sure that those all too common human experiences don't represent something other than malfunctioning wetware

That there is wide disagreement over what those experience mean and what the cause of them is does not mean that those who have them are "malfunctioning", any more than those of us who don't have them are "malfunctioning".
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:00 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


pope guilty, I thought the point I was making was pretty much exactly the one you're making, so I'm not sure why you quoted and responded in this way.
posted by localroger at 6:35 PM on March 21, 2010


In fact, while I'm very sure that no God of the Judeo-Christian omni-list variety exists (mainly because Mandelbrot erased the last vestiges of a need for It), I am not at all sure that those all too common human experiences don't represent something other than malfunctioning wetware...

Right. You're talking about you. And I respect your world view.

MY world view is that God doesn't exist -- full stop.

Yes, I get that there aren't lots of sane, smart people who believe in God and so you think I that fact should impact me. Maybe it should. It doesn't. We can discuss why that is, but that's a different discussion from what to do about the fact that I am the way I am. And that you and I have to co-exist in the same world.

From my point of view, God definitely does not exist. You are trying to explain to my why my point of view is wrong (or not necessarily right), and that's fine, but it's a different conversation.

Maybe I'm deluded. Maybe I have tunnel vision. Maybe I'm failing to grasp some elementary logic. All of those things might be true. If so, they are the REASON why I "know" God doesn't exist. But the reason doesn't matter, unless you can change me -- and, if you can, that change will happen in the the future. Right now, I know God doesn't exist.

If you want to say, "No, you THINK you know that," I'd counter by saying that everything we say we know we really just think we know. I am as sure that God doesn't exist as I am that I am 44, that my birthday is November 15th, and that I live in New York. I doesn't matter whether or not I'm deluded. I am not choosing to be deluded. It's what I am stuck with. (At least for now.)

What I can do is to choose whether or not to keep my knowledge/delusion in the closet. Generally, I choose to do so, because I don't want to hurt anyone. That's a considerable sacrifice on my part.

I would however consider it very rude to tell them directly, after they relate such an experience and its importance, that their experience certainly wasn't what they think it was.

Me too, and I would never do something like that (I thought I made that clear when I talked about dinner parties). That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is, say, if I wrote a book in which I outlined why God doesn't exist. Or if I had a conversation about it in public, with my friends, and a theist overheard it. Or if I was asked, in an interview, what I thought about God. Etc.

My claim is that many (not all) theists would feel threatened by such statements, even when they are not said directly to them or said with disrespect. (Unless just voicing such ideas is disrespectful.)

And I think they have reason to feel threatened, as I explained above. The fact that they do shows that, for many people, religion is not just "doing" -- it's also dogma. Doing can not be threatened (unless you stop people from doing what they are doing). Dogma CAN be threatened by opposing dogma.

I may be deluded, but my specific brand of dogma -- that God definitely does not exist -- is connected to a core part of who I am. So what I'm trying to say is that we're living in an unfortunate world in which there are people like me and also people who need everyone to at least be open minded about God. That's chasm is hard to bridge. As far as I can tell, the only way to bridge it is for one of the two camps to agree to closet themselves. In generally, that's what I choose to do. (I am acting out of character here, for the sake of this conversation.)

As important as it is for me to express that part of myself, I don't think it's as important to me as theistic dogma is to many theists. Aside from telling me to "be more open minded," which I don't know how to do, can you think of some sort of system that would totally satisfy all parties? I can't. Someone has to give or everyone has to fight all the time.
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 PM on March 21, 2010


grumblebee, I personally don't have a problem with your particular dogma being enthusiastically evangelized. I have a much bigger problem with Christians who think their belief system is teh only shiznit evar.

A system capable of satisfying all parties is obviously impossible if any of the parties is incapable of accepting the existence of any of the others.

I tend toward atheism myself so I have a pretty good idea where you're coming from. At a younger age I was just as fervent an atheist as you seem to be and could easily imagine my younger self leaving your post. But it was religion and the realization of how badly I'd been conned by a particular brand of it that made me that way, and I eventually realized that while I was probably closer to the truth as an atheist than I had been as a Baptist, I had just replaced one unjustifiable dogma with another.

I have no problem with people who want to relate to me their religious beliefs. I do object to people who insist that beliefs other than their own are necessarily inferior and that if I don't subscribe to their beliefs, I must be boxed on the ears until I submit because I am clearly deficient in whatever character trait they have chosen to value -- and that is true of both Christians and what the late Robert Anton Wilson called "fundamentalist materialists."

I think you are wrong that most theists would be threatened by statements challenging their core beliefs, if you are willing (as is commonly assumed) to include among theists Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Shintoists, aboriginals, and a lot of other similar people. Oh, and Unitarians. Can't forget them.

The big problem is that the very idea religion has been hijacked by a few xenophobic systems that are well tuned to the sole purpose of drowning out all systems of thought that are incompatible with them. This leads to the idea that, should you not be with their programme, the only way to counter them is to be just as xenophobic and confrontational. This just sucks you into their negativity vortex, and makes you like them.

My main point here is that for most of human history (and bearing in mind that human history has been going on for at least 150,000 years) it does not seem that religion worked like this. This means it is possible for religion to work in a better, non-xenophobic way, and I'd prefer to be around people who practice their religion (whether it involves faithless rituals, a genuine belief in Zeus, or a fervent disbelief in anything nonmaterial) in that way.
posted by localroger at 7:37 PM on March 21, 2010


I'm not an unbeliever. I've had those transcendent experiences, too, and I think it's useful to interpret them within the Christian tradition.

Pater, why limit your interpretive lens to that of Christianity? Would your conclusions not be better informed by interpreting them also through the lenses of [insert religious thinking here]?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:45 PM on March 21, 2010


pope guilty, I thought the point I was making was pretty much exactly the one you're making, so I'm not sure why you quoted and responded in this way.

I just don't like that kind of language about people.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:51 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


pope guilty, your reaction genuinely puzzles me. Is the language you don't like "malfunctioning?"

I use a word like that to refer to humans because it is specifically descriptive, not as an epithet. If your cells are cancerous, they are malfunctioning. If your pancreas, like mine, doesn't produce enough insulin to deal with normal foods, it is malfunctioning. If your thalamus does not produce enough dopamine and the DSM-IV people diagnose you as a sociopath as a result, it's malfunctioning. If you have flushed your life down the maw of a slot machine because of an irrational belief that you will inevitably hit the jacpot, you are malfunctioning.

None of that is meant to suggest that you aren't human. If my computer malfunctions it doesn't mean it isn't a computer; all it means is that it's not performing the way it should.
posted by localroger at 8:09 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


vorfeed, while it's true that there have been wars between polytheistic cultures those wars have usually been obviously due to some resource or territorial conflict, not a desire for one group to impose its religious views on the other.

"Usually" doesn't fit universal statements like "syncretic religions are not threatened or challenged by other religions" and "for most of human history (and bearing in mind that human history has been going on for at least 150,000 years) it does not seem that religion worked like this". Religion did work like that, over and over again, throughout history. For every example of a syncretic group which tolerated all religions (like, say, the Mongols), you've got another example which went to war over religion.

For example, it's worth noting that Japan -- a highly syncretic mix of Buddhism and Shinto -- whipped itself up into an explicitly religious attempt to conquer its neighbors just 60 years ago. The Buddhists and Confucians struggled over religion in Korea, ending in five centuries' worth of state suppression of the former. One of the primary reasons for war among the Aztecs was religious sacrifice. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest also ended with Germanic pagans sacrificing Romans. Back in Japan, the Buddhists oppressed the Christians, and the Shintoists and Confucianists oppressed the Buddhists and the Christians, all for explicitly religious reasons.

The idea that "religion has been hijacked by a few xenophobic systems" is based on "150,000 years" of history which did not always (or perhaps even often) happen that way. I recommend War Before Civilization for a good overview of why ancient cultures were by no means primarily "non-xenophobic".
posted by vorfeed at 2:23 AM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


vorfeed, every single example you give (and most particularly the first, the Japanese entering WWII, sheesh) is more easily explained as a nonreligious conflict over territory resources in which religion was used as one of many tools to propel the festivities. By contrast, if you look at the expansion of Christianity or Islam, in many cases there isn't much there except the religious imperative.

Anyway, the Japanese ... sheesh ... must clean spittle off monitor. What a howler.
posted by localroger at 5:14 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray"

They're all pretending. When we were little kids playing outside after dark (does that happen any more?) and one of us saw something and called it a ghost, other kids would say they saw it, too. The discussion would then revolve around discerning the exact nature of what was seen. Did it have red glowing eyes? Did it howl or whoosh? Did it move slowly or in a jerky fashion? Was it shimmering or flashing? Sometimes we would come to a consensus, but sometimes factions developed over the red-eye thing, say. After a while, it was hard to remember that there really was no ghost.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:33 AM on March 22, 2010


I have had some very involved discussions about theism vs. atheism and I am willing to go as far as to concede that the Big Bang is still a mysterious event, and we cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that it was deliberately caused by someone, however, even if it was caused by someone, we know absolutely nothing about who caused it or why. My own hypothesis is that the universe was created by means of a high school science experiment taking place in a different universe (which, perhaps, was also the product of a high school science experiment in yet another universe).
posted by grizzled at 6:19 AM on March 22, 2010


They're all pretending.

This is wrong, unless countless theists I've talked to (and read statements from and about) are lying. Even if some of them are lying, it's a pretty absurd claim to say they are ALL lying (or pretending).

You're creating this weird model of theists in which they all claim to have seen God. Yet many theists say just the opposite, that they have never seen Him (heard Him, etc.) and don't expect to. Some claim they have "sensed" Him in a vague way. Others don't even claim that, saying instead that, though they have no personal experience of God, they accept His existence as an article of faith.

I know theists who are skeptical when one of their numbers claims to have sensed God in any tangible way.

Even in the ranks of theists who have directly experienced God, there are plenty who aren't pretending. As atheists, you and I might believe they are deluded, but plenty are sincere. Of course SOME are pretending. But any monolithic statement about ALL theists is bound to be wrong. It's like saying that all girls like pink.
posted by grumblebee at 8:08 AM on March 22, 2010


Yeah, no true Scotsman.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:22 AM on March 22, 2010


delmoi: Yes, since you redefined all the words, there's no debate, the debate would then be pointless. But that hardly matters when you're only talking about a slim minority of educated 'religious' people vs the vast majority out there. It's also very condescending.

Well, I certainly apologize for a condescending tone. But your argument's bizarre. I am saying that the definition of religion as primarily belief, and God as primarily a factual claim about the existence of an entity, is incredibly localized, historically and culturally. I'm not defining anything away; I'm saying that the definition over which "militant atheists" and their evangelical Christian mirror-images obsess is not the only one, and perhaps not the most important one. We can have an empirical argument, of course, about whether I'm right to say this definition of religion is as historically and culturally localized as I'm claiming. But nothing is being defined away. And the idea, expressed by some others here, that the Armstrong-style definition of religion is some kind of modern debating trick that's been invented to counter the rise of the new atheism, just shows a complete ignorance of theology and religious history — sorry if it sounds condescending to say that, but it's true.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:41 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I definitely don't think that telling people going through this sort of crisis of faith, being, and belonging that they're not "genuinely brave" is at all helpful, empathetic, or productive.

I have a lot of sympathy for the tough, painful situation these people are going through. I mean no insult to say that just having that experience doesn't necessarily make a person brave. I wasn't saying to them, "You're a coward." I was saying to Dennett, "It seems polemical for you to call these people brave."

As to your point about the contribution of amateurs, it would seem contingent on how you define "an axe to grind." Mendel's spent years of passionate thought in the garden, ten years among the peas, figuring out the mysteries of inheritance, apparently wouldn't be, but Dennett's interviewing some clerics who've wrestled with faith is? Is this a case of "no true axe-grinder?"

Oh come on. Mendel didn't write a bunch of books picking public fights with people about plant genetics, interview five gardeners who he knew shared his opinions about genetics, and then publish a newspaper article which was used by his allies to bash his ideological enemies.
posted by straight at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm just responding to this snarky "Karen Armstrong knows that atheists and evangelicals don't know WTF they're actually talking about" sentiment

If you're one of the people who uses the word "religion" when they're actually talking about fundamentalism, then you deserve that snark. If you're not, then it's not aimed at to you.
posted by straight at 12:55 PM on March 22, 2010


vorfeed, every single example you give (and most particularly the first, the Japanese entering WWII, sheesh) is more easily explained as a nonreligious conflict over territory resources in which religion was used as one of many tools to propel the festivities.

The Confucianists in Korea suppressed the Buddhists due to things like "Buddhism's escapist, antinomian and nihilistic tendencies"... but they were actually doing it for "territory resources"? Which territory resources were those, exactly, given that both groups were part of the same religious and intellectual community in the same country?

By contrast, if you look at the expansion of Christianity or Islam, in many cases there isn't much there except the religious imperative.

So, let me get this straight: syncretic religions are about doing rather than thinking, except when they're not. They aren't threatened by other religions, except when they are. They don't make religious war, either, except when they do, and when they do, it doesn't count. Unlike the Christians and Muslims, for whom there "wasn't much there except the religious imperative" when they sacked cities, expanded empires, and carried off fortunes. Convenient!

Anyway, the Japanese ... sheesh ... must clean spittle off monitor. What a howler.

Oh, yeah, what a howler! The Japanese had a habit of calling it 聖戦 ("Holy War"), right from the very start. There's a huge monument in Japan, to this day, with "GREATER EAST ASIA HOLY WAR MONUMENT" written on it in gigantic characters -- guess that was a typo, right? As must be the modern-day Greater East Asia Holy War Society? Japanese-language wikipedia even lists it as a holy war, right next to Jihad and the Crusades.

In short: they had religious reasons for the war, including a specific religious rationale for expansion and an explicit conflation between religion and the military, and they even called the goddamn thing a holy war themselves... oh, but they weren't really having a holy war because it was also a war of expansion! Even more convenient, that.
posted by vorfeed at 1:17 PM on March 22, 2010


I just don't like that kind of language about people.
posted by Pope Guilty


Heh.
posted by Xezlec at 7:32 PM on March 22, 2010


vorfeed, if you don't understand the difference between a war started for secular reasons that is promoted with religious propaganda and a war started for religious reasons, then it's really hard to think of anything else to say.

The Japanese didn't invade China because it was holy to them, or because they wanted to convert the Chinese to Shinto, they invaded because they were old racial enemies and they wanted their natural resources. The main reason they started the war at all was that they were stuck on an island with very limited natural resources compared to their longtime enemies. Having made the decision to start the war for reasons that had about as much to do with religion as our invasion of Iraq they then set about constructing justifications, and they found religion very useful in that role.

The Crusades, by contrast, were about recapturing the place where Christianity started for Christendom. There was no expectation that natural resources would be found or trade established; the primary goal was to secure one city full of heathens and replace them with devout Christians. Anything else that might be won was considered lagniappe.

The fact that you call your war a holy war doesn't make it so. We said our late adventure was about WMD's and that was a lie too.
posted by localroger at 5:25 AM on March 23, 2010


This is such a weird debate. It's like two people arguing over whether slavery was THE cause of the American Civil War or whether the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was THE cause of World War I.

The desire to grab resources and power is a deeply human trait. Religious belief is also a deeply human trait. So is fear and hatred of otherness. Most wars come able to do a confluence of many forces playing in tandem.

Are you sure that ALL of the forces behind the Japanese invasion were secular? I don't see how it matters if most of them were. Are you sure that NONE of the forces behind the Crusades were political or economic?

In any culture in which lots of people follow a practice or doctrine, there are naturally going to be power-hungry people who use that practice or doctrine as a tool and as a weapon. There are also going to be true believers. And some of those believers are going to be insecure enough to lash out at people who don't share the belief.

These posts remind me of the people today who say things like, "The conflicts in the Middle East have nothing to do with religion. They are about oil." That's just as dumb as claiming that they have nothing to do with oil, because they are purely religious battles. In the real world, very little is pure.

There's another human need worth discussing here: the need to take a complex (and scary) process and render it into a simple narrative. That often makes it more palatable, but the baby of truth gets thrown out with the bathwater of complexity.
posted by grumblebee at 8:26 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hope you're not referring to me, grumblebee; I think I've made it perfectly clear that the Crusades and the Sino-Japanese war were not purely holy wars. My point is that the existence of secular reasons for a war is not enough to say it isn't a holy war, if the religious reasons for it are also strong.

To address localroger's points: "the difference between a war started for secular reasons that is promoted with religious propaganda and a war started for religious reasons" is pretty much moot when the people involved are still admitting it was a holy war sixty years later. The extent to which this war was religious for the Japanese went way, way beyond "promoting with religious propaganda". If the religious aspect of the war had been mere propaganda, the people in power wouldn't have believed it unto violent death; many of them did.

The difference between the religious motivation of the Japanese and "our invasion of Iraq" is so tremendous that I'm not sure why you think they're remotely comparable.

The Crusades, by contrast, were about recapturing the place where Christianity started for Christendom. There was no expectation that natural resources would be found or trade established;the primary goal was to secure one city full of heathens and replace them with devout Christians.

The Crusades were partly started for prestige, territory, and money. Especially the later Crusades, in which money actually became the primary goal. The Fourth Crusaders sacked two Christian cities, including the capital of the Eastern Christian world, and carried off nearly a million silver franks' worth of treasure, even after the Pope called them back. Likewise, the Albigensian Crusade and some of the Northern Crusades were led against Christians, largely for territory. Again, that doesn't make them secular wars, necessarily, but it does put a crimp in your simplistic argument.

Again, my point isn't IT IS SO A HOLY WAR! as much as it is that syncretic polytheists used religion to control and conquer in much the same way monotheists did, throughout history. The idea that they're inherently "non-xenophobic", "non-confrontational", and "not threatened or challenged by other religions" does not stand up to even the slightest historical scrutiny. The only way you can defend statements like these is if every conflict which walks like a polytheistic religious conflict and quacks like a polytheistic religious conflict isn't a religious conflict... which is, unsurprisingly, the entirety of your argument.
posted by vorfeed at 11:39 AM on March 23, 2010


I hope you're not referring to me, grumblebee;

No. I think we are in agreement, unless you're taking the polar opposite view to localroger, which I don't think you are. You and I both believe that the causes of most "religious" conflicts throughout history have been both religious and secular, right? No era or country has ever had a religion unblighted by secular concerns. No country has ever been so secular that religion doesn't exert a push. No religion is 100% practice or dogma.
posted by grumblebee at 11:56 AM on March 23, 2010


No. I think we are in agreement, unless you're taking the polar opposite view to localroger, which I don't think you are. You and I both believe that the causes of most "religious" conflicts throughout history have been both religious and secular, right?

Yes, of course.

What I object to is the idea that syncretic polytheistic religions are somehow "better and non-xenophobic" in that they a) don't actually believe in their own religion b) don't insist that beliefs other than their own are necessarily inferior c) don't take offense when their core beliefs are challenged and d) don't suppress or attack other religions.

These are ridiculous assertions in light of history, as is the "religion has been hijacked by a few xenophobic systems that are well tuned to the sole purpose of drowning out all systems of thought that are incompatible with them" conspiracy theory which goes along with it. I'm no fan of monotheism, but the idea that religious faith and/or religious oppression were invented and solely practiced by monotheists is laughable. As is the idea that we can "rediscover" or "reinvent" an all-tolerant ur-religion which never existed in the first place.
posted by vorfeed at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2010


I grew up the son of a theologically liberal, universalist Episcopal priest. Knowing his friends and colleagues, I don't find anything even remotely shocking in this post. Why does someone have to believe in a set dogma or mythos to be spiritual or "religious"? Why does one have to do so to help others find their own spritual self?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:24 PM on March 23, 2010


I'm no fan of monotheism, but the idea that religious faith and/or religious oppression were invented and solely practiced by monotheists is laughable. As is the idea that we can "rediscover" or "reinvent" an all-tolerant ur-religion which never existed in the first place.

One reason that you're right is that (all?) religions have something to say about ethics. Once you take a stand about what's right and what's wrong, you are going to piss off people who disagree. And, if your religion's ethics are important to you, you are going to be threatened by different ethical systems. All it takes is one leader or group to escalate these disagreements and you have violence. Both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religious include moral teaching.
posted by grumblebee at 1:28 PM on March 23, 2010


if your religion's ethics are important to you, you are going to be threatened by different ethical systems

Not all religious traditions are rigid and dogmatic. Some disagree and don't care. Some say others are simply "miguided believers" that will end up with a final positive outcome as well in their own way.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2010


Why does someone have to believe in a set dogma or mythos to be spiritual or "religious"? Why does one have to do so to help others find their own spritual self?

I have a lot of sympathy for those guys, but they are liars. Sure, you can probably do a great job as a priest without believing in the dogma. But if the people you are "leading" have a reasonable expectation that you believe in the dogma, and you KNOW that they have that expectation, and you act as if you are fulfilling it, there's a problem. The problem has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with one person lying to other people.

What if I fell out of love with my wife but decided never to tell her and to act like I love her. Isn't that a problem? If I found out my wife had been doing that to me, I would be deeply upset. I wouldn't feel like, "Oh, well, she acted like she loved me, and I felt loved. So what's the problem?"

Maybe this points to a problem in the system. Maybe, when churches hire clergy, they should say, "Hey, we don't care if you're an atheist or a believer, as long as you do a good job!" But that's not what they say. And those guys know it.

Again, sympathize with them and I understand how they are trapped. In their shoes, I have no idea if I would have the balls to come forward, especially if I was supporting kids. But I would know that coming forward was the right thing to do. I would know that I was behaving selfishly by not coming forward. The right thing to do is to say to the parishioners, "I have to be honest. I no longer believe in God [or whatever]. I do, however, believe that I can still do a lot of good in this position, and I hope you agree with me."

To not do that is either an (understandable) act of selfishness or a rude act of condescension. If you're "doing it for their own good," because if they knew the truth, they'd be robbed of someone who was trying to help them, you are infantisizing them. They are adults and should be given all the facts and allowed to make their own decisions.
posted by grumblebee at 1:39 PM on March 23, 2010


I have a lot of sympathy for those guys, but they are liars.

Again, you are assuming that the dogma is rigid. I can assure you that my father and his colleagues are not hiding their personal jorney with the people they counsel and serve.

They are adults and should be given all the facts and allowed to make their own decisions.

This is the gist of liberal, universalist theology. This isn't a new age concept either, we're talking about centuries of thought and practice. Doubt is not the enemy of all religious organizations.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:46 PM on March 23, 2010


I am not making an assumption about anyone except the people in the article. I don't know anything about your father and his colleagues.

If a church is liberal enough to accept a clergyman who is totally honest about his beliefs (or lack of them), then to me there's no problem.

I am not talking about churches like that. Someone in a more conservative/traditional church who is lying is doing wrong.

Actually, all I'm saying is "lying is wrong."
posted by grumblebee at 1:51 PM on March 23, 2010


One reason that you're right is that (all?) religions have something to say about ethics. Once you take a stand about what's right and what's wrong, you are going to piss off people who disagree.

Exactly. This is a fundamental flaw in Karen Armstrong and/or localroger style religion -- it involves a failure to understand that "compassionate", "tolerant" ethical systems like the Golden Rule aren't actually universal, especially not historically, and it lacks a non-contradictory answer as to what to do when faced with "un-compassionate" or "intolerant" ethical systems.

It's the same old cake-and-eat-it-too refrain: We mustn't be tolerant of intolerance! "My belief is that all beliefs (including both mine and yours) have a fundamental validity"... except if someone has beliefs which contradict this belief, then that's rude, and the ensuing conflict is their fault! We must "honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect" by "return[ing] to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate"... and hey, if you're upset by the "respectful" idea that your interpretation of scripture is "illegitimate" and "rude", "childish and stupid", then guess what? You're intolerant!

Substitute "evil" for "rude" and "intolerant" above, and you have the exact same hang-up that's supposedly so problematic. What's more, you have a religion that wouldn't know actual tolerance if it came up and bit it in the "compassionate" ass. This stuff is so self-contradictory it hurts.
posted by vorfeed at 2:31 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Exactly. This is a fundamental flaw in Karen Armstrong and/or localroger style religion -- it involves a failure to understand that "compassionate", "tolerant" ethical systems like the Golden Rule aren't actually universal, especially not historically, and it lacks a non-contradictory answer as to what to do when faced with "un-compassionate" or "intolerant" ethical systems.

So?

Can't someone have an ethical system that says something about some things and leaves other things open to further debate? It sounds like you're saying it's not perfect, that is, it suffers from some of the same problems as other systems. But that isn't to say it suffers from all of the same problems. Mightn't Armstrong's system be better just because it narrows the allowable hatred down to just that one category, at least? I mean, it does pretty much rule out hating people just because of skin color or arbitrary things like that.
posted by Xezlec at 7:21 PM on March 23, 2010


Wait. You're talking as if Armstrong is proposing some system and suggesting we all follow it. Maybe she is doing that. But that's not what vorfeed is talking about (as I understand it). He's not talking about what SHOULD happen; he's talking about what DID happen.

I agree with him. To put what he's saying more colloquially, "I'm totally tolerant of anything anyone wants to do -- of any religious or moral system -- as long as everyone, you know, is good and not evil." This (incorrectly) assumes that we all have the share definitions of good and evil.
posted by grumblebee at 8:07 PM on March 23, 2010


No, what I was arguing was that it was more like "My definition of evil is intolerance of things that are not evil". While it's true that that still runs into a potential problem due to its recursiveness (specifically, the problem vorfeed describes, that you can always be intolerant of other people's ethical systems if you want, even under this rule), it arguably avoids some bigger problems (specifically, it makes it harder to be intolerant of certain other cultural activities and religious rituals), and therefore has at least some merit in terms of increasing tolerance.

I thought vorfeed was saying it was not an improvement at all over traditional religious morality. I was saying it might be, even if it still suffers from one kind of problem.
posted by Xezlec at 8:37 PM on March 23, 2010


I thought vorfeed was saying it was not an improvement at all over traditional religious morality.

Traditional religious morality doesn't just go

1 THOU SHALT NOT BE INTOLERANT
2 THOU SHALT NOT TOLERATE BELIEFS WHICH OPPOSE 1
3 GOTO 1


In that, it is far superior, even if I'm not personally a fan.

As grumblebee points out, the only way Armstrong's morals work is through self-contradiction. Worse yet, they're a "tolerant" ruleset which brands most of the religious believers on Earth as illegitimate! Thus, they don't increase tolerance at all. If they ever became as widespread as Armstrong hopes, they'd only trigger more of the same conflict and disrespect they're ostensibly trying to prevent, because the billions of people whose beliefs are "illegitimate" are not going to just roll over and accept the systematic disenfranchisement of their belief systems.

True respect for all human beliefs obviously includes respect for human beliefs you don't like, even the "hateful" ones; it's not just an excuse to enshrine your own values as the only ones that are legitimate, whether they're "tolerant" or not.

This is the kind of stuff Captain Kirk used to blow up plywood robots with blinkenlights on them, not a fully-realized philosophy.
posted by vorfeed at 10:52 PM on March 23, 2010


Worse yet, they're a "tolerant" ruleset which brands most of the religious believers on Earth as illegitimate!

Again, no true Scotsman. It seems like all arguments in favor of religious theism play back and forth between this argument and semantic shifting of meanings from sentence to sentence. Try to pin down a definition of "God" that satisfies even a majority of believers. You basically have groups coalescing around a set of definitions and practices and reinforcing them by group cohesion.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:56 AM on March 24, 2010


I am not talking about churches like that. Someone in a more conservative/traditional church who is lying is doing wrong.

But see that's the thing, Fundamentalism and rigid dogma is no more "traditional" than tolerance. Hell, all you have to do is read the Bible (not that Old Testament part, the part with Jesus and the Disciples in it) to see the breaking of rigid dogma in favor of a more universal concept of piety. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan; we all know it, but what we largely fail to grasp in our modern reading is that the hero of the story is an unclean Samaritan. Samaritans are non-Judean outcasts, yet he's the guy that comes in and saves the day, what's "Jesus's" lesson there? Not just that we shouldn't leave someone in need by the side of the road, but, and here's the radical break from rigid, xenophobic dogma, that even filthy heretic can be Godly. Here is the split between the rigid early "Jews (only) for Jesus" type church and the tolerant, (small e) evangelical teachings of the church post-disciples writ large: even a filthy gentile can be "saved". And Luke was written in the late 00's, nearly 200 years before Nicea and everything, so what could be more traditional than that?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:20 AM on March 24, 2010


Sorry, but I don't really understand what you're talking about, Pollomacho, and I suspect you and I are talking about two totally different things.

All I'm saying is that those guys were lying to their churches. And that such lying, by my ethics (and I think by most people's ethics) is wrong.

My guess is that most people do not even accept lying "for someone's own good" as morally justifiable. Which is why I can't accept what those guys are doing, even if by lying they are able to stay in jobs in which they are helping a lot of people. Any time you lie to someone for his own good, you infantilize him. With the greatest respect for Jack Nicholson, no one has the right to say, "You can't handle the truth."

Which is not to say that in those guys shoes I wouldn't act the same way they are acting. I would probably lie to save my career and family. But I would do so knowing I was doing wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 9:07 AM on March 24, 2010


As grumblebee points out, the only way Armstrong's morals work is through self-contradiction.

I don't know how you've decided to interpret her, but the rule I described is well-defined and not self-contradictory.

Worse yet, they're a "tolerant" ruleset which brands most of the religious believers on Earth as illegitimate!

Not illegitimate, just wrong (at least logically, and perhaps morally). Any ethical system necessarily conflicts with other ethical systems. I don't see how you're going to get around that. If you believe X, then you believe that people who believe not-X are wrong.

Thus, they don't increase tolerance at all.

Well, I have shown that my phrasing does. You haven't rebutted my argument on that point. To repeat, I think you're confusing "doesn't achieve perfect, complete tolerance" with "doesn't increase tolerance at all".

True respect for all human beliefs obviously includes respect for human beliefs you don't like, even the "hateful" ones

Then Lincoln was morally wrong to oppose slavery?

Also, look, you aren't showing a lot of respect for Karen Armstrong's beliefs, are you? I fail to see how your own position is not self-contradictory.
posted by Xezlec at 1:22 PM on March 24, 2010


I don't know how you've decided to interpret her, but the rule I described is well-defined and not self-contradictory.

"My definition of evil is intolerance of things that are not evil" isn't "well-defined" and "not self-contradictory". It basically says "My definition of evil is intolerance of things that are not intolerance of things that are not intolerance of things that are not...", on and on forever. There's no actual definition of evil there, whatsoever. It's a meaningless circular statement.

Not illegitimate, just wrong (at least logically, and perhaps morally). Any ethical system necessarily conflicts with other ethical systems. I don't see how you're going to get around that. If you believe X, then you believe that people who believe not-X are wrong.

Armstrong used the word "illegitimate", as in "any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate". And, again, the problem isn't that her ethical system conflicts with other ethical systems. It's that it conflicts with itself by interpreting scripture in a way which breeds disdain for "illegitimate" beliefs.

Well, I have shown that my phrasing does.

Your phrasing doesn't even have coherent meaning, much less function as a rule which will increase tolerance. As grumblebee said, the only way it does anything at all is if you assume that everyone on Earth has the same definition for "not evil". They don't.

Also, look, you aren't showing a lot of respect for Karen Armstrong's beliefs, are you? I fail to see how your own position is not self-contradictory.

I never claimed to follow this philosophy myself. In fact, I'm opposed to it. I hope that clears up any apparent contradiction.
posted by vorfeed at 2:51 PM on March 24, 2010


Then Lincoln was morally wrong to oppose slavery?

Of course you and I (and hopefully most people here) don't think of him as morally wrong. That's because we share his ethical system. Or some system similar to it.

People who are PRO slavery have a different moral system.

It's absurd to say "we are tolerant of all sorts of systems -- except for those loathsome ones that are pro slavery." That just means we're tolerant of all systems, except when they clash with our system. Which is to say that we're intolerant. (Any meaningful use of "tolerance" doesn't include tolerating people with the same values as me.)

I see what you're saying about Armstrong's way being less intolerant, because it tolerates other people's rituals. But that's pretty arbitrary. It tolerates other people's rituals but not their different ethical systems. Some other "somewhat tolerant" way might be intolerant of rituals but tolerant of ethical systems. (Do whatever you want to your neighbor -- just make sure you get to the church on time.)

My guess is that if you take any "intolerant" system, you are going to find some things that it tolerates. And the people who are part of that system are going to focus on those pocket of tolerance and pat themselves on the back for being so broadminded. But people who follow some arbitrary system that tolerates some things and not others shouldn't fool themselves into thinking they are part of a generally tolerant system.

I grew up around liberals and have pretty liberal takes on a lot of things -- certainly on social issues like gay marriage. But one thing that drives me batshit is this mantra I hear all my friends spouting about how tolerant "we liberals" are as opposed to "those conservatives." Well, we're certainly not very tolerant of "those conservatives." In fact, we're downright horrible to them. "That's because they're intolerant."

Okay, so if someone is intolerant, you have the right to be intolerant of them? So now that you're intolerant of them, you are intolerant, so people now have the right to be intolerant to you. Right? "No, because THEY started it!" Ugh.

But all of this is academic. We don't live in a world now -- nor have we even lived in a world -- that is highly tolerant of of out-of-the-norm rituals or morals. And I don't see how coming to a conclusion about whether Armstrong's way makes sense or not will lead to any useful outcome. Even if we decide that her way is best, we're not going to be her way.
posted by grumblebee at 6:27 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


"My definition of evil is intolerance of things that are not evil" isn't "well-defined" and "not self-contradictory". It basically says "My definition of evil is intolerance of things that are not intolerance of things that are not intolerance of things that are not...", on and on forever.

Yes, that's what it says. So, for example, let's try homosexuality. Is it evil? Does it fit the above definition? No, it can't, because it isn't a form of intolerance of something. What about, say, Islamic extremism? Well, some of the things it doesn't tolerate include things like homosexuality, which is not a form of intolerance and doesn't fit the above definition. Therefore, since it is intolerant of something not evil, Islamic extremism is evil by that definition.

There's no actual definition of evil there, whatsoever. It's a meaningless circular statement.

No, you're just brushing it off because it's recursive and you're not comfortable with recursive statements for some reason. Infinitely recursive statements aren't necessarily meaningless. An awful lot of things in mathematics are defined that way, in fact!
posted by Xezlec at 8:18 PM on March 24, 2010


I see what you're saying about Armstrong's way being less intolerant, because it tolerates other people's rituals. But that's pretty arbitrary.

It's not that arbitrary; it's actually kind of pragmatic. People's morals/ethics are precisely the thing that causes trouble if it's wrong or nonexistent. It makes sense for each ethical system to see itself as the one that should win. I'm not sure any ethical system could avoid seeing itself that way without leading to contradiction, in fact. So this rule just says "OK, granted, you're going to see your ethics as best, nothing we can do about that, but that's the only thing you're allowed to feel that way about."

My guess is that if you take any "intolerant" system, you are going to find some things that it tolerates.

OK, but can you construct a self-consistent system that tolerates something that my rule doesn't?

Your example of tolerating other ethical systems but not other practices doesn't sound consistent to me. If you believe people should tolerate other ethical systems, but not the actions they take because of those systems, you aren't tolerating anything at all, because those people will act in accordance with their own systems.

I grew up around liberals and have pretty liberal takes on a lot of things -- certainly on social issues like gay marriage. But one thing that drives me batshit is this mantra I hear all my friends spouting about how tolerant "we liberals" are as opposed to "those conservatives." Well, we're certainly not very tolerant of "those conservatives." In fact, we're downright horrible to them. "That's because they're intolerant."

Okay, so if someone is intolerant, you have the right to be intolerant of them?


So far, yes. I see what you're doing, but you may be falling into the "false fairness" trap. While self-criticism is healthy, I do actually think liberals have a point about being more tolerant overall, despite their intolerance toward certain groups. So the "they're all the same" conclusion may be an overreaction.

So now that you're intolerant of them, you are intolerant,

No. This is the part where I disagree. You are turning "intolerant" into a binary quantity. "Either you are or you aren't," where "you are" means you are just as intolerant as any intolerant group, and "you aren't" means you tolerate everything. Just deciding there is one person in the world that you will not stand for doesn't mean you get stuck with the "intolerant" label and your moral superiority goes out the window. There's a difference between being intolerant of someone for their racist policies and being intolerant of someone because of their race. One of these fits my rule, the other doesn't.

so people now have the right to be intolerant to you. Right? "No, because THEY started it!" Ugh.

If someone started punching a friend of yours in the head, and you ran up and started fighting with him, are you just as wrong as he is? No. "He started it" is only a childish response when either the original offense was trivial enough to ignore or there was a better solution in sight. Neither of those is necessarily true in the real world when people are being victimized.
posted by Xezlec at 8:22 PM on March 24, 2010


No, you're just brushing it off because it's recursive and you're not comfortable with recursive statements for some reason. Infinitely recursive statements aren't necessarily meaningless. An awful lot of things in mathematics are defined that way, in fact!

Recursive functions in mathematics always have a base case -- a starting point from which the rest of the values in the sequence originate. Yours does not, and that's the problem. You're defining everything in terms of "evil", but you have no definition for evil itself. And since people can and do disagree on whether or not something is "evil" (or "intolerant", for that matter!), your system does not work as intended.

A function may be partly defined in terms of itself. A familiar example is the Fibonacci number sequence: F(n) = F(n − 1) + F(n − 2). For such a definition to be useful, it must lead to values which are non-recursively defined, in this case F(0) = 0 and F(1) = 1.

What you've got is an example of the dreaded infinite loop, scourge of lazy programmers the world over. There's no meaning there.
posted by vorfeed at 9:16 PM on March 24, 2010


There's a difference between being intolerant of someone for their racist policies and being intolerant of someone because of their race.

Yes, and grumblebee's point was that this is an entirely socially-dependent difference, and thus may or may not be agreed upon by any two people or cultures.

If a given culture believes, for instance, that some races are evil (or, for extra fun, intolerant), they will have absolutely no trouble in using your rule to justify throwing every one of the [INSERT RACE HERE] into the ovens. And since you didn't define "evil" except through self-reference, how can your system say that they can't judge according to their values rather than yours?
posted by vorfeed at 9:37 PM on March 24, 2010


Xezlec, I feel like you're describing America -- at least the way it runs when it's in a pure (maybe fantasy-pure) state.

There's a core set of ethical values, expressed in American's legal system (don't steal, don't murder, etc). America in intolerant of anyone who doesn't accept that core. (You are not free, in America, to start a cult that ritually sacrifices people, and you will be be persecuted if you try to do that.)

On the other hand, you are free to express your adherents to that core in any way you wish. You can be a Christian and say you don't steal because God doesn't want you to; you can be an Ethical Humanist and say you don't steal, because when you steal from people, it hurts them; you can be a pragmatist and say that you don't steal, because society would crumble if everyone stole from each other.

And, of course, you are free to engage in activities that don't have anything to say about the core system. If you want to belong to some cult that insists its members jump up and down every day at 3pm, you can.

(In real life, things are often messier, and large groups in America certainly AREN'T tolerant of others, as long as they don't violate the core system. E.g., members of the religious right are intolerant of homosexuals. But I'm talking about America in an idealized sense.)

If you are asking if I think such as system has its merits, then, yes, I do. If you are asking if I prefer it to a system that goes beyond enforcing the core and also says, "And you are forbidden to jump up and down at 3pm," the -- again -- yes, I do.

What I dislike is when the members of that system start to convince themselves that they are not being arbitrary. I could form a similar system, except that in mine, stealing is allowed and encouraged. The American system can NOT tolerate that. And I hear that you've been saying that, too. You've been saying that, of course, it's impossible for an ethical system to embrace a contradictory ethical system.

What I balk at is the fact that some of your language falls into the trap I see people falling into all the time -- that of claiming to be tolerant of everything that's not "evil." Which is a huge, gaping loophole if you fail to describe evil. Or it's a tautology that just means that we're tolerant of everything that we're not intolerant of.

I get especially skeptical when you write things like, "So you think Lincoln was wrong to oppose slavery?" No, of course I don't, because Lincoln and I are members of the same moral system.

Here are some things that I think are true about my moral system:

- It is based on an arbitrary system or rules and values. When I say "arbitrary," I don't mean that I reached into a hat and just happened to pull out the "thou shalt not kill" card. I mean that my rules are based on indoctrination (and I'm using that word in a neutral way -- I'm not talking about brainwashing) from the culture I grew up in and are also probably influenced, to some extent, by my biology.

- I am, of course, opposed to murder, but there is no meaning to the statement "an ethical system that's opposed to murder is better than one that isn't." What is the meter by which we can rank one moral system over another. We can try, but in the end, we're always going to drill down to arbitrary values:

Anti-murder is better, because murder upsets people. Fine, but then you are just saying you value not-upsetting people. Anti-murder is better, because if we let people go around killing each other, we'll soon have chaos. Fine, but then you're just saying you prefer order to chaos. Etc.

- I will persecute people who don't follow my arbitrary rules. Or I won't, because I'm a coward, but I'll let others do that dirty work for me. At the very least, I'll stand around and not stop them from doing it. (Example: I will stand by and gladly allow our police force to put murderers in prison.)

- I will not, of course, enforce my rules when I can't. For instance, I won't enforce them (because I won't be able to), if I find myself out-numbered by people who follow a different set of rules. The fact that I won't enforce them in that situation but I will when my group is in control means that I support (or don't actively thwart) the idea of "might makes right."

I've noticed that most people (at least where I sit, on the Left) who partake in a "might makes right" system (e.g. we CAN put murderers in jail, so we DO put murderers in jail) are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of "might makes right," so they play all sorts of twisted mental games to try to convince themselves, and others, that they aren't part of a "might makes right" system.

I understand the impulse, but I can't stomach the hypocrisy.

I also agree with you that there are degrees of tolerance. No, if I met someone who tolerated everyone in the world except for one guy, I wouldn't call him a (generally) intolerant person. But I keep a straight face and claim that I am tolerant when there's a HUGE list of things I won't tolerate (murder, theft, abuse of women, abuse of black people, abuse of homosexuals, etc.)

Maybe there are people who are less tolerant than I am, but I am still think the label of "intolerant" fits me pretty darn well.
posted by grumblebee at 7:36 AM on March 25, 2010


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