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The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe
May 14, 2010 10:59 PM   Subscribe

What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.
Christian writer Dan Hart wonders if New Atheism might just be a passing fad.
If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any.

What I did take away from the experience was a fairly good sense of the real scope and ambition of the New Atheist project. I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.
(Article is a bit long)
posted by circular (539 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Reading this guy is like swimming in porridge
posted by dydecker at 11:04 PM on May 14, 2010 [21 favorites]


Oh for chrissakes.

and I did so, I believe, without prejudice


Right. Yeah.
posted by rtha at 11:07 PM on May 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


Apologies for the rough ending after the [more inside]. I posted this because it seems to be getting a lot of "me too's" from religions all over the spectrum; however, as I don't read this type of thing often, I apologize if my posting it seems trollish...
posted by circular at 11:07 PM on May 14, 2010


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rULKKiJp6NY
posted by Guy Smiley at 11:10 PM on May 14, 2010


Dan Hart doth protest tl;dr.
posted by applemeat at 11:10 PM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


rtha: "Oh for chrissakes."

I see what you did there.
posted by bwg at 11:12 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


For this reason, the philosophers—who are no better than their fellow contributors at reasoning, but who have better training in giving even specious arguments some appearance of systematic form—tend to come off as the most insufferable contributors.
An erudite hatchet job is still a hatchet job.
posted by fatbird at 11:14 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. This is brilliant stuff. Thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 11:14 PM on May 14, 2010


As long as there are atheists with free time and internet access, there is a New Atheist movement.
posted by hellojed at 11:17 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have a new catchphrase: "Et, as they say, cetera."
posted by joannemerriam at 11:17 PM on May 14, 2010 [21 favorites]


No one can take these heliocentrists seriously until they've shown they really understand epicycles.

(Yes, I did read TFA via A&L Daily a few days ago).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:19 PM on May 14, 2010 [27 favorites]


There are some good things an organized belief can offer, a sense of tight community, solace in grief, an organizational structure that can deliver needed services in times of mass tragedy. But, these are things that any like minded people can achieve without religion as well, organized belief just offers an easy framework to drop into.

It is hard to accept the word of someone predisposed towards one viewpoint when they claim to have given the opposing viewpoint a "fair deal".

Some of what he writes reads a lot like wishful thinking (not too surprising), and arguments that seem trivially easy to apply back towards religion-in-general...

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. - Quick! Is he talking about non-belief, or belief?

Might be someone interesting to talk with, but falls into the same self-serving trap most people do when over defensive.
posted by edgeways at 11:20 PM on May 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


as a rule the quality of the essays is inversely proportionate to the air of authority their authors affect
indeed.
posted by sanko at 11:20 PM on May 14, 2010 [11 favorites]


Of course, PZ Myers has already gone to town on this essay.
posted by teraflop at 11:21 PM on May 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


Honestly, people, keep reading – I know it's easy to dismiss right off, but David Bentley Hart is more intelligent than you might expect, and I can imagine he has the same indictments for modern Evangelical Christianity. I like this bit:
The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.
He talks like a curmudgeon, yes (that's sort of an Orthodox thing, really) but he's more fair-minded than he may seem at first. And he's arguably right. Not to invoke the name of the great divider, but there are plenty of atheists here who are unhappy with Dawkins and his ilk for the same reasons Hart lists.
posted by koeselitz at 11:25 PM on May 14, 2010 [23 favorites]


New atheism is a new label used by those that don't like the fact that there are just more atheists. And some are more vocal than they used to be.

Why not call certain people New Fundamentalists?

New atheism is a bullshit tag.

We're here. We don't believe what you do. Get over it.

And if we make fun of your silly beliefs, it's because we love you. And we want you to wake up. That's all. No Santa. No unicorns. No Easter bunny. No god.

See?
posted by Splunge at 11:25 PM on May 14, 2010 [83 favorites]


edgeways: “Quick! Is he talking about non-belief, or belief?”

Neither! Did you read the article at all?
posted by koeselitz at 11:26 PM on May 14, 2010


Did anyone seriously think Dawkins or Hitchens were as smart as Nietzsche?
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:27 PM on May 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


Splunge: “New atheism is a new label used by those that don't like the fact that there are just more atheists.”

Funny how the term seems to have been coined derisively by someone who was an atheist himself.
posted by koeselitz at 11:29 PM on May 14, 2010


Is this New Atheism any better than New Music?

Because you can't fuck to New Music, man.
posted by rokusan at 11:31 PM on May 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


Funny how the term seems to have been coined derisively by someone who was an atheist himself.

And so? What's your point? It's still bullshit.
posted by Splunge at 11:31 PM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not to invoke the name of the great divider, but there are plenty of atheists here who are unhappy with Dawkins and his ilk for the same reasons Hart lists.

There's this much merit to Hart's arguments: Dawkins and Hitchens are lousy proponents for atheism. Hitchens in particular is one of those allies that you wish weren't.
posted by fatbird at 11:31 PM on May 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.

Well...it is a book about not believing stuff. If an atheist doesn't have a lot of interest to say about believing in God, well, no fucking duh, dude. Of course it becomes a sort of me-too! awareness-raising exercise that is primarily meant to introduce people to another option. Atheism isn't designed to solve the mysteries of the universe or be "full" or do anything.

I get this a lot from my friend who is a seminarian, atheism is empty, it's trivial, it's pointless. Okay, It's like saying that people who don't wear hats have trivial thoughts about not wearing hats. Their lack of hats is empty and meaningless. Okay, fine, they are not hat experts. Why would they be? Atheism is empty. That's cool with me. It's not religion and it doesn't have to serve the same purpose in my life,

There are other things that sorta go in the religious slot, I guess. Friends, the community I've built for myself, little rituals I have, things I obsess over when I'm feeling superstitious or out of control, big ethical questions. These things are not created by or limited by the way I think about religion.

Really--framing atheism as a failing entry in some sort of competition of theology--oy. It's not about theology. That's the point.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:39 PM on May 14, 2010 [108 favorites]


"I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any."

Dan, atheists don't care about your failure to find arguments that invalidate your own faith. And the last thing we worry about is whether Christians agree with our reasons for being an atheist. Seriously, have fun with the God thing. Christians not "getting it" in terms of atheism is something we're quite used to.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:40 PM on May 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


it seems unfair to say "tl;dr" about an author who has read all the books from his opposition that he could lay his hands on, so my apologies in advance for that.  that said...

I skimmed the article looking for some substantive rebuttal of the arguments of atheism and found instead a whole lot of attacks.  The article reads pretty much exactly the way he claims the New Atheists read, as substance-less but entertainingly written attacks.  To be fair, he scores some pretty impressive points on Hitchens if I give him the benefit of the doubt that his understanding of history surpasses Hitchens's.

But it seems to me that, if you are going to take Atheist writers to task for their lack of academic rigor and a poverty of thought, you kinda need to address their arguments a little better than this.  I mean, you can make the claim that their arguments are all demonstrably false, but then you kinda need to prove it, and doing that involves taking things in their proper context. 

For example, if you want to discuss Hitchens's and Dawkin's point that religion has been the source of conflict and violence in history, it's important to recognize that these are men addressing a commonly made claim that religion is a positive influence and that religious people are apt to be kind and forgiving.  I believe it was Dawkins who was directly asked at a panel if he'd feel more at ease being approached in a dark alley by christians or atheists, with the expectation that he'd be more comfortable with the christians for some reason.  That these arguments of theirs are designed to address that claim specifically is important, and seems to be overlooked in the article.

The article tries to make it seem like these guys are stupid, and that they simply don't know their history which is why they're so selectively choosing the moments they choose to write about.  It's simply not true.  They know their history, and the moments in history they've chosen to highlight were chosen in response to the selective memory of an entire culture.

There are, no doubt, valid criticisms to be made of each of the New Atheist authors.  These aren't those arguments.  These are petty attacks, of the kind the author supposedly despises.

Also, when someone says "I approached this without prejudice" that is the first indication that he did anything but.
posted by shmegegge at 11:41 PM on May 14, 2010 [22 favorites]


This is brilliant stuff.

Brilliant in the sense of being a remarkable piece of bigotry?

Mostly it reads like the sort of tracts more erudite Christians prepared about the evils of Jews before setting out to butcher a bunch of them. Meh.
posted by rodgerd at 11:45 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I as an atheist always wonder is: why are (some people who identify as atheist) arguing with these people? Belief is stronger than fact. It is wasted effort. We should rather be planning the rendering plants underneath the Bible Belt, to harvest their sweet adipose crude.
posted by thrind at 11:45 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection.

Always looking forward to the truly profound theist who has taken the trouble to understand every belief he or she rejects.

Actually I am not because that sounds boring. Really, really boring. Maybe I am just an atheist because theology puts me to sleep?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:48 PM on May 14, 2010 [23 favorites]


We like to think our core beliefs are the result of a process of reasoning applied to measurable facts and basic tenets we hold about the world around us. For the most part, I think this is a self-deception. The human mind is built to make snap judgements, using our powerful pattern-recognition capability combined with past experience to make an intuitive decision about something within milliseconds. Often, what follows this judgement is a period of mental gymnastics in which we think we're applying logic and reason to solve the problem, but we're really just rationalizing that initial judgement.

I tend to agree with the author here. I'm a reasonably hardcore atheist who's spent a little time poking around to see what the so-called "new atheists" are saying. The majority of them are essentially preaching to the choir (as it were); making facile statements and taking cheap shots at particular organized religions, while the adherents eat it up. There is nothing intellectual or skeptical about it. It can be disappointing to listen to people who proudly wear the "skeptic" badge (or "free thinker" or whatever), because they usually don't make better arguments for their positions than your average Christmas & Easter catholic.

Somewhat relatedly, I've found this any time I've talked to people who ostensibly share some of my beliefs — political, religious or otherwise: their statements and claims sound oddly hollow, and even unjustified. Often, after our conversation, I'll feel compelled to re-examine what I believe and whether it's really as rational as I've thought. Regarding atheism, if Christopher Hitchens says something with which I superficially agree, I'm inclined to examine the merits of that statement more carefully (than if I had simply thought it alone).
posted by knave at 11:49 PM on May 14, 2010 [18 favorites]


i wish david foster wallace were still around, because he was great at parodying this kind of writing. it's like the guy wrote an essay and then doubled its size by opening a thesaurus.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:52 PM on May 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


So. Your atheist spends years studying the Bible, familiarizing himself with the major currents of Christian thought over the centuries, gaining an appreciation for the aesthetic depth of the faith, and then, finally, earns a true rejection of the Christian God.

Does his atheism remain invalid if he does not do the same with Hinduism?

...because the big thing that stands against the author's assertion that the New Atheism is a passing fad is that, unlike the older thinkers the absence of whom he's lamenting, modern atheists aren't granting Christianity the pride of cultural place he believes to be necessary, as a default state. So they see no particular reason to engage the doctrine – it's more like, get in line behind the Scientologists and the Wiccans and whatever. Atheists don't respect (fear) you enough to do that anymore. That's not the sign of a fad.
posted by furiousthought at 11:53 PM on May 14, 2010 [118 favorites]


internet fraud detective squad, station number 9: “Really--framing atheism as a failing entry in some sort of competition of theology--oy.”

Seriously, though, that's not what he's doing. Please notice that bit (I quote it again) where he says that "skepticism and atheism are... noble, precious, and even necessary traditions," and he tells his fellow Christians that they "should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods."

y6y6y6: “Dan, atheists don't care... ”

I get the strong feeling that people are either not reading this at all or are reading very selectively. This is not an anti-atheism article. If anybody's anti-atheism, it's Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, et al, who are dragging the atheist intellectual benchmark swiftly to the cellar. This is a guy who quotes Nietzsche approvingly as an atheist he can appreciate, someone who he can engage intellectually even though Hart disagrees with him.

Is it seriously not remarkable at all that a Christian is here stating clearly and openly that atheism might be necessary and in fact noble in society? That his fellow Christians ought to accept this and give atheists a measure of respect? In fact, I think he intends to do a service to atheism by pointing out the deep irrationality of those New Atheist writers who now seem to hold sway.
posted by koeselitz at 11:53 PM on May 14, 2010 [22 favorites]


Metafilter, purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast
posted by tighttrousers at 11:53 PM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Farking oath. The knee jerk anti Christian commentary I see everywhere [including Metafilter] which smacks of a bunch of 18 year olds in their University Arts Faculty social club "Me too! I hate Christians. Yaaaaay! So... erm... can I get into your panties now?"

I say "anti Christian" atheism because none of the screaming wieners in the above subset have the rocks to diss Tibetan Buddhism or Wiccanism or Islam etc. Heavens no! Diss Islam??!
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:54 PM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


But it seems to me that, if you are going to take Atheist writers to task for their lack of academic rigor and a poverty of thought,

Then one should take the very same tack and take those that assume a god to task for the very same reasons.

Even more so. They assume a being that stands outside of time and space. They pretend to understand it. Proof is needed. Show it or be ridiculed.

Science says, We believe that things are the way because...

It isn't a proof. The big bang is a theory. No scientist or astronomer ever says THIS IS THE WAY IT IS. They say this is the way we think it is and here is why.

When one has a blind belief that the world is true and only true because...

They are blind to the possibility of being wrong.

Simply this. Science can be wrong and adjust. Belief can't be wrong just because.

Bullshit.
posted by Splunge at 11:55 PM on May 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


I gotta say he is a pretty good insulter.

The insouciance with which, for instance, Daniel Dennett tends to approach such matters is so torpid as to verge on the reptilian.

I LOL'd at him AND with him. A-

(He gets the minus for using torpid in a stupid way)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:55 PM on May 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


furiousthought: “... modern atheists aren't granting Christianity the pride of cultural place he believes to be necessary, as a default state.”

Whoa. Can you show me where he said that?
posted by koeselitz at 11:55 PM on May 14, 2010


What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are evangelicals or Christians; rather, it is that they are not Christians at all and have purchased their religion cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance born of the sprinkling of a few drops of water, or having kept a KJV bible on the mantlepiece for twenty years without opening it to more than three or four well-known verses and knowing nothing of the history of the book nor it's foundations.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:58 PM on May 14, 2010 [16 favorites]


Is it just me, or are a lot of people missing that he is writing specifically about New Atheism specifically and not Atheism in general?
posted by brenton at 11:59 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


rodgerd: “Brilliant in the sense of being a remarkable piece of bigotry?”

Yep. He hates Richard Dawkins – what a fuckin' bigot.
posted by koeselitz at 11:59 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Please notice that bit (I quote it again) where he says that "skepticism and atheism are... noble, precious, and even necessary traditions,""

...only when those skeptics and athiests engage with theology (primarily European Christian theology) in the exact way that he thinks that they should.

He is entering New atheism in a contest of theology. It is like criticizing a pig for its lack of competitiveness in a State Fair pie-off.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:00 AM on May 15, 2010 [19 favorites]


There is no new atheism. Just old atheism writ LARGER.
posted by Splunge at 12:01 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Is it just me, or are a lot of people missing that he is writing specifically about New Atheism specifically and not Atheism in general?"

He pretty much knocking all atheists who don't live up to his standards of what atheists and skeptics should be. Considering that we're mostly not Hume, he ends up writing about the vast majority of modern atheists.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:01 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


I am not a christian, but I have noticed that internet harbors a certain brand of atheist that is closed-minded, extremely vocal and they do seem to lack any sort of depth of reasoning regarding their position.

If challenged they will make remarks ridiculing christianity (as if that is the only religion). Often containing references to a sky father, easter bunny or tooth fairy.

I don't have anything against atheism, it is everyone's right to believe things without evidence. I only get annoyed when they try to convince me that their position is the the only true one.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:02 AM on May 15, 2010 [18 favorites]


“Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”
posted by tighttrousers at 12:02 AM on May 15, 2010


Nite all. I have a Netflix movie with Christopher Walken all over it. Have fun.
posted by Splunge at 12:02 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


internet fraud detective squad, station number 9: “...only when those skeptics and athiests engage with theology (primarily European Christian theology) in the exact way that he thinks that they should.”

Did Nietzsche really follow theological rules?
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 AM on May 15, 2010


Observing that religions are divisive or dangerous is not an argument against the existence of a deity, it is an observation that people who are devout and narrow-minded (about anything) tend to divide and dismiss.

It's like saying that since a lot of the kids who believe in Santa aren't getting the toys they asked for and are disappointed about it, therefore Santa must not exist. If Santa doesn't exist you can't rest your argument on the behaviours and apparently faulty opinions of those who believe he does exist. If you argue that Santa doesn't exist, you have to make that argument free and clear of actions of the Santa believers.

Hart pays specific homage to Nietzsche as an atheist. It's my reading from the article that he wishes for more cogent and powerful arguments (like Nietzsche's) from atheists today. He's not worried about the endgame of their arguments, he's lamenting the sensationalist style and the thin nature of their debate points on the way there.
posted by kneecapped at 12:03 AM on May 15, 2010


Some have already touched on this, but Atheism and Skepticism, while related kinda sorta, are not the same thing. And no matter how well this guy can write, he misses the concept that (1.) Atheism isn't a counter to faith, no matter how many faithful are out there, and (2.) that Atheism doesn't have to prove shit. If the arguments are weak it's because the proponents are coming from the baseline assumptions and don't have to argue for anything beyond that. The claim for the existence of God is where the arguments need to be - that's the outlandish, unprovable thing, after all.

Again, I like how he writes, but he's approaching atheism as a particular form of skepticism against his own faith, and thus taking his faith as the baseline for how it must be done. And that's what's misguided and disrespectful about this. It shoves the beliefs and knowledge of atheists into a position of being loyal opposition to those faithful, and then derides them for not being as god as the faithful would like for their Devil's Advocate purposes. Dude, the Atheists aren't playing that game anymore. They have their own game, and it is called science.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:04 AM on May 15, 2010 [43 favorites]


So it seems that we have three groups:

1) people who believe in God, but who don't know shit about religion or theology, or are completely inconsistent in their beliefs (e.g. pro-death-penalty catholics).

2) people who don't believe in God, and are understandably pissed that people from group 1 invoke God to justify conservative policies; there are a lot of these people on Metafilter. They usually don't know a lot of theology (but probably more than almost everyone in group 1)

3) people who may or may not believe in god, and may or may not be angry with group 1, but understand the classic arguments for/against God, and their consequences. These people get really annoyed when people from group 2 make silly mistakes (the historical mistakes are usually the worst) in refuting people from group 1.

I'm not actually in group 3. I couldn't explain you the ontological argument, and I have only a passing understanding of the doctrine of predestination. People from group 1 and 2 can become members of group 3, but it requires a significant investment of time: reading a short article or a few MeFi comments is unlikely to really further one's understanding of Hume, Kant or St. Thomas.

In short: close this thread and go read a book; alternatively, join my campaign to bring back crucifixion. Because America needs to decorate its interstates, dammit.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:06 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


"Farking oath. The knee jerk anti Christian commentary I see everywhere [including Metafilter] which smacks of a bunch of 18 year olds in their University Arts Faculty social club "Me too! I hate Christians. Yaaaaay! So... erm... can I get into your panties now?""

I don't hate Christians, I love Christians, just so you know, so Christians, what's up, also I love Jesus, but not in a gay way, in a way that makes me sexy and motivated me to learn the acoustic guitar.

I don't know where I'm going with this but basically no one here hates Christians except maybe the dude who said something about rendering them for their sweet fat (blurgh, if we're going to be talking cannibalism here let's stick to the classic fight topic and go straight for Holy Communion)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:09 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Intelligent Hart may be, but this is no intelligent treatise at all. Of course, it doesn't intend to be -- such things are little read.

Every argument he makes against the atheist writers can be made against the loud and shrill modern religionist, and they can be made against what he is say even in his own argument. He confronts a book of anecdotes, and he pretends they are arguments but uses only anecdotes to state his own case. Let him cite the religionist with moral courage and thoughtfulness if he wants to call out these writers for the lack of those things. But he can't. On both sides all we seem to have, all the loudest voices, are simply relaters of anecdote. On both side we have people talking to there own side, and no one publicly works through their on doubts, no one explores their own skepticism, so no one shows a way in either direction - no one does theology, just religionism and antireligionism. (I find those who are so anxious to "confess their faith", but can't own up to what the word faith means to be the most depressing.)

One side is apples and the other is oranges and throwing in a few of Nietzsche's nihilist bananas at the end doesn't make this an intelligent balanced response.

Ah well, maybe next time.
posted by Some1 at 12:11 AM on May 15, 2010


Navelgazer: “Dude, the Atheists aren't playing that game anymore. They have their own game, and it is called science.”

Yes, but do you really believe that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C Dennett, et al are the representatives of science? I sure as hell don't. He's absolutely correct about the flaws in their line of argument. He comes at this from his own perspective, yes, and he tends to value conversational opponents because they help him refine and contemplate his points of view – but everybody has a point of view, and everybody comes into conversations with it, so this is hardly unique. What's essential, I think, is that he happens to be right about the current crop – that they aren't representative of the scientific mind, they aren't representative of what a really skeptical atheist might believe, and they aren't really very skeptical at all.

Maybe that's a worthwhile claim to consider. Hart states at one point in this article that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett are not actually skeptics. In fact, that's probably closer to being the central point here than all this stuff about atheism vs religion.
posted by koeselitz at 12:12 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


"internet fraud detective squad, station number 9: “...only when those skeptics and athiests engage with theology (primarily European Christian theology) in the exact way that he thinks that they should.”

Did Nietzsche really follow theological rules?
"

I don't know, man, what I do know is that this guy has some crazy weird high standards for atheists that involve knowing a shit ton about religion and that is pretty silly. So if you don't know a lot about religion you're supposed to...believe in it? What is he even saying besides "wah I am a crankster and this is a pretentious book review"
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:15 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Whoa. Can you show me where he said that?

Mostly where he starts comparing the New Atheists to Nietzsche –

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness.

That section mainly. The quote that CheeseDigestAll refers to is also apposite. There are some nods to other religious traditions in the essay, but they are nods. But mainly what this essay is doing is shouting "engage me!" at people who don't feel compelled.
posted by furiousthought at 12:15 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


internet fraud detective squad, station number 9: “... no one here hates Christians except maybe the dude who said something about rendering them for their sweet fat...”

You're right – it's pretty clear nobody hates Christians. That's all well and good. It's just that the moment anybody uses the word "Christian" or "Atheist," we're all off on a tear talking about how our side's right and the other side is wrong. Whereas I think that's not at all what this guy is discussing. It's just that we missed that point, so we're talking about this now because we feel insulted by him.
posted by koeselitz at 12:16 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agreed, furiousthought. It seems implicit in the author's approach that if you haven't grappled with the depth and breadth and height of historic and academic Christianity, then your atheism is narrowly considered and cheaply won.

It isn't always necessary to grapple with a critic's specific position on such a rigorous level in order to have legitimately considered and embraced your own. To the folks who consider Christianity to be normative, that sounds like shoddy thinking. But I don't think it is, always.

Consider, for example, the (admittedly flawed analogous) idea of perpetual motion. As a rigorously trained scientist, I have reached my own views on the deeply improbable (if not completely impossible) likelihood that anyone's putative perpetual motion machine is for real. If the author came along with one, I don't think I'd need to rigorously test HIS particular design in order to feel rather justified in dismissing it with only a cursory review.

The author, understandably, might rail at me for not being rigorous enough in my evaluation because I didn't accord him the attention and focus of reviewing all his argumentation, etc. But that's only because his design holds a special place in his worldview. But to a physicist, his design isn't a normative one to be accorded special treatment and review; rather, all perpetual motion machines can pretty much be dismissed.

I can well imagine an atheist, having grappled with a fair bit of spiritual belief and claims of certitude about the nature of God and existence, can feel relatively free to conclude that Christian assertions don't necessarily bring anything new and transformational to the debate. That is they make non-falsifiable claims about the nature of the universe and existence based on ancient, sacred tomes and seem to rely greatly on special pleading and confirmation bias to support their arguments. One might well feel that these constitute relatively derivative and dismissible claims without having to pore over two centuries of Christian commentary in order to reach that conclusion, etc.
posted by darkstar at 12:17 AM on May 15, 2010 [53 favorites]


it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply

What? We're supposed to pay for it? Struggle to overcome superstition? that implies that religion is the natural state that needs to be transcended, or that it's unusual or something. Kind of obnoxious.

However, some of these "new atheist" types are pretty annoying too. Especially guys like Hitchens who just attack religion. They just seem petty and bitter. It's kind of embarrassing.
posted by delmoi at 12:17 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


furiousthought: “That section mainly. The quote that CheeseDigestAll refers to is also apposite. There are some nods to other religious traditions in the essay, but they are nods. But mainly what this essay is doing is shouting "engage me!" at people who don't feel compelled.”

That section says absolutely nothing about Christianity having pride of place as a default state.
posted by koeselitz at 12:18 AM on May 15, 2010


I too love Christians and those of other faiths, and love religion for the art culture, societies and sense of morality that it has allowed for humanity, which otherwise may well have been impossible. But faith is, you know, faith. It is the act of believing in that which is both impossible to know, and also improbable. The number of people believing in the same thingis immaterial.

If over half the world believed in Timecube, the burden still wouldn't be on those who didn't to prove Timecube wrong. And I'd hope that most would excuse them for shrugging that whole meaningless fruitless debate off altogether while they focus on actual studies.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:19 AM on May 15, 2010


I say "anti Christian" atheism because none of the screaming wieners in the above subset have the rocks to diss Tibetan Buddhism or Wiccanism or Islam etc. Heavens no! Diss Islam??!

Going purely by the FPP, this is a thread about atheism. And, not wanting to gloat [heh!], I just did a CTRL+F of all the comments so far. Apart from my completely awesome post:


Christian: 31
Wicca: 1
Islam: 0
Muslim: 0
Buddhism: 0

Quad. Erat. Demonstrandum.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:19 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


*two millennia
posted by darkstar at 12:19 AM on May 15, 2010


The basic problem with trying to replace religion with non-belief of humanism is that you really need sappy, uplifting spiritually fulfilling stuff. I think Sam Harris tries to do that stuff. But the problem atheists in general, I think hate sappy crap. Sam Harris irritates the hell out of me. He's also a moron, which doesn't help.
posted by delmoi at 12:23 AM on May 15, 2010


A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection.

Disbelief of X does not, actually it cannot, require rejection of X, since to the atheist there is nothing to reject. To contend that the atheist (or to humor Hart's lopsided presumptions, the truly profound atheist) do otherwise is to create the profound flipflop of logic requiring nonbelievers to prove a negative. What many religious believers seem to have difficulty understanding is that it is absolutely not the atheist's responsibility to understand the believer's beliefs, or to adequately evaluate the believer's beliefs, or to otherwise take any effort to "be excused" from such beliefs.
posted by applemeat at 12:24 AM on May 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


Quod.

Godammit! Is there any worse time to make a typo than when you're being a smug so-and-so? Bah.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:24 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Maybe that's a worthwhile claim to consider. Hart states at one point in this article that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett are not actually skeptics. In fact, that's probably closer to being the central point here than all this stuff about atheism vs religion.

dude, that's a terrible point. It's about as good a point as saying Dan Hart's an awful example of a theist because he isn't actually gnostic.. It's beside the point, and kind of a straw man.

He's not "absolutely correct" about the flaws in their arguments. He's marginally correct, and in between those margins are huge gaping holes in his reasoning and assumptions. He's as unfair to his targets as they are to religion, and on top of that he makes them out to be representative of modern atheism, as though The God Delusion were the only book today's atheists had read. It's just basically an awful article.
posted by shmegegge at 12:24 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


OK I don't believe in any of this stuff

Christian
Wicca
Islam
Muslim
Buddhism

I also don't believe in Jainism, Hinduism (especially not karma, actually I kinda have a hate-on for karma that goes beyond not believing in it, but that's another thing), Mormonism, the one true catholic and apostolic church, Episcopalianism, Unitarian Universalism (it's pretty hard not to believe in it but I just don't), any kind of shamanistic religion, Gor, Scientology.

Pretty much list a religion and I don't believe in it.

Look at his examples: this guy is talking largely--if not completely--about a history of thought and philosophy that is primarily about or a reaction to Christianity.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:25 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Every time I read one of these pieces where Christian writers attack "New Atheists" (by whatever name), I look for the place where they acknowledge the reason for this current wave of militant atheism. That is, the intrusion (yes) of religion into secular politics. Sure, I know that politics at one time were always linked with religion, but a great outcome of the English revolutions and the American Revolution was to separate the two. Because, otherwise, it's not so much atheist vs. believer but believer vs. believer vs. believer and etc. So, I don't care what you worship, but don't teach my children bullshit, don't tell women they are less than human, and don't start any crusades -- all precepts violated by militant believers and precepts that need to be supported.
posted by CCBC at 12:30 AM on May 15, 2010 [20 favorites]


shmegegge: “He's as unfair to his targets as they are to religion, and on top of that he makes them out to be representative of modern atheism, as though The God Delusion were the only book today's atheists had read. It's just basically an awful article.”

Look, I actually read The God Delusion and God Is Not Great (as painful as it was) and they're just as awful and mind-numbing as he makes them out to be. He is no more unfair to them than they are to him; his arguments actually make sense, where theirs aren't really arguments at all. In fact, he's not even arguing in favor of religion, or against atheism; he's merely pointing out that these books are not representative of any really thoughtful point of view.

And I want to point out again that Hart never once makes these folks out to be representative of modern atheism. He repeatedly calls this a "movement," and the whole point of the article is to wonder whether it's a fad. He admits that atheism will always be around, and he admits that there are other atheists in society who are not part of the New Atheist movement. This is not in any sense an attack on atheists at large – unless maybe you believe that an attack on Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is necessarily an attack on atheists as a whole body of people. And if you believe that, well, I guess we simply disagree.
posted by koeselitz at 12:32 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Look at his examples: this guy is talking largely--if not completely--about a history of thought and philosophy that is primarily about or a reaction to Christianity.

That's why I worded my response so carefully. I said "FPP," not "article" or "link" etc. That's coz I DNRTFA.

Uncanny for the win!

But my points still stand. 99% of the time I reckon atheism = an anti Christian rant.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:34 AM on May 15, 2010


If I were to choose from among the New Atheists a single figure who to my mind epitomizes the spiritual chasm that separates Nietzsche’s unbelief from theirs, I think it would be the philosopher and essayist A.C. Grayling. For a short time I entertained the misguided hope that he might produce an atheist manifesto somewhat richer than the others currently on offer.

Oh man I just realized who this guy reminds me of: Ignatius J. Reilly
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:36 AM on May 15, 2010 [24 favorites]


Belief goes a long way. And never arrives.
posted by ronin21 at 12:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm reading the essay. It's not going well.
Take, for instance, the recently published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. ... [dismissive summaries, such as "The journalist Emma Tom had a psychotic scripture teacher when she was a girl. Et, as they say, cetera"] ... So it goes. In the end the book as a whole adds up to absolutely nothing—as, frankly, do all the books in this new genre
Maybe he missed the title of the book: "Why We are atheists", not "Why you should be an atheist". It's not a book of arguments; it's a book of conversion stories. It's designed to illuminate why people actually chose atheism, not a philosophical treatise for epistemology postdocs.

In dismissing these stories as unconvincing to him he's missing the entire point, and Christ would he expect fully consistent, never before debunked arguments from an average churchgoer on Sunday morning if you asked them why they believed in god?

If he wants a more rigorous argument, I'm sure there are books, or Internet message boards he could check out. But frankly those arguments would only ever effect a tiny number of people. Not only would they only be comprehensible to just a slim minority, most of those people will have already made up their minds.

Arguing that atheists should these rigorous, logical, philosophical arguments, and only these types is idiotic. It's an argument that they only ever apply to atheists, and on top of that, what does it mean that for people who can't understand or aren't interested in understanding? Does that mean they can't be religious? Or does he think they should all be religious so their souls can be saved, despite not being able to understand it?
posted by delmoi at 12:39 AM on May 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


That section says absolutely nothing about Christianity having pride of place as a default state.

"Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well"...? It's the whole premise of the section: denying Christianity is Very Important. Ending in the final bit (after what appears to be a summation of some very stupid arguments about art) "But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross...Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away."

FWIW I'm an agnostic and I don't think a great deal of Dawkins & Hitchens & similar myself; but this article manages to get, or throw, me on that side of the fence.
posted by furiousthought at 12:41 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"He admits that atheism will always be around, and he admits that there are other atheists in society who are not part of the New Atheist movement. This is not in any sense an attack on atheists at large"
The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike.
I don't know man it kinda seems like he is trash-talking contemporary atheism as a whole. He also mentions the naivete of paganism which no one will return to (except, I guess, modern pagans, but whatevs)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:53 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


...as a rule the quality of the essays is inversely proportionate to the air of authority their authors affect.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness

so torpid as to verge on the reptilian

Et, as they say, cetera.

This essay is a gold mine of quotes if you are trying to sound like a pompous douchebag.

Besides that it was a huge waist of time. The only point of the essay seems to be that the popular authors that make up "The New Atheists" do not engage the philosophical tradition with enough rigor, which is true enough. However this is pretty much true of any popular book these days. Certainly the vast majority of popular Christian writers are not Hume scholars. Yet if I were to use this fact to claim that Modern Christianity, "soon collapses under the weight of its own baseless presuppositions," I would be chided for being intolerant.
posted by afu at 1:02 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


"But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross...Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away."

So we should all be Christians because otherwise it would make baby Jesus cry, (according to Nietzsche, who was actually not a christian)?
posted by delmoi at 1:04 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yet if I were to use this fact to claim that Modern Christianity, "soon collapses under the weight of its own baseless presuppositions," I would be chided for being intolerant.

Or delusional.
posted by delmoi at 1:05 AM on May 15, 2010


I don't have anything against atheism, it is everyone's right to believe things without evidence. I only get annoyed when they try to convince me that their position is the the only true one.

well, in this case it seems more that it's everyone's right not to believe things without evidence. but i think the second statement here is the most revealing. i think the vocal atheism is more a reaction to stubborn evangelism flowing in the opposite direction. my understanding is that the new atheism seems less to criticize spirituality than it does the public and intrusive practice of religion--two different things that the ultra-religious often conflate when they need to resort to claims of persecution as a smokescreen for illogic and intolerance.

i don't really pay attention to the books. (i grew up surrounded by religion and went to church, but as a child, for some reason i thought it was generally acknowledged that it was a fictional construct, like television or santa claus or aesop; i was surprised as i got older to find out that people believed it; not saying this is the result of some particular insight, because i'm not otherwise exceptional or anything, but i'm genuinely baffled as to what element made me immune to the influence.) but i know people--even former seriously hardcore jesus freaks--for whom this kind of stuff (dawkins, etc) has given them some certain comfort or resolve to decisively break those old ties. i imagine the material is over the top and hits the argument from a lot of different angles because it's kinda like deprogramming, and just as people come to religion by different routes (philosophical, social, familial, etc.) they leave it by different routes (subjecting the beliefs to logical argument, making parallels to other cults or myths that are commonly derided or have fallen out of fashion, examining the weaknesses and fears religion attempts to alleviate, etc.) .

my closest parallel to understanding it is that it resembles the gay coming-out process (at least as it was in my generation)--you grow up kinda brainwashed into thinking it's perverted and wrong, and even as you come to accept it you might still have some guilt or doubts; but then that is often overcome when you find there are many other people who think the way you do (not least here in that it is the validation of an independent course of thought that emerges counter to and within the influence and pressure of a strong prevailing set of opposing beliefs). i know quite a few people for whom atheism is like a coming out, uncovering some truth about themselves that they had denied. so from this perspective, i don't get how it is characterized as a fad; nobody i know has come into it casually.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 1:10 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


The trouble with atheists these days is that they are just not sufficiently athy. Back in the day, we used to have proper atheists, who were so much better! Those atheists were the athiest. Amirite?
posted by Sparx at 1:10 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Did anyone seriously think Dawkins or Hitchens were as smart as Nietzsche?

Have you read the Selfish Gene or the Extended Phenotype? Dawkins contributed something to science. I'll take him over Nietzsche any day.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:10 AM on May 15, 2010 [20 favorites]


I gotta say I never thought I would see a dude like this symbolically hugging Nietzsche for being pro-Christian.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:13 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't know why someone had to coin "the New Atheists" to describe anti-theists, unless it's an attempt to co-opt those of us atheists who don't care about the spirituality of our neighbors to bolster the "New Atheist" numbers.

Personally I think it's a polarizing distraction from the struggle against discrimination we all face, but then again, I sometimes wonder whether the general inability of black Americans historically to hide from discrimination might explain some of why they have more political power now than the latino/hispanic community whose more assimilated members seem to be treated as part of mainstream white culture.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:15 AM on May 15, 2010


Going purely by the FPP, this is a thread about atheism. And, not wanting to gloat [heh!], I just did a CTRL+F of all the comments so far. Apart from my completely awesome post:


Christian: 31
Wicca: 1
Islam: 0
Muslim: 0
Buddhism: 0

Quad. Erat. Demonstrandum.


Which of these don't you believe in, and why?
posted by dirigibleman at 1:15 AM on May 15, 2010


Which of these don't you believe in, and why?

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:17 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Maybe he missed the title of the book: "Why We are atheists", not "Why you should be an atheist". It's not a book of arguments; it's a book of conversion stories. It's designed to illuminate why people actually chose atheism, not a philosophical treatise for epistemology postdocs.
Doesn't that make it even worse? Sounds like it functions as an atheist Foxe's Book of Martyrs or those interminable spiritual autobiographies that were never quite worth it after Bunyan's Grace Abounding.
posted by Abiezer at 1:18 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


furiousthought: “It's the whole premise of the section: denying Christianity is Very Important.”

But in fact the point is that Nietzsche really did say something very much like that. I know it's unfortunate that Hart seems to have that stink of New Criterion on him, in that he's unable to just write directly and clearly; I want to see if I can be clearer than he is, and get across what I find so compelling here.

There is a passage in The Gay Science when Nietzsche definitively unveils the pronouncement "God is dead, and we have killed him." This passage is justly famous. But what most people seem to forget is the context of the passage, and the tone which Nietzsche gives it. He tells us there that the famous phrase is uttered by a madman who first wanders around telling everyone: "I seek God!" All the people, who are already atheists, make fun of him, saying: "what, have you lost him?" He makes his speech: "God is dead," he says, "and we have killed him! ... How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?"

There are a lot of dimensions of this passage, and it's worth long study, I think, but one of them is this: Nietzsche predicted New Atheism. He clearly anticipated a time when there might be a strong and prominent 'movement' of cynical and unthinking anti-religionists. What's more, I think he used most of his books to speak to them and to try to mold them. But this doesn't change the fact that Nietzsche, who had no real fondness for faith (as I think is obvious) didn't relish an unthinking, cynical, unskeptical unbelief. His own favorite novelist, Stendhal, himself a notorious atheist and hater of the church, once asked: "will the newspapermen ever really manage to replace the priests?"

I don't know. Maybe all of this is really too abstract. But I still believe that it's possible to have a thoroughgoing and rational atheism, an atheism that knows what it's about and yet is open-eyed to other perspectives. I know that, when Hart says this, it sounds distinctly as though he's asking atheists to go to Sunday School to learn their enemy's ways. But I don't think that's it, really; there is such a thing as an open-minded atheist, one who is well-read and thoughtful enough to be able to argue and consider the tenor of human life without sputtering about it like Dawkins and Hitchens tend to. You don't have to go to school for theology to listen to the arguments of religionists and answer them thoughtfully point by point.
posted by koeselitz at 1:19 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Dawkins contributed something to science. I'll take him over Nietzsche any day.

Okay I see we have arrived at the point in the thread where I begin to regret my alliances.
posted by furiousthought at 1:20 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


furiousthought: “... modern atheists aren't granting Christianity the pride of cultural place he believes to be necessary, as a default state.”

koeselitz: Whoa. Can you show me where he said that?


"Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right."

Did you read the essy?
posted by afu at 1:20 AM on May 15, 2010


I keep hearing that Buddhism is an ideology rather than a theist religion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:22 AM on May 15, 2010


But my points still stand. 99% of the time I reckon atheism = an anti Christian rant.

Yes, well, if you're in a McDonalds and you're complaining about food, odds are you're not taking issue with the curry place down the street. I suspect Atheists in non-Christian dominated countries spend lots of time taking an anti-local-religion default stance -- that's only reasonable.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:23 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


Heart is complaining that 'new atheists' aren't treating religious argument reverently enough.
Well, duh. They're atheists.

I'm not without sympathy to Heart: Popular Atheism can be pretty vacuous. Moreover, Heart's probably upset by a lot of popular theist philosophy, too. He wants religious debate to be an exalted bazaar: a stirring market of ideas competing as part of a rich tapestry of culture and history. That's a high bar, and most fall short.

But a 'new atheist' has an easily reply, "Yes, my philosophy is shallow and simple. It lacks the heft and splendor of the great philosophical atheists who have come before. This is because religion no longer deserves serious philosophical response; I reply to weak theology with the ease and contempt it deserves, and I win. In the bazaar of ideas, I am Walmart."

I'm not endorsing this line of argument - I'm not an Atheist, and I don't like Walmart - but Hart is jumping up and down on his thesaurus demanding to be Taken Very Seriously, and it's self serving. The debate has been re-framed, and the gravitas religion once commanded is itself being put up for debate. Heart complains, "You don't treat religion seriously." The 'new atheists' might just reply, "So?"
posted by Richard Daly at 1:25 AM on May 15, 2010 [21 favorites]


Certainly the vast majority of popular Christian writers are not Hume scholars.

well but also--not just in terms of writers--is there any religion that requires its members to articulate and justify their beliefs? to my knowledge, the only requirement to being a christian is saying you are a christian; you don't have to say why, or defend it, or study it, or prove it. so it seems not only that their challenge to atheists is akin to the logical impossibility of proving one is not a witch, but their own adherents don't have to meet the same standard.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 1:32 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Atheism. It's life. If you've lived a life of many years, seen wars and weddings and births and deaths and queens and crips and greyhounds, drunk high country Rocky Mountain glacier fed stream water and old cognac, ridden bicycles, motorcycles, cars, wagons, trucks, sleds, horses, daddy's shoulders, balloons, airplanes, boats, watched geniuses build guitars and polio braces, and rose petals out of railroad spikes and boots out of kangaroos, seen the garden side of Coit Hill and the Golden Gate peeking through the morning fog, the swamps in Louisianna, the Smokeys in Tennessee, Mojave and the state of Utah, and snow in Hollywood, seen your wife's smile and heard you baby's laugh, and on and on and on, and in all that time you have never seen the slightest hint of anything that might lead you to believe that it could be construed as tending to suggest an inkling of a possibility, an iota of chance that there may be something supernatural in or about the world, not once, nothin'...there's nothing to talk about. If you're an atheist you don't believe it, you know it. It's real. There is no test. No proof. No explanation. There is only life.
posted by carping demon at 1:34 AM on May 15, 2010 [18 favorites]


For what it's worth, Hart isn't very positive about American Religion, either:
There is nothing in the least majestic, poignant, or "exuvial" about American religion, and not only because it possessed very little by way of mediating structures to begin with. If the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape. It is not particularly original to observe that, in the dissolution of Christendom, Europe retained the body while America inherited the spirit, but one sometimes wonders whether for "spirit" it would not be better to say "poltergeist." It is true that the majority of observant Christians and Jews in the United States are fairly conventional in their practices and observances, and the "mainstream" denominations are nothing if not reserved. But, at its most unrestrained and disembodied, the American religious imagination drifts with astonishing ease towards the fantastical and mantic, the messianic and hermetic. We are occasionally given shocking reminders of this--when a communitarian separatist sect in Guyana or a cult of comet-gazing castrati commits mass suicide, or when an encampment of deviant Adventists is incinerated by an inept Attorney General--but these are merely acute manifestations of a chronic condition. The special genius of American religion (if that is what it is) is an inchoate, irrepressibly fissiparous force, a peregrine spirit of beginnings and endings (always re-founding the church and preparing for Armageddon), without any middle in which to come to rest.
That's from the interesting, if spotty, essay "Religion in America: Ancient and Modern." (Yeesh, that last sentence there – fissiparous? I swear, half the reason I'm drawn to this guy is because he talks like he's been sitting around reading way too much Hegel.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


fallacy of the beard: “... well but also--not just in terms of writers--is there any religion that requires its members to articulate and justify their beliefs?”

I wouldn't hesitate to say that an important measure of the worth of a religion is its members' general ability to articulate and justify their beliefs, yes. And I'd say that, for instance, modern American Evangelicalism fails miserably on this metric. But maybe I'm just a jerk, I don't know.
posted by koeselitz at 1:40 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The bullshit is flying. An atheist is one that just does not believe in a god. That's all. It's not rocket surgery. It is simply the absence of a belief. Don't you folks get that?

Atheism is not a cult. It is not a thing. It is the absence of a thing. There are multitudes of atheists and they just don't care about your god or gods. That is all.

I personally don't give a flying fuck at a rolling dount about which god you all fight about.

No god. No care. Get it?

And by the way, as far as I understand wiccans are the furries of the religious community.
posted by Splunge at 1:52 AM on May 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


This article would have been a lot better if it were just Nietzsche.

(thanks for posting, by the way, it was definitely an entertaining thing to read and reminded me to try to remember to read other stuff)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:52 AM on May 15, 2010


But in fact the point is that Nietzsche really did say something very much like that.

Of course he did! I think we're talking past each other here.

– The main point of my initial comment is that New Atheism, the sort of preaching-to-the-choir fight books that Hitchens & Dawkins put out, are made possible by the waxing of Christianity's power – for Nietzsche, Christianity has to be very important, because in his time it was even more the cultural default than it is now. The comparative lack of rigor of the New Atheist books is a sign that they are not faddish, I'd argue, and we are going to get a lot more of them over the years, because all the writers really have to do is flatter (more charitably, offer fellowship to) an audience that believes as they do.

– But this doesn't change the fact that Nietzsche, who had no real fondness for faith (as I think is obvious) didn't relish an unthinking, cynical, unskeptical unbelief - I'd probably have found the article more compelling if he hit that more carefully, but the author is so disdainful of what is animating these books that he doesn't bother to engage it. My impression is, as others have stated, it's because he wants a better foil, when other scenarios are available: atheist thinkers challenging each other seems like a obvious one, but that would require that atheists gain even greater power in the general cultural sphere.
posted by furiousthought at 1:56 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dan Hart wonders if New Atheism might just be a passing fad

God knows...
posted by MajorDundee at 1:59 AM on May 15, 2010


but that would require that atheists gain even greater power in the general cultural sphere.

Just a matter of time. As soon as people get smarter.
posted by Splunge at 2:01 AM on May 15, 2010


This might help.
posted by Splunge at 2:06 AM on May 15, 2010


And if we make fun of your silly beliefs, it's because we love you. And we want you to wake up. That's all. No Santa. No unicorns. No Easter bunny. No god.

Good luck with the Jews.

That is, the New Atheists are concerned with the sort of God believed in by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Deists.... Where Nietzsche was almost certainly correct, however, was in recognizing that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief.

I run by people coming out of early mass Sunday morning and they're talking about American Idol. Almost never hear anyone talk about God and Jesus as much as the kinds of atheists Hart is talking about.

Seems like most of that vision comes from "The Shape of Things to Come" by Wells and enlightened absolutism in general.

The author, understandably, might rail at me for not being rigorous enough in my evaluation...
Solid point, but that's not what he appears to be doing for the greater part. His criticism of Hitchens' book, for example, is that it contains a lot of factual errors and misleading points. So more, off target and ineffective in method rather than 'you just don't get it.' Although that is there, yeah.

The issue of religion/atheism itself aside, I think his criticism of the movement is fairly on target. I've gotten the impression - perhaps it's wrong - that the New Atheists (and that term is new to me) are about the kind of social commentary he's talking about in order to engage Christian and other religious zealot types that encroach (and I agree wrongfully) on social decisions that should remain secular.

Seems like there'd be a bunch of dilution in there on the popular front from the core philosophy, as there would be in any movement.
So, correct criticism perhaps.
Apt? Different story.
The 'I criticize because I love you' still cuts no ice with me, in this regard coming from Hart.

Plenty of things to say about the civil rights movement in the U.S., and Goldwater had some solid arguments (legislating morality always looks swell from whatever side you're on but it applies to issues like abortion as well). I'm a big fan of civil liberties myself. But as it happens, Goldwater was wrong in terms of the movement and history.
So maybe this kind of reaction (New Atheism) is necessary now and the fact that it gets a bit sloppy in the mass marketed stuff - meh.
I don't get along well at parties if I bring up Nietzsche. In part because people tend to expect me to be a big oaf who can speak from an informed position at best on sports and big words coming from me puts some folks off.

But mostly because they haven't read him.

They'll pick up something by Hitchens though, or Dawkins. Get all pissed off. Go on talk radio. Hassle the (ecclesiastical) man.
But you can't just shove something that looks like homework in front of people, they're not going to get involved.
So maybe some of Hart's criticism is valid, but maybe he needs to cut some folks some slack.

Still man, reading the comments: The physical distinction between something and nothing (in the sense of "not anything as such") differs from the metaphysical distinction between existence and nonexistence ....When a New Atheist conceives of God as a physical being occupying the physical universe, and then goes on to declare that since there is "not any such thing" (physical mood) as this God, then "God does not exist" (metaphysical mood), he is simply making a catagory mistake...
*later commenter*
I’ve been an atheist all my life. I think it is very unlikely that there are any Gods, because no person knows of the existence of any Gods or of any things remotely similar to Gods. Similarly, I think it very unlikely that any astronomical objects exist that are at least as large as earth and made entirely of 18 carat gold.

*Sigh* Yeah, thanks guy. Great party. ....So howabout those 'Hawks!
posted by Smedleyman at 2:12 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The funny thing is that religious types see this as some kind of war. The rest of us see it as a joke. We are watching religious folks at each other's throats. My god is better than your god. It's like my unicorn is better than your easter bunny.

It's fucking hilarious. Keep it up. I need a laugh now and then,

Angels on the head of a pin. Oh dear. I'm about to piss my pants.
posted by Splunge at 2:15 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good luck with the Jews.

No god. Didn't you get it?
posted by Splunge at 2:19 AM on May 15, 2010


shmegegge said that Hart's statement that the "New Atheists" aren't skeptics is a terrible point.

But I think it's central to what he's saying: they're unskeptical atheists. They're incapable of doubting their atheism. That's why their writings are drab and they're unable to say anything new or say anything of substance about atheism or about the religions they're commenting on.

And worse, they're consequently unable to reflect upon or deal with the ways in which their version of atheism fulfills psychological purposes for them, in the same way that so many Christians are unable to reflect upon or deal with all the different ways in which Christianity fulfills psychological purposes.

That's a pretty good thesis and it captures much of my negative reaction (as an atheist myself) to these guys. But Hart kind of ruins it by getting all fighty with them as the essay progresses.
posted by XMLicious at 2:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like that they have "no data" on the religiousness of the Vatican.
posted by brokkr at 2:35 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


rokusan: "Because you can't fuck to New Music, man."

This is false and you are missing out if you didn't know that already.
posted by idiopath at 2:35 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Knock knock.

Who's there?

Allah.

Allah who?

Allahu Akbar!
posted by orthogonality at 2:36 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


But I still believe that it's possible to have a thoroughgoing and rational atheism, an atheism that knows what it's about and yet is open-eyed to other perspectives.

koeselitz: I think you (and Hart, to a degree) are conflating atheism and anti-religionism. It is important for anti-religionism to be rational, to be thoughtful, to know what it is about, and to be open-eyed to other perspectives. Because anti-religionism is a creed or belief system. But asking for atheism to be such is just a subtle way of rendering it impotent and harmless. It is trying to make atheism simply one more theological belief system among many.

When theism in general and (in much of the West) Christianity specifically are the default systems of belief from which one must depart in a rational, reasoned manner then we are not truly atheists. One does not choose to "believe in atheism" at all. I would say that atheism triumphs when god is not thought of at all except as a historical curiosity except that a lack of belief can't be said to triumph in any meaningful sense.

If you want anti-religionists to be rational and open-minded I'm right there with you. But you aren't drawing the distinction between anti-religion and atheism. One is a belief, one is the lack of a belief.
posted by Justinian at 2:37 AM on May 15, 2010 [14 favorites]


This guy is right on the money. Atheism can be bought cheaply. It's dead easy to turn around one day and say you don't believe in a higher moral power you can't see, hear, touch etc.

And that's the threat isn't it. How do religions cope with something so easy to embrace? It's as if the rules of the game, laid down over centuries have been changed. Rejectionists were supposed to form splinter religions, or worship something else.

They're not supposed to walk away and casually say they're not really bothered by any of it.

Also: "A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects"

.. is bullshit. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims aren't required to study every world faith before they reject them.

Why on earth should atheists have to do anything more than point out that religion is faith and they don't believe.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:43 AM on May 15, 2010 [35 favorites]


I enjoyed David Hart's rhetoric. As I read, never having heard of him before, I assumed he must be a Catholic, because only a conservative Catholic could have such a pre-modern outlook; but I suppose Orthodox fits even better.

Why don't modern atheists tackle traditional metaphysical arguments in any detail? Because that battleground was lost by the Christians a long, long time ago: in fact it would be truer to say that they lost heart and abandoned it before the atheist forces even turned up. You might as well ask why modern accounts of science don't say much about the theory of the humours. Most Christians I've discussed it with don't even consider those arguments relevant, never mind correct.

And syllogisms? Syllogisms? I felt a distinct twinge of sympathetic embarrassment when I realised he thought they were state of the art logic, and was even going to try to use them to display the inadequacy of his opponent's case. David, David: we don't do that stuff any more: things have moved on over the last few centuries; we no longer consider Aristotle the last word on logic.

Perhaps this is why his perception of logic seems defective in places. He describes the argument that divine omnipotence, divine benevolence, and an evil world are incompatible (missing out the third premise, but then syllogisms only have two, you see) as incorrigibly impressionistic. In fact it's impeccably logical: right or wrong, it has troubled serious and thoughtful Christians for a long time and continues to do so.

Of course he's right that some trendy atheists make very superficial cases, but I don't think he's going to make any converts either.
posted by Phanx at 2:45 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


When I realized that this guy was going hard into Nietzsche, I smelled blood, because, let's face it, most people fuck up Nietzsche. Hell, most people can't even spell Nietzsche. I probably just spelled it wrong three times, in fact. That 's' just doesn't seem right.

I was surprised, and a little delighted, to find that he had pretty much tackled the big N on his own terms. My disagreements with his reading are more subtle than the usual Nietzsche disagreements.

We seem to be focusing hard on the madman allegory in The Gay Science. Alright. We can do that. The emphasis in Hart's essay, and in this thread, seems to be on those facile atheists who mocked the madman. Hart, at least, sees N's portrayal of these dunderheads as a portrayal of those who have not fully considered the consequences of loosing from the moorings of Christian faith.

I'm not so sure of this. I don't think N was particularly concerned with the particulars of Christianity in this passage. His major concern, rather, seems to be the aesthetic of God, and the aesthetic/cultural role of religion. Aesthetics are a major theme in the work; as N says in aphorism 132 of book 4, "It is now no longer our reason, but our taste that decides against Christianity."

This aphorism, I would note, is not much more sophisticated in its consideration of the broken God-man at the foot of the cross than what can be found in the writing of any of the New Atheists. This is the case almost entirely for the treatment of specific Christianity in The Gay Science. He mocks it and dismisses it. "The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad, has made the world ugly and bad." "'God himself cannot subsist without wise men,' said Luther, and with good reason; but 'God can still less subsist without unwise men,'--good Luther did not say that!"

I mean, c'mon. That last one especially. He's just making fun.

Nietzsche did not seriously consider Christianity; not on Christian terms, at least. What he did seriously consider was the role of man in a world without God. What Truth means to this man, whether science and rationality can play the role of religious truth-seeking, what the artist means vis-a-vis the priest. This is what mattered to Nietzsche. He did not have much time for Jesus, man or God.

Don't even get me started on Hart's idea that the overman meant to serve as a mythos replacing Christian religion. Jesus Christ. That's just... I don't even know how to respond to that. It's not even wrong.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:46 AM on May 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


"I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco..."

Disco will never die!
posted by jonnyploy at 2:54 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can't get to the meat of his argument as his writing style makes me cringe. It's like he's never got out of the phase of being a pretentious undergrad who never uses one word when twenty will do.

If New Atheists are preaching to the choir, he's masturbating to the intellectual wankers.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:00 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I didn't actually read the rest of article. Does he actually ever make an affirmative argument for god's existence? If so, what is it? Because it would be pretty hilarious to complain about the arguments of atheists without presenting any affirmative case.

---
Doesn't that make it even worse? Sounds like it functions as an atheist Foxe's Book of Martyrs or those interminable spiritual autobiographies that were never quite worth it after Bunyan's Grace Abounding.
Worse in what sense?
But I still believe that it's possible to have a thoroughgoing and rational atheism, an atheism that knows what it's about and yet is open-eyed to other perspectives.
But why would any atheist want that? The whole point of atheism is that you don't have to think about religion. You get to think about something else instead. And, given the finite nature of life, why waste time? Perhaps a theist who thinks he'll live forever it might seem more reasonable.

Frankly, I don't particularly care if other people are religious or not, and I don't really see why I should care. I'm annoyed by Atheists who feel the need to bash religion.
posted by delmoi at 3:01 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd agree that "book/new atheism" is a passing phase. We're moving towards a post-thiest world, slowly yes but most educated people already ignore your stupid god unless they're selling stuff.

Dan Hart says he appreciates the need for skepticism but basically he just doesn't like atheism being publicized by books. If we were talking about women's rights, homosexuality, or race, then he'd be a bigot.

Atheists should write books because they still cannot get elected to public office. That'll only change once christian voters recognize that morality exists independently of their religion. You know, gays have exactly the same problems today, career women and blacks had this problem before. Btw, the Onion wrote kinda the same article about gay rights, called Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance Of Gays Back 50 Years.

I've no opinions about the "new atheist" authors Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, or Christopher Hitchens, never read much by them, although you gotta respect the whole water-boarding thing.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is clearly a masterwork of scientific exposition for the layman. You'll always have people who rebel against their religious upbringing, often over homosexuality, abuse, etc. but just because they don't like being lied to by their parents, like Dawkins. Yes, we're all kinda disappointed that biology's Carl Sagan waisted his time writing about religion, but yeah I'd be pissed if my parents had lied to me too.

A philosopher like Daniel Dennett however gains credibility by writing about popular topics like religion instead of hiding behind impenetrable academic theory on ethics, epistemology, etc. Yes, religion and culture actually do evolve via natural selection, much like evolution we'll require some time to work out the mechanism, but duh! No, they're not being egotistical by using brights for people whose worldview is naturalistic, well naturalist was already taken.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:16 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think Hart is whistling past the graveyard. I think he, like so many particularly erudite theists, are desperate to believe that the growing secularism of Western culture is a fad, an unconsidered phase that will eventually go into retrograde as Christ regains primacy as a sociocultural lodestone.

The problem Hart is facing is that the trend is pretty evident. Evangelicalism notwithstanding, secularism is gaining ground. And whining about the equivalent of "kids these days" isn't going to stem the tide.

Dawkins and Hitchens aren't a fad. They are a watershed. Hart recognizes it and it makes him very uncomfortable.
posted by darkstar at 3:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


When I look at (read) about the many years of the Greek gods, the buddhist and hindu traditions, and the Jewish beliefs, I can but note that Christianity may be but a passing fad.
posted by Postroad at 3:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply

So they're not working hard enough at not believing in non-existent gods? They didn't take the time to learn everything there isn't to know about your particular flavor of invisible sky fairy before they decided they didn't believe in him / her / it either? Did they just get straight to the point, like 'prove it' or 'where's your evidence' and then walk away when you pointed to a book of fairy tales written by some camel-humping desert cult thousands of years ago? Diddums.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Worse in what sense?
Idle thought really and not read the book in question, but from the description made me think of those meta-texts and other items that are there to prop up your belief or non-belief system as some sort of lifestyle choice - read about your fellow atheists, buy the t-shirt and so on. I can well imagine why such things might appeal but it's not really for me.
posted by Abiezer at 3:39 AM on May 15, 2010


Does he actually ever make an affirmative argument for god's existence? If so, what is it?

He does. Consider this phrase: Supreme Be-Ing. Stare at it until your eyes cross permanently.
posted by fleacircus at 3:55 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


To elaborate upon delmoi's comment, there were always liberated women and gays before their respective revolutions, just not many. Women and gays wrote books that made liberation, coming out, etc. easier for normal people, until now our culture begins accepting them enough that not everyone even reads the books. Dan Hart has no right objecting to smart people helping normal people understand their lives.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:56 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Farking oath. The knee jerk anti Christian commentary I see everywhere [including Metafilter] which smacks of a bunch of 18 year olds in their University Arts Faculty social club "Me too! I hate Christians. Yaaaaay! So... erm... can I get into your panties now?"

How galling it must be for you, in yoru parallel universe where atheists are the overwhelming, unstoppablly privileged dominators of poor, beleaguered religious folk everywhere.

Yep. He hates Richard Dawkins – what a fuckin' bigot.

Yes, clearly his screed is written about one person.

"Is it just me, or are a lot of people missing that he is writing specifically about New Atheism specifically and not Atheism in general?"

"New atheist" occupies the same position in discourse about religion and society as "uppity nigger" did in the discourse on the Civil Rights movement.

Yes, but do you really believe that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C Dennett, et al are the representatives of science?

Richard Dawkins is a working scientist who's won a number of prizes in his fields, is a member of the Royal Society, held the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, a long string of peer-approved publications in his field, and has held teaching positions in a variety of prestigious universities working, again, in his scientific specialties.

The fact you have a bug up your arse about him does not, in fact, make him "not a representative of science."

And by the way, as far as I understand wiccans are the furries of the religious community.

Watching mainstreams religious folks mock Wiccans, or, for that matter Mormons, provide one with the gratifying spectacle of watching one bunch of people who believe in the supernatural deriding another group of people whose belief in the supernatural is too silly in some way which is often rather non-obvious.

that the New Atheists (and that term is new to me) are about the kind of social commentary he's talking about in order to engage Christian and other religious zealot types that encroach (and I agree wrongfully) on social decisions that should remain secular.

There's pretty obviously a strong element of that in the case of, say, Dawkins; I guess when your professional field is one that a bunch of folks would like to see eradicated and the knowledge it's gained destroyed because it offends their religious beliefs you don't develop a great deal of patience.
posted by rodgerd at 4:16 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


Is it seriously not remarkable at all that a Christian is here stating clearly and openly that atheism might be necessary and in fact noble in society?

Well, as a Christian I can't see why on earth he would say that. I know what the Bible says about Atheism.

As for me, if you don't believe in God, I believe arguing with you about it is a total waste of time. But, I suppose people must write books.

Atheism. It's life. If you've lived a life of many years, seen wars and weddings and births and deaths and queens and crips and greyhounds, drunk high country Rocky Mountain glacier fed stream water and old cognac, ridden bicycles, motorcycles, cars, wagons, trucks, sleds, horses, daddy's shoulders, balloons, airplanes, boats, watched geniuses build guitars and polio braces, and rose petals out of railroad spikes and boots out of kangaroos, seen the garden side of Coit Hill and the Golden Gate peeking through the morning fog, the swamps in Louisianna, the Smokeys in Tennessee, Mojave and the state of Utah, and snow in Hollywood, seen your wife's smile and heard you baby's laugh, and on and on and on, and in all that time you have never seen the slightest hint of anything that might lead you to believe that it could be construed as tending to suggest an inkling of a possibility, an iota of chance that there may be something supernatural in or about the world, not once, nothin'...there's nothing to talk about. If you're an atheist you don't believe it, you know it. It's real. There is no test. No proof. No explanation. There is only life.

And yet, so many of us have seen the same or similar things and seen God's fingerprints all over them.


You can't reason out God, either for, or against. This isn't about knowledge, or "proof." It's about inner witness, or spirit, or lack of same. So again, I think arguing either for or against is wasted time, better spent looking at a sunset or having an ice cream cone, and thanking God for it. Or not.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:21 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


He pretty much knocking all atheists who don't live up to his standards of what atheists and skeptics should be.

Yeah, but there are some atheists who do that to Christians. Or -- they dismiss Christians because of THEIR OWN PERCEPTIONS OF Christianity:

"You're a Christian? Huh, so you therefore believe this ridiculous blah blah blah."
"Actually, I don't."
"Bullshit, the Bible says blah blah blah so therefore that is what you believe."
"But...not everyone takes the Bible literally."
"That's just cheating! If you say you're a Christian, you have to believe blah blah blah because the Bible says blah blah and so therefore if you are a Christian then that is what you believe. And therefore you are ridiculous."

I admit: I didn't read the article. But I have a hunch I know what kind of people he met to spur him to write it --

And if we make fun of your silly beliefs, it's because we love you.

....And I think this statement is Exhibit "A".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 AM on May 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


HE IS DAVID B HART. HE IS NOT DAN HART.
posted by Phanx at 4:31 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Like it or not, religion has been around for a few millenia, and as much as our modern atheists would want, it won't disappear any time soon. I think the author's main concern is that the New Atheists are so singularly hell-bent (at least, in the public eye) on their agenda of eradicating something, that they haven't properly taken the time to research|understand|study* the damned thing in the first place.

*Preferably using best tools of both the sciences and the humanities that we have at our disposal.
posted by polymodus at 4:32 AM on May 15, 2010


We atheists are a varied lot. Some of us are grateful for a compassionate christian upbringing, some are angry because our christian upbringing was borderline abusive. Some of us have years of serious philosophical study, others have simply never had any reason to ponder the existence or non existence of god. Some are working to bring about the end of organised religion for the good of mankind, others work as priests and imams. Some feel a great sense of freedom, of burdens lifted, others a sense of loss. Some of us believe in crystal healing, but find the idea of god ridiculous- you don't have to be a skeptic to have no god. ↲
You can always caricature any group ofpeople, but this guy has no more right to define real atheists than I do.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:34 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, but there are some atheists who do that to Christians.

Oh for fuck's sake, come on.
posted by fleacircus at 4:36 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ignoring that leaden and almost perfectly ductile phrase “life-enhancing,” I, too—red of blood and rude of health—would have to say I generally prefer the sight of nubile beauty to that of a murdered man’s shattered corpse.
Wait... is he - criticising someone else's writing style?

From about the fourth comment on the article:
Good article, and I'm glad to see someone finally address Hitchens, but this is treading ground Hart's already covered in other articles - as well as his book, which was great. I've also noticed that Hart's prose has gotten a bit less purple with practice, and that's a good thing. Can't wait to see what his next project is.
"Gotten a bit less purple"? Verily, the implication of that sentence makes my blood run cold, as cold as the deepest circle of Dante's Hell.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:39 AM on May 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Also, these same authors like Susan Blackmore are usually attacking pseudo-science and paranormal claims too, especially the exploitive ones. The old lady selling chakra stones isn't that harmful however, while the high ranking scientologist or the televangelist making himself rich hurts many people.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:54 AM on May 15, 2010


As an atheist who has had to put up with screeching from the usual quarters regarding how theists are bad, evil and stupid, I can only agree.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:01 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I haven't read the article but I've read nearly the entire conversation here, and I'm confused. I thought:

Theists: believe there is god,
Atheists: believe there is no god, and
Agnostics: don't think the existence of god has been satisfactorily proven and are generally abstaining from taking a stand on the matter due to lack of evidence and inherent belief.

I am not in the US and I don't know much about this New Atheism, but are my definitions invalid within the scope of this discussion? Because it seems to me that people who believe that there is no god should need to prove their theory as much as those who believe there is god - within the boundaries of rational dialog at least. Atheism is not just a rejection of the idea of god, is it? It's saying there is no god, yes? Or am I, to begin with, confusing new atheism with atheism?

Yet people are conflating religion with theism and agnosticism with atheism, and claiming that atheism is good enough (or cool enough?) to stand on shoddy grounds like "religion bores me" or "life is all there is, I just know it, I don't need proof"... Why? Is it the source article that does that? Or am I just wrong wrong wrong?
posted by mondaygreens at 5:12 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Of course, PZ Myers has already gone to town on this essay.
posted by teraflop at 11:21 PM on May 14 [1 favorite +] [!]


It seems that PZ Myers has gone to a slightly different town to the one the essay's based in, though. Hart is arguing that those collected under the banner of 'New Atheism' are engaging in a shallow and intellectually vapid attack on something they're not seriously engaging with; Myers is countering that by pointing out that Hart doesn't make a convincing argument for the existence of God, an argument Hart wasn't trying to make in the first place. Also, Christians are stupid ask your minister to explain the long words to you hur hur. If anything, I think he's kind of supporting Hart's case there.

Obviously it's true that atheists, New, Old or whatever flavour you choose, aren't under any obligation to justify what they do or don't believe to the rest of the world. It's not like anybody needs a permission slip. But there's a difference between saying "You, $RANDOM_ATHEIST, need to justify your atheism to me in a way I personally find acceptable!" and saying "Your book/article/blog/speech/whatever, in which you make a case for all right-thinking people embracing atheism and attempt to convince me as a religious person that I'm wrong about various things, is not the intellectual powerhouse you think it is." To pick one example, have you read Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation? It's terrible. And it's terrible in pretty much exactly the same way that many Christian evangelist texts are terrible, too: it's condescending, assumes ignorance, gets stuff factually wrong, gives those it's addressing no credit for being thinking beings with more intellectual ability than a walnut, and seems determined to attack some bizarre, simplified caricature of the arguments the other side is making, rather than actually listening to what those it's addressing might have to say.

I think Dan Brown's a terrible writer, too. I'm fairly sure that's not just because The Da Vinci Code hit a nerve somewhere deep down in my psyche and I just can't handle the truth.
posted by Catseye at 5:13 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Coincidentally I just flipped on the good ol' http://www.southparkstudios.com/ to find I'm on the "Red Hot Catholic Love" episode, the one where all the townspeople decide to become atheists. (My apologies to non-USians if it's not accessible where you are.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:19 AM on May 15, 2010


If there's a God, what's he worrying about?

You want to believe in magic fairy tales told 2 millennia ago by mediterranean shepherds, go for it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:24 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


You can't reason out God, either for, or against.

Yes, that's been the claim since we reasoned out God, against, over the last 100-200 years. You can't do a lot of things, until you can.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:26 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


HE IS DAVID B HART. HE IS NOT DAN HART.

BUT WHAT DOES DAVID LIEBE HART HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE NEW ATHEISM.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:32 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


>Yeah, but there are some atheists who do that to Christians.

Oh for fuck's sake, come on.


You're going to have to expound upon this, fleacircus.

Is this "come on" because you think I think ALL atheists are like that? I don't. That's why I said "some" atheists.

Is this "come on" because you think I'm claiming "but they started it"? You could make a fair argument for that, which is why I specified that "I think I have a feeling why Hart wrote what he did" -- or, that rather, "there are a certain few people who are just plain annoying and use their atheism as an excuse FOR that annoyingness, and this is his way of attempting to tell them to knock it the hell off, I think".

Is this "come on" because you doubt that there are people who do do this? Well -- the "conversation" I printed in my response ("you believe blah blah blah because you are a Christian") is something I've seen right here on the blue.

If I haven't addressed your "come on" above, please elaborate as to what you mean, because I'd like to address it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:45 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your definitions are incorrect mondaygreens :

An atheist need not even consider the matter, they might simply not believe, or even just not care. Conversely, there are atheists that are very much religious culturally, socially, or habitually, well there are even openly atheist anglican priests.

Agnosticism technically means you believe the answer is unknown or even unknowable. You may thus be an agnostic while also being an atheist or a theist. You're mostly like not an agnostic if you honestly never consider the matter, more just an atheist.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:50 AM on May 15, 2010


Now, I'm a fan of the New Atheists and disagree with the great majority of article, but I was very surprised at the quality of his points. Most of the criticisms I've seen from the religious have been drawn from the same quiver of dumb or simply meaningless arguments ("they don't really understand theology," "they don't understand the subtlety of religious experience"). In comparison, this really hits where it hurts—not the content of their core skeptical arguments, but the sort of flaccidness of it. There really is a bit of a lack of subtle and profound insight, it's all quite sledgehammer. Which has its place, but as Nietzsche showed, you can do some pretty artful work with a sledgehammer, and most of them don't.

I've always had a love/hate attitude toward Hitchens in particular. He's got a rhetorical style that's very hard-hitting and erudite, but if you listen too closely, there's a sort of looseness to his train of thought, and often he only makes glancing blows at the question at hand. I've seen debates of his where his opponent gives him the same question three or four times and just gives up eventually because they don't feel like they've been answered. But he wasn't dodging, he's just not the type to spell out a clean line of thought step by step. It's easiest to notice when you read or listen to him on something you disagree about (which for most would be the Iraq War). The feeling is, "wow, those were all interesting points, but did he really answer the question?" He's flashy and entertaining, but sloppy—the Yngwie Malmsteen of public discourse.
posted by abcde at 5:50 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and credit where it's due: Sam Harris, who I think is by far the best of the lot, has literally the cleanest and most straightforward rhetoric of any public intellectual I'm aware of, maybe any person. His impromptu answers sound like they're carefully written in advance. (Random sample.)
posted by abcde at 5:53 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


You're going to have to expound upon this, fleacircus.

I meant, if you're going to bring in this same derailing schtick you bring to religion where: because some atheists overgeneralized about you because you choose the label "Christian", therefore you're going to turn it back and start overgeneralizin' on some atheists by gosh, as if it were impossible to speak generally of things, all of which has been gone round and round and round—well, c'mon, at least RTFA.
posted by fleacircus at 6:02 AM on May 15, 2010


mondaygreens: Atheism is not just a rejection of the idea of god, is it? It's saying there is no god, yes?

Even if these two positions can be meaningfully distinguished, they're both describing forms of atheism.

Yet people are conflating religion with theism and agnosticism with atheism, and claiming that atheism is good enough (or cool enough?) to stand on shoddy grounds like "religion bores me" or "life is all there is, I just know it, I don't need proof"... Why? Is it the source article that does that? Or am I just wrong wrong wrong?

The point is that unless you have some reason to believe in something, there doesn't seem to much point worrying about disproving it. As far as I'm concerned, the statement "the universe was created by an entity who really, really cares about whether gay couples have access to the same civil and political rights as straight couples (or about whether I eat pork, or believe that Jesus died for me etc.)" is about as interesting as the statement "the beanbag you are sitting on has a soul and feelings, and wishes you would sit on it more gently". Neither is particularly interesting. I could think up of hundreds of similar statements that are just as ridiculous as both of those, and I wouldn't have any obligation to anyone to prove them either.

On the other hand, if I wanted Parliament to pass a law requiring people to sit gently on beanbags, I think everyone would be justified in asking for a better reason than "because I believe they have feelings and don't want to be hurt".

Anyway, trying to draw a strict line between atheism and agnosticism isn't that useful. There are valid positions that combine aspects of each (as, on preview, jeffburdges says).

Or am I, to begin with, confusing new atheism with atheism?

As far as I can tell from reading wikipedia, "new atheism" is just a catchy title Wired magazine thought up for a handful of American and British writers who have come along at the right moment and been successful in popularising a particular view of atheism. I wouldn't read too much into it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:13 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Agnosticism technically means you believe the answer is unknown or even unknowable. You may thus be an agnostic while also being an atheist or a theist.

I don't get it. How can you believe (or not believe) that there's a God (theist/atheist) and yet not know if there's one (agnostic). I can see being an agnostic who HOPES there is (or isn't) a God. But I don't see how one can not know and yet believe.

Or does "believe" here mean "feel like," as in "I don't know if I'm going to get fired from my job, but from the way my boss has been looking at me, I feel like I am."

In these debates, I think half (or more) of the problem is differing definitions "know" and "belief."

Does faith mean "believing even though you don't know" or "knowing even though you have no proof?" Please, don't answer that -- unless you can define all the terms.

I come up against this wall of definitions every time I just state that I'm an atheist. To me, being an atheist means that I KNOW God doesn't exist. Some people -- including some atheists -- reject that definition. And that's fine. They may say, "it isn't about not knowing, it's about not believing."

But before we argue, we should really try to discover what we mean by "know" and "believe." Perhaps we have more common ground than we think we do. Or maybe we don't, but our disagreement lies in an unsuspected place.

To some people, "I KNOW God doesn't exist" sounds absurd because "how can you prove God doesn't exist?" Well, I feel very comfortable saying, "I KNOW there wasn't a purple rock in my pocket, yesterday," even though there's no way I can go back in time and prove it.

It's weak (and doesn't, to my ears, sound accurate) to say, "I BELIEVE there was no purple rock." I am not an agnostic about whether or not there was a purple rock in my pocket. I am an atheist about it.

By which I mean that though I can't conclusively prove that there was no rock -- in the way that I can prove that 2 + 2 = 4 -- the possibility that there was one is, to me, so minuscule that it's not worth considering.

To me, the difference between "know" and "believe" is one of probability. There's a gray area between the two, but at a certain point, belief tips over into know. Know is a different feeling. "I believe I'm going to get fired" and "I know I'm going to get fired" feel very different, though neither is conclusive. In the former case, I might say, "...but I'm going to keep working on this report, just in case I don't." In the latter case, I'd say, "...so I'm going to goof off for the rest of the day. Why not?"

That's exactly how I feel about God, and it's my sort of atheism. Sure, there MIGHT be a God. There also might be a giant singing cabbage, an inside-out three-toed sloth and a cosmic toothpick. I can't disprove any of those things, but it would be weird to say that I was an agnostic about them. My brain KNOWS they don't exist.

In a moment of great pain or fear, an agnostic MIGHT pray, just in case God does exist. Even though I can't prove God doesn't exist, it would never occur to me to pray (it never has) -- even in the most dire circumstances. There's no map of God in my brain.

To me, "belief" implies significant room for doubt. "know" doesn't.
posted by grumblebee at 6:32 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh, and I'm not sure I see anyone conflating religion with theism. People are addressing religion, and Christianity in particular, because the article which started it all is written from an explicitly Christian position - as you can see in the final paragraph, where the writer demands that an atheist consider something about Jesus (I would be more specific, but I can't really tell what he's talking about) before his or her atheism can be considered worthwhile.

Strip away from Christianity "the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth", leaving a kind of pure theism, and we can talk. Hart looks in that direction but isn't prepared to go there.

Since Hart likes Nietsche so much, I'll give him the last word: "Who gives a damn? Certainly not God".
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:34 AM on May 15, 2010


The basic problem with trying to replace religion with non-belief of humanism is that you really need sappy, uplifting spiritually fulfilling stuff.

I don't understand this, although I know the intent wasn't to dismiss atheism. There is so much spiritually fulfilling stuff in the world I am staggered, sometimes. The world is a rich and marvelous place. I don't have to have a god to be moved by the moon drifting above cornflower blue mist, or the sound of crickets and frogs in a warm summer's twilight. It is unnecessary to believe that we were all created by some sentient force when it is perfectly true, without recourse to any outside myth, that we are all relatives and in fact every living thing on earth is my relative, however distantly removed. The mystery of spring and the return of flowers and leaves and the migrating birds is a miracle that is an unambiguous gift requiring no giver at all in my mind.

And none of that is sappy, or requires anything other than the use of the senses. But it is very difficult to organize the appreciation of those things. They come, or they don't come, depending on the person and their sensibilities. But it is very easy to feel moved by a communal experience which is designed for that very purpose, which is where religion excels. It is built into the very fabric of the experience, as is made explicit in the Christian tradition in Matthew 18:20 - "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Think about that! No matter where religious people are (in most of the major religious systems), no matter what trials they face, they are part of a global tradition and history stretching back thousands of years. That is community. New Atheism seems to be trying to adapt and create a system of support similar to that community, and it's not the same thing, nor can it be made to work in the same way. And you can't really expect people to want to spend a lifetime reading philosophy to defend their mental schemas simply to join a community. Even many religious people don't really, unless they are very keen, spend time reading the things that they believe.

The shallow vapididty of New Atheism that Hart criticizes is simply a reflection of our overall culture, not a specific trait of New Atheism. It's the same sort of triviality that made Scorcese's film adaptation of Kazantzakis' "The Last Temptation of Christ" such a scandal, even though anyone who even bothered to read even the preface of the book would see that Kazantzakis was arguing for the ultimate victory of Christ over all the temptations of the flesh as a true perfect sacrifice, which also came across in the movie.

I've been an atheist since I was twelve. I do think that a lot of the New Atheists are a little too shrill and a lot too flippant, but I also can see what they are trying to do. I just don't think it will work in the way they want it to function.
posted by winna at 6:41 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Someone (I think Ezra Klein?) wrote the other day that conservative commentators invariably look dumber than liberal commentators because most of the smart conservatives are busy making millions of dollars in business-but there's a great demand for people arguing for conservative principles in the media, so very stupid people like Jonah Goldberg get to have cushy jobs because the applicant pool is thin.

That's what I think of when I meet, as I regularly do, some doofus who is working on her philosophy of religion phd-there are a million tiny christian colleges who need people to teach ethics from a religiously grounded perspective so there are so many jobs out there, but the best and the brightest in the field tend to be drawn to problems that are fresh and live. So you get a hundred and fifty useless dissertations a year from people who are better suited to be gas station attendants than professional philosophers.

Anyway, the article is tepid O'Rourkian sludge and I was already regretting the time spent reading it three paragraphs in, in my usual way. I remain unconvinced that anyone alive has anything interesting to say about theism vs. athiesm. Hart is right about exactly one thing: go read some Nietzsche.
posted by Kwine at 6:43 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I admit: I didn't read the article. But I have a hunch I know what kind of people he met to spur him to write it --"

"I haven't read the article but I've read nearly the entire conversation here, and I'm confused... [...] Is it the source article that does that? Or am I just wrong wrong wrong?"


Oh come one, people. I had to slog through that defective polemic so that I could argue about atheists. You do too.

(This, by the way, is a hilarious reflection of the author's point--that we have to slog through theology in order to talk about atheism.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:45 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ha! Come on, people. Not come one. Come One People sounds like a bad non-profit.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:46 AM on May 15, 2010


"Because it seems to me that people who believe that there is no god should need to prove their theory as much as those who believe there is god - within the boundaries of rational dialog at least. "

Prove why you don't believe in reincarnation. Go. Ok, now prove why you don't believe that the earth is the center of the universe around which everything else revolves. Ok, now prove that astrology is wrong and the planets don't have an effect on our personalities (among other things). Ok, now prove that you're not a sentient robot.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:49 AM on May 15, 2010 [14 favorites]


The basic problem with trying to replace religion with non-belief of humanism is that you really need sappy, uplifting spiritually fulfilling stuff.

I occasionally contemplate whether my utter lack of a spiritual life, or seeming inability to have transcendent/spiritual experiences (even as a very pious person I felt nothing), or my utter disinterest in same, means that I'm broken as a person.


I say "anti Christian" atheism because none of the screaming wieners in the above subset have the rocks to diss Tibetan Buddhism or Wiccanism or Islam etc. Heavens no! Diss Islam??!

This is nonsense. Western atheists attack Christianity first and foremost because a) Christianity dominates Western culture and b) they tend to live in countries where they can do so free of assault on their person and on their rights (the odd european country with idiotic blasphemy laws notwithstanding). There exist atheist movements in non-Western cultures; we don't tend to hear about them very much in the West for what should be fairly obvious reasons. India actually has a very active atheist/skeptical community who occasionally get some attention; they generally criticise Buddhism and Hinduism, because (*gasp!*) those are the beliefs which are relevant to the culture they exist in.

The whole "atheists are sissies!" nonsense is stupid.



As regards this article, well, it reminds me of the old Stephen Roberts quote:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Hart wants atheists to justify ourselves to him, and it would never occur to him that the same burden lies upon his shoulders. Where is his refutation of Hinduism? Where is his refutation of Jainism? Of the Native American religions?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:09 AM on May 15, 2010 [28 favorites]


Shorter: What Hart is saying is that someone like Hitchens is to religion what the teabaggers are to politics -- which is to say that even if there is great, great validity in pointing out the flaws and hypocrisies of American politics, there is almost nothing to be gained from a group of people standing on the sidelines and saying "Nuh-uh!" and making fart noises. That kind of protest is basically worthless except as self-aggrandizement. It's not argument in any useful sense, and it doesn't represent the building blocks of...well, anything. It's good for a guy who wants to sell his book to other people who are vaguely pissed off at something, they think, or whatever. You can't even argue meaningfully with such a person, and frankly they seem to thick to understand what's being lost if -- as they seem to want -- people just say fuck it and forget about the whole thing. It's hard to explain what's being lost, but it's very easy to make fart noises, and it's hard to hear over those, and they make people laugh, and it's only later that you realize people are all standing in line at the Time Masheen and getting handjobs at Starbuck's and something has gone horribly awry, and by then it is too late.

I think what Hart is looking for and not finding are people who are willing to grapple with the underpinnings of religion -- morality, community, a sense of ourselves relative to the world and what our place in that world is -- and point to how organized religion may fail to address those subjects meaningfully, or how organized religion may promote a distortion of those subjects, or indeed how those subjects can be addressed meaningfully outside the context of organized religion at all. What disturbs me about the "new atheism" is that many of its proponents seem opposed to religion in such shallow terms that it implies a shallow understanding of what religion is trying to do, and frankly I think that thing is something we may all need more of. I guess what I'm saying is that rejection of religion is fine, as far as I'm concerned, but rejection of...well, what? Something broader and indefinable, I guess, something transcendent but grounded in cooperation and compassion for one another is less fine, to me; and I'm okay with arguing about what that means and how to get there and whether that's even something worth striving for and certainly whether, say, organized Christianity is even shooting for it (or perhaps its very opposite), but I'm less happy about its outright dismissal.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:18 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Thanks to those who answered. I am not much clearer about the terms themselves but I recognize better how fuzzy they are to begin with (as grumblebee shows). Pope Guilty's comment above illustrates what I meant about conflating theism and religion. Believing in the existence of god doesn't automatically mean that you subscribe to a religion; conversely I know a lot of religious people who spend little or no time thinking about or 'believing' in or 'following' god (quotes because these are individually defined terms) but instead define their piety as how closely their behavior and practices aligns with the rituals and proscriptions of a particular religion. That's not theism. That's not even what's at issue here, from what I gather of the article.

I should probably read it though.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:20 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're not allowed to delete that email from the exiled Nigerian minister unless you really engage with it and try to understand it and shed big weepy tears over the consequences of there not being a wealthy exiled Nigerian minister who picked your email address at random and wants to give you a lot of money.

Every one of us, every day, fails to believe in thousands of absurd things without having to solemnly meditate on their nature and the existential horror which results if they're not true. Your magic being doesn't rate a special dispensation just because he's been around for a while. Do any of you carefully study, consider, examine, and mourn astrology? Cause that tradition is even older.
posted by Legomancer at 7:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


People who believe that there is no god should need to prove their theory as much as those who believe there is God

This is an interesting claim. Understandably, it gets leveled against atheists a lot. I disagree with it, and (I hope) I can explain why. Of course, I don't know if my explanation will satisfy you or not.

When I was really young, I learned about Occam's Razor. This philosophical principle is important to many skeptics and atheists (and to some theists). I am convinced that there's a HUGE difference between the way "Occamists" think and the way non-Occamists think. And I can sub-divide people even further. There are people who know about the principle, but who only learned about it recently (or who don't think about it all that much) -- to them it is an abstract idea; and there are people like me, who learned about it decades ago and have whole "areas of the brain" devoted to it. Occamist thinking is natural to me. It's an algorithm my brain runs automatically. (Perhaps it creates some blind spots in me, as most rote ideas do!)

In case you're unfamiliar with Occam's Razor, I'll define it in colloquial terms. It means that if there are competing explanations for something, and you have no way of proving which one is the truth, you should always go with the simpler one.

Example: why did my sandwich disappear? Explanation One: space aliens took it. Explanation Two: the dog ate it. You should go with number two, because it's more likely. Why is it more likely? Because for it to be true, the only thing that needs to exist is a hungry dog. Number one needs space aliens with odd motives and faster-than-light travel.

What's fascinating -- and what get's very close to the heart of your question -- is how Occam's Razor relates to KNOWLEDGE. Having used it to rule out the space-alien theory, is it safe to say that I KNOW it wasn't space aliens? Or should I say, "It probably wasn't, but maybe it was"?

I'm not going to answer that. I don't think there is a definitive answer. It's mostly a word game about what one means by "know," and I wrote about that above.

There are a couple of ideas that are related to Occam's Razor: one of them is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (or, put another way, "the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim.")

In other words, if you reject the dog theory and say, "No, it was definitely space aliens," it's your job to prove it. It's NOT my job to prove the no-aliens theory, because -- according to Occam's Razor -- it's not the sound one. You are the one swimming against the Occam tide, so you must do the proving.

You can reject that. Again, that means that I accept Occam as useful and you don't. Or you don't think it's as useful as I do.

The other related idea is that one of the possibilities, when trying to figure something out, is always, "I don't know." I'm not talking about the "I don't know" of agnosticism. I'm talking about what I would say if my sandwich disappeared and I didn't own a dog.

Question: why did your sandwich disappear?
Me: I don't know.
You: Space aliens.

To me, this changes nothing. Space aliens is STILL an extraordinary claim. You STILL need to prove it. And I STILL don't need to disprove it, even though I have no competing theory.

You may reject this in discussions about God, but I think it's very likely that you live by it in your day to day life. Let's say you come home and notice that the door is unlocked. You remember locking it when you left. How did it get unlocked? You don't know. A friend says, "I think I know. A magic tiger, with the power of unlocking any door, came to your house, wiggled his nose, and the door unlocked." You say, "prove it!" He says, "prove it DIDN'T happen." My guess is that you, like most people, feel that the burden of proof is on your friend.

Or imagine a salesman comes to your house and says, "I want to sell you some little pills that cure cancer." You say, "Prove it!" He says, "Prove they don't!" Again, if you're like most people, you'll say, "Hey! YOU'RE the one making an extraordinary claim! It's not my job to DISPROVE it. It's your job to prove it!"

To me and to many atheists, this is why, "Well, if God didn't create the universe, how did it get there?" falls flat. I don't know how it got there, but that doesn't mean I'll just accept any theory that comes along. Unless someone can PROVE their theory, I'm going with "I don't know." Again, this is not agnosticism. I'm not saying, "I don't know if there's a God." I'm saying, "I don't know how the universe got here, but just because I don't know, that doesn't somehow prove (or make it more likely that) God exists."

If you reject Occam's Razor and the related ideas (or if you don't feel as strongly about them as I do), you may still think I need to disprove God. At this point, you and I will have little basis for discussion. We disagree on some foundational principles.

I have a good friend -- a theist -- who is as devoted to Occam as I am. He feels that believing in God obeys Occam's Razor (which was, by the way, invented by a Franciscan friar!), because (a) most people, throughout human history, have strongly believed in some sort of god or gods, and (b) he FEELS God in his heart.

My response is that (a) relies on a common fallacy. Just because many people have believed in something, that doesn't make it true (or false). Many people believed the sun went round the Earth, the Earth was flat, etc. "Many people" adds nothing to the argument one way or the other. It's not that I have the hubris to believe that I am smarter than all those people. I just don't buy that "many people believe" belongs in a discussion about whether or not something exists. I don't see how it adds anything to the discussion. WHY do all those people believe? Good question. But it has nothing to do with whether or not God exists.

(b) is fascinating. My friend claims that if you feel something very strongly, and you feel it for years and years, it's perverse to NOT accept it as truth. He thinks, at some point, not-accepting-the-feeling-as-truth goes against the grain of Occam's Razor. Which is the more-likely explanation, that the feeling you feel over and over and over (and very strong) is true or that it's untrue?

I have to admit, in everyday life, I often act on feelings. If I constantly felt (but had no proof) that my wife was cheating on me, I might eventually consider those feelings as more likely to be true than false (thus obeying Occam's Razor.) But, intellectually, I don't think feelings -- no matter how strong -- are good at measuring reality. I know that I (and other people) have had many EXTREMELY strong feelings that have turned out to be false.

Ultimately, my friend and I differ on how feelings (which we both value) relate to knowledge about the external world. I don't think feelings -- even strong ones -- prove anything. I am not discounting them as important things. To me, feelings are the most important things in the world. But they have their limitations. For instance, my feelings of love for my wife, as profound as they are, won't save her if she falls off a cliff.

Whether one should base one's life around strong feelings -- regardless of whether or not they say something about the external world -- is another question, one I'm not examining here. It may make great sense to worship a god you feel exists, if that feeling is profound, regardless of whether or not he actually does exist. But that's a different issue than who has the burden of proof.

Even if I accepted strong feelings as proof to me, I would never bring them up in argument. It's not reasonable for me to expect anyone else to be swayed by MY strong feelings.

I wish that when atheists and theists argued, they would spend more time laying down their cards -- explaining their core beliefs about knowledge and whether or not they accept Occam's Razor.
posted by grumblebee at 7:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [48 favorites]


Pope Guilty's comment above illustrates what I meant about conflating theism and religion. Believing in the existence of god doesn't automatically mean that you subscribe to a religion; conversely I know a lot of religious people who spend little or no time thinking about or 'believing' in or 'following' god (quotes because these are individually defined terms) but instead define their piety as how closely their behavior and practices aligns with the rituals and proscriptions of a particular religion. That's not theism. That's not even what's at issue here, from what I gather of the article.

Hart is very plainly operating entirely within the Christian religion here. He is not upset about atheism. He is upset that people are quitting Christianity without experiencing the amount of pain and torment and anguish that he imagines he would have to experience to leave the church.

This is no more interesting or intelligent or well-reasoned than any other "New Atheists suck!" piece, and I am unable to discern from the article any reason why anybody likes it here, save that it flatters their beliefs.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:25 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


kittens for breakfast - that was illuminating. And I think much of the discussion here mirrors another aspect of the whole teabagger analogy: because we are so thoroughly self-defined by ideology of one sort or another (liberal / conservative; theist / atheist), we tend to immediately jump to a side without real openness or communication - with the result that the level of discourse remains woefully low (which it seems is precisely what Hart is lamenting). Terms like conservative and atheist are so charged that they no longer mean anything real; just mostly a badge ... or maybe a branded blindfold.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:27 AM on May 15, 2010


Or in other words, Hart is fine with atheists just so long as they acknowledge that Christianity is right and excellent and without Christianity we are lost and tragic and meaningless. That is stupid as hell and a viewpoint which is and always has been far more current and popular among Christians than among non-Christians.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:28 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


We need answers, not the truth. But questions are like the heads of the hydra and any answer just raises more questions. In this analogy faith of course would be fire, it allows one to have things settled at last. I like to imagine that holding a torch to a serpents severed neck would make a sound like shhh. Like a mother tired of her child asking why.
posted by I Foody at 7:33 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Grumblebee ... I absolutely agree with you. If someone is making outlandish claims (or even any claims at all) then it is their job to prove them, not yours to disprove. As I said in my original comment, my own old, not often questioned ( god really is a boring subject to me personally; people - and what they think of god and do in his name - are not) definition of atheism is that there is no god. This has always seemed to me a bit presumptuous - I guess I think of it as something I don't know, and something that I *know* (in your words, which I also agree with) as unknowable. So when someone says - as (new?) atheists seem to - that god does *not* exist, and start by defining god in a way that is only meaningful to (necessarily a subset of) humans to begin with, I want to know how they know. How do you know what god is and that it/he/she doesn't exist?

Thank you for your response... Occam's Razor is on my mindgrapes now; I'm curious what shape it will take.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:36 AM on May 15, 2010


Chances are if you are reading and contributing to this discussion on MetaFilter, then you are reading, writing, and thinking in English. The English-speaking world is dominated by a Judeo-Christian background so most of our arguments as atheists will be directed towards Christianity (with the Judeo part being assumed.) However, if one rejects the idea of a Supreme Being(s) than one rejects all religions that worship(ed) Supreme Being(s): Jainism, Shintoism, Incan, Sumerian, Falun Gong, Satanism, Scientology, animal worship, totem worship, ancestor worship, and the worship of cargo planes.

You can't reason out God, either for, or against. This isn't about knowledge, or "proof." It's about inner witness, or spirit, or lack of same.

One of my earliest reasons for being an atheist, going back to when I was a young child, is that the idea of God is so arbitrary. Who did the Neanderthals worship? Was it the same being that other apes worship, and do apes worship? Do insects? If not, why do humans have to worship the Supreme Being and not insects? And if God made man, why did he wait so long to reveal himself as the God of Jews? Human Beings were around for a long time before that, was God unconcerned about those humans?

Why does the Supreme Being allow for atheism at all? I know that according the Judeo-Christian idea of God, he "works in mysterious ways" therefore he cannot be held accountable to humans, yet I find it strange to envision a god that allows for some people to be beloved and rewarded for being born into the right time and place and being complacent and accepting of common culture ("faith") while other people are unluckily born with a seed of doubt or not indoctrinated into any religion at all.

Finally, going back to the original article:
He [Hitchins] speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present.
Certainly the original European Hospitals (in the modern sense of Hostels) and the spin-off Infirmaries were established by religious orders, but that is because religious orders were the only organized groups in Medieval Europe that had the power and money to assist the poor. Furthermore, I've always questioned the idea that 100% of those in religious orders were true believers in God; there must have been some who joined because religious orders were simply alternative life style choices as well as some (mostly women) who were forced into joining. Wanting to assist the poor is not confined to true believers and had Medieval Europe been atheist rather than Catholic, perhaps a secular group may have invented the idea of Hospitals.

After having invented the idea of Infirmaries, the Church did not do much to improve the health of the patients, relying on prayer and worship of icons (such as paintings of Christ) to bring relief. As scientists discovered new ways to heal the human body, the Church condemned most efforts to apply the scientific knowledge, arguing that such methods--dissection, vaccination, surgery "went against God."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Terms like conservative and atheist are so charged that they no longer mean anything real; just mostly a badge ... or maybe a branded blindfold.

Atheist means something very simple and obvious.

Right now you are grouping together people who don't believe in God as though we share something besides that non-belief. A lack of openness to communication, or a single position about religion, or something else. No, we are just people who don't believe in God. It really is that simple. It is not an equal-but-opposite to belief in God. It is not a group of people who get together and hold protests. It isn't a rabid anti-religiosity. It is simply lack of belief in God.

So using teabaggers as an analogy is weird--as is using any political party that has any kind of platform besides "politics doesn't exist"
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, your statement was probably true and correct, but since you were a touch disrespectful and impolite when you said it, I'm afraid it's disqualified.
posted by Legomancer at 7:39 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why is the burden of proof on the atheists? It seems like atheism should be the null hypothesis. It's the religious people who need to present convincing evidence to support their myths.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:48 AM on May 15, 2010


So using teabaggers as an analogy is weird--as is using any political party that has any kind of platform besides "politics doesn't exist"

Actually, I'm not sure the teabaggers really have another platform, but I was drawing the analogy between teabaggers and the ilk of Christopher Hitchens, not between teabaggers and atheists as a whole.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:49 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


internet fraud... you are right. Atheist is not generally a charged term, certainly not enough to be compared to conservative or liberal - but it seems fairly charged here. (But then it's also not discussed anywhere near as much.) Also, I agree that non-belief is not equal but opposite to belief, but aren't Hitchens and Dawkins emphatically saying there is. no. god? Cuz that's not non-belief. Or even disbelief. That's belief of the opposite.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:49 AM on May 15, 2010


"Actually, I'm not sure the teabaggers really have another platform, but I was drawing the analogy between teabaggers and the ilk of Christopher Hitchens, not between teabaggers and atheists as a whole."

OK. Makes sense.

aren't Hitchens and Dawkins emphatically saying there is. no. god? Cuz that's not non-belief. Or even disbelief. That's belief of the opposite.


Here's where you lose me because I don't spend a huge amount of time reading Hitchens and Dawkins and can't authoritatively state anything about what they do and don't believe.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:53 AM on May 15, 2010


Yes, I'd agree the difference between belief and knowledge is a measure of probability, and belief often connotes doubt, but theist and atheist are defined as belief and non-belief in god, period.

Agnosticism was defined by Thomas Huxley out of specific objection to gnostic traditions in christian thought which claimed detailed knowledge of god. If you claim people like Huxley were just atheists minimizing political trouble with the powerful church, then you've asserted the term no longer holds any meaning outside perhaps the Arab world.

In reality, there are many people who consider the existence of god either very much an unknown or find significance in the answer seeming unknowable, well try even Goul's non-overlapping magisteria or christians who talk about faith in and of itself.

I'm also completely confident that no gods exist, but I don't desire any special status for the word atheist, well my upbringing was fairly post-theist in that my parents and grandparents never mentioned god.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:54 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Again - these terms are fuzzy (Wikipedia, as someone referenced, defines atheism as belief in the non-existence of god and also as a rejection of theism) and I'm trying to narrow them down for my own clarity. Maybe it's not particularly valid to begin with.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:54 AM on May 15, 2010


Afaik, Dawkins considers the word agnostic a silly historical artifact of scientists like Huxley minimizing trouble with the church, and identifies as a "de facto" atheist when asked if he's an agnostic.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:58 AM on May 15, 2010


Well, as an atheist I was ready to come in here and hate on this, but after reading the poorly written article, I have to agree with Hart. The popular form of New Atheism is shallow, pedantic and in general unthinking. I can't stand how sloppy Hitchens' arguments are, that aside, it doesn't make them wrong, it just makes them sloppy. There were excellent arguments about perfectly circular orbits of the planets, with inventions of spheres inside spheres to explain away retrograde actions of planets. It was beautiful and the greeks knew this must be so, because of the beauty heavens would be reflected in the beauty of the perfect form the sphere. Well we see how that turned out because of new evidence. Reject new atheism all you want and I think he does a good job of it, but it doesn't validate christianity or any other supernatural set of beliefs any better.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 7:59 AM on May 15, 2010


Why is the burden of proof on the atheists? It seems like atheism should be the null hypothesis. It's the religious people who need to present convincing evidence to support their myths.

That depends on the context. If the context is Mormon missionaries on an atheist's doorstep seeking to convert, then yes, they need to present compelling evidence. OTOH, if the context is an atheist telling a Mormon that they are wrong wrong wrong and should abandon their beliefs for the sake of rationality, then said Mormon surely gets to reply with "Uh, why?"
posted by Catseye at 8:00 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


There were excellent arguments about perfectly circular orbits of the planets, with inventions of spheres inside spheres to explain away retrograde actions of planets.

Any theory that requires you to assert the existence of things you have no way to falsify to justify it is ugly and crap, sorry.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:08 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any theory that requires you to assert the existence of things you have no way to falsify to justify it is ugly and crap, sorry.

Cartesian skepticism post in 3... 2... 1...

(I hear the brain-vat being wheeled in even as I type this)
posted by fleetmouse at 8:15 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ok, now prove that you're not a sentient robot.

Bite my shiny metal ass, meatbag!
posted by shmegegge at 8:23 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: a gold mine of quotes if you are trying to sound like a pompous douchebag.
posted by umberto at 8:38 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe

One person's social and spiritual catastrophe is another person's freedom and fulfillment.
posted by Brian B. at 8:51 AM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


As far as I can tell, there do not exist any non-idiotic arguments for the truth of any religion. Not one. These sophisticated theologies, they do not exist. They are not sophisticated. They are obviously idiotic.

And to say that shouting "nuh-uh!" on the sidelines accomplishes nothing, well, in case you hadn't noticed, the youth of today is abandoning religion in droves due to one thing: The internet.

Religion has previously survived by isolating people and making them feel, if they doubted, as though there were something wrong with them, as though they were the only doubters. Today, any doubter can spend 5 seconds typing a few choice words into google and instantly and anonymously find out that they are not even close to being alone, that there are droves of other doubters out there who aren't afraid to call blatant in-your-face idiocy that goes by the names "religion" and worse, "faith," exactly what it is. That is what standing on the sidelines shouting "nuh-uh!" accomplishes.
posted by smcameron at 8:59 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


To me, atheism is a Movement in the same way that not collecting stamps is a Hobby.
posted by sidereal at 9:00 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


The intellectual poverty of Hitchens and Dawkins is where I locate my objections; they are free to believe or not believe whatever they like, but they trumpet their ideas as Truth, and I have a problem with that. But I like this very much:
The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
posted by jokeefe at 9:01 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Religion has previously survived by isolating people and making them feel, if they doubted, as though there were something wrong with them

That's fascinating. What do you suppose someone like Hitchens is doing -- promoting a non-judgmental brotherhood of man?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:05 AM on May 15, 2010


The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe

I am still trying to parse this. I'm not being snarky. I don't understand what he's trying to say here. If something is utterly inconsequential, how can it be a catastrophe? Am I just really undercaffeinated? Or does he need a (better) editor?
posted by rtha at 9:07 AM on May 15, 2010


it's like the guy wrote an essay and then doubled its size by opening a thesaurus.

Oh, man, I remember doing that all the time.

I wonder if he also typed it triple-spaced with two-inch margins just to meet the required page count?
posted by rokusan at 9:21 AM on May 15, 2010


I get this a lot from my friend who is a seminarian, atheism is empty, it's trivial, it's pointless. Okay, It's like saying that people who don't wear hats have trivial thoughts about not wearing hats. Their lack of hats is empty and meaningless. Okay, fine, they are not hat experts. Why would they be? Atheism is empty. That's cool with me. It's not religion and it doesn't have to serve the same purpose in my life,

There are other things that sorta go in the religious slot, I guess. Friends, the community I've built for myself, little rituals I have, things I obsess over when I'm feeling superstitious or out of control, big ethical questions.


Well, you're talking about the kind of atheist who just "doesn't wear hats" - the New Atheism movement he's discussing are the kind who write books about why hats are stupid and no one should wear them. To be fair to the author it's important not to conflate all kinds of atheism when this article is discussing a very particular branch of non-believers. As koeslitz has said a number of times, he's quite receptive to thoughtful atheists. And I imagine he's perfectly tolerant of all kinds of personal beliefs that aren't deeply explored - that isn't really the point (given there are clearly both believers and non-believers who feel little need to consider the foundations of their assumptions).

He's directly addressing people who write books and want to make arguments about something - people who think they have something important to say on the subject. THe problem is that contemporary writers on atheism are not saying much. For the most part, they are attempting to prove through science why religion isn't supportable, a useless exercise if any of them would ever pick up Hegel or Kierkegaard.. They are doing something which is meaningless to believers and not at all challenging to atheists. It merely cements assumptions, rather than opening up new avenues of thought. If you are cool with atheism being empty, don't write a book about it - write about your friends, community, superstitions, or big ethical questions instead. Why write on a topic you already admit is empty?

Don't even get me started on Hart's idea that the overman meant to serve as a mythos replacing Christian religion. Jesus Christ. That's just... I don't even know how to respond to that. It's not even wrong.

I'm not totally clear on what you're saying here, but it's certainly not just Hart's idea that the ubermensch is a way to overcome Slave morality (which is not just christianity, but christianity is one of the primary purveyors of it). In both the Geneology and Zarathrustra he tells a story of the ancient Master morality where people did what they wanted and didn't feel guilty for being superior, subverted by the platonic/christian/kantian Slave morality, where people do what they're supposed to and feel guilty about doing what they want, and ultimately it's all just a bunch of repression and self-righteousness, and the final stage of the ubermensch who is able to transcend both of these...

I was a little surprised with all that talk of Nietzsche that Hart never got around to mentioning Sartre, who I would have thought would be the kind of atheist a christian would be into, with all the talk about being condemned to freedom, and bearing the burden of Doestoyevski's suggestion that "in a world without God, anything is possible." Sartre takes very seriously that his atheism has consequences...

ANyway - I don't know that it's a fad, but modern atheism is definitely boring compared with the existentialists. There's just nothing to it - please don't write books when you have nothing to say. Existentialist atheism is interesting, because it is still concerned with meaning, and is struggling with a world in which meaning must be created by us instead of given by god.

I liked the existentialists in high school, then "got over" them in my early 20s and read a lot of science, and then rediscovered them in grad school. Science can't address man's search for meaning on its own level. I still love science, but it's all about how, and not about why. Existentialists (and Theologians, often) discuss why, perfectly well aware there isn't a material or scientific answer, since that isn't what they want. They are looking for a meaningful answer. And meaning is not material or scientific. It's something else.
posted by mdn at 9:23 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


That's fascinating. What do you suppose someone like Hitchens is doing -- promoting a non-judgmental brotherhood of man?

What is uncanny about religion is just how victim-oriented it remains. It begins that way, as a troubled soul experiencing anguish and suffering, or any tribulation to base their heavenly reward on. After a few hundred years they feel sorry for each other for being so alike in their self-pity. After a thousand years a tiny intellectual cabal or some other minority sect can still be found pointing imaginary fingers at them, so they huddle by the millions, waiting to strike back in their periodic reigns of terror.
posted by Brian B. at 9:29 AM on May 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Those interested in an atheist engagement with religion might want to have a look at Constantin Brunner, who wrote:
Jahveh ehad, cried Moses: "Hear O Israel, Being is our God, Being is One" (Deut. 6:4).

Yet this quotation provides precisely the historically monstrous example of how Israel hears and how the truth is straightway transformed into superstition in Israel's ears. For this magnificent saying is at once a hymn of exultation and a wrathful protest against idol worship of any kind; but despite this protest, it now signifies—in the conception of Israel, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Israel—the well-enough known, imbecilically wrong translation: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our god is the only God!" (Brunner, Spinoza gegen Kant, page 43). Moses said that thou shalt not make unto thee any image of this Jahveh, no imagination of it, i.e., it is that which cannot be thought as things are thought, as if it had the same sort of being as things—I am that I am (Ex. 3:14)! Jahveh, Being, is the term for the wholly abstract spiritual; it has no relation to the relative world. By Jahveh, the wholly great is meant. It means the same thing as Spinoza does in his great—his absolutely great expression, Ens constans infinitis attributis (Absolute Being with infinite attributes.) And Jahveh Tsebaot, Jahveh of infinite powers, is nothing but the mystical expression of the same thing as is expressed philosophically by Ens constans infinitis attributis.--Our Christ / Constantin Brunner, p. 157-8.
posted by No Robots at 9:32 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


and I did so, I believe, without prejudice.

I'm a Christian, and so would be inclined to read this with interest and sympathy, but that phrase right there tells me all I need to know. This guy has no clue.

Someone who can use that phrase, in an essay discussing Nietzsche no less, is not worth reading.

Because one of the main points where thoughtful Christians agree with Nietzsche, it is in his powerful demonstration that objectivity is a pretense in which you bury and hide your biases in the form of some sort of method that you claim gives you an unbiased look at whatever you're studying.
posted by straight at 9:47 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Religion has previously survived by isolating people and making them feel, if they doubted, as though there were something wrong with them, as though they were the only doubters. Today, any doubter can spend 5 seconds typing a few choice words into google and instantly and anonymously find out that they are not even close to being alone

Funny I was thinking something very similar as I was out buying goldfish. Imagine that you were born in a Nebraska farmhouse in 1860. The only books available to you are Pilgram's Progress and The Bible. Of course you believe in God, how could you not? Belief in a Christian God is the only life you know and if there are doubters they keep it to themselves. You know nothing of evolution or psychology or cosmology. How easy it is to be a good and faithful Christian when there is nothing and no one to cause you to question your faith.

To take this into the uncomfortable realm, if you are unfortunate enough to be born with a low IQ you believe whatever you are told. If you have Down Syndrome and live in China, you won't believe in God, but if you are born into a Mormon family in Utah you will.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:04 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


mdn: “I was a little surprised with all that talk of Nietzsche that Hart never got around to mentioning Sartre, who I would have thought would be the kind of atheist a christian would be into, with all the talk about being condemned to freedom, and bearing the burden of Doestoyevski's suggestion that "in a world without God, anything is possible." Sartre takes very seriously that his atheism has consequences... ”

Heh. I hate to disappoint you, but: “How swiftly the fashion of the world changes. Idiot apologists for blood-steeped tyrannies like Sartre and Hobsbawm may still not be held in sufficient contempt, but the systems of butchery they so slobberingly adored have been discredited beyond revision.” – "Beyond Disbelief," 2005.
posted by koeselitz at 10:11 AM on May 15, 2010


What is uncanny about religion is just how victim-oriented it remains. It begins that way, as a troubled soul experiencing anguish and suffering, or any tribulation to base their heavenly reward on.

If I thought that was the foundation of religion, I wouldn't have a very high opinion of it, so I suppose I see why you do not. On the other hand, if I thought that the foundation of religion might be that people saw themselves and others experiencing anguish and suffering, and knew those other people and thought not so much that they deserved more but they were more, and looked inside and found the same, and that maybe they started to wonder how we might manifest that, and wonder what that "that" in fact was, and what it meant that "that" existed in a world where there was such anguish and suffering, and whether there was a purpose to the anguish and suffering or not, and wonder about all kinds of things, I guess, then I might look at it differently; but if I were an enormously limited person, then yes, I would start to think about how awesome it would be if I got groovy stuff when I died, and not think so much about all that other shit, because that's complicated and hard, and that would be my perspective on the matter of religion.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:30 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


What is uncanny about religion is just how victim-oriented it remains. It begins that way, as a troubled soul experiencing anguish and suffering, or any tribulation to base their heavenly reward on. After a few hundred years they feel sorry for each other for being so alike in their self-pity. After a thousand years a tiny intellectual cabal or some other minority sect can still be found pointing imaginary fingers at them, so they huddle by the millions, waiting to strike back in their periodic reigns of terror.

Right, in this they are not wrong and until you (atheists in general) begin to address this in some more substantial manner than "la la la fluffy clouds and galaxies" you're going to have ten thousand Lenin's Tombs popping up all over your Rational Lands of Atheism wherever you may build them.
posted by furiousthought at 10:30 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The history of the world is one of the powerful enacting atrocities against the powerless, and pretending that the religion (or lack of) of the powerful is meaningful in determining whether or not they will commit atrocities is silly and inane.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:35 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


So if you don't know a lot about religion you're supposed to...believe in it?

How about "...not try to write books refuting it"?

I have absolutely no problem with someone taking a glance at Christianity and saying, "Sorry, not for me." Or if someone picks up a Jack Chick tract or sees a preacher on TV or gets subjected to an acquaintance trying to witness to them and says, "That's bullshit."

But if you're going to sit down and write a book denouncing religion, you damn well better do your homework and not cherry pick the lamest, most easily refuted expressions of it, even if there are a lot of them. Because if that's all you do, your book isn't really about how religion is wrong, it's just about how a lot of people are idiots.
posted by straight at 10:37 AM on May 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


straight: There do not exist any non-lame arguments for the truth of Christianity.
posted by smcameron at 10:41 AM on May 15, 2010


I have absolutely no problem with someone taking a glance at Christianity and saying, "Sorry, not for me." Or if someone picks up a Jack Chick tract or sees a preacher on TV or gets subjected to an acquaintance trying to witness to them and says, "That's bullshit."

But if you're going to sit down and write a book denouncing religion, you damn well better do your homework and not cherry pick the lamest, most easily refuted expressions of it, even if there are a lot of them. Because if that's all you do, your book isn't really about how religion is wrong, it's just about how a lot of people are idiots.


Requoting this because favoriting it didn't feel like enough.

There do not exist any non-lame arguments for the truth of Christianity.

Come on, now. Do you really want to take the conversation ths direction?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:50 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would just like to reiterate what darkstar said above about perpetual motion machines. Having reached the conclusion that perpetual motion machines cannot exist through reasoned argument, I don't need to read about every new claim of a perpetual motion machine, no matter how elegantly argued, to decide that the claim is spurious.
posted by peacheater at 10:58 AM on May 15, 2010


A belief in God is the same type of belief as that other people have minds like our own, are aware, and are not merely robots made out of flesh. We can never confirm that it is so but we believe it nevertheless.
posted by shivohum at 11:08 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heh. I hate to disappoint you, but: “How swiftly the fashion of the world changes. Idiot apologists for blood-steeped tyrannies like Sartre and Hobsbawm may still not be held in sufficient contempt, but the systems of butchery they so slobberingly adored have been discredited beyond revision.” – "Beyond Disbelief," 2005.

Hm.. well, to be fair that's the late Sartre and all his marxist stuff that he's referring to, but, wow is that article bitchy. I am extremely impressed by the variety of negative adjectives he's able to come up with. He mentions Nietzsche along the way without specifically noting if he's asinine, callow, dreary, sickly or embarrassingly silly, but he does get scare quotes around his famous phrase, and he's surrounded by fellow atheists who are all described by such terms, so it doesn't come across as if he's ultimately all that respectful...

Eh, I dunno - I am perfectly amenable to the basic idea that "new atheism" lacks much insight, but this guy does seem to have a bit of a bias.
posted by mdn at 11:10 AM on May 15, 2010


The Selfish Gene did far, far more to cement my atheism than any of the explicitly anti-God books that Dawkins wrote. The primary benefit I see to them is the simple fact that they exist as evidence that atheism is a mainstream position.

Keep in mind, that it's probably harder in the US to be elected to office as a professed atheist than as a Muslim, or a homosexual.
posted by empath at 11:14 AM on May 15, 2010


Having reached the conclusion that perpetual motion machines cannot exist through reasoned argument,

This is a good analogy for atheism, missing of course the insane part about going to hell just because someone can't honorably believe in the fraud or keep silent about it.
posted by Brian B. at 11:19 AM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


jokeefee: You're being ironic right? Because all he's done there is church up the cosmological argument with some pretty words.
the First Cause argument, work[s] by setting up an infinite regress which God is wheeled out to terminate. But we are never told why God is magically able to terminate regresses while needing no explanation himself. To be sure, we do need some kind of explanation for the origin of all things. Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem. But whatever the answer - a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity or whatever we end up calling it - it will be simple. Complex, statistically improbable things, by definition, don't just happen; they demand an explanation in their own right. They are impotent to terminate regresses, in a way that simple things are not. The first cause cannot have been an intelligence - let alone an intelligence that answers prayers and enjoys being worshipped. Intelligent, creative, complex, statistically improbable things come late into the universe, as the product of evolution or some other process of gradual escalation from simple beginnings. They come late into the universe and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.

Richard Dawkins addressing the cosmological argument in 2007
I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that.

Bertrand Russell addressing the first cause argument in 1927, by quoting John Stuart Mill who addressed it in the 1850's.
It's fine for him to say that atheists don't address the strongest arguments for religion. But to say that and then trot out an argument that's been addressed time and time again, strikes me as just insulting.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:21 AM on May 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


But if you're going to sit down and write a book denouncing religion, you damn well better do your homework and not cherry pick the lamest, most easily refuted expressions of it, even if there are a lot of them. Because if that's all you do, your book isn't really about how religion is wrong, it's just about how a lot of people are idiots.

I think it should be noted that the lamest, most easily refuted expressions of religion are what most Christians actually believe, and that most Christians would instinctively reject most intellectually and philosophically sound formulations of religion. Just to note one example -- the literal truth of the bible. Which is a completely absurd belief, and yet 90% of Evangelical Christians believe that it is.

Yes, its easy to knock down that belief, but someone needs to do it. It may be more intellectually challenging against a form of nebulous, wishy-washy Christianity that very few people actually believe, but why bother?
posted by empath at 11:22 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm not a New atheist. I've been an atheist for ages now.
posted by Eideteker at 11:34 AM on May 15, 2010


I think it should be noted that the lamest, most easily refuted expressions of religion are what most Christians actually believe, and that most Christians would instinctively reject most intellectually and philosophically sound formulations of religion. Just to note one example -- the literal truth of the bible. Which is a completely absurd belief, and yet 90% of Evangelical Christians believe that it is.

You're making a connection somewhere along the way here that I'm missing. Is your argument that evangelicals are a representative subset of Christianity, such that if 90% of them believe it then 90% of other Christians in all denominations believe it? And that non-literalism is 'a form of nebulous, wishy-washy Christianity that very few people actually believe'?

This makes about as much sense as arguing that Americans are foolish for not using computers, and backing that up with the fact that 90% of the Amish have never owned one.
posted by Catseye at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2010


I see nothing wrong in books reaching different levels of intellect, after all no one is telling Christians to stop writing mushy books about how prayer makes their lives better, or how you can enrich your marriage through the Bible, or how Jesus can help you become rich and thin.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:40 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


So if you don't know a lot about religion you're supposed to...believe in it?

How about "...not try to write books refuting it"?


that's why i think the 'new' in atheism is just the part about how some people have stopped sitting back and being all polite about it. but there's a reason for that:
religion: we need to fund a ballot measure to prevent the recognition of gay marriage. we need to put creationism into science education. we need to put prayer back into schools. we need to go out there and win souls for jesus. as president, i don' t think atheists should be citizens.

atheism: why are the ten commandments hanging in a public courtroom?

religion: OMG you're attacking my personal spirituality! you have no right! when will this persecution stop!?! *gnashing of teeth* *rending of garments*
i and the atheists i know tend to have respect for the personal practice of spirituality, even admiration at times. it's the point where the spooky tentacles of one's personal holy spirit start to reach out and touch us, unbidden and unwelcome, and ever more insistent, that it becomes a problem. in this respect, dawkins and those guys are like the ghostbusters or that little lady in poltergeist.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:44 AM on May 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


Is your argument that evangelicals are a representative subset of Christianity, such that if 90% of them believe it then 90% of other Christians in all denominations believe it?

63% of all americans believe it, if you follow the link to the survey.

In any case, my point is that most Christians haven't seriously examined their beliefs and believe in ridiculous, easily refuted things, and while it may be more interesting to engage with a more intellectually well-founded belief system, its kind of pointless because you're then arguing with a tiny, tiny percentage of actual Christians.

It's not cherry-picking dumb beliefs, in other words, to argue against dumb beliefs which are in fact widely held.
posted by empath at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


In any case, my point is that most Christians haven't seriously examined their beliefs and believe in ridiculous, easily refuted things, and while it may be more interesting to engage with a more intellectually well-founded belief system, its kind of pointless because you're then arguing with a tiny, tiny percentage of actual Christians.

That we keep conflating Christianity and religion says a great deal more about the "new atheists" than it does anything about religion.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:53 AM on May 15, 2010


Which is not to say that Christianity is necessarily dumb; far from it. Only that most Americans practice a particularly ignorant form of it. When one engages with regular Christians about atheism, rather than professional theologians, one is exceedingly unlikely to get references from Aquinas or Augustine, but rather memorized bits of scripture and trite and cliche arguments about evolution, morality and the meaning of life, and so on.

I don't think Dawkins, et al, can be faulted for engaging with the actual arguments one is likely to run into 'in the field', as it were, rather than making a serious philosophical argument with theologians that no one pays attention to.
posted by empath at 11:56 AM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


That we keep conflating Christianity and religion says a great deal more about the "new atheists" than it does anything about religion.

How absurd. The FPP was written by a Christian, complaining that they didn't engage enough with serious Christian arguments.
posted by empath at 12:00 PM on May 15, 2010


How absurd. The FPP was written by a Christian, complaining that they didn't engage enough with serious Christian arguments.

To the best of my knowledge, though, atheism is not meant to refute specifically Christian arguments -- it's opposed to the whole kit and caboodle. An opposition to Christianity does not equal disbelief in God, and an argument against Christianity isn't much of an argument for atheism.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2010


To the best of my knowledge, though, atheism is not meant to refute specifically Christian arguments -- it's opposed to the whole kit and caboodle.

Did you read the essay? He criticizes the New Atheists specifically for not considering Christianity; that's one reason why this thread has focused on Christianity. It says more about the content of the essay than about the writing of the New Atheists, as you claimed above.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:14 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess I got off the bus when it became relatively clear that atheists had started behaving like theists, throwing poo and calling the Judean People's Front "splitters." I admire Dennett and Dawkins mostly for their writings in their respective areas of expertise, and will continue to do so. What is really just too much is the contention that this character came at this with a completely open mind and was merely led to these irrefutable conclusions by a preponderance of the evidence. That's deeply objectionable shit.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:22 PM on May 15, 2010


Yes, but again, when you're publishing a book in America, you are publishing in an environment where the overwhelming majority of non-atheists are Christian. I'm sure if he was publishing a book in Israel, it would be focused on Judaism, and on Hinduism in India, etc.

Atheism isn't something that generally needs to be argued for, because its pretty much defined by what you don't believe. One is generally forced to argue against particular kinds of belief. The arguments for atheism in general can be pretty much summed up by 'A belief in God isn't necessary to explain anything.' Anything beyond that is going to rather quickly get into arguments about particular religions rather than god in the abstract. People don't believe in God in the abstract anyway, they believe in particular religions.

In an environment that wasn't overwhelmingly religious to the point where 48 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for an atheist (a far higher number than any other minority), books like this wouldn't even be necessary.
posted by empath at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Did you read the essay? He criticizes the New Atheists specifically for not considering Christianity; that's one reason why this thread has focused on Christianity.

Well, here's the thing -- all he has to do is argue in favor of Christianity. If he's successful in his arguments, he does not have to argue for the existence of God, because Christianity includes the belief in God. However, if you manage to debunk Christianity altogether, you still have not made an argument for atheism -- you have only debunked Christianity. You are not attacking one head of the Hydra; it is worse than that. You are attacking the Hydra's pinky toe. It seems to imply that some "new atheists" are more concerned with the negative societal effects of organized Christianity than with atheism itself.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


63% of all americans believe it, if you follow the link to the survey.

96% of all everybody isn't American. And that can really skew figures like this, since fundamentalism is largely an American movement (albeit one that has been reaching out into other areas of the globe more recently), dating from the early 20th century. It was hugely controversial at the time, with debates that went on for (literally) decades and some denominations splitting over the issue. It's certainly not the default state of Christian belief.

And that's not even getting started on precisely what various denominations mean by terms like 'Biblical inerrancy' or 'Biblical infallibility', since there's a lot of ongoing debate there too. If Catholics say that the Bible is 'literally true' or words to that effect, for example, that probably doesn't mean that they believe the earth is 6000 years old and that evolution didn't happen, since the Catholic church doesn't teach young-earth creationism. If a Protestant evangelical says the same, that might mean they're young-earth creationists.

I don't think Dawkins, et al, can be faulted for engaging with the actual arguments one is likely to run into 'in the field', as it were, rather than making a serious philosophical argument with theologians that no one pays attention to.

Well, Dawkins isn't American, and most of the Christians he'll run into 'in the field' are probably fairly liberal Anglicans going about their shopping or something. I'll give you that most of the Christians who get into yelling matches with him over evolution are likely to be creationists, but that doesn't mean that creationism is a common part of Christianity and that only 'theologians that no one pays attention to' are exempt from it. Creationism is a minority belief; most denominations don't teach it, most Christians don't believe in it.

Of course, we could spend days/weeks/years going over all the intricacies of who means what by which term, what denomination teaches what approach to what belief and why, and so on and so on ad infinitum. And I'm certainly not saying that in order to be an atheist, you need to do that; I presume you have other things to do with your time. But if you're going to write books refuting Christian beliefs, then surely it's worth doing at least some basic research into what various Christians actually do believe, and engaging with them on those terms. And that's what a lot of the writers being brought up here fail to do.
posted by Catseye at 12:27 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


jokeefee: You're being ironic right? Because all he's done there is church up the cosmological argument with some pretty words.

Nope. The cosmological argument works just fine for me. And my personal take on it is that God created itself, if you're asking, and I don't expect anyone to agree with me, or care; whatever my beliefs may be, I usually keep them pretty private, except when asked to explain them. And I was lucky enough to grow up in a secular culture, so I'm unscarred by American fundamentalism-- it's more anthropological curiousity for me than anything else-- for which I'm grateful. It seems a hard thing to get over, from what I can tell.

posted by jokeefe at 12:35 PM on May 15, 2010


Atheism isn't a coherent belief system, anyway. It's an adjective that describes belief systems which may even be largely opposed to each other. Try and work out a way to define an 'atheist creed' which somehow includes both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. Most people who are atheists don't go around thinking about atheism or have an atheistic moral code, whatever the hell that means. They build their lives around other ideas which happen to include atheism -- secular humanism, communism, objectivism, existentialism, etc, and if you want a positive argument for atheism, you'll probably want to look at those sorts of books.

There are plenty of books about those philosophies. There aren't so many books centered around specifically knocking down various theistic beliefs and support for atheism in general, and obviously there was a market for it.
posted by empath at 12:39 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


It seems to imply that some "new atheists" are more concerned with the negative societal effects of organized Christianity than with atheism itself.

Seems to imply it? They flat out say that.
posted by empath at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2010


This discussion ( like many on Metafilter that broach religion and/or atheism ) always leaves me rather puzzled. I am an atheist insofar that I don't subscribe to any concept of God or organized religion ( or disorganized religion, for that matter). These concepts do not satisfy whatever personal burden of proof or belief that I require, nor do I perceive any void or vacancy in my character or personal ideology that they could fill.
Quite simply, my personal belief is that the absence of a religious structure in my life doesn't make me any more or less ethical, moral, or spiritual than a person who does subscribe to one. When it comes to religion, I truly have no horse in that race, or any claim that I can stake.

What troubles me is that the idea of atheism seems to be confounded with an unnecessary descriptor of anti-theism. I don't see why those two would have to be mutually inclusive. If you have a belief in a god, as an atheist I'm not necessarily against that belief, in fact I am wholly ambivalent to that belief. The very framework that you place a god or religion in your life holds no resonance for me.

This leads me to interpret the arguments and counter-arguments of the Dan Hunt's, Richard Dawkins' and Christopher Hitchens' of the world to be unnecessarily provacative by introducing an adversarial quality of noise that may not be beneficial.

But, admittedly, I may be approaching this issue with a too-facile attitude.
posted by Isosceles at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Creationism is a minority belief; most denominations don't teach it, most Christians don't believe in it.

This is simply not true.
posted by empath at 12:42 PM on May 15, 2010


45% of Americans believe:

"God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."

38% of Americans believe:

"Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation."

only 13% believe:

"Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process."

During 1999-AUG-25 & 26, Fox News asked what is the more likely explanation for the origin of human life: the theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin and other scientists, or the biblical account of creation. Results were:

Evolution: 15%
Biblical creation: 50%
Both: 26%

posted by empath at 12:47 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am positive this is the first and only time I will ever see Fox News cited as a credible news source on this website. Look at what this subject drives us to and tremble.

If in fact:

38% of Americans believe:

"Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation."


then the idea of human evolution is one that 51% of people believe in. Does it really matter whether they also believe in a god? Don't get me wrong, that 45% is fucking horrifying, but is that 38% really an issue?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:55 PM on May 15, 2010


Creationism is a minority belief; most denominations don't teach it, most Christians don't believe in it.

I don't know about that. Surveys indicate that about 45-55% of Americans believe in young earth creationism. This is easily a majority of American Christians. Globally, I don't know what the numbers are for Christianity; I'd guess that a much lower proportion of European Christians are young earth creationists and a significantly larger proportion of African Christians are young earth creationists. I have no idea about Latin America.

In other popular religions, creationist beliefs are widespread. There's currently a major creationist movement in Islam, and surveys show only a very small minority of Muslims accept evolutionary ideas.

I would guess that easily the majority of people worldwide who are religious and who have an opinion about the origin of life are young earth creationists.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:57 PM on May 15, 2010


That's 'all americans'. He was referring to Christians specifically. I couldn't find the breakdown by religion.
posted by empath at 12:57 PM on May 15, 2010


I just went carefully through the article. I guess I agree with some of its points. I say "guess," because Jesus-fucking-Christ it's poorly written! The guy has about three things to say, but you have to do an archeological dig through layers of unnecessary verbiage to get to it.

These layers come in two forms: one is simply unneeded words. Here's one of the CLEARER passages (one that has something to say) and it STILL needs pruning. I've italicized the bits that an editor would (should) look askance at.

"In the end the book as a whole adds up to absolutely nothing—as, frankly, do all the books in this new genre—and I have to say I find this all somewhat depressing. For one thing, it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike."

After removing all those empty phrases, the whole thing would still need a general rewrite to make each of its sentences actually say something and say it clearly. "Peculiar vapidity" does mean something, but it doesn't go about meaning it in a very specific, clear, evocative way.

The other layer is accusations. About two-thirds of the article is this sort of thing:

"The insouciance with which, for instance, Daniel Dennett tends to approach such matters is so torpid as to verge on the reptilian. He scarcely bothers even to get the traditional 'theistic' arguments right, and the few ripostes he ventures are often the ones most easily discredited."

I am not a Dennett fan, but I am even less of a fan of name-calling. If you're going to accuse someone of something, have the decency to actually cite some evidence. You may disagree with my points about what makes good writing, but at least, when I accused Hart of wasting words, I gave examples (see above).

His main point seem to be that rigorous debate about religion is dying (or dead). Both atheists and many believers are arguing about whether or not some super-being exists. According to Hart, this is a dumb argument. Smart theists gave up such infantile beliefs long ago, and smart atheists should not be grappling with the hold-outs who still believe in the Big Man In The Sky. Nor should they pretend that's what all theists believe in.

While this is an insult to many actual believers (many DO believe in the Big Man in the Sky), I understand why it upsets Hart. Over the history of religious thought and writing, many believers have wrestled with the same objections that the New Atheists (NA) are now pretending they have come up with: tired arguments about how an all-powerful God could allow evil to exist, or, if God created the universe, who created God. I agree that many NA texts fail to get beyond these childish points and, worse, act as if there IS nothing beyond these points.

(I don't get why so many of my fellow atheists like these books. I read "The God Delusion," and it bored me to tears. It was pages and pages of "tell me something I don't know!" I don't get how someone else, who has been an atheist for years like me, could feel otherwise. Whether you agree or not, aren't you sick of hearing the same stuff over and over and over?)

Hart counters with "transcendence." As I understand it, he is saying, "No, we don't believe God is some kind of super-powerful space alien who created everything. We believe God IS everything. It's stupid to talk about what caused God or what was there before God was created, because God is outside of time, space and causation."

If someone here believes in this sort of transcendence and is a good communicator, please correct my (probable) errors. Thanks.

Hart uses the word "source" a lot. God isn't the creator, but He's the source. What does that mean? Is it like if you traced the electrical cables all the way to their ends, the source would be the power station? Is God the energy that powers the universe?

In a way, I feel for Hart, because he's (probably) using metaphor for something really hard to describe -- maybe impossible to describe, maybe beyond human understanding. But, if so, it's a little unfair to blame the NAs for not debating about it. It's like saying, "We believe in this amorphous entity we can't describe. Prove it doesn't exist or we'll refuse to take you seriously!"

I can only think of one meaningful atheist response to a "transcendent" God: what's your evidence FOR His existence? We atheists (many of us, anyway), think you need evidence FOR believing in something. And that's really all there is to say. We don't have another argument except "there's no evidence for it." And, sensible as that is (to me), that's not gonna sell books.

If the theistic counter to that is "What's your evidence that He DOESN'T exist?" or "It isn't about evidence!" then there's simply no further room for discussion. I suspect this is partly why NAs don't discuss this sort of God much. What can they say? As an atheist, I guess I'm not built to understand it. I can sort of understand it as a woo-woo sci-fi Star Wars Force-like thing, but at that level, there's nothing to debate. It's too vague. When I try to pull it into focus, it falls like sand through my fingers, so there's still nothing to debate.

But that doesn't excuse the NAs for misleadingly (or ignorantly) acting like a Big Man In The Sky is what all theists believe in. I agree with Hart about this. Shame on them.

Okay, so if we rule out debate about Big Man and transcendent God, what's left? Well, there are all of those issues that dance around religion: education, history of violence, forcing children to go to church, relationship with Science, church and state, treatment of women, treatment of gays, hubris, scripture, etc. So people pick and choose their favorites and get pissed off at others for choosing different favorites.

Whether-or-not-the-Bible-should-be-taught-in-school is NOT a theological question. It's not an atheistic question. It's a question someone with strong feelings about religion (pro or con) MIGHT be concerned with. But it's got nothing to do with whether or not God exists. Nor does "gay marriage is evil." I'm not saying those are unimportant issues. To many of us, they are deeply important. But it's silly to pretend that, while having them, we're involved in deep theological debates.

So many of these "battles over religion" would still be around, I'm betting, if we took religion out of them, because they are really battles about whether or not we should force children to partake in adult rituals, how important rationalism is to culture, whether or not we should stick to tradition, and, my favorite, how violence sucks. I love how people try to pin violence on religion or atheism. The Crusaders were believers. Atheists 1. Theists 0; Yes, but Hitler was an atheist; DRAW! People are violent for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's my god doesn't like your god. Other times it's stop looking at my wife's tits!

And as much as both sides want to co-opt it, morality is another side issue. Most theists are generally moral people; most atheists are generally moral people. A few people in both camps are deeply immoral (sociopaths). Most people in both camps are immoral on occasion. If you find yourself saying (or listening to) something like, "Yeah, well, I know plenty of moral atheists" or "If people don't believe in God, they'll just lie and steal all the time" or "Ha! I know some pretty immoral Christians," you're either really young and haven't been over some incredible well-trodden ground before or you're in a bullshit argument in which the REAL content is "You suck!" "No, YOU suck!"

To Hart, for some reason, the ultimate question (to which he feels Nietzsche paid the greatest attention to) is what kind of world we'd have without religion. He blasts the NAs for not caring about this.

It's an interesting question. I wouldn't mind reading an alternate-history novel about it. But I'd be bored by a serious debate about it, because I don't see it happening. It would be like worrying about what things will be like if there's no more gavity.

Maybe Hart doesn't care for the kind or religion that exists today, but exist it does. Most people are religious. Most people have always been religious. I don't see that changing.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe creeping secular forces are threatening personal belief (Hart isn't talking about The Political Power of The Church), but I don't see it or belief it. And, since I don't, I can't take much interest in the issue.

Most of my theists friends feel like their beliefs are endangered by atheists; most of my atheist friends feel that their beliefs are endangered by theists. Hm. Could it be that both atheists and theists are here to stay?

As an atheist, I don't try to win others over to my fold, mostly because that would be rude. I also don't do it, because I'm not convinced that being an atheist means a happier life. (If you are convinced of that -- or its opposite -- I suggest you are being swayed by anecdotes.) But even if it wasn't rude and even if I was convinced that only atheists could be truly happy, I still wouldn't waste much time preaching the Gospel of Skepticism. Because it would be like trying to move the Pacific Ocean with an eyedropper.
posted by grumblebee at 1:06 PM on May 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Again, the US population is not a representative sample of the planet. Neither is it a representative sample of Christianity. Really. Particular beliefs are more prevalent in the US than they are elsewhere (and vice versa); young-earth creationism is hugely over-represented in the US, and is far, far less common elsewhere. Young-earth creationism in particular is associated with the fundamentalist movement, which was very much a US movement.

As just one example: the Catholic church does not teach young-earth creationism, but rather a kind of theistic evolution. The Catholic church accounts for about half of all Christians on the planet.

And again, I'm really not suggesting that it's every self-respecting atheist's duty to go out there and read up on what every single Christian denomination believes. But it's worth remembering that there are a lot of them out there, full of many people who have indeed done a great deal of thinking, and if you want to argue their beliefs, it's worth actually finding out what said beliefs are from sources other than polls conducted by Fox News.
posted by Catseye at 1:18 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suspect this is partly why NAs don't discuss this sort of God much.

Largely because most Christians, by Hart's own admission, don't believe in that sort of God. Hart would prefer that the NA's just ignore those Christians, and engage with only the enlightened ones like him. Which seems like a waste of time. The sorts of Christians who believe in a transcendent, unknowable God aren't the sorts of Christians that cause problems for the rest of us. It's not like Dawkins decided one day to pick a fight with Christians. He's an evolutionary biologist, they harassed him and interfered with his work constantly, even before he became an outspoken atheist.
posted by empath at 1:19 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nietzsche predicted New Atheism. He clearly anticipated a time when there might be a strong and prominent 'movement' of cynical and unthinking anti-religionists. What's more, I think he used most of his books to speak to them and to try to mold them. But this doesn't change the fact that Nietzsche, who had no real fondness for faith (as I think is obvious) didn't relish an unthinking, cynical, unskeptical unbelief.

I disagree. While unthinking, cynical, unskeptical unbelief wasn't what Nietzsche most valued, he clearly valued it more than unthinking, cynical, unskeptical belief. The Three Metamorphoses makes this very clear:

"My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?
To create new values—that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating—that can the might of the lion do.
To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion."


Nietzsche understood that people need to throw away old values before they can create new ones, even if (perhaps especially if!) that process involves rejecting the original premise outright. Of course, he also understood that this is only part of the journey, not the end of it, and that something generative should eventually replace destruction:

"But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.
Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: its own will, willeth now the spirit; his own world winneth the world's outcast."


Atheists are already doing this. Not all of them, maybe not even most of them, and not all at once, but they're doing it: making their own worlds, their own values. And men lions like Dawkins are a big part of that: without their willingness to knock down old values, many people might otherwise never start the journey toward new ones.

I think it's more than a little early to use Nietzsche to attack New Atheists. They are, at the very least, neither camels nor Last Men, and that's quite something for such a young movement... give 'em a little time and see what comes next!
posted by vorfeed at 1:21 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Again, the US population is not a representative sample of the planet.

So what? The books were written for an American audience, and were written specifically to counter conservative Christianity. I'm sure Dawkins, Dennett, etc, would be thrilled if all Christians became reasonable Anglicans who left him alone and he would go back to writing about evolution.
posted by empath at 1:23 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the theistic counter to that is "What's your evidence that He DOESN'T exist?" or "It isn't about evidence!" then there's simply no further room for discussion.

It's not that the question about a transcendental God is not about evidence, but that the kind of evidence that it's about is quite different from the mundane empirical evidence that informs scientific debates. It's a metaphysical question, with metaphysical arguments and metaphysical evidence. It's a matter of interpretation. For example, why do you believe that you weren't created 5 minutes ago with the world in its current state, and your whole complement of memories?

The reason you don't believe that is not a matter of normal evidence -- all the normal evidence is perfectly consistent with that hypothesis. It is a matter of interpretation and aesthetics. Believing you were created 5 minutes ago is an aesthetically displeasing interpretation, thus you disbelieve it. Now is there a "truth of the matter"? Maybe so, but there's no way for us to know it; only ways to interpret it.

That's the way it is with arguments about a transcendental God. Argument about its existence is a matter of values, ethics, beauty -- it takes evidence and argument, just not scientific evidence and argument, and ironclad conclusions are impossible.
posted by shivohum at 1:34 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Again, the US population is not a representative sample of the planet.

So what? The books were written for an American audience


Dawkins? Really?

And as for 'so what' - well, that's the exact point Hart was making, that the New Atheists are targeting a small subset of beliefs that's easy to knock over, and caricaturing various religions and religious beliefs by declaring that this part represents the whole, so they don't need to engage with anything else because, e.g., Christians who aren't literalist creationists are only a tiny irrelevant percentage anyway.
posted by Catseye at 1:36 PM on May 15, 2010


And again, I'm really not suggesting that it's every self-respecting atheist's duty to go out there and read up on what every single Christian denomination believes. But it's worth remembering that there are a lot of them out there, full of many people who have indeed done a great deal of thinking, and if you want to argue their beliefs

I can only speak for myself, but the only area I care to engage in religious discussions is where they intersect and impinge on my life. I only need to know enough about Christianity to refute the idea that posting the 10 commandments is a good idea or to argue against laws outlawing homosexuality. These days, too, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of Islam. I am not trying to proselytize, I simply want keep the Religious Right from seizing more political power in Modern America. What the rest of the world does religiously is of little interest to me outside of anthropological curiosity..
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:37 PM on May 15, 2010


Wait, why is it that atheists have to argue their position at all? Shouldn't it be people who believe in the Big Magic Man who have to argue for the existence of said guy?
posted by e.e. coli at 1:39 PM on May 15, 2010


It's not that the question about a transcendental God is not about evidence, but .... It's a metaphysical question, with metaphysical arguments and metaphysical evidence. ... It is a matter of interpretation and aesthetics.

The problem for me is that I don't believe that "evidence" and "aesthetics" belong in the same sentence. And I say that as someone who writes books and directs plays. To me, there's no such thing as objective aesthetics (I know others disagree). There's no objective reason why Beethoven's 9th Symphony is superior to the T-mobile jingle.

If it's all personal opinion and individual feeling, evidence has nothing to do with it, and there's no point in arguing "existence."
posted by grumblebee at 1:45 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can only speak for myself, but the only area I care to engage in religious discussions is where they intersect and impinge on my life. I only need to know enough about Christianity to refute the idea that posting the 10 commandments is a good idea or to argue against laws outlawing homosexuality.

I sympathize, but I don't think this is workable, unless all you want to do is be a gorilla beating his fists against his chest. It's like saying, "I don't want to understand anything about the history of slavery in America. I just want to know about relationships between black people and white people NOW, so that I can engage in meaningful debates about it."

The parts of religion that impact your life are complexly linked to the parts that you think don't.
posted by grumblebee at 1:49 PM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


What the rest of the world does religiously is of little interest to me outside of anthropological curiosity.

Well, cool. Like I said, I'm guessing that if you're an atheist, you have other stuff to do than find out what religious denomination teaches what about what particular thing etc etc ad infinitum. But if you wanted to get into lengthy print/internet/public/whatever debates with members of whichever religion, it would probably be good practice to read up on what the people you're arguing with actually believe.
posted by Catseye at 1:51 PM on May 15, 2010


To me, there's no such thing as objective aesthetics (I know others disagree). There's no objective reason why Beethoven's 9th Symphony is superior to the T-mobile jingle. ... If it's all personal opinion and individual feeling, evidence has nothing to do with it, and there's no point in arguing "existence."

Even if there's no such thing as an objective aesthetics (which I'm not concluding), it doesn't follow that there's no point in arguing existence. Arguing about existence is the aesthetic framework within which this artform we call philosophy is taking place. And that artform has undeniable real impact: not only does debating it give us pleasure, it changes -- as does art -- our attitudes and our actions in life. Sometimes, people's minds are changed, their perspectives are enriched, they do see things differently, they do perceive meaning, their motivations alter. That's reason enough to have this debate and to continue having it.

Because the undeniable fact of the matter is that people always have been and always will be interested in why something exists rather than nothing, and that's a question inextricably intertwined with God.
posted by shivohum at 1:53 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Well, cool. Like I said, I'm guessing that if you're an atheist, you have other stuff to do than find out what religious denomination teaches what about what particular thing etc etc ad infinitum. But if you wanted to get into lengthy print/internet/public/whatever debates with members of whichever religion, it would probably be good practice to read up on what the people you're arguing with actually believe."

A significant portion of the people they're arguing with actually believe in new-earth creationism (or whatever). That's who they're arguing with! Just because there are Christians who don't believe in it doesn't mean they're arguing with no one.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:59 PM on May 15, 2010


why do you believe that you weren't created 5 minutes ago with the world in its current state

Depending on what you mean by "believe," I don't believe it. Rather, I think it's a useful tool to think that way. It has nothing to do with aesthetics and 100% to do with utility.

I won't be perverse here and claim that I walk around with constant skepticism about six minutes ago. I feel like my past exists and I rarely question it. But if we're being intellectual here -- if we're talking about rationalism -- than I realize that I have no evidence for the past actually having existed, and if someone insisted that it didn't, I wouldn't try to argue him over to "my side," other than maybe from the point-of-view of utility.

Assuming a past is useful because it allows me to make predictions. I have a memory that my wife hates salmon. I'm in the grocery store. I have to decide whether to get us salmon for dinner or not. If the past is a fiction, then my "memories" of it may be false. My newly created wife, who just SEEMS to be caused by that past, might love salmon. She might hate it. She might only like it on alternate Tuesdays. I have absolutely no basis for making any decision. So I'm going to accept the past, because it allows me to make a decision.

I wish more religious people talked this way. "I believe in God because doing so is useful to me in these ways..." Actually, many of them do, but they tend to go beyond that. They make truth claims. And they become preachy.

But that's probably because they are human. For some reason, humans become preachy about what sort of diet you should be on, whether you should exercise, what sort of computer you should buy, etc. Most atheists are preachy -- just like most theists are. I don't think preachiness correlates with religiousness. It correlates with being human and being an asshole. If people would just confine themselves to aesthetics (to THEM) and utility (to THEM) without preaching, the would be better in so many ways.
posted by grumblebee at 2:03 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's the way it is with arguments about a transcendental God. Argument about its existence is a matter of values, ethics, beauty -- it takes evidence and argument, just not scientific evidence and argument, and ironclad conclusions are impossible.

I think Sam Harris made a good response to this view in the linked video above. This is the exact argument the rabbi (his debate partner) was making. Harris noted that while it's an elegant thing to say, such metaphysical claims most definitely intrude into the realm of science in very overt way by making claims about the reality of the physical universe and physical events. After all, science is all about the observation and study of the physical universe and drawing conclusions about what makes it tick and how reality is constructed.

In the video and in his other writings, Harris has noted that usually, when people make outrageous claims about the physical universe without actual evidence (e.g., "I think Elvis is still alive.") they are rightly laughed at. But when it comes to religious claims, he notes that our sense of decorum and politeness usually prevents us from deriding the claims as extraordinary, unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable.

I think Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris are evidence of a cultural turning point at which it is becoming much more broadly acceptable for people to bluntly challenge unsubstantiated "metaphysical" claims. Claims that supposedly are insulated from criticism because they are "metaphysical", yet presume to make statements about the physical universe and its operation and thereby trample all over the realm (and reason) of science.
posted by darkstar at 2:07 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think Dawkins, et al, can be faulted for engaging with the actual arguments one is likely to run into 'in the field', as it were, rather than making a serious philosophical argument with theologians that no one pays attention to.

Most of us who believe in climate change have no real grasp of the evidence that demonstrates that it is happening. If some book came out purporting to refute climate change by debunking the most common statements about it on TV and in the newspapers, and maybe a few interviews with random people on the street, without ever even talking to climate change scientists, we would rightly denounce it as worthless nonsense.
posted by straight at 2:08 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Arguing about existence is the aesthetic framework within which this artform we call philosophy is taking place.

I'm not sure what you mean. How can "arguing about existence" be an aesthetic framework. It's an activity. How can an activity can be an aesthetic framework?
posted by grumblebee at 2:08 PM on May 15, 2010


A significant portion of the people they're arguing with actually believe in new-earth creationism (or whatever). That's who they're arguing with! Just because there are Christians who don't believe in it doesn't mean they're arguing with no one.

Ai... I think we're going to go round and round in increasingly frustrating circles with this one.

Okay, to put it this way: let's say Joe Bloggs, evangelical Christian, decides to write a book on what's wrong with atheism. Joe Bloggs spends most of the book telling atheists that they're wrong to think social Darwinism is a good way to go, that they're wrong to hate Christianity just because the preacher's kid beat them up at school, and that lots of Christians have nice music so therefore their music-based arguments against Christianity are also unfounded. Bingo! Joe Bloggs concludes he has successfully countered atheism, and wishes strongly for atheists worldwide to see the error of their ways

If someone responded to Joe Bloggs by saying "Hey, I'm an atheist, and it's not because I didn't get on with the preacher's kid or because I care one way or other about the music, and I find it really insulting to be told I believe in social Darwinism," and Joe Bloggs responded by saying "Ah-ha, but some atheists do think that!" it wouldn't suddenly erase all the problems with Joe Bloggs's book.
posted by Catseye at 2:12 PM on May 15, 2010


I think Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris are evidence of a cultural turning point at which it is becoming much more broadly acceptable for people to bluntly challenge unsubstantiated "metaphysical" claims.

Predicting the future is dumb. But here I go:

After a few years, religious people will see that Dawkins and company didn't topple the church. Dawkins and company will also see that they didn't topple the church. The world will mostly be the same as it was before. Most people will be at least somewhat religious. A few of us will be atheists. The major difference will be that we'll actually be able to admit we're atheists in public (at least in some parts of some countries.)

No one will care. That's good if you just want to live your life. That's bad if you wanted to say, "Hey! Look at me! I'm an atheist! I'm special!"

While I'm here, I'll predict something similar about gay marriage. It will gradually become accepted. The result will be that a bunch of gay people will get married. It will have little impact on the institution of marriage as a whole. It will not make people become more liberal. Even many people who come to totally accept gay marriage will go on being conservative. They'll just be conservative about something else.

On the day that I can hold my head up high and say "I'm an atheist" with no fear of being kicked or spit on, the would will still be just as full of supernatural beliefs as it is now. It will be a better world for me; it will be worse for someone else. Or just as bad. Or a little better.
posted by grumblebee at 2:18 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think we're going to go round and round in increasingly frustrating circles with this one.

I agree. Here's the way out:

The NAs can debate whoever the want to debate and ignore whoever they want to ignore. But they should make their targets extremely clear. And they should also clarify, as much as possible, who is not their target.

Once they've done that, if you're not their target, you don't get to act like you are. IF Dawkins agrees to SAY he's critiquing Fundamentalists, you (a theist, but not a Fundy) don't get to complain that he is maligning you or misunderstanding you.

And everyone else should strive to do this, too. I see ENDLESS arguments here that start with, "The thing that bothers me about Christians..." or "The thing that bothers me about atheists..."

Who EXACTLY are you talking about? ALL Christians? All atheists? The ones you've met? The ones in America? Your crazy Uncle? The extreme Right? The extreme Left? Scientists? Politicians? Philosophers? Priests? Your parents?
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Wait, why is it that atheists have to argue their position at all? Shouldn't it be people who believe in the Big Magic Man who have to argue for the existence of said guy?

The religious like to claim that atheists have arguments. Technically what we have are counterarguments, but acknowledging that would be admitting where the burden of proof lies.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:37 PM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


After a few years, religious people will see that Dawkins and company didn't topple the church. Dawkins and company will also see that they didn't topple the church. The world will mostly be the same as it was before. Most people will be at least somewhat religious.

Pentecostalism is still poaching the Catholic church faster than anything else, if that's the church you meant. My guess is that atheism is probably a distant last.
posted by Brian B. at 2:41 PM on May 15, 2010


Pentecostalism is still poaching the Catholic church faster than anything else, if that's the church you meant.

I meant church metaphorically. Whatever church you belongs to, even you are the entire congregation.

If you're attached to one specific religion, creed or philosophy (and by "attached," I mean if it's important to you that your particular system lasts for all time), history should make you very pessimistic. On the other hand, if you'll be happy as long as there's some kind of theism on Earth, I think you'll be happy for a long, long time.

And if you won't be happy until supernatural beliefs are gone from the world, I suggest killing yourself.
posted by grumblebee at 2:51 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Catseye: And if Joe Bloggs could point to a survey that said half of all atheists were atheists because a preachers son beat them up, and that social darwinists controlled congress and quite a bit of the judiciary, and had hours of videotape of him speaking publicly where atheists got up and attempted to debate him with music based arguments, he'd probably be perfectly justified in writing the book.
posted by Grimgrin at 3:14 PM on May 15, 2010


Catseye, your analogy is so strained that its not worth responding to, as is the climate change analogy.

The NA books are intended to make a stand for atheism and atheists in mainstream culture and to stop letting believers dominate the discourse. They do that well, in my opinion.

Lots of Christians might read those books and say 'Well, I am not like THOSE Christians.' Lovely for you. But you're in the minority. If you don't find the books convincing, that's also fine. You're just not the target audience for it.
posted by empath at 3:19 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Rather, I think it's a useful tool to think that way. It has nothing to do with aesthetics and 100% to do with utility.

Perceptions of utility are actually inseparable from aesthetics. So for example, if you assumed that we were in fact created 5 minutes ago, then your relationship with your wife would be a sham, and predicting her preferences irrelevant. It is only desirable to be able to predict her preferences if the past were real in some way. No desirability, no utility.

Secondly, your arguments about prediction assume the very reality you find convenient. Either your memories were altered or they weren't. If they were altered, there is no predictive power gained from believing they weren't altered. It's like saying, if you were thirsty in the desert: "I see a pool of water over there. It could be a mirage, but believing it's real allows me to predict that there will be water at that spot." Well, yes, that's useful if in fact there IS water at that spot! It sucks if it's a mirage. And you can make a decision if you think it's a mirage: don't walk over there.

So in other words, you maintain your metaphysics not because it's predictive or useful but because it's comfortable and aesthetically satisfying.

How can "arguing about existence" be an aesthetic framework. It's an activity. How can an activity can be an aesthetic framework?

It's a way of framing the activity. It's a way of understanding that there is a problem, and what that problem might be. I'm sure when the first virtually mute cavemen looked in wonder at the sky, they didn't have the phrases to express their wonder at their existence. Well, in the intervening millenia, we've developed the debate about the existence of God as one way (of many ways) of speaking about the unspeakable.

--

Harris noted that while it's an elegant thing to say, such metaphysical claims most definitely intrude into the realm of science in very overt way by making claims about the reality of the physical universe and physical events. After all, science is all about the observation and study of the physical universe and drawing conclusions about what makes it tick and how reality is constructed.

Harris absolutely did not refute the Rabbi. It's no surprise that metaphysical claims intrude into the realm of science. Science is itself based on metaphysical claims (like the validity of induction). However, that still leaves the truth that metaphysical claims can only be argued with metaphysical arguments. God is one of those claims. And the Rabbi is correct that science and metaphysics should not be confused.

Where predictions are made about the physical world, science is perfectly within its rights to fight those beliefs from a scientific standpoint. It's perfectly legitimate to show that on a scientific basis, the idea that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with man is highly unlikely.

But the metaphysical basis for that belief -- say, that the scriptures are literally correct -- must be fought with different, aesthetically-based arguments. Indeed, Harris got at this point himself when he said "common sense" must be the restraint. But common sense, elaborated, is the currency of philosophical debate, not science.
posted by shivohum at 3:26 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


For the belief in God to be remotely meaningful, it can't be entirely metaphysical.

If it's entirely metaphysical, then just scrap the Bible and all of its claims for God's agency in the world, scrap prayer, scrap the 10 commandments, scrap the resurrection of Christ.

If you want to just say, well its all fable and metaphor and allegory, then you're basically just an atheist who won't admit it to himself.
posted by empath at 3:33 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


If it's entirely metaphysical, then just scrap the Bible and all of its claims for God's agency in the world, scrap prayer, scrap the 10 commandments, scrap the resurrection of Christ.

(Feel free to replace this with the fact claims of your religion of choice)
posted by empath at 3:36 PM on May 15, 2010


So in other words, you maintain your metaphysics not because it's predictive or useful but because it's comfortable and aesthetically satisfying.

I think you're reading something more profound into my statement than I intended. The utility is in helping me make a decision -- not helping me make a good decision.

For me, at least, it's very hard to choose between alternatives. But I feel bad if I don't choose. A sort of tension builds up, and it's really uncomfortable. So in order to stop feeling bad, I need some tool that will help.

Randomness won't work, because I'm not good at picking an option at random. (I don't seem to have a random-number generator built into my head. Or, if I do, it's slow and takes a lot of energy to run.) Physical options, such as flipping a coin, take too much energy, and they don't work well if there are more than two options. Simple rules, like "always pick the left-most object" are difficult to remember and fail in all sorts of real-life situations.

Relying on the past is easy and comes naturally to me. And it works. By "works," I mean that it allows me to choose and thus stop the tension I have when I haven't yet chosen. It doesn't necessarily allow me to choose well or logically.

It doesn't matter if I'm choosing based on a real past or a fictional one. It doesn't matter to the CHOOSING. It may matter to the outcome, but that's not the "utility" I was talking about.

None of this is really why I "believe" in the past, though. It's how I justify that belief if I'm forced to do so in an intellectual conversation. I believe because I do. Apparently, I'm just built that way. I seem to be able to understand that the past might not exist, but I can't keep that understanding in my mind for long periods without effort. As soon as I stop consciously thinking about that possibility, I fall back into belief. Belief may be too strong a word. I fall back into the assumption that there was a past.

If that's what you mean by aesthetics -- my mind's default assumptions when I'm not thinking too hard -- then I guess I agree that I have that aesthetic. I certainly never meant to claim that my mind doesn't make unfounded assumptions. Of course it does. But I see them as such. Even if I live by them most of the time, I don't assume that they are in line with the way things really are.
posted by grumblebee at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


If only people weren't so interested in convincing other people they were dumb, we could all believe in our own damn no god.
posted by tehloki at 3:46 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harris absolutely did not refute the Rabbi.

Then you and I may have different ideas of what a refutation looks like. Because after allowing the rabbi to dominate the exchange (in what frankly seemed like desperation to get all his talking points out before Harris could respond), Harris offered one concise counterexample that cast the rabbi's assertions in a rather absurd light.

The refutation being pretty clear: the rabbi was using a kind of special pleading to assert the validity of his claims, even when we (and presumably even the rabbi) would not generally allow that kind of argumentation for other extraordinary claims about reality.
posted by darkstar at 3:47 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Catseye, your analogy is so strained that its not worth responding to

It wasn't an analogy so much as a switching round of the words 'Christian' and 'atheist' in the example, but whatever floats your boat, I suppose. For reference, I find evangelistic texts written to promote Christianity and counter atheism precisely as annoying as ones written vice versa, if not more so.

Lots of Christians might read those books and say 'Well, I am not like THOSE Christians.' Lovely for you. But you're in the minority.

With the greatest possible respect, I'd suggest that it's often rather difficult to know what the majority or minority beliefs of a group you don't belong to are.
posted by Catseye at 3:48 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the first hundred or so words...

"a passing fad" - "one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County" "intellectually and morally trivial" "ephemeral toys" "[does not] contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God."

I skimmed down and it's full of loaded, rude terms like this.

Substance means not resorting to cheap insults. I assume the reason he does this is because he doesn't actually have any real arguments behind the rudeness - he certainly comes off as completely insecure from the very phrase - but I'm believe I was absolved of even the slightest responsibility to read more after that first paragraph.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:01 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


God is arguably real, though perhaps not materially so, in the same way that love is real: it exists in people, and it has great and complex meaning to those people. I find it frustrating that discussions like this accept the conflation of the literal God, God the Maker and Disapprover of What You Just Did and Thought, with God the Beautiful Feeling. Of course, the success of religion as a social and political enterprise depends on them remaining hopelessly intertwined.
posted by clockzero at 4:06 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


With the greatest possible respect, I'd suggest that it's often rather difficult to know what the majority or minority beliefs of a group you don't belong to are.

Not really; you ask a bunch of them what they believe, and extrapolate. It's called polling.
posted by empath at 4:18 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


If that's what you mean by aesthetics -- my mind's default assumptions when I'm not thinking too hard

Well I'd say your aesthetics affect your default assumptions but also your assumptions that you've thought long and hard about.

I believe because I do. Apparently, I'm just built that way. ... I don't assume that they are in line with the way things really are.

All right, but do you see that if this belief changed it might have a huge impact on your life? And do you see that the arguments that might alter this belief are not normal scientific arguments, and they don't use normal scientific evidence?

That's also the case with arguments about a transcendent God. Most people don't find it worthwhile to debate the 5-minutes-ago-creation point, but God is a different matter...
--
The refutation being pretty clear: the rabbi was using a kind of special pleading to assert the validity of his claims, even when we (and presumably even the rabbi) would not generally allow that kind of argumentation for other extraordinary claims about reality.

It's a special pleading perfectly relevant to a special subject matter - metaphysics. Harris's Elvis analogy was totally inapt and a non-sequitur. It fell right into the trap the Rabbi was trying to point out. The exchange was analogous to this:

R: I believe in a thing called beauty.
H: Where is this thing called beauty?
R: It's cannot be perceived with the five senses. It's about interpretation.
H: How do you prove it exists?
R: It's not a scientific thing, it cannot be proven scientifically. But there are other ways of knowing--
H: That's just like believing Elvis is still alive.

posted by shivohum at 4:19 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]



Christian: 31
Wicca: 1
Islam: 0
Muslim: 0
Buddhism: 0
Stoner: 250
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:32 PM on May 15, 2010


Not really; you ask a bunch of them what they believe, and extrapolate. It's called polling.

And as we've discussed, polling a non-representative subset (American Christians who watch Fox, for example) and extracting that to the whole (Christians in general) gives you inaccurate results ('the majority of Christians are young-earth creationists'). I'm not suggesting that you should care one way or the other what most Christians believe, just that - as with any other group - what its loudest detractors take to be its core beliefs might not actually line up with what is common, or valued, in the group itself.

(Although, er, shouldn't it be good news that there aren't as many young-earth creationists around as you feared? Hell, I know I'm glad it hasn't caught on in a bigger way.)
posted by Catseye at 4:34 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


With the greatest possible respect, I'd suggest that it's often rather difficult to know what the majority or minority beliefs of a group you don't belong to are.

....Which is why I often don't pass judgement UPON a group I don't belong to until I have DONE RESEARCH to find OUT what the majority or minority beliefs of a group I don't belong to are. And that is also why I don't make statements ABOUT the beliefs of a group I don't belong to until I have LEARNED what the majority or minority beliefs of that group are.

And that is also why, if I encounter a member of that group and they treat me poorly, I am careful to remind myself that "that just reflects the position of that one person, and that may not be the views of the group as a whole."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:45 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Splunge: "if we make fun of your silly beliefs, it's because we love you want to sell books."

FTFY.
posted by mwhybark at 4:57 PM on May 15, 2010


The exchange was analogous to this:

Actually, the "trap" is one the rabbi fell into -- and the same one you just fell into -- by conflating the existence of a real, material being called God who was the creator of the Universe with the warm and fuzzy aesthetic feeling about "God" that theists embrace. The point was noted upthread: the former is a scientific statement about the physical universe that is not scientifically substantiatable, whereas the latter is a a statement about the psyche and sociohistory of humankind which relies simply on one person's personal views.

I (and I suspect Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and most atheists and agnostics) would have no problem readily acknowledging that God -- as an aesthetic sensibility -- exists. It's the proposition that God exists outside of the human mind and human socio-history that they (we) take exception to. THAT is actually a statement not about aesthetics, but about the reality of the causatioin/creation/operation of the physical universe. And inasmuch as it is so, it is a claim about scientific reality, even though it is scientifically unsubstantiatable. Hence, the counterargument from atheists and agnostics.

If I tell you that I think Elvis is "alive" today because he exists in my heart (i.e., the concept and memory and sociocultural trappings of Elvis continue to influence me), then you might be considered strange, but I might not be completely derided as crazy. After all, it's my aesthetic prerogative to be influenced by whatever sensibilities I choose.

If, on the other hand, I say, no, I really think Elvis is physically alive today (or that he created the universe) then people rightly laugh at me because the claim is ridiculous.

The rabbi wants to make the aesthetic argument, because it's a common backdoor into getting people to accept the premise. And then, BAM, he conflates the aesthetic of God with the physical reality of God the Creator so he can imagine that he's actually demonstrated something. Harris' allusion to Elvis casts the rabbi's error in sharp and humorous relief.
posted by darkstar at 5:00 PM on May 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


All right, but do you see that if this belief changed it might have a huge impact on your life?

Of course.

And do you see that the arguments that might alter this belief are not normal scientific arguments, and they don't use normal scientific evidence?

No, because I don't think they can be altered by argument. Intellectually, they HAVE been altered by argument, but so what? The intellect takes a back seat in matters like this, at least for me.

When I was younger, I was sure that the past was definitely real, and I would have called you silly had you said otherwise. As I got older and thought about things -- and read some philosophy -- I changed my mind. I realized that I had no evidence that the past existed. It might be real. Or it might just be a real-seeming illusion.

Other than being interesting, the arguments and their results did not profoundly change my life. Before I realized the lack-of-foundation I had for believing the the past, I had the profound FEELING that there was a past. I still have that profound feeling. It's just as profound as it was before. I can't see how any amount of argument will change that.

Honestly, if you introduced me to the man behind the curtain, and if he showed me all the drugs he feeds me to make me believe it the past, that STILL wouldn't change anything (unless he stopped giving me the drugs). It would freak me out for a while. But then I would discover that "remembering" Mozart Operas still thrilled me. And thinking about the "day" that my grandmother died still made me sad. You telling me, "Hey, don't you remember? It's just a guy giving you drugs! There's no need to be sad. You never even had a grandmother" would not make me feel at all better.

Switch from The Past to God, I've never met anyone who became an atheist (or a theist) through argumentation. They probably exist (so no need to say, "Hey, I did!" because I'm not saying it's impossible. I am saying you people are few and far between.)

I'm an atheist because, for whatever reason, I've always been that way. I've never felt the presence or influence of God and can't imagine what it feels like. (I've never even had an experience like of Him like I've had of "the past," which seems real even though I know it might not be.)

If you used logic to prove to me that He existed -- and if I bought that logic -- that would be interesting, but I can't see it profoundly affecting my life. It would be like hearing they'd discovered life on Mars. Fascinating, and I'd follow the news about it for a while. Then I'd realize that I still have to take out the trash and do my taxes. I know that to some others, it would be extremely profound news. My guess is that those people already had some feeling that God existed. Or some emotional connection to Him. Even if that was angry disbelief.

I've met people who like me are coasting on inertia, but they are religious. They come from religious families and they simply believe in God because God has always been a part of their lives.

I've met people who have gone through a crisis that made them believe or stop believing.

But I've never read someone who calmly read a logical argument in a book and went from being a profound believer to an atheist -- or vice versa. I bet that's a tiny number of people.

(My guess is that some agnostic people hear arguments and, through them, fall into belief or disbelief.)

I HAVE met many people who, after converting for some emotional reason, find solace in arguments. Most people feel embarrassed by being ruled by their emotions (even though most of us are), so if they can spew out a rational argument, it makes them feel smart. So many of these atheist/theists debates seem to be about "You're dumb and I'm smart." "No, YOU'RE dumb and I'M smart!"

Hardly anyone ever says what I think is true for most people: "I have a strong feeling, and so I believe." Or "I have no strong feeling, and so I don't." Well, that's what I say. I have no strong feeling. And so I don't believe. I've spent 30 years reading atheist (and religious) arguments, and they are interesting, and I can trot out the "reasons" why I am an atheist, and I agree with the logic of those reasons. But they aren't the real reasons. They are the ex-post facto, intellectual explanations of why I would have come to the same conclusion I just happened to come to, were I a 100% rational being.

But, again, it goes deeper than that. Because my logic is, of course, falsifiable. It COULD be proven wrong. And if it was, I would have to say, "Yup. There's a God. I was wrong." Then I'd probably say, "I'm hungry. Can we order pizza?" If you feel otherwise -- if you are an atheist and you feel like if someone proved God existed to you, your life would utterly change, then I can't help wondering if you have strong feelings about God now. Maybe you don't believe He exists, but it's possible to have strong feelings about a fictional character.
posted by grumblebee at 5:08 PM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


That you base your opinions on your feelings alone is no reason to accuse the rest of humanity of being so deficient.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:16 PM on May 15, 2010


Perhaps a better analogy is love.

Does love exist? Of course, as an aesthetic sensibility, love exists and influences people every day and has done so throughout history.

Does the goddess Aphrodite, as a real person, exist? Other than as a sociocultural phenomenon, I have seen no compelling evidence that such a person actually exists. So I cannot accept assertions that she does exist, regardless of how much I might love or be loved.
posted by darkstar at 5:24 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, the more important point is that people go beyond 'the feeling of god' to 'god wants us to...' or 'god does...', which is where you get beyond the metaphysical to the physical.

I think the correct answer to that sort of argument for "God in the abstract" is 'so what?'. What can you say about a god like that beyond its mere existence without also making some kind of physical claim?
posted by empath at 5:28 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


That you base your opinions on your feelings alone is no reason to accuse the rest of humanity of being so deficient.

I'm hoping that's a joke, and that you're not so rude as to imply I'm deficient (unlike the rest of humanity).

I did not say that I base my opinions on my feelings. I never used the word "opinions" and wouldn't have ever done so in that context. I have many, many opinions that are at odds with my feelings. For instance, I FEEL that the guy who nearly killed me the other day on his damn bike should be slowly tortured. But if you ask me for my OPINION as to whether or not he should be tortured, I'll tell you -- and I'll be honest when I tell you -- "no way."

Here's something else I wrote, above, when I said that most people aren't the way they are for intellectual reasons: "I'm not saying it's impossible." So, see, I admit I might be wrong.

What really disturbs me about what you're saying is the implication that being an emotional person is a bad thing. Wow. No wonder people act like there's a rational reason for everything they do. Who wants to be told he's bad or deficient.

Please, next time you disagree with me, why don't you counter with a reasoned argument, as EVERYONE ELSE has been doing in this thread -- a thread in which I've seen almost no animosity -- even between people who have very different opinions and beliefs.
posted by grumblebee at 5:29 PM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Where predictions are made about the physical world, science is perfectly within its rights to fight those beliefs from a scientific standpoint. It's perfectly legitimate to show that on a scientific basis, the idea that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with man is highly unlikely.

From what I understand of the New Atheism, it's primarily concerned with religious claims inasmuch as those claims do, in fact, make empirical assertions about the physical world and/or prescribe morality for the rest of us, meddle in politics, etc.

Contemporary, sophisticated theology might politely restrict itself to its domain of metaphysical considerations, but religion as a widespread social phenomenon is neither polite nor careful about where it steps and instead tends to run roughshod over nearly every conceivable domain of human affairs. It seems to me that this is primarily what the New Atheists in general are angry about.

But the metaphysical basis for that belief -- say, that the scriptures are literally correct -- must be fought with different, aesthetically-based arguments.

I think I see where you're coming from in principle, but in this particular case, I'm not sure a belief that the scriptures are literally correct can't be fought with scientific evidence, as the scriptures (interpreted literally) do make empirical claims which science has shown to be false.
posted by treepour at 5:37 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


My favorite part about this whole argument is the assumption that "new atheists" actually means anything.
posted by diocletian at 6:28 PM on May 15, 2010


Please, next time you disagree with me, why don't you counter with a reasoned argument

Why bother? You've come right out and said that reason doesn't play a significant part in the formation of your opinions, and then accused everyone else of the same failing. That's pretty goddamn jerkish if you ask me.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:56 PM on May 15, 2010


Simmer down.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:09 PM on May 15, 2010


My favorite part about this whole argument is the assumption that "new atheists" actually means anything.

Atheism is lack of belief in the stuff religions believe in. As I understand it, the new atheism is a consciousness-raising (Dawkins's phrase) social movement.

To say the phrase means nothing is kind of like saying "the phrase 'gay movement' doesn't mean anything because there are gay people."
posted by treepour at 7:17 PM on May 15, 2010


There do not exist any non-lame arguments for the truth of Christianity.
EmpressCallipygos:
me:
There do not exist any non-lame arguments for the truth of Christianity.
Come on, now. Do you really want to take the conversation ths direction?
I'm not taking it there, that's where the article is taking it. The article essentially accuses the "new atheists" of not addressing any but the most trivial arguments for Christianity while ignoring the serious theological arguments. But none of these serious theological arguments are ever actually given.

For example, here's Richard Carrier being asked what the best arguments for God with which he's been confronted.

His answer? There is none, it's the same old stuff, but now "smells of desperation."
posted by smcameron at 7:20 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do wonder what atheists such as Dawkins believe regarding how matter came to be....as silly as Dawkins might find me for believing in God I do have to say I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous (do any of you know if this has actually been addressed by the atheist camp?)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Atheism is lack of belief in the stuff religions believe in. As I understand it, the new atheism is a consciousness-raising (Dawkins's phrase) social movement.

To say the phrase means nothing is kind of like saying "the phrase 'gay movement' doesn't mean anything because there are gay people."
posted by treepour at 7:17 PM on May 15 [+] [!]


Treepour, maybe I was too glib, but I have no idea what you're trying to say about what I said. What I was trying to say is that this guy's contention that there is a "new atheism" sounds like a bullshit attempt to define "today's" atheists in the way he likes so that he can make his "arguments" directed against them.

I'm saying that, as an atheist/agnostic/don't-believe-in-god-however-you-want-to-label-it I have never heard of these "new atheists."

You would think I would have been sent a newsletter at least.
posted by diocletian at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2010


You've come right out and said that reason doesn't play a significant part in the formation of your opinions, and then accused everyone else of the same failing.

I can't find anywhere where I said reason doesn't play a significant part in forming my opinions. Reason is my main tool for forming opinions. Or, at least, I try very hard to make it so (unless we're talking about opinions re something like art or food).

If my best friend murders someone, will I WANT him to go to jail? No, of course not.

Is it my OPINION that he should be sent to jail? Yes, definitely. Why? Because I REASON that it will be best for society if he's in jail. My emotions play no part in this opinion.

What I tried hard (and failed?) to say was that the original reason I became an atheist had nothing to do with reason. Reason plays into it now, but it wasn't the starting factor. And I admitted that, via pure reason, someone could convert me to theism. Honestly, they could. Give me some evidence for God, and I'll switch faster than you can blink.

What I tried (and failed?) to say was that this wouldn't much impact my feelings. I don't care about God now (other than as a topic of interest) and I wouldn't care about Him then (as far as I can guess, knowing what I know about myself, now).

(What I mean by "I don't care about Him" is that He seems, to me, like a fictional character in a genre that doesn't interest me. If you proved to me that He existed, my guess is I would think of Him like a girl who has a crush on me but I don't care for. Yes, she exists. Sorry, but I'm not attracted to her. She seems really nice, and I'm stupid for not being into her, because she'd probably make a great partner, but ... I'm just not into her.")

I then suggested, with many, many qualifications ("I think ... I suppose... etc.") that others (mostly others that "I've met") might be similar to me.

Basically, I'm saying that if you're in love with a woman, and you live with her for 30 years, and then someone proves to you that she's just a hallucination, you probably won't just go, "Oh, okay," and fall out of love with her. You may now KNOW she's not real, but that knowledge won't change your profound feelings. MAYBE. IF you're like me.

Anyway, I am apologize to everyone for making a post that has brought some tension and aggression to an otherwise civil and interesting thread. So that the fighting will stop, I'll quit posting. I'll continue to read with interest. Thanks for the great discussion, theists and atheists alike!
posted by grumblebee at 7:39 PM on May 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I do wonder what atheists such as Dawkins believe regarding how matter came to be....as silly as Dawkins might find me for believing in God I do have to say I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous (do any of you know if this has actually been addressed by the atheist camp?)
Have you ever seen anything begin to exist? And I don't mean simply rearranging already existing stuff, as would be the case for making a house, baking a cake, growing a plant or animal from seed or fertilized egg, or creating matter from energy as in a fusion reaction.

What makes you certain that creation of matter/energy/space-time requires a cause? From (what very very little) I know of current ideas, there's is a "vacuum energy" in which matter and antimatter particles spring into existence and annihilate one another without cause all the time, everywhere.
posted by smcameron at 7:43 PM on May 15, 2010


I do wonder what atheists such as Dawkins believe regarding how matter came to be....as silly as Dawkins might find me for believing in God I do have to say I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous (do any of you know if this has actually been addressed by the atheist camp?)

I'm an atheist. I don't have any particular position or certainty on it but "turtles all the way down" seems no more or less ridiculous to me than the whole medieval first cause / first mover / et cetera. Or, even if you were going to posit an uncaused first cause, calling matter itself (i.e. some nascent stage of the universe) the first cause seems no more or less ridiculous to me than arriving at an uncaused God. (On preview, perhaps that's what smcameron is saying.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:54 PM on May 15, 2010


I do wonder what atheists such as Dawkins believe regarding how matter came to be....as silly as Dawkins might find me for believing in God I do have to say I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous (do any of you know if this has actually been addressed by the atheist camp?)

First we have to figure out what time, energy, and matter are. Then we can figure where it all came from.

It's an open question and one of the reasons we built the Large Hadron Collider. This is one of those cases where it would help to read a book or three.

Here's one scientist discussing the big bang.

I think 'because God' is a much less interesting answer than what these guys are working on.
posted by empath at 7:55 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, first cause arguments tell you absolutely nothing about the nature of the first cause. It could be an evil demiurge-type, or a deceiver, or entirely impersonal and uncaring. In any case, there's no way to get to Christianity or any other religion from there.
posted by empath at 7:59 PM on May 15, 2010


Or, come to think of it, another one is that perhaps there are multiple uncaused things which lead to the existence of the universe, indeed perhaps an infinity of them whatever they might be, and they aren't comparable in such a way that any of them can be called "first".
posted by XMLicious at 8:08 PM on May 15, 2010


Sorry diocletian, I didn't know exactly where you were coming from, and my response was probably too glib as well.

From wikipedia:
The New Atheism refers to a 21st century movement in atheism. The term, which first appeared in the November 2006 edition of Wired magazine, is applied, sometimes pejoratively, to a series of six best-selling books by five authors that appeared in the period 2004–2008. These authors are Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and Christopher Hitchens. They and other supporters of the New Atheism movement are hard-line critics of religion. They state that atheism, backed by recent scientific advancement, has reached the point where it is time to take a far less accommodating attitude toward religion, superstition, and religion-based fanaticism than had been extended by moderate atheists, secularists, and some secular scientists.
To elaborate a bit, in The God Delusion, Dawkins makes the case that there's a social taboo against criticizing any religious claim, even when that claim makes assertions about the empirical world. E.g., if someone made a (non-religious) claim that the earth is only 1 day old, you probably wouldn't feel too bad about countering that claim. But you might hesitate a bit more before countering a creationist's assertion that the earth is 6,000 years old -- simply because it's a tenant of the creation's religious faith, and to call out the claim as false would be considered rude or hurtful.

As I understand it (I'm still learning), the New Atheist movement considers this taboo both dangerous (it allows religion to meddle in politics/etc) and repressive (it's hard to imagine a self-declared atheist running for a major elective public office), and therefore seeks to raise awareness of the taboo and challenge it wherever possible.
posted by treepour at 8:08 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


right, my impression is that these books are largely political in purpose and largely focused on getting atheists to speak out and defend themselves instead of allowing conservative religious groups to dominate the public discourse. Atheism has long been something that the upper classes and educated elites were comfortable talking about amongst themselves, but was a taboo subject in the mass media and with the 'average guy'. These books set about changing that. It's about giving atheists a rhetorical toolbox for handling debates with believers, and also helping atheists think more clearly about the topic in general.

The focus was never on conversion, which is why serious engagement isn't really part of the agenda. Atheists don't try to save souls, they just want to be left alone.
posted by empath at 8:22 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks treepour, and I know that these authors are the "movement" that the article and many in this thread are defining as the "new atheists." I just disagree that the label has any real relevance.

I agree with much of Hitchens and Dawkins, especially with regard to the need to challenge the taboo of religion. But why is it a new movement, really? There's nothing "new" about their (or my) atheism. Maybe our attitudes are different because the social climate is changing such that atheists can speak out with less fear of retribution from religious power, but the argument is the same as it's been for ages, an argument many have re-hashed above with the usual futility.

I still feel like the article is sparring with a non-existent opponent in order to make it sound like atheists "these days" are all just popular-science-bestseller reading dopes.
posted by diocletian at 8:24 PM on May 15, 2010


smcameron: “The article essentially accuses the "new atheists" of not addressing any but the most trivial arguments for Christianity while ignoring the serious theological arguments.”

No, it didn't. The article accuses the New Atheists of not addressing any of the essential problems of human existence, of which Christianity is but one attempt at a solution. And he's right, I think; most of the people of the New Atheist mold don't offer or explore any possible solutions to problems like death, love, the tension between moral responsibility and our general uncertainty about the world, et cetera. In fact, my experience is that New Atheists tend to proclaim that these problems don't exist at all, and that they are in fact invented problems specifically created to force people to adopt a religious perspective. I've met a huge number of atheists who've stood in front of me and told me to my face that death doesn't scare them in the slightest because "it's just nothing" after you die, and that I'm a sucker and a fool for buying the religious propaganda and actually finding the prospect of my own annihilation at least a bit worrisome.

I'm sorry, but I find this a bit silly. There have been great atheists through the ages who wrestled with these problems nobly, and not just in a "oh-I'm-having-an-argument-with-religious-people" context. Lucretius and Hume spent their lives trying to riddle out what all of this meant, and not in a silly and foolish attempt to placate religious people, but because they actually thought it was important to do so.

His accusation was that the New Atheists disagree fundamentally with people like Hume and Lucretius who, though of vastly differing opinions in general, both believed that there are certain difficult questions in human life worth pondering. In attacking religion, my sense is that Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest lash out so blindly that they don't realize that they're attacking most of the atheists in history; Dawkins in particular apparently would like to believe not only that religion is false and foolish but that all of the important problems to which religion tries to offer solutions aren't actually problems at all.
posted by koeselitz at 8:38 PM on May 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous (do any of you know if this has actually been addressed by the atheist camp?)

This kind of statement is the classic example of why this discussion is so frustrating to many atheists/agnostics. First, it mis-states the subtlety of Dawkins' argument. Second, it ignores the rather serious treatment of the question that atheists have made, repeatedly, for hundreds of years.

To be sure, it was addressed upthread in this very discussion.
posted by darkstar at 8:46 PM on May 15, 2010


Ah, I missed that. Thanks for highlighting it!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:03 PM on May 15, 2010


Wow, this is an awful conversation. It depresses me.

Thanks, Koeselitz, for at least engaging in the actual substance of the issue. What a clusterfuck.

Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., pretend to use skepticism and logic to argue against religion, but their skepticism is shallow and their logic a mirage. Doesn't make them wrong, of course, but that. is. not. the. point. of the article.

(I'd LOVE to see Dawkins or Hitchens try to respond to Spinoza, hahahaaaaa)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:05 PM on May 15, 2010


And he's right, I think; most of the people of the New Atheist mold don't offer or explore any possible solutions to problems like death, love, the tension between moral responsibility and our general uncertainty about the world, et cetera.

Because atheism isn't a religion. It's just a belief that God doesn't exist. Believing in God because you're stressing out about dying some day is kind of weird to me.

I've met a huge number of atheists who've stood in front of me and told me to my face that death doesn't scare them in the slightest because "it's just nothing" after you die, and that I'm a sucker and a fool for buying the religious propaganda and actually finding the prospect of my own annihilation at least a bit worrisome.

If you don't believe in life after death, you don't believe in it. Dying sucks, it happens to everyone. It's not Richard Dawkins job to tell you bedtime stories to make you feel better about it.

Dawkins in particular apparently would like to believe not only that religion is false and foolish but that all of the important problems to which religion tries to offer solutions aren't actually problems at all.

If you want someone looking for answers to those sorts of questions, read Sam Harris, not Dawkins. Or hell, read any philosopher from the past 100 years or so. Quite a few of them don't rely on religion in any significant way.
posted by empath at 9:16 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd LOVE to see Dawkins or Hitchens try to respond to Spinoza, hahahaaaaa

How silly. Spinoza is probably the most important atheist philosopher.
posted by empath at 9:25 PM on May 15, 2010


empath: “How silly. Spinoza is probably the most important atheist philosopher.”

Yep. And Dawkins and Hitchens essentially say that Spinoza was an idiot who was full of shit. Whereas Spinoza would probably say that they are inconsequential writers not worth bothering with. I know whose side I'd be on.
posted by koeselitz at 9:29 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


And Dawkins and Hitchens essentially say that Spinoza was an idiot who was full of shit

Citation needed.

Spinoza lived in a time where you could be executed for being an atheist. He said as much as he thought he could get away with.
posted by empath at 9:45 PM on May 15, 2010


most of the people of the New Atheist mold don't offer or explore any possible solutions to problems like death, love, the tension between moral responsibility and our general uncertainty about the world, et cetera.

that these are realities to be contemplated is understandable, and certainly they are worth pondering, particularly to those who ponder them. atheists are as taken with the mysteries of life as anyone. i don't see how it's supposed to make them 'problems' for people who accept them as part of the fabric of existence. (and maybe i missed a memo, but i don't get a sense that any of these things is any less 'problematic' for all the effort religion has kindly and unselfishly conferred upon them.) personally, i don't find that solving the 'problem' of death has any more relevance than how to solve a problem like maria. our existence and the mysteries of life are no less fascinating to me because i believe the universe is completely indifferent to them, and i love the people around me no less because i think our souls are no more eternal than wisps of smoke. so it shouldn't be so surprising that as an admittedly finite being i'd rather not, any more than is unavoidable, live my life within a framework designed under the assumption that we're supposed to suffer now for a later reward. in the absence of a reasonable cultural opt-out clause for that path, atheists new and old have no obligation to defer to it, or even to be polite about it.

i don't disparage anyone who doesn't feel the same way, but my takes is that the "problems to which religion tries to offer solutions" result from our exaggerated sense of our own importance. it is only relatively recently that we accepted literally that the world does not revolve around us; our egos are a bit slow in catching on.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:45 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I do wonder what atheists such as Dawkins believe regarding how matter came to be....as silly as Dawkins might find me for believing in God I do have to say I wonder why a belief that there was no first cause shouldn't be seen as equally or more ridiculous."

considering science has, within a couple centuries, moved the supposed date of that 'first cause' from like 6,000 years ago to more like 15 billion years ago--with no small resistance from the realm of theology, some of which continues even today--'ridiculous' might be a rather poor choice of term here.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:55 PM on May 15, 2010


And Dawkins and Hitchens essentially say that Spinoza was an idiot who was full of shit

For the record, Hitchens included Spinoza in The Portable Atheist.
posted by empath at 9:55 PM on May 15, 2010


Some people believe / don't believe in a higher power for simple / complex reasons - so what?
All four variations of the above (and plenty more) exist in mass numbers. Deal with it. How is discussing how your variation thereof is allegedly better than another variation going to validate anything?
posted by Neekee at 9:56 PM on May 15, 2010


empath: “Citation needed.”

Since when is a citation needed to point out that atheists don't always agree? Dawkins and Hitchens are absolutely nothing like Spinoza. They think most of the things he stood for are ridiculous - trying to sort out the world and existence, trying to comprehend the nature of things, et cetera. They don't actually seem to care about those things at all, but take them as solved.

“Spinoza lived in a time where you could be executed for being an atheist. He said as much as he thought he could get away with.”

Spinoza was a very, very rare breed of atheist; he was actually indifferent to religion. In a sense, he was a true atheist, whereas Dawkins and Hitchens, who are still tied to their various dogmas, really aren't.
posted by koeselitz at 9:58 PM on May 15, 2010


empath: “For the record, Hitchens included Spinoza in The Portable Atheist.”

I'm well aware of that. But that doesn't mean he's intelligent to have actually read and considered Spinoza in any depth.
posted by koeselitz at 10:00 PM on May 15, 2010


They think most of the things he stood for are ridiculous - trying to sort out the world and existence, trying to comprehend the nature of things, et cetera.

Are you insane? Richard Dawkins entire career is about figuring out how the world works and tackling big questions like where life came from.
posted by empath at 10:00 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


>How silly. Spinoza is probably the most important atheist philosopher.

To me, Spinoza is a pantheist, not an atheist. That may be a pointless distinction, but Hart brought it to mind when he wrote:

Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:02 PM on May 15, 2010


The article accuses the New Atheists of not addressing any of the essential problems of human existence, of which Christianity is but one attempt at a solution. And he's right, I think; most of the people of the New Atheist mold don't offer or explore any possible solutions to problems like death, love, the tension between moral responsibility and our general uncertainty about the world, et cetera.

[...]

Dawkins in particular apparently would like to believe not only that religion is false and foolish but that all of the important problems to which religion tries to offer solutions aren't actually problems at all.


Maybe they're not. Framing the painful and beguiling conditions of human existence as problems suggests, to me, that there's a presupposition that things shouldn't be this way. What's the basis for that presupposition?

I think hunger is a problem, war is a problem, the existence of oppressive political regimes is a problem, child abuse is a problem, political corruption is a problem, slavery is a problem, and so on. But those are all problems we can (theoretically at least) fix.

But existential conditions . . . are conditions, not problems.
posted by treepour at 10:05 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


And science does has a solution to death. It's called medicine.
posted by empath at 10:06 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


They think most of the things he stood for are ridiculous - trying to sort out the world and existence, trying to comprehend the nature of things, et cetera.
--koeselitz

Are you insane? Richard Dawkins entire career is about figuring out how the world works and tackling big questions like where life came from.
--empath


No kidding. The suggestion that Dawkins really isn't interested in deep and rigorous thinking about the nature of the universe and existence is pretty much a non-starter.
posted by darkstar at 10:23 PM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Dawkins definitely does that in his science work, which makes his anti-religion screeds that much more disappointing--where is the probing, rigorous thought and forceful self-examination that characterizes The Selfish Gene?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:27 PM on May 15, 2010


darkstar: “No kidding. The suggestion that Dawkins really isn't interested in deep and rigorous thinking about the nature of the universe and existence is pretty much a non-starter.”

He's a popularizer of science, not much of a scientist himself, and it shows in his dogmatic tone. I've read The Selfish Gene, yes, but it doesn't constitute any real work being done in the field – it's just an attempt to explain it. And I admit that it's a good one, but it seems to me that Dawkins doesn't have much of a scientific mind.
posted by koeselitz at 10:28 PM on May 15, 2010


... and just like that, this became just another goddamned Dawkins thread.
posted by koeselitz at 10:29 PM on May 15, 2010


There is zero evidence for the existence of any gods. All the people whining in this thread about the lack of thoughtful treatment by the new atheists are contributing only whining. Whiners.
posted by smcameron at 10:36 PM on May 15, 2010


Outstanding reasoning, smcameron. I applaud your powers of reason and am duly (dully?) convinced.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:47 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


And koeselitz...I believe Dawkins is credited with some advancements to science. Although The Selfish Gene is an extension and popularization of an existing theory, The Extended Phenotype includes some original insights that are now widely cited.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:53 PM on May 15, 2010


This sort of monotheistic belief is only held by a very small fraction of all of humanity throughout time. All this excitement over it is just so strange to me.
posted by aesacus at 10:56 PM on May 15, 2010


koeselitz, to the degree that it's "another goddamned Dawkins thread", it may have to do with the fact that the author is carving out a position directly in opposition to Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris and others.

In fact, one might say that the dismissal of the inquiring intellect of Dawkins (and Hitchens, et al.) is the key to the author's position. After all, it's Hart's key assertion that Dawkins and his confederates in atheism are not deep thinkers or readers on the questions of existence, and so on, and therefore are not up to the task of engaging with him on whatever lofty cloud of erudition he thinks he resides.

So complaining that the thread is about Dawkins is kind of missing the point, I think. I mean, when someone is pushing the rather farcical suggestion that the guy doesn't have a scientific mind, isn't interested in thinking deeply about the way the universe works, etc., it does rather require someone to call bullshit on that, after all.
posted by darkstar at 11:00 PM on May 15, 2010


But you know, feel free not to mention the guy anymore if you don't like seeing his name in the thread.
posted by darkstar at 11:02 PM on May 15, 2010


darkstar - I disagree that "the author is carving out a position directly in opposition to Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris and others." In fact, I see him as criticizing their reasoning far more than their conclusions. I think we can safely assume he isn't an atheist, but that's not really his point of contention (in this article, at least). He's criticizing those writers for not doing what they purport to be doing; that is, using skepticism, reasoning, and logic to dismantle religion and support atheism. And he's dead right about that, a conclusion I think can be drawn regardless of one's faith or lack thereof.

And to be clear, he by no means asserts that contemporary religious thinkers are any better. He has plenty of sharp words for them, too.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:07 PM on May 15, 2010


To be sure, we do need some kind of explanation for the origin of all things. Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem.

I love it, particularly the bit about the physicists and cosmologists being hard at work on the problem. This kind of verbiage reminds of the kind of stuff you used to hear from the Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. "To be sure, the situation in the Highlands must be resolved. Rest assured our people are hard at work on the problem." Problem is they never did solve the problem, just extended the war and suffering for many years before ultimately losing.

This always seems to happen when Science gets argued as a be-all/end-all solution to all the mysteries of existence. In spite of all its claims toward rigor and rationality, it inevitably asks us to please, just have a little faith.
posted by philip-random at 12:16 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually, the "trap" is one the rabbi fell into -- and the same one you just fell into -- by conflating the existence of a real, material being called God who was the creator of the Universe with the warm and fuzzy aesthetic feeling about "God" that theists embrace.

Now you're falling into the trap. ;) You're assuming there are only two possibilities: God is a physical creature or God is a mere feeling. It could be that God is a way of interpreting reality, just like induction is a way of interpreting reality.

Induction undergirds science, but it is not science, it cannot be proven by science, it cannot be refuted by science.

Induction is not a mere feeling (though it is certainly influenced by aesthetics), I'm sure Harris et al would agree. It's a way important way of interpreting data. It may be a metaphysical truth. That's what the Rabbi would argue too of God, no doubt.
posted by shivohum at 1:25 AM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


This always seems to happen when Science gets argued as a be-all/end-all solution to all the mysteries of existence.

oh yeah, remind us how many times religion has successfully debunked science.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 2:55 AM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're assuming there are only two possibilities: God is a physical creature or God is a mere feeling.

Actually, I make no such assumption and in fact don't think that at all. But those are the two primarily discussed modes of "God" when theists and atheists discuss the concept, so that's what we're talking about mostly in this thread.

But seriously, the rabbi isn't trying to just make a feelgood argument about the aesthetic of God, or even of God as a means of interpreting reality as you helpfully attempt to salvage his argument for him. You and I know that he and most theists are actually making claims about the actual existence of God as a real person.

I mean, that's the nature of the foundation of the argument for most theists, right? Not that God just exists as a lovely aesthetic or as a conceptual framework for interpreting reality, but that the dude actually exists as a real person outside of human mind and culture.

And it's that claim that intrudes overtly into the field of science, inasmuch as it makes an assertion about the actual physical universe, its origin and what makes it tick. Harris adroitly pointed this out.

For what it's worth, I believe in God as an aesthetic and as a mode of interpreting reality, not to mention God as a sociocultural phenomenon, as an archetype of the mind, and as any number of other conceptual constructs. We could have all kind of lovely conversations about that, I'm sure.

BUT when we finally get around to discussing whether the guy actually exists as a real person and created the universe and is engaged in manipulating it today and will reward or punish me after I'm biologically dead based on whether I observed rules he ostensibly dictated to men thousands of years ago, then I have to observe as Harris does that these are claims that tread overtly into the realm of science, yet are unsubstantiatable by scientific observation.

Bedtime now, sleep well!
posted by darkstar at 3:38 AM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am apologize to everyone for making a post that has brought some tension and aggression to an otherwise civil and interesting thread.

Grumblebee: you HAVE been well-spoken and calm over the course of this thread. Pope Guilty just accused you of "saying that reason doesn't play a significant part in the formation of your opinions" even after you had taken great pains to explain what you meant and how reason did affect many of your opinions.

I don't think you're the one that needs to apologize.

And PG: I have to admit I'm suspicious that, even if you insist that "grumblebee is sayiing reason doesn't have any significant affect on his opinions" even AFTER he explained HOW reason affects his opinions", that possibly it is YOUR emotions that are guiding your opinions (is it possible you were a little too angry after what you thought he'd said to clearly have understood his explanation?)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:33 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Catseye: And if Joe Bloggs could point to a survey that said half of all atheists were atheists because a preachers son beat them up, and that social darwinists controlled congress and quite a bit of the judiciary, and had hours of videotape of him speaking publicly where atheists got up and attempted to debate him with music based arguments, he'd probably be perfectly justified in writing the book.

Joe Bloggs, and his atheist equivalents, can write whatever they like. However, if a number of atheists were to patiently explain to Joe Bloggs that he's depicting them in ways that don't represent the majority of their fellows, I'd like to think he might actually bother to do some more careful fact-checking before continuing on down the same path, rather than assuming he knows what atheists believe better than atheists do.

I don't think it would do any good to point out once again that uh hey, most Christians aren't young-earth creationists, no really, no really, since the point's been made (and, apparently, ignored) on the thread already. We're getting into that annoying kind of argument that EmpressCallipygos mentioned earlier:

"You're a Christian? Huh, so you therefore believe this ridiculous blah blah blah."
"Actually, I don't."
"Bullshit, the Bible says blah blah blah so therefore that is what you believe."
"But...not everyone takes the Bible literally."
"That's just cheating! If you say you're a Christian, you have to believe blah blah blah because the Bible says blah blah and so therefore if you are a Christian then that is what you believe. And therefore you are ridiculous."


And that's no way to have a sensible conversation about anything.
posted by Catseye at 6:07 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


oh yeah, remind us how many times religion has successfully debunked science.

Debunking is a scientific concern, isn't it? And please don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the debunking of long-cherished beliefs (religious and otherwise). I just feel that Science, by its own principles, has yet to successively debunk the entire notion of God and/or gods (ie: outside agent and/or agents guiding/informing the ongoing evolution of life, the Universe, everything).
posted by philip-random at 6:23 AM on May 16, 2010


oh yeah, remind us how many times religion has successfully debunked science.

It is not religion's job to debunk science. That's like asking, "oh, yeah, remind us how many times Lady Gaga's music has successfully performed a heart transplant."

You wouldn't ask Lady Gaga to perform a heart transplant because she's a musician, and you wouldn't expect playing a Lady Gaga CD would successfully do a heart transplant because that's not what music itself does. But that does not mean that music is a lesser discipline as a result -- only that it is a different sphere of human existance.

Science is supposed to get to the truth of the physical laws of the world and the universe. Religion isn't. They're not in a race.

And what's more, most theists know that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:30 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I know the conversation has moved on, but I am still stuck on this:

Koeselitz: I've met a huge number of atheists who've stood in front of me and told me to my face that death doesn't scare them in the slightest because "it's just nothing" after you die, and that I'm a sucker and a fool for buying the religious propaganda and actually finding the prospect of my own annihilation at least a bit worrisome.

I'm sorry, but I find this a bit silly.


Why do you find this silly? Is it inconceivable to you that the person speaking really is fine with their own mortality?

I'm over 50. The vast majority of human beings who ever lived were dead before 50; I'm living on borrowed time, so to speak. I have thought a lot about my life and my death and the imminent deaths of those I love. Frankly, my own death is the one that will cause me the least amount of anguish. Naturally I fear being in pain or losing control of my body, but once I am dead I will feel nothing. No sorrow. No regrets. Just deep, dreamless sleep. Those I have left behind will be sad, and that is the hardest part to reflect on.

I can understand why religions came up with the idea of heaven or reincarnation-- death is very frightening because it is such a vast change. If you are enjoying life, you don't want the pleasure to end and if you are not enjoying life you think that with a bit more time you can make things better. It also seems such a waste: all that knowledge, all that accumulated wisdom just gone (unless it has been written down.) The problem with these after-death stories is then you have to expound on them: what is heaven like, who is allowed in, what happens to those who don't get in, what about animals, what actually happens there, etc. Really, it is so much easier to believe that each life is snuffed out.

Once you come to terms with your mortality, it is pretty easy to deal with the eventual extinction of homo sapiens, as well as the death of Earth itself. Yes it is sad to think about no one reading the old books or designing new art or creating new life-- the end of everything I find good and worthwhile-- but I'll be dead already so it won't affect me. That may sound selfish, but since I have absolutely no way to prevent this from happening, I must accept it. Better to accept with grace then to make up stories to comfort myself.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:55 AM on May 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


Is it inconceivable to you that the person speaking really is fine with their own mortality?

Yes.

And not just because of my own feelings on the matter. Look no further than something like Hamlet. We're not still enraptured with it just because of the clever wordplay. It's because its themes matter to us, big time. And mortality is one of its key themes.

I'm not saying that no one can be at peace with their mortality. I am saying that I've learned to be skeptical when I hear people emphatically claim that they are. I've just seen their subsequent actions betray their convictions a little too often.
posted by philip-random at 7:14 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love it, particularly the bit about the physicists and cosmologists being hard at work on the problem.

Religious people aren't even trying.
posted by empath at 7:25 AM on May 16, 2010


Of course religious people are trying to reconcile scientific method and their beliefs. What do you think Intelligent Design is? It's DUMB but at least they're trying.
posted by philip-random at 7:52 AM on May 16, 2010


Hold up a minute.

I'm not saying that no one can be at peace with their mortality. I am saying that I've learned to be skeptical when I hear people emphatically claim that they are. I've just seen their subsequent actions betray their convictions a little too often.

Then again, who better than that own person knows his or her mind? How are you so sure that what you're seeing as their "actions" are actually motivated by a fear of mortality?

I'm sorry, philip, but with this you're kind of showing the same kind of "I know you better than you know yourself" behavior that you're bristling at. And it's not fair.

And in return: Secret Life of Gravy, I suspect what koselitz finds silly is not the "I am not afraid of mortality" claim, but rather the follow up "and you are a fool to be afraid yourself." I personaly think it's silly to tell someone else what they are thinking, because -- you don't know. You do not know any other person's brain better than they themselves know, and it's silly to claim otherwise. So the "you are a fool to be afraid yourself" claim is itself pretty damn silly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:00 AM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


All else aside, Occam's Razor is the 'fair use' of theological argument - obviously useful and important, but lacking the legal/logical status of the law's positive claims and declarations.
posted by waxbanks at 8:10 AM on May 16, 2010


As far as Occam's Razor goes, I sometimes wish that everybody who talks about it actually had to read William of Occam. He's pretty damned good. And he happens to be a Franciscan theologian.
posted by koeselitz at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


"It is not religion's job to debunk science. That's like asking, "oh, yeah, remind us how many times Lady Gaga's music has successfully performed a heart transplant.""

Exactly! And it's not atheism's job to comfort people about death or the problem of love or whatever. Which is my primary puzzlement at this particular article and some of the comments in this thread about the failure of contemporary atheism.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:21 AM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


But we are never told why God is magically able to terminate regresses while needing no explanation himself. ... Complex, statistically improbable things, by definition, don't just happen; they demand an explanation in their own right. They are impotent to terminate regresses, in a way that simple things are not. The first cause cannot have been an intelligence... Intelligent, creative, complex, statistically improbable things come late into the universe, as the product of evolution or some other process of gradual escalation from simple beginnings.

Well, I don't think that's a necessity so much as an opinion. There's a fundamental difference between existence and the complexity of already existent things. Human beings can create plenty of things - out of what already exists. But we can't actually create the stuff itself. Matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed.

So the idea that the first thing that exists is "simple" and then escalates into intelligence still has to account for the fact that everything which exists is potentially inherent in that first simple cause. The first living thing can gather resources from the non-living elements in its vicinity, but the first existent 'thing' can't gather resources from non-existent elements. Everything which exists is already there, in some form.

Plenty of religions consider "god" to be simple, by the way - Aquinas calls god "infinitely simple" & says it appears infinitely complex to our limited minds... And being unified / indivisible, are ways of speaking of simplicity. There are a lot of ideas of existence as perfect in simplicity at the beginning and divided into complexity along the way. The only difference is that existence doesn't grow. It just changes. Is it becoming more than it originally was in some sense? Is it fulfilling a potential that was already there? Is it losing perfection by breaking into parts (like the hindu myth of Purusha)?

But what it really comes down to is, why is there something rather than nothing? It's not an easy question, and the religious opinion is essentially that when you think about it, it is beyond science. This is also Kant's answer - it's beyond reason. It is a paradox, impossible for the human mind to comprehend, how there could be something, and also how there could be not-something. Neither option makes sense, and thus science can't address it. But many humans still feel a need to consider it, which is the sort of void religion or spirituality fills. It provides a sense of meaning even though it can't provide a rational answer.

For the atheist, art or humanitarianism or even sports teams may fill this need for meaning instead. But those things aren't scientific either, and no one forces the sports fan to defend his cheering and wearing of a lucky tee shirt (and you can say sports is just "entertainment" but then you've never met a diehard fan - it is meaningful to some people). People seek meaning, and it isn't something that can be measured. It's felt and experienced, and we all find our own ways to look for it. Religion is one of them, probably the most direct way, depending on the mythology that is embraced along the way.

One hitch is, like Sartre says, once we realize our beliefs are beliefs, we no longer believe them - so while there are existentialist believers (who realize they made the choice to believe in things for the sake of meaning, rather than that they know things), many religious people do fear the conflict between empirical fact and personal truth, and so avoid science. I don't think it has to be this way, and clearly it isn't for plenty of religious people. Also, there are plenty of non-religious people who have no clue about science. I teach lower level college classes and a lot of my students consider themselves atheistic, but have no idea how old the earth is. It's not a creationist thing; just a difficulty imagining a world so drastically different from what they know.
posted by mdn at 8:33 AM on May 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


ME: I'm not saying that no one can be at peace with their mortality. I am saying that I've learned to be skeptical when I hear people emphatically claim that they are. I've just seen their subsequent actions betray their convictions a little too often.

EMPRESS: I'm sorry, philip, but with this you're kind of showing the same kind of "I know you better than you know yourself" behavior that you're bristling at. And it's not fair.

True, but only if I threw it in their face, which I wouldn't. Better just to smile sadly inside and not force the issue, particularly as I could well be wrong. But that doesn't change the fact that claims of certainty (about anything) do trigger skepticism in me, more or less as reflex. They must. I just have too much supporting experience over the decades for this not to be the case.
posted by philip-random at 8:46 AM on May 16, 2010


I'm not saying that no one can be at peace with their mortality. I am saying that I've learned to be skeptical when I hear people emphatically claim that they are. I've just seen their subsequent actions betray their convictions a little too often.

I can't counter this argument unless I know exactly what you mean. What actions? Foxhole conversions? Struggling against death? I can think of three good reasons off the top of my head to struggle against the dying of the light: fear of hurting my loved ones, vengeance, and/or curiosity. When my pain becomes more than equal to these things, I will happily accept death.

And in return: Secret Life of Gravy, I suspect what koselitz finds silly is not the "I am not afraid of mortality" claim, but rather the follow up "and you are a fool to be afraid yourself." I personaly think it's silly to tell someone else what they are thinking, because -- you don't know. You do not know any other person's brain better than they themselves know, and it's silly to claim otherwise. So the "you are a fool to be afraid yourself" claim is itself pretty damn silly

I think you are probably right, and I totally agree that you cannot tell people what they think.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:46 AM on May 16, 2010


Comforting Thought about Death That Have Nothing to do with God is an essay written by an atheist (she's a friend of mine). There was an fpp, but I can't find it at the moment.
posted by rtha at 8:49 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ah. It was an answer in an askme, not an fpp.
posted by rtha at 8:51 AM on May 16, 2010


I just feel that Science, by its own principles, has yet to successively debunk the entire notion of God and/or gods.

well, and but then you were all This kind of verbiage reminds of the kind of stuff you used to hear from the Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War, which statement seems rather rash considering science has pretty much kicked the ass of any other line of inquiry or reflection in terms of explaining the mysteries of life, and has done so over a very short time relative to the period over which the questions have been asked by us. science has successfully debunked the population notion of gods over and over, but religion keeps moving the line, considering their response to any scientific finding in conflict with their beliefs is along the line of blasphemer! blasphemer! blasphemer! liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar! ok, we'll give you that one, and by the way, here's is the way we're now reinterpreting the bible to cover our asses here.

It is not religion's job to debunk science.

i'd buy that if it weren't always trying so hard to do so. my favorite is dismissing a scientific principle by confidently telling us it is "just" a theory. but it's not science's job to debunk religion either. that it has done so over and over is just incidental. seriously, consider all the elements of knowledge over which religion has historically insisted it is authoritative (not to mention in a way declared inseparable from the rest of one's faith) that are now completely beyond its scope. and yet still, even in this century the pope has insisted that condoms cause aids--so somebody thinks debunking science is part of the job description.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just feel that Science, by its own principles, has yet to successively debunk the entire notion of God and/or gods.

Just specific manifestations of them.

Disease? Not God
Creation of Life? Not God
Lightning? Not God
The Sun and moon? Not God

Go ahead, make a stand anywhere and say 'this is what god is and what god does', and I can assure you that science will some day be along to knock him off that pedestal, too.

You can keep walking back god into the ever receding shadows of fear and ignorance, but god gets smaller and smaller as science encompasses more and more. Maybe one day we will find God whimpering in some far corner of the universe on the edge of time, saying 'please, please. Let me have this one mote of dust, this one elementary particle. Let one fragment of mystery remain to comfort the human soul. Leave one question unanswered.'
posted by empath at 10:06 AM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


... or like the dust mote universe in Horton Hears A Who, science eventually discovers ... oops, there's a whole lot more to it all than we could have conceived.
posted by philip-random at 10:35 AM on May 16, 2010


Not trying to be flip here, just doubting yours or my (or anybody else's) ability to ever map it all out, the Universe being not just vaster and stranger than we imagine but vaster and stranger than we can imagine.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


oops, there's a whole lot more to it all than we could have conceived.

And? That's just more science to be done. It surely wouldn't speak well for any particular religion. Which religion predicted 10 spacial dimensions?
posted by empath at 10:43 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


just more science to be done

too true, but who's to say God doesn't reveal Her nth dimensional reality through science?
posted by philip-random at 10:50 AM on May 16, 2010


too true, but who's to say God doesn't reveal Her nth dimensional reality through science?

religion.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:40 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


too true, but who's to say God doesn't reveal Her nth dimensional reality through science?

How does God do this? What's the theory you're proposing, here? Divine inspiration?
posted by empath at 11:44 AM on May 16, 2010


fallacy of the beard: “... science has pretty much kicked the ass of any other line of inquiry or reflection in terms of explaining the mysteries of life, and has done so over a very short time relative to the period over which the questions have been asked by us. science has successfully debunked the population notion of gods over and over, but religion keeps moving the line, considering their response to any scientific finding in conflict with their beliefs is along the line of blasphemer! blasphemer! blasphemer! liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar! ok, we'll give you that one, and by the way, here's is the way we're now reinterpreting the bible to cover our asses here.”

That's a sort of silly notion of what religion does. Honestly, it's the notion of religion promoted by enlightenment propaganda; it's not confirmed by any actual experience.

Most importantly, this inane statement that "religion keeps moving the line" is bullshit. The bible makes clear that faith can only be about things which can't be investigated by science or considered by reason; St Gregory and St Thomas Aquinas repeated this firmly and unequivocally. Nobody's moved any lines here.

But this is the key bit: most of the New Atheists are proponents of using science to do all sorts of things that it flatly can't do. This is what I meant above in saying that they aren't very scientific; their claims about what science is supposed to be able to do aren't rational, from the perspective of pure reason. It's quite fair to say that you think that it's only sentiment and wishful thinking that leads people to believe in God, and that that's not something you can do. But to say that science has debunked religion "over and over again" is an irrational misstatement of what science can and can't do. Moreover I constantly see "science" being conflated with "reason," and that shows a confusion about what we're talking about.

Look, let's be clear about this: science is a specific thing. It's the search for the principles by which the world works through an experimental exploration of repeatable phenomena. This search can have extraordinary results; it can lead us to a closer and closer approximation of the rules which govern almost every aspect of our lives, from the molecules within objects on up. But there are limits to the utility of this method of inquiry: our ability to be more certain of the principles at work diminishes as it becomes harder and harder for us to directly observe the phenomenon, and as it becomes harder and harder for us to watch it repeatedly. We live in a time when the sciences have been so perfected that speculative science has become the primary tool used on the forefront of most scientific disciplines. Over the past hundred years, we've increased our ability to observe and to repeat phenomena vastly, but there will always be some finite limit. We now try hard to extrapolate from the large body of observed phenomena we've accumulated to speculate about things like how the universe began and where plants and animals came from. It's important to note that as we move further and further from observable and repeatable phenomena through speculation, we move further away from science.

This is not to say that speculation about the beginning of the universe is irrational – only that it's not strictly scientific. And while some discoveries in this realm can help us make better guesses about these things, they are still very much guesses. Scientists in the field tend to accept this fact. Moreover, there are things in life about which it might be good to be rational, but which we simply can't be scientific. For one thing, it's impossible to experiment with marriage, and see whether we might prefer living the rest of our lives with one person rather than alone; this is something we have to reason about. And I think it's arguable that psychology in general isn't a strict science at all, though it uses some scientific methods. (I know that political science is largely a failure, and I think it's for many of the same reasons.)

More importantly for the issue at hand: science takes as first principles certain assumptions about the world. It presumes that the principles of existence can be extrapolated through the observation of repeatable phenomena; that is, it presumes that static principles govern the universe, at all times and places, and that these absolute principles are materially observable. (One might respond that, for example, science sometimes claims that the speed of light might seem to change; but even that statement assumes that there is some constant standard against which it can be said to change.) The point is that science takes as an assumption the notion that things like magic and miracles do not happen. It is irrational and unreasonable to claim that science can disprove what it assumes cannot occur in the first place. And this is not just a problem with science. Unfortunately, reason itself seems incapable of really and truly doing away with the silliest and most ridiculous superstitions. This is a real and perennial difficulty, I think.

I think this irrational praise of reason – the claim that it can do all sorts of things that it unfortunately can't seem to – has its source in Spinoza himself. In the chapter "On Miracles" of Spinoza's most important work, The Theologico-Political Treatise, he attempts to give a proof that miracles cannot occur; the proof which he gives is unfortunately very flawed, although he manages to make it somewhat convincing. I've since come to the conclusion that Spinoza himself know what he was doing, and understood that his proof against miracles was not a true proof; I think he was attempting to influence the minds of young and inquisitive people away from the church, and to give them a reason to believe in rationality over and against faith. I can see something very noble in this. But unfortunately that doesn't make the proof any more true.

I think that, to approach these problems reasonably, you have to appreciate the limits of our reasonable inquiry. There are some real problems with the thought of Pascal, but one thing I think he did well was to express the sense that human beings commonly get when they face the void: that lack of any kind of certitude about our own lives and how we ought to live them, about the world and everything in it, about the universe as it is. Atheism ought on this model to be a brave and noble acceptance of the void, and a confrontation of the fact that we don't know. The religious say they have faith in something apparently arbitrary; fine, noble atheism says, but how can you simply accept something arbitrary? It may seem dreary, it may seem frightening, it may be awe-inspiring and terrifying to gaze into the gaping maw of existence as a human being, but it's the only thing we really do if we're not prepared to swallow whole the apparently arbitrary dictates of a hokey mythical set of legends.

But this isn't the response of new atheism. When new atheism says that it has fully disproved religion, demonstrating soundly that there is no god like the one the Christians worship, that religious principles are false, etc, it isn't confronting the void. It's denying the void exists at all. And while I don't mind people being wrong, this is not in the spirit of the atheism of old that has always confronted religion; new atheism is easier, it's simpler, and yes, it's faddish. And it doesn't do justice to the noble atheism that honestly means a great deal to me personally.
posted by koeselitz at 11:46 AM on May 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


The bible makes clear that faith can only be about things which can't be investigated by science or considered by reason;

That is the line that keeps being moved, from what I've seen/read/heard.
posted by rtha at 12:09 PM on May 16, 2010


Who moved it? "Faith is the evidence of things not seen." It's hard for things to be clearer than that.
posted by koeselitz at 12:14 PM on May 16, 2010


Who moved it? "Faith is the evidence of things not seen." It's hard for things to be clearer than that.

i think it gets moved pretty much when some new shit gets seen.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 12:20 PM on May 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


So you're quoting the Bible to define words? That's the definition of "moving the goalposts".

But this isn't the response of new atheism. When new atheism says that it has fully disproved religion, demonstrating soundly that there is no god like the one the Christians worship, that religious principles are false, etc, it isn't confronting the void. It's denying the void exists at all. And while I don't mind people being wrong, this is not in the spirit of the atheism of old that has always confronted religion; new atheism is easier, it's simpler, and yes, it's faddish. And it doesn't do justice to the noble atheism that honestly means a great deal to me personally.

Is it because it's so final, or so confident is its finality?
posted by grubi at 12:22 PM on May 16, 2010


"What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all"

ok, so in the begining there was Heaven and God and the Angels and everything was perfect, as things are in heaven. satan was the highest angel and he rebelled against god and was thrown out and created hell for himself and the angels which supported him in his Putsch.

So here's the thing, how can there be rebellion against God in a perfect Heaven? How did God not know in advance (c.f. predestination) that Satan would do this?
posted by marienbad at 12:31 PM on May 16, 2010


And it doesn't do justice to the noble atheism that honestly means a great deal to me personally.

It wasn't noble atheism, it was atheists trying really hard to not get burned at the stake. It's smart to be polite when the other side is willing and able to murder you for disagreeing with them.

Feel free to replace 'burned at the stake'.
posted by empath at 12:44 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


...with 'not get fired' or whatever other retaliation that Christians mete out against non believers.
posted by empath at 12:45 PM on May 16, 2010


I mean, the point here is that for millenia, atheists have been forced to either hide their views, or constantly defend them, etc. And basically, fuck that noise. Atheism should be the default and the people positing gods and spirits should be the ones forced to defend their insupportable beliefs.

It's absurd that half of the country wouldn't even consider voting for an atheist for public office, but has no problem voting for an end-times and voodoo believing Bible thumper like Sarah Palin.

And I'll say this, that's not the fault of the atheists for speaking out too much or too forcefully. Quite the opposite.
posted by empath at 12:49 PM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


grubi: “So you're quoting the Bible to define words? That's the definition of ‘moving the goalposts’.”

I'm quoting the bible to illustrate what Christianity means by faith. What else should I be quoting to point up the central tenets of that religion?

“Is it because it's so final, or so confident is its finality?”

It's because it's not rational.

me: “Who moved it? "Faith is the evidence of things not seen." It's hard for things to be clearer than that.”

fallacy of the beard: “i think it gets moved pretty much when some new shit gets seen.”

The set of things that can potentially be seen has never changed. The only thing that's changed is the set of things that can actually be seen. This is not a trivial distinction. The fact remains that there are some things which can never and will never be seen, and those things are the same now as they were thousands of years ago. (And I'm not even the first to say this, either; as I said, St Gregory and St Thomas Aquinas made this very clear.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:02 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath: “I mean, the point here is that for millenia, atheists have been forced to either hide their views, or constantly defend them, etc. And basically, fuck that noise. Atheism should be the default and the people positing gods and spirits should be the ones forced to defend their insupportable beliefs.”

There is no way for really rational atheism to be the default. Society exists by virtue of common opinions, arbitrary opinions that rest on fiat assumptions. Those of us who are rational skeptics and atheists are viewed as a threat by society, because they question not only the existence of god but all the assumptions that people in general have made, and because they demand something more than a commonly accepted opinion.
posted by koeselitz at 1:21 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


But this isn't the response of new atheism. When new atheism says that it has fully disproved religion, demonstrating soundly that there is no god like the one the Christians worship, that religious principles are false, etc, it isn't confronting the void. It's denying the void exists at all.

Just as the author of the original article did, you are conflating the void with Christian responses to it. One can very easily confront the void while simultaneously rejecting Christian beliefs. The idea that one must begin with Christianity (or religion in general) in order to "face the void" is, quite frankly, bizarre... especially since many atheists were never Christian and/or religious to begin with.

The void implies a "lack of any kind of certitude about our own lives and how we ought to live them, about the world and everything in it, about the universe as it is"... yet you want to impose a very specific set of requirements on "bravely and nobly" facing it, and then simultaneously claim that others are "wrong" for suggesting a different approach to facing it. Why? You go so far as to conflate the idea that "religious principles are false" with denying the void itself, despite the fact that the void does not come with any religious principles written across it -- why? What makes the religious approach to this problem any more intrinsic than an atheistic approach, or a scientific approach, a philosophical approach, a mystical/spiritual approach, etc? What makes the atheist rejection of the Christian approach to this problem "easy" and "simple" and "faddish", while the Christian rejection of the Roman approach was (presumably) not?

You may conflate the void with religion, but others do not... and the void being "a lack of any kind of certitude", neither you nor they have precedence. And as I said above, I think the New Atheist movement is simply too new to be judged this way. They're still busy tearing down Christianity; they haven't even got to the void yet. Give them more than five minutes into the first quarter before you blow the whistle... unless, of course, you're already worried about the score?

Besides, you are overstating the New Atheist case, here. Dawkins' book openly acknowledges that you cannot "fully disprove" the Christian God; the revolution here is the fact that it also acknowledges that nobody has to: they merely need to show that the existence of such a God is an unnecessary hypothesis which is sufficiently unlikely to be true. This isn't "easy", "simple", or "faddish", especially with respect to mainstream thought about religion... but to extend the football metaphor a bit, it is one hell of a lateral play.
posted by vorfeed at 1:30 PM on May 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's because it's not rational.

New Atheism isn't rational? The idea that there are no gods and vocally taking that position isn't rational?

I'm afraid you're taking this way too personally at this point if you honestly think that.
posted by grubi at 1:36 PM on May 16, 2010


The set of things that can potentially be seen has never changed. The only thing that's changed is the set of things that can actually be seen.

And religion, as it functions in the West, at least, has done little to add to this set, and in fact has done much to try to keep things from being added to it. I mean, you can say that in the set of things that can now be seen is (for instance) evidence that we share a common ancestor with great apes. But there are still an awful lot of people who call themselves Christian who deny this, and who say they have faith that God created humans. All to often a "faith in things not seen" is really a "faith in things that I will cover my eyes in order not to see because it contradicts what I have been told is the Word of God."

I agree that faith is not rational. And I'm fine with that, generally speaking. But I wish that people would stop trying to make laws and policy based on that faith. It's bad for all of us.
posted by rtha at 1:41 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


grubi: “New Atheism isn't rational? The idea that there are no gods and vocally taking that position isn't rational?”

This is apparently a semantic issue. There's nothing irrational about saying that there are no gods.
posted by koeselitz at 1:57 PM on May 16, 2010


The set of things that can potentially be seen has never changed. The only thing that's changed is the set of things that can actually be seen.

And if you asked religious people throughout history what is in which set, they've been consistently wrong.
posted by empath at 2:02 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath: “And if you asked religious people throughout history what is in which set, they've been consistently wrong.”

This is not true. Church teaching has not changed on this issue. St Thomas Aquinas was very clear on it, and his statements on the matter form the basis of Catholic teaching; Orthodox teaching has generally been similar. I grant that the protestants have gotten things pretty confused sometimes, but by and large they haven't been that different.
posted by koeselitz at 2:08 PM on May 16, 2010


So you're saying it's irrational to be vocal about atheism?
posted by grubi at 2:14 PM on May 16, 2010


grubi: “So you're saying it's irrational to be vocal about atheism?”

Nope.
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2010


This is not true. Church teaching has not changed on this issue. St Thomas Aquinas was very clear on it, and his statements on the matter form the basis of Catholic teaching; Orthodox teaching has generally been similar. I grant that the protestants have gotten things pretty confused sometimes, but by and large they haven't been that different.

Oh, now you need to be specific. Please quote what you are referring to.
posted by empath at 2:23 PM on May 16, 2010


Well, I guess it could be. But all I meant was that so-called "new atheism" is irrational. I meant that I don't think it's very skeptical.
posted by koeselitz at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2010


So here's the thing, how can there be rebellion against God in a perfect Heaven? How did God not know in advance (c.f. predestination) that Satan would do this?

Don't know about the predestination bit (probably something to do with weird ju-ju on the sub-quantal level) but, as I heard it put recently, Satan (aka Lucifer the Morning Star) was God's fave, but then God created man and suddenly had a new favorite, so Satan got jealous and raised a ruckus, so God eventually tossed him out of heaven, and down he fell, settling in Hell, which leaves us, mankind, stuck in the middle, the material realm in between ... and it's been a battleground ever since.

Kind of like this thread.
posted by philip-random at 2:26 PM on May 16, 2010


Actually, I take that last bit back. This thread hasn't been so bad.
posted by philip-random at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2010


but, as I heard it put recently, Satan (aka Lucifer the Morning Star) was God's fave, but then God created man and suddenly had a new favorite, so Satan got jealous and raised a ruckus

We're getting theological lessons from Christopher Walken's THE PROPHECY now?
posted by Justinian at 2:31 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


>It is not religion's job to debunk science.

i'd buy that if it weren't always trying so hard to do so.


Ah, but religion isn't trying to do that. It is certain religious people who are doing that.

And my belief is that it isn't religion itself that is making those people use religion to a purpose unsuited, it is something within those people doing that. Kind of like how someone may try using a knife to punch open a tin can if they don't know any better than to think, "wait, I'm supposed to use a can opener for this." I mean, if someone hurts themselves becuase they tried to open a can with a knife, you're not going to say "knives are dangerous because people use them to open cans", right? You'd think, "that guy was an idiot not to use a can opener."

This is similar. You're looking at people and saying "religion is trying to debunk science," but a more accurate position, to my mind, would be, "those people are using religion the wrong way."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:36 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


it [new atheism] isn't confronting the void. It's denying the void exists at all. And while I don't mind people being wrong, this is not in the spirit of the atheism of old that has always confronted religion; new atheism is easier, it's simpler, and yes, it's faddish. And it doesn't do justice to the noble atheism that honestly means a great deal to me personally.

More to the point, it doesn't do justice to the FUCKING VOID, which trust me, does exist. No I can't scientifically prove it. Nevertheless, I have spent a season or two there, an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone, yet many, many of us have had it. So yes, consider me deeply skeptical (and critical) of any cultural force that would willfully, gleefully tear down existing cultural forms which do, on some level, exist to help us deal with the very real and baleful oblivion that is the VOID.

Or in layman's terms, don't go throwing out the baby with the bath water.
posted by philip-random at 2:43 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


And it's not atheism's job to comfort people about death or the problem of love or whatever. Which is my primary puzzlement at this particular article and some of the comments in this thread about the failure of contemporary atheism.

....Yes and no, to my mind. Yes, there is no grand Uniform Position Of Atheism On Topic X Y Or Z, but...I think there's still some gray area. Because some people are comforted by the idea that there is no afterlife, and some people are heartened by the fact that there is no Supreme Being guiding anyone's actions and that it is the inherant nobility within some people that makes them act well. And that's okay.

But I think the danger here is that some people can conflate the "it's not atheism's job to comfort people about death" with "atheists ARE INCAPABLE of morality," or something like that, which I personally believe is total bullshit. Morality, emotions, how to cope with awe and wonder, all that -- that is more the purview of "religion," to my mind, but that doesn't mean atheists don't do that. They just express that in a way that doesn't involve a Supreme Being. Which...sounds to me like an argument FOR the fact that atheism CAN comfort people about death. It's not a Stated Purpose, but it's not something it's incapable of doing either.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:43 PM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


ME: but, as I heard it put recently, Satan (aka Lucifer the Morning Star) was God's fave, but then God created man and suddenly had a new favorite, so Satan got jealous and raised a ruckus

Justinian: We're getting theological lessons from Christopher Walken's THE PROPHECY now?

Haven't seen it but maybe John (the guy I was talking to) had. I doubt it though. He's more into foreign and art films, and high-end academia (creation myths etc) ... and single malt Scotch. Definitely likes his single malt.
posted by philip-random at 2:47 PM on May 16, 2010


Satan (aka Lucifer the Morning Star) was God's fave, but then God created man and suddenly had a new favorite, so Satan got jealous and raised a ruckus

I forget if that's exactly how it goes but it sounds like Paradise Lost to me.
posted by furiousthought at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2010


You're looking at people and saying "religion is trying to debunk science," but a more accurate position, to my mind, would be, "those people are using religion the wrong way."

Look, not many atheists are going to quibble with religious people if they limit their faith to believing in some abstract, infinite being that exists entirely outside of space and time and doesn't interfere in human affairs. Hell, you can even believe in an afterlife, if you like, if its entirely one way.

That faith is entirely indistinguishable from atheism in any practical sense. It literally says nothing meaningful about the world we actually live in.

The problem atheists have with religious people is that they simply don't limit themselves to that. They believe in holy scriptures, and divine inspiration, and miracles and angels and the power of prayer, and moral codes deriving their force from some supposed divine being. They know what God wants and what God wants YOU to do.

Those are physical claims about the nature of reality, and should be subject to argument and debate, and should require some form of proof.
posted by empath at 3:01 PM on May 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


The problem atheists have with religious people is that they simply don't limit themselves to that. They believe in holy scriptures, and divine inspiration, and miracles and angels and the power of prayer, and moral codes deriving their force from some supposed divine being. They know what God wants and what God wants YOU to do.

I am not denying that SOME religious people do this. I am only objecting to the claim that ALL religious people do this, and I am objecting to the claim that it is the fault OF religion that makes these people do this.

You're right that not many atheists are going to quibble with religious people if they limit their faith to believing in an abstract supreme being or an afterlife. But it sounds like you're ALSO claiming that there aren't religious people who DO EXACTLY this. And there are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:03 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a matter of fact, empath, I'm one of them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2010


and I'm an areligious person who limits my skeptical wondering (wanderings?) to questions of afterlife, supreme being and, of course, all that subquantum stuff.

"I am inclined to believe in telepathy," Albert Einstein once said, "but I suspect it has more to do with physics than with psychology." When Einstein said this back in the Twenties, nobody in either physics or psychology understood what he was suggesting. Today, new breakthroughs in a far-out branch of physics called Quantum Theory indicate that Einstein was, as usual, fifty years ahead of his contemporaries. These new discoveries seem to offer a single scientific explanation for all the weird events that parapsychologists have classified under such conflicting labels as ESP, direct-brain perception, clairvoyance, distant viewing, psychokinesis, out-of-body experience, and cosmic consciousness (Illumination).

And so on.
posted by philip-random at 5:14 PM on May 16, 2010


I close these expositions, which have grown rather lengthy, concerning the interpretation of quantum theory with the reproduction of a brief conversation which I had with an important theoretical physicist. He: "I am inclined to believe in telepathy." I: "This has probably more to do with physics than with psychology." He: "Yes."

That's the actual quote from Einstein. Note, he did not say he was inclined to believe in telepathy.
posted by empath at 5:23 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a matter of fact, empath, I'm one of them.

I believe you. You're not the type of religious person that I think any of the NA's take issue with. All they'd suggest to you is that your life would barely change if you stopped believing in God entirely, but I doubt they'd consider you stupid or deluded. I don't really think there's anything particularly wrong with that kind of belief, I just think its unnecessary.
posted by empath at 5:35 PM on May 16, 2010


empath: “Oh, now you need to be specific. Please quote what you are referring to.”

This is a major theme of the passages on faith in St Thomas' Summa Theologiae, and it's even better explicated in his commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate. Moreover, he deals with these things in his commentaries on Aristotle, and that makes sense, considering that a lot of these things are things he considered while reading Aristotle. Aristotle, by the way, also had a complete idea of the potential objects of perception, and would not find himself having to change his views on the subject when confronted with the modern world. There was debate going back a long, long time about these things; about what does and does not admit of perception, about what matter is. Aristotle comprehended full well that there are things that might not be perceptible immediately, because they're just too small, and that, given certain tools, we might be able to perceive them. Anyone who's ever really looked at very small things – dust motes, grains of sand, et cetera – is aware of this, aren't they? There were people in Aristotle's time that, for example, argued that hunger is just made up of tiny, tiny particles that no one can see; Aristotle said rightly that this was preposterous, given that hunger clearly seems to be a kind of condition.

“The problem atheists have with religious people is that they simply don't limit themselves to that. They believe in holy scriptures, and divine inspiration, and miracles and angels and the power of prayer, and moral codes deriving their force from some supposed divine being. They know what God wants and what God wants YOU to do. ¶ Those are physical claims about the nature of reality, and should be subject to argument and debate, and should require some form of proof.”

How in the world are those physical claims about the nature of reality?

And I'm happy to agree that they should be subject to argument and debate – by the way, this was by and large the major theme of St Thomas Aquinas' work: that faith should be discursive and dialectical, that faith requires a discussion, that debate and disagreement is natural to faith. He welcomed those things into the church, and argued that they should be given a place of pride, because he believed that they're essential to what faith is.

I'd also like it if there can be some sort of proof about the objects of faith. But what would that look like? How can there be proof of things which are not observable, not repeatable, and not objects of our experience in any way?
posted by koeselitz at 6:10 PM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


That's the actual quote from Einstein. Note, he did not say he was inclined to believe in telepathy.

Yet he instantly saw how it might be connected to the "new physics" of the moment, rather than just shut the notion down.

Myself, I feel about the same about telepathy as I do about astrology. That is, I can see the logic (ie: in the case of astrology, how couldn't the relative balances and imbalances of the entire cosmos affect us?) but I call bullshit on anyone who says they can read this logic, and apply it. I certainly trust science a helluva lot more.
posted by philip-random at 6:15 PM on May 16, 2010


How in the world are those physical claims about the nature of reality?

I'll just take one. How did the Bible get written, was it written by God, inspired by God? Okay, well now we are into consciousness and psychology and the nature of creativity, which are questions which science is equipped to answer, and will some day answer. I suspect that divine inspiration doesn't enter into it.

How does God cause miracles to happen, what's the proposed mechanism for action? What impact would the existence of effects without physical causes have on the universe?

Again, these are all physical claims. Unless, as I've said, you make no claims that God has any relevance to human existence, in which case, fine.
posted by empath at 6:32 PM on May 16, 2010


I made a few comments way up top that might lead people to believe I'm a believer. I really wanna clear this up.

I'm an atheist.

But Christians don't bother me. I was raised a Catholic and went to a Christian Brothers school. Nearly all the Christians I know are OK people, if not top-shelf people. A priest never tried to insert anything in my bottom, nor my friends' bottoms.

Naturally I find Christians misguided. But no more misguided than someone who is totally into NBA, or sci-fi or fantasy, or fanatical about "their boy" Obama, or chasing women, or their career. Etc etc.

That's why I've got a problem with knee jerk anti Christian people.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:35 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Erm.

Although I can't really explain our conscious, or "life force," or whatever you want to call it. And if I think of physics and the conservation of energy – where energy can't be destroyed, it just changes and gets dispersed... so maybe our conscious lives on when we die?

Except it is dispersed around the universe and it's not whole so you're not really "me" any more. So it's not much better than the atheists' "worm food" theory, is it?

Has that theory been put forward in a similar form before? Surely it has. Does that make me agnostic?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:54 PM on May 16, 2010


You're not the type of religious person that I think any of the NA's take issue with. All they'd suggest to you is that your life would barely change if you stopped believing in God entirely, but I doubt they'd consider you stupid or deluded. I don't really think there's anything particularly wrong with that kind of belief, I just think its unnecessary.

If you acknowledge that there are "types" of religious people, then can you explain why so many of those who complain about "religious people" do not clarifiy that they are only speaking about certain "types" of people?

Because that is my own biggest complaint -- that there are some people -- note I'm not specifiying that they are NA's, or atheists, or anything, but rather some PEOPLE -- who do NOT seem to acknowledge that there are different "types of religious people." There ARE some people who DO consider me stupid and deluded simply by virtue of my beliefs. There ARE some people who DO believe their own beliefs are more correct than any others. There ARE some people who do NOT differentiate between one type of religous person and another, but dismiss them all equally.

Can you explain why they might do that?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath: “I'll just take one. How did the Bible get written, was it written by God, inspired by God? Okay, well now we are into consciousness and psychology and the nature of creativity, which are questions which science is equipped to answer, and will some day answer. I suspect that divine inspiration doesn't enter into it.”

Science will some day be able to answer a question about the brain chemistry and general outlook of various people that lived thousands of years ago? Not likely. And even if it could, the point is that religious phenomena is not observable. I know this is maddening, but follow it through, and consider the outcome. You can show a religious person the neurons firing in a prophet's brain – you can show that person the direct links that flow from one place to the other as a person sits and writes the bible. The religious person will still say: "well, yes, of course it's like that. That's exactly what God meant to do. It's part of his plan for producing the bible." And as fantastically annoying as that may be, there's really no answer to them.

“How does God cause miracles to happen, what's the proposed mechanism for action? What impact would the existence of effects without physical causes have on the universe?”

I mentioned Spinoza's attempted argument against miracles above; I think this is an important point. There is no way – flatly no way – for science to disprove miracles, simply because science presupposes that miracles don't happen. And that's fine, but it's an assumption. Science assumes, as a matter of course, that the same absolute principles are always maintained by the universe. The believe in miracles assumes that sometimes those absolute principles are abrogated.

In other words: there is no mechanism. Miracles, if they do happen, just happen. They have no cause but God.

empath: “Again, these are all physical claims. Unless, as I've said, you make no claims that God has any relevance to human existence, in which case, fine.”

Physical things are not the only things which have relevance to human existence.
posted by koeselitz at 7:08 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I know what the Bible says about Atheism.

Citation needed.
posted by Splunge at 7:23 PM on May 16, 2010


This is nonsense. Western atheists attack Christianity first and foremost because a) Christianity dominates Western culture and b) they tend to live in countries where they can do so free of assault on their person and on their rights (the odd European country with idiotic blasphemy laws notwithstanding). There exist atheist movements in non-Western cultures; we don't tend to hear about them very much in the West for what should be fairly obvious reasons. India actually has a very active atheist/skeptical community who occasionally get some attention; they generally criticise Buddhism and Hinduism, because (*gasp!*) those are the beliefs which are relevant to the culture they exist in. they are pussies.

I'm speaking from an Australian perspective obviously, but the biggest loud mouth I-have-an-invisible-friend-in-the-sky loonie we've got at the moment is the Muslim Mufti in Sydney, closely followed by his shit stirring mate, Keysar Trad [who have overtaken the loud-mouth Christian loonie, Fred Nile, IMHO].

I'm not buying your horseshit argument that this debate belongs in "non Western cultures."
Australia hasn't [yet] got the 'nads to do what the Dutch are doing.

The whole "atheists are sissies!" nonsense is stupid.

I agree. Not a strong enough term. They're pussies.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:24 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like everyone who is a believer here on MeFi to do me a favor. It's simple and shouldn't change your usual daily life.

Pray for me. Pray to your god whoever he or she is. I do not care what your religion is. Pray that I see the light. Or the darkness.

It shouldn't matter. Only one group is praying to the true god. And the group that is praying to the true god has a direct line, right?

So.

Pray that I get whatever god that you believe in. Pray as hard and as strong as you can. If I get your god in my heart of hearts, you have changed a sinner into a believer. You have done what you are here on Earth for.

Those of you that believe in miracles should consider this a slam dunk.

If you don't do it, well... You might reconsider your core beliefs.

Then you do not believe that you can petition your Lord with prayer.

Is your god strong enough to change me? I'm going to leave myself open to change. I am very serious.

Go for it.

Or don't. You have a possible convert here asking for a miracle. And even if I'm just joking, isn't your god stronger than me? Stronger than my derision?

You can post here if you do it or just do it silently. Or go to your house of worship and ask aloud.

Just do it.

I'll let you know what happens.

Okay?
posted by Splunge at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2010


Splunge: “I'd like everyone who is a believer here on MeFi to do me a favor. It's simple and shouldn't change your usual daily life. Pray for me. Pray to your god whoever he or she is. I do not care what your religion is. Pray that I see the light. Or the darkness... Those of you that believe in miracles should consider this a slam dunk. If you don't do it, well... You might reconsider your core beliefs.”

When you start to sound like a televangelist, you might want to reconsider your core beliefs as an atheist.
posted by koeselitz at 7:44 PM on May 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


When you start to sound like a televangelist, you might want to reconsider your core beliefs as an atheist.

This is an experiment. Shush.
posted by Splunge at 7:49 PM on May 16, 2010


posted by Splunge

You sure have been screaming a lot here. Is this the first time you've felt liberated enough to trash religion on the internet? Big man.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


You sure have been screaming a lot here. Is this the first time you've felt liberated enough to trash religion on the internet? Big man.

What? Did something I wrote hit a nerve?

Screaming? No I don't think so. You seem to be upset. If something that I wrote upset you, I apologize.

So will you be praying for me?
posted by Splunge at 7:56 PM on May 16, 2010


So will you be praying for me?

No.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:01 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why not?
posted by Splunge at 8:03 PM on May 16, 2010


"I agree. Not a strong enough term. They're pussies."

yes we are awesome but I don't know if we're that awesome, I mean, we vary from person to person
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:05 PM on May 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


This has been a good thread for the most part so if you want to have an argument about asshole atheists (who mostly aren't here and no, we other atheists should not be expected to have any special knowledge about why some atheists are assholes and think you're dumb) or criticize people's commenting frequency and/or style, or make weird dares at religious people, why don't you go head on over where the rest of us don't have to see you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:10 PM on May 16, 2010


or make weird dares at religious people

Is asking people to pray a weird dare? Then you are calling the basis of their religion weird. Thanks momma mod. I'll leave now.

You made my point.

I'm out of here.

Not because I think I'm wrong, but because you personally don't like it.

Happy?
posted by Splunge at 8:20 PM on May 16, 2010


“I'd like everyone who is a believer here on MeFi to do me a favor. It's simple and shouldn't change your usual daily life. Pray for me. Pray to your god whoever he or she is. I do not care what your religion is. Pray that I see the light. Or the darkness... Those of you that believe in miracles should consider this a slam dunk. If you don't do it, well... You might reconsider your core beliefs.”

Man, ok, I have kept out of this thread because it's not about me -- as a person of faith I get to sit in the comfy American majority, get a lot of cultural privilege, etc.

But, like, ok, seriously, that's so needlessly offensive, and a straw man: do this thing I told you to do, and if you don't do it, you don't really love God like you think you do, hypocrite!

Not that anyone asked, but I'm a Unitarian and so I'm pretty sure that there's something going on in terms of a God but I also don't think you have to believe any particular thing to get to goodness after you die. I like my faith because it works for me and it reminds me to be a good person. Lots of people don't need that. I think I do, and so I'm glad it's there.

So I'm gonna pray for you, dude, but not so you'll "see the light" or "see the darkness." I'm gonna pray for you because I like to pray for people, and because I think it adds to a general cosmic +1 karma goodness. Why not?
posted by harperpitt at 8:33 PM on May 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Splunge: “Is asking people to pray a weird dare?”

Yes. Asking people to do something that they see as sacred in a condescending "experiment" which you apparently intend to prove that everything that they think is sacred is shit is a "weird dare." If you're just here to act out your irrational anger, maybe it's better if you shush.
posted by koeselitz at 8:41 PM on May 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


See, this is what monstrous and stupid new atheist Sam Harris is talking about when he says that criticism of religion is out of bounds. You can't ask religious people to put up or shut up because then you're an irrationally angry person with a weird dare.

If prayer isn't just a form of meditation that affects only the self, if you're actually communicating something to some entity that has the capacity to respond to your heartfelt desires, then perhaps a little demonstration is in order. No one on MeFi seems to mind when this standard is applied to homeopathy or chiropractic.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:29 PM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pray for me. Pray to your god whoever he or she is.

I'm soooo there.

I am also gonna pray that you stop self linking, splunge.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:05 PM on May 16, 2010


fleetmouse: “You can't ask religious people to put up or shut up because then you're an irrationally angry person with a weird dare.”

Asking anyone to put up or shut up is pretty damned unfair, and not in the spirit of true inquiry. It betrays a distinctly irrational passion about the subject.

fleetmouse: “If prayer isn't just a form of meditation that affects only the self, if you're actually communicating something to some entity that has the capacity to respond to your heartfelt desires, then perhaps a little demonstration is in order.”

*sigh* All right, I'll explain why this challenge makes no sense, and indicates that you and Splurge here don't have any idea what people mean when they talk about prayer:

Prayer is meant to be a kind of communing with God. It isn't supposed to be a chance for us to ask for stuff. Yes, traditionally hopes and desires are listed, but they're supposed to be our highest hopes and desires as human beings; and they're listed during a prayer not to ask God to do stuff for us, but so that we can attempt to make our hopes and desires the same as God's knowing. Calling up an infinite, divine, and all-powerful being and asking for stuff would be ridiculously stupid; why would a divine being like that want to grant wishes? Moreover, if that being were really and truly all-powerful, overseeing all actions of the universe, why would that being be silly enough to bow to the momentary temporal whims of just one particular creature? It would be foolish. No, prayer is not for testing things like this.

I want to point out, as well, that if this little 'experiment' actually worked, it would be a proof against the existence of God. If, every time we prayed for a particular thing a particular way, it came true – it would be evidence against an intelligent mind at work behind the universe listening to our prayers. It would be a reverse Turing test; it would be akin to moments when scientists discover a regular effect and begin looking for a cause. If a certain kind of prayer always caused a certain effect, it would be evidence of a mechanical process, not of a divine being.
posted by koeselitz at 10:11 PM on May 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


I am also gonna pray that you stop self linking, splunge.

That was stupid. Extremely stupid. MetaTalk banhammer worthy. It made exactly 0% sense.

I'm drunk. I'm gonna stop commenting on this thread.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:24 PM on May 16, 2010


And while I'm at it, I want to talk about what Christianity means. Yes, this is particular to just one religion, but I think it's worth saying.

There's been a lot of scoffing about a big guy in the sky, or a miraculous dude with a mother who didn't have sex and who did this kind of happy come-back-to-life thing after getting strung up and tortured to death. Atheist don't often understand, I think, the sense of all this arbitrary stuff that seems to be a very, very silly story to them. I appreciate how odd it may seem; and Christianity in particular seems to revel in its oddness. The Christ himself played at this a good deal during his lifetime; he told people to eat his body and drink his blood, for his sake. Frithjof Schuon has said that this is because Christianity, more than any other religion, plays with the shifting distinction between the inner and the outer. In Islam, in Judaism, these things are much clearer;* stories and legends are just that, and miracles and signs, while they may take place, are not central, but only part of the system. Christianity mucks all of this up by asking you to believe in a miracle as the central fact of the whole thing, as the most essential thing about it. Islam is a man who claims to be God's prophet, and who speaks in incredibly lofty and intellectually brilliant verses which by their beauty and truth demand assent; Judaism is a meditation on what God's nation means, and what the highest and most just things are. But Christianity doesn't give you any of that; it says, up front, "this man was a man-god born of a virgin who did a whole bunch of little miracles and then rose from the dead." It is scandalous in this way: it insists on the literal truth of something that should be a legend.

But what does it mean?

It means that the absolute and infinite saturates and penetrates every moment of existence. It means that the whole of eternity is present in a single day of our lives, and that this eternity which is born to us is present and available to us if we're willing to be open to it. There is a misconception that the doctors of the church taught that the Christ was God become a human; in actuality, Christ is God become humanity, and our very capacity to be human. The finite, the limited, the temporal, is a reflection, an emanation of the infinite, eternal, absolute; it is limited, but it exists in a relation to the unlimited. The infinite is available and present to us, if we're willing to be open to it. This is why rational thought is possible: we can apparently consider and contemplate the absolute realities involved in rational thought (even the most mundane rational thought) because the infinite seems to be available to us, even though we are clearly finite creatures. This is why they hang images of the stations of the cross in churches: because the Church teaches us that these things happen eternally within us. For all of eternity, the Christ is born within us; for all of eternity, the Christ is crucified within us; for all of eternity, the Christ rises again within us.

When we open ourselves to the infinite, our moral concerns with other human beings melt. One of the scandals of Christianity is that it stood as a bulwark against shame; there are still people who try to change this, but they still fail. When the conduit to the infinite is opened more fully, the petty limitation which shame represents falls away from us. In my favorite chapter in the bible, John 9, the Christ heals a man born blind. The man born blind is told later that the man who healed him was a sinner. "Whether he was a sinner, I don't know," he says. "One thing I know: I was blind, and now I see." One of the purposes of the opening of the mind to the infinite is the falling away of the bonds of the category of sin. All that matters in the light of the infinite is sight.

Christianity notoriously insists on its central fact: the Godhood, the death and the resurrection of the Christ. It insists strenuously on this point, so strenuously that some of its adherents emphasize it as exclusivity. Aspects of Moses' life are debated within Judaism; aspects of Muhammad's life are debated within Islam; but Christianity makes particular insistence on various aspects of the Christ's life. Why? Because the central fact of Christianity is the reality that the eternal and absolute meets everywhere and always with the temporal and finite. If the story about the eternal and absolute meeting the temporal and finite is just a metaphor, then it lacks meaning entirely; if it's merely a metaphor that God descends infinitely and eternally into the life of man, then everything that that represents means nothing. The point is that the eternal is really eternally present to limited creatures like us.

Maybe all of this seems like abstract wankery to all of you atheists out there, but I honestly want to at least make an effort to make it comprehensible. I know that for you it must seem utterly ridiculous that people would even want to go on and on about this folky superstitious nonsense; and I can see why. I only want to point out that really and truly represents a belief structure which encompasses a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe and how we approach it; the sense I get is that it seems like a clinging to a superstition from the outside, as you're seeing it, whereas to me it often appears to be the sum and source of human knowledge and insight.

_______________________________
*I do not mean to insult or malign Judaism or Islam here. I am neither a Jew nor a Muslim, but these traditions are very valuable to me. When I characterize them in the way I do here, I'm doing so in order to explore their character and the character of my tradition, not to indicate that they are false or mistaken.
posted by koeselitz at 10:48 PM on May 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


Er... don't know what's going on there, uncanny, but... yeah. Ease off a bit, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 10:49 PM on May 16, 2010


However, some of these "new atheist" types are pretty annoying too. Especially guys like Hitchens who just attack religion.

Hitchens is well educated and very smart, but he drinks too much. I think he'd be less acerbic and more scholarly if he didn't, but perhaps not. In any event, he romanticizes drinking so he's unlikely to stop.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:52 PM on May 16, 2010


a prayer for splunge ... because everybody loves you.
posted by philip-random at 11:07 PM on May 16, 2010


If, every time we prayed for a particular thing a particular way, it came true – it would be evidence against an intelligent mind at work behind the universe listening to our prayers.

Well, what you are describing isn't so much prayer as it is spell-casting, which wouldn't have any more to say against a supreme being than any other physical phenomena, I don't think.
posted by furiousthought at 11:28 PM on May 16, 2010


True. I only meant - it'd be evidence against believing that whatever it is we were praying to was at all intelligent.
posted by koeselitz at 11:31 PM on May 16, 2010


I want to point out, as well, that if this little 'experiment' actually worked, it would be a proof against the existence of God. If, every time we prayed for a particular thing a particular way, it came true – it would be evidence against an intelligent mind at work behind the universe listening to our prayers.

The reverse, however, is also true. If prayers are not "granted" over the long term any more often than random chance would dictate it is pretty good evidence that either God does not exist or he doesn't give a shit about prayers.
posted by Justinian at 1:23 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


if you want to have an argument about asshole atheists (who mostly aren't here and no, we other atheists should not be expected to have any special knowledge about why some atheists are assholes and think you're dumb) or criticize people's commenting frequency and/or style, or make weird dares at religious people, why don't you go head on over where the rest of us don't have to see you.

Thank you, dear, but I think I'll stay.

Especially since it sounds like splunge IS acting like one of those "asshole atheists" you're talking about.

Speaking of which, Splunge, if you're still here (and something tells me you may be):

If you don't do it, well... You might reconsider your core beliefs. Then you do not believe that you can petition your Lord with prayer.

Firstly, many of the people who DO believe you can petition the Supreme Being with prayer also understand that sometimes the Supreme Being answers questions by saying "No, I'm not going to do that".

Secondly, no, not every theist believes that you can petition God with prayer.

Thirdly, the God I personally believe in actually doesn't care that you're atheist. However, the God I believe in is a little annoyed that you're being something of a jackass right now, and is hoping that you get the hell over your attitude. Be an atheist if you want, God thinks, but don't be a shit about it, is all He cares about.

So no, I'm not going to pray for you, because I don't care if you convert -- and I don't believe God does either. And I'm also a little insulted that you think religion is nothing more than a parlor trick. Are your own opinions so cheap that you'd want to see people try to do stunts with them?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:46 AM on May 17, 2010


I've read The Selfish Gene, yes, but it doesn't constitute any real work being done in the field

It was written in the 1970s so is probably a bit out of touch with that. But then, it's not a scientific paper, it's attempt to explain the world based on the latest scientific thinking. The idea of the selfish gene - that we and the rest of life are basically robots created through an enormous process of trial and error in order to propogate a string of tiny replicators - is one of the deepest and most radical and I've ever read, and one I would never have encountered without Dawkins.

It certainly a little bit more challenging than 'I just feel God is true'. I can't wait till we know more about how the universe works, where it came from, why tiny things behave differently to big things, all of it. What questions are bigger than those?

When are we going to start being called Nu Atheists?
posted by Summer at 4:43 AM on May 17, 2010


Asking anyone to put up or shut up is pretty damned unfair

No, it's merely blunt.

and not in the spirit of true inquiry. It betrays a distinctly irrational passion about the subject.

That's it, play the offended card. There's something wrong with people who ask you to support your ideas.

Prayer is meant to be a kind of communing with God. It isn't supposed to be a chance for us to ask for stuff.

Where are you getting that? Certainly not the Bible: Luke 11:9 And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. I don't know about you but if I were ordering pizza from a take out with that motto I'd expect an extra large pie at least once in a while. Or else I'd start ordering somewhere else, loyalty be damned. Have you looked into Voodoo?

While we're on the subject, aren't you supposed to be able to drink poison and handle serpents without harm, and heal with a touch? Let's see some of that action: (Mark 16:15-18 NIV) He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. {16} Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. {17} And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; {18} they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."

I want to point out, as well, that if this little 'experiment' actually worked, it would be a proof against the existence of God.

Oho! So now miracles and answered prayers are evidence against God? That's a neat trick. By the same token, the lack of evidence for New World Order reptoids is evidence for them. Because, you know, they're so darn slippery and slithery. Bastards.

If, every time we prayed for a particular thing a particular way, it came true

Straw man. How about if it ever came true, or better than chance?
posted by fleetmouse at 5:26 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


When are we going to start being called Nu Atheists?

When we start praying to the aliens?
posted by fleetmouse at 5:29 AM on May 17, 2010


Where are you getting that? Certainly not the Bible

From a history of religious tradition and scholarship reaching back thousands of years, perhaps? From personal intellectual enquiry? From a conceptual framework of religious thought and interpretation in which sacred texts are viewed as massively more complex, more textured, more open to interpretation and more intricately linked with centuries of detailed philosophical debate than a Pizza Hut menu? Maybe?

You're perfectly within your rights to think that putting such thought into one's religious tradition is a colossal and bizarre waste of time, obviously. But here, you're acting as if that kind of thought never existed in the first place - as if every religious person posting in this thread is a Biblical literalist with an incredibly simplified view of a theological concept like prayer, whose beliefs can be knocked down like skittles with the force of your ability to post verses from the Bible. You're complaining that such literalism is absurd, while simultaneously complaining that the people you're arguing with don't adhere to it; you're demanding that a bunch of people who don't believe X idea about prayer prove to you that X idea about prayer is correct, and then acting like you've scored some kind of rhetorical victory when they don't. Your points are, indeed, impossible to argue with - but I suspect not for the reasons you think.
posted by Catseye at 6:22 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


fleetmouse: “Straw man. How about if it ever came true, or better than chance?”

If you don't want straw men, don't bring straw men. I told you: the whole "you pray / you get stuff" equation doesn't work in this religion. Maybe it does in some, but not here. To pray for something and have it come true reliably, you would have to know the mind of God. You apparently think that's trivially easy; some people don't. Get over yourself.
posted by koeselitz at 7:19 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If prayers are not "granted" over the long term any more often than random chance would dictate it is pretty good evidence that either God does not exist or he doesn't give a shit about prayers.

Or it could be that the person praying is asking for a lot of really dumb things, like when you were six and wanted a cowboy hat and a pony and a new bike like Billy down the street and a helicopter that REALLY flies! and a dog and to not have to go to school ever again and that your transmogrification box could transmogrify your annoying younger brother to another universe and....

(For the record, I don't pray, but I have been known to give myself a pep talk/talk myself down from freaking out/calm my mind in a way that looks a lot like prayer, and sometimes I've done it in churches, because they're usually quiet and help put me in the right frame of mind.)
posted by rtha at 7:20 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


To pray for something and have it come true reliably, you would have to know the mind of God.

Or as a thoughtful believer friend of mine puts it, God doesn't care what you want but he knows what you need. He (the friend) also likes to point out that bit in the Lord's Prayer about "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done". This basically means that a believer is committing himself to bringing God's plan forward; not the other way around. Doesn't it?
posted by philip-random at 8:49 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I notice that the distinction between "religion" and "religious people" that exists in religious rhetoric is fluid and shapeless; it fits the shape the particular religious individual needs it to for the moment and then dissolves, puddling on the floor to be picked up and sculpted into a different shape when it is next needed. Religion offers comfort and order, while religious people are the ones who commit atrocities against nonbelievers.

There is no such thing-in-itself as "religion". Religion is the collective efforts, words, and outputs of people acting religiously. I understand the desire to have religion be a pure and excellent thing, the sum of only those qualities which you desire it to exemplify and embody, but you cannot pretend that there is a difference between religion and religious people any more than you can pretend that there is a difference between the Yankees and the players, between the Elks and the Elks members, between the Police and the police. Reifying religion and trying to separate it from religious people produces some of the more egregiously inane statements posted in this thread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done". This basically means that a believer is committing himself to bringing God's plan forward; not the other way around. Doesn't it?

When something isn't based in reality you can make it mean anything you want.
posted by Summer at 9:41 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


define reality, please.
posted by philip-random at 9:59 AM on May 17, 2010


Exactly.
posted by Summer at 10:05 AM on May 17, 2010


Pope Guilty: “Reifying religion...”

This presumes that "religion" is not something real or concrete. But the variation in opinions on religion doesn't mean that there is nothing concrete or real we mean when we say "religion" any more than the variation in opinions on "scientific things" means that there is nothing concrete or real we mean when we speak of "scientific things."

I appreciate that, to someone who doesn't believe that any of this is true at all, the variation in opinions on religion might seem to indicate that there is no true representative opinion at all. But religious people believe that there is a true representative opinion; this is in fact a tautology, as far as I can tell, since being a "religious person" means believing that there is at least one true religion. I understand that you disagree with them, but of course religious people speak of "true religion" and "false religion," of religion itself as opposed to religious people. They believe that that thing exists. You can't fault them for not accepting your assumption.
posted by koeselitz at 10:19 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


define reality, please.
posted by philip-random at 9:59 AM on May 17 [+] [!]

Exactly.
posted by Summer at 10:05 AM on May 17 [+] [!]


Okay, back to me.

"Reality" is everything everyone ever feels, sees, hears, smells, tastes, thinks, remembers, and the unimaginably complex interaction of all this data, sensory and otherwise. It's also an adjective for really bad television. "Reality" is a loaded word, so damned meaningful that it meets meaningless coming the other way, which is why I personally try not to use it much.
posted by philip-random at 10:29 AM on May 17, 2010


philip-random: ""Reality" is everything everyone ever feels, sees, hears, smells, tastes, thinks, remembers..."

Doesn't that make it tricky to define cryptamnesia?
posted by idiopath at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2010


Summer: “When something isn't based in reality you can make it mean anything you want.”

philip-random: “define reality, please.”

Summer: “Exactly.”

I don't really understand what you're getting at, Summer. Apparently the point of your second comment is that "reality" is impossible or very difficult to define; which renders your first comment meaningless. So I'm confused.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2010


koeselitz, there is not even significant agreement within the greater community of religious believers about what religion is. Whose opinion should we take- yours? The evangelicals'? The Jains'? The Buddhists'? The Shintos'? The Muslims'? A survey of comparative religion professors?

The assertion that there is agreement reminds me of the Christians who say "Judeo-Christian" to mean "Christian".
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:43 AM on May 17, 2010


I don't believe in a tame god.
posted by klangklangston at 10:49 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pope Guilty: “koeselitz, there is not even significant agreement within the greater community of religious believers about what religion is. Whose opinion should we take- yours? The evangelicals'? The Jains'? The Buddhists'? The Shintos'? The Muslims'? A survey of comparative religion professors?”

As far as I can tell, this isn't true. There is significant agreement about what religion is among the greater community of religious believers. Religion is a set of beliefs about the world that is held in common and passed down by tradition. There are scuffles here and there in the borderlands about whether this or that tradition is a legitimate or true religion, but those conflicts are about the content of religion and not their simple status as manifestations of religion. Yes, I guess you could say that words can mean a lot of different things, but I know you're not trying to raise a purely semantic concern.

But this isn't the point you were making. The point you were making was that religious people commit atrocities against nonbelievers; we're discussing the distinction between "religion" and "religious people" because you're anticipating the rejoinder: "but those were not true religious people!"

This is a very, very old argument, but we can rehearse it again if you want to. I understand your concern, I think; you would like to accuse religion of the atrocities which apparently religious people have committed. I can give you a few reasons why I think that's not a reasonable thing to do, though I'd rather be as fair as I can about it.

To begin with, I simply don't think it's true that people have often been motivated by religion to commit atrocities. People have been motivated by many things throughout history, but religion has rarely been one of them. This is something that I think Marx was at least partially right about when he called religion an 'opiate' and suggested that history is not a chronicle of religious conflict but of class struggle. More concretely: atrocities are committed for money, atrocities are committed for honor and power. These are all immediate things, things which are of an obvious and direct concern in human life. The objects of religion are generally too distant and abstract for anyone to care enough to wade through blood for their sake. It's important to point out, by the way, that human beings are notoriously dishonest; for example, it was claimed that the Crusades were a religious project, inspired by faith and by the bible, whereas this is clearly not true: the Crusades were an ill-conceived security project inspired by nationalist outrage in Spain and elsewhere. Over the past several thousand years, Christianity has generally been used as an excuse for everything, bad or good, and therefore it's important to look past the excuse to the genuine motivation.

What you'd like to say, I think, is that because religious people committed these atrocities, it's clearly down to their religion that they did so. But the quality of being religious is one of very many in a human being, and it's not any more fair to say that people have committed atrocities because they're religious than it is to say that people have committed atrocities because they're Armenian, or because their hair is red, or because they believe in Santa Claus.

This doesn't mean that religious people don't take some responsibility for the terrible things that their forbears within the tradition have done. Moreover, it's still incumbent upon the tradition to try to instill in people a sense of the horror of these atrocities, in order to try to avoid them in the future. But it's illogical and moreover unfair to draw a simple line of causality and say that people have committed atrocities because of religion. This is particularly true because I know of very few religious traditions which strictly speaking actually endorse atrocities.
posted by koeselitz at 11:39 AM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Reifying religion and trying to separate it from religious people produces some of the more egregiously inane statements posted in this thread.

Usually, we call this "abstraction" and consider it one of the most powerful tools of thought.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:03 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


But this isn't the point you were making. The point you were making was that religious people commit atrocities against nonbelievers; we're discussing the distinction between "religion" and "religious people" because you're anticipating the rejoinder: "but those were not true religious people!"

You've been in this thread way too long to pretend that I'm bringing this up. That argument, and that rejoinder, are upthread. They're right there. I am not introducing anything; I am responding to something that is already here.

What you'd like to say, I think, is that because religious people committed these atrocities, it's clearly down to their religion that they did so.

No. What I am saying is that the religious should stop pretending that there is "real" religion and then there are people who do bad things and give religious reasons and oh, but we have nothing in common with them. It's no different from the idea that there's America and oh there's these people who did bad things but they weren't Real Americans, or hell, the idea that communism cannot fail, it can only be failed. Religion includes some pretty horrible things because religion is a category of human behaviors created by religious behaviors, and human behavior includes some really nasty stuff. My desire is for the religious to stop pretending that there's religion and then there's religious people. Atrocities are part of religion, always have been, and always will be, just as atrocities are part of every other human activity with a long history. There isn't Pope Guilty and a person who does Pope Guilty activities; there's just me and what I do.


Usually, we call this "abstraction" and consider it one of the most powerful tools of thought.

There's nothing wrong with abstractions as long as we don't pretend that they are in and of themeselves real. It's ultimately about not reifying abstractions.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:19 PM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I only want to point out that really and truly represents a belief structure which encompasses a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe and how we approach it; the sense I get is that it seems like a clinging to a superstition from the outside, as you're seeing it, whereas to me it often appears to be the sum and source of human knowledge and insight.
[...] Over the past several thousand years, Christianity has generally been used as an excuse for everything, bad or good, and therefore it's important to look past the excuse to the genuine motivation.


As far as I'm concerned, you can have one or the other of these, but you can't have both. You can't have something that's "a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe and how we approach it" on the one hand, and "an excuse for everything" on the other, because a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe deeply influences human behavior. The religious fervor behind the Crusades was more than an excuse, and more even than a simple motivation; it was the outcome of a certain worldview, a Christian worldview, and ran much too deep to be waved away as a mere excuse.

For example, excusing the Crusades as "an ill-conceived security project inspired by nationalist outrage in Spain and elsewhere" ignores the fact that some of them (and especially some of the things which happened during them, like the slaughter of Jews) don't fit that mold. Frederick II did not set sail because of "nationalist outrage in Spain and elsewhere", he did so due to religious pressure. Likewise, the Shepherd's Crusades did not happen because of nationalism. The Northern Crusades were motivated by conversion at least as much as by nationalism. Etc. Christianity was certainly not the sole motivation of the Crusades, but it cannot be discounted, because much of what happened during the Crusades makes little sense without it.

Worse yet, treating Christianity as an excuse ignores the records of the time. The Crusades were considered a religious movement by nearly everyone involved, unto death itself, often to the exclusion and/or denial of other motivations. Contemporary writing on this subject, especially letters from Crusaders who were actually there, makes this very clear. Or, to put it in your own words: if it's just a metaphor, then it lacks meaning entirely.

Like it or not, the Crusaders lived those words.
posted by vorfeed at 1:29 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


"No. What I am saying is that the religious should stop pretending that there is "real" religion and then there are people who do bad things and give religious reasons and oh, but we have nothing in common with them. It's no different from the idea that there's America and oh there's these people who did bad things but they weren't Real Americans, or hell, the idea that communism cannot fail, it can only be failed. Religion includes some pretty horrible things because religion is a category of human behaviors created by religious behaviors, and human behavior includes some really nasty stuff. My desire is for the religious to stop pretending that there's religion and then there's religious people. Atrocities are part of religion, always have been, and always will be, just as atrocities are part of every other human activity with a long history. There isn't Pope Guilty and a person who does Pope Guilty activities; there's just me and what I do."

First off, you're positing a lot of assumed ideas about identity that aren't necessarily universal, especially when you posit that your identity is purely your actions, and that group identity comes purely from the actions of individuals in that group.

Second off, this leads to a lot of really obviously problematic or absurd conclusions, the way you would any time that you conflate an individual actor's characteristics with all of those who share those characteristics. There are certainly corrupt Democrats; it's absurd to argue that all Democrats are corrupt because of it. A more inflammatory conflation is one favored by many conservatives where because there are criminal black people or even celebrations of criminals in black culture, therefore black culture is criminal. Certainly, folks from this website have griefed other websites, but I don't particularly believe that those folks represent Metafilter Users in a real sense, but that's because I'm willing to make distinctions based on ideas of core tenets and definitions. It's often messy but, Occam aside, that an answer is messy doesn't mean it's wrong.

Third, if you really want to blame religion for all of the negative outcomes, you're going to have to take every positive action of religion into account too, something that you seem unwilling or unable to do.

Fourth, "religion" as you use it becomes so broad as to be meaningless; it's like saying that politics on the whole is responsible for every genocide ever—sure, yeah, kinda. So what? Politics is also responsible for vast amounts of good. Political people have killed billions either directly or by foreseeable consequence, or even negligence, and also saved billions more lives. When religious people say that condemning religion for the actions of other religious people is meaningless, that's what they mean—So what? I don't feel any real collective responsibility for white people, the college educated, indie rock listeners, Democrats or folks with beards, and attempting to harangue me for their actions will only get me to roll my eyes. If you've internalized some sort of guilt over American atrocities, ones that you had no control over nor voice in, most of which happened before you ever lived, well, you're a fool, sorry. This is different from saying that we share in the responsibility for righting past injustices, because those past injustices still reverberate as current problems.

"There's nothing wrong with abstractions as long as we don't pretend that they are in and of themeselves real. It's ultimately about not reifying abstractions."

Glad to hear you've given up your jeremiad against religion.
posted by klangklangston at 1:43 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


You never listened.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2010


Yeah, I am not fond of tarring religious people with all the negative actions that religious people do, at all.

Atheists have killed lots of people, too, as has been stated multiple times. Certain religious beliefs are dumb and dangerous, but not all of them are.
posted by empath at 2:08 PM on May 17, 2010


No god. Didn't you get it?

Clearly we can only speak within that sphere. Must be. ‘Cause there’s nothing outside there and no one could be making an allusion to another paradigm, for example, of otherness.

Why on earth should atheists have to do anything more than point out that religion is faith and they don't believe.

Because, apparently, there are books to be sold which require cheap rhetorical gainsaying.

The problem with being ‘against’ something, especially something socially complex and diverse beyond the core concepts bantered about here, is that one should be against something because one stands for something. As it is, I don't see much social investment beyond marketing.
But I think any activity is subject to criticism. If we were discussing the civil rights movement and someone wrote a piece criticizing certain practices, that’s not an indictment of the concept of equal rights, more the practices of a sub-set.
So, marches, demonstrations, not rolling over – ok. Killing people at random (the BLA comes to mind)– yeah not so much.
Either something is above criticism or it isn’t. I don’t think anything is.
A lot of the arguments here too boil down to the ends justify the means.

What’s so aggravating is approaching this as a non-theist. You tell a religious person the whole ‘god’ issue is irrelevant and they get put off. But tell certain atheists the issue of whether god exists or not doesn’t matter and you STILL get an argument.
(No, it doesn’t matter how you treat people smedley, because THEY are wrong!) Yeah, sure thing.

I don’t see a problem with criticizing the rigor of anyone’s area of thinking, especially by people who have/are selling books on the topic and have a vested interest in spectacle and given their reputation for accuracy in other fields, I'd speculate that this is where the mistakes (if they are) come from. Accuracy isn't going to sell as much as being inflammatory.

Not that it matters, as mentioned above, head of a pin, all that, people like their incest in these kinds of debate and its tough to explore reasonably. (MY guy is an asshole? Howabout YOUR guy!)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:59 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if I'm atheist or agnostic because it's not so much that I've formed a belief as to the existence of any god-like being but that I can't really see how forming this belief is germane to the time I'm putting in on this planet. This comes after much considered thought and extensive reading. As someone else mentioned above, I've always kind of thought that church/religion was a group fiction carried on by adults for some purpose us children didn't quite grasp yet. Having since gained adulthood I'm a bit surprised, frankly, that there hasn't been a There Is No Santa Claus moment and that many people really seem to believe in an organized religion.

I have formed many beliefs with regards to organized religion, most qualifying as "not positive." I think it would be useful for more Athiest vs, Theist discussions to draw this distinction at the outset as most atheist arguments are not anti-god but anti-church and I think that is the primary gripe of the author of the linked essay.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:59 PM on May 17, 2010


I am saying is that the religious should stop pretending that there is "real" religion and then there are people who do bad things and give religious reasons and oh, but we have nothing in common with them.

I'm not saying "good religious people have nothing in common with bad religious people." Because, clearly, I do. We share a belief in a religion.

However, the thing I am saying, which I fear you consistently are not understanding -- despite my best efforts -- is that "even though we share these beliefs, we do VERY different things with our actions, and it is the actions you are objecting to."

Let me ask you -- if these people who held these objectionable beliefs still held them, but did nothing objectionable with those beliefs, what would the effect be on you? What if they just withdrew from your path and kept to themselves and did nothing to impact your life at all? what if they did nothing but sit there thinking "oooh, that Pope Guilty's definitely going to hell as an unbeliever" -- but did nothing and said nothing WITH that thought (up to AND INCLUDING not voting at all, so you also don't have to worry about them affecting the laws of the land)? What if they even moved to another country altogether, so they wouldn't even effect the laws of the land, and kept to themselves as recluses -- but they still held the beliefs that "ooh, unbelievers go to hell"?

Would you still be bothered if all they were really doing was sitting there in another country with this belief in their heads that they never acted on?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:41 PM on May 17, 2010


I don't believe in a tame god.

Warmer!
posted by fleetmouse at 5:52 PM on May 17, 2010


Pope Guilty: “What I am saying is that the religious should stop pretending that there is "real" religion and then there are people who do bad things and give religious reasons and oh, but we have nothing in common with them.”

But of course religious people believe that there's such a thing as "real" religion! Of course they believe that it's an ideal seldom met, an ideal that can't be judged by the actions of people who happen to associate themselves with that ideal but only by the ideal itself! When you're asking religious people to "stop pretending" that there is a "real" religion, and that it is separate from and superior to whatever human beings might happen to call themselves adherents to it, you're really only asking religious people to stop being religious.

It's understandable to me that, from your perspective, this seems a bit silly. If you don't believe that the objects to which religion refers even exist – God, for instance – then all you see in this equation is a bunch of people with very different opinions and no concrete standard whatsoever by which to judge. But please understand that, for the religious, there is some concrete standard, whether they believe they know that standard or not.

It's no different from the idea that there's America and oh there's these people who did bad things but they weren't Real Americans, or hell, the idea that communism cannot fail, it can only be failed. Religion includes some pretty horrible things because religion is a category of human behaviors created by religious behaviors, and human behavior includes some really nasty stuff. My desire is for the religious to stop pretending that there's religion and then there's religious people. Atrocities are part of religion, always have been, and always will be, just as atrocities are part of every other human activity with a long history. There isn't Pope Guilty and a person who does Pope Guilty activities; there's just me and what I do.

“There's nothing wrong with abstractions as long as we don't pretend that they are in and of themeselves real. It's ultimately about not reifying abstractions.”

This is the problem. I have a feeling you'd call god a "reified abstraction." And there's nothing wrong with that – but you can't just demand religious people to give up "reified abstractions" when you apparently mean "concrete notions about spiritual things."
posted by koeselitz at 5:55 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


vorfeed: “As far as I'm concerned, you can have one or the other of these, but you can't have both. You can't have something that's "a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe and how we approach it" on the one hand, and "an excuse for everything" on the other, because a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe deeply influences human behavior. The religious fervor behind the Crusades was more than an excuse, and more even than a simple motivation; it was the outcome of a certain worldview, a Christian worldview, and ran much too deep to be waved away as a mere excuse.”

You're assuming that this "comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe" has been in all times and places agreed upon and obvious to everyone. I don't believe it has. There have been times when it was very obscure. One of those times is now. Another of those times were the crusades.

“The Crusades were considered a religious movement by nearly everyone involved, unto death itself, often to the exclusion and/or denial of other motivations. Contemporary writing on this subject, especially letters from Crusaders who were actually there, makes this very clear. Or, to put it in your own words: if it's just a metaphor, then it lacks meaning entirely.”

Medieval political philosophy was my emphasis in school, and I don't believe that "contemporary writing on this subject" makes this clear at all. There are a few letters to and from participants in the crusade who are under the impression that they are embarking on a religious quest; and there are the platitudes concerning it here and there within Europe at the time. But the timing and plan of the crusades make clear that a large part of their motivation was a concern about the borderlands. Generally scholarship today is agreed that the first seeds of the crusades can be traced to the Moorish occupation of Spain; the nativist movement which had a strong emphasis on securing borders and building defenses against the Moors drove it forward. The project seized on the idea of taking Jerusalem, not because that city is of central importance to Christianity or because the military conquest thereof was prescribed by the doctors of the church or by the bible (I can't really remember the chapter about conquering Jerusalem, to be honest) but because it was a goal with which the political authorities could motivate the masses.

I think it's pretty clear from the historical record that the Popes of the time did very little out of religious motivations; their ideal was still a political power, and various other temporal accoutrements. Moreover, again, religious lingo is so ever-present that often God is mentioned when the writer is clearly thinking about the opposite. Finally, it may be necessary to consider the possibility that people may believe they are undertaking a quest for religious reasons when in truth they are actually undertaking a quest to protect their land, or to seal their borders, or to gain plunder, or to increase their nobility in the eyes of the world. People have a tendency to fool themselves about their own motivations quite often.
posted by koeselitz at 6:19 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


koeselitz: "But please understand that, for the religious, there is some concrete standard, whether they believe they know that standard or not.

OK, I hear this statement, but it is clearly the -classic- form of category error that is one of the touchstones of Dawkins et al (whom I don't regard as my intellectual allies, fwiw, despite my atheist-leaning agnosticism). How can something, a religious or philosophical concept such as 'the ideal' be -concrete-? It cannot! I understand that perhaps the word you are reaching for is 'eternal' or 'unchanging,' such as the concept of zero, but zero is the very opposite of concrete, and no religious philosopher influenced by the concept of ideal that I am aware of would embrace the framing of these concepts as 'concrete.'

Your expertise in these matters certainly exceeds mine, so maybe I'm misinformed. But it seems to me your use of this specific vocabulary actually reinforces the argument against it.

[immediately following in your post]

koeselitz: "<>It's no different from the idea that there's America and oh there's these people who did badthings but they weren't Real Americans, or hell, the idea that communism cannot fail, it can only be failed. Religion includes some pretty horrible things because religion is a category of human behaviors created by religious behaviors, and human behavior includes some really nasty stuff. My desire is for the religious to stop pretending that there's religion and then there's religious people. Atrocities are part of religion, always have been, and always will be, just as atrocities are part of every other human activity with a long history. There isn't Pope Guilty and a person who does Pope Guilty activities; there's just me and what I do. "

Was this a rewrite that overflew my grasp of subtleties or a cut-and-paste error?

One other point, which I won't quote inline: you argue that perceiving the motivations of the crusaders as a consequence of mistaken belief in a metaphor reduces the actions of these persons to meaninglessness. I absolutely concur with you on a part of this point: their actions are reduced to meaninglessness. But it really doesn't take me miscomprehending the actions of persons from a culture other than my own to do that. Time alone resolves these matters, and in just the way you specify.
posted by mwhybark at 7:10 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


oh, wait, I am possibly conflating your post with another's regarding the Crusades stuff. My bad.
posted by mwhybark at 7:12 PM on May 17, 2010


I think it's pretty clear from the historical record that the Popes of the time did very little out of religious motivations;

Replace 'pope' with 'every religious leader in history' and I agree with you. Religion is used to control and dominate.
posted by empath at 7:18 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Martin Luther King jr. just wanted to control and dominate.
posted by klangklangston at 7:34 PM on May 17, 2010


Okay, you get one.

And you can have Ghandi, too.
posted by empath at 7:35 PM on May 17, 2010


Religion is used to control and dominate.

....What religion was Josef Stalin using to control and dominate?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:50 PM on May 17, 2010


Medieval political philosophy was my emphasis in school, and I don't believe that "contemporary writing on this subject" makes this clear at all. There are a few letters to and from participants in the crusade who are under the impression that they are embarking on a religious quest; and there are the platitudes concerning it here and there within Europe at the time. But the timing and plan of the crusades make clear that a large part of their motivation was a concern about the borderlands.

Again, the fact that "a large part of their motivation was a concern about the borderlands" does not make the Crusades non-religious. Some aspects of the Crusades were religious in nature, such that they cannot be understood as a solely secular enterprise. The religious aspects of the Crusades repeatedly undermined its secular goals, to the point where some (like the early part of the First Crusade and the Shepherd's Crusades) were entirely irrational and self-defeating.

You make it sound as if the secular concerns of a few leaders erases the religious nature of these wars in the minds of their participants, even though it was the participants who made them happen. By this standard, is there ever such a thing as a religious mass action? Shall we also say that the Salvation Army are "fooling themselves about their own motivations" when they feed the poor?

You're assuming that this "comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe" has been in all times and places agreed upon and obvious to everyone. I don't believe it has. There have been times when it was very obscure. One of those times is now. Another of those times were the crusades.

Right. So what you're telling me is that Christianity is a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe, one which has saturated Western thought for millennia... and that those same Westerners stopped believing in it right in the middle of the height of religious fervor in the West. And then started believing in it again -- presumably sometime after they washed all the blood off, but before the Enlightenment.

This is so convenient it hurts. For someone who values skepticism and rationality, you're sure not applying them to history.
posted by vorfeed at 8:17 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the timing and plan of the crusades make clear that a large part of their motivation was a concern about the borderlands.

And Jesus.

But mostly, it was good old-fashioned ambition and opportunism. Back in the good ole days of chivalry and non-existent sanitation, the most effective way to move up in organized society was to disappear for a while, conquer, ransom and plunder various heathens, then come back home and use the filthy lucre to buy into "society", whatever it was at that particular moment.

The Crusades were the Wild West of their time, the Gold Rush. Yes, various religious tricks were used to muster troops, but the principal lure, particularly for those mustering the troops, was fortune.
posted by philip-random at 8:35 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


....What religion was Josef Stalin using to control and dominate?

Christian communism, specifically Acts 2: 42-27, as affirmed in other places. The Essenes were also diehard communists, and many believe Jesus was an Essene, as was John the Baptist.
posted by Brian B. at 9:03 PM on May 17, 2010


'Religion is used to control and dominate.'
'....What religion was Josef Stalin using to control and dominate?'


“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.” - Henri Poincare

(Poincare also said some interesting things about intellectual prostitution for an agenda. And tangentially Alfred Dreyfus being railroaded which lead (eventually) to the early French law on separation of church and state. Of course, yet later it pissed off Catholics and is now a sort of 3rd rail in French politics. But y'know, if you've got Muslim Arabs saying (at the time) you're a bit too anti-semitic, yeah, maybe look into that.)

I understand from friends I have in academia that publishing is a big 1,000 lb gorilla and has greatly diluted academic rigor and created a tension between success and what's perceived as intellectual prostitution.
Of course, that's easily discussed because 'god' isn't involved.
It seems though this has always been the case - mass success vs. more original thought and reflection.
Meh. *shrug*
posted by Smedleyman at 9:16 PM on May 17, 2010


vorfeed: So what you're telling me is that Christianity is a comprehensive and compelling outlook about the universe, one which has saturated Western thought for millennia...”

No. I am emphatically not saying that it's one that has saturated Western thought for millennia.

Seriously, stop for a moment and think about how you've decontextualized this. I'm trying to talk about what Christianity means. You're trying to dismiss that by saying "no, it means violence." Fine, you can think that, but that's certainly not what I believe it means; and history frankly has nothing to do with that. The entire history of time up to this point could be a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity, every bit of it the most bloody and vile imaginable, and all of it committed by people who said they were Christians; it would mean nothing about what Christianity is.
posted by koeselitz at 9:32 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry I was thread nannying before, you all are cool and I just love you and the good parts of the discussion that are happening.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:35 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


....What religion was Josef Stalin using to control and dominate?

Cult of personality
posted by Tenuki at 9:47 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Christian communism, specifically Acts 2: 42-27, as affirmed in other places. The Essenes were also diehard communists, and many believe Jesus was an Essene, as was John the Baptist."

Stalin was using Christian communism to control and dominate? Well, no, that's kind of an insane claim to make. Stalin did use the Orthodox Church to some extent, while simultaneously ruthlessly suppressing it.
posted by klangklangston at 10:10 PM on May 17, 2010


And that's ignoring that all of this is essentially ad hominem fallacy.
posted by klangklangston at 10:12 PM on May 17, 2010


Christian communism, specifically Acts 2: 42-27, as affirmed in other places.

Yeah, Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot were Christian communists, too. Just like Stalin.
I remember watching "Inside Man" and saying, wow, Hoxha really went on and on about how great Jesus was and how they were going to spread the gospel along with their chromium.

Seriously. What?

First - the bible?

Secondly - "Religion is the opiate of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness," there Karl Marx and Lenin was an atheist. Stalin ascribed to their philosophy (if he could have been said to have one outside his own megalomania).

Third - Gosateizm? Anyone? Hello? The KGB had a division devoted to eradicating churchmen and sectarians. That was one of the core principles of the Soviet Union. They had a Union of Militant Atheists of the USSR.

They had their own satirical magazine, Bezbozhnik, which made fun of religious people (mostly Jews, but they got some priests too). Probably because they loved them and wanted them to wake up. That's all.

Well, that and they shot 85,300 Russian Orthodox clergy in '38 during Yezhovshchina. And 21,000 more in '39. About 80-100,000 odds and ends (monks, nuns, etc). And they blew up churches, synagogues, mosques. And exiled thousands more who died in the famines.
That's just the Soviet Union, not counting, y'know, Poland and the Mongolian purges, killed about 15-20,000 Buddhist lamas.

All that not counting, in the point in question, Christians, who had their property confiscated, sent to labor camps, mental hospitals, prison, tortured, drugged, censored, etc. etc. (by the state of course, that doesn't count the social ostracism, harassment and ridicule encouraged by the propaganda)
Yeah, if Joe Stalin was Christian, he had an odd way of showing it. The whole, killing/persecuting hundreds of thousands of other Christians thing, doesn't really add up.

(Unless communism was just a red herring and he was secretly Mr. Green)

So - seriously, what's the idea? One doesn't have to be factually correct if one is right about the whole 'god' thing? Research can be sloppy. General relations can be vaguely asserted to be valid in contrary to documented acts?

I really dislike bullying someone who thinks differently than you. There are churches that do that. *That's why they're wrong*
The god thing - who gives a shit? Someone jerks off all day on internet porn or plays world of warcraft to the exclusion of reality, it's not my problem unless they make it my problem.
It's the making it our problem part of it that is oppressive.

Let's not make the mistake of conflating the argument of the irrationality of a position and the resistance to it being thrust upon people.
Misrepresenting facts in order to advance a position is just as irrational as any Flying Spaghetti Monster.
And hostility is hostility. Being right doesn't give anyone carte blanche to treat people however they wish.
Again, yeah, churches, religion, yeah. But that's not, well, wasn't, the point of the article.

Not that that matters much. People tend to do lots of things out of the way they feel and doing it because you feel someone else is an idiot is no more logical than doing it because you feel god is there. We like to make up reasons for our behavior that let us think better of ourselves (or better still, others) and avoid criticism.

Rationalization is mankind's first religion.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:37 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


The entire history of time up to this point could be a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity, every bit of it the most bloody and vile imaginable, and all of it committed by people who said they were Christians; it would mean nothing about what Christianity is.

That's extraordinarily narcissistic, don't you think?

7:16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
7:17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
7:18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
posted by Justinian at 10:59 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, I've been wanting to reply to your amazing defense for awhile now. I'm finding this very difficult stuff to articulate. I guess I recognize a bit of myself in the theological position you advance, but still ultimately disagree. Here's a bit that really resonates with me:

It means that the absolute and infinite saturates and penetrates every moment of existence. It means that the whole of eternity is present in a single day of our lives, and that this eternity which is born to us is present and available to us if we're willing to be open to it.

I think I feel something similar to that every time I look up at the stars, or every time I'm out in nature and just marvel the complexity and beauty all around me and also at the fact that I'm somehow a part of it. I guess I just stop short of attributing what I perceive as the sublimity of existence to the god of any existing religion or even to any god that I could possibly invent.

Ultimately, I just don't see why it's not enough to be in awe of the universe I'm a part of, and leave it at that. I can accept that I'm never going to understand it all. Why my inability to comprehend it all should cause the sort of fear and anguish that would lead me either faith or to a grim commitment to a marxist ideology is totally beyond me.
posted by treepour at 11:22 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Again, the fact that "a large part of their motivation was a concern about the borderlands" does not make the Crusades non-religious. Some aspects of the Crusades were religious in nature, such that they cannot be understood as a solely secular enterprise.

True – I don't think you can cleave (organized) religion from nationalism anywhere near as cleanly as koeselitz would like: a concern about who on the borderlands and in what important aspect did they differ from the concerned parties? What is the pope doing being concerned with secular honor & power in the first place? And if you're going to say fuck it, we're out of provisions, let's pillage something, why even make the trip to Constantinople? And this is just a series of episodes within the Christian tradition which goes to uncommon doctrinal lengths to separate religion from nation. What brought the Moors into Europe in the first place? How well can you splice Islam from its initial kingdom? And Islam is not unusual in this aspect.

The entire history of time up to this point could be a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity, every bit of it the most bloody and vile imaginable, and all of it committed by people who said they were Christians; it would mean nothing about what Christianity is.

It would probably say it's not a very effective basis for a moral code.
posted by furiousthought at 11:24 PM on May 17, 2010


No. I am emphatically not saying that it's one that has saturated Western thought for millennia.
Seriously, stop for a moment and think about how you've decontextualized this. I'm trying to talk about what Christianity means. You're trying to dismiss that by saying "no, it means violence."


You're the one who said that "it was claimed that the Crusades were a religious project, inspired by faith and by the bible, whereas this is clearly not true". There's a huge difference between "no, the Crusades were a religious project and were inspired by faith and the bible" and "Christianity means violence". What you (or I) think Christianity "means" has zero bearing on the behavior or motivation of people one thousand years ago, and your personal opinion of Christianity cannot go back and make them not-inspired-by-the-bible. Nor can it change the historical fact that Christianity has saturated Western thought for millennia.

You're making a totally specious argument.
posted by vorfeed at 11:32 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: Would you still be bothered if all they were really doing was sitting there in another country with this belief in their heads that they never acted on?

Nope. Not one bit. It never bothered me before c.1980 that there were various North American religionists whose beliefs I did not share. But when these folks started voting as a bloc and trying to take over hospital boards and school boards, yes, then I got bothered.
All of the arguments that begin: "Oh, they're not real Christians...", "They're not like me!", "You can't judge Christianity by this minority..." etc. -- all ignore the fact that these people are working to create a polity based on a version of Christianity. To counter these people (whose agenda is abhorrent), secular folk like myself feel that we must engage their Christianity, otherwise we're looking at theocracy -- you know, like under Ayatollah Khomeini or, say, Cromwell.
You feel that your beliefs are being attacked? So do I.
posted by CCBC at 2:01 AM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not wanting to join the debate but the Cromwellian Protectorate and the man himself were far more tolerant than the regimes that preceded and followed (complicated story of course, this book review gives you an idea, but it was a large part of the motivation for the civil wars), even if like the vast majority of other Englishmen of his day he had it in for the Catholics.
posted by Abiezer at 2:21 AM on May 18, 2010


And that's ignoring that all of this is essentially ad hominem fallacy.

And that's precisely my point, actually. You can't point to the men who used religion in an abhorrent way and say "clearly this is evidence that RELIGION ITSELF is a tool of domination" but then write Stalin and Pol Pot off as "but that's different". If you want to claim the Borgias as "proof that religion is a tool for domination", you have to accept that Stalin is proof that "so is atheism".

It never bothered me before c.1980 that there were various North American religionists whose beliefs I did not share. But when these folks started voting as a bloc and trying to take over hospital boards and school boards, yes, then I got bothered.
All of the arguments that begin: "Oh, they're not real Christians...", "They're not like me!", "You can't judge Christianity by this minority..." etc. -- all ignore the fact that these people are working to create a polity based on a version of Christianity.


No one is saying "they're not real Christians". They're only saying "not all Christians think exactly the same thing."

Look -- say you have a core set of people who all believe in one thing. But, half those believers perform some action that the other half don't. Wouldn't it make sense attribute that action to something OTHER than that core belief, since you have another 50% who don't DO that action? ....Well, you've got a lot more than 50% of this core set that don't do that action. Therefore.....

This is why people say "you can't judge Christianity by this minority". There are actually scriptures that argue AGAINST creating a polity based on Christianity, which exhort believers to keep the two separate ("Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..."). So that tells me, at least, that the people who are trying to create a polity based on Christianity are being spurred by something OTHER than Christianity, since the majority of Christians are actually NOT trying to do that.

To counter these people (whose agenda is abhorrent), secular folk like myself feel that we must engage their Christianity, otherwise we're looking at theocracy -- you know, like under Ayatollah Khomeini or, say, Cromwell.

But you have stated you have no objections to the beliefs themselves, if all they did was sit there and think them. That tells me that it is their ACTIONS you believe are abhorrent. So, since we have already established that most Christians do not engage in these actions, why not confine it to countering the actions themselves? That way, you may also win the support of other Christians, who also dislike the actions of this minority. If you engage their Christianity, you run the risk of alienating other moderate Christians, and actually turning these other moderate Christians against your position.

You feel that your beliefs are being attacked? So do I.

I'm actually not Christian, for the record.

But when I feel like my beliefs are being attacked, I confine my defenses towards the individuals making the attack, as opposed to every other person who has something in common with my attackers. When I feel my beliefs are under attack, I counter it by engaging "that one guy there", instead of engaging "atheism". Because I know "atheism" isn't what's attacking me -- only "that one guy there" is doing so. Because I know not all atheists attack my beliefs, and I know not all atheists believe it's appropriate to attack the beliefs of others. So therefore, if I run into an atheist who is attacking the beliefs of others, I confine my defenses to that one guy, because clearly it isn't "atheism" that's prompting him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:14 AM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


> The entire history of time up to this point could be a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity, every bit of it the most bloody and vile imaginable, and all of it committed by people who said they were Christians; it would mean nothing about what Christianity is.

It would probably say it's not a very effective basis for a moral code.


Okay, then, let's say you're right. Let's say that Christianity inspires that kind of violence and bloodshed.

If that's the case, then can you explain why, in a world where Christians are so great in number, this isn't happening more often?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:17 AM on May 18, 2010


So that tells me, at least, that the people who are trying to create a polity based on Christianity are being spurred by something OTHER than Christianity,

What are we to do when they tell us that they are spurred by their religious beliefs? When they explicitly tell us that they are opposed to, say same-sex marriage on religious grounds?

From an interview with Rick Santorum: Well, the laws in this country are built upon a certain worldview, and it is the Judeo-Christian worldview. And that worldview has been expressed in our laws on marriage for 200-plus years. Up until 25 years ago, we would never have sat here and done this interview. It would have been beyond the pale. And so it is clearly a dramatic departure from the Judeo-Christian ethic that is reflected in our laws that say marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman.

He was a lawmaker. A maker and director of policy. If he's going to put out there that we should do or not do [whatever] because the Bible says so, then that reasoning must be engaged.

And those guys, those American Christian pastors who go to Uganda and help them put together laws that would imprison or kill gay people - they are explicit in doing this for religious reasons.

The fact that these folks are (apparently) ignoring a part of Scripture doesn't change the fact that they are Christians and they say they are acting based on their religious beliefs.

We're always telling people in askme to listen to what people tell you about themselves. I would think that that applies here, as well.
posted by rtha at 5:59 AM on May 18, 2010


And that's precisely my point, actually. You can't point to the men who used religion in an abhorrent way and say "clearly this is evidence that RELIGION ITSELF is a tool of domination" but then write Stalin and Pol Pot off as "but that's different". If you want to claim the Borgias as "proof that religion is a tool for domination", you have to accept that Stalin is proof that "so is atheism".

We don't need an artificial rubric to misunderstand the plain similarities between colonialism and communism in practice. Communism is a dogma, and atheism is a feature because religion was used to dogmatically brace capitalism (and atheism is arguably more suited for elitist capitalism than the communism, as any libertarian might attest). 19th century social reformers were mostly religious reformers too. Way before that, directly connected to their history of idealism, the Essenes invented dogmatic communism as a purist doctrinal path to heaven. And they influenced Christianity in doing so, if not outright invented its dogma. I would never expect Christians to know this however, because they enforce the ignorance of their origins to keep the magic part of it.

In brief, Christianity did not begin as some simplistic "help they neighbor" movement from some wandering philosopher named Jesus. It "began" by name as an imported ancient purism during turbulent times, in revolutionary monasteries, and took care to minimally provide for itself as adherents surrendered their minds and bodies to God. It ended up appealing to poverty mainly, and this shouldn't be difficult to understand, but rather than go into that discussion and get lost there, consider instead that just as the golden rule needs no god or religious dogma, communism needs no god, but requires a set of authoritative decrees (dogma), and therefore needs a dominant party no different than Pharaoh's priests. To argue for religion is to flirt with communism, colonialism, dogma, purity, poverty, and human sacrifice too, in its many disguises, because it has the same prehistoric origins of power over the masses. The secular niceties of helping orphans and widows survive the cold are not power-beliefs, and do not require anything but decent common sense and human dignity to practice.
posted by Brian B. at 7:00 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


....What religion was Josef Stalin using to control and dominate?

Maybe there's only one religion. Something to do with the deeply human folly of trying to organize and manipulate folks' passion, confusion, frustration, ENERGY and focus it in some determined way. Maybe for intended good, maybe for intentions of pure egoism, deception and larceny. But both these directions are fundamentally flawed, because the energy they're trying to focus is beyond them and cannot really be organized ... like trying to organize a firehose, or an orgasm.

Or as Klang put it a while back ... I don't believe in a tame god.

I've always preferred the alternate story, the one that has Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu, Marx, Einstein, Freud etc perceiving their cosmic/political/economic/psychological truths and making their play. Then the tragedy of time and humanity intervenes. And bureaucrats. They try to organize it. They get it wrong, necessarily. And it inevitably gets ugly.

Meanwhile, the original perceived truths are as alive as they've ever been, and uncontained. And other wiser, less power hungry, less anal clubs, individuals, secret societies continue to explore them with all due awe and humbleness.

This exploration is not religion. This is something else. And if I believe in anything, it's this "something else".
posted by philip-random at 7:55 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


i think it is less an issue of whether religion has directly caused or influenced atrocity than the fact that religion conditions its followers to base judgment on subjective illogical interpretation of reality even in the face of contrary evidence, and then simultaneously dignifies this mental handicap, congratulates its suffers, and inoculates it against criticism by placing it in the lofty realm of faith.

i'm not saying this is characteristic of all those who are exploring their spirituality in whatever form. and i don't know that it is necessarily part of the 'new atheist' argument. but it is a phenomenon that has been and is being used for ill, to our continued detriment, with shockingly little resistance.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 10:24 AM on May 18, 2010


If you want to claim the Borgias as "proof that religion is a tool for domination", you have to accept that Stalin is proof that "so is atheism".

Much as I’d hate to look like I’m arguing both sides, it would be hypocritical to argue for rigor and ignore this as a misstatement.
Religion has very much been a tool for domination and so has atheism. I would not accept Stalin (or even Hoxha) as proof that atheism is a tool for domination in the same sense though. When the Nazis attacked the Soviets, Stalin laid off the churches and began actively supporting them in order to unify his forces.
Of course he, and later, Khrushchev, started kicking their asses again. So that would be more proof that nearly any paradigm, philosophy or other sphere of human thought or the facts of which can be perverted, reversed, or whatever, to serve to manipulate people to eliminate dissent and exercise power. (We have always been at war with Eastasia/Eurasia) So rarely is the nature of the body of thought, it's style or flavor, relevant to the acts themselves.

Which, I think, is fairly important point contrary to atheist assertions that theirs is a mere absence of belief and has no social implications when people organize.
This is not to say those social implications can’t be beneficial, any more than it is to say that no one practicing a religion has done any good.

But clearly there’s some impact and some implication in the methods employed by the individuals most prominently organizing people and a facet of that body of thought. And Hart seems to be criticizing those methods in that particular vein.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:41 PM on May 18, 2010


EmpressCallipygos: [...]say you have a core set of people who all believe in one thing. But, half those believers perform some action that the other half don't. Wouldn't it make sense attribute that action to something OTHER than that core belief[...]?
This is why people say "you can't judge Christianity by this minority". [...]So that tells me, at least, that the people who are trying to create a polity based on Christianity are being spurred by something OTHER than Christianity, since the majority of Christians are actually NOT trying to do that.

It's seemed to me for quite a while that these "OTHER"-worshippers are quite different from what I used to think Christianity is about -- but they say, No, God tells them to act this way. You say it's something other than God; am I supposed to tell them that they are mistaken? Am I supposed to try to re-define their belief in something I don't think exists? But this brings us back to Hart and his accusation that proper atheism is okay but arrogant atheism (by his definition), isn't. I find that pretty arrogant, to tell you the truth, and I'm not going to play that game with Christians. Anyway, Hart is dodging the issues that engage atheists and pretending that the "OTHER"-worshippers don't matter.

(BTW, people have asked about these matters in a non-Christian context. Seems to me that Islam has some similar difficulties. And I'm opposed to Hindu and Jewish political parties, too, that have enormous power in India and Israel, but they don't have the same immediacy for me. Anyway, if this tendency for believers to politicize really is a trend, then atheists need to speak out.)
posted by CCBC at 1:58 PM on May 18, 2010


[...] am I supposed to tell them that they are mistaken?

Well, why the hell not? You're willing to tell them they're mistaken in their most cherished beliefs (e.g., that God exists). Why would you hesitate to tell them they're mistaken in their belief that they are true Christians?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:14 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because, as a non-Christian, I can't judge "true" Christianity. That's like me telling someone they aren't truly black or gay or an alcoholic or whatever they self-identify as.
posted by CCBC at 2:19 PM on May 18, 2010


Oh. Interesting. You seem to feel you're qualified to judge whether or not God exists. I'm surprised there's anything you wouldn't feel qualified to judge.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not like a religious person is more qualified than CCBC (for example) to judge whether god exists.
posted by rtha at 2:41 PM on May 18, 2010


Then it's a good thing religious people don't do that.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:47 PM on May 18, 2010


No, they just accept it as a given. No judging about it.
posted by rtha at 3:52 PM on May 18, 2010


The belief that God exists follows from faith in God. In my opinion, faith is a gift from God, although it requires an act of will to accept the gift. Why would God care about your intellect? Should only intelligent people be saved?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:23 PM on May 18, 2010


What are we to do when they tell us that they are spurred by their religious beliefs? When they explicitly tell us that they are opposed to, say same-sex marriage on religious grounds?

Story time:

My great-great-great-grandfather was William Miller, a man who foretold the end of the world as we know it back in 1844. His "evidence" for this theory? He'd have told you it was the Bible. His specific interpretation of the Bible foretold an exact date of the end of the world, and if he were here today, he would be swearing up and down that the Bible spelled out exactly what he was claiming.

Provided, of course, you read the Bible in the precise and specific way he intended.

Now, he would absolutely insist that his precise and specific way for interpreting the Bible was correct, and therefore his predictions were "clearly inspired by the Bible." However - the fact that we are all still here means that just because he drew these claims from the Bible, that does not necessarily mean that they were correct.

....William Miller is not the only person to have read things into the Bible that weren't there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:58 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Why would God care about your intellect? Should only intelligent people be saved?

This is not a question I've even come within a mile of asking. Are you talking to me?
posted by rtha at 5:26 PM on May 18, 2010


Why would God care about your intellect? Should only intelligent people be saved?

Saved from what?
posted by Brian B. at 6:26 PM on May 18, 2010


I promised someone that I would not return to this thread. Now I, sadly, break this promise.

A couple of questions.

Are human beings, in general, good or bad? Disregarding god or politics, what is the nature of humans. And I specifically use the plural.

Is a human being, in general, good or bad. Disregarding god or politics, what is the nature of a single human? And I specifically use the singular.
posted by Splunge at 6:41 PM on May 18, 2010


"He was a lawmaker. A maker and director of policy. If he's going to put out there that we should do or not do [whatever] because the Bible says so, then that reasoning must be engaged.

And those guys, those American Christian pastors who go to Uganda and help them put together laws that would imprison or kill gay people - they are explicit in doing this for religious reasons.
"

Well, let's take a moment to look at the statement on its other qualifier. You note these are American Christian pastors—do you believe they represent America when they help put together these laws? I don't. I think that they represent a perversion of the American vision of equality and egalitarianism, and at most only represent tangentially the other core American value—individual freedom—that allows them to practice their religious or political views. Even as Santorum did literally represent some Americans, I don't have any problem saying that he doesn't represent America, and I have no problem arguing with anyone who believes he does. I don't think him, as an individual, is a very good stand-in for America as a whole, though he certainly embodies some pernicious strains of American ignorance.

Likewise, I'm not a Christian. Never have been, never will be—I agree too much with Koeselitz's gloss of the resurrection to be faithful to it. But every day I have to deal with people who tell me that they don't support gay marriage because they're Christian. And I have no problem pointing out that Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Congregationalists, all support gay marriage and that Presbyterians are against laws banning it (while still not sanctioning it within their churches). I know too many Christians to concede the definition of such to the bigots, and I know too much about the history of progressivism to cast Christianity or religion as the enemy. Conservative Christianity in America is a weird chimera, and even the most prominent personalities don't represent it well—they represent fundamentalist, movement Christianity, and even within that, a giant mishmash of premillenialism and differing views on eschatology. They only look coherent from the outside, generally because the most prominent voices have been brought into the conservative message machine. Hell, neither Bob Jones nor Oral Roberts would consider the other saved under their own official doctrines (Roberts' charismatic Pentecostalism requires demonstrable possession by the Spirit; Jones' fundamentalism requires full faith in virgin birth and resurrection, where Roberts sided with Billy Graham even after Graham's split with Jones). American Christianity is deeply idiosyncratic.
posted by klangklangston at 6:43 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


American Christianity is deeply idiosyncratic. So other countries are different? All "Christianity" is the same, fragmented. Each calls the other wrong. For each the belief is simple. We are right, you are wrong and you're going to Hell.

And it isn't about the flavor of the religion. It's about the people who believe in it.

They are right the others are wrong. Period. Do you deny this?

And where does one group get off calling the other Hellbound? Isn't that the most hateful thing that you have ever hear?

I am right and YOU WILL BURN IN ETERNAL AGONY FOREVER!

But I love you.

Bullshit.
posted by Splunge at 7:00 PM on May 18, 2010


Is a human being, in general, good or bad.

No.
posted by Brian B. at 7:01 PM on May 18, 2010


This is not a question I've even come within a mile of asking.

That's why I ask-ed you it. meow.

Are you talking to me?

I'm really talking to anyone who insults the intelligence of Christians for taking the existence of God as a "given". You get to decide whether that means you, or not.

Saved from what?

Terminal cluelessness about the human condition, among other things.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:20 PM on May 18, 2010


Trust in my judgment of the book. Besides, you're gonna hang no matter what it says in there, coz I am the law, and the law is the handmaiden of justice.

Get a rope.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:10 PM on May 18, 2010


Splunge, If I answer your questions, will you answer mine, please? I've asked them somewhat a bit upthread.

Are human beings, in general, good or bad? Disregarding god or politics, what is the nature of humans. And I specifically use the plural.

Both. Human beings are equally capable of both great evil AND great good.

Which leads us to your second question:

Is a human being, in general, good or bad. Disregarding god or politics, what is the nature of a single human? And I specifically use the singular.

It depends on which specific single human you're talking about. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and John Wayne Gacy were equally capable of great evil and great good - but Martin Luther King Jr. directed his intentions one way, and John Wayne Gacy did the other.

The forces that can influence a single human one way or the other are myriad - upbringing, emotional makeup, societal pressure, half-remembered fairy tales they heard once in second grade, a chance conversation with a stranger, religious thought, humanist philosophy, arguments from "new atheism" -- but all combine in that one specific single human, who has received elements and influences that no OTHER single human has had, and who has a brain chemistry unlike ANY other single human, and the whole stew influences htat one single human either one way or the other. So -- in order to state the nature of "a single human", you'd need to tell me which single human you're talking about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:10 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of this stuff is really moving out of the realm of theology, religion, philosophy and heading into psychology.

We can actually study what makes people do things. It's cool.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:12 PM on May 18, 2010


They are right the others are wrong. Period. Do you deny this?

Yes -- there are several Christian denominations that do NOT teach that other Christian denominations are "hellbound" simply by virtue of their being a different denomination. In fact, the "Catholic" in "Catholicism" is actually referring to a belief that "well, okay, all y'all other denominations do things differently, but....y'all still get baptized, and that saves y'all from hell, so yay."

Interestingly, there are other religions which have similar views of non-believers-in-that-religion - the Noachic Code tradition in Judaism springs to mind.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:14 PM on May 18, 2010


"So other countries are different? All "Christianity" is the same, fragmented. Each calls the other wrong. For each the belief is simple. We are right, you are wrong and you're going to Hell."

Yes, most other countries are different, especially European countries (the other bastion of establishment Christianity), in that most other countries have a single state religion to which the country has nominal fealty. England is Anglican; Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are Lutheran. The reaction against removing penalties for non-believers (or benefits for believers) is called antidisestablishmentarianism, a word beloved by sesquipedalians everywhere. One of the notable and arguably ironic features of American Christianity is its virulent social evolution, in part aided by the establishment clause of the first amendment. As state religions remain stolid and inert, American Christianity has been free to remake itself into whatever appealed to the laity at any given time.

And no, many branches of Christianity don't necessarily believe that the others are going to hell—this is most notable with many of the liberal churches, but can be seen across a broad spectrum. There are even Universalists (Unitarian and otherwise) who believe that Jesus's death and resurrection guaranteed salvation for everyone, no matter what.

Not only that, but tubthumping over the idea of Hell as hateful is a non-starter for anyone who's got a bit of brains to rub together. You can either take the sensible position that because Hell doesn't exist, telling someone they're going there if they keep up their current behavior is as hateful as telling them that they're going to toil in the mines of Mordor if they don't stop eating pork, or you can think about the context and understand that from the perspective of a believer, it's actually a message of love. People only go to Hell, granting a Hell for the sake of argument, after they're dead, and only (from a general theological point of view) if they die in a state of unrepentant sin. Given that Hell is the worst afterlife possible by definition, this person is trying to save you from that and deliver you into the best possible afterlife. If they hated you, they simply wouldn't tell you about Hell or Heaven, they'd let that be a surprise to your sinning ass. The easy analogy here is telling a junkie that they're a junkie and that they need help lest they relapse and die. Sure, that can be said snidely or with malice, but the statement itself is one of compassion and assistance. They don't want you to go to Hell, even though they may not even know you. That is, even if it's small, love.

Now, personally, I tend to think that when you're dead, you're dead, and there's no afterlife and the knowledge that my atoms will return to the universal lode is somewhat cold comfort, but that's why I believe it's incumbent upon all of us to strive to make humanity better while we're here. So I find it absurd when folks tell me I'm going to Hell, especially when they miss the obvious attendant clause of "if you don't repent what you're doing, and live in a way prescribed by my religion," and believe me, I get told I'm going to Hell more times per day than you do even when you're trying.

Maybe you'd be bothered less by religion if you knew more about it.
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


"In fact, the "Catholic" in "Catholicism" is actually referring to a belief that "well, okay, all y'all other denominations do things differently, but....y'all still get baptized, and that saves y'all from hell, so yay.""

Actually, no. The "Catholic" in Catholicism means "Universally Accepted," as in Universally Accepted As The One True Church. Which was clever branding during the Reformation. Catholics are very much not Universalists.
posted by klangklangston at 10:32 PM on May 18, 2010


Crabby: If I understand you correctly (and correct me if I don't) you think that anyone who does not share your belief in God is insulting you and all other Christians (or, possibly, all believers). That is not my intent but your taking it so ma,es it difficult to talk with you.

Empress: I don't know what Miller has to do with this. You're saying that believers can be mistaken. Well, yes, they can't all be right -- no matter how universalist some share of believers are, there are many factions who insist that they and only they are right and everyone else is wrong wrong going-to-burn-in-Hell-wrong!
But that's why religionists cannot dictate policy -- somebody, then, will burn. And that is the problem here. You (and Hart) say that atheists should engage believers on your terms -- your own terms meaning recognition of widespread differences of faith and Hart's terms being something or other about his version of philosophical discourse. But these are both beside the point. Religion should not dictate public policy. Period. I will not engage a wacky fundamentalist over the teaching of evolution by saying that the Pope thinks differently. I will tell him he is wrong to demand that lesson plans fit his ideas of religion. It is not up to me to debate doctrine with these fringe Christians. That should be the task of other believers.
posted by CCBC at 11:40 PM on May 18, 2010


Splunge: “They are right the others are wrong. Period. Do you deny this?”

Yes. Justin Martyr said that Christianity was just a manifestation of the thoughts of the pagans. Augustine said that the truth is perennial, occurring in all times and all places. St Thomas Aquinas said that the appearance of the Christ being a mystery, we cannot discount the possibility that the truth has been revealed in other ways to other peoples.

I can quote doctors of the church all day if you'd like; Christianity is not as exclusionary as you think. What's the source for your contention that Christianity is essentially exclusionary? Pat Robertson?
posted by koeselitz at 11:49 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


What's the source for your contention that Christianity is essentially exclusionary?
The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
The Thirty Years' War.
The Albigensian Crusade.
the various anti-heretic crusades including, but not limited to, The Inquisition.
England borrowed Dutch ideas in the late 17th C. to become more tolerant and still persecuted Catholics for another hundred years.
Christian internecine struggles continued in the New World until Madison (writing on behalf of the Baptists, who seem to have forgotten their own history) and Jefferson set a precedent of tolerance in Virginia that was eventually accepted by other colonies. Of course now many evangelicals and others are calling for the end of church/state separation. Hart pointed up something like this when he talked about the schismatic nature of American religion and its tendency toward Apocalyptic beliefs.
(I wonder if I quoted Justin Martyr to the Texas Board of Education if they would back off?)
posted by CCBC at 12:25 AM on May 19, 2010


Not one of those things was sponsored by actual doctors of the church. Try again.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 AM on May 19, 2010


It doesn't matter if the learned doctors were behind these events -- certainly religious leaders, including Popes, were. If you want to say that Christianity is only theology, fine. But that has little to do with the difficulties that ordinary people must face. Is Christianity only the preserve of "doctors of the church"?
koeselitz, it seems to me that you keep shifting the ground here.
posted by CCBC at 1:28 AM on May 19, 2010


CCBC: “koeselitz, it seems to me that you keep shifting the ground here.”

When have I once shifted my ground? I explain myself; it gets ignored. I say Christianity is a coherent thing; you say "oh, but no, it's this other thing." It's cute to me, the way you're an expert on everybody else's beliefs, so much so that you can lecture them on what they do and don't believe. It's sort of a strong indicator that I'm right when I judge that the grand inquisitor has more in common with you than me.
posted by koeselitz at 1:35 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know what Miller has to do with this. You're saying that believers can be mistaken. Well, yes, they can't all be right -- no matter how universalist some share of believers are, there are many factions who insist that they and only they are right and everyone else is wrong wrong going-to-burn-in-Hell-wrong!

I was responding to the statement that "but if they say they get their beliefs from the Bible, then we have to engage the religion itself." My point was that, they may SAY they get their beliefs from the Bible, and they may THINK they get their beliefs from the Bible, but they may have indeed read something INTO the Bible unawares.

The fact that there are Christians who DO NOT oppose gay marriage/DO NOT believe non-believers are hellbound/etc. indicates to me that perhaps the people you're seeing who DO oppose gay marriage/who DO believe non-believers are hellbound are reading things into the Bible.

But that's why religionists cannot dictate policy -- somebody, then, will burn. And that is the problem here. You (and Hart) say that atheists should engage believers on your terms -- your own terms meaning recognition of widespread differences of faith and Hart's terms being something or other about his version of philosophical discourse. But these are both beside the point. Religion should not dictate public policy. Period. I will not engage a wacky fundamentalist over the teaching of evolution by saying that the Pope thinks differently. I will tell him he is wrong to demand that lesson plans fit his ideas of religion. It is not up to me to debate doctrine with these fringe Christians. That should be the task of other believers.

I agree with you on all of this. So then, if you can respond to the fundamentalists (which is a better term that "religionists," I would suggest) without attacking CHRISTANITY ITSELF, if you can say "religion has no place in dictating public policy" WITHOUT saying "because Christianity invariably has been nothing but evil", then I have no quarrel with you.

Look, I completely agree with the separation of church and state, and encourage it myself. But there's a difference between "advocating for the separation of church and state" and "advocating for THE ELIMINATION OF CHURCH and leaving only the state".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:04 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Look, I completely agree with the separation of church and state, and encourage it myself. But there's a difference between "advocating for the separation of church and state" and "advocating for THE ELIMINATION OF CHURCH and leaving only the state".

This sort of projection invariably comes up. Apologists tip their hand to suggest that their faith is targeted for destruction, which is a pretty dangerous mindset they secretly harbor, because it's more likey what they do to each other, and to various secular institutions. I would repeat that the only standing democratic issue with religion is to tax it or not. If we went any further than that, it would likely be to state-ize a generic religious mode and disqualify anything different.
posted by Brian B. at 6:42 AM on May 19, 2010


Crabby: If I understand you correctly (and correct me if I don't) you think that anyone who does not share your belief in God is insulting you and all other Christians (or, possibly, all believers).

I never said anything of the sort and I can't imagine how you arrived at such an outlandish notion.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:54 AM on May 19, 2010


Apologists tip their hand to suggest that their faith is targeted for destruction, which is a pretty dangerous mindset they secretly harbor
It doesn't matter if the learned doctors were behind these events -- certainly religious leaders, including Popes, were.

Wait - *tap tap* is this thing on?

The Thirty Years' War which happened 400 years ago is cited as valid example of Christianity being exclusionary (with nary a mention of von Wallenstein or the big jawed inbred Habsburgs and the myriad other causes) but citation of the Soviets burning churches 50 years ago as an example of atheist destruction of religion - that's delusional?
(Nothing like that is going on now of course.)

So, it doesn't matter if learned atheists like David Hume weren't behind the French Reign of Terror - because certainly atheist and anti-Christian leaders, including Hébert and Committee members, were?

Silly to argue in those terms. And on such a nice Floréal day.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:45 PM on May 19, 2010


but citation of the Soviets burning churches 50 years ago as an example of atheist destruction of religion - that's delusional?
(Nothing like that is going on now of course.)


Religions and dogmas persecute each other, including the dogma of communism. If we hold religious persecution as a world evil, then "religion" would be the evil. The delusional part about conflating an atheistic disbelief in God with the communist belief in holding all things in common, is that the latter is instituted in early Christian dogma and has always been practiced in the most devout religious communes in every culture, including every kind of monastery.
posted by Brian B. at 4:34 PM on May 19, 2010


Crabby: Here is your post that I apparently misinterpreted. Sorry. I don't know how else to read it.

Empress: I am glad you are in favor of separation of Church and State. I hope you speak out against those who think otherwise. I did not say (nor would I) that "Christianity has been nothing but evil" nor am I advocating the destruction of Christianity. I do not think that the term "fundamentalist" encompasses all those who are attempting to force their views on public policy. (Someone earlier noted the differences between Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts, for instance, and there's evangelists who aren't fundamentalist and vice-versa, I think -- anyway, I can't keep all of that straight).

koeselitz: I do not mean to lecture you on your beliefs -- that is something I refused with Empress, but I do differ with the notion that Christianity is coherent. After all, isn't finding coherency what your theologians are trying to do? I certainly don't agree that citing Aquinas and Justin Martyr proves that Christianity is coherent.

Smedleyman: I think it silly to argue in terms of Christianity being coherent and some Christians in this thread have themselves said as much. I am aware of the complexity of the Thirty Years War, from the pre-War Hussite massacres down to Catholic Bourbon siding with Protestants against Catholic Hapsburg. Yet when Christian murders Christian and excuses it in the name of Christ, that is, I think, a datum in the argument that Christianity is not always a single coherent sect -- I don't know that it has ever been. As for atheists being involved in terrible events: sure. But being an atheist does not mean you share any kind of belief system with other atheists, it only means you share disbelief. People have brought up Stalin. Maybe the problem here is ideology -- I don't like Stalinism or the Jacobin Terror any more than I do religious ideologies. Stalin was( is?) defended by ideologues, so was Robespierre.

I rarely get into these religious debates because they usually turn sour. I sense this one going over the edge, so I'm done. I want to reiterate the point in my original post which is that Hart (like other attackers of current atheist statements) is ignoring the reason for these statements: that American Christians are trying to impose their beliefs on others and, more frightening, that believers of many faiths all over the world are attempting to use their beliefs to impose their will on others. Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Jew -- all ideologies I do not subscribe to.
posted by CCBC at 5:13 PM on May 19, 2010


CCBC: “koeselitz: I do not mean to lecture you on your beliefs -- that is something I refused with Empress, but I do differ with the notion that Christianity is coherent. After all, isn't finding coherency what your theologians are trying to do? I certainly don't agree that citing Aquinas and Justin Martyr proves that Christianity is coherent.”

I could spend a long time trying to make it coherent. I have tried to here. Maybe you won't agree that it's centrally coherent. But I'd like it if atheists would stop acting as though it's self-evident that Christianity is incoherent. Pope Guilty was earlier apparently asking that Christians simply stop believing that their religion is coherent. I think that's probably asking too much. At the very least, it's necessary to actually spend time studying the faith in question.

And I know you might have felt like it wasn't fair of me to dismiss the 30 years' war and the St Bartholomew's Day massacre and the Albigensian Crusade and such as being central to Christianity, but really – can you believe that those things are central to what Christianity, as a belief structure, really is? Do you really believe that Christians for centuries have gone to churches and celebrated these massacres, that they've taken communion and honored the slaughterers and murderers of history, that they've spent all their time thinking just how wonderful all the killing was? Sometimes I think atheists really and truly think this – that some of you really and truly think that Christians are so monstrous that they spend all of their time praying for murderous genocide and tyrannical injustice.

I think it might help you get a better picture of Christianity if you just listened to the words that Christians use. Honestly, I know that our age is an age of cynicism, and we've so absorbed the notion that people are lying that we don't really listen anyway, but I think the simple words that people use can start to give an impression of what they believe.

That's what's been so frustrating about this bit of the conversation, I think. It's as though atheists here have taken a firm stance and stuck to it, refusing in any way to budge – that this is the standard New Atheist line gives them confidence. The firm stance is that words don't matter, and that beliefs don't matter. So the conversation can only go in one way: "look at the horrible actions of Christians of the past," you say. "This proves that Christianity is a bloody and wreckless thing." We respond: "but those actions, while they may have been committed by people who claimed to be Christians, have nothing to do with the heart of what we call Christianity;" and we endeavor to explain what we mean by this. But none of our explanations mean anything to atheists. I've tried to be charitable here, and to confess that I guess it's not really fair of me to demand that an atheist find the heart of Christianity meaningful, or even coherent; but it's still quite unfair that atheists continue to insist that secretly, without any Christians knowing it, Christianity is actually a bloody-minded cult of death.

Moreover, it's convenient to label one distinct thing "religion" and blame on it all the terrible things that have happened in the past two thousand years. It would moreover be nice if life were so easy, if there were a simple culprit the removal of which would take away all the injustice in the world. Religion is the New Atheists' magic bullet; remove it, they claim, and all that is sick and disturbing will disappear. But this notion of "religion" is so formless that it begins to lose meaning.

CCBC: “I think it silly to argue in terms of Christianity being coherent and some Christians in this thread have themselves said as much. I am aware of the complexity of the Thirty Years War, from the pre-War Hussite massacres down to Catholic Bourbon siding with Protestants against Catholic Hapsburg. Yet when Christian murders Christian and excuses it in the name of Christ, that is, I think, a datum in the argument that Christianity is not always a single coherent sect -- I don't know that it has ever been.”

But this still says nothing about what Christianity is and whether it's a coherent idea. Scientists in the past vivisected dogs and cats in the name of science; this particularly brutal and painful form of research was once frighteningly common. That does not mean that the scientific method is inherently cruel or morally despicable; nor does it mean that the scientific method is incoherent or not a shared idea amongst scientists.
posted by koeselitz at 7:04 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Empress: I am glad you are in favor of separation of Church and State. I hope you speak out against those who think otherwise.

I do. Those people aren't saying that in this thread, however, so that's the only reason you're not seeing me say that. I hope you would have the grace to give me the benefit of the doubt despite not seeing me advocate for that cause elsewhere.

I did not say (nor would I) that "Christianity has been nothing but evil" nor am I advocating the destruction of Christianity.

I know you did not. But others in this thread have, or at least implied it, and I am clarifying my opinion lest you get confused.

I do not think that the term "fundamentalist" encompasses all those who are attempting to force their views on public policy.

No, but I was not referring to "all those who are attempting to force their views on public policy". I was referring to "people who are attempting to enforce their personal religious views on other people". I think it's an important distinction; it is the "religionist's" fundamentalism that spurs them TO try to enforce their views on public policy, and I believe that attributing their motivations to their fundamentalism is more accurate than attributing it to their "religion". Because, after all, if they had their religion but did NOT attempt to enforce it on others, that would be no problem.

So that is why I advocate "fundamentalist" instead of "religionist." Because, come to think of it, one can be a "fundamentalist" about a lot of things besides religion. And it is the "forcing other people to comply with you" that is at issue, not what it is you are forcing others to comply WITH.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


The firm stance is that words don't matter, and that beliefs don't matter. So the conversation can only go in one way: "look at the horrible actions of Christians of the past," you say. "This proves that Christianity is a bloody and wreckless thing."

The idea that Christianity has primarily had non-bloody-and-reckless intentions is ahistorical: the only way you can arrive at such a view of Christianity is to ignore or excuse away the actions and words and beliefs of the Christian majority and the Christian power elite, again and again and again, in favor of the words and beliefs of a minority of Christian scholars. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the wholesale and deliberate destruction of other faiths and nations... these things were supported by Christians at all levels of power and influence -- not just in action, but in word and belief, for centuries. These things were, each in their time, pillars of faith for entire Christian nations. And the people of those nations did, in fact, go to church and celebrate these massacres victories. The killers themselves were blessed, celebrated, and in some cases, even canonized.

Now that you no longer like what these Christians said and believed, though, you wish to claim that the Crusaders (for example) were never Christian at all... and yet you accuse atheists of "absorbing the notion that people are lying"! If "the simple words that people use can start to give an impression of what they believe", then it is not so easy to dismiss the many Crusaders who wrote that they were killing for Christ. There are hundreds of years worth of simple words which belie your vision of Christianity, yet you insist that their authors were never Christian; on the other hand, you insist that atheists judge Christians by word, not deed. There would seem to be a double-standard at work, here.

it's still quite unfair that atheists continue to insist that secretly, without any Christians knowing it, Christianity is actually a bloody-minded cult of death.

This isn't a case of secrecy. Bloody-minded cult-of-death stuff is going on in the name of Christ right now, in your own country, much less abroad. It's no secret at all... yet any attempt to point out the harm Christianity is doing is met with excuses much like the ones you used to explain away the Crusades. Why, you yourself said it -- "The entire history of time up to this point could be a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity, every bit of it the most bloody and vile imaginable, and all of it committed by people who said they were Christians; it would mean nothing about what Christianity is."

We don't apply that standard to anything else on Earth, and it's more than a little unreasonable to expect it to apply here. What Christianity is most certainly has to do with what Christians do in the name of Christ.
posted by vorfeed at 9:54 PM on May 19, 2010


We don't apply that standard to anything else on Earth, and it's more than a little unreasonable to expect it to apply here. What Christianity is most certainly has to do with what Christians do in the name of Christ.

Not true. I would submit that we do this in the case of science all the time, ignoring the abuse, torture, violence, and brutality of science's history (and present, perhaps, depending on your personal ethics) and instead referring to the scientific method or mindset of the scientist.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:07 PM on May 19, 2010


Vorfeed: So, yeah, again, Martin Luther King Jr. represented a bloody-minded death cult? He acted in the name of Christianity, as did many abolitionists. And Christian charity has likely saved more lives than Christian wars of religion have cost.

Frankly, that sort of rhetoric fails on its face: You do exactly what Koeselitz predicts and rant again in a way that neither illuminates nor resolves.

The argument is not that Crusaders weren't Christian, but rather twofold: They are a poor representative for Christianity, and that Christianity is a poor explanation for the Crusades.

And it's moronic to insist that every criticism of the often serious harm that some Christians do is excused or explained away. Seriously, it's insulting. You've been here long enough—everyone still in this thread has been here long enough—that you should know that none of us are apologists (nor Apologists).

You can argue about the suitability of Crusaders as representatives of Christians, but it seems a little like saying that medicine is a tortuous and superstitious practice because doctors used a philosophy of humors to treat patients. Or that Queen Elizabeth is a bloody-minded tyrant who keeps her subjects in perpetual serfdom in order to finance endless war.

As for the second part, given that most of the Crusades make little sense theologically (even from most Medieval theology) and a lot of sense politically and economically, it seems more reasonable to conclude that religion was a contributory cause and a method, but not the proximate nor sole cause on an abstract social level.
posted by klangklangston at 10:25 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


given that most of the Crusades make little sense theologically (even from most Medieval theology) and a lot of sense politically and economically, it seems more reasonable to conclude that religion was a contributory cause and a method, but not the proximate nor sole cause on an abstract social level.

As I said earlier: "Christianity was certainly not the sole motivation of the Crusades, but it cannot be discounted, because much of what happened during the Crusades makes little sense without it". It's quite true that religion may not have been the proximate or sole cause of the Crusades on an abstract social level, but that doesn't make the Crusades non-religious, as koeselitz claimed.

I do not personally regard the Crusades as The Representatives Of Christians, but I'm also not going to sit by and watch someone claim that they weren't "a religious project, inspired by faith and by the bible", nor that they weren't celebrated by Christianity afterward.
posted by vorfeed at 10:47 PM on May 19, 2010


Not true. I would submit that we do this in the case of science all the time, ignoring the abuse, torture, violence, and brutality of science's history (and present, perhaps, depending on your personal ethics) and instead referring to the scientific method or mindset of the scientist.

Perhaps, but we don't claim that those people are (or were) not scientists. Nor do we demand that science be judged by its words and beliefs rather than its deeds; the past brutalities of science are freely admitted and even studied within science. The idea that abuse, torture, violence, and brutality is justified by the scientific method or the mindset of the scientist is rejected by modern scientific ethics, not embraced.

I'll be the first to admit that scientific ethics has some serious blind spots (especially when it comes to animals), but comparing science to koeselitz's claims about Christianity is unwarranted. One might say that the history of science up to this point was "a stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity"... but that did have something to do with what science is, because it led to a different set of scientific ethics. The disconnect between actions and beliefs is simply not the same, here: what scientists do in the name of science does have something to do with what science is.
posted by vorfeed at 11:14 PM on May 19, 2010


Perhaps, but we don't claim that those people are (or were) not scientists. Nor do we demand that science be judged by its words and beliefs rather than its deeds; the past brutalities of science are freely admitted and even studied within science. The idea that abuse, torture, violence, and brutality is justified by the scientific method or the mindset of the scientist is rejected by modern scientific ethics, not embraced.

We often claim they're not scientists (Nazi scientists are now "war criminals" or "perpetrators of atrocity," never "scientists," to pick just one example). I think your second point is true, but that is also true in Christianity--theologists routinely and constantly study lines of reasoning that led to harmful actions in the past. That's not really even debatable. Your third point is also true in religion--nobody justifies stuff like the Crusades because of religious philosophy/ethics or the "mindset" of the priests/pope at the time, quite the opposite.

So really, everything you said is also true about Christianity--it's no stretch to argue that that "stream of endless, relentless slaughter and merciless atrocity has led to a different set of [Christian] ethics."

Similarly, what Christians do in the name of Christianity does have something to do with what Christianity is--it just doesn't define it, and it's influence is just as likely to be one of learning-by-negation as that of science.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:08 AM on May 20, 2010


If religious people of any kind insist using their religion to justify their politics, and religious organizations use their resources for political ends, then as political opponents, we have two choices.

We can accept their premises (that god exists, that he speaks to the faithful, that god cares about and intervenes in human affairs, etc) and try to argue the conclusions.

Or we can attack the foundations of their beliefs.

The first tactic might be polite, and it may have the benefit of leaving non-politically active religious out of the cross fire, but in my opinion when one side gets to define what God's will is, you are going to lose.

Example:

"It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."

"Okay, but what about shell-fish"

"No, there's a New Covenant"

"I give up"

The second option will probably not be very affective against true believers, but hopefully subjecting those beliefs to strenuous argument over time will move the bounds of acceptible public discourse away from the assumption of belief.

Example:

"It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."

"Who cares? God doesn't exist."

Now, you at least have some control over the future direction of the argument, and you don't need to know the specifics of this person's interpretation of Christian doctrine.

Argue the maximum position. What does compromise gain you?
-----

Enough people who publicly and loudly say, "No, as a matter of fact, I'm not willing to concede the existence of God, or that your faith has any relevance to this political issue," will hopefully put a stigma on the kinds of religious talk that are acceptable in the public sphere.

I gather that someone like Sarah Palin would be a laughing stock in Britain. Hopefully, someday we can make that true in the US.

It surely won't happen if atheists remain polite and timid.
posted by empath at 12:43 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The second option will probably not be very affective against true believers, but hopefully subjecting those beliefs to strenuous argument over time will move the bounds of acceptible public discourse away from the assumption of belief.

Example:

"It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."

"Who cares? God doesn't exist."

Now, you at least have some control over the future direction of the argument, and you don't need to know the specifics of this person's interpretation of Christian doctrine.


I would posit that the only "control" you have over the "future direction of the argument" is that you've shifted the conversation away from "is homosexuality acceptable" to being about "does God exist". And, okay, you've indeed taken control of the conversation by shifting its focus.

However, I can't help but notice that since you're no longer arguing about "is homosexuality an abomination or not", but are instead arguing about "does God exist or not", and since "does God exist or not" will most likely be a conversation that will end up being an impasse, you've cheated yourself of the opportunity to discuss your original topic of conversation, in addition to crystalizing in your rival's mind the notion that all those who support homosexuality are "godless heathens" whose opinions are not worth their consideration. (Why would they want to pay attention to you, after all, since you are opposed to their personal core beliefs? And what's more, it looks like you're bound and determined to push them away from those beliefs rather than living and letting live?)

....But, hey, you've "gained control" of the conversation by distracting them to a more fruitless topic of discussion, so that's something, I suppose...

I gather that someone like Sarah Palin would be a laughing stock in Britain. Hopefully, someday we can make that true in the US.

....You haven't noticed that Sarah Palin isn't ALREADY a laughingstock in the US?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:04 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


CCBC writes: Crabby: Here is your post that I apparently misinterpreted. Sorry. I don't know how else to read it.

Fail.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:46 AM on May 20, 2010


Example:

"It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."


"Yeah, but then your Savior Jesus Christ, the foundation of your faith, comes along and doesn't even the broach the topic. But he does make a big fat point of saying, Judge not lest ye be judged, love thine enemy etc."
posted by philip-random at 9:59 AM on May 20, 2010


“The delusional part about conflating an atheistic disbelief in God with the communist belief in holding all things in common, is that the latter is instituted in early Christian dogma and has always been practiced in the most devout religious communes in every culture, including every kind of monastery.”

I was addressing your point that apologists tip their hand to suggest that their faith is targeted for destruction because it’s what they want to do to each other and to secular institutions.
Dialectical materialism (Marx, Lenin, Soviet communism in general) was a secular institution which did concretely kill clergy and destroy churches. That goes on now in China which also oppresses various religions.
Whether the concept of communism was practiced in kibbutz or early Christianity, monasteries, whatnot – isn’t really the motivator here.

“But being an atheist does not mean you share any kind of belief system with other atheists, it only means you share disbelief.”

Which can be unified to oppress others (see above examples) and so – EXCLUDE them. Which is the point. Obviously Christianity and any number of other philosophies and bodies of thought can be fractious. That’s my point in contrasting Robespierre with Hume.
Hume was a philosopher and an atheist and explained his beliefs in writing. One of his positions seems fairly parallel to Hart, that is, that morals excite passions and produce actions and the rules of morality are not necessarily the conclusions of our reason.

Looking in this thread at how people get pissed off on this topic, yet lay claim to reason, is proof alone (metafilter is practically an exercise in emotivism with the favoriting comments, debates over pizza, etc. etc.) Not saying this is wrong or bad, just the way it is.

Abdication of the responsibility for one’s position presumes that it’s not possible for that position to be used in the same way another position is. In this case the concept seems to be Christianity can and has been used to oppress people in one way or another. Atheism can’t be used that way because it’s not like Christianity (in a number of ways).

This is demonstrably wrong. The Hébertistes ridiculed religious folks and Robespierre put them under the guillotine while they ransacked the churches and the cult of reason set about dechristianizing France.

Therefore – while one may (and should) dislike people of faith trying to impose their beliefs on others, it is a well documented case that people who have an absence of faith – atheists – have also attempted to impose unbelief on people.

Thus my argument – it’s the possibility of oppression, not the form it takes, that is the problem and which requires safeguards.

Anyone can be corrupted and use any kind of banner (or lack of one) to advance their cause.
And indeed, vice versa.
There were some wonderful human beings who fervently believed in Nazism but opposed what the nazis were doing at the risk of their lives (Schindler obviously, but John Rabe for example, or Dietrich von Choltiz for a military man) .

It doesn’t much matter what a given paradigm is because the acts done by individuals or groups of individuals are more important than the belief system.
To say Christianity is inherently evil is just as silly as people who say they’re inherently good people because they’re Christians.

MLK could have been an atheist or Jewish or an ancestor worshipping Shinto. As it happened, lots of African Americans were Christian and it was easier to mobilize them that way.
Any belief system is capable of mobilizing people. Mobilization itself is neither good or bad. It just depends on the purpose to which it’s being used.
That’s fairly easy to discern usually.

" It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."

"Who cares? God doesn't exist."

Well, no, that’s still wrong because it’s a religious argument. Just because it’s a negation, doesn’t mean it’s not within the same sphere.
You want God out of politics:
“It clearly says in the old testament that homosexuality is an abomination."

"Who cares? Religion has no bearing on civil law because of the separation of church and state. Homosexuals are citizens of this country protected by the constitution. As is your right to worship freely. There are no other considerations that are legally acceptable.”
“Bu-But God said….”
“Ignoring your presumption to know the mind of God aside – do you want to remove the protections religion enjoys and have the state make the determination as to who can engage in what practices and remove the right to self-govern within your church? Plenty of high ranking officials who have a different religion from you – want them to start exerting their influence from that position? Want a public school teacher telling your kid he’s got the wrong God?”
“Uh….”
“Ok, then. Scoot along.”
posted by Smedleyman at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Dialectical materialism (Marx, Lenin, Soviet communism in general) was a secular institution which did concretely kill clergy and destroy churches. That goes on now in China which also oppresses various religions.

Hegel believed in God. So if you want to misplace your concreteness to have an idea destroy churches at the hands of human robots, at least properly credit the idea as religious in origin.
posted by Brian B. at 7:09 PM on May 20, 2010


Well, no, that'd require that Hegel wanting to destroy churches. Are you even trying to be coherent?
posted by klangklangston at 7:31 PM on May 20, 2010


Misplace concreteness to have an idea...?

I'm talking about actual acts done explicitly in the name of Atheism. People wore big "MILITANT ATHEISM" badges emblazoned on their clothes and went around beating robbing and killing clergymen and burning their churches down.

How can it be Hegel's fault in any way for what people did in under the assumption of a bit of his philosophy?

It's exactly the point that someone like Hegel, or Hume who laid the groundwork for some modern atheistic thinking, didn't go out and chop anyone's head off - but there were people who did and would have done it whether they were calling themselves atheists or monists or whatever - whether Hume had written anything or not.

It doesn't much matter whether Robespierre or any of his cohorts were Christians or atheists or what kind of atheists they were - the acts they performed where abhorrent regardless of what labels they used to try to excuse the behavior.
Friggin style doesn't enter into it.

Joe Clergy is peacefully praying to his god in church. Giving alms to the poor. Counseling young married couples. A small group of men walk in. He opens them with welcome arms and asks them if they're cold or hungry and would they like some soup and - BAM! BAM! BAM! they stave his head in with hammers and start to cut his balls off so they can hang them on a hook outside with his tongue.
Now seriously - do you think he gives a shit at the time how much Hegelian dialectical materialism is derived from Hegel's belief in God?

The more I read modern 'atheist' philosophy the more it seems to boil down to: "Hey, why so defensive asshole?"
And of course provoking the response: "I'm not being defen ... hey don't call me an asshole!"
"Look, see, you're being defensive."

Belief or non-belief in God does not justify or legitimate any behavior that follows from it. Nor is a certain human behavior inherent in a people or an idea.
Any philosophy can be used as cover to try and justify acting in its name - from patriotism to nihilism.
And most have been.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:50 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Most of this is a debate that’s wrapped around a logical fallacy, an appeal to authority, in the first place.
Many holy rollers have tried, try, and will try to assert the primacy of God’s law or that of whomever holds the divine word – could be a prophet, could be just some guy, but it usually boils down to privilege for whomever assumes the right to interpret the word and uses it as the basis to order people around.
When you say “but God doesn’t exist” to someone playing that game, you are also playing that game, albeit from the other side. The attack is not where it belongs – upon the legitimacy of the authority of God and the derived authority of whomever is saying they are the embodiment or interpreter or psychopomp or what have you, but on a matter that is less easily settled and that ultimately, IMHO, doesn’t matter.
The only thing that matters is where authority is derived. An appeal to God is an appeal to authority. Any genuine authority has to derive from the consent of the governed.
God – even if he exists – bears no such responsibility. By every possible definition of God, including the most liberal definition of Omnipotence (which would include omnipresence, which means even if God causes suffering, he feels it just as much as you and knows and understands far more), and allowing the best case scenario for the existence of evil and subjective suffering – all that, all at best, God has no responsibility to you.
Certainly nowhere near any responsibility commensurate with even the most totalitarian authority. Who, at best, can torture and kill you and everyone you love for you lifetime. God can do that for an eternity. Wanting to, understanding, loving you – doesn’t enter into it. The cops can kick in your door, the secret police can keep you under surveillance, Big Brother can maybe even make you stop loving someone. God can hit you with a hurricane or make the whole universe disappear, whatever.
However it is one defines the exercise of power, even if it’s altruistic, it’s not possible to constrain Omnipotence through any human means.
So, exists, doesn’t, same thing. We have to act the same way in terms of authority (I would argue by all other human means, but that’s tangential). Which means we have to hold those who assert authority accountable for it. And too, hold those who question authority to a standard that does not itself presume to supplant and replace, by the same derivational methods, that authority.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:50 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Misplace concreteness to have an idea

Man, that's a like lyric from a Yes song, right up there with ...

And assessing points to nowhere leading every single one

or

As song and chance develop time lost social temperance rules above

Somehow, it just seems very appropriate so very deep into such a thread. It clarifies nothing. It obfuscates rather nicely.
posted by philip-random at 12:24 PM on May 21, 2010


Misplace concreteness to have an idea...?

I'm talking about actual acts done explicitly in the name of Atheism. People wore big "MILITANT ATHEISM" badges emblazoned on their clothes and went around beating robbing and killing clergymen and burning their churches down.


Yes, misplaced concreteness is a famous fallacy, one of its many names. It is appropriate since you raised the idea of concreteness, hence your concreteness.

As for atheists destroying Russian churches, I think it fits too easily in the black and white mentality. Anarchism and communism are confusing to most people, but atheism fits neatly the opposite function of religious persecution. It also stems from a mindset that credits every act as an extension of one's "beliefs" when this is clearly bogus throughout history. Such acts are usually economic related, but combined with the danger of idealism that supplies the self-justifying reasons; ends justifying the means, etc. I would fact check your church in Russia. Exaggerating this part is ultimately far worse for one's credibility than implying that the reason people should go to church is so they don't burn it down instead.
posted by Brian B. at 3:44 PM on May 21, 2010


At worst, atheism is about even with religion on religious persecution.
posted by empath at 5:19 PM on May 21, 2010


hence your concreteness.

Well, if we're going to kick fallacies around you've got the "no true atheist" thing going pretty well.
But I'm not debating who's a true what. Baptist. Christian. Atheist. I don't care.
What I'm saying here is people were actually killed. Churches were burned. That's a concrete reality. The people who did it said they were atheists. Soviet doctrine was state atheism. Hoxha explicitly said it.
Your google link even mentions the Bishop of Belgorod.
This is all well documented and I don't want to get hung up on a detail but:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006ATJ7E

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1591023068

http://www.amazon.com/Godless-Communists-Atheism-Society-1917-1932/dp/0875805957/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274495254&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Longman-Companion-America-1941-1998-Companions/dp/0582369010/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274495298&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Storming-Heavens-Soviet-Militant-Godless/dp/0801434858/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274495344&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Religious-Policy-Soviet-Union-Sabrina/dp/0521022304/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274495469&sr=1-1

etc.

Atheists destroyed Russian churches. It's not a concept. It's as solidly factual as the holocaust. I'm not confused about communism. I've been to Russia. I'm aware of atheist thought.
Bottom line - nothing excuses wholesale slaughter of a population and if people are planning to do something like that what they latch on to to excuse it in the first place is typically only an expedient.

Such acts are usually economic related, but combined with the danger of idealism that supplies the self-justifying reasons


Yes. Why would atheism be exempt?

than implying that the reason people should go to church is so they don't burn it down instead.

I'm not implying that. In fact I'm augmenting the flexibility and rationalization capable through any form of idealism to manipulate people and to eliminate dissent and exercise power.
Hence, y'know, introspection, reflection, questioning method, criti-fucking-cism like from Hart.

Matters of degree are not my point. Jesus being, or not being an Essene - not my point. The fact that religions do it too - not my point.

People should not be killed or oppressed for what they believe or don't believe. And they have been. Regardless of the roots of the body of thought.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:08 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a data point, there's also the French Revolution.
posted by XMLicious at 9:15 PM on May 21, 2010


People should not be killed or oppressed for what they believe or don't believe. And they have been. Regardless of the roots of the body of thought.

You'll find self-righteousness as the root at every glance in this regard, from colonialism to communism. Study that one. Hint: It isn't found in the humanist rejection of the colonial and communalist God.
posted by Brian B. at 9:36 PM on May 21, 2010


Exaggerating this part is ultimately far worse for one's credibility than implying that the reason people should go to church is so they don't burn it down instead.

And it's precisely one of Hart's criticisms (the one I'm championing) of those certain atheist writers that they have exaggerated or distorted the facts and that destroys their credibility and validity as skeptics.

This isn't a question of the validity of atheism, it's a questioning of the validity of the methods by which one pursues it. Or any concept.

We can argue whether those specific atheists have actually exaggerated anything. Or what facts may or may not have been distorted in pursuit of making a case for atheism.
But I think it's indisputable that exaggeration and uneducated regard based on ideology and not the reality does harm to one's case, regardless of the matter in question.

Deal with the usurpation of authority by matters of faith and its encroachment on people's right to live their lives on their own terms and the fairness will be there for all to see. And support. Plenty of people in the U.S. support the right to free speech, even for speech they don't like.
Maybe not the best way to win converts. But it's the best way to keep and hold the ground you gain.

Suppress the arguments of faith to advance a goal and the adherents are automatically martyred and yet more entrenched in their own cause and you gain nothing without the use of force.
This has been the case in innumerable conflicts. Why would a religious (or any) ideology engender a victim mentality in the first place if not to close ranks and/or mobilization?
Why help them by being disingenuous in engagement?

Again, all this works both ways. I'm not arguing for religion. I'm arguing that any worldview is open to criticism in its execution, apart from the core ideas in that worldview.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:54 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Study that one. Hint: (self-righteousness)... isn't found in the humanist rejection of the colonial and communalist God.

Seriously? That level of pedantry in a comment on self-righteousness?

So, what, anyone engaging in a humanist rejection of God is incapable of error or hypocrisy in any action?
Isn't that the exact kind of authoritarian dogma and evasion of self-criticism I'm saying needs examination and criticism?
Any ideology, any method is vulnerable to sloppiness, lack of rigor, if not downright abuse and subversion by its adherents -or am I wrong? (Answer that question - don't wait for the translation!)

(And exactly where are we moving those goalposts to? No one would assert Hoxha and Stalin were humanists.)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:34 PM on May 21, 2010


"You'll find self-righteousness as the root at every glance in this regard, from colonialism to communism. Study that one. Hint: It isn't found in the humanist rejection of the colonial and communalist God."

If so, then self-righteousness would also be the root in every religion-fueled atrocity, as it isn't found in the embrace of a loving and just God.
posted by klangklangston at 6:44 AM on May 22, 2010


So if that's the case, then....it's SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS ITSELF that is the root in every atrocity, and whether that is a self-righteousness about religion, atheism, sports team, political affiliation, philosophy, etc., is strictly secondary.

We all agree on something! Yaaaaaaaaaaay!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:01 AM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


it's SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS ITSELF that is the root in every atrocity,
Pretty much my point really. The fact of the thing itself (religion, sports team, etc) wasn't, for me, the issue.

Although the Blackhawks are awesome and I'll kick anyone's ass if they say different. *narrows eyes*
posted by Smedleyman at 3:01 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Islam also teaches that other believers are believers in a true message... and stresses that HUMANS (as human beings are wont to do...) have corrupted various original teachings in ways that detract from believers paths; slowly along the way adding, and subtracting for personal and very human reasons.

It is illogical to feel that this has not continued; that humans have not continued to twist and use words for their own benefit, but this does not somehow materially invalidate all of the words, history and History that go "with" a faith.


Regardless of ones opinions on the divine... surely we can all agree that these 'evolutionary' forces work on sets of ideas and ideologies; just look at the evolutionary branches which Christianity has produced in the past 300 years!

This process is evident in ALL culture, through all time; whether ideas "divinely inspired" or not... it is called "slippage in implementation" when it is in the arena of statute law, and it is misinformation or 'propaganda' in war times, this is done with philosophers, and theorists, and academic thinkers; we all have "proper" interpretations of something, which someone else may just not agree with, but is nonetheless still inspired by, or influenced by the "same" writing, or movie, or song, or article, or book...


Rah-rah, the blackhawks rule, and the sharks drool... Nah nah, Les Habs, et quebec nordiques c'est numero un; or I am a cat person, and I a dog person... cats rule dogs drool, vice versa; we always distort realities to make our messages more poignant.
These statements are not true, but they are "true", authentic, and "felt" by groups of people. These "slogans" may be common- but the means by which individuals ARRIVE as repeaters of such slogans are unique to the individuals.

All cat people did not come to such a position from the same "book" or set of words.
Would we ever condemn these people for how they value certain ideas versus other competing, but equally valid ideas?

Once we accept that we ALL do this, in so very many arenas and we are all telling 'little lies' everyday (even in honesty) we can start to pass around more hugs... everything from laws to sport team preferences are arbitrary and also unique in our rationalizations.


This process has continued.
It is precisely through these confusions and distortions and misguidances peppered across the landscape of the past and History that we all may begin to define ourselves; a very basic step to our HUMAN process of self-definition and self-creation (how we conceive, conceptualize, understand and define our self).

This is me; not me. I agree; do not agree. Accepting some tenet, rejecting another, merely emphasizing one tenet, and subtly shading over another... we are not robots... people may pick and choose WHICH elements, and interpretations that they so desire.

Just as it is a “twisting” of religious ideas for bad (like using the OT to condemn homosexuality); it is also the “personalizing” of generalized ideas which gave MLK a unique set of ideas and neuron chains allowing for changes of a vastly positive manner.
Seems to me we would all benefit from the "unwritten policy" that is used on Mefi; speak to what others SAY, not what you assume, or think another is "supposed" to believe.
More often than not people will surprise.


What this thread has done for me is cement a metaphor that I would like to explore (hopefully briefly).

Nature via Nurture. (via, but slightly altered from Matt Ridley)

Nature=religion A
Nurture= the particular path, words, and messages received which bring someone from more basic "that is NOT me" statements, into "shared religion or ideologies within an individual 'believer'"... essentially all of the “life-realities” (both those each of us is conscious of, and the ones that we passively accept) which have brought a particular individual to their current conception of reality (atheistic, theistic mono/poly...everyone) and lastly how that given individual then 'uses' their personal paradigm to interact, or not-interact, or anywhere in between with various external and distinct individuals, groups and cultures [the other].

Each "believer" [in ANY ideology/belief/system] has a unique 'history'; we have all come to our world-views from a particular path (perhaps it was one particular word or speech by MLK-->Jesus--> Peace for one individual, meanwhile it was Salmon Rushdie-->dawkins-->Darwin-->Nietzsche--> peace for another individual... each of our paths will have a series of words of others which influence us. Meanwhile for others it can be convoluted and confused and mixed up, and altered and based on things that “are” religious, and others that are “not religious”... there is no wand that can make it so that “religious people are only influenced by religious ideas”, and conversely that “no atheistic person can only be influenced by atheistic ideas”... I personally believe that a wider realization of this, and the idea that objectively “good” ideas and motivation and such can come from ANYONE; we will do well as Humans desiring to advance a pluralistic society to learn to listen to people, even when “their world-views” are “based” on “religion”.
I am saying even when we “think” we know what someone believes; we quite possibly do not.
It may be an extreme rejection of David Duke is what makes one person(A) a "better" individual, concerned for and willing to risk their own self for the welfare of others... meanwhile, another person(B) may become utterly DESPONDENT upon hearing and feeling the vileness of the words of Duke... and actually giving up and not being able to benefit those around them; despite possibly having 'more' to offer the world than person (A).

The "same" stimulus can effect different individuals (even those from 'twin' natures and affect changes to that persons individuality in varying ways.

I guess to exemplify what this metaphor means to me; we have a religion or belief system we desire to focus our examination on; this "nature" (or 'paradigm', or 'life-way' must be seen a having been acted upon, altered, "genes"[memes] switched on and off, aspects highlighted, or de-emphasized... A lifetime of Life causes alterations in a life-form.

Like those “enhance” clips of tv shows and movies using computers to enhance a picture of something from “fuzzy” and “generalized”... to one which clearly depicts an actual individual, in an actual location doing an actual action.
In a series of levels of magnification we go from looking at a RELIGION! to looking at an individual... and the intricate subtleties thereof.

Even when we are “rejecting” some set of ideas, we are tacitly “defining” ourselves; even if only by defining what we ARE NOT.

Eventually leading us to see a PARTICULAR individual, with unique and particular outlooks and thoughts going into and out of their minds; a series of responses to a series of physical and chemical stimuli (emotions and reactions owing to chemicals released by our brains and bodily systems).

Two people with "the same" beliefs will not be thinking the same things at all times, their responses to various stimuli will be unique, and their opinions on exposure to alternate ideas will vary.

Hence we get two 'identical twins'; (by nature [in this example, since it seems to be what most here are most aware of, I will use Christianity as the 'nature' to examine for this simple example]) so we have Martin Luther King jr.; and KKK supremacist David Duke... each coming from a belief in the need to “know” and “love” Jesus... but I can objectively say they APPLY their theoretical conceptions differently – despite being “identical twins” in terms of their “nature”.
Nurture is heavily important to the establishment of individual ideologies.


Also, modern molecular biologists and Evolutionary science... prima facia they study the SAME thing as Eugenics and eugenicists; however... can we objectively say they USE their ideas the same ways?
Would it be valid to reject all who study these ideas in perpetuity because a person or group of persons "incorrectly" (maliciously) studied some idea at some past historical era?

We all place our personal experiences as a lens which filters and focuses our views of the objective world around us.
We all ought to learn to love our neighbors better.
Like it or not, those "Christian people" are your neighbors... unless you are advocating an eradication scheme, or plan on some "war" with them, then we all need to learn to accept that those around us will have a different set of beliefs from "our"self.

Martin Luther King jr. just wanted to control and dominate.
posted by klangklangston at 9:04 AM on May 18


Okay, you get one.

And you can have Ghandi, too.
posted by empath at 9:05 AM on May 18
And as we look even closer, more than you think are on "your side"... Granny Smith never used her faith to say someone was "wrong"; but it did help her deal with people younger than her dying of cancers.
And James T. Ronald, faith got through the days, never used, or was inspired to hatred by faith...

But yet so many people go around proselytizing about how 'everyone' uses faith for bad (or if they don't 'already', says 'new atheism'; they soon will, and are just hiding their evil behind an extended hand, or something, since "that is what faith does"!)... What are these people supposed to think?
How can you be pleased? Must someone 'renounce, reject and rescind' faith before 'science' will talk to them?
How far can 'rational science' go to "cure people" of faith.

But try not to lose them as partners by feeling the need to tear down their beliefs... seek the commonalities... do you love your neighbors? I bet there are some Christians who love you... and would work with you to focus attention on environmental crisis.

The reason the "religious" feel they need to "debunk" science is that "science" (*or rather, a few modern scientists) feel it is their JOB to "debunk" religion. This is not the Job of science... it is to over time deduce a more refined truth. WHATEVER that more refined truth may be.

This is NOT co-definable with "debunking religion"... further, Science has not "debunked religion"- it has debunked some human imposed conceptions of religion. These are interwoven, but distinct ideas. Doing this is not debunking religion, so don't say that, as the "first contact" with the religious, and you can start to discover commonalities.

If more modern scientists, or rather the interlocutory bloviation machines who talk about science!, and yet do a fairly poor job of EXPRESSING just what it is that science is all about, or what it means (not Dawkins; he does a spectacular job discussing Evol, and science, and has learned to speak TO people, rather than @) essentially less of the "I'm a skeptic; so everything I say is true, and everything you say is wrong;", there can be more listening (by the religious), and realization that science doesn't go "against" faith, but rather ought to strengthen it for those looking for signs... and on a fundamentally deeper, more 'true', refined and accurate level.

I worry when 'science' talks of faith as a virus. When we discover a virus we do our best to eradicate that virus.

This 'metaphor' is disturbing in concept. (considering modern warfare is about 'modernizing' the enemy, freeing 'them' from the shackles of old beliefs, and 'installing' democracy) in practice, killing people to 'free' them.

Yes, 'religion' has great distance to travel before 'it' is working totally towards the betterment of all People; but it's progressing, and so is science, let us stop throwing the two ideas in a cage full of loaded terms, and emotional historic events, and cheering on a binary, one or the other approach, and we may see some further improving of relations between two very interesting, and valuable Human conceptions.

Our politics and morality, and systems of Justice must keep pace; as it stands, we can see vast injustice, and it is neither "science", nor "faith" which "cause" these injustices...
truce?
posted by infinite intimation at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2010


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