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Ask the atheist
October 13, 2010 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Ask the atheist "Have a question for an atheist? Ever wonder what atheists think about morality, faith, science, etc.? How do atheists live their lives without a god? How do they know right from wrong? Are they just angry at god? Do they really NOT believe?" posted by Paragon (211 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been looking for something like this for years. Thank God!
posted by Poppa Bear at 1:50 PM on October 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


Hey, MeFi! As an atheist myself, I'll be happy to answer your questions.
posted by grubi at 1:53 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, thanks, but I'll just ask my husband. He's as qualified as anyone to speak for all atheists.
posted by bearwife at 1:55 PM on October 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


Hey, thanks, but I'll just ask my husband. He's as qualified as anyone to speak for all atheists.
posted by bearwife at 4:55 PM on October 13 [+] [!]


But he's a bear. What would he possibly be an authority on?
posted by grubi at 1:56 PM on October 13, 2010 [63 favorites]


Honey? Berries? Pic-a-nic baskets?
posted by supercrayon at 1:57 PM on October 13, 2010 [21 favorites]


But he's a bear. What would he possibly be an authority on?

The morality of stealing pic-a-nic baskets?
posted by jedicus at 1:57 PM on October 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Atheism is not an organization, it's an idea. Actually it's not even an idea, it's a range of ideas. Any atheist can only speak for his or herself.

I'm not saying this website is suggesting otherwise, I just think we should deal with that point and move on.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


apples?
posted by found missing at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2010


Not if he's as smart as the average bear.
posted by grubi at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2010


I did not believe in God until I saw two simultaneous "Pic-a-nic baskets" jokes. There's no way that could happen in nature by coincidence.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:00 PM on October 13, 2010 [14 favorites]


If I want to know if an atheist is angry at god, I can just do what I normally do - go down to the local Democratic Party headquarters and punch someone in the face.
posted by koeselitz at 2:00 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that atheism does not necessarily imply philosophical materialism, although the vast majority of western atheists seem to also be materialists. But, though rare, it would not be inconsistent for a person to believe in an afterlife or other supernatural forces or entities without believing in god(s). Materialistic atheism may be the most common form of atheism, and it seems to be the view represented by this site as far as I can tell, but it need not be the only type of atheism.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


grubi, If God's not real then why is he in the bible?
posted by Taft at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is there are bear in the bible? And, they're real.
posted by found missing at 2:03 PM on October 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


We emerge from nothing and to nothing we go back. We've got 80 years on this Earth if we're lucky. It's a moral imperative to make the most of it.
posted by keratacon at 2:05 PM on October 13, 2010


I'm quite skeptical of bears too.
posted by Taft at 2:05 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


grubi, If God's not real then why is he in the bible?

He's only there to keep Jesus company.
posted by grubi at 2:06 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm imagining an automated version of this site, wherein you can type any question about religion you'd like, and out would come the appropriate answer: "meh."
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:06 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can God make a pic-a-nic basket he can't lift?
posted by mmrtnt at 2:07 PM on October 13, 2010


One of the common "objections" that they get wrong in the blog:
Q: If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will....

A: ...Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.
They've both too quickly gone from materialism to determinisim. One doesn't imply the other. All physical processes do not repeat in the same way everytime. Not all chemical reactions produce the same end products every time. The same weather systems don't track accross the midwest every June.

Classical mechanics isn't correct. It's demonstrably true that we don't live in a deterministic universe. How our brains, also non-deterministic, handle this we don't know in detail, but it's not true that individual outcomes, perhaps even decisions, are predeterminied. Reactions, and thus brain chemistry, are predictable only in statistical terms, not in particular.

We live in a randomized world. We are ourselves built of randomly-interacting things. Our minds work in random ways. There is enough structure to make things work and enough chaos to be interesting.
posted by bonehead at 2:07 PM on October 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


But what about us agonists, where do we go with questions?!
posted by nomadicink at 2:09 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


But what about us agonists, where do we go with questions?!

Presumably to some kind of receptor.
posted by Mister Cheese at 2:11 PM on October 13, 2010 [14 favorites]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony, as mapped out by the Vedas. Does "ask the atheist" answer that, or am I safe in assuming that my atheist friends haven't really researched yoga?
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


A common claim is that atheism is just another faith, one in which the individual has blind faith that there is no god, because of course he has not personally experienced the lack-of-god.

In fact the number of people who are atheist out of conviction is small, perhaps vanishingly small. My atheism, and I believe most atheism, is an agnosticism in which the likelihood of a god is negligible and can be discounted. My kind of atheist can imagine changing their mind if evidence of a god was brought to their attention. The proclaimed certainties of most religious faiths do not allow this.

I see the prototypical atheist as being born non-religious without an understanding of what a god is. When the concept is explained to him, he sees no good evidence that it exists, and he feels that it is a negligible sliver of an infinite range of possibilities to explain the mystery of why we are here. So he discounts it. This is not the same as a religious dogma.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2010 [43 favorites]


How our brains, also non-deterministic, handle this we don't know in detail, but it's not true that individual outcomes, perhaps even decisions, are predeterminied. Reactions, and thus brain chemistry, are predictable only in statistical terms, not in particular.

The problem is, a "randomized" world doesn't seem to work any better with free will than a deterministic one does. It seems to me there's a difference between me choosing whether to have cherry or apple pie, and the universe flipping a virtual coin for me to determine whether I'll have cherry or apple pie. Even though the latter is random and not deterministic, it still seems to be different than free will.

Does a plutonium atom have free will?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Her husband is actually the third bear, the one hanging back, unmentioned, in 2 Kings 2:23-24, because he's an atheist bear, you see. He had said "I genuinely don't see we have a religious duty to maul cubs, pink and furless though they may be, based on your beliefs that a putative deity would want jeering cubs to be punished for noting even greater furlessness of some human, 'chosen' or not," to the other two bears, but they did not listen.

His objections were not recorded.
posted by adipocere at 2:14 PM on October 13, 2010 [21 favorites]


But what about us agonists, where do we go with questions?!

I don't know. We haven't decided yet.

But seriously, if you want to catch the latest glorious Hitchens debate, it's over on C-SPAN. He's in the foxhole, reloading.
posted by notion at 2:14 PM on October 13, 2010



But what about us agonists, where do we go with questions?!


As an agnostic, you should already be used to living with uncertainty.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:14 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Does "ask the atheist" answer that, or am I safe in assuming that my atheist friends haven't really researched yoga?

Kinda, although he glosses over the evidence.
posted by Paragon at 2:16 PM on October 13, 2010


I'm a militant agnostic. I don't know AND NEITHER DO YOU!

(Actually I'm just a plain old agnostic. Which is really just an atheist without self-confidence.)
posted by kmz at 2:16 PM on October 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


how is babby jesus formed?
posted by joe lisboa at 2:17 PM on October 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think nomadicink isn't an agnostic, he's an agonist. Core belief is that we suffer and then we die.
posted by found missing at 2:18 PM on October 13, 2010


I don't need to ask an atheist. I talk to myself far too much as it is.

If anyone wants to ask me stuff though, go ahead. So long as it's about music, food or drink, mind.
posted by Decani at 2:20 PM on October 13, 2010


As an avowed atheist, what I really wish is for some roughly codified set of moral agreements that I could point religious people at and show them that atheists are by no means guaranteed to be amoral destructionists out to rape and pillage everything in the world just because they don't have a religious guidebook to prevent them from doing so.

Impossible task, I know.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 2:21 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


So long as it's about music, food or drink, mind.

Okay, what is the nature of mind? Sorry.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony, as mapped out by the Vedas. Does "ask the atheist" answer that, or am I safe in assuming that my atheist friends haven't really researched yoga?

Maybe they just want to have better physical balance and flexibility?
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise

First, there's a difference between "better on average" and "better for everyone." If we're comparing two drugs, A and B, for treating a given condition, and find that drug A tends to help more people than drug B does, that doesn't mean that individuals who find that drug B works better for them personally are wrong. (It might, however, mean that a doctor treating a patient with that condition tries drug A first, then drug B only if A doesn't work for that particular patient.)

Second, where is your evidence that pilates is better exercise—even on average—than yoga? The mere fact that pilates was originally developed as exercise and yoga was not is not evidence of that; some activities that were developed as exercise have later been found to be bad, while others that were not (the origin of swimming is lost in the mists of time, but I doubt it was originally developed as exercise) turn out to be very good exercise.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:24 PM on October 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Core belief is that we suffer and then we die.

No, that's for people who think Star Wars prequels were good.
posted by nomadicink at 2:24 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Man, is someone gonna ask about Christmas? I think atheists doing Yoga is sort of like atheists who celebrate Christmas (which I do, and my atheist spouse does, and his entire agnostic family does). It's a cultural thing.

I mean, to me it's much worse for Christians to practice Yoga - I don't believe in any gods so there's no extra danger to my immortal soul for doing so.
posted by muddgirl at 2:25 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's demonstrably true that we don't live in a deterministic universe.

A nice aspect of the many-worlds interpretation is that the multiverse is deterministic, but our universe is not, because it occupies just one random chain of possibilities (wavefunction collapses) within that multiverse.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:27 PM on October 13, 2010


I see the prototypical atheist as being born non-religious without an understanding of what a god is. When the concept is explained to him, he sees no good evidence that it exists, and he feels that it is a negligible sliver of an infinite range of possibilities to explain the mystery of why we are here. So he discounts it. This is not the same as a religious dogma.

I think it is the same thing. Evaluating any "likelihood" assumes some "probabilistic model", which is based on experience.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:29 PM on October 13, 2010


What I really want is a thread about atheist eschatology, because zombies are cool as shit.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:30 PM on October 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


DevilsAdvocate: It seems to me there's a difference between me choosing whether to have cherry or apple pie, and the universe flipping a virtual coin for me to determine whether I'll have cherry or apple pie. Even though the latter is random and not deterministic, it still seems to be different than free will.

Seriously, how would you know?

If I could answer that question, I'd have cracked the AI problem. My suspicion, not certain knowledge is that intelligence/free will an emergent property of a (small) ruleset applied to randomly interacting particles/chemicals/cells.

You can argue that we don't have free will, I suppose, but that still doesn't explain why you have the lox bagel today, but the BLT yesterday. Can we say with certainty what you will have tomorrow? In a deterministic universe, we could.

Or, to put it the other way, how could a universe which allows for true randomness, as ours seems to, be deterministic?
posted by bonehead at 2:31 PM on October 13, 2010


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise,

Hatha yoga was developed as exercise. "Yoga" is just sanskrit for something like "way", and there are yogas meant for development of many different aspects of a person. Hatha yoga, which is what westerners generally know as yoga, is the one which emphasizes the body. There are also yogas for mental or spiritual or ethical development though...

Anyway, if you're an atheist, why would you be worried about performing "a spiritual act" if you thought it benefited you physically? It hardly matters if someone else finds religious significance in it. Atheists can go to churches to look at the architecture, too.
posted by mdn at 2:36 PM on October 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act...

It's only a spiritual act if you make it one. I sing religious music in classical settings, but that doesn't mean it is a religious act.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:36 PM on October 13, 2010


esprit de l'escalier, could you elaborate on that?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:37 PM on October 13, 2010


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga

I disagree with this. I don't think it's contradictory to enjoy something that's based in religion without believing in the supernatural aspects of it. I still like celebrating Christmas with my family even though I'm not a Christian. Is this perplexing to you?
posted by auto-correct at 2:38 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Or, to put it the other way, how could a universe which allows for true randomness, as ours seems to, be deterministic?

Does our universe allow for true randomness? Stating that someone picks two different bagels on two different days doesn't demonstrate that. There are any number of variables at work that allow for two different outcomes. And even if you define free will down to the quantum level, I don't really see how the probabilistic waveforms of photons interacts with 'consciousness' in a way that allows me to control my actions.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:42 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


2 Kings 2:23-25

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:43 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can argue that we don't have free will, I suppose, but that still doesn't explain why you have the lox bagel today, but the BLT yesterday. Can we say with certainty what you will have tomorrow? In a deterministic universe, we could.

My inability to explain your gastronomic peccadilloes does not make free will magically exist. Free will implies agency, which dubious interpretations of quantum mechanics does not provide.
posted by signalnine at 2:47 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


But it doesn't mention if they were hippy she bears or not. I assure you this is a matter of great importance to most atheists.
posted by muddgirl at 2:48 PM on October 13, 2010


DevilsAdvocate: It seems to me there's a difference between me choosing whether to have cherry or apple pie, and the universe flipping a virtual coin for me to determine whether I'll have cherry or apple pie. Even though the latter is random and not deterministic, it still seems to be different than free will.

Seriously, how would you know?


Oh, I wouldn't, I freely admit that—certainly not in any empirical way. I'll gladly concede there is no empirical way to distinguish between a randomized universe without free will and a randomized universe which also has free will. I'm speaking purely in a philosophical sense here, of questions which are beyond the realm of science.

My assertion is that a randomized materialistic universe does not allow for free will any more than a deterministic materialistic one does. (I forsee that this is very soon going to get to the "what, exactly, do we mean by free will" question, so let me clarify: I assert there is no reasonable definition of free will for which free will can exist in a randomized universe but not in a deterministic one. I leave "reasonable" somewhat vague for the time being, but I will stipulate that a reasonable definition of free will should not imply that plutonium atoms or weather systems have free will.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:48 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony, as mapped out by the Vedas. Does "ask the atheist" answer that, or am I safe in assuming that my atheist friends haven't really researched yoga?

You mean, why to atheists perform yoga rather than an exercise system derived from German romantic beliefs about the divinity of nature and the human body? Gee, I wonder.

In other news, I work a 5-day week and use musical scales derived from Christian worship.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:49 PM on October 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


That reminds me, I can't wait for Saturn's Day.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2010


Biological interactions, even interactions between nerves, are whiout doubt influence by chance. Here's an example of interfacing a quantum dot, a kind of chemical random die, with a nerve cell. The transmission mechanism between nerve cells, photonic absorbtion, is probabilistic.

Your brain, therefore, functions in a probablistic, rather than deterministic, way.

I assert there is no reasonable definition of free will for which free will can exist in a randomized universe but not in a deterministic one.

I can't even parse this. Free will requires determinism?
posted by bonehead at 2:57 PM on October 13, 2010


I say "Bless You" when someone sneezes!
posted by muddgirl at 2:57 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


> ...what I really wish is for some roughly codified set of moral agreements that I could point religious people at and show them that atheists are by no means guaranteed to be amoral destructionists out to rape and pillage everything in the world just because they don't have a religious guidebook to prevent them from doing so.

I dunno, sometimes I like to have that little tiny "Could .kobayashi. snap?" edge in conversations about metaphysical matters. It's pretty much the only thing that keeps those discussions interesting.
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:59 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can we say with certainty what you will have tomorrow? In a deterministic universe, we could.

Not necessarily. We can't even predict what the weather will be two weeks from now—and that's not due to randomized quantum effects, as chaos (in the scientific sense) arises even in purely deterministic simulations.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:59 PM on October 13, 2010


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony, as mapped out by the Vedas.

Perhaps because yoga is also about taking the stick out of one's ass?
posted by emjaybee at 3:01 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


The transmission mechanism between nerve cells, photonic absorbtion, is probabilistic.

But, again, I don't see how this translates into my specific consciousness making actual decisions and initiating specific actions in the way that is meant by the term 'free will.' How does this give me free will without also giving a flashlight free will?
posted by shakespeherian at 3:01 PM on October 13, 2010


Actually I'm just a plain old agnostic. Which is really just an atheist without self-confidence.

Not at all. An atheist sees the question of God's existence as having the answer "No". An agnostic (me, at least) sees the question as unanswerable. Self-confidence has nothing to do with it.
posted by rocket88 at 3:04 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm saying your brain function, your decisions cannot be purely deterministic, not that your decisions are entirely random. We live in the intersection of physical law and entropy (in the statiscal mechanical sense).
posted by bonehead at 3:05 PM on October 13, 2010


I can sum up what this atheist believes in one sentence: "There is nothing but the vast emptiness of space on the other side of this brief fluke of nature that we call "life". You should therefore endeavor to enjoy every moment of it and do whatever possible to make the short lives of those around you as good as you can. And when it's over, relax in comforting knowledge that there is peaceful nothingness forever."

Simple.
posted by quin at 3:06 PM on October 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


I assert there is no reasonable definition of free will for which free will can exist in a randomized universe but not in a deterministic one.

I can't even parse this. Free will requires determinism?


Actually, I think it means the opposite - that there's no sensible way to define "free will" in a way that requires deterministic universe.
posted by heyforfour at 3:08 PM on October 13, 2010


I can't even parse this. Free will requires determinism?

Sorry if I was obtuse. There's more than one possible definition of free will. Some of them, some philosophers argue, are compatible with determinism. (I'm not aware of any which require determinism, and I'm not claiming that there are any which are.)

My claim is, for any reasonable definition (D) of free will, one of the following statements is true:
1) D is compatible with a deterministic universe and with a randomized universe; OR,
2) D is incompatible with both a deterministic universe and with a randomized universe.

I invite you to disprove me by formulating a reasonable definition of free will which is compatible with a randomized universe, but not with a deterministic one.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:10 PM on October 13, 2010


Your brain, therefore, functions in a probablistic, rather than deterministic, way.

Which does not imply free will.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:11 PM on October 13, 2010


The direct argument isn't complete:
1. The universe is random on the smallest scale
1b. the universe also seems to work by a small set of rules.
2. Rules and this randomness both have demostable effect on our biology
3. ?
4. Q.E.D. Free Will

Knowing step 3 would allow us to build AIs, among other things. No one can answer that.

Call it a weak inductive argument. If we don't live in a determanistic universe, a probablistic one is all we have left. Fate isn't possible in a probabilistic universe. Therefore, we have free will because fate isn't possible.
posted by bonehead at 3:12 PM on October 13, 2010


And personally, I'm a noncognitivist in regards to both free will and god (in the broad sense). I'm not convinced that there's a concept there worth debating, only definitions that are trivially dismissed on the one hand and axiomatic wankery on the other.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:13 PM on October 13, 2010


esprit de l'escalier, could you elaborate on that?

It's the same problem you have when you're trying to determine any relationship: does smoking cause cancer, is the admissions committee biased, etc.

You always assume some universe of variables that you're going to consider. You then try to account for confounders (variables that interfere with your ability to draw a conclusion) and you want to demonstrate that there is some relationship between two variables of interest.

Your conclusions are profoundly dependent on the choice of universe of variables that you consider and the kinds of relationships you imagine between those variables. This is why it's hard for anyone to address disparate groups of people with huge differences in the language they use to understand the world.

One thing I respect very much in people is their ability to understand and speak using other people's vocabulary of ideas. Obama did that with his speech on religion, simultaneous getting nods from religious people and atheists:
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.
I believe in a universal truth: a universal physical reality that is best discovered by experiments, a universal mathematical reality discovered by though, and that is consistent. But, I also realize that in my attempt to get closer to the truth, I am inevitably biased by my experience and the universe of ideas that I have considered. Not only that, it's impossible to do every experiment, and to consider every idea, so I will never be sure of anything, or even sure of my uncertainty.

So, when someone says, "I believe the probability of the existence of God is low", that person is evaluating that probability within their universe of variables and considered relationships, which is usually meaningless to other people.

I think it makes more sense, especially with religion, to learn to speak the language of others. Some people, when they declare their faith in God, are merely expressing a faith in universal truth, though they may not be able to express that to you in your language.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:14 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


keratacon: We emerge from nothing and to nothing we go back. We've got 80 years on this Earth if we're lucky. It's a "moral imperative to make the most of it"
I hate this sentiment. Moral imperative to make the most of it? How in Nothing's name do you figure that?! We come from nothing and go to nothing. There is no greater moral imperative to live a rich, fulfilling, interconnected life as there is to go the 19th floor balcony and jump off. That oh-so-worldly bullshit perspective of "Gotta make the most of it!" is as addlepated and misinformed as any unthinking Christian perspective.

Life is bleak, cruel, pointless, and harsh. We all will die, the just and unjust alike, and the entirety of our too-short or painfully long lives is spent unlovably isolated and alone. At best we can medicate and numb ourselves using drugs such as alcohol, heroin, or "love" and "family" if we're lucky- which I sure as fuck wasn't.

Make the most of it? Blow it out your ass, you dirty smelly athiest hippie.
posted by hincandenza at 3:15 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


rocket88: An atheist sees the question of God's existence as having the answer "No".

I wondered how many posts it would take before an agnostic self-identified in terms of a sloppy generalization regarding atheism. But at least it wasn't another flavor of, "I'm an agnostic because atheists are just so mean."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:16 PM on October 13, 2010


Fate isn't possible in a probabilistic universe. Therefore, we have free will because fate isn't possible.

By this line of reasoning, plutonium atoms also have free will.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:20 PM on October 13, 2010


> Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.


That'll keep the kids off his lawn.
posted by mmrtnt at 3:29 PM on October 13, 2010


I'm a militant agnostic. I don't know AND NEITHER DO YOU!

(Actually I'm just a plain old agnostic. Which is really just an atheist without self-confidence.)
posted by kmz at 4:16 PM on October 13


You laugh, but I actually am a 'strong' agnostic. I wrote a blog post about it here that explains the whole deal in greater detail than I would like to cut and paste directly in this thread.

For the tl;dr crowd:

I object to the characterization that agnostics are 'atheist-lite.' I'm sure that's true of plenty of people, but it's certainly not my position. (I'll admit that the difference would strike your average theist as subtle, but I feel the same way about many questions of religious doctrine. People without a stake are less motivated to care about these sorts of points.)
posted by mordax at 3:29 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Make the most of it? Blow it out your ass, you dirty smelly athiest hippie.

And they say atheists are mean.
posted by muddgirl at 3:30 PM on October 13, 2010


> There is nothing but the vast emptiness of space on the other side of this brief fluke of nature that we call "life"

Reminds me of:

"Life:The whim of several billion cells to be you for a while"

One sentence, three periods?
posted by mmrtnt at 3:34 PM on October 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


I can't even parse this. Free will requires determinism?

Actually, I think it means the opposite - that there's no sensible way to define "free will" in a way that requires deterministic universe.


No, that's not the idea. The claim is a philosopher's way of saying that you haven't opened up any more room for free will by saying that physics involves randomness at a fundamental level.

The idea is pretty simple. Why is it that most people feel that, in a deterministic world, I couldn't be said to have free will? The obvious answer is that anytime I appeared to choose anything in such a world, my choice would really be determined by the laws governing that world, and not by me. In order to have free will, I need to be able to make genuine choices...and in the hypothesized world, I can't.*

Now consider a world where physical processes do not obey deterministic laws, but statistical ones. It seems that the same reasons for thinking I didn't have free will in the deterministic world still apply. Whenever I appeared choose anything in the nondeterministic world, my choice would really be generated at random, within a certain range of physically possible outcomes...but I still didn't choose! So switching from a deterministic to nondeterministic world hasn't helped us resolve the problem of free will.


*Or at least it appears that I can't. Most philosophers today believe that free will is in fact compatible with determinism, and reject the sketchy reasoning I was using to make my point.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:39 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Make the most of it? Blow it out your ass, you dirty smelly athiest hippie.

Sounds like somebody's got a case of the Mondays!
posted by kmz at 3:41 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


three periods?

Yeah. It did get away from me there. "One statement" then.

posted by quin at 3:44 PM on October 13, 2010


This will sound weird and/or dumb, but the discussion here is making me want to go back and watch last week's episode of Fringe again. (Spoilers there if you haven't seen it yet.)
posted by rtha at 4:10 PM on October 13, 2010


Most philosophers today believe that free will is in fact compatible with determinism

Could you tease this out for me? I've haven't heard anything about it and am interested in hearing more.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:11 PM on October 13, 2010


By this line of reasoning, plutonium atoms also have free will.

A necessary condition does not imply a sufficient one.
posted by bonehead at 4:14 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reagan's Fallacy is the false concept that an Atheist is void of morality.

President Ronald Reagan once stated that he couldn't trust Russian treaty negotiators because they didn't believe in the Bible, and therefore there was no moral control over their actions.

Albert Camus had anticipated some of these arguments in The Myth of Sisyphus.

(Actually, Machiavelli says never take any diplomat at face value.)
posted by ovvl at 4:16 PM on October 13, 2010


Most philosophers today believe that free will is in fact compatible with determinism, and reject the sketchy reasoning I was using to make my point.

So this is a Humpty Dumpty problem then. You clearly mean something by free will or by determinism that I don't. We're shouting past each other here.
posted by bonehead at 4:16 PM on October 13, 2010


Asking an atheist to speak for all atheists is like asking one Christian/Muslim/Hindu etc to speak for all of their faith.

So if I were to ask this person a question I'd ask "What gives you the right, fuck-knuckle?"
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:29 PM on October 13, 2010


My husband is an atheist bear. When we meet my Christian family for Christmas, they harangue him to let Jesus into his heart. He has eaten several of their hearts in response. When confronted by aggressive proselytizing, what's a bear to do?
posted by benzenedream at 4:34 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


If God doesn't matter to him, do your pick-a-nic baskets?
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:44 PM on October 13, 2010


Reagan's Fallacy is the false concept that an Atheist is void of morality, but full of smug self-assurance.

Agnostics are equally void of morality. We just sin will less than absolute certainty of getting away with it.
posted by three blind mice at 4:44 PM on October 13, 2010


Atheism doesn't seem to be wacko like religion so there's not so much one needs to ask. That's why it's really more useful to be able to ask a believer since it boggles the mind that anyone capable of logical thought can accept such crazy stuff. Well, I'm a believer so if you really want to know, you could ask me.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:47 PM on October 13, 2010


shakespeherian: I don't see how this translates into my specific consciousness making actual decisions and initiating specific actions in the way that is meant by the term 'free will.'

Therein lies the problem IMHO. The term free will only makes sense if you assume that such a specific consciousness exists in the first place and that it has temporal continuity. More likely the I that perceives itself is a temporary state that fades into and out of existence and overlaps with other similar states. People are able to spend extended periods of time in states without any self awareness at all. The various states of mind and self appear to mostly emerge from a mix of nerve signals (mostly sensory input) and the available information encoded in the brain's neuronal structure. Information which to some degree is in constant flux. Each state comes with its own set of awareness of past, present and future giving each state the illusion of a self which is continuous and moves through time when really each is more or less a discreet state that shares enough similarity with the preceding ones to create an external illusion of continuity as well.

In my experience the practice of meditation as well as traumatic experiences can stir things up enough to temporarily reveal the choppy non-continuous nature of consciousness and mind and enable the realization of the non-existence of a continuous self. But even in daily life this is quite apparent. Sometimes people have odd episodes and behave in a such a way that they totally surprise us and we say "that's not like them at all". In more extreme cases people snap forth and back between what might as well be different personalities. It's possible to experience minor blackouts without even noticing it unless someone asks. As mentioned above it's entirely possible to enter states where there is no self awareness at all through a range of means from simply "being in the zone" to practice of meditation to drugs.

In any case, if there is no self that could be an agent then the term free will is simply not applicable.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:51 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Conversation with a Compatibilist:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utai74HjPJE
posted by BoatMeme at 4:58 PM on October 13, 2010


A necessary condition does not imply a sufficient one.

You're the one who said "Therefore, we have free will because fate isn't possible." Which I interpreted to mean that you were saying the absence of fate was a sufficient condition for free will. If the absence of fate is not a sufficient condition for free will, then the statement "We have free will because fate isn't possible" doesn't hold.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:00 PM on October 13, 2010


Hey Atheist, why'd your site crash my browser (Safari)? It half-loaded, then tossed the title text on any other tab I went to, and ultimately just stalled out everything before disappearing.
posted by klangklangston at 5:03 PM on October 13, 2010


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act

AZ, do you find it as weird as I do that you seem to agree with fundamentalist Christians who argue that yoga isn't for Christians because of its links to Hinduism?

My husband is an atheist bear. When we meet my Christian family for Christmas, they harangue him to let Jesus into his heart. He has eaten several of their hearts in response. When confronted by aggressive proselytizing, what's a bear to do?


Most of the bear related comments in this thread have already made me laugh, but I love this one best. My (human but very bearlike) husband was raised fundamentalist, one big reason he is an atheist, and his family's Christian haranguers drive him crazy.
posted by bearwife at 5:09 PM on October 13, 2010


You're the one who said "Therefore, we have free will because fate isn't possible." Which I interpreted to mean that you were saying the absence of fate was a sufficient condition for free will. If the absence of fate is not a sufficient condition for free will, then the statement "We have free will because fate isn't possible" doesn't hold.

Modulo step 3 above, the *magic happens*, emergent behaviour from the also necessary complexity step, that isn't currently understood. That's why atoms and clouds and cockroaches aren't intelligent; they don't have sufficient complexity.
posted by bonehead at 5:19 PM on October 13, 2010


I'm actually a p-zombie but you can ask me questions about my atheism anyway if you like.
posted by Skorgu at 5:27 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


"As an avowed atheist, what I really wish is for some roughly codified set of moral agreements that I could point religious people at and show them that atheists are by no means guaranteed to be amoral destructionists out to rape and pillage everything in the world just because they don't have a religious guidebook to prevent them from doing so."

Ayn Rand, calling Ayn Rand. Wet cleanup on aisle seven.
posted by sneebler at 5:31 PM on October 13, 2010


Is there an Ask a Christian site? Because I want to unleash my inner four year old and just ask "But why?" over and over and over again.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:50 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Exactly. It's the non-atheists that have a lot more splainin to do.
posted by found missing at 6:09 PM on October 13, 2010


WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!?
posted by AaronRaphael at 7:09 PM on October 13, 2010


When, oh when will there be a significant, organized movement of people who believe in God, but not religion?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:31 PM on October 13, 2010


Does "ask the atheist" answer that, or am I safe in assuming that my atheist friends haven't really researched yoga?

As an atheist who does yoga, I can answer that. Yes, I do know that its origin is as a spiritual practice, and that there isn't evidence that it's any better than other forms of exercise (which is why it isn't the only exercise I do). In fact, there might be some evidence that static stretching the way it's often practiced in yoga isn't particularly beneficial, and may actually impair athletic performance in some areas. I'm totally aware of all of this, yet I still do it because it feels good. I sometimes cringe when yoga instructors talk about "energy" or "chakras" or say "vertebrae" when they should say "vertebra." But, it still feels good. The practice has improved my balance, strength, and flexibility. I simply try to block out the spiritual stuff, and enjoy the relaxation and stretching.
posted by lexicakes at 7:34 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga, which is a Hindu spiritual act, and there is no evidence it's much better as exercise than, say, pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony, as mapped out by the Vedas.

I'm fully aware of the Christian origins of a nativity set and I was raised as an atheist. I just also happen to like a little model stable with figures, even if I think it's a silly fairy tale.

I've also been know to sing my two favourite carols: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" and "Good King Wenceslas" as the lyrics are written. Choosing ritual and tradition is a matter of culture as much as belief in a religion, and my culture likes tiny little models of baby Jewish boys in straw mangers along with Christmas pudding and not telling children about Santa.
posted by Phalene at 7:40 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Back in the day atheists were more appealing than they are now. The diety that atheists didn't believe in then was more profound than the diety that they don't believe in now. Now, thanks to the internet, anyone can sign on.
posted by Huplescat at 7:55 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga...

like a lot of atheists, i wouldn't bother to address religion if it just minded its own business. but yoga pretty much just keeps to itself. it doesn't try to tell your body it has three legs or that growing hair is a sin.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:15 PM on October 13, 2010


I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga...

As an atheist I am painfully aware that the world is full of religion -even in everyday, secular life. I just take that as read and try not to be a dick about it.
posted by ob at 8:20 PM on October 13, 2010


Fucking free will. How does *that *work?
posted by Sparx at 8:25 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


This will sound weird and/or dumb, but the discussion here is making me want to go back and watch last week's episode of Fringe again. (Spoilers there if you haven't seen it yet.)
posted by rtha at 4:10 PM on October 13 [+] [!]


Ah. New season of Fringe. Excellent! Thanks for that rtha.
posted by Ahab at 8:31 PM on October 13, 2010


Modulo step 3 above, the *magic happens*

Yeah, but if you're going to include a take-it-on-faith "magic happens" step in free will, I don't see any reason you couldn't include a "magic happens" step which would allow free will in a deterministic universe as easily as you could include such a step in a probabilistic universe. Of course, as long as you're defining your own kind of magic, you're free to specify that your kind of magic can happen only in a probabilistic universe and not in a deterministic one, but that seems rather an arbitrary restriction to me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:52 PM on October 13, 2010


Life is bleak, cruel, pointless, and harsh. We all will die, the just and unjust alike, and the entirety of our too-short or painfully long lives is spent unlovably isolated and alone. At best we can medicate and numb ourselves using drugs such as alcohol, heroin, or "love" and "family" if we're lucky- which I sure as fuck wasn't.

Make the most of it? Blow it out your ass, you dirty smelly athiest hippie.


You sound like a grim Christian existentialist theologian in disguise.
posted by treepour at 8:54 PM on October 13, 2010


As an avowed atheist, what I really wish is for some roughly codified set of moral agreements that I could point religious people at...

As an avowed atheist, you don't have moral arguments other than to say certain things increase your personal pleasure or reduce pain. Actually, you don't even have a reason to choose pleasure over pain.. or life over death.
posted by Yakuman at 9:00 PM on October 13, 2010


I like the site, it would be nice addition to it if it had some basic arguments / facts of how crazy the fundamentalist view of the bible is...
posted by analogtom at 9:23 PM on October 13, 2010


As an avowed atheist, you don't have moral arguments other than to say certain things increase your personal pleasure or reduce pain. Actually, you don't even have a reason to choose pleasure over pain.. or life over death.

I love it when people explain my morality to me! Go on, tell me more about myself.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 9:25 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Back in the day atheists were more appealing than they are now. The diety that atheists didn't believe in then was more profound than the diety that they don't believe in now. Now, thanks to the internet, anyone can sign on.

Ugh, I hate this old trope. Atheists disbelieve in the "profound", fancy-pants version of deities that theologians believe in (or claim to believe in, I often suspect) just as much as we do Pat Robertson's God. That's what atheism means. You don't hear about it as often because the philosophical argument was won (to our satisfaction) a couple of centuries ago. Now we're speaking out against the more common variety of religious person, who does not believe in a profound God, who believes in a jealous and hateful God, because he is the one causing so much trouble in the world.
posted by callmejay at 9:31 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an avowed atheist, you don't have moral arguments other than to say certain things increase your personal pleasure or reduce pain. Actually, you don't even have a reason to choose pleasure over pain.. or life over death.

Seems you don't have a reason to choose good-faith reasoning over jumping to assumptions... or ignorance over knowledge. There's no reason to explain the basis of my morality because I can tell you've already written it off. I will say that I probably relieve more suffering and contribute positively to more people lives than you do.

I am perplexed at the number of atheists I know who do yoga...

I'm perplexed at the number of Christians who celebrate Christmas and Easter. How dumb are they?
posted by fuq at 9:40 PM on October 13, 2010


Feh. Most self-proclaimed atheists can't handle the atheism in this:
Hear, Israel! Being is our god, Being is One!--Deut. 6:4
posted by No Robots at 9:49 PM on October 13, 2010


Requisite Athiest, Agnostic, Theist, Gnostic chart and explanation link. (apologies if posted already)
posted by zardoz at 10:15 PM on October 13, 2010


Also, please don't feed the troll. Yakuman has a history of lobbing loaded comments into threads that he never follows up on.
posted by zardoz at 10:31 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


pilates, which was actually developed as an exercise, and not as an exercise in living in divine harmony

Sounds to me like the pontius pilates craze hasn't made its devotional and invigorating way to someone's neck of the woods. "Now wash those hands! Keep breathing and wash 'em, one, two, three..."

Is there are bear in the bible?

Duh 6:17
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:49 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Has anyone invented Tantric Pilates yet? If not, I'ma trademark the concept and make a fuckton of dough.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:00 PM on October 13, 2010


Is there are bear in the bible?

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' they said. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
II Kings 2:23-25 (NIV)

Best Bible story ever.
posted by nathan v at 12:17 AM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Asking an atheist to speak for all atheists is like asking one Christian/Muslim/Hindu etc to speak for all of their faith.

So if I were to ask this person a question I'd ask "What gives you the right, fuck-knuckle?"
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:29 AM on October 14 [+] [!]


Your question is now on the front page of the site, along with the following answer by SmartLX:

What gives me the right to speak for all atheists everywhere? Nothing. I don’t have that authority. And it’s not just me here either. Perhaps the site’s name suggests such things, but askANatheist.com was taken, as was asktheatheistS.com (to which I also contribute).

What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition. I can speak against arguments for the existence of gods when their flaws are evident. And as in all things, I can bloody well speak for myself.

It’s been helpful, I’m sure, to a great many people over the years. Some don’t have a single self-declared atheist in their lives that they could name, much less ask about atheism. This is how myths about atheism get dispelled in communities where it’s a negligible minority: some brave believer goes looking for a spokesperson. It’s also why the great big arguments don’t go unchallenged as often as they might.

Welcome to the Metafilter community, by the way. Thanks to Paragon, who I’d never heard of, for the link.

posted by jonnyploy at 2:15 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Life is bleak, cruel, pointless, and harsh. We all will die, the just and unjust alike, and the entirety of our too-short or painfully long lives is spent unlovably isolated and alone.

Of course you're just paraphrasing Hobbes here:
And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
and I couldn't agree more.
We are born cold, wet, naked, hungry, and screaming. Then things get worse.

At best we can medicate and numb ourselves using drugs such as alcohol, heroin, or "love" and "family" if we're lucky- which I sure as fuck wasn't.

I would add "faith" and "belief" to your list.

Make the most of it? Blow it out your ass, you dirty smelly athiest hippie.

can't really agree with this, however.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:17 AM on October 14, 2010


How many atheists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Can an atheist make a stone he cannot lift?
posted by cross_impact at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2010


Can an atheist get so stoned he can't lift?
posted by shakespeherian at 6:35 AM on October 14, 2010


Hatha yoga was developed as exercise. "Yoga" is just sanskrit for something like "way", and there are yogas meant for development of many different aspects of a person. Hatha yoga, which is what westerners generally know as yoga, is the one which emphasizes the body. There are also yogas for mental or spiritual or ethical development though...

This explains so much, thank you! As a life long Street Fighter fan, it never made sense that Dhalsim could breathe fire, teleport, and beat ass with only a mastery of low-impact stretching exercises.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:39 AM on October 14, 2010


Of course you're just paraphrasing Hobbes here:

And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.


That isn't what Hobbes thinks of life. That's what Hobbes thinks life would be doomed to be if we lived in anarchy. The state - or society, or civilization - allows for man to flourish, by his philosophy.
posted by mdn at 6:45 AM on October 14, 2010


Organized religion has a lot to answer for. Why in the world should we have organized atheism? There may be commonalities, and any given individual may have interesting thoughts about atheism, but lack of faith as a religion-substitute is just disturbing. Will this lead to atheistic evangelism? That would be so very, very awful.

However, if it turns out that Organized Atheism has really good anti-church suppers, and choral singing, I will join immediately.
posted by theora55 at 6:49 AM on October 14, 2010


My favorite video rendition of 2 Kings 2:23-25.
posted by BeerFilter at 7:09 AM on October 14, 2010


> Organized religion has a lot to answer for. Why in the world should we have organized atheism?

This. After all, at least for me, one of the things I value most about atheism is not having to go to meetings.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:42 AM on October 14, 2010


I thought we were 'brights' now????
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:43 AM on October 14, 2010


Some people, when they declare their faith in God, are merely expressing a faith in universal truth, though they may not be able to express that to you in your language.

esprit de l'escalier, I agree that many different concepts are assigned the name "god" by many different people, and some of them undoubtedly exist. Your idea of a "universal truth" is probably one of those things. In this comment I described the things called "god" towards which I am an atheist, as opposed to those which certainly exist, and those that I feel are outside the scope of things for which we could expect evidence.

It is indeed useful to consider the semantic differences that people use, but once those differences are acknowledged it should not prevent an atheist from talking about the concept of god as it is overwhelmingly commonly refered to: a sentient being who thinks somewhat like a human, who created and rules over humanity, governs our fate and is concerned with our actions. Without evidence in its favor, and faced with the infinite alternatives, this is a being we can reject as terribly unlikely.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:16 AM on October 14, 2010


There's an applicable concept from the social justice movement: If it's not about you, then it's not about you. If atheists are all talking about a kind of god you don't believe in... well, join the club because we obviously don't believe in that particular god either. But someone does, and there's no need to over-identify with that particular group or conversly claim that they don't really exist.
posted by muddgirl at 8:29 AM on October 14, 2010


There is something of a bait and switch that goes on that starts with very abstract god claims and then seems to switch to specific historical and supernatural claims. It's not unique to Christianity by any means. Some Buddhists will put forth very abstract and philosophical definitions of Karma, and then will sell reincarnation and miracles of faith.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:37 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is indeed useful to consider the semantic differences that people use, but once those differences are acknowledged it should not prevent an atheist from talking about the concept of god as it is overwhelmingly commonly refered to: a sentient being who thinks somewhat like a human, who created and rules over humanity, governs our fate and is concerned with our actions.

If, however, you say that the Bible is basically about this concept of god, then you have misunderstood the text. Jahve, Being, designates the abstract spiritual. It is exactly synonymous with the Eleatic One, the Stoic Logos, Brahman, Tao. Like these other words, it is subject to degradation into homonymy with common materialist notions. Contemporary atheists refuse to acknowledge this, preferring to see in the Bible only the common anthropomorphic misunderstanding.
posted by No Robots at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2010


Contemporary atheists refuse to acknowledge this, preferring to see in the Bible only the common anthropomorphic misunderstanding.

"Refuse" is a pretty strong word. I think that in general, atheists are only interested in Christianity so far as it interferes with their day-to-day lives. The anthropomorphic "misunderstanding" is very pertinent in the case of Western politics.
posted by muddgirl at 9:02 AM on October 14, 2010


The anthropomorphic "misunderstanding" is very pertinent in the case of Western politics.

Sure. But what I'm saying is that atheists agree with fundamentalists that this is the correct understanding of the Bible. In this way, atheists actively support the fundamentalist misreading, instead of correcting it.
posted by No Robots at 9:08 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


In this way, atheists actively support the fundamentalist misreading, instead of correcting it.

Oh for Pete's sake! Since when is it my job to educate someone in their own faith? If someone tells me that the Bible is literally true and the believe in it in some "anthropomorphic misunderstanding" context then, fine, I'll take them at their word. I'm not the world's theology professor. I'm just a guy trying to buy beer on a Sunday.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 9:12 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


In this way, atheists actively support the fundamentalist misreading, instead of correcting it.

I'm not sure atheists have any compelling reason to care about a theological disagreement.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


theora55: “Organized religion has a lot to answer for. Why in the world should we have organized atheism? There may be commonalities, and any given individual may have interesting thoughts about atheism, but lack of faith as a religion-substitute is just disturbing. Will this lead to atheistic evangelism? That would be so very, very awful.”

As awful as that would be, I have a feeling that all the evil in the world doesn't flow from people getting organized.
posted by koeselitz at 9:15 AM on October 14, 2010


Well, for sure, Travis Bickle never got organazized.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:17 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll take them at their word.

Well, I won't, even when it is you parroting them.

I'm not sure atheists have any compelling reason to care about a theological disagreement.

When you parrot the line of one of the disputants, however, you can expect to be challenged.
posted by No Robots at 9:18 AM on October 14, 2010


When you parrot the line of one of the disputants, however, you can expect to be challenged.

I think you have a grave misunderstanding about the difference between "quoting" and "parroting". When I quote Glenn Beck saying something idiotic, I am not de facto supporting his idiotic statement. When I refute his idiotic statement, that can not in any rational way be taken as support of the statements that I do not explicitly refute.
posted by muddgirl at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2010


If, however, you say that the Bible is basically about this concept of god, then you have misunderstood the text.

You can interpret the Bible any way you see fit, and your interpretation might describe a metaphorical or abstract god which I could acknowledge the existence of. But the vast majority of Jews and Christians disagree with you, as do the followers of other world religions. I can't tailor my speech to fit your niche interpretation. When I call myself an atheist, I am talking about their god, not yours.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can't tailor my speech to fit your niche interpretation.

That's too bad. As for me, I shall continue to follow some excellent advice:
The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blase young gentlemen, but to convince, and what I mean is to convince the masses. But the masses are slowmoving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them.--guess who?
posted by No Robots at 9:29 AM on October 14, 2010


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: “You can interpret the Bible any way you see fit, and your interpretation might describe a metaphorical or abstract god which I could acknowledge the existence of. But the vast majority of Jews and Christians disagree with you, as do the followers of other world religions. I can't tailor my speech to fit your niche interpretation. When I call myself an atheist, I am talking about their god, not yours.”

This simply isn't true. Most Christians in the world aren't American Evangelicals, for one thing. And I have a hard time seeing how you can justify this statement with relation to Jews at all – it's Orthodox teaching, stated nearly unanimously by all the Rabbis, that the Bible is frequently metaphorical.

If that's what you mean when you say you're an atheist, it seems like you're not really against religion at all. You're against American religion. And that's something most religious people probably agree with you on.
posted by koeselitz at 9:31 AM on October 14, 2010


Your metaphorical God doesn't exist in any meaningful way, any more than a metaphorical unicorn can be said to exist. I don't address your metaphorical god in the same way that I don't address the existence or non-existence of a metaphorical uniform. If it makes you feel better to believe in this metaphorical unicorn, then nothing I say will dissuade you, so there is no point in discussing it at all.
posted by muddgirl at 9:33 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're against American religion. And that's something most religious people probably agree with you on.

Good, then I expect a productive and fervent partnership against religious bigotry towards atheists in the US.
posted by muddgirl at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: “Good, then I expect a productive and fervent partnership against religious bigotry towards atheists in the US.”

I've always been against anti-atheist bigotry, and I'm not planning on stopping.
posted by koeselitz at 9:43 AM on October 14, 2010


So... then you see how discussions of specifically-American religious beliefs, and how those religious beliefs encourage bigotry towards non-believers, is a worthwhile discussion to have. As opposed, seemingly, to No Robots, who seems to believe that discussions of specifically-American religious beliefs is a promotion of those beliefs.
posted by muddgirl at 9:44 AM on October 14, 2010


muddgirl: “Your metaphorical God doesn't exist in any meaningful way...”

[N.B.: I didn't say God was metaphorical, I said the Bible was often metaphorical. However, that doesn't matter much in this context.]

More to the point, the quote in the post suggests asking atheists how they can live without God. I think it's probably a lot more a propos to ask religious people how they manage to live without God – they're the ones who actually care. All accounts I've seen suggest this problem gives religious people a lot of trouble. I say this as someone sympathetic to religion.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 AM on October 14, 2010


Yeah, I think I disagree with No Robots on this point. Sorry. I should have read more of the thread before commenting.
posted by koeselitz at 9:48 AM on October 14, 2010


[N.B. I was addressing No Robots with that metaphorical god comment, but it seems sort of pointless because I don't think he's interested in actual discussion in the first place. Anyway, I just realized, actually, that those who believe in a metaphorical God are more rightly termed "atheists"]

It guess it just stings me to hear anyone say that atheists should be more interested in internal philosophical discussions about Christianity (a) because I AM interested and read several blogs written Christians and non-Christians from all over the spectrum, yet (b) I think it's discriminatory to expect non-theists to be interested in anything but the overtly cultural aspects of their local religion.
posted by muddgirl at 9:51 AM on October 14, 2010


No Robots: Sure. But what I'm saying is that atheists agree with fundamentalists that this is the correct understanding of the Bible. In this way, atheists actively support the fundamentalist misreading, instead of correcting it.

Um, you do know that we're not a hivemind? Don't you?

Liberal Christian theologies run into their own sets of problems. One of my objections to them is that if the fall of man as described in Genesis is treated in metaphoric terms you remove all the urgency that makes Jesus Christ more than just a moral prophet. I don't find the argument that the problem is a metaphor but the solution is a historical fact to be compelling.

Perhaps I'm unusual in that I identify as an atheist not because I reject God, the Father, almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth. I identify as an atheist because my nagging doubts led me to reject Tao, Samsara, and the mythic-narrative view that a mysterious and awesome universe can be made less mysterious through metaphor.

Pretty much this is accusing a strawman of attacking a strawman.

koeselitz: This simply isn't true. Most Christians in the world aren't American Evangelicals, for one thing.

True, but the largest denominations around the world seem to share a consideration of the Apostolic and Nicene creeds as foundational statements of belief. Among other things these creeds describe God as the creator of the universe (although the details are open for debate), the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ, and Christ's role as the savior of humanity.

So the fact is that Christian groups that consider the Bible a purely metaphorical document about a God that has absolutely nothing to do with human affairs are a tiny minority both in the United States and around the world.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


No Robots, who seems to believe that discussions of specifically-American religious beliefs is a promotion of those beliefs.

You do promote those beliefs when you accept their premises, their reading of the texts.

those who believe in a metaphorical God are more rightly termed "atheists"

Agreed, but in place of "metaphorical God" I would put "abstract principle of Being," and in place of "atheists" I would put "godless."
posted by No Robots at 9:56 AM on October 14, 2010


Your metaphorical God doesn't exist in any meaningful way, any more than a metaphorical unicorn can be said to exist.

what about love or unity or consciousness? A "metaphorical unicorn" is missing the point, since you're still thinking in terms of a concrete entity...

As John Locke said, it's just as hard to conceive of thought as separate from matter, as to understand how matter thinks. Religious ideas stem from people trying to understand aspects of human experience which don't seem to be fully explicable (just see that "free will" discussion above, which I won't get into, but which materialism clearly can't solve... A pure materialism entails rejecting the existence of consciousness. That doesn't mean consciousness is supernatural, but it clearly isn't the same as its material aspect, ie, neurons firing etc).
posted by mdn at 10:00 AM on October 14, 2010


You do promote those beliefs when you accept their premises, their reading of the texts.

This is silly. It's like saying that participating in a particular reading of Dante's Inferno promotes hollow earth theory.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:00 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


This simply isn't true. Most Christians in the world aren't American Evangelicals, for one thing. And I have a hard time seeing how you can justify this statement with relation to Jews at all – it's Orthodox teaching, stated nearly unanimously by all the Rabbis, that the Bible is frequently metaphorical.

I think you have misunderstood what I meant. Of course many people interpret the Bible as being full of metaphor, and I would agree with them. But very few Jews or Christians would say that the God they believe in is a pure metaphor, a construct of human ideas. They state that he is in some sense real.

This is not an American thing, about absolute literalism. It is the basis of the vast majority of Judeo-Christian faith that God is a real thing and not an idea of a thing; that although the ideas of both God and the Tooth Fairy exist, only God truly exists. In fact, most Jews and Christians profess precisely what I said: their god is a sentient being who thinks somewhat like a human, who created and rules over humanity, governs our fate and is concerned with our actions. I am atheist towards that god.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:06 AM on October 14, 2010


No Robots: You do promote those beliefs when you accept their premises, their reading of the texts.

And we're in Humpty Dumpty language here. Are you promoting strawatheism with your arguments?

mdn: what about love or unity or consciousness? A "metaphorical unicorn" is missing the point, since you're still thinking in terms of a concrete entity...

What about love, unity, or consciousness? It seems to me that we better understand love, unity, and consciousness by talking about love, unity, and consciousness, even if we don't fully understand them.

Meanwhile, I think it's more often the other way around. When Rumi uses love as a metaphor for God it's pretty clear to me that he's not saying that God can be equated with love. He uses a very human and common experience to describe something that's beyond love.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:12 AM on October 14, 2010


This is silly. It's like saying that participating in a particular reading of Dante's Inferno promotes hollow earth theory.

Those who promote Dante’s work do indeed promote his medieval worldview with all its superstitious nonsense. The Bible, too contains superstitious nonsense, but that is not what it is essentially about. It is about the nature of the real itself. Certainly, it does not express itself in contemporary scientific terms. For that, there are many, many great writers. But we shouldn't be so quick to relegate the Bible to the level of Dante.
posted by No Robots at 10:21 AM on October 14, 2010


Jahve, Being, designates the abstract spiritual. It is exactly synonymous with the Eleatic One, the Stoic Logos, Brahman, Tao. Like these other words, it is subject to degradation into homonymy with common materialist notions. Contemporary atheists refuse to acknowledge this, preferring to see in the Bible only the common anthropomorphic misunderstanding....

But what I'm saying is that atheists agree with fundamentalists that this is the correct understanding of the Bible.


It's not just atheists and Christian fundamentalists who reject your vision of the Biblical God. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and most liberal Protestants conceive of God as a personal being (or to be more precise, a being of three persons). This seems at odds with "the abstract spiritual... the Eleatic One, the Stoic Logos, Brahman, Tao," most if not all of which are (as far as I can tell) non-personal. And I'm not just speaking of rank-and-file Christians, either; most Christian theologians conceive of God as a personal God as well.

Contrast:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
(Tao Te Ching, ch. 1, tr. Feng & English)

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" ... This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
(Ex 3:13-15, NIV)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:27 AM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


No Robots: But we shouldn't be so quick to relegate the Bible to the level of Dante.

Why not? If we treat the Bible as merely a literary and metaphorical work about "the nature of the real" then surely The Divine Comedy which is an allegorical work addressing morality and history exists on the same plane of scripture.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


No Robots, I'm not really sure what you're arguing anymore. My point is that, to an atheist, the Bible is not less a piece of historical literature than is Inferno, Paradise Lost, or Green Eggs and Ham, and an atheist picking a particular interpretation of that piece of literature is not therefore espousing the worldview of a particular fringe group that also happens to hold that interpretation. Atheists are not required to accept your particular reading of the Bible in order to then not believe in a biblical god.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2010


It's not just atheists and Christian fundamentalists who reject your vision of the Biblical God.

Know that the whole of being is one individual and nothing else.—Maimonides

Under this name we adore God as Eternal and Infinite Existence, as the source of all being.— Adolph Moses

Hear 0 Israel! Eternal Being is our God, Eternal Being is One!—Benjamin Ginzburg

First of all, this is, for some at least, the knowledge that Being is our God, that is, that Being is that to which we owe all and which rightfully claims from us our whole devotion.— Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr
posted by No Robots at 10:40 AM on October 14, 2010


The Divine Comedy which is an allegorical work addressing morality and history exists on the same plane of scripture.

Sure, they're both literature. I'm just saying one is crappy, and the other is good.

Atheists are not required to accept your particular reading of the Bible

Of course. I'm just challenging the standard atheist interpretation, which is just the same as that of the religionists.
posted by No Robots at 10:46 AM on October 14, 2010


Then it seems like this is just a massive derail.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:47 AM on October 14, 2010


As much as it's commonly abused, I'm going to call "courtier's reply" here. I'm not obligated to address any interpretation of the Bible in relationship to a concept I'm ignostic about.

On preview:

Sure, they're both literature. I'm just saying one is crappy, and the other is good.

In which case, you have no reason to object to atheists who consider the Bible to be literary and not divine.

Of course. I'm just challenging the standard atheist interpretation, which is just the same as that of the religionists.

There's no standards. Therefore, no "standard atheist interpretation."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:51 AM on October 14, 2010


I think we're all in agreement that metaphors are real, and that existence exists. No Robots can just pretend there's an asterisk whenever someone uses the word "god" or "atheist" so that they do not refute those claims. Done.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:53 AM on October 14, 2010


Then it seems like this is just a massive derail.

Maybe it's just a lesson on the importance of being careful what one asks an atheist.
posted by No Robots at 11:02 AM on October 14, 2010


Indeed. For example, if one asks an atheist, 'Why do all atheists everywhere refuse to acknowledge the obvious truth of my particular interpretive framework,' one is quite likely to have a stupid conversation.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:15 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


NoRobots quoting me: It's not just atheists and Christian fundamentalists who reject your vision of the Biblical God.

How conveniently you omit my next sentence, in which I list several other varieties of Christians who believe in a personal God, and I did not include Jews. This was not an omission by oversight; I am not knowledgeable enough about Jewish theology to comment on their beliefs.

Know that the whole of being is one individual and nothing else.—Maimonides
Under this name we adore God as Eternal and Infinite Existence, as the source of all being.— Adolph Moses
Hear 0 Israel! Eternal Being is our God, Eternal Being is One!—Benjamin Ginzburg


Jewish, Jewish, and Jewish, all three of which are thus irrelevant to my assertions about Christian theology.

First of all, this is, for some at least, the knowledge that Being is our God, that is, that Being is that to which we owe all and which rightfully claims from us our whole devotion.— Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr

Congratualations, you have found two liberal Protestant theologians who reject the idea of a personal God, which hardly refutes my argument that most liberal Protestant theologians believe in a personal God. Indeed, even the author of the very page you link, John B. Cobb, rejects the Niebuhrs' view! He writes, "But I would insist that if Niebuhr is warranted in speaking seriously of God as a Self who knows us and loves us, then an apprehension of God as wholly impersonal is inferior if not illusory." If you're trying to refute the assertion that most liberal Protestants believe in a personal God, it's probably best not to link to a page written by a liberal Protestant who believes in a personal God.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:15 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


KirkJobSluder: “So the fact is that Christian groups that consider the Bible a purely metaphorical document about a God that has absolutely nothing to do with human affairs are a tiny minority both in the United States and around the world.”

Well, I could give an answer about how that's sort of a simplistic way to look at it. I think the root of the difficulty is in something you said above:

“There is something of a bait and switch that goes on that starts with very abstract god claims and then seems to switch to specific historical and supernatural claims.”

This isn't a 'bait and switch' – it's actually a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, and (I think) it's sort of a defining characteristic of religion. That is to say: one of the claims of religion is that there are various different levels of reality, and that the truth about historical events is on an entirely different level from the truth about God and whether he exists. This is expressed within Christianity by St Paul when he says that "faith is the evidence of things not seen." That is, faith cannot be about observable things – and any materially verifiable claims that the Bible makes are not claims that are substantial to Christianity. Claims about historical events, claims about how the physical world works, etc – these are not claims that faith can make. I think that's intuitive for atheists; how could you have faith that something's true when you could go out and check? That's not faith, it's assumption, and a pretty stupid assumption at that. It should be noted, though, that what is intuitive for most atheists in this case is also accepted as true by Christianity.

Like I said, I could give an answer like that. But I don't think most atheists agree that there are different 'levels' of reality; I think you could be an atheist and believe that, but most atheists I've met don't. And unfortunately I have no idea how you would go about arguing that one side or the other is true. And if there are not various levels of reality, one also might argue that there's nothing which we can clearly define as 'Christianity.' So my 'answer' isn't much of an answer.
posted by koeselitz at 11:22 AM on October 14, 2010


shakespeherian: Then it seems like this is just a massive derail.”

Well, yes. Although I think I appreciate No Robots' frustration – pardon me if I'm seeing something that isn't there, but I get annoyed, too, when I see things like the funny Youtube parody above of the story of Elisha and the she-bears. It's funny, yeah; but it totally misses the point of the story, which is distinctly not about random, wanton killing of children. That's not the point at all. But any allegorical meaning to the story is lumped right out oftentimes when the stupider elements of 'atheism' decide they want a laugh.

That doesn't bother me. And it should be pointed out that 'the stupider elements of atheism' hardly even makes sense, since atheism is not an institution (as many have pointed out). Those people are just random people out there; they might not actually be legitimate atheists at all. And I don't know that anybody here has been so reductionist.

So: it seems like maybe No Robots is expressing some annoyance at the reductionism that's often present in arguments commonly dubbed "atheist arguments". An understandable annoyance, since we're talking about No Robots' own beliefs here (if I'm not mistaken.) But it may indeed be extraneous to the point.
posted by koeselitz at 11:29 AM on October 14, 2010


I think the laughing about the story of Elisha and the bears totally misses the point too, and for what it's worth I'm not an atheist. However, I'm not really sure that this thread, which is about atheism, is the best place for an argument about nuanced readings of Christian scripture, unless we want threads about Christian scripture to turn into arguments about atheism.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:38 AM on October 14, 2010


This is expressed within Christianity by St Paul when he says that "faith is the evidence of things not seen." That is, faith cannot be about observable things

St Paul himself observed something on the road to Damascus, supposedly. Your interpretation would imply that he is a man without faith, as are the thousands of Biblical people who witnessed miracles. (Or was every one of those events just a parable?)

Clearly what he meant was that we should foster faith in lieu of observation, not that observation destroys faith, nor that things observed and verified have no religious value. St Paul's faith refers to the belief in something, based on observation or not. Your modern definition of faith is useful to apologists because it compartmentalizes religion as something untestable, but it is based on wishful thinking.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2010


"It's like, I believe in God, right? But I don't think he's like some old man with a big white beard."
-- Michael Ian Black
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 11:59 AM on October 14, 2010


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: “St Paul himself observed something on the road to Damascus, supposedly. Your interpretation would imply that he is a man without faith, as are the thousands of Biblical people who witnessed miracles. (Or was every one of those events just a parable?) ¶ Clearly what he meant was that we should foster faith in lieu of observation, not that observation destroys faith, nor that things observed and verified have no religious value. St Paul's faith refers to the belief in something, based on observation or not. Your modern definition of faith is useful to apologists because it compartmentalizes religion as something untestable, but it is based on wishful thinking.”

Well, I really don't want to get into this. I hope it'll suffice to say two things: first of all, he may 'clearly' mean that in your eyes, but that's not how Christians read it – not the majority of Christians, and not any Church's leadership. Second of all, your conception of miracles is utterly different from how Christians conceive of them; if miracles were simply wondrous things that induce believe by their sheerly astounding nature, there would be no difference between miracles and magic. To give a more direct explanation: the miracle on the way to Damascus wasn't the cause of St Paul's faith. The miracle was Paul's faith – the fact that he had it.

Miracles are a difficult point. They're uniquely central to Christianity, so obviously they appear in more variegated forms within that religion. However, Christianity is principally about one central miracle: that God became Humanity. Every other Christian miracle is a reflection of this central one. And I think I can give a bit of a bigger picture of what I mean when I say that miracles aren't the cause of St Paul's faith when I say this: if miracles were the cause of faith simply because they are unexplainable, then Christian Faith ought to be a sort of scientific inquiry which pursues every event to the point where it is provably unexplainable. But unfortunately I think it's pretty clear that there's no such thing as "provably unexplainable" – I think that's clear both to atheists and to Christians. What miracles are supposed to do is open our souls to a higher level of reality.

But, as I said, I really don't want to get into this. For one thing, it's kind of pointless; you don't believe this is true, so why spend all day talking about what I believe? It's sort of narcissistic, particularly in a thread that's supposed to be about what atheists believe. For another thing, I don't really understand my own beliefs on this point as well as I should, so I'm not really the one to be explaining Christianity.
posted by koeselitz at 12:06 PM on October 14, 2010


shakespherian: Indeed. For example, if one asks an atheist,...

Actually asking questions is preferable to flogging strawmen.

koeselitz: Well, I could give an answer about how that's sort of a simplistic way to look at it.

I'm not trying to oversimplify here, but the doctrines that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, fulfilled certain interpretations of prophesies, was executed, buried, and rose from the dead to bring the gospel of salvation to his disciples are core claims of mainstream Christian faith. For 15 years of my life, those claims were ritually repeated every Sunday in a liberal Church that considered large parts of the Bible to be metaphor.

koeselitz: This isn't a 'bait and switch' – it's actually a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, and (I think) it's sort of a defining characteristic of religion.

The problem here is that the abstract claims do nothing to support the historical claims and often contradict the historical claims. So "god is love." Sure, you can define god that way. But it then does not follow that if god is love, that Jesus Christ is his only son etc., etc..

koeselitz: That is to say: one of the claims of religion is that there are various different levels of reality, and that the truth about historical events is on an entirely different level from the truth about God and whether he exists. This is expressed within Christianity by St Paul when he says that "faith is the evidence of things not seen."

I disagree with this particular interpretation of that verse in the context of the salvation by law vs. salvation by faith argument that runs through the epistles. In Hebrews 11, Paul makes the claim that the faith of Hebrew kings and prophets in an unseen god led them to great deeds and miracles that are treated as historical record, but these miracles are less than the miracle of Jesus Christ.

Both the miracles of the Hebrew prophets and the miracles of Jesus are treated by Paul as historical truth throughout his epistles. God gave the laws to Moses. Jesus rose from the dead. There is not even a glimmer of a hint that either should be taken as allegory or metaphor.

I'll certainly agree with the statement that God in the Bible is a complex, mystical, and abstract figure pretty far away from Michelangelo's Chapel, (which is obviously allegory anyway). But that's a mystical and abstract figure that mainstream Christian theology claims performs supernatural acts that are manifest in the world, the most important being the the death and resurrection of Christ.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:11 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is indeed useful to consider the semantic differences that people use, but once those differences are acknowledged it should not prevent an atheist from talking about the concept of god as it is overwhelmingly commonly refered to: a sentient being who thinks somewhat like a human, who created and rules over humanity, governs our fate and is concerned with our actions. Without evidence in its favor, and faced with the infinite alternatives, this is a being we can reject as terribly unlikely.

It honestly doesn't matter what is "overwhelmingly common." Ideas are not decided by election. Just as it doesn't make sense to dismiss liberalism or conservatism because the vast majority of people have only a vague idea of what the ideas mean. It's not as if you put yourself "in league" with adherents by accepting a philosophy. You have to judge an idea based on its best presentation.

There's at least one prominent Christian who rejected the sentient being you describe:
I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. [He was speaking of quantum mechanics and the breaking down of determinism.] My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance — but for us, not for God. —Albert Einstein
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:14 PM on October 14, 2010


Oops, not Christian, but religious person....
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:16 PM on October 14, 2010


esprit de l'escalier, I agree entirely with Albert Einstein's religious views:
"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."
I am going to continue calling myself an atheist, even though I believe in something Albert Einstein occasionally refered to as God.

You seem to be saying that a man professing atheism must reject all things which are referred to as God, but that a man praising God need only believe in one thing which is referred to as God. This would seem to give the religious man an unfair linguistic advantage.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:24 PM on October 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


esprit de l'escalier: It honestly doesn't matter what is "overwhelmingly common." Ideas are not decided by election. Just as it doesn't make sense to dismiss liberalism or conservatism because the vast majority of people have only a vague idea of what the ideas mean. It's not as if you put yourself "in league" with adherents by accepting a philosophy. You have to judge an idea based on its best presentation.

I think this is naive. The first problem is that it does me no good to address the atman/anatman debate, Unitarian-Universalism, Zen Buddhism, or Einstein's pantheism to people who also reject those ideas. Not that I argue about this very much because I don't think argument is an effective vehicle for change.

The second problem is that our policy, economy, and social existence are decided by elections and pluralities. While it's tempting to say that abstract ivory-tower theology is the only thing that matters, it's not.

The third problem is that while you see it as a best presentation, I see it as probably a radically different idea. It's hard to tell because these discussions seem to involve a fair quantity of goalpost shifting, bait-and-switch, and shell games rendering the idea incoherent. Einstein as a good example can be read a half-dozen different ways depending on how you cherry pick from his writings. But I think it's safe to say that Einstein and C.S. Lewis are using the same language to talk about very different ideas.

Which is where we get into Russell's Teapot and the Courtier's Reply. I'm not obliged to knock down a thousand different presentations of god before I can profess doubt. In fact, there's a fairly obvious double-standard in that Atheists are expected to do far more comparative religion work than anyone making a profession of religious faith. Until we can come to an agreement that "god" is a worthwhile concept to advocate, I can't evaluate "best presentations."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:47 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am going to continue calling myself an atheist, even though I believe in something Albert Einstein occasionally refered to as God.

You might want to have a look at a contemporary of Einstein (and fellow Spinozist) named Constantin Brunner, who coined the term the cogitans (das Denkende) to designate the abstract absolute spiritual/intellectual principle. As was asked in one review (review is on my website) of Brunner's book, Our Christ: The Revolt of the Mystical Genius, "What logical affinity connects the pure monotheism of Judaism with 'Spinozist' atheism?"
posted by No Robots at 12:52 PM on October 14, 2010


Or in short. I'm not an atheist because I reject specific doctrines of particular religious faiths. I reject the specific doctrines because I find their underlying assumptions to be problematic. And the reason for that is because I've never found religious language to be necessary or sufficient to encompass my experience of the universe.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:02 PM on October 14, 2010


me: “Well, I could give an answer about how that's sort of a simplistic way to look at it.”

KirkJobSluder: “I'm not trying to oversimplify here, but the doctrines that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, fulfilled certain interpretations of prophesies, was executed, buried, and rose from the dead to bring the gospel of salvation to his disciples are core claims of mainstream Christian faith. For 15 years of my life, those claims were ritually repeated every Sunday in a liberal Church that considered large parts of the Bible to be metaphor.”

Which is one of the reasons I didn't give that answer. Also, I want to say that I don't think you're trying to oversimplify anything at all. I think you've got perfectly good reasons for believing what you believe, and even if I disagree with you on certain points that doesn't mean I don't respect your point of view. We've both probably had about the same experience of Christianity, even if our feelings about it are different, and I don't pretend that you're coming from some sort of simplified, dumbed-down conception. You're certainly not.

On the contrary, we're talking about things here which I regard to be somewhat beyond my ken, so you'll have to forgive me, because I'm not going to be very capable at describing or explaining them.

me: “This isn't a 'bait and switch' – it's actually a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, and (I think) it's sort of a defining characteristic of religion.”

KirkJobSluder: “The problem here is that the abstract claims do nothing to support the historical claims and often contradict the historical claims. So "god is love." Sure, you can define god that way. But it then does not follow that if god is love, that Jesus Christ is his only son etc., etc..”

The only useful thing I guess I can say on this point is that religion never claims to be non-contradictory.

me: “That is to say: one of the claims of religion is that there are various different levels of reality, and that the truth about historical events is on an entirely different level from the truth about God and whether he exists. This is expressed within Christianity by St Paul when he says that ‘faith is the evidence of things not seen.’”

KirkJobSluder: “I disagree with this particular interpretation of that verse in the context of the salvation by law vs. salvation by faith argument that runs through the epistles. In Hebrews 11, Paul makes the claim that the faith of Hebrew kings and prophets in an unseen god led them to great deeds and miracles that are treated as historical record, but these miracles are less than the miracle of Jesus Christ. Both the miracles of the Hebrew prophets and the miracles of Jesus are treated by Paul as historical truth throughout his epistles. God gave the laws to Moses. Jesus rose from the dead. There is not even a glimmer of a hint that either should be taken as allegory or metaphor.”

I could quote the church fathers (from St Gregory the Great to St Thomas Aquinas and back again) showing that the interpretation I gave above of this verse is the traditional one accepted by most Christians. I'm not going to because that seems sort of silly; if you're interested, though, I can give references.

The fact of the Christ's resurrection, it should also be noted, is not in any sense a metaphor; nor has any Christian ever said it was. And I'm not claiming it is. But please notice this: this isn't a question that can be determined by observation. It's quite akin to the assertion that someone is the son of God; it's hardly even meaningful if you don't believe in gods. If someone dies and then comes back to life, the scientific explanation is that they weren't actually dead; it contradicts the meaning of the word "dead" as you or I know it for people to die and then come back. There must have been a mistake; he was merely (as some say) exhausted by the ordeal on the cross, the cool atmosphere of the tomb revived him, etc. People might say they saw him dead, but if they saw him alive after that then clearly they were wrong. I think there's at least a sense in which the object of faith in this case is not a thing seen. At the very least, when people say that a person is the son of God they're not talking about something that is even coherent in terms of normal, everyday reality as you and I know it.

“I'll certainly agree with the statement that God in the Bible is a complex, mystical, and abstract figure pretty far away from Michelangelo's Chapel, (which is obviously allegory anyway). But that's a mystical and abstract figure that mainstream Christian theology claims performs supernatural acts that are manifest in the world, the most important being the the death and resurrection of Christ.”

This cuts both ways. I'm familiar with the claims about what "mainstream" Christianity believes, and how that is different from what the Church teaches. Frankly, however, I reject the idea that any of us can even know what "mainstream" Christianity is, much less say whether it contradicts Church teaching. I may think I know what most Christians think, but I obviously have met less than one percent of one percent of all the Christians who've ever lived; I don't think any of us can claim any different. To atheists, then, Christianity is just an aggregation of beliefs; Church doctrine doesn't have any special distinction in that aggregation, understandably. Whereas, at least for me, there's a whole landscape of belief here, and it matters what the Church teaches, even if that teaching is the minority opinion (and, I repeat, I'm not convinced that it is). But of course if someone doesn't believe that Church teaching has some immanent value, then obviously they disagree with me on that point. To someone for whom the teachings of the Church aren't paramount in some higher way, it's sort of insane to distinguish the teachings of the Church as "more Christian" than the teachings of the Fellowship of Christian Birdwatchers or whatever; they're all just Christians, anyway, so what standard is there beyond majority rules?

Also, lastly: I don't think Christianity necessarily intends to instill only a single interpretation of any given teaching. That's often disputed by Christians themselves; but if it's true, their disagreement is not a problem.
posted by koeselitz at 1:35 PM on October 14, 2010


As an avowed atheist, you don't have moral arguments other than to say certain things increase your personal pleasure or reduce pain. Actually, you don't even have a reason to choose pleasure over pain.. or life over death.

Thanks for clearing that up. I'm off to shoot heroin. Wait... needles hurt. Crap.

Doesn't this lovely strawman really apply to everyone? You could make a case that all acts are done for our own personal pleasure. Oh, sure, you gave up all your possessions and moved to Zaire and worked among the impoverished and it looks like you are being selfless, but why did you do all that? Because you wanted to. It was all about your needs and your wishes all along. People are selfish. It may make them happy to help others, but it's still about making themselves happy.

Great, now I'm talking like an Objectivist. This can not end well.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:09 PM on October 14, 2010


You seem to be saying that a man professing atheism must reject all things which are referred to as God, but that a man praising God need only believe in one thing which is referred to as God. This would seem to give the religious man an unfair linguistic advantage.

I'm saying that if anyone who doesn't want to isolate himself has to invest effort into understanding and being able to use the language of others.

Anyone doing research knows that you can't just come up with a brilliant way of understanding things, you also have to compare your way of thinking with what is already there. That's part of joining the scientific community.

It's same with the world community. It's ridiculously self-congratulatory to imagine oneself "knocking down" the ideas of others as a result of some kind of divine insight into the nature of the universe. (There are plenty of contentious things that I think are obvious too, like "the axiom of choice," and the "likelihood principle.") One has to recognize the inevitable bias of language and ideas in which one is immersed.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:30 PM on October 14, 2010


kieselitz: The fact of the Christ's resurrection, it should also be noted, is not in any sense a metaphor; nor has any Christian ever said it was. And I'm not claiming it is. But please notice this: this isn't a question that can be determined by observation.

I think we're talking past each other, and I'm probably being sloppy. When I refer to Jesus as a historical reality, I don't mean something that was observed (although the Early Church certainly believed in witnesses) I mean an event that happened in the human world and had an ontological reality. Paul was exhorting his audience to have faith in the ontological reality of Moses receiving the laws and the resurrection of Jesus as events that happened in the physical world.

The bait and switch is a specific rhetorical strategy of building consensus around one claim, and then changing the terms to another claim. To move this away from Christianity, some Buddhists do this by starting with, "meditation has real medical effects" (true) and then pull the, "if you accept that, then isn't karmic rebirth reasonable?" I'm very uncomfortable with many discussions of "spirituality" because agreement that something like love of nature is good then is used to argue for religious faith along with it.

That's something very different from the conflicts I see within liberal Christianity. The conflict there is that by conceding that Genesis is a synthetic work of metaphor created by Hebrew authors in exile and there probably wasn't a literal Adam and Eve, the argument for a savior with both ontological and spiritual reality is undermined.

In regards to doctrine vs. what people believe. Yes, I do think that's a bit of an issue here. As a practical matter, I suspect a fair number of people are quietly Unitarian-Unversalists on these issues. But in general, things like creeds, manifestos, and platform statements provide a reasonable proxy for making statements about large social organizations. Does everyone agree with every plank on a party platform? Of course not. But the platform can be treated as a reasonable generalization. The creeds of major denominations are fair game for discussion and criticism, and the argument that we shouldn't address those creeds in the interest of accommodating every little variation and interpretation strikes me as something of a no true scotsman.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:39 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


you have the lox bagel today, but the BLT yesterday. Can we say with certainty what you will have tomorrow? In a deterministic universe, we could.

No, in a computable universe we can. The universe can be deterministic without being computable.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:01 PM on October 14, 2010


Yakuman: “As an avowed atheist, you don't have moral arguments other than to say certain things increase your personal pleasure or reduce pain. Actually, you don't even have a reason to choose pleasure over pain.. or life over death.”

Why don't you have a reason to choose pleasure over pain? Or life over death? Animals make that choice, and they don't even have moral capacities.

This argument is interesting, I know, but we have to accept the way that Nietzsche complicated it. The fact is that a nostalgia for ossified morality isn't going to hold people to a religious code. Considering that ossified morality wasn't exactly part of Christianity in the first place, that may seem to be a good thing.

I know the majority of atheists may cling to the same ossified morality that Christians do. But look at someone like Spinoza, who I believe did not. Spinoza was actually aloof to these things, entirely disinterested, and he would not have been convinced by your claim that he has no right to choose pleasure. You don't even have to have reason to move toward pleasure. And I am certainly not convinced that a morality based on pleasure (like that of Socrates) would be as hideous as you seem to indicate.
posted by koeselitz at 9:46 PM on October 14, 2010


The fact of the Christ's resurrection, it should also be noted, is not in any sense a metaphor; nor has any Christian ever said it was.

Spinoza, whom Goethe called Christianissimus, wrote:
I therefore conclude, that the resurrection of Christ from the dead was in reality spiritual, and that to the faithful alone, according to their understanding, it was revealed that Christ was endowed with eternity, and had risen from the dead (using dead in the sense in which Christ said, “let the dead bury their dead”1 ), giving by His life and death a matchless example of holiness.--Letter 23 to Oldenburg
With Spinoza there is no dichotomy between spiritual/intellectual godlessness and the essence of Judaism/Christianity, nor is there any recourse to miracles or the supernatural. He thus provides contemporary Christians with the opportunity to establish their position on rationalist grounds, and contemporary atheists with the opportunity to escape the pitfalls of absolutized materialism. Christians can claim atheism as their own, and atheists can claim Christ as their own.
posted by No Robots at 8:22 AM on October 15, 2010


Christians can claim atheism as their own, and atheists can claim Christ as their own.

Many do, they're usually in Unitarian Universalist congregations though.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 AM on October 15, 2010


The problem with UU is that it has degenerated into a kind of communitarian feel-good experience, devoid of rigour and doctrine. What is needed is something hard-headed and science-oriented.
posted by No Robots at 9:03 AM on October 15, 2010


No Robots: The problem with UU is that it has degenerated into a kind of communitarian feel-good experience, devoid of rigour and doctrine. What is needed is something hard-headed and science-oriented.

1) How do you define spirituality and holiness in such a way that you can create empirically testable hypotheses around them?

2) How can you demand rigor when most of your own arguments are fallacious at best and dishonest at worst?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:25 AM on October 15, 2010


1) Hear Israel! Being is our god, Being is One!

2) Start by calling out moralizing accusations when we see them, no matter who is making them. Have they found out about you yet?
posted by No Robots at 9:33 AM on October 15, 2010


1) Hear Israel! Being is our god, Being is One!

How do you operationalize that as a an empirically testable hypothesis? It's important here because you've set the standard as "hard-headed and science oriented." I'm asking nothing of you here that I don't ask when I'm criticizing any other claim to a scientific hypothesis (such as evolutionary psychology.)

2) Start by calling out moralizing accusations when we see them, no matter who is making them. Have they found out about you yet?

Moralizing accusations such as the ones you've repeatedly made in this thread regarding atheists and Unitarian Universalists?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:40 AM on October 15, 2010


See? You're getting it!
posted by No Robots at 9:55 AM on October 15, 2010


In short, you'd be much better off providing better descriptions as to what you mean when you describe a Christian atheism grounded in Spinoza, than flogging obviously false and cheap rhetorical strawmen of everyone else in the room.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:56 AM on October 15, 2010


Well, I don't really want to carry this derail right over the cliff, and I have put in several hints (Brunner) as to where one might find an ample development of my theme.
posted by No Robots at 10:02 AM on October 15, 2010


No Robots: “Spinoza, whom Goethe called Christianissimus, wrote...”

Goethe was full of crap. Spinoza was the deepest atheist who's ever existed.

“I therefore conclude, that the resurrection of Christ from the dead was in reality spiritual, and that to the faithful alone, according to their understanding, it was revealed that Christ was endowed with eternity, and had risen from the dead (using dead in the sense in which Christ said, “let the dead bury their dead”1 ), giving by His life and death a matchless example of holiness.”--Letter 23 to Oldenburg

Clear away the misdirection here and pay attention to what Spinoza is saying: Spinoza interpreted "let the dead bury their dead" to mean "let that which is forgotten take care of itself." Christ was 'raised from the dead' and 'endowed with eternity' in the sense that he was un-forgotten; that is, people remembered him.

The whole of Spinoza's life and work amounted to a complete removal of the meaning of religion via a radical 'reinterpretation.' This is one good example of the reinterpretation he did. His letters to the theologian Henry Oldenburg are the source of his most ironic and misdirected efforts on this front. It's pretty clear to anyone who's read Theologico-Political Treatise (or even the less important Ethics) that he had no regard for the notion of God as the religious traditions teach it. Given that the bulk of Theologico-Political Treatise is taken up with a wholesale dismantling of the religious tradition, it's hard for me to see how one could see him as anything but an atheist.

If you want a legitimate Christian way to 'claim atheism,' I'd suggest looking to Meister Eckhart.
posted by koeselitz at 10:06 AM on October 15, 2010


No Robots: “Well, I don't really want to carry this derail right over the cliff, and I have put in several hints (Brunner) as to where one might find an ample development of my theme.”

Is Constantin Brunner also under the laughable impression that Spinoza would've ever willingly endorsed any form of Christianity that still could be coherently called Christian? Because if so I see no reason to read his work. The "Christianity" Spinoza espoused in Theologico-Political Treatise was very interesting in that it contained ten moral laws, none of which had anything to do with Christ. That is – er – it wasn't Christianity.
posted by koeselitz at 10:15 AM on October 15, 2010


You are correct that Spinoza dismantles the religious tradition. But he also provides us with a rational alternative that includes the essence of Judaism and Christianity. His ens constans infinitis attributis (Absolute Being with infinite powers) is exactly congruent with Jahve tsebaot. And his acknowledgement of Christ as the intellectual/spiritual saviour of mankind provides a rationalist foundation for devotion to Christ:
[A] man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge, must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men, nor do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To Him the ordinances of God leading men to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions, so that God manifested Himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ as He formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God, and it may be said that the wisdom of God (,i.e. wisdom more than human) took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation. I must at this juncture declare that those doctrines which certain churches put forward concerning Christ, I neither affirm nor deny, for I freely confess that I do not understand them.—Spinoza
Eckhart is indeed completely godless. He says, "Wäre ich nicht, so wäre auch Gott nicht." (If I were not, God also would not be.) What Eckhart says using mystical language is identical to what Spinoza says using philosophical language.
posted by No Robots at 10:26 AM on October 15, 2010


By the way, that is a poor translation of Spinoza. The "supernatural" is added by the translator. The original Latin just has "voice."
posted by No Robots at 10:29 AM on October 15, 2010


I don't think you understand Christianity, then.
posted by koeselitz at 10:32 AM on October 15, 2010


As Brunner says, “Christianity is Judaism baptized, Judaism with a non-Jewish name,” but also adds, “Christianity is not the Christian religion and this Christian society, which acts so unchristianly towards Jews, but the Christianity of Christ.”
posted by No Robots at 10:43 AM on October 15, 2010


Ah. The Christianity of Christ. As separate from Christianity of the Church. Because, as we all know, Constantin Brunner was privileged enough to have a time machine.
posted by koeselitz at 10:46 AM on October 15, 2010


Well, he seems to have been able to read the relevant documents with considerably more clarity than the churchmen.
posted by No Robots at 10:51 AM on October 15, 2010


Thanks for resolving two thousand years of intense debate!
posted by shakespeherian at 11:47 AM on October 15, 2010


Well, the credit belongs to Brunner. I'm just happy to have found his work, and be part of publicizing it. (I know you're being facetious, but I'm quite serious about this.)
posted by No Robots at 12:00 PM on October 15, 2010


Okay. So you're willing to follow Brunner in sweeping aside two thousand years of dedicated belief structures of many and multifarious types, simply to say "oh well, they were all wrong" – is that really what you're doing here? That seems almost insane. Seriously, people love to do this nowadays (Aristotle is also a favorite target, viz. "The Western World has been wrong since Aristotle") but that doesn't make it rational.
posted by koeselitz at 12:27 PM on October 15, 2010


Actually, Brunner points to the existence of alternative historical streams:
How infinitely less absurd Christianity would have been if it had only listened to the Judaizing Anti-trinitarianism (which was suppressed form the 4th century on, since the Council of Nicaea); how much more it could have had of Christ! For all the work of purifying Christianity is nothing other than a de-hallowing of the Holy Spirit, a throwing out of what this pernicious pagan has brought in, a smoothing out of the Trinity, of those three dreadful creases which had been introduced into the unity of Jahve by paganism. It is a return to better things in Gnosticism, Arianism, Unitarianism, a return to the unity of Jahve, to prophetic Judaism.... If Christianity is to become what it wants to be, it must renounce the desire to know anything that pure Judaism in Christ neither knows nor wishes to know: it must renounce symbols, dogmas, articles of faith, liturgy, worship; it must want to know nothing of creation, the Fall, redemption and justification, heaven and hell, the incarnation of God, the Three Persons of the Godhead, the single Personality of God; it must not hold on to a single item of religion's superstition. If Christianity is to come about, Christ must be the Master, revealing to the heathen that they are but men (Ps. 9:21).—Brunner, Our Christ, p. 373-4.
posted by No Robots at 12:33 PM on October 15, 2010


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