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April 13, 2011

Ask an Atheist
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:45 PM * 401 comments

Apparently, today was National Ask an Atheist Day, “an opportunity for the general public — particularly people of faith — to approach us and ask questions about secular life.” As Making Light’s token atheist, I figure it’s up to me to make myself available for questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about National Ask an Atheist Day until pretty late, and there isn’t much time left. So I’m skipping the question phase and going straight to answers:

  1. Nope, not ever.
  2. Yeah, sometimes.
  3. Not since Grant Morrison stopped writing it.
  4. Well, I don’t really see that as a distinction worth drawing.
  5. Take the N, Q, or R train to 57th Street, and walk one block north.
  6. I don’t know that it’s really a meaningful question, given that the key terms are never defined.
  7. A different breath weapon from each head.
  8. No, that would be a terrible idea.
  9. One’s an analogy Bertrand Russell came up with, another’s an early 3D CAD model, and the third’s a distinctive geological feature associated with a 1920s political scandal.
  10. Templar, Arizona, by Charlie “Spike” Trotman.
  11. Yeah, I’m pretty sure you could pick a dozen lines each from the Bible and the Koran and mix them together, and most Americans wouldn’t be able to tell which came from which book.
  12. Murray’s Bagels, Sixth Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. Be sure to ask for belly lox; that’s the real stuff.
  13. Well, I’m flattered, but no, thank you.
  14. It seems that somewhere between PHP3 and PHP5, they changed how to access environment variables, and that bolloxed things up. Took me two hours to find the problem, but just a few seconds to fix it once I found it.
  15. Well, I’ve seen different people use the word “numinous” to mean different things, so I really couldn’t say.
  16. Three: One to change the bulb, and two to perform “É il Sol Dell’Anima” from Rigoletto.
  17. You use it in the early game to pare down your hand by getting rid of Copper and Estates. Make sure to pick up some Silver or Gold first, or some Action card that grants a money bonus.
  18. Boxers.

I hope this has helped defeat stereotypes about atheism and foster courteous dialog among believers, unbelievers, nonbelievers, disbelievers, hemidemisemibelievers, and Unilever.

Comments on Ask an Atheist:
#1 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2011, 11:02 PM:

To think it was all just a convenient myth, yet it's not, is it?

By the way, are hemidemisemibelievers produced by Dodge?

#2 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2011, 11:10 PM:

Well, and in the late game even trashing Silver can become worthwhile.

I do remember a game where a friend of mine got rid of his entire starting deck...while neglecting to pick up any Silver in the meantime, so he had to backtrack and buy Coppers again. Needless to say he didn't win.

#3 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2011, 11:17 PM:

Oh, and while you may be the token atheist among ML's moderators, I know for a fact that you are not the only atheist in ML's community. You represent me at least.

#4 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2011, 11:31 PM:

5: And all this time I thought it was "practice."

7: Use the Ice Rod on one of them, the Fire Rod on the other, and then the Master Sword to kill it, and you'll get the seventh crystal. You did get the Mirror Shield, right?

9: And sometimes you get a delicious drink.

12: What? West Village? Nah. Zabar's.

17: That game can definitely be too strategically intense for me.

#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2011, 11:50 PM:

5: And all this time I thought it was "practice."

Only if you're not a trinitarian. If you are, it's "practice, practice, practice!"

#6 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:04 AM:

Will Frank: Well, you might try looking through the Dominion Strategy Blog. Reading it has definitely improved my game.

#8 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:07 AM:

I'm open to questions too, although I have no interesting answers right at the moment.

(Atheist with regard to God, agnostic with regard to Dominion. I enjoy the game, but I just don't have the urge to get better at the strategy. My friends aren't *all* boardgame-focussed enough to wallop me at it, but enough of them are that I routinely lose.)

#9 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:12 AM:

Huh. Isn't "ask us about secular life" a little weird? I mean, I know lots of believers who know all about secular life already, from living it. Aside from the nuns who sometimes shop at my work, I don't think I know hardly anyone who doesn't live a secular life at least half of the time (and of course the fact that they're in a nondenominational drugstore shows that they have some secular life too).

I mean, I get that they don't want to just straight up call it "Godless life" (though personally, I'd be delighted if someone asked me how I felt about my Godless life, almost as delighted as if they'd called me a heathen), but "secular" just means "separate from religion," not "totally 100% religion-free." I think that probably describes huge swaths of most people's lives. Unless, of course, you find the act of buying a toothbrush to be deeply invested with Divine love and meaning (which I think some people do, but a lot of believers probably just shop as a routine and secular activity and save the Divine love and meaning for moments of contemplation or ritual).

If anyone out there is wondering what it's like to take a shower without the numinous presence of God, it's still pretty good.

#10 ::: Ingrid ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:28 AM:

Three: One to change the bulb, and two to perform “É il Sol Dell’Anima” from Rigoletto

Thank you sir, for the giggle that I needed at the end of a nasty day.

(Alas, the only atheist-related questions asked of me today were the kind that one answers with #13)

Thanks for representing! *fistbump*

#11 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:34 AM:

Devin @9, "secular" is one of those highly context-sensitive words. I think I'd've preferred "godless" (lower-cased, to indicate that one is not referring solely to the Abrahamic monodeity) myself.

But they didn't ask me, possibly because they wrote that description up some time before National Ask an Atheist Day.

#12 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:36 AM:

I'mma go change that to an ordered list, just to make referring to individual items easier.

#13 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:59 AM:

Avram @11

Yeah, I capitalized it to make it more ridiculous. Yours is the better formulation for serious use, and I'd happily sign on with your tardy-atheist's rewrite. The failure scenario I'm imagining is that some people will get super-grumpy about the "less" part and insist on something like "god-free" instead, which, well...

#14 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 02:54 AM:

Well, standing over here in the theist camp, I just want to say, "Go atheists! Go agnostics! Go stop defining me in terms of religion since I don't subscribe to it people!"

In a totally non-dictatorial way, I mean. Only go if you want to. Staying put is fine, too.

(Srsly. The front page of Making Light may be more Catholic than the Supreme Court, but that's an accident of history. The community is for everybody of every stripe.)

#15 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:15 AM:

Devin, #9: Speaking of showers and the numinous presence of God...

And yes, "secular life" is a rather peculiar way of putting it; any time that even the staunchest believer spends outside of devotional activities is secular life. I suggest "god-free", by analogy to "childfree".

#16 ::: Zander Nyrond ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:27 AM:

Point number eleven: yes they would. One would be in our alphabet and one would be in Arabic.

Of course, if you take a translation of the Koran (not the same thing), done by someone who knows it's a religious book and has looked through the King James Bible at some point, that might be a little more difficult. But I expect your point is that most Americans, including some who call themselves Christians, haven't read either book anyway.

So, does this foster courteous dialogue between people of differing philosophies? Well, it's mostly a joke, so it probably wasn't actually meant to, but I've seen worse, certainly. Well done.

#17 ::: GG ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 04:49 AM:

Is it sad I can reconstruct question 9?

Mind you, it's a lot of fun coming up with questions for the answers. "What should I look out for when confronting my Home Owners Association?" - Q7.

#18 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 05:37 AM:

GG: No it's not sad. I can do it, and I don't think my knowing it is sad, ergo yours isn't.

#19 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:16 AM:

Point number eleven: yes they would. One would be in our alphabet and one would be in Arabic.

"Our" alphabet? You're Greek, then?

#20 ::: Zander Nyrond ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:18 AM:

Talking about current editions, of course.

#21 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:21 AM:

ajay @19:

A translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an.

#22 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 07:31 AM:

David Goldfarb #2: I can't trash Silver, he's my boss (and I'm his).

#23 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 07:32 AM:

David Goldfarb #3: Also me.

#24 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:01 AM:

I like 'secular'. I started describing myself that way because 'atheist' is poisoned a bit, just out of high school*, and it felt too confrontational. Being secular just means there's a separation of church and me. I like that it's a bit redundant when you think about it.

*I swear, my dad would be much less abrasive on the subject of religion and religious people if he didn't teach high school science. Every year, he seems to get a kid who refuses to do Punnett squares and says it's because genes don't matter, God can do anything. It's really hard not to have the high-school attitude toward Big Grown-Up Subjects when you're surrounded by it.

#25 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:49 AM:

The term "hemidemisemibeliever" took me immediately to "hemidemisemiquaker", which suggests a very short silent meeting.

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:55 AM:

David Wald @25:

Not short enough for no one to be moved to stand and speak, I betcha.

#27 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:59 AM:

Abi @26:

It would be an interesting race condition, anyway. (I'm tempted to say that some meetings will turn into "popcorn meetings" regardless of constraints, but in this case I'd be a little afraid of injury.)

I suppose the term could also suggest a belief that there is that of God in everybody, but not very much.

#28 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:19 AM:

David Wald @27

"I'll hold you in the photon"?

#29 ::: Daniel Boone ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:26 AM:

There are more graceful ways to put the "godless" concept.

A newly internet-met friend of mine -- knowing nothing of my religious status -- recently proposed we pursue our common scheme on a Sunday, that being a convenient day for him because (as he put it) "I am bereft of religion."

Although that word can simply mean "lacking", it connotes mourned loss as well. Whether this gentleman has lost his religion and misses it, or simply lacks any, I do not know, but I thought it a very graceful way to communicate lack of religion to a near-stranger.

My response was less diplomatic, and could afford to be, since he went first: I agreed to his suggestion "as I am similarly unburdened by religion." However, it would have been rude, by my lights, to use "unburdened" to someone who might actually be religious.

#30 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:31 AM:

I've always been amused by my girlfriend's peculiarly Lutheran formulation of her godlessness:

"I don't think there's a God, but there probably is, because that would be just my luck and no more than I deserve."

#31 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:33 AM:

You don't; you get down off a duck.

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:49 AM:

Devin #9: Isn't "ask us about secular life" a little weird? I mean, I know lots of believers who know all about secular life already, from living it.

Well, isn't that kinda the point?

I go hiking in the mountains (as of yesterday, yay!), worry about my mom, grieve for my dying cat, go to a local drum circle every week, pick out gifts for family members, try to quit smoking (and falter). I go shopping, struggle with my bills, work part-time at a local bookstore.

Certainly among those, there are quite a few places where a god could be inserted, but where is one necessary?

#33 ::: Daniel Klein ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:56 AM:

Question 18 was, of course, "In the absence of a paternal deity, from where do you derive your morality?"

Another ardent atheist here, if you'll accept my apologies for the alliteration. I feel that this post has helped massively in fostering dialogue between atheists and unreasonable cavemen, but I fear there is just no talking to the Unilevers of the world.

#34 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 10:19 AM:

Diatryma @24

Being a secular person is different from having or lacking a secular life, I think. Your usage of the term strikes me as eminently sensible.

David Harmon @32

Playing non-devil's advocate here, does a god have to be necessary? I know that my mother, who is some kind of theist or other, would say that she inserts a god into her hiking because it makes the hiking better rather than because she doesn't have a choice.

My point was just that I think most (though perhaps not all) believers have plenty of experience shopping and paying bills in a way that doesn't relate to any god. Day-to-day secular life isn't something that atheists have any special insight on, really. Mourning and worrying and rites of passage and hopes and trying to be a better person, now, those things you and I do without any god while many others do them with god(s). There's a little more meat to that conversation, hey?

#35 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 10:22 AM:

My copy of The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C. Grayling just arrived from Amazon. No opinion yet since I haven't had time to start it, but it's a big honking doorstop of a thing. (Being the contrarian that I am, since I got an award for a paper I gave on the campus of Oral Roberts University [shudder], I wanted to spend it on something atheist but morally centered [check] and drinks for my friends [coming up].)

#36 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 10:28 AM:

Chris @30: Well put, Chris's girlfriend! I tend to describe my own lapsed-Lutheran status as "I'm not religious, but I have this horrible feeling that I'm just on vacation and will have to go back someday..."

Lee @15: I enjoyed that story greatly!

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 10:38 AM:

From where I sit as a theist, God is in my hiking whether I like it or not. Omnipresence and all that, y'know.

But the reasons I like hiking, the manner in which I do it, the terms in which I discuss it, and the things I expect from my fellow hikers, are are not dependent on a shared belief in God. There is plenty of common ground between me, Devin's mom, and David Harmon about hiking. That's what interests me to discuss; that's why I'd enjoy going hiking with them. We could go a week without me feeling the need to express a religious sentiment aloud.

Analogy: as it happens, another thing I enjoy about hiking is botany. My father is a keen amateur botanist, and I grew up knowing how to tell a monocot from a dicot and looking things up in Jepson. But I also know that botany bores some people absolutely rigid. So if in the Venn diagram of our interests, botany is not in the overlap zone, I won't talk about it. I may think botanical thoughts, but it would be rude and intrusive of me to bring it up in conversation with someone who doesn't share my fascination for the subject.

(Of course, this is just an analogy. I'm quite happy to admit that I may be wrong about the existence of God, but I'm afraid I will defend to the death the existence of botany.)

#38 ::: Rob Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 10:40 AM:

I am an agnostic. With that in mind, I would like to say that Ask a Godless Person Day sounds weird.

#39 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:25 AM:

This seems like a good place to reiterate my personal spiritual attitude. I balance delicately between paganism and rationalism; having been raised Christian, I find that it gives me emotional comfort to believe in some kind of overarching... something. Sometimes I think of this as the Goddess, sometimes as The Force (aka the Sentient Universe). However, I am also very much aware that just because I find this to be emotionally comforting does not make it true. In the (presumed) absence of Deity, the laws of physics* make a perfectly acceptable explanation for all the numinous beauty and mystery of the Universe.

* Those we know, and those which we do not yet understand. I do not AT ALL subscribe to the notion of "there are things humans are not meant to know". IME anyone who says that is trying to keep me from learning something that would be to my benefit.

#40 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:25 AM:

Abi #37: I'm quite happy to admit that I may be wrong about the existence of God, but I'm afraid I will defend to the death the existence of botany.

Just wanted to pull this one out to admire it....

#41 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:37 AM:

I was going a similar way in 11, except I would have thought "most" Americans would see three works, not two, and think:

- we should sell jets to *them*;
- we should send jets to *them*, too, but only 20 minutes at a time1; and
- didn't I hear those guys are out of money?

But maybe I should take AaAaQ day as a day to be less cynical.

Thanks for this, Avram et al; I respect your judgement and your position, and I always enjoy learning; even if I cannot join you, in that judgement at least. In secular life, of course...

1Cue the "Have you not been to Frankfurt before?" joke.

#42 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:42 AM:

I thought I was the token atheist. That being said, I kept reading after Grant Morrison left because Joss Whedon then took over, but when the latter left so did I.

#43 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:44 AM:

abi @ 37... I will defend to the death the existence of botany

...Bay? Just watch out for that Khan guy.

#44 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:47 AM:

Daniel 33: I feel that this post has helped massively in fostering dialogue between atheists and unreasonable cavemen

What unreasonable cavemen are you speaking of, pray?

Lee 39: In the (presumed) absence of Deity, the laws of physics* make a perfectly acceptable explanation for all the numinous beauty and mystery of the Universe.

I've been known to say that "the laws of physics ARE the mind of $DIETY." But then I'm a radical pantheist, which is either the furthest thing from being an atheist or almost identical, depending on your point of view.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:57 AM:

Xopher @ 44... Is a DIETY the piety about diets? :-)

#46 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:00 PM:

Xopher #44: I've been known to say that "the laws of physics ARE the mind of $DIETY."

The trouble is, not too many folks really grok epiphenomena, so they tend to fold that down into something they can understand.

#47 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:11 PM:

Xopher writes: ... I'm a radical pantheist, which is either the furthest thing from being an atheist or almost identical, depending on your point of view.

As your friendly neighborhood neo-Pragmatist, I feel compelled to point out that the distinction probably doesn't make any difference of practical importance. (Yes, the compulsions are a problem. Therapy helps. Thank you for your patience.)

#48 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:30 PM:

Yes, but how do you feel about Dominion:Prosperity?

#49 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:32 PM:

Yes, I spelled 'deity' wrong. *hangs head in shame*

David 46: The trouble is, not too many folks really grok epiphenomena, so they tend to fold that down into something they can understand.

Quite. I would contend that all attempts to understand the universe in its entirety amount to instances of such folding. The thing is to be conscious of it, and honest about it, and know when you're really grasping literal reality and when you're employing a metaphor.

j h 47: I feel compelled to point out that the distinction probably doesn't make any difference of practical importance.

Hmm. I'm not sure. I'll have to think about it. It does lead to my defending religious people to atheist assholes and atheists to religious assholes (no, not ALL religious people are fundamentally irrational and trying to force YOU to follow them into irrationality; no, being atheist doesn't mean you have by definition (!) no morals or ethics...and yes, I've heard both).

The working title of The Book I Should Really Write Someday is Radical Pantheism: Toward a Fact-Based Spirituality, and that really should confuse and annoy everyone.

#50 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:35 PM:

There are enough token atheists here to form a network: a ring, perhaps.

#51 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:45 PM:

I'm not a token atheist. I'm perfectly prepared to accept the existence of tokens.

#52 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:47 PM:

Xopher #49: I would contend that all attempts to understand the universe in its entirety amount to instances of such folding.

Yeah, and it just keeps getting worse. Looks like Haldane was right.

#53 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 12:48 PM:

*waits for someone to say "I'm not a token atheist. I haven't smoked pot since the early 80s."*

#54 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:26 PM:

know when you're really grasping literal reality

Is this a Zen koan?

Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

The world is real, but it's out of reach; some people touch it, but they can't hold on.

#55 ::: davidmanheim ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:33 PM:

Zander 16, re #11:

Ummm... you mean they would be able to tell apart the medieval Arabic script from the proto-Hebrew from the Palestinian Aramaic? (The Greek parts might be easier.)

#56 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 01:46 PM:

Re question 17 & David Goldfarb @ 2: in one game last Saturday I overenthusiastically Chapeled my way down to four cards, of which the only money or money-producing item was a single solitary silver. I lost that game.

#57 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 02:25 PM:

I don't think anyone asked me anything yesterday deeper than "How are you?"

#58 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 02:29 PM:

Rob Hansen @ 51... I believe Tolkien once existed.

#59 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 02:40 PM:

Sandy B @57, which is actually a pretty deep question if you think about it.

#60 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:08 PM:

I like botany. I am not as good at hiding my enthusiasms as abi. I use the camera as a defense. If I see something interesting, people assume (or can) it's just visually neat instead of being the me thinking the gelid orange eruption of a saprophytic lichen's fruiting body being cool beyond all measure.

#61 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:21 PM:

Liza (#56) and previous: this list of great moments from online Dominion games played on the Isotropic server is worth reading. The misclicks are less interesting to people who only play with physical cards (since that's a type of error that wouldn't happen offline), but some of the others are interesting and the misclicks can still be funny in a schadenfreude kind of way.

#62 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:32 PM:

Niall @ #50

ONE %RING TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE %RING TO FIND THEM,
THIS LINE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.
ONE %RING TO BRING THEM ALL, AND IN THE DARKNESS BIND THEM,
IN THE LAND OF ARMONK, WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE.

It's traditional.

Cadbury "Any switch port in a packet storm" Moose

#63 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:32 PM:

Serge @58 is also a response to Niall @50.

#64 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:44 PM:

Christopher Davis @ 61: it's interesting seeing what kinds of mistakes happen online vs. offline. My "chapel down to 4 cards" also wouldn't have happened offline, because I'd have noticed how few cards I had left. (If I'd been paying attention, it wouldn't have happened online either, of course...)

#65 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:44 PM:

rm @ #63

Probably so. Meanwhile, to dust off another part of the cookie/.sig file (for Xopher @ #44 and #49:

$DIETY - all the thunder and lightning, but now with 50% less theology,
for those who seek the lite.

#66 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 03:47 PM:

Or "Worship the diety of your choice—come to the lite."

Sorry, just can't resist fiddling with stuff.

#67 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 04:21 PM:

Cadbury Moose @ 65 & Xopher @ 66: does this plan include exercise? Because I had a sudden image of the church scene in Blues Brothers. "I HAVE SEEN THE LITE!"

#68 ::: scyllacat ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:02 PM:

I didn't know this was real until now, and I really had a question (I apologize for the serious):

I was very disturbed about the disappearance of goodness. I mean, for example... if you're working on making a profit for your company, you have no obligation to figure out if you're doing anything good or evil, just what your boss says. We can't get anyone to take responsibility for giving ANYONE a bad loan, but it happened so many times it tanked the housing market!

If you talk to people about wealth redistribution, virtue never comes up anymore.

If you watch reality shows, a huge purpose is for people to be humiliated. This also works on the Internet. None of these children were taught, apparently, not to mock or humiliate others by their parents, and now it's an accepted part of everyday culture.

This has led to attention being paid to bullying in schools, whether through cyber or toward gay kids or disabled kids.

And another friend got mocked and laughed at for asking a Christian radio station why they were mocking and lying about Islam. For this and many other reasons, I hold no hope for religion at all.

So, I need an atheist to help me. What do atheists suggest we do to bring people back to being good?

#69 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:19 PM:

I've long thought of _Morning Song of Senlin_, by Conrad Aiken, as an interesting vision of a non-secular life. (If by some weird quirk of fate, some of you haven't read it*, it's in a great many places on the net.) I've made up my own tune for it, and sing it from time to time.

*it's the source of the phrase "a swiftly tilting planet".

#70 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 06:36 PM:

scyllacat #68:

First of all, be an example to others. Act with goodwill towards all, even the "broken folk" on the streets. "Do as you would be done unto" is a start, but only a start. One modern extension is, "treat your inferiors is you would have your superiors treat you".

Secondly, connect people to each other. Give them opportunity and reason to trust each other instead of conflicting. Any gathering or project where people from different groups work together for a common purpose will bind those people, and ultimately their other tribes together.

Thirdly, speak up. Don't be afraid to call out hate speech from public figures, or even from your friends and family. When you see someone actively stoking hate, call that out separately.


#71 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 07:47 PM:

I think I need to point my supervisor to this thread.

He's a Lutheran who swam the Tiber because he couldn't find the Reformation in the writings of the Church Fathers.

I'm a theologically inclined atheist who enjoys reading scripture in order figure out what Yeshua of Nazareth had to say before later writers piled all that "Messiah" b.s. on him.

We fight crime. (Or at least administrative sloppiness, between long theological discussions.)

scyllacat@68:

A lot of work remains to be done in creating a coherent human-centered ethics. The writer who give me the most hope in this regard is actually Terry Pratchett. Behind the erudition and the silliness, I can't help but see a project to create a coherent humanist ethos. Small Gods, to choose a particularly salient example, is the story of a God being forced to learn the peculiarly human concepts of mercy, humility and justice.

#72 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 07:53 PM:

In re item #9, I can get the word "Teapot" as a common factor, and I know of "Teapot Dome" but not specifically the others.

My personal answer for where morality comes from in a universe with no god is, "From observation of what kind of behavior increases Darwinian fitness given the universe as it is." (And anyone who thinks that means a Hobbesian "war of all against all" needs to read Axelrod and Hofstadter on the subject of the evolution of cooperation.)

Nicole@48: I love it. My favorite expansion to date, though I'm looking forward with interest to Cornucopia.

ckd@61: I absolutely adore that one under "Denied!"

#73 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:19 PM:

David Goldfarb @72: The Utah teapot was an early computer graphics dataset, which pops up in places like the tea party scene in "Toy Story".

Russell's teapot is a an argument about which side bears responsibility for proof or dis-proof of unverifiable assertions.

Oddly enough, I'd never heard of Dominion before.

#74 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:24 PM:

But if "god-free" is analogous to "child-free," wouldn't it only describe those who believe in one or more gods, but don't want any living with them?

#75 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:31 PM:

#68 scyllacat
I'm afraid, based on all the historical texts I've ever looked at, that there was *never* a time when people were morally superior -- if anything, I'm hoping that people are improving over the past. The current media attention to bullying that you mention may actually be a hopeful sign - that society (or some of it) is finally trying to prevent bullying rather than shrug it off as "youthful hijinks."

Also, what David Harmon said at #70.

#76 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 08:39 PM:

73
I think it's also referenced in one of the built-in Windows screensavers: if you set the '3-D Pipes' to 'mixed joints', every so often one of the joints will be a teapot, instead of being either a smooth elbow or a sphere.

#77 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 09:50 PM:

scyllacat asks: "So, I need an atheist to help me. What do atheists suggest we do to bring people back to being good?"

p1. You probably need a panel of atheists to help. The good news is we come in six-packs. Seriously now: different kinds of atheists come by their systems of morality in different ways. Just about the only thing atheists tend to have in common in this regard is that we all generally point at "religion" and say, "There's gotta be a better way." (Often, the very next thing is functionally equivalent to spam, but I contend that's because we're only human just like everyone else.)

p2. If you're asking me what I think we should do to make for a good society, then I'm going to say the very first thing we should do is get as many people as possible to understand that nobody owns the truth, that morality and ethics are the product of a healthy public discourse, that what matters most in leading a good life is human solidarity and the understanding that nobody has anything on which they can rely beyond the tolerance and basic decency of their fellow humans, and finally that attempting to find a synoptic vision of reality that encompasses anything else is a very bad idea... because you might "succeed" and that might lead you into unwise trades of your own tolerance and decency for your fellow humans, in exchange for meeting illusionary and ephemeral objectives that do no practical good and often result in trashing of the commons and damage to the public welfare.

p3. Did I mention that you need a panel of atheists?

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:19 PM:

j h woodyatt @ 77... Just about the only thing atheists tend to have in common in this regard is that we all generally point at "religion" and say, "There's gotta be a better way."

Not me. I'm content to just follow the way that works for me.

#79 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:30 PM:

is it possible to grow numinous by eating night?

#80 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:35 PM:

If you are not sure whether or not there are two gods, does that make you a diagnostic?

#81 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:43 PM:

Erik Nelson... Ba-da-bing!

#82 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2011, 11:46 PM:

scyllacat@#68:

What David Harmon@70 said.

If you're looking for a common ground approach, there's always the Golden Rule. It's so good, all major religions have borrowed it, even though it comes from a non-religious source (a lot of religions like to claim they invented the Golden Rule, just like they like to claim they invented people, but one of the earliest written versions of it comes from Confucius, circa 500 BCE and even he quotes it like it's an old chestnut).

The Golden Rule hits at what I feel to be the basic origin of ethics: empathy. It's no coincidence that our Evil Capitalist Overlords downplay empathy and champion selfishness and greed. Human evil is the lack of empathy and an unwillingness to treat others as you'd like to be treated. Everything else is, as the Rabbi says, just commentary.

#83 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 02:07 AM:

Avram Grumer speaks for me. FWIW, A.C.Grayling doesn't.

#84 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 02:36 AM:

scyllacat, #68: Well, one excellent starting point would be to stop teaching people that they can get away with anything by chanting a magic formula -- teach them instead that whether God forgives you or not, what you do here still matters. The slogan "Christians aren't perfect -- just forgiven" has mutated drastically in its interpretation over the last 30 or 40 years.

David, #72: From our very own Sajia (I've been scanning back thru some archive threads lately):

We do right because we are capable of making moral decisions, not because any religion, law, or scholarship says we must.

(Almost certainly paraphrased, but that was the gist of it.)

Sarah, #74: I was thinking more of "those who have no god and do not view this as any lack".

#85 ::: Lighthill ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 04:33 AM:

scyllacat@#68:

I wish I knew a way.

I think that compassion and humility are what work for me to help me treat others well -- compassion to remember that everyone feels their own world as keenly as I, and humility to remember that my judgments are imperfect and fallible.

But that's only what I think: people are often pretty bad at untangling the causes of their own behavior, and there's no reason to suppose that I'm an exception.

As for how to get others to treat people well, I'm truly clueless. The most common argument that I hear from the uncompassionate people you describe is that only chumps consider others as much as you suggest, or that nobody can really prosper without the interests of others. If that's what really moves them, it might help to try to let as many people as possible know that we still think that kindness and compassion are still relevant, that plenty intelligent people do indeed scruple at exploitation, that it is possible to treat other people well and still be happy.

And again here, I'm fumbling in the dark. If there's some evidence that some other approach is better at improving a society's behavior, I'd sure want to know.

As for the "Christian" radio hosts that you mentioned, I want to invoke the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of how Jesus arguably felt that people should respond to religious discrimination... but then I run into a brick wall of my own. Please excuse me as I run off on a tangent.


The tangent: I know that's the interpretation of the parable that I would prefer that modern Christians hold, but I'm also pretty well aware that 1st-century Samaritans were about as close to 1st-century mainstream Judiasm as you could be without actually belonging to it. So can I legitimately argue that the parable argues against religious intolerance when I think that there's a good case to be made that it only argues against intolerance of unorthodoxy? (To be clear, that's not the interpretation I would prefer Christians to make, but I think myself that the parable could have had the charitable neighbor be a Pagan instead of a Samaritan.)

And more basically, I often wonder how justified I am in reasoning with other people in terms of things they believe that I don't. Does honesty require me to begin such arguments with a statement that I don't share the premises? Or what?

What do other people think? Is it insulting or inappropriate for an atheist to try to engage professedly religious people on the terms of their religions' ethics? If we do, ought we begin by making it clear which premises we don't share? And if we think there are multiple historically legitimate interpretations of a given set of religious ethics, some more moral than others, how should we argue?

#86 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 05:25 AM:

scyllacat @68 What do atheists suggest we do to bring people back to being good?

I'm more a species of agnostic, but I would note the interconnected consequences of actions. If I respect and help the people around me, they live in a world where there are people who respect and help the people around them. This example makes it more likely that they will consider this an appropriate response to events in their life.

Conversely, if I respond to those around me with anger or by cheating them, or by demanding that my requirements are met immediately no matter what, etc. then again, the people around me live in a world where this kind of thing goes on and so are normal things to do.

Or to put it another way, when you're surrounded by people of goodwill, it's easy to be good. Surrounded by intolerance or dog-eat-dog competition, then those are the easy options. Most of us don't want to, or can't, spend our entire lives fighting everyone around us, so we find ourselves going along.

I'm grossly oversimplifying of course.

My answer to your question is unoriginal - do good where you can, encourage the good in others, be a good example, fight the bad where you can, try not to get too diheartened by the bad you can't fight.

#87 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 05:37 AM:

If you are not sure whether or not there are two gods, does that make you a diagnostic?

My own position is that, even if a god actually existed, it would by definition be so completely outside our normal experience that we wouldn't be able to recognise it even if it was right in front of us.

I'm a prosopagnostic.

#88 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 05:38 AM:

I believe that the existence - or otherwise - and nature of God can be deduced by taking the initial letters of every word in the Bible and arranging them in order.

I'm an acrostic.

#89 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 06:16 AM:

Agnostic!

Key toll is speck at almondy,

Ms. Error Ain, oh biz!

#90 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 07:16 AM:

Lee @ 84... our very own Sajia

...who recently called me 'Uncle', a title that pleased me to no end.
But I digress.

#91 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 08:39 AM:

On Tangent

I'm also pretty well aware that 1st-century Samaritans were about as close to 1st-century mainstream Judiasm as you could be without actually belonging to it. So can I legitimately argue that the parable argues against religious intolerance when I think that there's a good case to be made that it only argues against intolerance of unorthodoxy?

I think that's importantly incorrect. Most religions (actually, most groups of people), and certainly modern Judaism, are much much much more hostile to "traitors and heretics" than to "pagans". So the Samaritan is more Jewish than, say, an Egyptian would be--but that makes him much MORE an outcast.

Back on topic: I'd say that Doug Muder's writing is a good starting point for "what do atheists suggest we do to bring people back to being good." (I find his writing helpful even though "I believe in the forgiveness of sins.") Particularly on-topic is The Cosmopolis: a Positive Humanist Vision.

#92 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 11:09 AM:

Well, Gremlin has now left two meals untouched, and has also retreated to my bedroom closet. The vet is coming over in an hour or so for a Last House Call. :-(
----

Lighthill, #85 Is it insulting or inappropriate for an atheist to try to engage professedly religious people on the terms of their religions' ethics?

No! The whole point of being godless is that the ethics are more important than the religion, so if you want to convince someone, you talk their language. All the modern faiths do include the basic principles of ethics, but often those are overgrown by other concerns, such as "purity", or tribal defensiveness.

#93 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 11:26 AM:

David Harmon @ 92: My condolences on your loss. It's never an easy decision to make, no matter how one prepares for it.

#94 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 12:15 PM:

David Harmon @92: condolences.

#95 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 12:30 PM:

scyllacat @68: I've been watching the second season of Australian 'Masterchef' (a competition show around cooking), and after seeing both American 'Masterchef' and a bunch of other American reality/competition shows, there was something weirdly jarring about watching the Australian version ...

The judges and authority figures were genuinely kind and caring to the contestants.

Some of the challenges were diabolically difficult, but none of them seemed deliberately geared to disgust them or set up to line up a set of emotional states that would deliberately attempt to break them. Most 'working days' had only one or at most two challenges in them. The judges were exceptionally kind in their criticisms and talkbacks about the dishes: not, "This was disgusting, how could you consider serving this," but "We're sorry, your dish was the least impressive today." Even people who served up (accidentally) undercooked meats or left a bone or a pit in the dish weren't lambasted and attacked for it.

Also, all the contestants seemed to genuinely like each other. They root each other on, even the ones that seem to be 'in the lead' early. They ache for the ones up for elimination, and the just-barely-not-eliminated contestants universally cry and hug the ones that are going home -- sad that the other is leaving, though pleased they managed not to leave themselves.

The show also has a much slower pace overall, starting with far more contestants and eliminating them more slowly, but that may be due to television marketing reasons, of course.

I had not seen the overwhelming level of contemptuous, humiliating aggression in even the LESS EXCRUCIATING American reality shows until I saw the Australian one, that lacked it. It was like riding the subway in Toronto for the first time and realizing it wasn't racially segregated, and that (shockingly) at some subconscious level I'd expected it to self-separate that way, with the white people too nervous to sit next to blacks, etc.

I say less-excruciating ones because I only watch the American reality series that seem to really be about building a skill or competing on some ability. Thanks to watching them on the internet, I skip past the dramatastic in-house whinefest segments. And yet, even those edited, curated, selected sections were at least six times more contemptuous and outright mean (both from the show on the contestants and inter-competitor) than Australian Masterchef.

#96 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 01:02 PM:

scyllacat @68

I'm not an atheist, but I considered it for a time^. Here's my take on how to, as you put it, bring people back to the good.

1) Use the golden rule. That whole "do unto others" thing works. This translates as being unnecessarily kind and polite to everyone.
2) Think about the consequences of your actions before you act. Or, more succinctly, develop empathy.

The final one I hesitate to add because it can be abused very easily. If empathy is lacking, this one does a lot of harm. 3) Leave things better than you found them. The problem here lies with the fact that not everyone has the same idea of what "better" is. What I think is good, you may think is bad. Perhaps "be helpful whenever possible" is the best way to say it.

That's it. Three simple things. However, having been a teacher, tutor and trainer... the easiest things are often the hardest to learn. There is something about humans that wants things, expects things, to be more complicated.


^ I guess the best way to describe me is "theist and habitual Catholic". (I don't really qualify as "lapsed".) I don't know, or even care, if there is one god, many individual gods, pantheons or some numinous thing that is the elephant to our blindness. I don't have trouble believing in God(s)and/or Goddess(es); all of my issues are with organized religions.

#97 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 01:09 PM:

David 92: I'm sorry to hear that, and sorry for your (impending) loss.

As for your other point...next time someone starts ranting to me about Christian values or something (and the word 'ranting' is important here; I'm not going to do this unless they cross the line), I'm going to ask them when they last visited someone in prison. My interpretation of that bit of Christian scripture is that Christians aren't supposed to let any prisoner go unvisited.

This is after I quote the bit about how you can't criticize anyone for not following the Law unless you follow it perfectly yourself, another part a lot of self-professed Christians seem to be comfortable ignoring.

I'd better put this in now: all the Christians I know personally (and the majority of the ones I know online including all the ones here) are much, much better than this. They may not visit prisoners all the time, but ranting is also off their list of favorite activities, and they seldom if ever criticize anyone for not following their rules.

#98 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 01:14 PM:

Re the Golden Rule: I prefer the Platinum Rule, which is, more or less, "do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them." It's just a higher level of abstraction of the GR, really, because that "do unto" really should be at the level of "if I were that person, how would I want to be treated?"

I mention this because some people think it's OK to force someone to eat food they themselves wouldn't mind eating, for example. So they reduce it to a mere word-shuffle, where they count as following the GR if they phrase it as "I snuck peanut butter into his food" rather than "I snuck something he abhors into his food," which is the correct interpretation.

#99 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 02:47 PM:

David @92

I'm sorry for your loss. I'm glad your vet makes house calls; I always thought it was easier for a pet to understand, being at home with his or her people. (For that matter, it's what I'd want as a human too.)

As for purity, sometimes those concerns let a religion show its true mettle. There's a bit about the really important question in Christianity being "who is my neighbor,"* which pretty clearly is an attempt at overcoming that tribal defensiveness (the virtues of the faith overcoming its flaws). It's easy to say that the Old Testament answer is "the tribe of Israel contains all of my neighbors," and also easy to see that Jesus doesn't agree.

A while back I found a link to some fairly senior Iranian cleric's Q&A blog, and one of the questions he was asked was about doing business in pork. And his answer was that Allah does not make rules to get in your way, He makes them to keep you on the path. So yes, if your customers demand pork, you can sell it. Allah is not an asshole.** You should donate your pork-profit to charity (first because you shouldn't profit by selling pork, but more important, because Allah cares much more about charity than he does about the absence of pork.)

Now, it's a minor example. But we all know people who take a rule and make a sticking point of it (I've certainly done it myself.) Taking this example of a rule that's entirely about purity, and has no relevance to your ethics or mine, and using it to say "don't be a prig, stop showing off how pure you are and live your life righteously instead of self-righteously," that impressed me.

I also think there are some things that religions do that aren't necessarily of ethical relevance, but are of human relevance. Cults of saints, for instance, are a powerful psychological tool (I have my icons, for just that reason)*** and I think rules about purity do scratch some kind of itch.

*Which I hear over at Slacktivist, but my exposure to Christian and particularly post-medieval theology is pretty limited so it may have a famous origin I just don't know about.
**Well, remember how I said "senior Iranian cleric?" This guy's conception of Allah was in fact an asshole in a lot of ways, but leaving aside his shortcomings, I thought his stand against assholish legalism was very interesting.
***Anybody remember the bit in Preacher where one of the characters, speaking as an authorial surrogate, talks about how the West wasn't really like that but it's the legend that matters? 'S kinda how I feel about saints.

#100 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 03:12 PM:

Daniel Boone @ 29: Although that word [bereft] can simply mean "lacking", it connotes mourned loss as well. Whether this gentleman has lost his religion and misses it, or simply lacks any, I do not know, but I thought it a very graceful way to communicate lack of religion to a near-stranger.

And one that, perhaps, I will be borrowing. I do miss my religion in some ways, but I can't honestly go back to it.

Devin @ 99:

The question of who your neighbor is comes directly from being told to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus's answer was, essentially, that guy you really, really, really hate? He's your neighbor too.

Bits of the Torah can be a little inconsistent on the subject. To me, it's important that one of the recurring themes is to be kind to others, as "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Historical realities aside (see above about not being able to go back), I think that the constant reminder that we know what it's like to be given the short end of the stick, and so to not turn around and do that to others, is as good a call to empathy as any.

#101 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 04:06 PM:

Q 17: Getting whupped repeatedly by my nine-year-old who came up with his own Buy Silver strategy has gotten me interested in improving my own strategy a bit. If my son beats all of us some of the time it's impressive, but if it's almost every time that's just aggravating.

#102 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 04:35 PM:

David, #92: My condolences. You did the best you could, and you are still doing the best you can.

Xopher, #98: That's the best formulation of this principle that I've ever heard. Almost any of the others can be gamed as either "Well, I'd want that if I were them!" or "I wouldn't object to that, so why should they?" Yours can't be.

KeithS, #100: One piece of religious philosophy which really struck me at the time, and has always stayed with me, was this (paraphrased):

You can't really love your neighbor as yourself, because your experience of yourself is singular and non-transferable. A better way to put this (and some translations do), is "Love your neighbor as a human being like yourself." IOW, a requirement that you view every other person in the world as a human being worthy of the same kind of treatment you yourself want to receive from others.

#103 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 05:29 PM:

Victoria#96: I mostly agree, but with some quibbles:

1) I've already mentioned the limits of the Golden Rule, above.

2) Think about the consequences of your actions before you act. Or, more succinctly, develop empathy.

Speaking with my Aspie voice: Not the same! Those are two different goals, both of them important. Thinking about consequences falls under responsibility rather than empathy✍, and it's one of the basic challenges in becoming a competent human being, let alone a good one.

For that matter, there's a third quality that runs through all three of your items, which is "humility". In particular, it's arrogance (failure of humility) which turns "make things better than you found them" into a recipe for disaster.

✍ OK, "empathy" does include mental modeling of others, and in that sense it's concerned with consequences. But for most people, details like that are securely "under the hood" -- they can just know that "Aunt Millie would feel hurt if I ...".

#104 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 05:41 PM:

Thanks to all for the condolences. The vet came with a tech about 12:30. Gremlin was very weak, but did appreciate the last minute lovefest from three people. Then we gave her the single injection, and she was gone within seconds. I spent most of the afternoon with Mom and Julie, and I've been in touch with my sister too.

#105 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 06:58 PM:

Just catching up... sympathies to you, David. I've held a beloved cat for that last shot more than once and it's never easy. That is very often the best we can do for our furred friends, and that's no small thing.

#106 ::: Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 07:01 PM:

Does honesty require me to begin such arguments with a statement that I don't share the premises?

I don't share the premise of the word "atheist" - or, more precisely, of the definition of "atheist" as someone who "doesn't believe in/denies the existence of a god or deity." I much prefer the Brights' talk of people who have a "naturalistic worldview." Calling me an atheist is defining me in terms of something I don't accept. That there are no supernatural beings is (fully recognizing my built-in inadequacies as a meat-based animal of limited perception and intellect) to me self-evident...by golly.

#107 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2011, 09:43 PM:

It's very weird. I keep reflexively stepping over to the athiest side of the room...only to remember that I'm not. Never quite know what to do with that.

#108 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 01:44 AM:

Hillel said, "Do not do unto other what you would not have done to yourself."

That, I think, actually covers Xopher's rule. If you wouldn't want something "snuck" into your food, you can't do it to them.

And everyone has something they don't want in their food.

Dave, My condolence.

#109 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 08:02 AM:

I like Hillel's formulation, and couldn't remember the source: thanks Terry.

It seems though that there are two issues.

One is figuring out what the right thing to do is, and the Golden Rule and it's kin are guides to that. The tricky aspects here are first that what people want is not stable, so what you want to avoid when thinking one way may be exactly what you desire when thinking another, and that secondly there's some need to do what's good for peoople even when it is not what they desire. (For the first, think of someone who is trying to quit smoking, but craving a cigarette; for the second, think of a bar tender refusing to serve someone who has had way too much to drink.)

The second aspect, and the harder one for most of us, is actually doing under pressure what we know we should do. (Being polite to the socially clueless person who is talking my ear off when I'm trying to work, for example.)

#110 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 08:41 AM:

I personally don't like the appellation 'Bright' for atheists. For one thing, I'm an atheist but not that bright, and certainly not as bright as many of the site's theists. Also, such labels encourage the thinking of others as 'not label'. Just saying.

#111 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 09:41 AM:

I know, I'm uncomfortable with "Bright" too, for all I agree that the world might be a better place if more people were more rational. But setting yourself up as "better than" the people who aren't isn't going to help. You want to get behind them and push, or better, walk along beside them, not drag them along behind you.

#112 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 09:48 AM:

Janet Brennan Croft @111:

Even the word "rational", as you use it there, is a loaded term with a pejorative reverse.

Just sayin'.

#113 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 11:46 AM:

Jacque #107: Perhaps you're athier than you think? Seriously, the nastier religious sorts are also the louder sorts, and most likely to tell you what religion they are unprompted. That can give the impression that "they're leading the religious side", when the room's real split is polite people vs. impolite ones. regardless of godliness. (And of course, this is the "Ask an Atheist" thread!)

Lee #102: You can't really love your neighbor as yourself, because your experience of yourself is singular and non-transferable.

Then again, one could take the rule as a warning against special pleading!

KeithS #100: I think that the constant reminder that we know what it's like to be given the short end of the stick, and so to not turn around and do that to others, is as good a call to empathy as any.

Which is essentially the reason that I and many liberal Jews are so incandescently angry at Israel. We finally get sovereignty after milennia of getting kicked around the planet, and this is what we use it for?

#114 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 11:55 AM:

David Harmon @ 92: Belated sympathies. Hope you can take some comfort in knowing that you gave Gremlin a good life for as long as that was possible, and a good death when life could no longer be pleasant. Really glad that your vet came out to you/Gremlin.

#115 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 12:03 PM:

David Harmon @113 wrote: Which is essentially the reason that I and many liberal Jews are so incandescently angry at Israel. We finally get sovereignty after milennia of getting kicked around the planet, and this is what we use it for?

Amen! I've had more arguments with co-religionists on this than on any other point, I think. My daughter was even called an anti-Semite at religious school because of this position, which she picked up from me and my parents (and you better believe I kicked up a giant fuss over that).

(I hate to put a NYT link here because of the paywall, but this is a good article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/us/26religion.html)

Also: http://www.acjna.org/acjna/default.aspx (not that I agree with everything they say either)

#116 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 12:53 PM:

One of my first girlfriends said something to the effect of, "As a Jew, I am obligated to support the Palestinian people, because God has commanded us to be just."

#117 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 01:45 PM:

David @92, very sorry for your loss. :(

I'm dealing with a similar one; Khaavren, aged 17, refused only one meal before retreating under my bed, and I was not able to get him to a vet in the hours I had, but I held him on my lap all night, stroking him to soothe him until *I* fell asleep, and in the morning he was gone. So at least it was relatively peaceful. :(

He was a good cat and I will miss him.

#118 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 01:54 PM:

Serge @110, many people, including many atheists, dislike the term "Bright" as well. I remember there being a good deal of mockery when Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett tried to popularize the term. Christopher Hitchens described it as "cringe-making", and CSICOP ran an essay by Chris Mooney criticizing the term.

#119 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 02:02 PM:

David Harmon @113 and Melissa Singer @115, I'm wondering if this particular moment -- Sabbath, a couple of days before Passover -- is the best time for a discussion of Israel and Palestine, or the worst.

#120 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 02:10 PM:

I can't remember who it was I heard on the radio, who, when described as a "famous atheist" by the interviewer, commented that he didn't much like the word 'atheist'. "I don't have a special word for not believing in ghosts," he said, or words to that effect, "and I don't see why I should have one for not believing in God."

Of course, historically the word was an attack. It meant someone who was godless in the sense that they didn't follow the state religion. I'm not sure but what I think I remember is that Jews were considered "atheists" because they weren't Christian!

But lots of word originally intended as attacks have been reclaimed, at least by some. The best example I know of is 'queer', which is now used to cover any form of minority sexuality or gender, and used as an inclusive term by the queer community, rather than as an attack by outsiders.

#121 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 02:35 PM:

abi @112, yes, it's hard to say anything without appearing to make a judgment, isn't it? Though I'm trying to use "rational" in the sense of "thinking things through, thinking before acting, considering and accepting the consequences of one's actions" rather than in the sense of "the opposite of irrational, which is what all those other people are," and also not in the sense that there is one true rational way to do things, but that along the axis from acting on pure impulse through considering one's every action deeply, being closer to the latter is more beneficial to the happiness of self and others. Which takes a lot longer to say but is far more accurate.

#122 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 02:45 PM:

Janet Brennan Croft @121:

My reading of comment 111 was that you were proposing "rational" as a synonym for "atheist", in preference to "bright". Clarifying that you mean "thinking things through, thinking before acting, considering and accepting the consequences of one's actions" actually makes that worse, if you mean that a theist like me doesn't think things through, or consider and accept the consequences of her actions.

I get the feeling from the second half of your comment that you're not, that you're proposing a different axis entirely, running between impulse and consideration. In which case, I agree entirely; rationality, thoughtfulness, and the courage to own the consequences of your actions are all admirable and worthy traits. I try to exercise them in all of the choices I make.

#123 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 04:14 PM:

Xopher @ 120
"...'queer', which is now used to cover any form of minority sexuality or gender..."

In my experience it's a little more narrow than that -- limited roughly to LGBTQI. There are queer people who are also into kink and poly (which are the two that come immediately to mind), but kink and poly do tend to fall into separate (but closely related and sometimes overlapping) categories in my mind.

#124 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 04:25 PM:

Rikibeth #117: My sympathies for you too.

Devin #34: Indeed, there can be "optional gods" -- the remnants of my shamanic practice are something like that for me. But at that point, you're not so much worshiping them as inviting them by for company. Imaginary friends have a long and storied history, but they're not the stuff people fight wars over.

Mourning... Well, here's how one atheist copes with the death of their cat: I've deeply appreciated the sympathy of family, friends (online and off), and the veterinarian. I called back and forth with my sister -- she offered to come over, but we couldn't make the scheduling work. That afternoon, I went over to hang out with my parents, including another phone chat with sister. I did ask for Gremlin's ashes to be returned, I'm not sure yet what I'll do with them.

#125 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 04:31 PM:

@120/123

I actually really appreciate the (re)claiming of 'queer' as an umbrella term. It's one I identify with, although I don't fit neatly into any of the component boxes.

I also really like the acronym I've seen on various other forums (don't think I've run into it here yet): QUILTBAG - it could unfold a couple of different ways along the lines of Questioning / Undecided / Intersex / Lesbian / Trans* / Bisexual / Asexual (and/or Allied) / Gay, and the image of a patchwork tote bag big enough to hold us all in our mismatch glory just appeals to me mightily.

#126 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 04:49 PM:

Xopher writes: "I can't remember who it was I heard on the radio, who, when described as a "famous atheist" by the interviewer, commented that he didn't much like the word 'atheist'.

I suspect that might have been Sam Harris. See his Response To My Fellow Atheists (from October 2007) if you want to pick up the argument and start following the controversy. He also wrote a book (which I haven't read) called Letter To A Christian Nation, in which he expresses similar distaste for the word atheist.

Much of this controversy is probably interesting only to godless people of various stripes. I imagine it must seem as tedious and silly to most religious practitioners as the ongoing eschatological arguments between the Southern Baptists and the New Apostolic Reformation seem to me.

#127 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 05:05 PM:

Count me among those who dislike the term "Bright". It pings the same associations in my brain as other newagey terms like "indigo child"... which I gather from the comments is rather the opposite of the intent of the coiners.

#128 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 05:36 PM:

David Harmon @ 92:

My condolences. May your memories of Gremlin remain forever bright.

scyllacat @ 68:

I'm not exactly an atheist (my concept of religion began when I read Albert Einstein on the nature of the universe), but I believe very strongly in a non-religious definition of morals and ethics, because, contrary to what many religionists claim, I think that it's easier to follow a set of rules for which I know the purpose than some arbitrary code that I have to follow for fear of supernatural wrath. Also, I don't like bullies, human or divine.

I wish I had simple rules that fit together into an elegant framework, in which all the pieces create a larger whole, but I don't think any useful morality can work that way. The best we can do is look for rules that work to minimize suffering and maximize (some notion of) the growth of life, and hope that the rules don't clash too often.

This is what I've come up with so far:


  • Be mindful of your actions and the consequences they have for others.

  • Treat all sapient beings as subjects, prime movers, not objects, things to be moved by others.

  • The purpose of civilization is to make life less difficult for all of its members. Make this your purpose.

Also, what Mike Ford said.

#129 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 06:04 PM:

Also, David Harmon @92 and Rikibeth @117:

Grief crosses all our barriers, religious and cultural. I'm sorry to hear of your losses, and I hope you can find some form of comfort that works for you.

Gremlin and Khaavren were each fortunate in their humans.

#130 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 06:20 PM:

Elliott Mason: I've been watching the second season of Australian 'Masterchef' (a competition show around cooking), and after seeing both American 'Masterchef' and a bunch of other American reality/competition shows, there was something weirdly jarring about watching the Australian version ...

The judges and authority figures were genuinely kind and caring to the contestants.

Some of the challenges were diabolically difficult, but none of them seemed deliberately geared to disgust them or set up to line up a set of emotional states that would deliberately attempt to break them...I had not seen the overwhelming level of contemptuous, humiliating aggression in even the LESS EXCRUCIATING American reality shows until I saw the Australian one, that lacked it.

This reminds me of a post that I did on my LJ comparing the American version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and the British version of "What Not to Wear" which were both on the same cable network at the same time. Ignoring the one episode where they surprised a member of their crew and who was shocked at being the subject, the folks QEFOSG worked with knew they had a problem, and the attitude of the cast was along the lines of "O.K., you're in a really bad situation here and we'll spend 10 minutes goofing around on camera to show how bad it is, but there is a way out of it and we'll help you to get out of it and give you the tools to make sure it won't happen again."

WNTW UK on the other hand had what I considered a loathsome setup: they'd have cameras film the person they'd be working on for two weeks, and then they'd show up unannounced and tell the subject that everything they wore and that in most cases their personal grooming was shit, then they'd have the contents of the subject's closets wheeled in and go over them with what read to me as an attempt to "break" the subject in something between the old EST program and Synanon Game in hostility before helping them with advice on what clothes to wear. This to someone who until the leads arrived thought they were doing pretty good! I couldn't get over the difference between the two--until I spent a sleepless night with pneumonia and about 2:00 a.m. caught another UK show where two women who were professional cleaners similarly invaded the house of a bachelor to clean, and which gave me a new appreciation for the tenderness and subtlety of the hosts of WNTW UK...

#131 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 08:25 PM:

@ Xopher
I'm not sure but what I think I remember is that Jews were considered "atheists" because they weren't Christian!

I think I'm remembering correctly something close to that, which is that Jews and Christians were considered atheists by the Romans and Greeks because they had no gods/images.

On the subject of atheist as a term, Doug Muder (whom I linked to above) makes a distinction I find useful between creeds and anti-creeds, and prefers creeds (which is why his self-identification is "humanist".)

#132 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 08:40 PM:

SamChevre, 131: The first thing I think of when I hear "anti-creeds" is "Southern Baptist Convention." My next mental leap made me laugh and laugh.

#133 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 08:55 PM:

David Harmon @124

Optional gods, absolutely, they're my favorite kind! (I pray to Mithras, sometimes. I think He's a homie, and I figure He doesn't have any real worshipers left to be offended by my misappropriation of His name, so I use it as a reminder to myself to display courage and fortitude).

But I was talking more about choices of consecrated and unconsecrated events. Like, you say grace before a family meal, but not usually before you wolf a granola bar on the way to work. Why? If you believe in an omnipresent god, She's there both times, right? She don't need you to call her in for dinner, She was already there.

You were originally, at 32, asking why anyone would involve their god in their life if it wasn't necessary, which I think when you get right down to it is pretty much like asking why anyone would believe in a god (to which the answer is "Wait for Ask A Theist Day.) (And I think that's probably a bad formulation of your intent, if I've totally misunderstood you please correct me but if we are in fact talking about the same thing, just chalk it up to a tired brain.)

I was just responding that I think a lot of believers do make choices about parts of their life that are more-or-less secular and parts that are religious. They might eat a granola bar just to keep going, but then they might want to involve a god in their family dinner.

"Ask us about secular life" to me is a bit odd because it's not the idea of eating a granola bar without God that's weird, I think most believers (even the ones who do give thanks any time they eat anything) can understand that very easily. It's the parts of life that aren't ordinary that are maybe harder to understand and more worth asking about. If someone has always appreciated the extraordinary experiences she's had by thanking God for them, she might be curious about how you or I choose to recognize the specialness of a family dinner.

Which comes back around to your comments on mourning.

#134 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 09:55 PM:

Xopher @ 49: "Yes, I spelled 'deity' wrong. *hangs head in shame*"

As well you should! There are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, theistic and otherwise, but only One True orthography.

Terry Karney @ 108: "Hillel said, "Do not do unto other what you would not have done to yourself.""

As did Confucius. I like the negative formation; it allows for more variation of acceptable practice.

abi @ 112: "Even the word "rational", as you use it there, is a loaded term with a pejorative reverse."

I felt similarly about the suggestion of "god-free" above; "free" is about as far from a value-neutral adjective as you can find in American usage.

Xopher @ 120: "I can't remember who it was I heard on the radio, who, when described as a "famous atheist" by the interviewer, commented that he didn't much like the word 'atheist'."

I don't much mind calling myself an atheist, but as an identity it really misses the target: to me, the distinction between believing or not believing in a divinity pales to insignificance beside the distinction between believing or not believing that we as a society ought to make our collective decisions on the basis of what we collectively experience and with the best interests of all people at heart. I am a secularist and a humanist leaps and bounds more fervently than I am an atheist, and I do not find that the first two correlate well at all with the third.

#135 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 10:00 PM:

SamChevre @131

The Roman stance was "We don't prohibit the worship of any particular gods, but we do require you to worship certain of ours." (Notably Jupiter and later the deified Emperors, because to deny their divinity was to deny the Roman state).

Jews were grandfathered, but this was one of the reasons early Christians were sometimes persecuted.

(I don't actually know this history particularly well, so if someone knows it better or if I'm repeating misinformation, please do speak up!)

#136 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2011, 10:39 PM:

As one of the other theists around here, I'm not bothered by "rational"; religion in general isn't, the Numinous certainly isn't, neither are emotions or other important aspects of our lives.

On the other hand, "Brights" is deliberately offensive, and a reminder not to treat other people that way. Fortunately, I also know atheists who usually don't act like that (and "usually" is about the best anybody gets, though some people do acquire maturity as they get older.)

#137 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 12:57 AM:

Heresiarch, #134: Re "god-free/childfree" -- well, yes. The whole point is to refute the commonly-encountered assumption that we must see not having children, or not having a god, as a horrible tragedy to be mourned. It's a positive assertion that we see it instead as a positive thing. My observation has been that people who read a claim of superiority into the word do so because that same superiority reflects, on some level, how they feel about us.

Re Hillel's formulation of the Golden Rule... I've actually heard this one gamed by proselytizers. "Well, if I hadn't heard the Good News, I would certainly want someone to save my soul!"

#138 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 04:42 AM:

Lee @137

I don't have or want kids. I never have. I see being childless as normal and having kids as actually slightly strange (at least among my contemporaries and friends, not so much in older folks). I read a claim of superiority into the label "childfree" because many of the people I've encountered who embrace that label were arrogant dicks about it.

Now, almost all of the people I know who don't have or want kids are totally cool. A few of them suck (it happens). But honestly? I can only think of one person I know who calls herself "childfree" who doesn't make an ass of herself on the subject.

(Also, I kinda like having kids around. Most of the "childfree" conversations I've been subjected to have made it clear that my enjoyment isn't welcome.)

I don't necessarily see "childfree" as a bad term, but it has attracted a lot of folks I don't want to be lumped in with.

One difference between the two terms is that not having kids is a choice I've made about my life, between several alternatives, and I picked one that's right for me. So I can feel positive about that. Not believing in gods isn't a choice, really, it's just how the world looks from inside my skull. So calling myself "god-free" isn't really affirming anything positive I did, it's a self-evident truth for me. I'm also "green-sky-free" and a "unicorn vegan" in about the same way.

Let me ask you this: What do you see as the reverse of "god-free?" What would you call someone who is other than god-free?

#139 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 04:45 AM:

When i am discussing religion and belief, I call myself an atheist or godless. When I am preached at, I am an ardent atheist (I don't mind the alliteration at all, Daniel @ 33. I'm a proud member of AA - 30 years without a prayer.)

But it's not how I live my life. Day to day I am as godless as I am tailless. Like Jon @ 106, the non-existence of supernatural things is so self-evident to me that I usually give it no thought at all. So, while I'm basically OK with atheist, godless, god-free, ungodded, or whatever as a description, I'm not so keen on it being a label.

#140 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 09:06 AM:

I guess I'm not a very ardent atheist. If someone said "I'll pray for you", I'd be offended if the unspoken assumption were "...because otherwise you're going straight to Hell" But the people most likely to pray for me are people who love me and that's the important thing.

#141 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 10:06 AM:

abi @122 wrote My reading of comment 111 was that you were proposing "rational" as a synonym for "atheist", in preference to "bright".

No, not at all! The Brights, from what I have read, talk about being rational as much as about being atheist, so I was using rational to simply mean, well, rational. There's no reason rationality and theism can't coexist; see Making Light, for instance.

I get the feeling from the second half of your comment that you're not, that you're proposing a different axis entirely, running between impulse and consideration. In which case, I agree entirely; rationality, thoughtfulness, and the courage to own the consequences of your actions are all admirable and worthy traits. I try to exercise them in all of the choices I make.

Yes, this -- what I am against is not just acting impulsively without thinking, but also blindly and impulsively following The Rules because they are The Rules, without ever thinking about where they come from, whether they are good rules, what the consequences of following them will be, or whether they even apply to a certain case. And that applies to any set of rules, religious or otherwise. (e.g., when you get down to it, what good do library overdue fines really do, hmmm? Does it cost us more to collect them than it takes in? Does it cause people to dislike us or avoid using the library? Aren't overdue fines fundamentally different from replacement costs, which ARE reasonable? Etc.)

#142 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 10:12 AM:

Serge (140): It's odd that "I'll pray for you" is often an offensive formulation, but "You'll be in my prayers" is not. The latter usually, if not always, is in response to an announcement of serious illness or misfortune, and as such is kindly meant.

#143 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 10:18 AM:

Devin #135: Well, there was also the issue that the Jews didn't want to finance the construction of pagan temples... which is to say, paying their taxes. That's also the background for Jesus's line "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's...".

Seasonally, this had gotten the Jews in trouble before... in Egypt, at a time when taxes were in labor on the Pyramids. Which were shrines to the dead god-kings....

#144 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 10:55 AM:

Mary Aileen @ 142... I didn't realize the two expressions were used in different circumstances. I only brought up the subject because atheists are supposed to be offended - or so 'they' say - when such expressions are used.

#145 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 11:41 AM:

Serge (144): That's been my experience with the two phrases, anyway. I'm sure there are exceptions. And aren't "They" usually wrong about such pronouncements?

----------------
I wouldn't describe myself as an athiest, because that implies a certainty that I don't have. 'Agnostic' works. Or 'cultural Christian', since I was raised Protestant and that's the way I tend to think about religion, on those rare occasions when I do.

#146 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 12:36 PM:

Lee @ 137: "It's a positive assertion that we see it instead as a positive thing."

And the flipside of any positive assertion that something is seen as a positive thing is a negative assertion that the inverse is seen as a negative thing. It's not avoiding judgment or making space for many paths through life, it's just taking the typical universal moralistic stance and inverting it. "Child-free" goes in my mental filing cabinet under the same heading as "Brights" and "lesbianism is the only truly feminist sexuality" and "no, black people are the superior race!" I sympathize with the oppressed groups that forward these arguments, but they aren't challenging the foundations of the system--they're just attempting a coup d'etat.

#147 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 12:36 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 145: I wouldn't describe myself as an athiest, because that implies a certainty that I don't have.

The term "atheist" doesn't imply any certainty--it just means that one doesn't believe that a god or gods exist. How strong my disbelief is depends on the god or gods proposed, but in no case does it rise to certainty, and in no case does it fall to "no opinion."

To me, atheism is really just the opinion that standard epistemology applies to the question of gods' existence. I wouldn't believe in any other proposition based on equivalent evidence, so why believe in gods? If new evidence is discovered, then of course reassessment is possible.

This may seem like a minor point, but I've been told that "atheism is a faith like any other" a few too many times.

#148 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 02:01 PM:

#146 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 12:36 PM:

And the flipside of any positive assertion that something is seen as a positive thing is a negative assertion that the inverse is seen as a negative thing.

Except that the reversal doesn't necessarily work like that. Consider the difference between Christian "sin" and Jewish mitzvah. Both have that ritual/ethical tension, but they lead to rather different attitudes, especially when inculcated into young minds.

Personally, my take is that in-group/out-group terminology is a natural impulse -- besides atheism, I've seen it among gays, Neo-Pagans, several races, and MLM scams. And there are times when it's excusable to focus on building tribal bonds -- but in general, that cuts you off from other groups, and is intended to do so. I think that giving into that impulse, of pulling away from others, is both a moral and strategic error for atheism and its "flock".

#149 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 02:14 PM:

Thena @ 125

Oh, I shall have to remember that acronym! Thank you! (I have generally preferred "queer" myself, as being inclusive in a way that doesn't require me to keep checking to make sure I haven't left anyone out -- which I did, inadvertently, despite all my efforts to avoid doing so.)

#150 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 02:38 PM:

My parents were churchless midwesterners who saw no point in providing me with religious instruction as a child growing up in California away from their extended families. I grew into adulthood self-identifying as "agnostic" because that's the word I heard my father use whenever the topic occasionally came up.

When I self-identified as agnostic, some religious people I frequently met would misinterpret that to mean that I was open to the sort of proselytization they would never direct to an atheist. Of course, they were mistaken. "It's not that I don't know whether God exists or not," I would say. "It's that I think none of us can know whether God exists or not." "You certain you know what other people can and cannot know?" they would ask. "Of course not," I would reply. "Meta-uncertainty is part of being agnostic too. This is why your proselytization is unwelcome." "Well, that sounds ridiculous." "Yeah, I suppose it does."

At some point, it became clear to me that I could self-identify as an agnostic all I wanted, but all the rest of the world would see was an atheist. Moreover, what they would see was an atheist who couldn't bring himself to admit he was atheist.

I didn't like being lumped in with all those damned intolerant atheists who complain about the word 'God' stamped onto our coins and sue your school district over the requirement to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn't, and still don't, think of myself as intolerant, as someone who wants to stop people from worshipping their gods. I may be non-religious, but I'm neither immoral nor intolerant. And it hurts to be accused prejudicially of intolerance. (Especially, by association— association with otherwise quite tolerant people who are merely protesting the loss of secularity in our government institutions.)

I no longer self-identify as an agnostic even when I'm inside the community of non-religious people. Despite my uncertainty, and my meta-uncertainty, I now call myself an Atheist. It simplifies things greatly. Religious people seem to see me not as somebody who needs convincing to join their church, but more correctly as somebody who regards everyone's religious beliefs pretty much the same way they themselves think everybody else's religious beliefs should be regarded, i.e. on a spectrum from virtuous tolerance in celebration of diversity, all the way down to open contempt and disgust, depending on the religion in question. (There are very, very few religious traditions that I find truly abhorrent, but the number is not zero.)

I now feel like I'm helping to reclaim the word atheist from the pejorative connotation it has acquired, and I think that's a good thing to do. I encourage other non-religious people to do likewise. If you're a non-religious person, and the reason you don't want to self-identify as an atheist is similar to what I talk about above, then I hope what I've written here might persuade you to reconsider.

Thanks for listening.

#151 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 02:40 PM:

Tim Walters (147): In my experience, 'atheist' usually implies that one is sure that there is/are no god(s). 'Agnostic' is the term that implies uncertainty and doubt. At least, that's the way I've always understood the distinction.

The trouble is that 'atheist' is one of those terms with a lot of variant definitions. So everyone can be using the same word to talk about different things. Makes life confusing.

At any rate, I have no idea if there is or is not one or more deities of whatever variety. Nor do I give the matter much thought. And I'm a lot more comfortable describing myself as an agnostic than an atheist.

#152 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 02:49 PM:

j h woodyatt (150): I hadn't seen your post when I was composing #151. Your position makes a lot of sense. If I'd run into people who take my self-description as an agnostic for their cue to proselytize, I'd probably be calling myself an agnostic, also, if only publically. But the subject very rarely comes up in the circles I move in--and I like it that way. (When I say I call myself an agnostic, it's mostly to myself; this is the first time in too many years to count that I've made any mention of it outside my head.)

#153 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 03:00 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 151: In my experience, 'atheist' usually implies that one is sure that there is/are no god(s).

I'm not going to say these people don't exist, but I'm pretty sure I've never met one, and I know a lot of atheists. It's not the standard meaning you'll find in a dictionary or Wikipedia, either.

I don't, at all, mean to suggest that you shouldn't call yourself an agnostic, or whatever you prefer.

j h woodyatt @ 150 is spot-on.

#154 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 03:12 PM:

Tim Walters @153:

So you don't believe in strong atheists?

I'm one.

#155 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 03:25 PM:

David @143: Seasonally, this had gotten the Jews in trouble before... in Egypt, at a time when taxes were in labor on the Pyramids. Which were shrines to the dead god-kings....

David, if you're saying what I think you're saying, I don't think the timing works out.

If we're using the traditional history of Judaism, the enslavement in Egypt preceded the transmission of the Torah to Moses and the children of Israel. (They weren't "Jews" yet; that came much later.) The children of Israel were, at that point, in the habit of worshipping pagan gods -- see the story of the Golden Calf. (Also see the various other points in the Old Testament where it becomes obvious that various pagan faiths were present in ancient Israel, and despised by the collators of the official history.)

If we're not using the traditional history, fine, but show your work.

#156 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 03:57 PM:

Avram #155: And yet they were already worshiping the Abrahamic single god, and remaining separate from the Egyptians -- remember, they enter Egypt as the family of Israel, almost fresh from Jacob's bout with an angel.

Certainly the Mosaic Law codified not only common law, but ritual and taboos, with many of those last chosen to differentiate Judaism from their neighbors. I don't think this implies that none of those laws were known or even customary beforehand, just that they weren't officially "Commands of God".

#157 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 04:37 PM:

Roy G. Ovrebo @ 154: So you don't believe in strong atheists?

I do accept the possibility that there are people who are certain that there is no God, and I said so: "I'm not going to say these people don't exist." It would be surprising if there were no such people, given that there are people certain of just about anything one could name.

However, after reading your link (which doesn't address the certainty issue at all*), I would have to say that, in a sense, I don't believe in strong atheists, because its distinction between

reject[ing]... belief that any deities exist
and
assert[ing] that "at least one deity exists" is a false statement
is, in my (bog-standard, Popper-ish) epistemology, spurious. Both are equivalent to "given the existing data, the best theory of God yet proposed is that he doesn't exist."

If you're saying that you're certain there is no God, that's interesting, and I would immediately ask: how certain? As certain as a Christian martyr is of salvation? As certain as a geologist is of continental drift? As certain as a weather forecaster is of tomorrow's rainfall?

*Except that Dawkins seems to define "strong atheist" as "certain atheist" in his quote.

#158 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 05:09 PM:

In my experience, 'atheist' usually implies that one is sure that there is/are no god(s).

Let me rephrase that. As I understand the word, 'atheist' means that one believes pretty strongly that there is/are no god(s). (And 'believes' is another very slippery word.)

I may have gotten this impression of 'atheist' at least in part from the fact that the famous ones, who get all the press, are all pretty loudly anti-religion. (This is undoubtedly as unfair as judging all Christians by right-wing fundamentalists.) But my understanding of the distinction between 'atheist' and 'agnostic' long predates people like Dawkins. Maybe I just got the wrong end of the stick when I first heard the terms at age ~12.

#159 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 05:10 PM:

Devin, #138: Yeah, there are some childfree people who are arrogant dicks about it, and others who are child-haters. I despise them, probably far more than you do; they make MY life harder, because anyone who's encountered them hears me say "childfree" and thinks that I am like that. All I can do is be who I am, and hope that gives someone cause to reconsider before judging every childfree person by our (tiny minority of) worst examples.

What do you see as the reverse of "god-free?" What would you call someone who is other than god-free?

Religious.

Unless you're talking about someone who does not believe in gods and sees this as a lack which cannot be remedied, like KeithS. I don't have a one-word description for that.

Serge, #144: I'm not offended by any expression of good thoughts / goodwill. I am offended, quite seriously so, by what I classify as "malicious prayer" -- of which prayers that I be "brought to my senses" and convert are only one example, and not by any means the worst. One of my pagan friends was told by a cow-orker, "I will pray that you be broken at the feet of Jesus".

Heresiarch, #146: And the flipside of any positive assertion that something is seen as a positive thing is a negative assertion that the inverse is seen as a negative thing.

No, not buying that one. I can provide two immediate counter-examples:

1) A friend who has spent decades struggling against the conviction that praise of anyone else, for anything whatsoever, was implicit criticism of her abilities in the same area.

2) Another friend who has spent entirely too much time trying to convince me that being aware of differences* meant that you HAD to be assigning relative rankings to them.

Both of those arguments are bullshit, and your argument falls into the same fallacy.

j h woodyatt, #150: Well said. Rather like my attitude about the word "feminist" -- or, for that matter, about the word "childfree". If I don't stand up as a counter-example, all people are going to believe is the propaganda.


* In things like skin color, ethnicity, religious diversity, etc.

#160 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 05:37 PM:

I seem to be coming perilously close to denying that some of the people in this conversation exist or at least have the opinions that they do. For that, I apologize. It was not my intent.

Let me start over.

As I learned the division, way back when I was first introduced to the concepts, there are three main categories of religious belief or lack thereof (with a lot of overlap and fuzzy boundaries, as always):

1) I believe in the existence of god(s)/divine presence
2) I do *not* believe in said existence
3) How the heck should I know?

I learned to call the first category 'religious', the second category 'atheist', and the third (where I fall) 'agnostic'. Unless I'm just confused again (always a distinct possibility!), some people include the third category in the term 'atheist'. If so, what do you mean by 'agnostic'?

#161 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 05:42 PM:

Tim Walters @ 157:

Both are equivalent to "given the existing data, the best theory of God yet proposed is that he doesn't exist."

They're not equivalent. What you've got there is an example of weak atheism.


If you're saying that you're certain there is no God, that's interesting, and I would immediately ask: how certain? As certain as a Christian martyr is of salvation? As certain as a geologist is of continental drift? As certain as a weather forecaster is of tomorrow's rainfall?

As certain as a weather forecaster is of _today's_ rainfall, when he's out getting soaked by it. It is in my worldview not possible that a deity can exist.

#162 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 05:48 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 158: I may have gotten this impression of 'atheist' at least in part from the fact that the famous ones, who get all the press, are all pretty loudly anti-religion. (This is undoubtedly as unfair as judging all Christians by right-wing fundamentalists.) But my understanding of the distinction between 'atheist' and 'agnostic' long predates people like Dawkins.

Well, Dawkins makes a point of saying that he's not certain about his atheism. And as far as I know (admittedly not having read The God Delusion) he's only anti-religion in the sense that a liberal is anti-conservative--that is, he disagrees with theists, thinks his way is better, and tries to convince people that he's right--so I don't think comparing him to fundamentalists is fair either. He doesn't (again, AFAIK) want atheism written into law the way Christianists want their flavor of Christianity written into law.

#163 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 06:00 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 160: As written there, your categories are pretty good. Where I disagree with you is attributing certainty to #2. It's quite ordinary to believe or disbelieve things without being certain. I believe that O.J. killed Nicole, that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, and that it's not raining in my backyard right now, all with varying degrees of confidence. The last is high enough that calling it "certain" is close enough ("as certain as anything is" is how I would describe it if I were being careful); the other two somewhat and rather less so, respectively. But in both cases I prefer them to any other explanation I've heard or can think of, and don't think it likely that I've missed something, so I say that I believe them, pending further evidence.

Roy G. Ovrebo @ 161: OK, I will no longer say that I've never met anyone who was certain that there is no God.

#164 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 06:22 PM:

David Harmon @ 148: "Consider the difference between Christian "sin" and Jewish mitzvah...they lead to rather different attitudes, especially when inculcated into young minds."

Do they?

Lee @ 159:

There is an important distinction between perceiving difference and embedding a value judgement within the expression of that difference. One can be perfectly aware that one flower is blue and another red (and say so) without valuing one over the other*, but you cannot call the red better without calling the blue worse**.

"When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, here already is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, here already is evil.
Indeed the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other." - Daodejing

I am not challenging the existence of a difference between people who have children and people who don't, or between those who perceive a god and those who don't. I am challenging the implicit value-judgement within the word "free." One is not joy-free or hope-free; one is care-free or blame-free. The quality one is free of is inherently undesirable. Contrast that with "-less": one can be sinless or hopeless, blameless or careless. There is far less implicit judgment there. This isn't to say that you are wrong to believe that "childless" has negative connotations--it does, but those negative connotations are a product of the discourse within which it is deployed, not the word itself. "Child-free," like "Bright," cannot make the same claim.

(It's terribly kind of you to separate the phrases "bullshit" and "your argument" by an entire clause--it cushions the blow tremendously.)

* Thus your second friend is wrong, though to be charitable there are contexts where difference is so value-laden it becomes functionally impossible to describe difference without passing judgment.
** Thus your first friend is right, though without a doubt taking the whole thing much too personally.

#165 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 06:48 PM:

Lee 159: One of my pagan friends was told by a cow-orker, "I will pray that you be broken at the feet of Jesus".

The best response to that would be "How kind! And I, in turn, will pray that Kali-Ma will dance on your quivering, headless corpse."

Another friend who has spent entirely too much time trying to convince me that being aware of differences* meant that you HAD to be assigning relative rankings to them.

This belief is very common in a patriarchal-dominator society. Everyone has to be one-up or one-down.

heresiarch 164: you cannot call the red better without calling the blue worse** ** Thus your first friend is right, though without a doubt taking the whole thing much too personally.

I don't think so. Read again what Lee said about her friend: she "has spent decades struggling against the conviction that praise of anyone else, for anything whatsoever, was implicit criticism of her abilities in the same area. " So if I say "Dakota Fanning is a really good actress," Lee's friend would take that as saying "you're not a very good actress."

You cannot call the red better (than the blue) without implicitly calling the blue worse (than the red), but you CAN call the red beautiful without implying ANY judgement of the blue.

#166 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 06:53 PM:

Tim Walters (163): Thanks, that makes things much clearer. Certainty is obviously the wrong concept, although I'm having trouble articulating the one that I perceive.

--------(162): Dawkins may be a bad example. I do tend to steer clear of polarizing discussions about religion/atheism, so I haven't actually read anything by him, just glanced at the news reports and reactions to him. My mistake.

#167 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 07:34 PM:

heresiarch #164: Do they? Yup. Just to show one segment, consider the line of jokes dealing with "Catholic guilt vs. Jewish guilt". There's a basic emotional difference between the two ideas of what God is more concerned with. When someone says "God's going to remember what you did!", it matters whether they're casting it as a good or bad deed!

#168 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 08:32 PM:

re 164 and [Y]ou cannot call the red better without calling the blue worse:

From a strictly usage point of view I would disagree. "Better" and "worse" only function on their respective sides of the origin, so that "better" is not worse than "best", but only "not as good"; similarly "worse" is only "not as bad as" the worst. One can compare one thing to another on merit without accusing the lesser of being bad.

#169 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 09:34 PM:

Lee at 137: Anyone can game things; when someone says that sort of thing to me, I say ok, let me tell you about Buddhism, because you said you wanted to be saved.

They pissy, and I say, ok, but the next time you have someone say they don't want to hear it, shut up.

As to,"child-free" I didn't want to comment, but in my experience, the people who actively claim that label tend to be dismissive, at the very least, of those who have (or want) children. Often to the point of making me pretty damned angry. It may be they are the small minority, but that well is pretty much poisoned for me.

I have no problem with folks who don't want kids, but that's not the same as the in my face hostilty I've gotten from those who identify as, "Child Free"

j h woodyatt: Funny, I don't mind being lumped in with the intolerant theists who don't like "In God We Trust" on the money, and hate (with a pink and purple passion) the inclusion of God in the Pledge (I have other aspects of the pledge I am ambivalent about, but those two words I will not say, and haven't since I was about 16).

Tim Walters: I've met more than a few atheists who are adamant about the non-existence of deity. Some even offensively so.

#170 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 10:49 PM:

Mary Aileen @158, well, Dawkins, he's an evangelical atheist, feeling himself called upon to spread the Good Lack Of Word. Some of us are more in the mold of Quakers, keeping quiet until the Absence of Spirit fails to move us.

Somewhat more seriously, addressing your three categories @160, all of your categories, as well as the distinction everyone draws between "atheist" and "agnostic", seemed based on the notion that belief is the thing that distinguishes various religious categories from each other. I think it makes more sense to distinguish among communities of faith and bodies of practice. Given a dozen random Jews, I could probably make reliable predictions about what they're going to be doing tomorrow evening, but I'd have very little chance of guessing all of their beliefs.

#171 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 11:05 PM:

While we're sharing our stories of the people who attempt to organize our lives to better match their own, I thought I might mention this one from my youth:

"I have a niece your age. You two should get married." (Err, I don't know if I exactly got your NAME, dude, but I'll take it under consideration.)

#172 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 11:37 PM:

Tim @ 157

Wait, you're casting aspersions on someone else's logic, while trying to assert that anyone who can't affirmatively prove the negative can't be certain? "Faith" is, at it's very basis, a belief in the (at best) unproven. You are not the one operating from a position of sound evidence -- if the existence of a god or gods were actually proveable, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The burden of proof here is on you, who are asserting something without evidence, not on the people who refuse to accept your assertion. Until you (or someone else, or the universe) provide clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, anyone else is fully justified in being certain that the world operates in a way that is inconsistent with your assertions.

#173 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 11:44 PM:

Xopher @ 165: "So if I say "Dakota Fanning is a really good actress," Lee's friend would take that as saying "you're not a very good actress.""

Insofar as the statement can be related to Lee's friend at all, that's almost certainly what it means. It's bizarre to identify oneself as representative of such a broad category as not-Dakota Fanning, but it's the only place in the statement that she fits. It doesn't rule out the possibility that there are other actresses better than Dakota, or that Lee's friend might be one of them, but it's a bit of a stretch.

But all this is tangential--we're not discussing cases where there are countless members of a set, we're discussing cases where the categories are (fairly close to) binary: religious or not. Childless or not. In binary cases, the counterchange of statements like "Christians are a law-abiding people" or "atheists value rationality" is, I feel, quite clear. Non-Christians are not law-abiding. Non-atheists are not rational.

"You cannot call the red better (than the blue) without implicitly calling the blue worse (than the red), but you CAN call the red beautiful without implying ANY judgement of the blue."

What is the difference you see between the relational pairs good-bad and beauty-ugliness?

C. Wingate @ 168: There is no origin--only the distinction between the members of the set.

#174 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2011, 11:50 PM:

Tim Walters @153 writes: "I'm not going to say these people don't exist, but I'm pretty sure I've never met one, and I know a lot of atheists."

I ought to confess here that I have Rather Substantial Doubts about the existence of gods and any other forms of divine, supernatural what-have-you, large enough that they're damned near functionally equivalent to certainty. As a neopragmatist, though, I firmly believe that doubt should require justification as much belief, and while I believe my Rather Substantial Doubts are justifiable, in private with other non-religious types (and their friends), I will admit to worrying that I may not be as smart as I think I am, and that the justification for my doubts may end up crumbling in the face of some wizardly new mathematical discovery someday. As far as everyone else is concerned, my Rather Substantial Doubts can be considered functionally equivalent to Certainty.

#175 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 12:07 AM:

heresiarch 173: What is the difference you see between the relational pairs good-bad and beauty-ugliness?

As I think you know, the difference isn't between those relational pairs at all, but between comparatives and absolutes.

If I say "butter pecan ice cream is delicious," that doesn't imply that I think raspberry sorbet is NOT delicious, or even LESS delicious than butter pecan ice cream. Two things can be equally delicious.

If, on the other hand, I say *"butter pecan ice cream is tastier than raspberry sorbet" (starring it to mark it as nonsense), that IS a judgment on the relative deliciousness of the two.

In addition, one can perfectly well be an excellent actor† without being as good as Dakota Fanning. It is NOT true, despite what you say, that saying that Dakota Fanning is good is an indirect way of saying Lee's friend is crummy. For one thing, there's no comparative there. If I say Dakota Fanning is a good actor, that doesn't mean I think Claire Danes is NOT a good actor. They're both good. In fact I haven't expressed or even faintly implied that I think one of them is better than the other.

If you think I have, the trouble is with you, not with my words or my logic.

†I've been meaning to stop using the word 'actress' as female actors tell me they prefer the latter term.

#176 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:31 AM:

KayTei @ 172: I've read your post and re-read my post three times now, and I still don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about. Would you mind fisking me, or otherwise being a little more specific, so I can figure out what your objection actually is?

#177 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:54 AM:

j h woodyatt @ 174: I ought to confess here that I have Rather Substantial Doubts about the existence of gods and any other forms of divine, supernatural what-have-you, large enough that they're damned near functionally equivalent to certainty.

As I said upthread, my degree of confidence in my atheism depends on the exact proposal. If someone says "all is one," or "Shasta is a sacred mountain," I'll actually agree with them; but those are subjective truths, like "The Last Waltz is a landmark of Western civilization."* They're truths about the interaction of human consciousness and the world, and don't imply anything beyond that. If someone asks me "why is Shasta a sacred mountain?", all I have in response is "c'mon, look at it."

But the more the details about a god's interactions with the observed world start to pile up, the more improbable it sounds, as one would expect from the propositional calculus (but not from folk epistemology, which regards details as collaborative).

I'm reasonably sure (but not certain, because I make mistakes quite often) that my epistomology is good, and my epistomology says atheism is the best option. For me, that's quite distinct from my estimation of the certainty of the proposition that a god or gods exists. Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument is a good example of a proposition that I don't find at all convincing, but that I couldn't say that I was certain was wrong.

*I just watched TLW for the first time while drinking a martini and a half, so I may be overestimating it a little. Then again, maybe not.

#178 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:56 AM:

I make that one for three on spelling "epistemology." Blame Demon Gin.

#179 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:36 AM:

Tim Walters @153

Mary Aileen @ 151: In my experience, 'atheist' usually implies that one is sure that there is/are no god(s).

It's not the standard meaning you'll find in a dictionary or Wikipedia, either.

It seems to be the meaning I found in the 3 dictionaries I can access from work:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/atheist
One who lacks belief in the existence of God, god, Gods or gods.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheist
a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheist
one who believes that there is no deity

#180 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:58 AM:

Mary Eileen writes:

1) I believe in the existence of god(s)/divine presence
2) I do *not* believe in said existence
3) How the heck should I know?

This is a good start.

Among atheists, there are lots of sheades of opinion:

a) I don't believe in any gods.
b) I believe no gods exist.
c) I believe it's physically impossible for gods to exist.
d) I believe its logically impossible for gods to exist.
e) This whole "god" thing doesn't make a lick of sense.

Individual atheists often believe a) as a general posiiton, with one of the stronger answers for particular religions which they think they know more about.

Agnosticism covers people who, when asked about gods, say they don't know, but also people who say no-one can possibly know, which is slightly different and a bit annoying.

#181 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:00 AM:

I meant to scroll back and check Mary Aileen's spelling of her name, but I forgot and I got it wrong. My apologies.

#182 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:13 AM:

Cheryl @179

Ah, did you mean "found in one of the three dictionaries?" Because by my reading, the first two definitions tally rather precisely with Mr. Walters' professed "lack of belief" or "disbelief," and only the third doesn't match him.

Niall @180

"No one can possibly know, which is slightly different and a bit annoying."

I know, right? I mean, sure, we can both conceive of a god so irritatingly vague that we'll never know if it exists or not. (To which I say, if it might as well not exist, I will waste no time believing in it). But I can certainly think of a god such that if he existed, we'd know. We'll call him Thor.* We'd know if this Thor existed, because he'd be crashing your bachelor party, reeking of goat, and drinking all the beer. So, then, did you see him at your bachelor party? No? Was there any beer left, or just an empty keg with red hairs left on the hammered-open rim? Beer, eh? Then we know for sure that Thor doesn't exist!

*He's not the only Thor. If you believe in a more subtle Thor, well, why? But perhaps you believe in an unsubtle but more metaphorical Thor. In that case, I do not mean your Thor any disrespect, he's a different Thor from the one in this example.

#183 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:38 AM:

Devin @182

Cheryl @179

Ah, did you mean "found in one of the three dictionaries?" Because by my reading, the first two definitions tally rather precisely with Mr. Walters' professed "lack of belief" or "disbelief," and only the third doesn't match him.

No, by my reading they all say essentially the same thing.

I'm not sure why 'one who lacks belief in the existence of $deity' would not be the same as 'one who believes that there is no deity'.

#184 ::: Doug Burbidge ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:10 AM:

Lee #159 One of my pagan friends was told by a cow-orker, "I will pray that you be broken at the feet of Jesus".

Xopher #165 The best response to that would be "How kind! And I, in turn, will pray that Kali-Ma will dance on your quivering, headless corpse."

G'day, Xopher. I dispute that this is the best response. It's turnabout-is-fair-play, and it's also a reflection of the original statement in a way that might cause the original speaker to realise how unpleasant his/her statement seemed to others.

But I think that it will not cause the original speaker to so realise -- I think a person who would make that statement in the first place will take it as "My god will whup you!" / "Well, my god will whup you!"

A better response might have been, "I forgive you."

(Disclosure: I'm from the atheist camp.)

(How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?)

#185 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:32 AM:

My impression is that "agnostic" is something of a social politeness.

It's a way of saying "I don't believe in God" which doesn't quite deny that a God exists.

#186 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:47 AM:

Dave Bell @185

My impression is that "agnostic" is something of a social politeness.

It's a way of saying "I don't believe in God" which doesn't quite deny that a God exists.

I am a self-identified agnostic, and that is not what I mean when I say it.

#187 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:01 AM:

I am also an agnostic, and I mean by that that I don't know. I simply do not.

I cannot find a rebuttal to the argument from ultimate cause that satisfies me. I cannot find a theodicy that satisfies me. I remain suspended between the two like a pin between repelling plates.

And there is, of course, my fear, both of death and of being pusillanimous enough to make Pascal's wager. Another pair or repelling plates.

I don't know. I can take counsel neither of my fears nor of my hopes. I simply don't know.

#188 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:14 AM:

@Dave Luckett 187
I am also an agnostic, and I mean by that that I don't know. I simply do not.

[snipped for brevity]

This, for me also. And... something else, that I'm not sure how to articulate. Kind of the feeling that, maybe, there should be something more. Something numinous, as others have said; and the more I find out about the structures of the universe, both macro and micro, the more it reinforces that feeling. Something so deep, so vast, so complex and interlocking - it feels like it needs a deity, to me.

As I said, hard for me to articulate. I feel like I'm trying to explain colour to blind people - not that it's a lack in you, but a lack in me, that I don't know the words and referents you will understand.

#189 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:16 AM:

How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?

I don't believe but I do cook and I have heard that garlic can be quite effective.

#190 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:38 AM:

How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?

ObDrWho There was the Bolshevik soldier who believed in the revolution and turned them with his red star (cap?) badge.

I believe decapitation and a stake through the heart are both effective and not reliant on belief. It has the disadvantage that it does not differentiate between the living and the undead.

Niall McAuley @180 Agnosticism covers people who, when asked about gods, say they don't know, but also people who say no-one can possibly know, which is slightly different and a bit annoying.

I hold the slightly different view that, having been trained as a scientist and a statistician, and also having seen and felt some weird stuff, it's impossible for me to know if there are gods or god.

Some students told me they didn't believe in the miracles associated with Christmas. Partly to avoid getting too far into the immaculate conception debate, I explained that if it was natural and had a scientific explanation, then it's hardly a miracle at all; if it's supernatural and then it is undoubtedly a miracle. This did indeed annoy them, and made them refine their arguments which was probably a good thing, although as were supposed to be doing a Christmas themed Maths worksheet I may not have strictly met the objectives of the lesson.

#191 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:01 AM:

In Scott Westerfeld's Peeps, what works to turn a vampire is a symbol of something that the vampire was devoted to, or found sacred, in its former, human existence. Hence, crosses work for most vampires who had originally been born in pre-modern Europe. But a picture of Elvis works for the protagonist's former girlfriend, who had been a big fan. (This is from the prologue, so it's not particularly a spoiler.)

#192 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:28 AM:

Neil W #190 Partly to avoid getting too far into the immaculate conception debate

Minor technical point: The immaculate conception refers to Mary's birth, not Jesus's.

#193 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 08:29 AM:

Cheryl @ 179: None of those entries say anything about being sure or certain, just about belief. Belief without certainty is common and ordinary, as I did my best to explain at 163.

Cheryl @ 183: I'm not sure why 'one who lacks belief in the existence of $deity' would not be the same as 'one who believes that there is no deity'.

One can a lack a belief that something exists without possessing a belief that it doesn't exist. That's precisely how I feel about, say, intelligent extraterrestrial life within radio hailing distance--I don't feel that I have enough information to even have an opinion. Whereas I believe that there's intelligent extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe, because I think that in a space of that size its evolving only once would be highly improbable--but of course I'm not sure, and can't be until and unless we find some.

#194 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 10:42 AM:

Biblical history and archaeological history differ on the whole "exodus from Egypt" thing, as well as when Jews became completely monotheistic. Some Jewish theologists now see the Exodus story largely as myth and metaphor rather than history, but this remains contentious.

Scientists studying the history of Egypt under Ramses II--widely accepted to be the pharaoh under whom the exodus took place--have not found any records of the mass migration of Jews out of Egypt, certainly not in the hundreds of thousands. It does seem that some number of Israelites did leave Egypt, in small groups, and migrated up to Canaan over a period of years.

Some current theories say that the Israelites were moving toward monotheism at this time but hadn't completely gotten there yet. During the migration, they met up with people in Midian who were completely monotheistic and worshipped a god whose name (YWH) is remarkably similar to the letters used to represent the name of the Jewish god (YHWH).

The Israelites adopted some of the beliefs of the Midianites at this point and continued migrating to Canaan; some theorize that the Israelites were actually Canaanites to begin with.

Israelite settlements from this period indicate that while many households worshipped the deity known as YHWH, they were not exclusively monotheistic. Idols of various gods of the region (including Egyptian gods) have been found in the remains of houses which are identifiable as Israelite homes, which seems to some scientists to indicate that the Israelites had not yet completely abandoned idol worship/polytheism.

However, over the next several hundred years, monotheism grew dramatically in Canaan/Israel, as did the overall population of Israelites. Some scientists theorize that the population grew too fast to be from reproduction alone and that many Canaanites adopted Israelite/Jewish beliefs and practices during this period.

For me as a Jew, this is completely fascinating. I'm a big believer in the power of story, so as far as I'm concerned, even if Exodus turns out to be mostly made up after the fact, that doesn't change its value to me.

Then again, Judaism as I practice it is more about deeds than faith.

#195 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 10:54 AM:

My mother began life as a raised-secular Jew. She believed in god, kept a handful of holidays, and identified culturally as Jewish.

Over the years, she moved away from belief in god into a position of agnosticism. She no longer believed in god but didn't not believe either. She did believe that belief was not essential or central to her life or her ethics/morals.

She and my father raised their children as secular Jews, though my brother had a bar mitzvah, largely to placate my father's very Conservative parents. My father was raised Conservative but, like my mother, lived as a secular Jew in adulthood.

As my mother grew older, her agnosticism shifted further toward disbelief in god, and for nearly a decade she has identified as an atheist. (A precipitating event was my father's death; my mother could not accept a god that would take away the love of her life at such a relatively young age--he was around 70--and her anger over this burned the last vestiges of belief and uncertainty right out of her.)

My mother finds it a bit unnerving that I attend synagogue (irregularly) and that my daughter attends religious education and was bat mitzvah. Yet she still identifies as a cultural Jew and sits down to seder every Passover . . . though more because it's an opportunity to see the family than because she believes in the story. Then again, I don't believe in the story myself, lol.

Anyway, the point is, if you asked my mother about agnosticism and atheism, she'd think of them as points on a spectrum and she'd include belief on the same spectrum.

Not sure if this adds anything to the overall discussion but I thought I'd offer it up since primarily I've been talking about religion in this thread.

#196 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:31 AM:

Doug Burbidge@#184: There are any number of fiction instances of people turning vampires with non-crosses, where what matters is the faith of the wielder that This thing is powerful. Harry Dresden can turn vamps with his pentacle as a representative of his faith in magic, Mercy Thompson uses a necklace in the shape of a lamb because she dislikes the cross as a symbol, there are any number of jokes about Jewish vampires being turned by Stars of David, and I seem to recall a Dr Who ep where a devout Bolshevik uses his red star.

In Buffy, crosses work regardless of the faith of the wielder (or the vampire), or even when they're not being wielded at all--but it has to be a cross intended to be a cross. So vampires don't get hurt by, say, touching bracing struts of buildings. I think the idea there is that the Christians happened upon a spell that makes that symbol icky for vampires.

#197 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:37 AM:

heresiarch, #164: but you cannot call the red better without calling the blue worse

That's not even remotely what I said. Xopher got it right; one can say that red is pretty without saying, or implying, or even thinking, that blue is ugly.

I do apologize for "bullshit". But your argument is still fallacious, in that it contains elements of each of my examples.

and #173: In binary cases, the counterchange of statements like "Christians are a law-abiding people" or "atheists value rationality" is, I feel, quite clear. Non-Christians are not law-abiding. Non-atheists are not rational.

Yes, that's exactly the same mistake my friend makes -- that saying "X is Y" is the same as explicitly saying "not-X is not-Y", when it's no such thing. A statement and its inverse are not equivalent! The supportable inferences would be "people who are not law-abiding are not Christians" and "people who don't value rationality are not atheists" respectively.

Cheryl, #179: Does it make sense to you to say that lack of belief is not the same thing as active surety?

Personally, I tend to say that I am not convinced of the existence of gods. I could be convinced, although it would take rather a lot to do so; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But IMO that's not the same thing as saying that I'm sure there are no gods.

and @188: That sounds rather like another way of saying that you find belief in a Deity to be emotionally comforting. I understand that.

Neil, #190: if it was natural and had a scientific explanation, then it's hardly a miracle at all; if it's supernatural then it is undoubtedly a miracle

That's pretty close to my definition -- you don't get to call it a miracle unless and until it actively (and provably) defies the laws of physics. Statistical outliers are not miracles.

#198 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:46 AM:

How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?

Wolverine ran into a related bit of a problem when he made a cross out of his claws to stop Dracula. Didn't work because Logan didn't believe.

#199 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:51 AM:

I've always wondered about the belief thing and crosses and vampires. It seems to me that the presence of a supernatural creature implies that God is around as well.

But...maybe it doesn't count if you use logic to derive the proof of God. Man, there's always a catch.

#200 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:51 AM:

Not caught up, but I just had a door-to-door Bible salesman (as it were) dingdong me, and the experience drove home a chasm of difference in the way they see the world and moral/polite behavior, and the way I do.

Our conversation, as closely as I can reconstruct it:

Evangelist: "Good morning. We're inviting our neighbors [note: she does not live on our block] to a Bible supper next week." Holds out a small handbill.
Me: "Thank you, but we already have a religion and we're quite pleased with it."
E: "Do you mind if I ask what religion that is?" WHILE WALKING AWAY down my steps.
Me: "I don't believe it's appropriate to talk about things that personal while shouting out my doorway, I'm afraid." As they walk away down the sidewalk, still staring at me over their shoulder with a disapproving look, I added (probably inadvisably) "Nor does the Jesus I believe in think it's moral to go around shoving your God in other people's faces."

I found myself physically angry for an hour or more afterwards -- racing heart, elevated respiration, constant return of my thoughts to other things i could have said, ways I could have WON, ways I could have SHOWN THEM ...

Because to me, being firmly evangelized at (and let me tell you, compared to some I've gotten from family members, that was NOTHING) is exactly as offensive, and hits most of the same emotional triggers, as being strongly sexually harrassed.

I think what offended me worst about this particular encounter was that they *said* they were interested in talking while what they *did* was dismissive to contemptuous. They didn't actually want to talk about my faith, they wanted (a) to get me to let them convince me I was wrong, and (b) do as many houses as they could in a given timeframe.

That offends me on two levels. First, I think blatant evangelism (as opposed to simply living in a Christlike [insert your preferred archetype here] way and answering any questions that arise in ordinary interaction -- that, I have no objection to) is rude to immoral, in the direction and of similar magnitude to attempted rape. Because to me, faith is personal and private in the same way that talking about anything that's that important to me is personal and private. If you want to walk up to me on the street and suddenly demand to see what's in my underwear, that's about the same emotional charge to me.

Secondly, if you are going to actually attempt to be a positive force for increased faith, TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Don't do it assembly-line. Don't just write it off. This is not the same thing as passing out flyers for $5 off a $20 lunch at the restaurant on the corner -- or it shouldn't be, I don't think.

If they had said "Thank you" and left, I don't think I would've been offended. If they'd STAYED on my doorstep and let me exchange a few sentences with them after they inquired as to my faith, I don't think I would have been terribly offended. It was the combination of the two that got right up my nose and infuriated me in a lingering way.

Not sure what that says about me, but it seemed a cromulent experience to post here. If anyone is interested in another point of anecdata, I can make a post talking about what I actually believe about existences of deities, but it's almost irrelevant to my experience with these god-botherers, so I'm leaving it out just now.

#201 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 12:04 PM:

#184 ::: Doug Burbidge re: "I will pray that you be broken at the feet of Jesus".

... "My god will whup you!" / "Well, my god will whup you!"

Did anyone else flash on Edward G. Robinson saying, "Where's your god now, Moses?"

A better response might have been, "I forgive you."

This is wonderful. I will remember and use it the next time it's appropriate.

#202 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 12:46 PM:

Carrie S. @196:
A scene I'd like to use in some story or other: the unpleasant fate of a vampire who confronts a pantheist....

#203 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 12:53 PM:

Anybody remembers "Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires", in which Peter Cushing finds that Chinese vampires are afraid of statues of Buddha? No kidding. Even I couldn't make up stuff like that.

#204 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:14 PM:

I've always liked the DoD-approved atheist headstone emblem (http://www.cem.va.gov/cem/images/emb-16.jpg). I'm not sure why they think it has anything to do with atheism, at all, but you know? If I for some reason had to have a symbol on my grave, that one has some attitude. It better represents worship of "the Atomfather" than it does atheism, but I'd be dead and gone anyway, so what do I care?

If I was a vampire, I'd be totally scared if you presented the Bohr-atom-and-letter-A of the Atomfather. You want to stay the heck away from that guy, he's way scarier than Jesus* and almost as scary as Sol Invictus.

*NB: Jesus will not nuke you.

#205 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:25 PM:

Melissa Singer #194: You're switching from mythic to archaeological history, there.

Niall McAuley #180: And where would you place someone who thinks god(s) may very well exist, but there's no reason to encourage them? :-)

#206 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:36 PM:

Cheryl @183

I believe that it's raining outside. I lack belief that it's raining outside your house (I don't know and have no way of knowing, unless you tell me). I disbelieve that you are an Olympic-level figure-skater (I have no evidence that you are and it's a rather far-fetched claim that would require corroboration before I believed it).

I am certain that I have all of my limbs.

I must admit that I'm confused by your professed agnosticism combined with your insistence that lack of belief is the same as certainty in nonexistence. To me, there's quite obviously a lot of ground between lacking belief in something and denying that it's even a possibility.

#207 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:37 PM:

Tim 177: If someone asks me "why is Shasta a sacred mountain?", all I have in response is "c'mon, look at it."

That's actually a bit Pagan. Sacredness is based on the perception of the observer; what's sacred to you may not be to me. I like the term from LeGuin's Always Coming Home, which is 'heyiya'—an invented word from a conlang, but one that boils down a lot of stuff, something like "inspiring a spiritual experience and/or change in consciousness in the observer."

Cheryl 183: I'm not sure why 'one who lacks belief in the existence of $deity' would not be the same as 'one who believes that there is no deity'.

Well, to begin with, '$deity' would be a specific deity, like Allah or Setesh, so one who lacks a belief in Setesh might not believe that there is no deity at all. But I don't think that's quite what you meant; I would point out that it's quite possible to just not care enough to have taken a position. Such a person would lack a belief that deities exist, but might not particularly care enough to HAVE a belief that they do not.

There is a possibly-legendary beast in Africa called a mngwa. There are no "documented sightings," but "the natives swear it exists." (That probably means no white person has seen one, but that's a subject for another thread.) I don't really believe there is such a creature, but I don't really have a strong belief in its NONexistence either. I certainly don't care enough about its existence, or lack thereof, to go to Africa and hunt for it, or collect stories and see if they seem like pure folklore, or even do a lot of internet research about it. It's not important enough to me for any of that.

I respectfully submit that one could have that position on the topic of deities.

[And Tim says it better and shorter at 193. So if the above was TL;DR...]

Doug 184 I think that it will not cause the original speaker to [realise how unpleasant his/her statement seemed to others] -- I think a person who would make that statement in the first place will take it as "My god will whup you!" / "Well, my god will whup you!"

Ah, you mistake my goal. My goal was basically to communicate "fuck you, asshole" in more elegant terms, and make the person as angry as they made me. You see, if someone tells me they'll pray for something terrible to happen to me (which is how I regard being "broken at the feet of Jesus"), all useful interaction with them is over.

A better response might have been, "I forgive you."

I don't believe in lying, even to a person as stupid as that.

How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?

Hmm, this requires the existence of a person who believes in vampires but not religion. I would submit that such people are at best vanishingly rare. If vampires do exist, I would daresay that most atheists would deny their existence until three days after being killed by one...at which point personal experience would trump any theoretical objections.

#208 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:45 PM:

David Harmon @205: I think the two are inextricable in this instance. If you (generic you, not you, David) accept only the mythic history of the Bible, you have to ignore the historical and archaeological record. And while many people seem to be comfortable with that, I'm not.

#209 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:47 PM:

How might an atheist turn a vampire? Strongly present a non-religious symbol?

Don't turn them, dust them. Mr. Pointy doesn't give a fig for religious quibbles.

#210 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:49 PM:

Xopher @207

I don't think I'd be able to resist whipping around with "I hope Jesus breaks your foot!" I understand they meant it metaphorically, but it's still such a hostile thing to say, particularly to someone they already know doesn't share the same metaphorical context.

#211 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 01:52 PM:

Devin 210: I agree. They're either trying to be offensive, or are so unable to look outside their own frame that they have no idea how offensive they're being. Either way, offending them is a righteous act.

#212 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 02:17 PM:

Melissa Singer #208: Well, two nights a year I'm willing to ignore the archeology. And in general, when I'm looking at the ways people justify various moral decisions, I'll look at their mythology even before the material history.

#213 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 02:22 PM:

Avram @ 0

Am wondering if you can help with this query - received via Facebook from a school-friend.

'A friend of mine is attempting to devise a way to bake a Mobius biscuit. I wondered if you or Mme Barebones had any experience in this direction. Whichever direction that is.'

Suggestions from other members of the flourosphere also welcomed.

#214 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 02:24 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 200, Keith (my husband) had a similar experience with a guy who came door-to-door inviting people to Sunday services at his new church (I believe he was the pastor). The guy asked what church Keith went to, and Keith said he didn't. "Oh," said the guy, "so you're just spiritual, not really into an organized church."

"Actually, I'm an atheist," said Keith, in a tone of politely informing someone of a neutral fact.

The guy's look immediately changed to angry disgust, he literally threw up his hands, and stomped off down our driveway saying angrily "That's SAD, man. That's REALLY SAD."

Like you, Keith slightly lost his temper at this point and returned a sarcastically cheerful "Thanks, dude! That's really Christian of you!"

Keith -- who I've been trying to get to post on this thread -- usually remains calm and polite in the face of even really annoying evangelism. But when someone's reaction to "I'm an atheist" is to start shouting as though you'd said "I love abusing animals!" -- it's understandable to lose your temper a little.

Personally, I thought the door-to-door guy could have used some more sales training. There are any number of ways to react to "I'm an atheist" that are more likely to result in said atheist at least taking his flyer. "All right -- if you know anyone who might be interested, you can pass this flyer along to them." or even "Well, if you ever get curious about what we're all about, here's our information."

And anyway, according to the usual rules for Christian evangelism, shouldn't he work extra hard to plant a seed of belief with a non-believer?

Re: terms for atheist/non-believer:

Keith uses the word "atheist" as a neutral descriptor for himself in order to normalize it. Yes, many people currently take it to mean that he hates or is angry at all religion, or thinks all believers are stupid or crazy. He hopes that engaging with him even a little bit will show that he doesn't think those things. That the word "atheist" doesn't necessarily connote those things, any more than the word "Christian" necessarily connotes "pushy boundary-crossing evangelist." (Which, for the record, it does not.)

#215 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 02:56 PM:

Lee @197:
That sounds rather like another way of saying that you find belief in a Deity to be emotionally comforting. I understand that.

Not necessarily. She said

Something so deep, so vast, so complex and interlocking - it feels like it needs a deity, to me.

That only definitely means "comforting" in the sense that a complete pattern is comforting, not in the sense that knowing that you've got enough savings to tide over a period of joblessness is comforting.

Personally, I usually find the use of "emotionally comforting" to describe my theism intensely insulting. It comes across as patronizing, like a pat on the head. The subtext is that we theists need our safety blanket, while you brave strong atheists can face the universe as it Really Is. My instinctive reaction to that attitude is...not polite.

The phrasing is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of faith and religion in many theists' lives. I find religion challenging and discomfiting; it's forever making me think about new and awkward angles on the problems of human existence. It disrupts my comfortable habits of thought by reminding me of awkward truths like the the value of other people, the complexity of moral choices, and the costs of my relative wealth in a world of poverty.*

-----
* I am well aware that many atheists and agnostics have other ways of disrupting the unthinking injustice that we as humans are prone to falling into.

#216 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 02:58 PM:

praisegod barebones #213: Well, you could start with the Mobius bagel, which the note points out can be done as a single Mobius strip.

#217 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:00 PM:

praisegod barebones #213: Well, you could start with the Mobius bagel, which the note points out can be done as a single Mobius strip.

Prior attempt at this comment captured by moderator's gnomes...

#218 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:07 PM:

David Harmon @ 216: which note?

#219 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:12 PM:

Shouldn't you start with Klein's Bagel, and then cut it into Mobius strips?

#220 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:16 PM:

Bah, the second time lost its link on the way. Here:

http://www.georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html

The note is near the end of that posting. I suspect you could also shape strips of dough into Mobius strips -- they'll melt and bake flat, but depending on your recipe, you might still see the shape.

#221 ::: John Aspinall ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:18 PM:

abi @215:

That only definitely means "comforting" in the sense that a complete pattern is comforting,...

I've been following this discussion with interest, but I have to say this particular analogy introduces more problems than it solves. How could adding a deity, widely described as "ineffable and incomprehensible", be analogized with completing a pattern?

(Please read my tone as genuine bewilderment, not just snark.)

#222 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:20 PM:

Serge @ 140 and Mary Aileen @ 142:

It's my personal experience that "I'll pray for you" is the end-point of a failed conversion attempt, whereas "you'll be in my prayers" is an expression of well-meaning concern from a friend. It's not that "I'll pray for you" is inherently offensive, it's the association.

obSelfDescription:

I describe myself as an atheist because, I don't see the evidence for a god or gods, and, unless we're positing a Deist set-the-universe-in-motion-and-walk-away god, I think that we should be able to see some evidence.

j h woodyatt @ 150:

I didn't like being lumped in with all those damned intolerant atheists who complain about the word 'God' stamped onto our coins and sue your school district over the requirement to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn't, and still don't, think of myself as intolerant, as someone who wants to stop people from worshipping their gods.

The point here is not to stop people from worshipping their gods, the point is that the government shouldn't be endorsing a particular god. I agree with pretty much everything else you say, though.

Lee @ 159:

It's not that I see lack of belief in a god as something which can't be remedied, it's more that I miss the shared community and ritual of something that was a very important part of my life for many years.

Devin @ 204:

Are you taking applications for acolytes to the Church of the Atomfather*? Because that logo really makes me want to sign up.

* Using that because it's your term, but I think I'd prefer something like Atomcreator.

#223 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:31 PM:

KeithS (221): It's not that "I'll pray for you" is inherently offensive, it's the association.

That fits my observation, as well.

Several years ago, when I was in the hospital (with something that turned out to be not as serious as it might have been), one of the aides asked me, "Do you mind if I put you in my prayers?" My response was a slightly startled, "Um. No, I don't mind." Startled because I didn't feel we knew each other well enough for her to pray for me. But it was kindly meant, and she did ask, in a way that made it plain she would take "please don't" as an answer. So I was okay with it. (The context made it pretty clear that she would be praying for my good health, not my conversion.)

#224 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:32 PM:

David Harmon @216:

Your link was toast. Irretrievably toast. Sorry.

#225 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 03:53 PM:

praisegod, 213: Puff pastry, aka palmier dough, cut about 1" wide.

#226 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:04 PM:

John Aspinall @220:
this particular analogy introduces more problems than it solves. How could adding a deity, widely described as "ineffable and incomprehensible", be analogized with completing a pattern?

What Cheryl said in 188:

This, for me also. And... something else, that I'm not sure how to articulate. Kind of the feeling that, maybe, there should be something more. Something numinous, as others have said; and the more I find out about the structures of the universe, both macro and micro, the more it reinforces that feeling. Something so deep, so vast, so complex and interlocking - it feels like it needs a deity, to me.

What that sounds like to me is the last piece of the puzzle, the keystone of the arch, the thing that binds the entire structure together. The completion of a pattern with a necessary element.

That's not "adding" a deity to the universe, any more than one "adds" a keystone to an arch. It's simply acknowledging that the arch isn't actually an arch unless the keystone is in place.

I don't know if this is what Cheryl meant, but it's how I read her comment. I was reacting to Lee's summing it up as "comforting", which is not in my view an adequate expression of the matter at all.

#227 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:11 PM:

How could adding a deity, widely described as "ineffable and incomprehensible", be analogized with completing a pattern?

I think it's a confusion inherent in the meaning of "incomprehensible." Let me come at it from a slightly different place.[1]

One of my colleagues was[2] a genuinely amazing programmer. Quite often, I'm looking at something he wrote and there are all these pieces, that are clearly there for a reason, but they don't quite make sense--until I run just the right test case against it, in which case there's this "aha" realization that is the missing piece of the puzzle. Once you have the right pieces, in the right order, it's an amazing pattern--until then, it's a frustrating jumble that keeps feeling like it should be an amazing pattern.

Now, that is somewhat how I find Christian theology; once you have the pieces in the right places, the world makes better sense. The world needs God, not in the sense that a baby needs food, but in the sense that my grandfather's attitude toward money needs the Great Depression.

[1] The universe,or self-awareness, is incomprehensible for one sense of incomprehensible, and I think that's the sense of incomprehensible in view in "god is incomprehensible." Someone thinking rubbing himself with lemon juice will keep him from showing up on a security camera is incomprehensible for another sense of incomprehensible.
[2] He decided his calling was healing, not programming, and changed professions.

#228 ::: John Aspinall ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:28 PM:

abi @225:
The completion of a pattern with a necessary element.

Thank you for clarifying. It's not a feeling I share, but we are back on familiar ground. In defense of Lee, would the feeling (comforting or not) that it has what it needs be acceptable?


#229 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 04:45 PM:

John Aspinall @227:

I think the term "needs" has already tripped us up a few times. I'd go for "complete", or just leave it as it is in Cheryl's original comment. Sometimes there's not a single word for complex things.

But not "comforting", particularly not "emotionally comforting", which was Lee's phrase. Really, really not. As in, I can't guarantee my continued presence in this thread, because I'm finding the degree of offense I'm taking difficult to deal with.

#230 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:22 PM:

ajay @ 19

"Our" alphabet? You're Greek, then?

YM Israeli (or traditional Jewish). HTH.

Seriously, look at a Christian Bible sometime. The OT far outweighs the NT part. So odds are, any random line from the Bible will be, maybe 4/5 of the time, Biblical Hebrew (a West Semitic tongue).

Happy & Kosher Passover, to those who observe it; Happy Tuesday to everyone else.

#231 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:33 PM:

many tumbled together. I've been too busy to keep up, because this was (as expected) taking turns which needed fair bits of attention when reading.

Re exodus and, "truth". There is a scene in "The Last Temptation of Christ" which was actually heretical. It was Paul, preaching on a stump (well a conveniently ancient and weathered fragment of marble column), and he is confronted by Jesus who tells him, "It's not true, you are talking about me, and it didn't happen. I live just down the way."

Paul looks at him and says, "That doesn't matter, what matters is the message in the story I'm telling."

Which is true. The story of Exodus means what we will it to mean, and that is a Truth independent of it's veracity.

Lee @ 197: Context can make that meaning. I have heard people make the implicit claim that Christians are law abiding/good/honest/take your pick because they have faith, and those who lack it aren't.

When pressed they made it explicit, and often in really insulting ways to agnostics/atheists (they would credit people who belived in, "wrong" faiths with being law-abiding, but misguided, the non-religious were, however, just waiting for the chance to not get caught). Oddly these were often the same folks willing to use the, "not perfect, just forgiven" line. When pressed on how this, "get out of jail free card" might make them less worried about consequence than an atheist (because they knew they would be ok, in the afterlife, and the atheist doesn't believe they get prizes/punsishment other than this single life) they got confused; because they were actually using the "God as hall monitor" approach to morals.

They didn't have to think about it because the impartial God would take care of things, if they just did the right things.

(yes, I realise I am glossing a few things, and there are a lot of people who don't see everyone as looking for a way to "get away with things", but they don't seem to engage in the sorts of street preaching that leads to that sort of discussion. It's made me a bit jaded).

re belief: Fright Night (Roddy McDowell, Chris Sarandon) Has a great moment when the vampire hunter whips out a cross, and the vampire says, "That only works if you believe", well that would pretty much clinch a bunch of my questions.

Elliott: I'd be pissed at that too. Then again, I'd be pissed, a little, if they stayed to persist. Having been prosyltised from the age of 11, or so, when people found out I was Catholic seems to have made me a bit prickly about the, "What's your religion," question. Being called an idol-worshipper, polytheist, tool of Satan by random people, some of whom knocked on my door to do it, didn't make me as tolerant as I might like.

Being, however, fairly polite, I end up putting off the stop-thrust comments I want to make, and getting that amped up feeling you describe. On the rare occasions I let my passions get the better of me I feel no better, because it's not a game one can win; it's a Phyrric victory and they will take out on their next victim.

I recal a less offensive, but still bothersome case, when I was in hospital at Walter Reed. A protestant chaplain came to visit me. I thanked him for the visit, and declined the praying he offered to share with me, explained I was a catholic, and if I needed some specfic praying, I'd get a priest to come up. He said something and told me that, "if you change your mind, I'll be here to pray with you."

At which point I sort of wanted to strangle him with my I/V tubing.

But sometimes, sometimes I break out a can of Whuppass, and give them a solid blast.

praisegod barebones: Biscuit.. tough, the dough isn't all that coherent (unless you mean ship's biscuit, which I doubt), but a stiff bread dough, rolled in a strip, given the half twist and baked should hold up.

Toothpicks could be used to prop it, and keep the ring more clear. One could also make a fritter dough, and make mobius donuts.

#232 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 05:33 PM:

Is it time to retire this thread?

#233 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:27 PM:

re 231: What, you've lost faith in it?

#234 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:31 PM:

abi, #215: I'm sorry I said something triggering. I used the phrase "emotionally comforting" because I feel that need myself. That being the case, I certainly don't think there's anything wrong or inferior about it.

#235 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 06:59 PM:

Since I seem to be having trouble expressing myself in ways that do not offend people, it is probably best that I withdraw from this thread.

#236 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:04 PM:

abi, I understand that reaction. My mother, who was a righteous atheist, would often say of my faith that I needed it, or "I understand, it fills a need" or some such remark. She loved me, very much, but it was completely impossible for me to convey to her that my faith was not a form of wish fulfillment. She assumed it "comforted" me. It does, sometimes. It terrifies me, sometimes.

I remember once she said to me angrily, when I voiced some explanatory thoughts about the Annunciation, "But it's all myth!!" To which my immediate (unvoiced) response was, That doesn't mean it isn't true. As it happens, I don't think the Annunciation is "all myth." But then, my faith in the Resurrection does not depend on identifying which cramped burial cave near Golgotha once, for an eternal three days, held the dead body of God.

#237 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:10 PM:

Lee: I , for one, am not offended. There are turns of phrase you have used which, in another context, might offend me.

Context is really the bugbear of such conversations.

#238 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:28 PM:

There was a French movie, with Christopher Lee as Dracula, that began early in the 20th Century when communists decide to invade the latter's castle. When they realize who they're facing, they improvise a cross out of a hammer & sickle. And it works. Yes, it was a comedy, why do you ask?

#239 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 07:54 PM:

Clarification: I do not feel in any way chased out. However...

1) I'm already at "two people say you look like a duck", and should prefer not to go beyond that.

2) I'm about to be on the road for a week, with little time to monitor an active and volatile thread.

So, yeah. Good idea for me to back out. If it's still going when I get home, I might try again.

#240 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 08:54 PM:

That "broken at the feet of Jesus" comment makes me ill. If I were snarky (and, to my discredit, I am more often than I would like, and much more often than, as a Christian, I should), I might say in reply "I pray the God of Love pays particular attention to your prayers."

Somewhere we as a Christian Community seem to have attached ourselves to the hate bandwagon. And I keep trying to find where in the bible Jesus told me to hate. What really bothers me is that it's those people on the hate bandwagon that also state the wish (or their belief) that America is a Christian nation, therefore America is the Christian Community. And then I start wondering whether I, too, believe in G-d.

I realise, though, after thought, that I just don't believe in *that* god.

As I said before, I am religious (as compared to spiritual), but may not be theist. It is easiest/best for me as a religious to be a part of a Christian (therefore, theist) community for my spiritual and secular growth. I see nothing wrong with God the Scientist, building the Great Experiment, setting forth the Laws, and seeing what happens; changing the experiment when it seems useful. That doesn't *have to be* the case; but it feels right. And I want the experiment to be a success, for the point of view of the Lab Rat...

#241 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 10:04 PM:

Xopher@207: Hmm, this requires the existence of a person who believes in vampires but not religion.

Not really - it merely requires the existence of something with nasty big pointy teeth that wants to bite you on the neck and suck your blood. If you are an atheist who doesn't believe in the undead, then instead of using religious symbols you also don't believe in to discourage it, the traditional pointy stick or somewhat newer silver bullets may be better choices.

#242 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:17 PM:

Devin @ 204: "I'm not sure why they think it has anything to do with atheism..."

I can answer that. It's the official logo of the American Atheists organization.

#243 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:26 PM:

KeithS remarks: "The point here is not to stop people from worshipping their gods, the point is that the government shouldn't be endorsing a particular god."

Of course. I confess that you have highlighted the one passage in my earlier message where I deployed a bit of unmarked sarcasm. I had hoped that the qualification in the following sentence would be enough to signal it, but I suppose it's fair to say I could have made myself more clear by avoiding the sarcasm altogether.

#244 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2011, 11:27 PM:

Been trying to figure out if "broken at the feet of Jesus" is a line from some hymn or something, because in addition to being astonishingly rude, it's just such a damn weird thing to say. Unfortunately, some well-known soccer player seems to have broken his feet a few weeks back, and this might leave some kind of opening for another player named Jesus Montero.

#245 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 03:02 AM:

Carrie S. @ 196: "I think the idea there is that the Christians happened upon a spell that makes that symbol icky for vampires."

Vampires were, as you might guess, a real problem in imperial Rome. All those plebs, you see. Christians were among the lowest of the low, often without a home to protect them from the nightwalkers: the need was apparent. It is said the spell was forged into the Holy Lance, divine blood still upon it, to bend the vampires away. It was not long after that the church became a power in Rome. There is a small room deep in the Vatican into which no one is ever invited, not even the Pope himself.

The binding that keeps homes safe against vampiric depredations is older still: the most reliable accounts say it began with Bes, the dwarfish house-god of ancient Egypt. Some sources say he came by way of Sumer, fleeing the fall, but the clay is cracked and the translation shaky. In the Pharaohs' time, safety demanded a figure be kept in every home, and offerings left. Since then the binding has grown more powerful; whether this is a second binding laid over the first or merely that the world has grown accustomed to its new shape only the keepers of Bes know, and they will not say.

Oldest of all is the binding of sacred water. No one knows for sure when it was cast, or by whom. Some put it at the, ah, feet of Enki, others say it is an echo from the great wars when true demons were driven from the earth and the elements themselves were used as weapons. According to surviving indices, there was a history of the water binding in the collection of demon lore in Alexandria, but it was lost. Some hint that was why Alexandria burned: the vampire are not keen on humans knowing their secrets.

The garlic thing is just a myth.

John Aspinall @ 221: "How could adding a deity, widely described as "ineffable and incomprehensible", be analogized with completing a pattern?"

A bell is a piece of metal, and also a nothingness within it--lacking either the substance or the absence, it is not a bell. Sometimes what completes the unity isn't more of the same, but its opposite.

(Not that that is what Cheryl meant--I don't know what she meant. But it is one way of approaching it.)

(Xopher, I am working on a reply for you, but it is complex and I don't have time to do it justice.)

#246 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 03:52 AM:

Avram @ #244, Google is sometimes enlightening:

Remember that when it comes to following Jesus, it’s not just how hard you try, but how well you TRAIN, and remember that a life broken at the feet of Jesus Christ may look crazy to the world, but it sure smells like SWEET PERFUME to the LORD!

That's from this site, which looks to be a final note from a conference sponsored by a New Hope ministry.

If I'm reading it accurately, "broken at the feet of Jesus" would seem to be a person who's given his/her life to Him.

I'm not saying that well. Chalk it up to a lack of belief on my part and thus an unfamiliarity with the language Christian evangelists use.

#247 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:13 AM:

If someone wishes you were "broken at the feet of jesus", it's not as bad as it sounds. He's actually just calling you a nard, or perhaps a complete alabaster.

Nard is sometimes written as spikenard, which suggests a ring allowing the wearer to connect to chthonic forces, which is cool.

#248 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:38 AM:

James D. Macdonald @192 Minor technical point: The immaculate conception refers to Mary's birth, not Jesus's.

Argh! Once upon a time I knew the difference between the virgin birth and the immaculate conception. Should probably stick to vampires.

#249 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 06:38 AM:

Niall McAuley @ 247... He's actually just calling you a nard, or perhaps a complete alabaster.

"Body Analysis, our next port of call."
"Not for my alabaster body!"
- Kate Reid in The Andromeda Strain

#250 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 08:46 AM:

"Broken at the feet of Jesus" isn't a term I hear in the Christian circles I hang out in, but when I first read it upthread I thought "that sounds like it's got to be some sort of idiomatic Biblical allusion".

And so it seems to be: specifically, it refers to the scenes in the Gospels where a women anoints Jesus before his death. Each Gospel has such a scene somwwhere in its account.

It's not clear if they're all intended to refer to the same incident-- there are some differences between the details of each scene. But the woman who anoints Jesus' feet with the broken jar of perfume is someone he welcomes, despite the misgivings of some of Jesus' followers. ("Doesn't he know she's a sinner?" asks his host in Luke's account. Jesus replies with a parable that concludes with him forgiving her sins, "for she loved much", as the KJV puts it.)

Similarly, the bits where I've seen the phrase "broken at the feet of Jesus" online seem to refer to someone recognizing themselves as in need of salvation, and giving themselves over to Jesus. So it sounds like the speaker back in #159 was hoping for the co-worker's conversion and salvation, not their destruction. While that still might be an unwelcome message (and one that shows a definite tone-deafness-- how would the speaker expect the listener to know what was meant?) it doesn't appear to me to be one that was intended to be hateful. (Of course, I don't know how the speaker said the line, or what else they said.)

#251 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 08:55 AM:

Avram @ 224
Been trying to figure out if "broken at the feet of Jesus" is a line from some hymn or something, because in addition to being astonishingly rude, it's just such a damn weird thing to say.

I'll do my best to articulate how I'm accustomed to seeing this phrase used, by way of a digression.

In the Wheel of Time books, using the One Power requires a particular kind of "letting go"; you can't use it. The idea that to have a genuine, beneficial encounter/experience with the supernatural [1] you must be in some sense not in control of the situation is pretty common in a LOT of religious/spiritual traditions[2]--it's certainly not exclusively or even primarily Christian.

Christians do not always mean the same thing when they use the same words, but that "enough at the end of one's self to have a genuine encounter with the divine" sense is what I'm accustommed to Christians meaning when they speak of being "broken at the feet of Jesus"; it's not in any sense I'm accustomed to hearing it a variety of ill-wishing, but a wish for healing and forgiveness. (Which is why I was surprised by how undesirable some people found it.)

[1] I know supernatural isn't quite the right word here for the Buddhist meditative tradition, which has this kind of "lost in the universe"-ness as a major goal.

[2]Just off the top of my head, Buddhism, most of the loose grouping of New Age practices, the Shamanist American Indian traditions, and the Sufi Islamic tradition have this idea.

#252 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:00 AM:

Grrr--2 proof-readings and I still left something out; I need more coffee.

"You can't use it" is supposed to be "you can't use it without surrendering to it."

#253 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:21 AM:

SamChevre: I sympathize-- partly because I tend to post in short bits of free time, I seem to invariably make errors that I only notice after I've hit the "Post" button (even after having looked at it in "Preview"). Sure enough, there are at least a couple ("women" for "woman", "somwwhere" for "somewhere") in my comment above that I saw after it posted, but I'm hoping what I meant is still clear enough.

But thank you for your clarification: I think I knew what you meant in your first comment, and it's clearer now with your added note.

#254 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 11:11 AM:

I've been mostly lurking on this thread, partly because I've lately been strapped for time and can either read or comment but not both, and partly because I'm in a wondrously strange place, theologically, and apt to say something that pokes sensitive spots without intending or realizing it.

To come clean: I have recently and rather inexplicably found myself having drifted across the line from a vague Deism to something more of a weak atheism: a bit stronger than the "It is not knowable" sort of agnosticism, but nowhere near as strong as the "I am as certain there is no God as I am of the location of my toenails."

This is a wondrous peculiar thing to have realized. I had always been a person whose faith, such as it was, was not so much in forms or symbols or ritual - though each of those has its own worth - but rather in a sort of personal connection to that in the universe which I understood to be God. That connection carried me out of one religious practice, across the continent, into and then out of another religious community, back across the continent again, and it then settled quietly into the back of my soul these last few years. It always was a comfortable familiar thing, and it was in that context that I understood Lee's comment @197 - comfort and solace in a capricious world is no small thing.

I am still not sure how I got from there to here, wherever here is: it occurred to me not terribly long ago, upon reflection, that I wasn't sure what I believed anymore, and what's more, that this was not necessarily a problem or even in fact (for me) a relevant question.[1] It is an extremely strange feeling to look into one's soul and find what seems to be a solid foundation of faith without having any idea what it is founded upon and also without any pressing need to figure it out.

[1] For me, the pressing theological questions are less of the 'What is God? What is Truth?' variety and more of the 'This is what we have: what can we do with it, and of that, what /should/ we do with it?' flavor. If there is a Divine Intelligence, singular or plural, and if Zie is paying attention, well, let's try to avoid pissing Them off - but more immediately, let's try to avoid pissing Each Other off, because it is easily documented that we are all here in this together, whether God is or not.

#255 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 12:17 PM:

Thena, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Many people who hang out here know that I'm Catholic, but while that's true now, I've bounced all over the map as far as belief and practice is concerned, from Catholicism to Zen Buddhism to a kind of unexamined atheism. I'm back to Catholic practice. My relationship with the institutional church is complex. But I like having a formal, acknowledged relationship with a group of people for whom certain questions (What is the meaning of life? How are we to live? How should we treat our fellow human beings?) matter, and the Christian "story" makes a kind of bedrock sense in the place where my mind, my heart, and my imagination all connect.

I believe human beings are hardwired for connection, with each other and with the Divine, as much a part of us as our need for oxygen, or our bilateralism. (The level of need varies greatly. I honor the desire for solitude as well.) You said: It is an extremely strange feeling to look into one's soul and find what seems to be a solid foundation of faith without having any idea what it is founded upon and also without any pressing need to figure it out. Catholic doctrine says that before we look for God, God looks for us. So that place in your soul (heart/consciousness) which connects you to faith is, in Christian terms, the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Works for me, anyway.

#256 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 12:59 PM:

Tim @ 176

Sorry. I've been a little out of the loop lately.

It just seems like, at least in your early arguments, you're trying to assert that in order to be an atheist, one needs to somehow authoritatively demonstrate that there is no god, or one cannot justify perfect certainty in the absence of a god.

But it seems to me that the world is perfectly explicable without a god, so the burden of proof is on people asserting that god exists, not on people who don't see any evidence to justify that particular conclusion.

I can assert whatever story I like about reality -- that we are all governed by a vast and multi-generational conspiracy funded by aliens... whatever. But if it's possible to come up with equally or more plausible explanations for events than my story, I am the one responsible for removing others' certainty, generally by providing good evidence. Their ability to be certain isn't in doubt, just because I come up with some story that I prefer to their narrative.

When you say "how can you be absolutely certain?" it's a silly question. I have logic and science to fall back on, which clearly describe the world in terms that do not depend on gods. Religion, on the other hand, depends on belief and faith, in the place of evidence that does not exist.

I'm not saying science and logic are inimical to religion. But I am saying that they don't depend on religion, and your assertion of a god doesn't change or limit their ability to adequately describe reality. So I don't understand why "are you absolutely certain there is no god?" is even on the table. Yes, it's very possible to be absolutely certain that no god is necessary. It's not possible to prove that no god exists, any more than it's possible to prove that a vast intergenerational conspiracy of aliens doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that your assertion of a god, or my assertion of TVICOA, has any grounding in reality, or even that they demand serious consideration. They do not, unless you or I can provide meaningful evidence. Nevertheless, I (or anyone else) am still justified in calling myself an atheist, because absent evidence, there is no reason to assume that a god or TVICOA does exist, and there is no need to make radical changes to my existing worldview on the basis of an unsupported assertion.

Very badly written. Again apologies, a bit rushed.

#257 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 01:13 PM:

KayTei @ 256: It just seems like, at least in your early arguments, you're trying to assert that in order to be an atheist, one needs to somehow authoritatively demonstrate that there is no god, or one cannot justify perfect certainty in the absence of a god.

That's the exact opposite of what I was saying. My very first sentence in this thread was

The term "atheist" doesn't imply any certainty--it just means that one doesn't believe that a god or gods exist.

Your atheism sounds very similar to mine.

#258 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 01:21 PM:

Here's our main difference: you say

Yes, it's very possible to be absolutely certain that no god is necessary.
but I would say "certain enough" instead of "absolutely certain."

#259 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 02:53 PM:

Tim Walters (258): And both of those sound (to me) functionally equivalent to what I meant by my original formulation "sure that there is/are no god(s)." So what were we arguing about up there? :)

#260 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 02:55 PM:

j h woodyatt @ 243:

Looking back on your original post, I see that what you wrote could be interpreted in a couple of ways, and I only latched onto the one. Thank you for your clarification, and my apologies for misinterpreting you.

#261 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 03:33 PM:

Mary Aileen: Certain Enough /= Absolutely Certain.

It's the flip side of buying one lotto ticket. I am absolutely certain I shan't win if I don't buy one. I am certain enough I shan't if I do.

But the difference between those two states is irreconcilable.

#262 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 03:36 PM:

John Mark Ockerbloom/SamChevre, re:broken@feet

Let's say my religion had an initiatory ritual where the new worshipper is symbolically dragged to the temple by a sponsor and killed, to be reborn in the light of the Atomfather.

I could then say "I hope I'll get to drag you to the basement and kill you" and mean "I hope you see the light, and moreover, because I respect you so much, I want to be your sponsor."

Since you don't know that about my religion, and can't be expected to, it would be a totally hostile thing to say.

"Broken at the feet of Jesus" is not a common Christian saying that anyone would have a reasonable chance of knowing. A little more explanation brings either example back from "totally unacceptable" to merely weird and overwrought: "I hope you're broken at the feet of Jesus so he can raise you back up into the light," for instance, is kinda creepy but not threatening. (The loss of agency is problematic, but at least it's like "I hope you lose your job so you can go become a partner at your dad's company" instead of "I hope you lose your job.")

(I think you guys both probably realize this, though? It wasn't totally clear whether you were making excuses or just trying to figure out what this asshole thought he was saying before he went totally off the rails.)

KeithS @222

Contrary to the above, no application is necessary, nor must you be dragged to a basement or killed. It is customary, however, to invoke the hands of the Atomfather's mercy: Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov.

Until someone actually looks up the Atomfather's lead-lined robes, She remains both Atomfather and Atom-mother, and can rightly be addressed as Atomcreator. I favor Atomfather myself, it makes it more personal, like praying to Jesus rather than God: same dude, just a more relatable aspect.

#263 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 03:50 PM:

Evidently my hints about nard and alabaster were too subtle.

"Broken at the feet of Jesus" is an explicit comparison of someone with the alabaster jar of nard which Mary used at Bethany to anoint Jesus. It's a comparison to a rare and valuable ointment which gives Jesus relief.

As in the Litany of St. Clare:
St. Clare, duchess of the humble:
St. Clare, mistress of the chaste:
St. Clare, abbess of the penitent:
St. Clare, alabaster box of ointment broken at the feet of Jesus:
St. Clare, received at death by a choir of virgins:
St. Clare, censer of sweet perfume filling heaven and earth:
Pray for us.

This is not a prayer that someone will be literally broken for Jesus to heal them.

Obscure, yes. Vicious, no.

#264 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:21 PM:

Niall, 263: I think it's fair to say that it's hostile *as a result* of its obscurity. I'm well-educated in my faith, and I had a moment of "but that's MEAN". How is a non-Christian supposed to know that it's a hope for future repentance?(1) There's no way. It is entirely possible to express a hope for someone's spiritual health without sounding like you want Jesus to commit felonious assault.

(1) Also, the non-Christians I know have done nothing that calls for giant, dramatic repentance. "Not being Christian" doesn't count.

#265 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:32 PM:

Niall, I feel a statement of the form 'any sufficiently advanced X is indistinguishable from Y' coming on. Yes, the one where X=='incompetence' and Y=='malice'.

It is not reasonable to expect someone who isn't deeply steeped in Christian lore and Christian jargon to understand that or take it as anything but hostile. With your explanation, it seems to me more like the person was saying something deliberately offensive, but leaving hirself a "but all I said was" excuse; that is, that s/he knew it would be offensive to a non-Christian but totally acceptable to Christians of the more assholic variety, so that s/he could justify hirself to them, and be praised by the Assholic Christian* community.

The more I think about this, the less I buy it as an innocent remark meant well.

Also, even in the context of the alabaster perfume-box...well, perhaps my response should be "And I hope you'll be crucified upside down." After all, that happened to Peter, and he got canonized, so it can't be bad, right? I still think it's damned rude to say I should be treated like an alabaster box of nard.

*I'm using the term of self-identification here, not asserting that they have any right to it; or that they don't, for that matter.

#266 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:33 PM:

Annnnd TexAnne comes in and says it better, shorter, and with less hostility. Read her; ignore me.

#267 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:37 PM:

Devin #204 and #262:

When I look at that atheist/atomfather tombstone, what it says to me is "See, I *told* you not to f--k around with Dr. Manhattan!"

#268 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:37 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 259: Terry @ 261 has part of it. But the other part is that, even if were absolutely certain that I was correct to be an atheist, that's not the same thing as being certain God doesn't exist.

That may seem paradoxical, but consider this: an eighteenth-century physicist would have been correct to assert that Newton's theory of gravity was the best fit to the available evidence, but wrong to assert that it was true.

When I say that I'm an atheist, I mean that I believe that the best theory of God, given the currently available evidence, is that there is no God. Given new evidence, I might need to change my mind.

The reason I'm so fussy about this is that there is a type of theist that likes to tell atheists that they're not really atheists, and one of the two approaches is to claim that atheism requires certainty that God doesn't exist (the stretch goal being to get the atheist to claim certainty, which then allows them to "prove" that atheism is a religion like any other--which, in Eliezer Yudkowsky's* memorable phrase, is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby).

The other approach is to claim that the atheist believes in joy/love/meaning/something bigger than oneself/whatever, and that that's all that people really mean when they say "God." After which they go to their church/synagogue/mosque/ashram and worship something rather more specific.

How atheists are meant to be both nihilists and true believers isn't clear to me.

*It's probably worth mentioning that in general I disagree with Yudkowsky more often than not.

#269 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Albatross @267

Dr. Manhattan : the Atomfather :: Aslan : Jesus

(Or something)

#270 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:45 PM:

like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby

BINGO! I've been looking for a way to say that for ages!

By gum, I want to go pick a fight with someone who thinks atheism is a religion, just to use that! (I'm in that sort of mood, but I promise you I won't really do that.)

And your post and the ones about the Atomfather remind me that I actually do have a question for the atheists here; but I'm going to think about how to ask it for a little bit longer.

#271 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:50 PM:

If it adds any light to the discussion, I'm a theist (Roman Catholic, specifically), and I definitely have doubts about the existence of God from time to time. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this. (But maybe this should wait for "ask a theist day.")

Re: Broken at the feet of Christ. I think TexAnne has it right; this phrase is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood. I've heard it very rarely, but didn't even think about the reference to breaking the jar of expensive ointment. It seems *intended* to come off as a curse, which isn't what you want at all.

#272 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 04:51 PM:

Niall McAuley: I understood it, and I disagree. No matter how I slice it, that comes as a mean prayer.

The bottle is broken.
It was intentionally smashed.
There is the element of non-choice in it.

That's not a prayer that one come to a sense of understanding. The act of giving something valuable, that one owns is one thing, but to compare something which is smashed as an offering, to a person... not the same.

I, as a thinking person, may come to any sort of religious conversion, that's one thing. I am not to be tossed down, "broken at the feet of Jesus" that my conversion should be someone else's offering to him.

It's not the same. I am not a thing to be offered up by someone else.

I get that you don't see it that way, but the imagery is there (because I am not the only one seeing it that way).

#273 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:03 PM:

No matter what the intent is, don't run that sentence thru the Universal Translator while a Klingon is around. Or while Aeryn Sun is.

#274 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:04 PM:

It would appear that "broken at the feet of Jesus" is a phrase that has come loose from its original context (which SamChevre and Niall have obligingly tracked down for us) and which now forms part of the pre-fab evangelical witnessing kit, where it gets deployed in ways that range from amazingly clueless to downright hostile depending upon the speaker.

I know that at least some of the folks casually throwing the phrase around would probably have double-dyed cat fits if they found out that it came originally from a Catholic litany.

#275 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:06 PM:

Hey, I wasn't there, maybe the cow-orker was just being an arsehole.

But if he was in the Third Order of St. Francis, for example, this would be a familiar phrase from rote prayer, like "blessed at thou amongst women". He might not even be aware how it sounds to outsiders.

#276 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:25 PM:

"blessed at thou amongst women"
I kind of like the sound of that one.

#277 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 05:40 PM:

Speaking as a theist there are times I am certain there is no God. Not at the level of faith (which the absolute there is no God, can be no god, never could be no way, no how no question is. Since the non-existence of God is unfalsifiable, that's a declaration of faith, which is not the same as a religion).

I suppose that makes me a weak theist.

Most of the time I don't feel this way, a lot of the time I sort of wonder. It doesn't make me agnostic. As abi said above, and elsewhere, I believe in the numinous. It may be delusional (Dawkins and Hitchens would tell me so), but it's the way the world looks to me.

It makes it easier for me to deal with my fellow man. In that regard it is a comfort. Not that I need the rules, or the sense of an outside power, but that it makes it easier for me to apprehend that my fellows are both incomprehensible (each his own universe) and like me. I can't explain it (if I could... I'd be like John, preaching in a wilderness), but that's the way it is.

The sheer incomprehensibility of it (to me, who is still intellectually affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, no matter the differences of opinion we have on theology; Luther and I would have a lot to talk about, were he a more tolerant sort. Then again, were he a more tolerant sort, those 99 Theses wouldn't have led to the Reformation, but my digression digresses), is what makes it work.

Which is, I suppose, Koan-like.

#278 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 06:04 PM:

Niall McAuley: I suspect (I wasn't there) that were he that steeped in that tradition, he'd not have used it.

I mean, that's not something likely to bring peace, harmony, etc., the way the primary prayer of St. Francis does.

Hell, like albatross, it's not the image that came to my mind, and even if it were, the reversal of causality (St. Clare is being spoken of after the fact) makes it nasty.

Because my thought was broken, as on the wheel, and laid before Jesus for absolution; the only figure in the Kingdom of Heaven who could then redeem the victim.

It's not a pretty images, and the quotation about it looking awful, but being "sweet perfume" to the Lord (I can't bring myself to type it caps; the way that read/sounded in my head was revolting) just adds to my sense of it being, at the very least, a hard prayer, and probably one of vengeful malice.

The sort Xopher made reference too, "I was just praying that he see the light" while being able to vent one's anger and hostility at being foiled.

So yes, it's possible it was someone clueless to the way the esoteric sounds in everyday life, but I don't think so.

#279 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 06:30 PM:

Terry @277:

From your post you obviously know this, but it is worth reiterating that a Martin Luther who was more tolerant would be, in some ways, like a Gandhi who was less committed to Indian independence. Martin Luther's intolerance of what he saw as the failures of holiness in the Roman Catholic Church was very much the central animating force of his public life.

Or as one of my work colleagues, who converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism, puts it: "The thing you have to understand about Martin Luther is that he quite literally believed that he was more Catholic than the Pope."

#280 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 06:32 PM:

Tim Walters (268): I understand all that. All I'm saying is that my original 'sure' (in #151) was intended to mean your 'certain enough' (as well as someone else's 'absolutely certain').

Obviously I didn't phrase things clearly enough. My fault. It took a hundred posts for me to even see where the breakdown in communication was. I'll try to do better next time.

#281 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 06:51 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 280: Obviously I didn't phrase things clearly enough. My fault.

No more than mine for being such a fussbudget. And I don't mind at all having an excuse to get my thoughts together on the subject, even if I haven't reached the point where I can explain them clearly.

#282 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 07:19 PM:

There's something I've wanted to say about god for years. I've never been able to put it in words. I'm not going to manage, now. But I'm going to try.

I'm an atheist. I've talked to god. No, really, the real thing. I'm the daughter of a fundamentalist minister, and I recognized him. It was really him. People ask me how I can not believe in him, after that. I usually answer that the topic of his existence never came up. That sounds flip. It's not.

Really, it's not. Numinous is not, by definition, describable. Transcendence is not transferable. I know what happened to me. Or, I did. As the years go by, it gets rationalized, rounded and smoothed, fit into a narrative. We do that, humans. True religious experience is one step beyond the thing we can explain, but we must explain it anyway. We're built that way.

Often, I say that religious experience is brain chemicals. There's interesting experiments with psychedelics which suggest that religious experiences are very similar, or identical to, experiences on psilocybin or LSD. This sounds dismissive. "Oh, it's only brain chemicals." I don't mean it that way. I believe in love. I believe that love is the most important thing that humans do. I think it is profound and creates most of what makes it worth while to be alive. I believe that it is brain chemicals.

I've been on a lot of brain chemicals in my life, starting with Prozac, then many other antidepressants, some mood levelers, an anti-psychotic or two, and some sleeping pills and some stimulants. Not to mention various street drugs. It's easy to say that chemicals are the easy way out. People say this all the time. They're wrong. _Sloppy thinking_ about chemicals is the way out. Chemicals are a tool. What you eat, what you drink, whether or not you exercise, all this affects your brain chemicals, too. The heavy hitters, the street drugs and the prescription drugs, make such noticeable changes that you can kinda...coast.

But if religion is brain chemicals, so is science. The spectacular breakthrough, or even the plodding pursuit of truth from one fact to the next until you finally nail something down, you do that with your brain. When we say that it's chemical, we tend to be thinking of the unusual. The spectacular. But the getting up and going to work and tackling the daily grind of living requires your brain to work, for the chemicals to function, too. Depression is a spectacular misfunction of chemicals. But function is chemical, too.

I'm not saying this well. The brain, the brain is a marvelous, strange, poorly understood phenomena. But without it, there is no understanding. Science happens because of the brain. Sure, the universe will go on being exactly as it is if there is no one to observe it, but science, science, is the striving to understand it. The use of the brain. Religion is the same sort of thing, only profoundly different. I hate the people that equate religion and science. They are two completely different takes on the universe. Or can be. Truth is, for some people, they are the same take on the universe. People are strange.

No, I'm not managing to put this into words, am I?

People are profound, interesting, different, scary, and real. I don't believe in god. The universe has enough strangeness and beauty in it that I see no place for god. But I've still spoken to him argued with him, and that experience was as real, profound, and important as any other in my life. If I denied that, I'd have to deny any number of other truly important pieces of myself.

#283 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 07:41 PM:

I feel we're conflating two subjects here - one is how we define spiritual alignment, and another is how some people use their religious ideology as a social weapon.

Suppose the cow-orker had instead said, "You're a stupid retard". She's a damaged person throwing nastiness for the sheer hell of it, and whether she may or may not be using the current politically correct term is beside the point.

Apologies if this isn't clear. I'm appreciating all the commentary and particularly enjoyed the spikenard/alabaster jar stuff.

#284 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 07:43 PM:

Terry Karney @277: As abi said above, and elsewhere, I believe in the numinous. It may be delusional (Dawkins and Hitchens would tell me so), but it's the way the world looks to me.

Don't be so certain. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett had a filmed discussion in 2007, promoted as "The Four Horsemen", during which some of them talked it being a shame that numinous experience was considered the sole domain of religious thinking. Here's Dennett, from the transcript:

Yes, it's a sad fact that people, in a sense, won't trust their own valuing of their numinous experiences. They think it isn't really as good as it seems, unless it's from God, and some kind of a proof of religion. No, it's just as wonderful as it seems. It's just as important. It is the best moment in your life. And it's the moment when you forget yourself and become better than you ever thought you could be in some way. And see, in all humbleness, the wonderfulness of nature. That's it! And that's wonderful. But, it doesn't add anything to say, golly, that has to have been given to me by somebody even more wonderful.
It was Dennett and Harris saying things like that, but Dawkins and Hitchens weren't protesting.

#285 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 07:58 PM:

Lydy Nickerson @ 282... There's interesting experiments with psychedelics which suggest that religious experiences are very similar, or identical to, experiences on psilocybin or LSD

"Oh, him? He's harmless. Part of the free speech movement at Berkeley in the sixties. I think he did a little too much LDS."
- Kirk about Spock in The Voyage Home

#286 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 08:17 PM:

Devin@262

"Broken at the feet of Jesus" is not a common Christian saying that anyone would have a reasonable chance of knowing.

That, I think, is the core of the disconnect. In some Christian circles, it's very common language; I certainly know people who would use it with the (mis)understanding that it's as commonly understood as "and a pony".

#287 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 08:43 PM:

I'm a bit reminded of the first (and only) time I took my Jewish now-Husband to the church I grew up in. Which, when I was a thrashing teenager, was one of the few places I could go and know, without any question, that God was present and he approved of me.

He took one look at the Sorrowful mysteries in the stained glass windows on the left, the glorious mysteries on the right, the stations of the cross around the perimiter of everything, and the crucifix at the front of the church... and came away with a very different experience.

Ooops.

#288 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 08:52 PM:

Or as one of my work colleagues, who converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism, puts it: "The thing you have to understand about Martin Luther is that he quite literally believed that he was more Catholic than the Pope."

Hilarious, but when you consider what passed for Popes in Luther's day, perhaps not as crazy as it sounds.

As abi said above, and elsewhere, I believe in the numinous. It may be delusional (Dawkins and Hitchens would tell me so), but it's the way the world looks to me.

It seems to me that there's an important difference between how the world looks to someone and how the world is, and the numinous belongs firmly in the former. We each see the world through the lens of ourselves, so to speak, but IMO it's a mistake to confuse the spiritual side of ourselves with a spirit "out there" in the world, like someone with a curiously shaped splotch on her eyeglasses that sees that shape everywhere she goes. (Except that people would never actually make that mistake with eyeglasses, because they recognize their eyeglasses as an object separate from themselves, and can take them off.)

You see the shape everywhere because you carry it with you everywhere; likewise, I believe, people who see a god everywhere. As we are kin, so are our spirits, so different people's experiences of the numinous can be similar, but not quite the same.

Under that worldview, to expect the numinous to have a *direct* effect on the physical is indeed delusional, but as the saying goes, men may move mountains, but the spirit moves men.

For most practical purposes, this is equivalent to atheism; after all, if my spirit is a part of me (but that's not quite right either; a behavior I perform? a phenomenon I participate in?), it would be arrogant to worship it and rather silly to pray to it, and even using the word "it" can be misleading. And I'm pretty sure I didn't create the heavens and the earth.

But I think something important may be lost if perceptions that don't correspond completely to objectively verifiable reality are dismissed as "wrong" or "unreal". For some purposes their noncorrespondence is the most important thing about them, but for other purposes it isn't, and the phenomenon of perception has its own reality whether or not the perception corresponds to something "out there" in the universe.

Perceptions of what is "good" or "bad" don't correspond to anything "out there" in the universe, either -- but that doesn't necessarily mean they should simply be discarded as meaningless or illusionary. IMO, the perennially thorny problem of reconciling different points of view can sometimes be facilitated by remembering that they *aren't* points of view, exactly, they're independent inner universes with no necessary correspondence with each other. One can't be closer to reality than the other because there's no normative reality to be closer to, any more than there's an aesthetic reality to be closer to.

This leaves the task (if I happen to feel like explaining this sort of thing to others, or convincing them to share my interpretation of it) of convincing someone who has mistaken their own inner universe (or a part of it) for a feature of the outer universe that that is what they are doing, without offending them in the process. I'm not sure I've figured that one out yet, but you can judge for yourself how diplomatic this post has been. The disagreement is fundamental on a level that's hard to describe in words, which tends to make people very defensive about the mere suggestion that they might be mistaken (even when they would happily admit that in an empirical context).

#289 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:28 PM:

OK, I'm going to try to ask my question now. It's for the atheists in the room.

Do you ever feel a need for ritual in your life? (By "ritual" I mean something done in a particular way at a particular time or times, usually but not necessarily symbolic of something else.)

If so: Do you have rituals you perform? Or what if anything do you do about that need?

If not, and if you were raised in a religion: Do you think you began the process of inquiry that led to your atheism as a result of finding the rituals of your raised-in tradition pointless? Or was it the other way around? Or something else?

I mean this with all respect, and I hope I've phrased it in a way that doesn't push any buttons. If I've failed in that, apologies in advance.

#290 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:30 PM:

"Broken at the feet of Christ"- my guess as an atheist with a very limited religious education was that it referred to one's pride being broken. Bad guess, apparently. It seems like a phrase that has outlived its meaning. Is there a good term for that? "Seething" is the one that always comes to mind; these days it is far more associated with rage than with actual boiling. ("Livid" is another; very few people go white with rage these days for some reason. Looser clothes? )

@199, "It seems to me that the presence of a supernatural creature implies that God is around as well. " I either don't understand that logic or I disagree with it. Does it mean "Belief in one requires belief in all" (if vampires are real, so then are unicorns and leprechauns)? Or does it mean "This immortal revenant is not constrained by science as we know it, therefore there is some magic that works, therefore God is real?" Or are we talking about a vampire who is known to be repelled by the [C/c]ross?

@268: "Not collecting stamps is a hobby." I'm filching that !

#291 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:32 PM:

@289: I wasn't raised with ritual. I don't seem to miss it.

#292 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 09:59 PM:

@289: I appreciate ritual - sacred and otherwise. It's hard to explain why. Connection to living community, sometimes; connection to history in other contexts -- in both cases, connection between self and human community seems to be the key for me.

#293 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2011, 10:02 PM:

Xopher @289: I'm fine without ritual. I had plenty of it growing up (happily) in a High Church. Nothing against it, it's just not for me. But I would distinguish ritual from ceremony, because social observances are so important to all of us as human beings.

#294 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:24 AM:

Xopher @289: I used to think that I did, but over the years all the things that I used to do that partook of the air of ritual have fallen away one by one, and I find that I don't miss them as I thought I would. I still find pleasure in certain sorts of routine, but that's a very different thing.

The closest I come these days is an annual party in honor of an expired jar of jelly, which might count. But then again, it might not. If the details interest you, I blogged about it once upon a time here.

#295 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:41 AM:

Xopher @289

Oh hell yes. As mentioned above, I invoke Mithras sometimes, when I'm about to do something I have nerves about. Usually it's just "Mithras watch over" under my breath, sometimes I bow my head too.

I don't believe it does anything more than remind me not to chicken out, and maybe creates a link to other times when I've done something that scared me and survived.

I also keep icons of my personal non-saints. Part of this is history-nerdin', but it's also partly ritual (and I'm not sure the two are really separate in this case).

There's a lot of humor and nerd-joy in taking a premise of a different way the world could be and running with it. That's where the Atomfather comes from, that's just a joke. Mithras is halfway between: it started as a joke, a bit of a "well, if you expect me to take your Roman-era underground cult seriously in modern times,* I'm gonna pick a Roman underground cult I like, and I'll expect you to take it seriously too." But since then, it's become a little bit more. People behave better when they think someone's watching, even a picture of some eyes can produce this result experimentally. Mithras is the dude I imagine watching me.

*Please nobody take that personally. it's a joke, and it's really aimed at people who insist that Christianity has only ever been one unchanging thing from when Jesus dictated the King James to now. If you consider yourself part of a living, changing heritage of Christian thoughts and deeds adapting an unchanging principle of love and truth to a changing world, we're all good.

#296 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:54 AM:

Xopher @ 289: I don't think so. Habits yes, rituals no.

Re the numinous:

There is a mystery at the heart of things. I don't see it as god-shaped, no matter how I look at it, but it's there. Music gets me a lot closer to it than anything else.

#297 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:55 AM:

Devin, then perhaps you will understand why I chant prayers to Ganesha and Lakshmi every morning. It's not because I really believe a guy with an elephant's head is going to shove obstacles out of the way for me!

Not...mostly, anyway.

#298 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 01:01 AM:

Xopher@289: I'd have to answer your first question with, "No, not really."

I was raised pretty darn secular...my family was nominally Jewish, which meant a Passover Seder in English once a year, and eating potato pancakes once a year. (Along with also celebrating Giftmas and Candymas.)

#299 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 01:19 AM:

Potato pancakes only ONCE a year?!?!? That's horrible! :-)

I went to a Seder once or twice. I always like the "bitter herbs" best, which I'm pretty sure isn't how it's supposed to go. But hey, why should tonight be different?

#300 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 01:30 AM:

If I was gonna shove obstacles out of the way? I'd want an elephant head. Just sayin'.

I had* important friends, growing up, who were neopagans of a very we-don't-insist-on-the-verifiable-truth-of-this-cosmology, we-use-it-as-a-tool bent. That's always been a viewpoint I sympathized with, you might even put me very loosely in that camp (with the modification that I don't insist on the verifiable untruth of this cosmology, but I do personally believe it to be untrue). From a few of your posts, Xopher, it sounds like you're somewhere on that same spectrum? (Incidentally, one of them is singularly devoted to the Lord of Beginnings.)

*I mean, I still have them, they're still important, still friends. But I'm no longer at that formative stage of growing up where this stuff is extra-important.

#301 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:16 AM:

Kelly @ #294, that jelly. . . it worries me.

#302 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:17 AM:

Xopher #289

Do you ever feel a need for ritual in your life? (By "ritual" I mean something done in a particular way at a particular time or times, usually but not necessarily symbolic of something else.)

Yes, and I do have rituals. I think. First rain after the long, hot, dry summer we have here, I go out and stand in it, and sniff the air.

November 11 at 1100 local, I put the TV on, listen to the Last Post, and observe the silence, in tears.

Every now and then I watch two Spencer Tracy scenes - one from "Inherit the Wind", one from "Judgment at Nuremberg", and try to work out again why they are deeply and ineluctably connected. Sometimes I seem to be coming closer to understanding it. Mostly not.

Christmas Dinner, with the family. It's important that some particular parts of it be always the same - everybody bringing a specific thing, a dish, a table decoration, for instance. And it's important that it be served on the best china, silver and glassware. I don't know why that is. And we toast "absent friends and those who've gone before", and I drink that toast, though I won't say grace myself. I don't know why that is, either.

If not, and if you were raised in a religion: Do you think you began the process of inquiry that led to your atheism as a result of finding the rituals of your raised-in tradition pointless? Or was it the other way around? Or something else?

Well, I need and perform rituals, so strictly speaking that question is not for me. But I was raised in a religion. What forced me away from it was that I simply couldn't participate in one of those rituals, specifically the recital of the Creed, because I didn't actually believe all that, and I couldn't make myself.

Actually, no. Thinking back, it was this: I mentioned my difficulties to my father, who was the Minister of our Church, and he cheerfully admitted that he didn't believe those bits either. If there was a moment when I can say that I departed childhood, that was the moment. I never went back to Church again, not, at least, to worship.

Why? Did I think myself better than he, that he could dissemble his unbelief, but I would not, so simon-pure was I, so intellectually honest, so upright? Looking back, I think I actually was that much of a prig. I know a little better now. I hope.

But only hope. Which, come to think of it, is my take on the whole religion business.

#303 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:43 AM:

Xopher @ 289: I forgot to answer the second question. I don't quite meet the criteria, being raised in religion to some extent but without a lot of ritual. My family didn't really ever go to church except when Grandma was around, but I did some Sunday school and choir. The possibly interesting thing is that I don't really know what started my "process of inquiry." At 9 I was a theist, at 11 I had doubts, and by 14 I was an atheist, but I don't remember any a-ha moments or even devoting a lot of thought to it. It didn't seem like a big deal, and in a way I guess it wasn't, since I don't think I've ever been tempted to believe in God since.

#304 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:48 AM:

Avram: Ok, they accept the numinous, and I accept it in a lot of the ways they do (see above re my sense of the non-needfulness of god, and questions of said existence), but it leads me to being a theist; and that (at least Dawkins and Hitchens) have said is delusional. I can go to Pharyngula and see a lot of people being nasty about their sense of my delusion too.

Sandy B. If there are Supernatural creatures, then the question of what makes it possible for them to break the laws of Nature comes up. At that point the existence of a deity gets a lot easier to believe. If the rules which pertain to them are consistent with the other explanations of the deity's expectations, all the easier to accept said diety (e.g. if the mystical beasties in the Egyptian cosmology were to appear... I start investing in natron).

#305 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 04:09 AM:

For Xopher @ 289:

I'm an atheist, and was raised Catholic, with weekly Sunday mass attendance. If I'm dragged to a mass now (funerals, weddings, family gatherings) I still know most of the prayers and responses off by heart.

The ritual aspect does nothing for me, and I always found Mass a boring chore.

I didn't originally doubt my religion because the ritual did nothing for me, I regarded my religion as a fact I had been taught about the world by people I could trust, like the facts of Australia and Santy Claus.

After I decided those people were right about Australia, wrong about God and kidding about Santy, I didn't find that my experience of the ritual changed: hymns can still be uplifting, but you don't have to be in a congregation for that to work, and the organ playing is usually better at a concert.

I remain a rather Catholic atheist. I am appalled at the anti-science attitude displayed by a lot of fundamentalists, and I hate to see people I agree with philosophically treating all religion as if it were this kind of anti-science wilful ignorance.

There is a ton of wonderful art, music and architecture which comes from the Christian tradition, and is best appreciated with some understanding. Hyperlocally, there is a load of wonderful 20th century stained glass in our local Catholic churches, and photographing it is a hobby of mine. I love this image of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

#306 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 06:44 AM:

"Livid" is another; very few people go white with rage these days for some reason. Looser clothes?

Livid is another one of those words like "cleave" and "dust" that has two completely contradictory meanings. (autoantonyms)

It can mean "purple-black", like a bruise - 'post-mortem lividity' is the bruiselike staining that forms as the blood settles to the lowest part of the body, as any mystery novel fan will know. And it can also mean "pale or white" as in "livid with rage".

I wasn't aware of this second meaning until recently and thought that someone who was livid with rage had turned purple in the face, which makes a sort of sense.

#307 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:19 AM:

Lydy Nickerson #282: I'm about to get picked up for a hike now, but just wanted to say You Are Not Alone.

#308 ::: David Hodson ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:23 AM:

Xopher @ 289: Another atheist here with no need for ritual. (For example, my wedding was performed at our home, by a celebrant, and took all of a few minutes.) My upbringing was only minimally religious, so I never really experienced any religious rituals.

Possibly expanding on KayTei @ 256: my attitude towards religion (or at least theism) is mostly puzzlement. You can point to a chair and say "that's a chair". You can describe a common pattern of behaviour and say "that's love". You can chart a series of measurements, write out the known equations to describe them, then circle the missing term and say "that's dark matter". But when people talk about a god, I can't work out what leads them to that as a conclusion.

#309 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 11:04 AM:

I always thought that people who were livid with rage were dark red in the face. Oops. That's what comes from figuring out vocabulary from context in what you're reading, and never actually looking it up.

#310 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:23 PM:

Thanks to everyone who answered my questions about atheism and ritual. I was raised in an atheist home (essentially; my dad said he was an agnostic but he was at heart an atheist, and ridiculed any form of spirituality), and my sense of connection to something I couldn't identify, and a deep need for ritual, drove me looking for another way to live.

I dabbled in Christianity briefly (I put it that way because the group of Christians I fell in with had a simplistic "everyone but us is going to hell" theology...I wasn't to learn that there were Christians with a more sophisticated outlook for many years), then found Wicca, which was a tremendous relief because, as I put it at the time, "it doesn't require me to believe anything I know isn't true."* In fact Wicca has no required beliefs at all, being more focused on acts; and I discovered that even beliefs don't have to be the same all the time; if acts are your main focus, mutability of belief is not really an issue.

That's why I have a problem with using 'faith' as a synonym for 'religion'. Wicca, as I practiced it, is a religion but by no means a faith. But that's another thread.

My point is that a need for ritual was a major force in driving me away from the dry-as-dust airless cynicism that took the place of a more thoughtful atheism in my birth home. That's why I wanted to ask about the experience of atheists with ritual.

Devin 300: From a few of your posts, Xopher, it sounds like you're somewhere on that same spectrum?

Yep, that's right. In fact I usually take the position that stories are just stories, but that stories are important. That's why I prefer to use existing deity names rather than inventing new ones; the old ones have the weight of tradition behind them, which I find helpful.

*I would not say this of Christianity today. The Missouri Synod Lutheran youth group I knew in high school thought that all that was required to be a good Christian was to "accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior," and they were really fairly indifferent to what that gentleman actually taught. My attitude toward Christians was colored by that experience for much longer than it should have been.

#311 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 12:58 PM:

Oops, just read @303 Tim Walters, and realized I missed answering that part of Xopher's question as well. Religion and ritual weren't really a part of my upbringing. My mother sent me to Sunday school once as an attempt to give me a better touchstone into our local culture (rural North Dakota at the time, where church was a core value for most) but the experiment didn't go well and I never went back. I must have been about four then.

#312 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 01:55 PM:

Debra Doyle @274 said: It would appear that "broken at the feet of Jesus" is a phrase that has come loose from its original context (which SamChevre and Niall have obligingly tracked down for us) and which now forms part of the pre-fab evangelical witnessing kit

Devin @262: "Broken at the feet of Jesus" is not a common Christian saying that anyone would have a reasonable chance of knowing.

SamChevre @286 said: That, I think, is the core of the disconnect. In some Christian circles, it's very common language; I certainly know people who would use it with the (mis)understanding that it's as commonly understood as "and a pony".

It occurs to me that Debra, Sam, et multi alia in this thread might want to know about the existence of this video. Speaking of pre-fab Evangelical language, and people buried so far up their own dialect they have no idea how it looks to people on the outside ...

Note: video produced by an actual evangelical church's youth group. Clearly a church that has a sense of humor about itself, and might even know the difference between 'righteousness' and 'self-righteousness'.

#313 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:31 PM:

Elliott, that's wonderful! I know soooo many people who are going to laugh their asses off at that video (and the many videos in the Suggested column)! Thanks for that.

It's really nice to see Christians recognizing that Christian language and Christian excesses can be funny. (Not that I don't know lots of Christians with a good sense of humor about these things; but seeing it on YouTube is heartening to say the least.)

#314 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 02:34 PM:

David Hodson @308

There's eschewing ritual, and then there's missing a chance for a party. I hope y'all had some friends over for cake after, hey?

#315 ::: CZEdwards (aka the Other Constance) ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 03:07 PM:

Xopher @289

I suppose I am one of the rare non-theists who does have a need for ritual, but not in any way that an outsider could guess. Very quick info-dump: I was raised both Catholic and Quaker -- Mass on Saturday, Catechism classes on Tuesday and Thursday, Youth Meeting on Wednesday and First Day Meeting (on Sunday). Quaker meeting emphasizes meditation, which worked for this specific child. I grew up in the 80s in the US Southwest, so 1) timing forced me to attend Youth Mass (otherwise I couldn't go to First Day with my mom); 2) Youth Mass was generally a rock/folk/vernacular mass rather than the more traditional type and 3) I attended relatively new churches with major humanitarian efforts, but little infrastructure investment, so not many stained glass windows or much iconography. The ritual I received became effectively laborare est orare, to work is to pray, and that really has stuck.

I also wasn't a Top 40 pop fan (New Wave and Punk fan at the time) so the poppy, folky Youth Mass music annoyed me. (My sense of the numinous is almost entirely found in music.) I was 16 or so before I realized that the classical music I loved in Orchestra class had a religious context. I knew there was a disconnect because I loved the traditional masses when I could get to one (for a couple of years, I could drop into daily mass on my way to school, but those aren't musical masses) and one of my very few numinous moments happened at San Buenaventura (one of the 18th century California mission churches) during a field trip for a historical mass, but as a teenager, I couldn't articulate that. My mother is 8th generation Quaker, so her religious behavior was heavily reinforced by her childhood culture. My late father was many generations Catholic, and presumably had the same cultural reinforcement, but he died before I was born, and my adoptive father wasn't religious. Further, from the time I was eight, we lived in Mormon-dominated communities, so I had several conflicting cultures all trying to stake territory in my brain. About half of becoming non-theist was just trying to tinker with all of those conflicting messages until something worked, and I eventually ended up just dividing everything by the square root of negative one. I don't think I ever found any of the community rituals pointless, but I did see some as annoying (really, 80's Catho-pop had moments of truly painful) and some as abusive (some of the Mormon social control -- like prioritizing tithes above the dentist).

But... I have a rosary that I use with a pagan meditation on Persephone, Demeter, Athena, Artemis and Hera. I don't believe in any gods or goddesses, but focusing through a lens of the aspects of the feminine helps me clarify my thoughts. I use my ginormous collection of fairy tales as meditation texts, too. Gardening has an aspect of ritual what with the heavy spring work, the daily tending, the gradual harvest and autumn closure; years without a garden feel vaguely empty. I use BtVS/Angel as something of an annual litany (one episode a day, five days a week). That started as a way to time exercising, but it's become... more introspective.

There are times when I miss the community, although not the social control. My variety of religious practice is strongly interior -- my way of connecting with the mythic, the numinous, creation, destruction and wisdom. It's not so good for connecting to a larger community; I have to do that through other means, and often that leaves something missing. For years, my biggest group ritual was dance -- three hours of industrial music worked -- but distance and time and some other issues have killed that one. So it goes.

#316 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 03:10 PM:

Xopher @ 289:

I'm not sure that I'd say that I feel the need for ritual. I don't care much for a lot of pomp and ceremony, and little things seem, well, little.

I didn't find the rituals I was raised with pointless, because they connected me to a larger community. I did find them rather pointless if I was by myself. I didn't need candles on Friday night, for example, any more than I thought God really needed them, but as a family or a congregation it was something that brought us together. I think that now I'd think it was more important, but perhaps that's just the part of me that misses it talking.

If anything, part of the reason I'm no longer religious is simply that I was encouraged to ask questions and seek out answers by both secular and religious figures in my life. And I did. (Another part was a period of introspection summed up by: "Why does he believe the things he does when I think they're pretty incredible? Well, wait, why do I believe the things I do? Some of them are pretty incredible too.")

#317 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 03:25 PM:

Rituals... On July 4th, I watch a story about America. Lots of it may be more myth han reality, but still it has some truth in it.

#318 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 04:08 PM:

Saw this at Kevin Kelly's blog:

detecting an ET intelligence would overturn terrestrial religions forever

and it struck me that (1) this is an SF cliche, usually presented, like here, as if it were self-evident; and (2) I don't believe it at all. I don't think terrestrial religions would change much, if any. Why would they?

Any thoughts?

#319 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 04:47 PM:

David Harmon @ 148: "Consider the difference between Christian "sin" and Jewish mitzvah...they lead to rather different attitudes, especially when inculcated into young minds."

heresiarch@164 "Do they?"

I'm agreeing with David Harmon. "Mitzvah" is about actively doing good things - including practical stuff like helping those in need (as well as ritual stuff which different people find more or less useful/important). Personally, I find that totally different to the concept of "sin" which (as I understand it) emphasises the negative: what you've done wrong/what you should avoid doing because it's wrong.

If I'm misinformed regarding "sin", apologies and please explain where I've gone wrong.

#320 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:09 PM:

Tim Walters @ 318 -

I don't think terrestrial religions would change much, if any. Why would they?

I agree. If Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein couldn't do it, I don't believe the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would do so.

Besides, detecting the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization is not the same thing as actually communicating with it. The idea that alien intelligences will even be remotely comprehensible to humans is, IMO, wishful thinking.

#321 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:17 PM:

Tim Walters @318

Well, a lot of religions are very human-centric. Take Christianity: God created man in His image, was born here and died for human sins. If there's Vulcans, then either a) there was a Vulcan Jesus too, who died for Vulcan sins, or b) there wasn't and Vulcans are just damned/soulless/whatever, or c) there's a whole separate Vulcan god. (Or maybe Jesus died for Vulcan sins too, but that seems wonky, you know?)

A challenges God's uniqueness, B and C His omnipresence and benevolence.

Doesn't automatically overturn religion, but it's a damn sight more serious than heliocentrism or evolution.

#322 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:26 PM:

The odds that any ETs will resemble humans in the least are vanishingly small. If you reset the earth back to when life first started, you simply would not get the same life forms, in the same order, with the same level of complexity. There's no guarantee that you'll even get multi-cellular life again.

#323 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:36 PM:

I'm sorry; I've been switching between night and day shift, and I really think I'm too tired to do this well. I type what I think is something clear and understandable, and then, obviously it isn't, which means that I'm doing it wrong, which is just frustrating to me, and I'm sure to you, trying parse out my intent.

It's probably best for the thread if I bow out. I apologize for 'dining and dashing', as it were.

Before I go, I do want to say that Abi's interpretation at 226 feels right, to me.

Thanks for your understanding.

#324 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:46 PM:

Devin @ 321: Take Christianity: God created man in His image, was born here and died for human sins.

I don't think most Christians take "in His image" that literally. Christians, correct me if I'm wrong.

(Or maybe Jesus died for Vulcan sins too, but that seems wonky, you know?)

I've heard at least one Christian express this exact opinion (not about Vulcans specifically, but about aliens in general).

I would expect Christians to take the same variety of attitudes toward the conversion of aliens as they do to the conversion of non-Christian humans, from ecumenical (they've got their own path to God going on) to evangelical (can we get some radio time to spread the good news?).

But regardless of that, I wouldn't expect anyone to see the existence of aliens as challenging their religion, because I don't think it contradicts any central tenets. I'm sure theologians would get into some interesting discussions (actually, I'd be surprised if they already hadn't), but I don't see laymen being particularly perplexed.

#325 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 05:56 PM:

Steve C. @ 322: The odds that any ETs will resemble humans in the least are vanishingly small. If you reset the earth back to when life first started, you simply would not get the same life forms, in the same order, with the same level of complexity. There's no guarantee that you'll even get multi-cellular life again.

I think this is an argument that intelligence is rare, rather than that it will be completely different from ours if it does evolve. I would say that it's an open question whether there are a multitude of ways for matter to organize itself into sapience, or just a few. That said, I do think aliens would be quite a bit weirder than in a typical SF story, even if it turns out that DNA etc. is the only way to fly.

#326 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 06:44 PM:

Xopher #297: OK, I've finally gotten around to asking: Have you seen the webcomic Digger (now complete) (link is to slightly apropos page)?

#327 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:19 PM:

Tim Walters #324: For an example of what might happen, you might want to consider what did happen when European Christians encountered human beings for whom they had no biblical warrant. As Lewis Hanke described it there was a serious debate as to whether they were, in fact, created by God or were a snare of Satan's.

#328 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:29 PM:

Devin 321: If there's Vulcans, then either a) there was a Vulcan Jesus too, who died for Vulcan sins, or b) there wasn't and Vulcans are just damned/soulless/whatever, or c) there's a whole separate Vulcan god. (Or maybe Jesus died for Vulcan sins too, but that seems wonky, you know?)

Tim is right about this. Many years ago the lettercol of Radio Free Thulcandra opined that Jesus' sacrifice was for all [some word meaning roughly "sentient beings"], and that it was a human responsibility to get the Word to them.

Tim 324: I don't think most Christians take "in His image" that literally. Christians, correct me if I'm wrong.

I think you're right. I've had it explained to me that it's the spiritual image that counts, that the human soul is like God's soul (or like God) in some way. This keeps them from concluding that God is a white male and so on.

Jesus was making it pretty literal, himself. But then he never met anyone who wasn't either a Roman, a Jew, or a Samaritan (maybe a few others, but strictly local). I have in mind the "give Cæsar what is Cæsar's, and give God what is God's" bit; as I understand it, it's not a coincidence that he asks whose image was on the Roman coin right before saying that. He means "money belongs to the Empire, but YOU belong to the Kingdom" (meaning the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God, respectively).

Kevin 326: No, but I'll certainly look into it now that you've pointed me at it! (Btw, IIUC Hindus don't really make that distinction. An image of Ganesh-ji IS Ganesh-ji, and (for example) you do NOT make one out of chocolate to celebrate His birthday!)

#329 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:30 PM:

Sigh. Whose image *is* on the Roman coin.

#330 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:44 PM:

Fragano @ 327: <ObSF>See also A Case Of Conscience.</ObSF>

But I think that backs up my point--they saw them as a challenge for Christianity rather than as a challenge to Christianity.

#331 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 08:54 PM:

Wow, Tim, I thought I was the only one who read that one! An appalling document.

#332 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 09:08 PM:

Xopher @ 331: I doubt that there's any Hugo-winning novel that only one Fluorospherian has read...

#333 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 09:18 PM:

THAT won a HUGO?!?!?!

Tastes do change, don't they.

#334 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 09:28 PM:

Xopher, I'm pretty sure he didn't actually mean "money belongs to the Empire, but YOU belong to the Kingdom" when he said, "Render unto Caesar..."

We are asked to believe that in the court of the Temple, Jesus asked a pharisee - famous for orthodoxy - for a coin, and was handed one with Caesar's image on it. This was a graven image, but not just any image. It was the image of a idolator, a pagan foreigner who was (if dead) a pagan god in his own right.

I'm sorry, but I don't believe it. There was a reason for the money-changers' booths in the outer court, and that was it. No coinage like that was acceptable for Temple donations. No pharisee would have produced such a coin in such a place, if he'd had one. At the very least, it would have been scandalous. And it's absolutely stone-cold certain that he wouldn't have handed it over, fat, dumb and happy like that. I don't buy it.

No, I think the first Evangelist - probably Mark - had to explain a saying of Jesus that he and others knew. What would it mean, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's"?

To a first-century Jew, what were Caesar's things, and what were God's? Into which category falls the Holy Land of Israel itself?

And there, I think, you have the true meaning of the saying.

#335 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 09:29 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 194:

Happy & kosher passover, if I forget to say so.

Really, much of what you write is right there in the Biblical account, and not incompatible with (some) traditional understandings.

Monolatry: self-evident from the Biblical text. The Haggadah takes it for granted. "If he had judged the Egyptians and not executed judgments against their gods, it would have been enough for us".

The great subtext of the books of Judges and Kings is syncretism, and how God disapproved, but you know, Jews will be Jews. I don't think we shed syncretism (mostly) until the Babylonian exile.

As for adopting a Midianite monotheism, well, that seems part of a program on the part of some Biblical scholars (Jewish and not) to deny the Jews any innovation at all.

However, it's clear from the Torah that Avraham was not the only one who had discovered God - Malchitzedek king of Salem (later Jeru-Salem) worships El Elyon, the Most High God, and clearly he & Abraham recognize one another as kindred spirits. I don't think Jethro Gibbs necessarily converts until after the Exodus, but clearly monotheism isn't a big problem for him.

ANE archaeology need not be incompatible with Orthodox belief, since so much depends on interpretation (biblical minimalists vs maximalists, etc). I know more than one professor of ANE archeology who happen to be Orthodox as well; one lives a couple of blocks from me.

Serge @ 317:

So do we, but we recognize that it's myth - I don't believe the Founding Fathers spent the summer of 1776 engaging in song-and-dance numbers. But isn't young Holling great doing the song about the Triangle Trade?

#336 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 09:53 PM:

Dave Luckett @ 334:

Right on.

Here's Matthew's version of the story:

21:12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

21:13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

See the Mishnah tractate Shekalim, which explains the context of Jesus and the moneychangers, and how he made a mess of things:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/shekalim1.html

Similarly for the "doves" - women had to bring two doves for birth offerings, and the somewhat-poor would need them for sin-offerings (the wealthy used cows, the truly poor used flour). The birds would need to be free of blemishes, and not have been exposed to ritual uncleanness. So the most convenient thing to do was to bring money to buy doves AT THE TEMPLE.

For shekalim, one would bring one's non-Jewish (Greek, Roman, Persian were all commonly circulating) coins to the money-changers at the tables, and exchange them for Judaean shekels, with which to pay their head-tax of 1-1/2 shekels.

So I wonder - why did Jesus make such a mess of absolutely necessary Temple financial activity? Activity required by black-letter law? I suppose, to give a charitable reading, he might have been complaining that, as Dave seems to imply, that people were giving their Greek/Roman/Persian coins directly as half-shekels, rather than changing them to Judaean coins which did not feature face portraits (thus not being suspected idolatrous objects). In which case, he's saying "use your Roman coins for Roman taxes, don't bring them into the Temple because they're quasi-idolatrous, you have to use Judaean shekalim." But that doesn't explain why he was mad at the dove-sellers.

To me, on the surface, it reads like "ignorant country bumpkin doesn't think about what's necessary to run the Temple." Which conflicts with the usual image of Jesus as someone who was learned, perhaps a rabbi, trained by Shimon ben Shetach, a known early rabbinic figure.

#337 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 10:02 PM:

Dave 334: The question he was asked was "is it right to pay taxes to Cæsar?" And he said "show me the coin in which the tax is paid." That would be the Roman coin.

Matthew 22:15-22, KJV:

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? 19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. [1] 20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription [2] 21 They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. 22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

The tribute money, not the money for offerings at the Temple. The text in Mark and Luke is almost identical.

Now I'm no Bible scholar, but I've heard this interpretation preached by someone who was an ordained Episcopal priest, and a seminary graduate. She said that what Jesus was trying to say was that, being made in God's image, you belong to God.

It's not, I admit, beyond dispute. But I kinda like it.

#338 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 10:02 PM:

Xopher: I read "A case of conscience" It's been twenty years or so since the last time (hrmn.... more on towards 25, maybe 30). I may have to read it again to see the appalling you do.

#339 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 10:29 PM:

Spoilers of ACOC, to make it clear why I was appalled: Vg gheaf bhg gur nyvraf (jub fcraq gur obbx orvat bccerffrq naq rkcybvgrq ol Rnegu uhznaf) ner na vyyhfvba bs Fngna. Gur cevrfg cbvagf n pebff ng n fcnpr-onfrq vzntr bs gurve cynarg, erpvgrf gur rkbepvfz yvgnal (be jungrire lbh pnyy vg), naq gur cynarg rkcybqrf.

#340 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 10:34 PM:

Xopher @ 339: That omits a really important detail (see spoileriffic Wikipedia entry).

#341 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 10:44 PM:

Tim, I have no idea what detail is important enough to make the book less than appalling. But also I haven't read it in many years. I don't feel like reading a detailed synopsis now, though, so I guess I'll have to wonder. I remember that my reaction to the ending of the book was "ICK."

#342 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 11:03 PM:

Devin @321 and Xopher, the premise of CS Lewis's Space Trilogy is that other worlds have intelligent life on them, but they aren't all fallen. I think Earth (or "Thulcandra" in Lewis's space language) was supposed to be the first fallen world, maybe first in the universe or maybe just first in the solar system, but maybe the moon ("Sulva") also fell, or was dragged down in Earth's fall. So Vulcan could be an unfallen world, and they'd have no need of Christian-type salvation.

Or maybe it's humanity who need to hear the word of Surak.

Xopher, "hnau" is the word from Lewis's language that's used for sapient beings. Or at least material sapient beings -- it's unclear if the word applies to the eldila (angels), and clear that it does not apply to God.

#343 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 11:07 PM:

Re tribute money: there is a Talmudic dictum "dina demalchuta dina" - the law of the land is the law, which certainly applies to monetary issues.

I wonder if this is one of those passages where the incident, if real, was really an encounter with the Sadducees, who were more closely related to the people who became the Zealots (Biryonim). Some speculate that a lot of Jesus' problems were really encounters with Sadducees, esp. since he was trained as a Pharisee himself. But by the time the Gospels were written, the Temple had been destroyed, which had been the power-base of the Sadducees, who were mostly of the priestly class, thus concerned with religious purity. So the Gospel-writers relabeled all of the Sadducees as Pharisees, since the Pharisees were the only faction left.

So this sounds more like a Sadducee argument than a Pharisee argument, since it's about theological correctness, and since Jesus' response is very close to the Pharisaic commonplace, "the law of the land is the law."

And now I'm even more confused as to Jesus' motivation in overturning the tables - he doesn't seem to express a good reason for upsetting the normal & necessary Temple business.

As Debbie (Mrs. B.) noted, selling doves at the Temple is a major service - if you dedicate your animal at home, then travel many days to J'lem, and the animal gets a blemish, you can't sell it - it has already been dedicated to the Temple, and must be left to die of starvation, and you still have to buy a new unblemished one. So if you plan to buy it at the Temple, it saves you money.

#344 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 11:37 PM:

Jon Baker @ 335... I don't believe the Founding Fathers spent the summer of 1776 engaging in song-and-dance numbers.

No?
"By God!"
- John Adams

#345 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2011, 11:37 PM:

Dave Luckett: Most of the coins minted by the Romans in Palestine were aniconic: that is, they did not have any human images on them at all. There was a mint in Sepphoris, the largest city in Galilee, run by the Romans, and most of the coins we have which we think were issued from it in Jesus' time are aniconic. The Romans didn't care about the commandment, of course, but if the Jews were happier using coins without human heads imprinted on them, fine. The mint master didn't care. Coins used in Palestine had sheaves of barley on them, or cornucopias, or palm trees. Herod the Great, who built the Temple, (he died the year Jesus of Nazareth was born) did order the mint to make one series of coins with the Roman eagle on it, but then he also erected a Roman eagle on the Temple itself. It's agreed by most scholars that Herod was insane.

Coins with Caesar's image on them came, therefore, from outside the Jewish territory, and someone would have had to deliberately find one, and bring it to Jesus for his comment. It was a trap, they were trying to push him into saying something which could be used against him, and everyone, including Jesus, knew it.

As for the passage where Jesus chastises the moneychangers, one teaching on this which I have heard is that the moneychangers had set up their tables in areas in the temple which were meant to be used for sacrifice, i.e. they had allowed a commercial transaction, although one which had been decreed as necessary, to encroach on the principal acts of worship.

But I think it's also fair to point out that Jesus was a believing and faithful Jew, but he also had strong differences with the Sadducees, the group of upper class Jews who mostly had responsibility for the Temple.

#346 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 12:17 AM:

There was also (re the moneychangers) the question of what they were charging as a transaction fee. The people who came to the temple were sort of stuck. They needed the ability to make an offering.

If a group was conniving to fleece the poor by taking advantage of their faith/need, then I can see Jesus being righteously pissed.

#347 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 12:26 AM:

Making Light: a place where you are prompted to find out things you never knew, and that generally show that you should keep your big mouth shut about stuff you thought you did.

Looking at the actual coins taken to be Temple coinage again, I find myself confounded.

I had ignorantly assumed that coins accepted for the Temple tax (one half-shekel per male) and donations would be ritually pure, without human images.

(I knew that the Roman-issued bronze coinage in Judea didn't show the Emperor's head (or any), in deference to Jewish sensibilities, and assumed that the coin proffered to Jesus was from outside - quite possible, since he specified 'a silver piece', and the Romans in Judea issued no silver coinage.)

I was dead, motherless wrong, it seems. The coins accepted for Temple tax and charity were Tyrian shekels and half-shekels, and not only do they show a graven image, it is that of the pagan god Baal as Herakles.

I am much shaken by this. It goes into the "how odd" information bin, for one thing, but I also have to confess that it much vitiates the idea I was touting. I can see why, when asked for a silver piece, a man in the Temple court would prefer to produce one with Caesar's head on it; but why on Earth would the Temple have required one with a heathen god's head instead?

And - there's a short story in this - what would have happened if Jesus had been handed a Tyrian silver shekel, Baal on it and all? What would he have said then?

#348 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 12:37 AM:

I should have broken down what I meant by "challenged," above: Not disproved, but rather compelled to think harder and adapt. Does "made in His image" apply only to humans? To some aliens? All of them? (And no, the fact that the image is interpreted as spiritual rather than physical doesn't answer those questions, though it helps). I think the uniqueness of Jesus's life and sacrifice is pretty doctrinal (unless God's "only begotten son" is meant to take his place alongside His "only quickened egg" and "only cloned sprout," anyway), which raises the question of why.

There are possible answers for all of those questions. Some of them are already in this thread (often stated as if they were obvious and necessary when in fact there are other possible answers to those questions...) but just because the Fluorosphere accepts a particular bit of extraterrestrial theology doesn't mean it won't be a challenge to Christianity as a whole.

My comparison to heliocentrism and evolution (both challenges that modern Christian thought has successfully responded and adapted to, though there are still holdouts failing to respond to the latter) was deliberate.

#349 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 01:56 AM:

Devin: A lot of the work on solving the question you are asking was done when the basic questions of the incarnation were sorted out. Mapping it to non-humans probably isn't as hard as the initial problem.

From comments he's made, Bother Guy has certainly thought about it, and might be able to give an idea of the present thinking on it in the Roman Catholic Church.

Quakers have already resolved it; and it's not a problem for them.

#350 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 02:15 AM:

Xopher @328: An image of Ganesh-ji IS Ganesh-ji, and (for example) you do NOT make one out of chocolate to celebrate His birthday!)

Oops.

#351 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 02:46 AM:

Terry: "Not as hard as answering the basic questions of the incarnation" isn't as reassuring as it might be...

Honestly, as interesting as I do find the question, I'm not in a position to debate it intelligently. I do think the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence poses challenges to many traditional religions in a way that the discovery of non-sentient life wouldn't. I don't think it automatically makes them obsolete, and in fact I think most of them will succeed in meeting those challenges and coming out stronger.

#352 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 03:24 AM:

Devin: Why isn't it reassuring? For all that it's an esoteric set of doctrines (and most people don't investigate them), and the resolving of the issues took a fair bit of time (and there are still some serious disagreements) the heavy lifting has been done.

Given the contentious nature of the broader questions (deity, man's relation to same) I think that having the basics hashed out, and fundamentally resolved, is reassuring. The questions are, pretty much, already answered. There are some basic hurdles to jump (does the alien species in question have a nature which needs redemption) but once that's answered the questions aren't as complex as they seem.

More interesting is the question, "if they need redemption, has there been a messianic figure which parallels the function/mythological role that Jesus does.

If there isn't the question becomes, can Jesus be mapped to the history/mindset of the aliens. If there is... well that's a babelfish sort of problem.

#353 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 03:52 AM:

Tim @318:

Arthur C. Clarke was very fond of this cliché. An alien space probe flies through the solar system and tells us there's no God, and everyone believes it. An archaeologist makes some discovery or other in Palestine and destroys Christianity. An astronomer priest travels to a supernova remnant and has his faith destroyed by Science. And so on.

I can see why he would really like this to happen, but it's far more unbelievable than all the FTL travel he usually left out of his stories as too fantastic.

#354 ::: David Hodson ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 05:37 AM:

Devin @ 314: Of course! Make cake, get married, eat cake. It was a good day.

#355 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 05:54 AM:

You can have cake and eat it too.
Just not at the same time.

#356 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 05:55 AM:

"I'm having cake for dinner."
"Jonathan Cake?"

#357 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 07:26 AM:

OK, I was wrong - nothing wrong with side-heads on coins, after all. Found an article on Tyrian shekel hoard, probably some local half-shekel collection.

Did people worship coins as cult objects? If not, I'm not sure how a side-head would be a problem. Full-face bas-relief would be a problem, probably.

#358 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 07:57 AM:

Serge@356

Or Mrs. Cake...

Anyway, we all know the cake is a lie...

#359 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 08:20 AM:

Devin #348, Terry #349: Also, it's largely such questions that drive C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, aka the "Silent Planet" trilogy.

Brief cheat sheet: (All this is much more poetic and dramatic than I make it sound, but I'm not Lewis.) ROT13.

Gur Tneqra unccraf ba rirel cynarg, ohg bhef jrag jebat: Sbe fbzr ernfba, bhe cynargnel fcvevg jrag onq, naq gharq bhg bs gur Tnynpgvp Pubehf bs fbhy-fbatf★, juvpu bhtug gb pbaarpg vg (naq hf) gb Tbq. Gurersber Wrfhf jnf frag fcrpvsvpnyyl gb Rnegu, gb gel naq trg hf, gur puvyqera bs gur Fvyrag Cynarg, bhe bja pbaarpgvba gb Tbq. Guvf unf n fvqr-rssrpg ba gur havirefr: Byqre enprf, fhpu nf gur vaunovgnagf bs Znef, Whcvgre, naq shegure bhgjneqf, pnzr va n inevrgl bs sbezf. Ohg bapr bhe sbez unf ubhfrq Tbq uvzfrys, ur jbhyqa'g nfx n arj fragvrapr gb yvir va n yrff-qvfgvathvfurq sbez. Guhf, Irahf naq nyy arjre jbeyqf ner vaunovgrq ol uhznaf.

★ Uvrenepuvpny: Rnpu fragvrag enpr fvatf "unezbal" sbe gurve cynarg'f jbeyq-fbat, gur cynargf yvxrjvfr wbva jvgu gurve fha sbe n "flfgrz-fbat", gur fhaf sbez tenaq pubehfrf gb nppbzcnal Tbq. (V'z abg fher vs ur xarj nobhg zhygvcyr tnynkvrf lrg, ohg gubfr jbhyq cerfhznoyl or nabgure ynlre orgjrra fhaf naq Tbq.)

#360 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 12:10 PM:

Vatican astronomer Jose Funes says ETI is no problem for the Church. As does Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno.

Niall McAuley @ 353: And then there's The Songs Of Distant Earth, in which Clarke's "solution" to the "problem" of religion is as risible as it is obnoxious.

#361 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 12:24 PM:

TomB 350: Wow, that's very bad. I was yelled at by a Hindu woman (whose house had multiple images of Ganesh-ji) for considering making a chocolate Ganesh-ji filled with "Ganesh ganache" (yeah, they also stole my joke). "He's a god!" she exclaimed in outrage. "You don't eat him!"

I posted to that effect on the site you cited. I must say, though, the cake is a beautiful sight.

#362 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 01:01 PM:

heresiarch 134: I missed this comment the first time around, but now that it's been brought to my attention, I wanted to point out the extraordinary beauty of this bit:

...the distinction between believing or not believing in a divinity pales to insignificance beside the distinction between believing or not believing that we as a society ought to make our collective decisions on the basis of what we collectively experience and with the best interests of all people at heart.

Hear, hear.

(Also: One True Orthography! So that's what 'OTO' stands for!)

#363 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 01:21 PM:

Learned recently that one of the "art technicians" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NYC carefully removes all the offerings left for Ganesh in the exhibition hall (usually sweets and coins).

Somewhere "in the back," in her office, she has a little altar set up, with another statue of Ganesh, and she places the offerings there after she's removed them from the museum's public space. Once the altar fills up, she donates all the money to various charities of her choice (since some of the coins are not US denominations, she has to visit a moneychanger first).

#364 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 03:18 PM:

re 350/361: I know I posted this a while ago, but in context I can't resist a repost: If you see the Buddha on your plate, eat him!

#365 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 04:48 PM:

Xopher #361: "He's a god!" she exclaimed in outrage. "You don't eat him!"

Not that god, anyway. ("This is my flesh, come and eat of it...", which was surely a riff on locally-current/contemporary sacrifice rituals.)

#366 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 07:08 PM:

Tim Walters: I doubt that there's any Hugo-winning novel that only one Fluorospherian has read...

Having suffered through "They'd Rather Be Right" (the Butterfield 8 of Hugo winners) I cannot help but hope you are wrong, if only to save everyone else here from falling on that grenade. (I have a hard time abandoning books once started because the writer put an appreciable amount of their life and energy into writing it and to dump out seems unfair...but I'd happily make an exception for this one if I had access to a WAYBAC machine.)

I do admit to a certain amount of curiosity as to the short story by the authors of TRBR which came out the year previously featuring many of the same characters and which lost--I've never read a copy of it. I've heard it was so popular that TRBR won because of the backlash, which means that somehow those two must have written a short story better than Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III and Love's Labor Lost all in one, because in my opinion nothing less could have made TRBR place in the top four on the ballot; not even if you had the top six Chicago graveyards of your choice to draw upon. And a pony.

#367 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 07:28 PM:

Bruce E. Durocher II @ 366: Having suffered through "They'd Rather Be Right" (the Butterfield 8 of Hugo winners) I cannot help but hope you are wrong, if only to save everyone else here from falling on that grenade.

It's on my to-read shelf, despite its reputation. I used to have trouble abandoning books I'd started, but no longer, so being curious about a book is enough if I see a cheap copy. I'll probably even read it before Yargo and Galaxy 666.

Barry Malzberg wrote a somewhat quixotic essay defending Clifton (or maybe the other guy) as flawed but interesting. It might have been based on other work more than on TRBR, though.

#368 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 07:54 PM:

I think I read They'd Rather Be Right back in high school (so some 30 years ago); I'd read something else by the author(s) and enjoyed it (in retrospect that book was pretty awful, too). I don't remember anything about TRBR, though, except that I didn't like it much.

#369 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 08:16 PM:

Tim Walters, Mary Aileen: to swipe what good stuff that I can remember of the legendary takedown review of "The Sword of Shannara" in Delap's F & SF Review and apply them to TRBR: "This book is a rude beast slouching towards Bethlehem...If it were a man or woman it would not be good or bad in bed, but somewhat mechanical." That's the GOOD stuff of TRBR. The bad stuff I'm blocking.

#370 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 08:41 PM:

Tim Walters #330: It's been a while since I read Hanke (35 years or so), but as I recall that the debate was pretty intense. It eventually led to the Spanish crown deciding to import African slaves to the Americas rather than treating all Native American peoples as naturally bound to be slaves (since the conclusion was that they should be evangelised). Bartolomé de las Casas, who was one of the leading advocates for treating the Amerindian peoples as human, and who had advocated bringing Africans over rather than enslaving and exterminating the Native Americans, was eventually appalled at what his suggestion had wrought.

#371 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 09:39 PM:

Melissa Singer #363 said: Learned recently that one of the "art technicians" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NYC carefully removes all the offerings left for Ganesh in the exhibition hall (usually sweets and coins).

There are special procedures followed in the newish Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in DC to make sure that various sacred pots and objects (a) are properly spiritually fed with corn pollen, smoke, etc, while (b) still conserving them as precious objects in a museum. I remember reading about them in Smithsonian Magazine in the issue they did the big WOOHOO NEW MUSEUM, IT IZ OSSIM!! writeup for its grand opening.

#372 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2011, 09:53 PM:

It seems to me that human religions presuppose the humanness of the worshipper. So are they transferrable to other species?

#373 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 12:12 AM:

Elliott Mason: There are special procedures followed in the newish Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in DC to make sure that various sacred pots and objects (a) are properly spiritually fed with corn pollen, smoke, etc, while (b) still conserving them as precious objects in a museum.

As I remember it, the National Park Service has something vaguely similar for the little pull-cans of Libby's Fruit Salad that get left at the Vietnam Memorial. Seems those were the most prized thing in the C-Rations used in Vietnam, and those who survived tend to get them, or their plastic equivalents, and put them under their friend's names on the Wall in memoriam.

#374 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 01:05 AM:

I've also read They'd Rather Be Right, inasmuch as I've read every Hugo-winning novel that was not written by C.J. Cherryh.

I'm interested to see the mentions of Lewis Hanke, just by the by: I'm married to one of his granddaughters.

#375 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 01:44 AM:

Terry @352

Reassuring is the wrong word. It just struck me that "easier than working out the basic questions of the Incarnation" belongs next to "Smaller than Texas" and "more nourishing than sand."

I mean, you're right, I wouldn't expect to see the level of strife and schism that was attendent on the major Christological heresies.

#376 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 11:02 AM:

Elliott Mason @371: I collect (from time to time, when I have money) pottery, mostly Native American pottery, and most of it easily held in one hand.

Someone once gave me an absolutely stunning little Zuni fetish pot . . . and then handed me a small packet of corn meal. There's corn meal in that pot to this day.

#377 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 12:21 PM:

David 374: I've read every Hugo-winning novel that was not written by C.J. Cherryh.

Just curious: is the exception because you just didn't feel like reading either Downbelow Station or Cyteen (or both), or is it a deliberate avoidance for some specific reason? If the latter, what?

IMO both those books are excellent, though Cherryh has certainly written books that were not (the sequel to Cyteen left me cold and bored, for example, and there's this weird Arthurian-azi book...).

Please ignore me if I'm prying. There are authors I won't read because they offend me, but for reasons best left unsaid I won't name them here.

#378 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 02:22 PM:

Erik:

I think that's an open question, which would be dealt with differently by different religions, and by different factions within a religion. Extrapolating from history as we've seen it, some people would use existing religions to cast the aliens as demons who must be fought or at least shunned[1], or soulless animals who may be enslaved/killed/cheated[1] at will. And others would use existing religions to argue for the inclusive "humanity" of those aliens.

And something similar would happen from any number of other moral systems. Just as some people look at our shared genes and history and say "the black man is my brother, we humans are all in this together" and others look at it and say "the white man is my brother, we whites have to stick together against those evil blacks."

You could imagine some religions simply putting aliens on a different track, spiritually, without calling for their mistreatment. Or simply acknowledging that, absent some kind of revelation or divine teaching, we simply can't know what God wants for the Spiders or the Moties or the wormhole aliens.

[1] Which of these alternatives would be proposed by the speakers would depend on the relative power of us and the other species. It's unrewarding to demand a holy war against the Vorlons (if they take notice of your attempts to attack them, it will go badly for you; more likely your crusader fleet will simply disappear without a trace, and any Vorlons available to talk to will claim to have no knowledge of the matter, if they'll talk with you at all), but you can demand that your followers not mix with evil alien influences. Apparently defenseless aliens are presumably more fun to declare as natural born, soulless slaves.

#379 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2011, 08:24 PM:

Xopher @ 175: "As I think you know, the difference isn't between those relational pairs at all, but between comparatives and absolutes."

(I'm not being deliberately obtuse here. That was a genuine question I asked.)

The point I'm trying to make is that absolutes don't exist as an essentially different type of thing separate from comparatives; rather, they're a subtype of comparative that emerges when you have a sufficiently large and complex web of comparatives. Everything that exists exists first in the context of everything else, in the endless flood of sensory information that is our experience of reality. Every categorization, definition, description or what have you is plucking something out of that unitary mass because there is something about it that can be differentiated from the rest: it is defined in relation to all the rest. That's the message of the Daodejing verse I quoted.

So yes, butter pecan ice cream and raspberry sorbet can be equally delicious, but only if there are other things that are not delicious. Even if those other things are imaginary, they have to be imagined in order to imagine deliciousness.

I know this may sound like a nitpicky nonsense point, but I think understanding how defining one thing creates an implicit definition of another is central to a lot of postcolonial, anti-racist, feminist, and queer theory: a lot of oppression isn't prosecuted by way of explicit bigotry, but by implicit binaries. It's why when someone says “Straight people are mostly monogamous and disease-free” we know they're a homophobe without them needing to say a single word about gay people.

Lee @ 197: ”Yes, that's exactly the same mistake my friend makes -- that saying "X is Y" is the same as explicitly saying "not-X is not-Y", when it's no such thing.”

It can be: take the statement "quadrilaterals have four sides."* But what your friend said was that “being aware of differences meant that you HAD to be assigning relative rankings”, which I *disagreed* with. Being aware of difference only means that you have to be aware of difference. However, a difference can only exist in the context of two things, so to note a difference between two things by describing one necessarily implies something about the other even if the other is never mentioned. (See above.)

I appreciate the apology.

* Left as an exercise for the reader or, in North America, the senior professor.

dcb @ 319: ”Personally, I find that totally different to the concept of "sin" which (as I understand it) emphasises the negative: what you've done wrong/what you should avoid doing because it's wrong.”

Oh, I wasn't challenging the difference between sin and mitzvah part. I was challenging the “they lead to rather different attitudes, especially when inculcated into young minds” part. It strikes me as, well, problematic. A wee bit.

Xopher @ 362: Well, I'm glad you liked it even if it's not the smoothest prose ever. (And I saw what you did at 299. Delightfully subtle.)

#380 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2011, 04:40 AM:

Xopher@377: No, not prying at all. What it is, is that there's something about the way that Cherryh puts her words together at the sentence level which causes me to just bounce off. It's not just me: Patricia Wrede reacts the same way, and has talked about it on rec.arts.sf.composition, for instance here.

Some prose has what Jo Walton calls "I-want-to-read-itosity". Cherryh's, for me, has the exact opposite; and I'm not going to slog my way through hundreds of pages of it just so that I can say I have read every Hugo-winning novel.

#381 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2011, 08:03 AM:

heresiarch #379: Excellent comments, though I do feel the need to intercept one comment for a distinction you didn't make:

It can be: take the statement "quadrilaterals have four sides."

This statement is a different category from "whites are honest", or even from 'raspberries are delicious". The quadrilateral statement is formally a definition, and functionally a partition.♦ Accordingly, it's supposed to have valid inverse and converse (in context), neither of which is otherwise reliable.

Of course, prejudice does abuse this category also, as with the CSA documents attempting both to define "Negro == slave == inferior", and to enforce partitions lest anyone dare to overlap their categories of "black" and "free". Prejudice in general leans heavily upon the common logic faults of the human mind, notably of assuming the converse and/or inverse. Those faults are there for a simple reason: the human brain, like other animal brains, is natively associative! Deductive thinking is an "aftermarket" feature which generally needs to be both taught and trained.

♦ That is, "of these things (polygons), the ones with four sides are termed quadrilaterals."

#382 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 04:50 PM:

Elliott Mason @200: Yup, being steamed is an entirely appropriate response to your evangeloids. The religious thing is just an added layer: even without it, they were being blatantly rude.

And, yes, if you haven't posted it already, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the existence of deity.

#383 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 11:50 AM:

Cheryl @188: Something so deep, so vast, so complex and interlocking - it feels like it needs a deity, to me.

A Universe without Deity would be Bad Art? That's kinda how I feel about it.

#384 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 02:55 PM:

Lizzy L @236: I remember once [mother] to me angrily, when I voiced some explanatory thoughts about the Annunciation, "But it's all myth!!"

The thought that always floats through my mind at moments like that is, "How do you know?"

#385 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 02:59 PM:

Mycroft W @240: God the Scientist, building the Great Experiment, setting forth the Laws, and seeing what happens; changing the experiment when it seems useful.

This is my favorite conceptualization, too. Not least because by implication it leaves room for me and my creation-mates to play in the design.

#386 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 10:33 AM:

"I do hate it when religion comes between us."
"Religion and a securely locked door."
- James Bond & Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale as they're discussing their sleeping arrangements at a hotel.

#387 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 02:53 PM:

Lydy Nickerson @282: This sounds dismissive. "Oh, it's only brain chemicals."

Yes, what you said. Very well. When I hear that line, my responses is, "Yes, walking is just feet. But that doesn't mean that hiking Yosemite is not worthwhile."

But I've still spoken to him argued with him, and that experience was as real, profound, and important as any other in my life.

If you're of a mind to, I'd be very interested to hear about this experience. If you don't want to discuss it in a public forum, I can be reached at my name+m at the com place which panix.

#388 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 02:54 PM:

me @387: keeping mind that I'm waaaay behind, and if you've alread covered this ground, *nevermind*</latella>

#389 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 03:08 PM:

Jacque at 384: of course. But if you start out with certain assumptions about how the world works, one of which is that the Divine is a human invention, and therefore not "real," then calling the Annunciation a myth is a gentle rebuttal.

We chose not to argue with each other about religion. It made us both unhappy, and solved nothing.

#390 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 03:22 PM:

"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is August Christopher. I was named for St. Augustan, who coined my favorite phrase, 'Give me chastity and give me constancy, but do not give it yet.'"

Simon Templar in 1997's "The Saint"
:-)

#391 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 03:23 PM:

(No offense was intended. I thought the thread needed a bit of cheering up, clumsy as that may have been.)

#392 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 03:34 PM:

Some of us atheists (and others, of course, but I suspect the view's more common in atheists) would say that hiking in Yosemite is just brain chemicals too, and that every human endeavor is just brain chemicals, and that's fine. Brain chemicals are marvelous things, hey?

There's a fundamental divide in the way that statement gets evaluated, between those who see an extrinsic meaning in human life and those who think human life is all there is. If you're wedded to the idea that human life means something outside of itself, then suggesting that an experience doesn't mean anything outside of human life is a dire insult. But if you started out just thinking human life was significant only because of itself, then you think that an experience that's only meaningful as part of a human life and not otherwise is maybe one of the most meaningful things possible.

#393 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 04:28 PM:

chris @288: Your post lays out very well the model of the Numinous that I have come to.

The one embellishment I add is:

Under that worldview, to expect the numinous to have a *direct* effect on the physical is indeed delusional, but as the saying goes, men may move mountains, but the spirit moves men.

Well, of course the numinous doesn't have direct effect on the physical. That's far too inefficient. To expect otherwise is not so much delusional as simply failing to understand the thermodynamics involved.

This leaves the task (if I happen to feel like explaining this sort of thing to others, or convincing them to share my interpretation of it) of convincing someone who has mistaken offering the possibility that their own inner universe (or a part of it) for is different than a feature of the outer universe that that is what they are doing, without offending them in the process.

I have an old friend from high school who became a fundamentalist. I've had a go at floating this idea a couple of times. All I get is a delicate ::poink!:: as the idea bounces off her skull.

BTW, abi: I just want to say that this thread is a splendid example of what I love most about ML.

#394 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 04:36 PM:

me @393: I shoulda thought to put a smiley ;-> after "thermodynamics" above.

#395 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 04:46 PM:

ajay @306: And it can also mean "pale or white" as in "livid with rage".

I always read that to mean "red-faced with rage."

#396 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 04:47 PM:

Devin@392

I'm trying to make sure I understand your point, not arguing it (yet).

Stipulate that I can get the same brain chemicals different ways; I can have the same experience in my mind by hiking in Yosemite or by taking the right drug. (Not saying this is a possibility, but if it were...) Are you saying that the two experiences would be not usefully distinguishable?

#397 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 05:41 PM:

SamChevre @ 396: I'm not Devin, but I would say yes. However, consider what that would actually mean. The drug would have to maintain these illusions indefinitely: the scar I got rock-climbing; the position of the star-tracking device I left on Half Dome, pointed at Polaris; the drift of that device because I forgot to allow for precession of the equinoxes; the jail I went to for defacing park land; the jailer, as complicated as any human being, whom I have conversations with, as rich as any others; etc., etc.

In short, it's not clear that you can simulate human experience with anything less complex than the whole universe.

#398 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 08:50 PM:

SamChevre #396, Tim Walters #397:

Sam: Tim seems to have taken your straw man as sidling into the "brain in a vat" version of solipsism; at least, that's the same argument I use.

I have a different response, which is to call your argument a straw man. There are many different ways to experience the numinous; they are not "all just the same", and pushing too hard on "they all go through brain chemicals" is not only insulting to the religious, it's completely missing the point.

Because, it's not "just brain chemicals". A life form is far more than the chemicals it contains; indeed, the particular chemicals are pretty much what early life "had handy"; what's important, what differentiates life from soup, is the organization. And that organization is not only complex far beyond our understanding, it has history -- some of the structures within our cells date back to early in life's four-billion years of development.

And our basic structure has consequences on every level, from the thermodynamic all the way up to neurology and beyond. We are not just collections of parts, we are epiphenomena on multiple levels, and every level offers its own perspective on "reality". If you really want to feel insignificant, skip the "brain chemicals" and consider this: All Earthly life is a mere froth of matter and energy, foaming up where the Sun's radiance washes over our bit of damp rock. If the Earth were the size of a freshly washed peach, our oceans would be about like the water clinging to the skin.

Does that make everything pointless? Of course not, because we don't live on that megameter scale, we live on our own meter scale. Similarly, we can talk about "brain chemicals" all we want -- but don't forget that we're still guessing about how those chemicals interact, or even about how our brains (and minds) are actually organized. Much less about how our social interactions and other environmental cues are involved with that organization!

#399 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:23 PM:

David Harmon @ 398: I was taking "brain chemicals" as a synecdoche for "a state of ordinary matter."

#400 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:11 PM:

Tim Walters #399: OK, but as you note, these configurations of matter are causally interwoven with their surroundings. Their "state" includes memories and other relicts of the past.

#401 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 09:01 AM:

David Harmon @148 Consider the difference between Christian "sin" and Jewish mitzvah. Both have that ritual/ethical tension, but they lead to rather different attitudes, especially when inculcated into young minds.

followed up by dcb @319 and heresiarch @379

Here's the analogy that occurred to me as I was thinking about this.

Think of both sin and mitzvahs as akin to advice on writing fiction. Writing advice tells you what to avoid doing (the sins) and what to strive to do (the mitzvahs). But implicit in both is the idea that your purpose is not simply to put together a piece of writing that avoids all prose errors, nor to string together the positive things like engaging characters, meaningful incidents, and vivid language. The first is almost guaranteed to be dead. The second is likely to have a number of bright spots that don't hold together. Both approaches have missed the point; the point is to tell a story. And when you keep the story and the needs of the story in mind, sins and mitzvahs are not things-in-themselves, they are advice on the kinds of things that are likely to impede or facilitate communication of the story.

I believe, as a theist of the Catholic Christian persuasion, that the point, the story, is love of God and your neighbor. Neither avoiding sins nor performing good works has any meaning outside of that story. (Though I would certainly admit that the concept of sin is far too often taught badly, by this light. The idea of works of mercy is usually clearer. I can't speak to how the concept of mitzvah is taught to the young.)

In my mind, you don't have to believe in a personal God or any gods at all to have a framework like this. You might think that the story is about love of neighbor, or truth, or peace, or even how to keep going in a world that has no coherent story. I'm curious if this makes sense to the atheists out there, and if so, how you view the story. Or does this seem too much like trying cram your beliefs into the mold of my worldview?

Actually, I think this analogy connects to the brain chemicals subthread as well. Of course the experiences we have are expressed in brain chemicals, the same way that story is expressed in words and/or visual images and then on paper/film/screen. I'd call it incarnation, but I recognize that others will differ. :)

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