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Why Did You Even Bother?

Here’s a new addition to the annals of pointless letters, this one directed to Rev. Billy Graham:

DEAR DR. GRAHAM: I want to make myself clear: I have no interest in God or religion, and I don’t care who knows it. As far as I’m concerned, God doesn’t exist, and this life is all there is. Don’t even bother to write me back, because I’m not interested. — G.P.

Graham’s response is what you’d expect — nothing too shocking or insightful. I don’t really care about that.

My question: Why on earth would anyone even bother to write that letter? And sign it with just their initials? And not want a response?

In short, someone wrote to a columnist to say, “I don’t care what you have to say and don’t write back to me.”

It reminds me of a comedian I once heard. He was joking about survey results he had seen on his local TV newscast. I’m paraphrasing, but he said you had to dial a 900 number to cast a vote. It was 99 cents a call. At the end of the newscast, the viewers heard the results. It was 45% one way, 52% the other way, and 3% of the voters were undecided.

That meant, said the comedian, that 3% of the people paid money to call in and say, “I don’t have an opinion on this!”

Or maybe the letter was just made up to make atheists look bad…

(via Possummomma)


[tags]atheist, atheism, Christian[/tags]

  • http://www.nautblog.blogspot.com Sean the Blogonaut

    I think this is just a literary device. It allows Graham to preach while claiming to respond to an Atheist.

  • Richard Wade

    I think Sean has nailed it right from the start. While some people do write letters just to vent rather than to start a dialogue, this one seems a bit contrived. If it is genuine, the editors may have edited the writer’s name to the initials in order to protect him or her from unwanted attention. Still it would be absurd to write it at all.

    I have often wondered if more than half of the letters allegedly sent to advice columns are phony devices written by the responders just so they can get on their soap box about some issue:

    “Dear Advice Giver: My friend says that you have really wonderful insight and wisdom. Is that true? Signed, Wondering.”

    “Dear Wondering: I’m so glad you asked this question. Yes, it is true that I have wonderful insight and wisdom, blah blah blah…”

  • Polly

    Hemant,
    …, nevermind.
    Polly

    I have often wondered if more than half of the letters allegedly sent to advice columns are phony devices written by the responders just so they can get on their soap box about some issue:

    Funny, I assumed those things were all, or mostly, made up kinda like talk shows. Especially Dear Prudence over at Slate.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    You guys are such skeptics.

    Perhaps the person who wrote the letter actually did want him to respond. Well… It could happen…

    For instance, I sometimes pout and tell my husband “Don’t talk to me,” when in actuality, I do want him to talk to me.

    Maybe the person is confused and was grasping at straws. What a sad thought to think that Billy Graham would have to write a letter to himself so he feels justified in preaching his message. I would like to think he’s a tad bit busier than that.

  • Richard Wade

    You guys are such skeptics.

    Do you have evidence to support that claim? ;)

    Yeah, it could be a real letter. If so, it sounds like a pissed-off teenager who is having issues with authority more than issues with spirituality. The letter isn’t very useful for stimulating a conversation. Neither the letter nor the response are worth reading, so all that might actually suggest that it is genuine. If you’ll excuse the expression, only God knows.

    The last time I saw Billy Graham he looked older than dirt. Is he really still writing his own column or does he have a staff who write Grahamesque articles and responses to letters? It’s quite remarkable if he does.

  • Darryl

    Mr. Graham is a special person. How someone could speak so straightforwardly about the things he believed yet never be offensive is remarkable.

  • Richard Wade

    I agree, Darryl. Would that other prominent clerics followed his example instead of the Falwell-Robertson model. Is there anyone else who resembles him today?

  • Darryl

    Well, for sheer appeal and kindness, and effective public speaking, Joel Osteen is very good, perhaps one of the best working today. Few fundamentalists–and that’s what Graham is–find it in themselves to draw a line in the sand, and yet not be a dick about it, or even sound like one.

  • cipher

    Mr. Graham is a special person. How someone could speak so straightforwardly about the things he believed yet never be offensive is remarkable.

    Darryl, I found Graham offensive. I just didn’t find him as offensive as I did those who came after him, e.g. the aforementioned Falwell and Robertson. And even they weren’t and aren’t the worst things out there – so, yes, he looked good by comparison. Not much of a recommendation, though.

  • cipher

    I should add that he mellowed as he got older. Have you seen clips of him from the fifties? He was as fire-and-brimstone as you’d encounter.

    And he gave the world Franklin Graham. Thanks, Billy.

  • mikespeir

    Sean may be right, but there are other possibilities. Many of us here know how hard it is to break free of the religion in which we were raised. Long after the intellect tells us it’s bunk, the heart still wants to believe. I read this letter as a last, desperate appeal to a believer of Graham’s stature to make the case for faith. Perhaps the author really hoped for something that might bring him back. In that, I would guess he was disappointed. It won’t matter at last. In time the allure of belief fades.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Long after the intellect tells us it’s bunk, the heart still wants to believe.

    Mikespeir,

    What a profound statement… it gets my mind going in all kinds of directions.

    These are some initial thoughts:

    Perhaps the heart is the better judge of what is true and what is false. Perhaps the intellect is too limited when it comes to things that are beyond understanding, but the heart is not. The heart searches in places that the intellect cannot go. The intellect is within our control, but the heart is not.
    … (?) …

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I don’t think Billy Graham would need to make up the letter. He probably gets a ton of mail, and he only needs to get one of these. It doesn’t need to be representative of his typical mail.

  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    Perhaps the heart is the better judge of what is true and what is false.

    Somewhat doubtful. Otherwise all sorts of contradictory things would have to be true. You don’t think that your heart is the only one with a truth detector, do you?

    The heart may inspire, but cold hard evidence is what’s needed to determine truth and falsity.

    (Idly wonders if G.P. stands for “Graham’s Parishioner” …)

  • mikespeir

    Perhaps the heart is the better judge of what is true and what is false.

    Linda:

    Why would you suppose so?

  • Darryl

    Perhaps the heart is the better judge of what is true and what is false.

    There is no comparison. There are two different truths, one for the mind and one for the heart. The truth of the mind may be universal, or nearly so, but the truth of the heart is particular–you have yours and I have mine.

  • Darryl

    I forgot to add that religion involves both kinds of truth.

  • mikespeir

    Darryl:

    What leads you to think any kind of truth stems from the “heart”?

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Why would you suppose so?

    Mikespeir,

    I was just having a thought-exploring moment based on your statemnt. I was not “supposing” as much as wondering. You were comparing the intellect and the heart, and I wondered why it is that they are not always in sync.

    Perhaps this is because the intellect bases its truth on what is readily observable through the five senses, and the heart bases its truth on the intuition, a sixth sense, if you will.

    I was wondering earlier if the heart’s truth is more reliable. But as I think futher, I have to admit that I have been deceived by both.

    I’m still not done thinking yet, though…

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    on occasion… I have been deceived by both on occasion. (what happened to the editing feature?)

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Yoo hoo, Yoo!! :)

    There was a guy named Woo a while ago. Could Yoo be a brother of Woo?

    Okay… that’s my sad attempt at humor.

    Anyhoo… Yoo, you have a good point! :D

    The heart may inspire, but cold hard evidence is what’s needed to determine truth and falsity.

    So, you DO agree that you need both? You cannot dismiss the part of the truth that the heart can see, can you? One truth is not complete without the other, is it?

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Hemant!!!!!

    The blog is acting funny again… It’s hard to post comments… :(

  • Richard Wade

    The phrase “Follow your heart” looks good on an inspirational poster with a lovely photograph of a flower-strewn woodland path, but when it comes time to make an important decision, it’s not such a good idea. We can write poems about the “truth only the heart can know,” but we still live in the three-dimensional world surrounded by three-dimensional truths.

    There are countless stories about people who followed their heart rather than their mind. When those stories are written in romantic novels, the person usually triumphs in the end. When those stories are written in newspapers, they’re usually in the obituary column. Still it’s the romantic novels that most people remember and use as a reference.

    We can evade either-or decisions for a long time but eventually we get cornered in dilemmas that require either doing what our rational mind recommends or what our emotions desire:

    For many years a woman has been beaten by her husband many times with increasing severity. The latest has caused her life-threatening injuries. As it has many times before, her aching heart says, “I love him. I must go back to him.” For the very first time her aching head says, “He will kill me. I must not go back to him.” Which should she choose? Which will she choose?

    An F-5 tornado is grinding up a small town like a huge, black Cuisinart. Seeing it coming straight for him, a man is at equal running distance from the wooden church where he is a devout member, and the cement edifice of City Hall. His heart says, “Faith is stronger than wind.” His mind says, “Cement is stronger than wood.” He has three seconds to make his decision. Two. One.

    The mind and the heart are both important aspects of a fully developed human being but unlike what popular literature suggests, they should not be used in equal proportion. A little heart goes a long way. I don’t put five ounces of salt on five ounces of scrambled eggs, or a cup of sugar in a cup of coffee. If you do, get to a doctor immediately.

  • mikespeir

    I was just reading some recent posts on Mano Sinham’s site ( http://blog.case.edu/singham/religion/index ). Here’s something apropos:

    The expression to examine something with the ‘heart and mind and soul’ can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device, to imply that one is devoting one’s full and undivided and enthusiastic attention to the task. But when religious people talk about the ‘heart, mind, and soul’, it is clear that they have entered a squishy world where resonant phrases are used to cover a lack of content.

    I can understand what people mean by the mind (it is the cognitive processes of the brain) and what it means to use the mind to examine something. The tools of science enable one to study phenomena and the mind is unquestionably a part of those tools since we need to think and reason about things. The brain-based mind is necessary to do so. But what does it mean to examine things with the ‘heart and soul’ as well? As far as I can infer, it seems to refer to just emotions. If you feel good about something, your ‘heart and soul’ approves. If you feel misgivings, your ‘heart and soul’ is saying no.

    Neuroscientists know that our emotions are the result of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline excreted by various parts of the brain. Hence emotions are also merely the result of the working of the brain. But religious people tend to take these emotional chords as the language that god uses to communicate with them.

    Since many people seem to feel an emotional need for god, it is hardly surprising that their ‘heart and soul’ says yes to the idea that god is talking to them and they then take this as ‘evidence’ that god exists. But is this kind of self-indulgent thinking really to be taken seriously as evidence for god?

  • Darryl

    We can evade either-or decisions for a long time but eventually we get cornered in dilemmas that require either doing what our rational mind recommends or what our emotions desire.

    I don’t get my understanding of what the heart is from pop literature. The mind and the heart are not two things that can be measured out as easily as you suggest.

    I think you have mischaracterized both the mind and the heart. They are not two divisible things. Plenty has been written about the embodied mind sufficient to convince me that no mind is purely rational. Some truths are not understood by reason alone. The truths of art, poetry, and music–the products of the imagination, among which I would place some religion–are not appreciated by the rational mind alone.

    As for your scenarios, a dysfunctional woman that stays with an abusive man has a problem with her judgment because her mind is diseased. In your scenario where the man is caught in a tornado, both his heart and mind are active, and I would say that it’s his lower rather than higher functions that are most active, but, if he is thinking the thoughts you suggest then it’s his mind that is saying both “Faith is stronger than wind” and “Cement is stronger than wood.”

    People are much more irrational than they would like to think themselves. If I had to guess, I’d say that we are less rational. It’s just that we have the capacity to focus our rationality at certain points without denying everything else that we are.

  • http://possummomma.blogspot.com Bethanna

    I tend to think it was made up by Graham’s people

  • mikespeir

    I guess I’m not getting “The truths of art, poetry, and music–the products of the imagination, among which I would place some religion–are not appreciated by the rational mind alone,” Darryl. What “truths” are we talking about here? It’s true that there is art, etc. It’s true that art can influence our emotions. Truths, perhaps, can be illustrated by art. (E.g. A painting of the planet Saturn reflects the truth of Saturn’s existence.) Beyond that, what “truths” are there in art?

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Truths, perhaps, can be illustrated by art. (E.g. A painting of the planet Saturn reflects the truth of Saturn’s existence.) Beyond that, what “truths” are there in art?

    Mikespeir,

    If you must ask that question, then you do not understand art. Art and music are not things that can be “explained.” They just are. Art is an expression of the artist. When you see a piece of art, you just understand what the artist was thinking, feeling, seeing, etc… If you don’t, then you don’t. Not good or bad. Just the way it is.

    Same thing with music. Music just is. And as it plays out, it carries us with it. It has a language of its own that words cannot explain.

    The truth in art and music is the fact that we cannot deny their power. There’s something in them that nourish us and make us thrive… (so I thought…) Maybe that is not true for all of us… ?

    When I was referring to the heart, I was not talking about the rescue-a-puppy-feel-good-romance-novel-touched-by-an-angel kind of touchy feely stuff. I was trying to point to something much more complex (or perhaps way too simple) which is embedded deep within us.

    And Richard, I agree with Darryl. Your examples do not illustrate the difference between the heart and the intellect that I was alluding to. Your examples may point to rational vs. irrational, but they do not quite get to the “heart” of the matter. (pun intended) :)

  • mikespeir

    Linda,

    And what I’m getting at is that art–be it music, sculpture, painting, or otherwise–while it might inspire us in that it provides an emotive impulse, does not contribute to “truth” in any meaningful way. Feelings are not truth. Impressions are not truth. Truth is veridicality; it involves facts; accurate and demonstrable perceptions of reality. The only thing emotion unequivocally tells us about reality is the phenomenon of emotion itself. A view of the world based on feelings is a very shaky structure indeed.

    Now, I don’t mean to trivialize emotion. I sometimes make a nuisance of myself in atheist circles by stressing that we’re as much emotional creatures as we are rational. (Maybe more so unless we’re careful.) Reason can never provide the impulse to do anything. That’s the role of emotion. Even the drive to employ reason is an emotional one. It’s just that emotions don’t enlighten us as to truth. The desire for truth is an emotional fillip that employs reason to seek out truth.

  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    Linda said:

    So, you DO agree that you need both? You cannot dismiss the part of the truth that the heart can see, can you? One truth is not complete without the other, is it?

    While I’d say that we need both, the heart is not necessary at all for determining truth. That is, with only the heart us human beings would be awash in delusions (real world examples should be easy enough to find), while with only the intellect everything we know could be true but we’d be complete psychopaths.

    I just really dislike the hijacking of the term ‘truth’ by some of those of the artistic bent. A lot of art or literature contain valuable emotions and beliefs, but calling them ‘truth’ misleads people into thinking that they’re true or false according to some objective standard in reality. Or at least imply that conflicting emotions or beliefs must be lies …

  • Darryl

    Linda, I agree with your understanding of the truth of the arts insofar as you went. Yoo, you may not like the idea of other “truths,” but you’re hard put to interpret so much of human experience without it. Mikespeir, you said this:

    And what I’m getting at is that art–be it music, sculpture, painting, or otherwise–while it might inspire us in that it provides an emotive impulse, does not contribute to “truth” in any meaningful way. Feelings are not truth. Impressions are not truth. Truth is veridicality; it involves facts; accurate and demonstrable perceptions of reality.

    I disagree. Art is certainly meaningful, and if so must hold the possibility of being true. The truth that you have in mind is not the same kind of truth as I suggest can be had in art, but it is truth nonetheless. I am an atheist for good reason, but I am not unaware of the elements of other truths that inhabit the products of the imagination, even religion, and that explain their lasting appeal.

    I sometimes wonder if atheists do not fall into the systems trap–making all the pieces fit neatly–so much so that they devalue the irrational aspects of human experience. Some of this may be blamed on how we educate people, and the countermanding and contradicting distractions and diversions of pop culture. While it may be true that we have a learning deficit in the sciences here in the U.S., we most certainly have one in the arts and music, and not just their practice, but their philosophy, and the vital part they play in the whole of knowledge.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Darryl,

    A few weeks ago, I would have never thought the following words would come out of my mouth: (or typed by my hands…)

    The letter A does not only stand for Atheist in your case. It also stands for Awesome!!! :-) I’m gonna print out the last two paragraphs you wrote and share it with my church next Sunday!!

  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    Yoo, you may not like the idea of other “truths,” but you’re hard put to interpret so much of human experience without it.

    It’s actually pretty easy: they’re human experiences! Trying to interpret them using overloaded meanings for truth just makes things really confusing.

  • mikespeir

    Darryl:

    As such discussions are wont to be, our difference of opinion seems to be definitional. For me, “truth” can only be that which demonstrably conforms to reality, as I said. I settle on that definition first because it’s what the dictionary says and second because if you get too abstract with “truth” you can easily end up with something that’s too squishy to serve as a stable philosophical foundation. Truth can become whatever someone “feels” it to be; and feelings are notoriously unreliable.

    But, that’s fine. We won’t settle it here, anyway. The sun will keep shining if we don’t. (I hope!)

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Yoo,

    Thank you for responding to my comment. After I posted it, I worried that I might have offended you, which definitely was not my intention. Heck, I had to change my name many years ago because no one could pronounce it. :-) (I’m also Asian.)

    I agree with you that the word “truth” gets thrown around a lot without much thought. However, I firmly believe that there definitely is truth in things other than what is obvious or what can be proven.

    I was going to insert an example here, but I just don’t feel like being burned alive today. I just got over the last one not too long ago. Today is a good day, and I want to hang onto it for a bit. A great day, actually, because it’s been proven to me today beyond any doubt that I had wrongfully judged someone in the recent past. It feels so good to be wrong sometimes…

    Art, music, literature, etc… The creative part of our human-ness… is the “heart” of our society. It is a big part of who we are. If you deny that as half the truth of humanity, then you are denying the part of yourself that makes you uniquely you. Then we might as well all be robots.

    It seems to me that you see the heart as the weaker link to the intellect; but without our creativity and imagination, along with the desire to express them, we have no future. There is the truth of the present that we see here and now, but do not dismiss the truth of the future that remains to be seen and the truth of the possibilities that may never be seen.

  • Darryl

    Darryl: As such discussions are wont to be, our difference of opinion seems to be definitional.

    Indeed we disagree about what is truth.

    if you get too abstract with “truth” you can easily end up with something that’s too squishy to serve as a stable philosophical foundation. Truth can become whatever someone “feels” it to be; and feelings are notoriously unreliable.

    Unfortunately, we live a life that depends upon the abstract–we are abstractors. Many of our greatest ideas, including the idea of “truth,” are abstractions. I’m not looking for “a stable philosophical foundation.” What am I doing, building a skyscraper that’s earthquake proof? I depend upon science as much as you, but I’m also concerned with what is true and what is good (another abstract idea). Why is science good, and how do you know? What makes science more true than a Mozart Symphony? Because one can heat your home and the other only your heart?

  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    My biggest beefs with “truth” from the heart are that it conflates meanings and that I don’t think that it has much value as a separate term.

    The “truth” from the heart and the “truth” from the intellect are very different things, the former being feelings and such, while the latter being something that is true according to some objective standard. If one is careful to distinguish between the two, I don’t have any particularly problem with it, but all too often people who use “truth” in both ways often conflate the meanings.

    The most egregious example are postmodernists, who are the sort to make arguments like “I feel the truth in a picture of a corpse of some specific person, so it could be argued that it must be true that the person must be dead” (sucky parody, I know, but the best I can do at a moment’s notice). All too often, it’s not made clear what kind of “truth” one is talking about, and the two meanings are incorrectly interchanged.

    I also don’t put much value in the term “truth” when used in the sense of “truth from the heart”. Why not just say feelings, emotions, understanding, etc. directly? Saying “truth” could cause confusion with the other meaning with little benefit. But this is mostly a personal preference.

    In summary, my main problem is that “truth”s from the heart and “truth”s from the intellect are two very different things, and it often causes confusion to call them both “truth”s. Just call the former something else that everyone else understands and be done with it.

    Statements in science can be said to be true or false according to some objective standard, or at least “appears to be true or false”, mainly by checking against reality. But what does “a Mozart’s Symphony is true” supposed to mean? I would say that I feel awe, beauty, a sense of rhythm, etc., but I would not say that a symphony is true or false, and I wouldn’t even know what that would mean. (And yes, I enjoy Mozart’s music. :) )

    (Linda, don’t worry about me being offended by my name. I like my name and the confusion it sometimes causes. I like saying confusing things like “Yoo is not you. I am Yoo.” :P )


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