My Life in Movies: Toy Story

buzzcommPeople who know me well know that I think in movie clips. Growing up, movies were my literature, and I still find great pleasure in going to the movies. So it’s no surprise that whenever I want to illustrate something really complicated or important to me, some scene or character from a movie always comes to mind (often it’s from a Pixar movie, but cut me some slack; children have ruled my life for the last 15 years. Also John Lasseter is a genius). To show you what I mean, I’m going to do a short series of posts about which movie moments have stuck with me over the years because they do such a good job of illustrating something I’ve noticed, or learned, or experienced along my journey from faith to skepticism. Today I’ll start with Toy Story.

Discovering the Truth

People often ask me what it was like leaving my faith. Sometimes they are asking about the social repercussions (there were too many of those for just one conversation), but other times they mean for me individually. What was it like transitioning from believing in God to not believing anymore? Was it difficult? Was it disorienting or scary? Disappointing? Sad? What emotions did I experience? That question always makes me think of the moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear discovered that he was not an elite intergalactic space ranger but a kid’s toy with pre-recorded catch phrases, phony stickers, and entertaining sound effects.

This discovery hit Buzz hard. As it was for most people I know who went through losing their religion, for me it didn’t happen all at once like it did for Buzz. For Buzz, all the cognitive dissonance and the shock and the emotions came crashing down in the same instant. Fortunately, leaving one’s faith usually happens much more slowly so you get more time to process what’s going on (sure would be nice, though, if there were more qualified and sympathetic professional therapists to assist with the difficulties that arise along the way. May their tribe increase). But Buzz’s epiphany illustrates this experience well in a short time.

One minute you’re defending the WHOLE GALAXY, and suddenly you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with Marie Antoinette and her little sister.

Can you imagine what that would be like? Yes, as a matter of fact, I think I know exactly what that feels like. See, most Christians are taught that they are a part of a sweeping, cosmic drama with a story arc that spans all eternity. There’s a courageous hero, a sinister villain, an army of invisible evil henchmen, and an all-powerful creator orchestrating all events toward a carefully-planned and victorious resolution. In my particular version of the story, the church served a crucial role in the unfolding of this epic adventure, exhibiting “the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 3:8-11). It was almost as if the entire universe revolved around what was going on inside my own little world. How important that made me!

As a member of the elite Universe Protection Unit of the Space Ranger Corps, I protect the galaxy from the threat of invasion from the evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance!

But then one day he saw something (in this case a commercial) which opened his eyes to the truth. He checked his sources of information again (pushed his buttons, then later peeled back a sticker) and discovered that they weren’t reliable sources of information after all. All at once the realization came crashing down on him that everything he was led to believe about his identity and his purpose in life was just made up. It’s quite a letdown to learn that the cosmically significant narrative which you were programmed to believe was never real in the first place. As it turns out, your own significance, while real to you and to those to whom you matter, plays out on a much smaller scale than you were taught. Buzz took the news hard. First came the shock. Then came the depression. Then came the absurd irrational behavior.

People will do some uncharacteristic things while working their way through the far-reaching implications of this change in storyline. It takes some time to get your bearings. It’s a lot like learning that there’s no Santa Claus. Something previously fun and magical disappears, and the loss of it can bring sadness for a while.

But for me, the sadness of losing a belief in the supernatural was offset by the settling, grounding feeling of realizing that you no longer have to cling to things for which you don’t’ really have good evidence. As a devout Christian you learn to tolerate the constant tension of living in a world that doesn’t operate the way your belief system says it’s supposed to work. You expend a lot of energy trying to make the world act one way while it seems fundamentally wired to behave entirely differently. You don’t even realize how much energy this takes until you finally let go of it. You take a deep breath, accept that the world simply is the way it is (it’s not “broken” and needing fixing, nor are you), and you learn to reorient yourself accordingly.

Buzz learned to find purpose again. Was it as grand or epic as the narrative he was originally taught? No, honestly it wasn’t. But it was real. The most exciting fairy tale in the world isn’t more satisfying than a story that happens in real life. Buzz had plenty of adventures ahead of him, and he had a group of friends with whom he could embark on his new missions. He still had a lot of cool gadgets and some skills that weren’t too shabby. His life wasn’t a waste just because it turns out there’s no intergalactic battle to fight. He found purpose and excitement and companionship in the real world. In the end he didn’t lose anything that was real.

Reaction from Others

People often ask what it’s like relating to others now that I’m “outside the fold.” There’s plenty to say about that as well, and a couple more moments from Toy Story perfectly capture two common elements of that dynamic.

I often find myself interacting with Christians who have never really looked at the world through any other perspective than the one they were given when they were young. They were taught that life without God must be miserable, empty, and cursed. They are wrong about that, but because they’ve never tried seeing the world any other way (you have to “take captive every thought to make it obedient”), they never question this assumption and consequently look on us with condescending pity. “I’m so sad for you,” they often say. Or better yet, they may say something like a guy on a dating website recently said to a friend of mine:

datingfunny

What a ladies’ man. Maybe ridiculously superficial derogatory stereotyping is a big hit with the Christian ladies, I dunno. I kind of doubt this level of condescension goes over well with anybody. But he’s only verbalizing without a filter what many Christians I know are thinking, whether they say it or not. I know this because they’ve actually said almost the exact same things to me on several occasions.

You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity. Farewell.

Pre-enlightenment Buzz said that to Woody, feeling sorry for his lack of awesome cosmic purpose. What a pitiable existence it must be to just be an earthbound toy, when you could be a part of the most important struggle in the galaxy! Buzz’s condescension frustrated Woody, who needed Buzz’s help to solve a pressing problem (getting home). But as you will discover, it is impossible to motivate someone to expend energy on a problem that doesn’t fit into their narrative. For example, just try telling someone who believes Jesus is coming soon that you need their help managing the natural resources of the planet, or that it’s worth the investment to research other planets or to detect asteroid threats. Good luck with that. Woody had to trick Buzz into thinking that heading to Pizza Planet would enable him to escape Earth (quite clever). Perhaps for some the best you can do is find some kind of common goal and use that to elicit their cooperation to the best of your abilities. At some point you have to directly address the faulty narrative, though. Until that changes, you won’t get a ton of help from them.

Jumping ahead to Toy Story 2 (one of the rare instances in which the sequel to a classic animated film was even better than the original), Buzz one day found himself on the receiving end of his own previous zealotry when he encountered a pre-enlightened duplicate of himself.

“Tell me I wasn’t this deluded.” Man, can I relate to that.

It’s an embarrassing thing to encounter a younger version of yourself. So clueless about so many things! Yet so utterly confident in his knowledge about everything! You can only facepalm so hard before it begins to leave a mark. Beyond mere annoyance, however, you often find that the younger version of you (who may even look older, but appearances can be deceiving) is on a mission. He has direct orders from Mission Control to bring you in. Resistance will not be welcomed. He will pursue you and do whatever it takes to coerce you back into compliance with the mission (“You’re breaking ranks, ranger!”).

In time, unenlightened Buzz will find another occupation (in the movie, it still required finding a way to trick him into seeing their goals as integral to his own mission). He will move on and find something else to sweat over, but it can be a humbling thing to see just how convinced of something totally made up a person can get. It’s like looking into a mirror, or rather into a picture of yourself from the past. These are educational moments, though. It should help remind us how religiously we used to cling to the stories we were told in our more formative years. Perhaps if we reflect on that for just a bit, we will work harder to fight confirmation bias and epistemic closure in ourselves today.

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school Geometry teacher, a tutor, a swim coach, a father of five children, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil mostly writes now about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.

  • http://dedicatedtothegame.wordpress.com keithnoback

    This is what Tolkien and Lewis couldn’t let go. Too bad, experience gained a new crispness once the lord faded into myth for me. I think those fellows could have appreciated that sharpening of experience in exchange for their rank in the divine order. Poor, poor bastards. Well, to each their own.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      “You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — You to Lewis and Tolkien

      ;-)

  • http://nablues.wordpress.com tlethbridge

    I don’t know that I will ever again be able to think about my own deconversion process without thinking about Toy Story now. I will probably even have reason to use it as an analogy in conversation someday. Great post GiD!

  • Gra*ma Banana

    This is terrific. I’m older so Toy Story wasn’t around when I de-converted, (however I did like “Fractured Fairy Tales”). I relied on Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, etc. They opened my mind to the realization that there was so much more to the universe. Then Carl Sagan came along. I watched Cosmos. I was on my way. Nothing in the Bible had ever done it for me like the science and science fiction available from these guys. I can’t wait for your next post…er movie clip.

  • Bonnie

    This is great!! I can’t believe I never made the connection before.

  • mikespeir

    Shared this on Facebook. My vast (*ahem*) army of friends needs to read it.

  • dave warnock

    Great post. The correlation is perfect. Oh, Buzz…I once was one of you!

  • http://www.mindfulmusingsatmidlife.wordpress.com derb523622013

    Your mind works in such wondrous ways. I’m so grateful you can put it all into words. Perfect.

  • http://aliceg95.blogspot.com/ Alice

    You expend a lot of energy trying to make the world act one way while it seems fundamentally wired to behave entirely differently. You don’t even realize how much energy this takes until you finally let go of it.

    That is so true. Great post again, I love the way you express these things.

  • Joyce Rutter

    What a great idea for a Blog post! For me, The Truman Show portrays my life in a religious cult. Inside the bubble, a fictitious life. Once outside of that bubble, a wide, wonderful world opened up.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Truman Show’s definitely on my list :) Excellent choice.

  • Seek

    You think in movies. I think in what was written. You are a coward. Cowards who turn back from following the Lord will have their place in the lake which burns with fire.

  • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

    I would argue that cowards are those who let fear rule their lives, fear of things like imaginary punishments for things that aren’t even crimes. Cowards get on people’s blogs and leave anonymous comments because they won’t own up to their own actions in public for fear that they will draw personal criticism.

    We haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Neil Carter. What’s yours?

    • Piobaireachd

      Its name is “Troll”.

  • Seek

    I wasn’t anonymous as you assume. I quoted directly from the Lord God himself. He will deal with you personally from here on.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      So, no name, then?

      • mikespeir

        Don’t know about you, Neil, but “the Lord God” has been going pretty easy on me. ;-)

    • dave warnock

      I guess it was the “Lord God” who was speaking here. That’s the only way the above sentence makes sense. Oh, wait. It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s the Lord God speaking.

  • carmen

    Whoa Neil! If ‘Seek’ is listening to voices from the lord Gawd himself, it reminds me of a line from something else I saw,

    . . . “Step AWAY from that (duck) !” . ..

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Trolls serve a very necessary purpose…how else would we validate our choices?

  • STSuzy

    The final act of my deconversion was a lot like Buzz’s sudden revelation. If my life felt like walking on a tightrope with two ropes on the sides for my hands, losing my faith felt like looking down and seeing that the rope at my feet was never there. It was terrifying for a few moments until I realized I had been pulling myself along the whole time. My eyes opened up and I saw how everything made much more sense without trying to fit it into a God-shaped box. Now I am a very happy atheist with more to live for than at any other time in my life. Life is precious because it is finite.

    Great post – I love your blog, Neil.

  • David W

    I like most Pixar stories, and Toy Story has been near the top for me; but now, with the new associations, I think it has moved to my number 1 spot! lol.

    Thanks Neil. =D

  • Annie

    Another great blog entry, Neil. I look forward to them all.

  • http://gravatar.com/trappedpentecostal Thought2Much

    The Matrix will always sum up deconversion pretty well for me, I think. One day you wake up and realize the world isn’t what you’ve been told it was, and then you can’t go back in and actually believe the fantasy again.

  • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

    Alas Buzz’s new purpose in toy story was made up as well. Move from one fictional purpose to another. I don’t doubt you can make up some new purpose for your life. But how do you know that is real? Because it makes you content?

    Some people aren’t content to just make up a new purpose they want to pursue what they think is the real purpose. If there is no real purpose – oh well nothing lost.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      If there’s no real purpose then it seems to me there’s nothing lost either way :-P

      Except, actually, he WAS a toy, you see.

      And anyways, if one imagined purpose so dramatically fails to correspond to reality that you lose everything chasing ghosts and made up villains, that seems worse to me than the alternative. Some imagined purposes demand such a costly investment for something that turns out to not even exist that you’re sure to end up with a pretty fruitless life.

      Imagine if Buzz hadn’t listened to Woody and instead wandered off into the world under delusion that he was really a space ranger, and would soon leave the planet. He would have ended up depressed anyway and would have had to figure out the truth one way or another. Also that movie would have really sucked.

      • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

        By the way I enjoy reading you blog.

        “If there’s no real purpose then it seems to me there’s nothing lost either way :-P”

        This we can agree on.

        “And anyways, if one imagined purpose so dramatically fails to correspond to reality that you lose everything chasing ghosts and made up villains, that seems worse to me than the alternative. Some imagined purposes demand such a costly investment for something that turns out to not even exist that you’re sure to end up with a pretty fruitless life.”

        If there is no purpose to life then its hard to know what sort of real fruit it should deliver anyway.

        Corresponding to reality is important. It seems to me unlikely that life has a purpose if atheism is true. Sure we can make up purposes but again if we believe in those purposes its believing in make believe, right? I am disinclined to believe in make believe.

        But all this talk of purposes in life does remind me of another movie – The Jerk.

        That said I don’t think Christian purposes fail to correspond with reality. The existence of a real morality seems to me much more likely if God exists than if he doesn’t. I’m not saying real morality can’t exist without God, I’m just saying it seems less likely.

        “Imagine if Buzz hadn’t listened to Woody and instead wandered off into the world under delusion that he was really a space ranger, and would soon leave the planet. He would have ended up depressed anyway and would have had to figure out the truth one way or another. Also that movie would have really sucked.”

        Here are my thoughts:

        I am not sure he would have had to figure it out. Perhaps he would have been depressed, perhaps not. The movie would have sucked if he ended up depressed that’s true.

        But let me end by butchering Nietszche: Do you think the tree of truth cares whether we like the taste of it’s fruit?

    • mikespeir

      What qualifies as a “real purpose,” and who gets to say?

      • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

        If there is a real morality it is not based on our beliefs about it. It is based on reality.

        • mikespeir

          Says who?

          • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

            :)

            You. Don’t you?

          • mikespeir

            I distinguish between reality and fantasy. I’m not sure you do.

  • ctcss

    Neil, your illustration was really well stated (I love Pixar stories, too), but the actual upshot of all this, is that this is just a critique of naive and shallow theism. Christianity (that is, what Jesus taught and illustrated by his words and works) is a far more complex and involved undertaking. Jesus often had to refute the simplistic notions coming from his own disciples, not to mention the theological misperceptions of his contemporaries.

    The point is, anyone who takes a simplistic idea and tries to build on such a flimsy foundation is likely to see the structure being built collapse when it reaches too far. Buz’s view was extremely simplistic because he thought his “mission” was critical to the survival of the Galactic Alliance. He was at the center of everything. When someone takes that kind of view, they are likely to be in for a fall.

    James and John thought they were at (or near) the center of things when they wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan village that wasn’t being hospitable enough towards Jesus. They were rebuked and corrected for their arrogance. Ditto for Peter’s efforts to prevent Jesus from needing to go through the crucifixion. Ditto for Judas’ complaint about the use of the ointment. Ditto for the disciples squabbling about who would get to be top dog in the kingdom of heaven.

    Jesus left a much more complex and nuanced view of what it takes to be Christian. He pointed out the he could do nothing of himself, but that he was there to do God’s bidding and to align himself to God’s will, not his own. So, for any disciple to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, they had better do their best to be Christ-like. Which means learning to be humble rather than arrogant. And to learn what manner of spirit they are of. And to be willing to learn lessons that might be a surprise, and even in seeming opposition, to what they had thought was solid information prior to the surprising new information being made known to them.

    Buz was a neat guy who simply needed (current and ongoing) growth and maturing. So did Woody, despite the fact that he had more experience in life than Buz did. Their predicament, after all, was caused by Woody’s pride and lack of compassion and understanding.

    And I notice that you left out one of the neatest segments in Toy Story 1. Buz had already come depressingly down in his own opinion after seeing the toy commercial and then failing (ultimating in falling) to fly out the window. But even knowing that he wasn’t a flying toy, and that gravity had taken him down big time already, he refused to give up when he and Woody were being blasted into the atmosphere strapped to a rocket. Buz refused to accept the obvious endpoint of their predicament (“Buz, rockets explode!”) and did what should have been impossible. He deployed his wings, cutting the tape attaching them to the rocket, and then despite plunging to certain destruction from a great height under gravity’s influence, somehow pulled out of a vertical dive and chased after the moving van and station wagon. He even recognized that he wasn’t even flying using his own power. (“This isn’t flying. It’s falling with style!”) He was learning he wasn’t at the center of things, but that maybe he could still align himself with a higher and deeper form of thought than what he had previously entertained. This was a much improved outlook from when he had given up on anything being good because all he could see was his own importance and then had found out that his own importance was an illusion. (Very much like the Prodigal Son had to drop his own self-importance before he could come back and find out something better than his own narrowly focused dreams had been centered on.)

    Humility, growth, and maturity are useful when trying to go forward, especially in matters of religious endeavor. And sometimes (as in Buz’s amazing climactic escape) faith is required in order to overcome something that claims there is no way out. Because faith (at least as I understand such things) is not about blindly standing still and doing nothing. Its about recognizing that one’s own power and ability and understanding are simply insufficient at times. And grasping this can help one in learning to more fully rely on God. Which means being willing to listen for God’s guidance and then being obedient to God’s direction. Because that was what Jesus was apparently trying to convey to his followers. Not that Jesus was good and capable. But that God was.

    And yes, I know you disagree with this. But that hardly matters. Because I was taught what is, in effect, universal salvation. Which means that God abandons no one, even if they, for the moment, abandon God. That 100th sheep is always sought out.

    Which is probably a major reason why I am still involved in my faith. I like the message and the promise. And so far, I like what I have experienced relating to that message and promise.

    So keep up the interesting blogging. But I hope that, eventually, you’ll realize that being let down by your evangelical form of Christianity, does not mean that what Jesus taught is somehow lacking. (That would only be the case if what you were taught was identical to what Jesus taught his own disciples. Thus you might conclude that a failure in your efforts might be due to the falseness of Jesus’ teachings. But that identical-ness would need to be proven before such a conclusion could be reached.) But as I said, I think that eventually everyone will find their way. But IMO it does help to keep an open thought about such things.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Buzz didn’t need his narrative tweaked. His problem wasn’t that he was too central to his own understanding of the universe. His problem was that the whole story was wrong.

      HE. WAS. A TOY!

      He didn’t need a more nuanced version of the galactic sentinel narrative. He needed to realize he was a toy programmed to believe in stuff that wasn’t real.

      • ctcss

        Buz was a toy. Cool. Which means that, as you said, “He needed to realize he was a toy programmed to believe in stuff that wasn’t real.”

        My point is that we all need to grow out of our misunderstandings. But just because we find something wrong with an aspect of what we believe to be real does not mean that all that we may know about a subject is also therefore wrong.

        You have rejected your evangelical/fundamentalist understanding of what Jesus taught. Cool. Does that mean that what Jesus taught was accurately reflected in that evangelical/fundamentalist understanding, thus what Jesus taught should therefore be rejected? (As I recall, you pointed out that there are more than 41,000 sects of Christianity.)

        All I am saying here is that before we give up on a path, we should determine whether some (or all) of the path is incorrect. An “all” determination means outright rejection, most likely. A “some” determination means correction, most likely. Applying a “some” solution to an “all” situation, or vice versa, likely means making a wrong decision.

        In your case, you have made a very thorough, years-long effort to do the best you could with your particular brand of Christian understanding. After all of that time and effort, you have arrived at the decision that this particular understanding of Christianity is not working, at least for you. Cool. That sounds like a reasonable decision. You have not, however, made a fair determination of any other understanding of other versions of Christianity, nor of any other religious faiths.

        The point simply being, the fact that you have quit your search doesn’t mean that there is nothing more to search through. You simply have decided that “enough is enough” and that you want to move on. Once again, cool.

        Buz was not a humanoid space ranger equipped with advanced technology. He was, however, Buz Lightyear (one of many, not the one and only), and he was a toy. However, he was not a nameless, shapeless lump of plastic. He had an identity. He was also part of a larger narrative telling a story about the Alliance and it’s foes. He was also a character in a video game illustrating aspects of that narrative. And his character was also imbued with a sense of dignity and purpose, not to mention a sense of fairness, justice, bravery, and loyalty. And (in Woody’s wonderful summation) “You are a really cool toy!”

        Everything that Buz knew was not incorrect. But until he had a better, more accurate sense of things, he was going to run into trouble because of those inaccuracies.

        Everyone needs to learn that they are not the center of the universe. That’s a rather childish notion, and maturity and growth can help to correct that. But rejecting the “center of the universe” view does not mean rejecting one’s identity, but rather engages one in the search for that identity.

        And likewise, rejecting one view of Christianity (or any religion) does not mean rejecting all Christianity or all religion. Rather, it should prompt a person to continue in their search for truth.

        • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

          Which version of which religion have I not personally examined?

          And which version do you recommend?

          And which part of Buzz’s elite intergalactic space ranger narrative was correct? Or just slightly off?

          • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

            It wouldn’t matter how many you’d examined or how much research you’d done. Because you aren’t coming to the same conclusion these Christians came to, obviously you haven’t done enough. The beatings shall continue until morale improves.

        • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

          Exactly how many of the 41,000 versions of Christianity must Neil examine before you feel he has done enough to reject Christianity as a whole? How many versions of paganism, Hinduism, Satanism, Buddhism, and Islam did you study before rejecting them? How many other religions must he investigate before you are content with him rejecting religion altogether? For that matter, why must he investigate other religions? Seems like if any of them were making objectively true claims, that’d be glaringly obvious, enough so that he shouldn’t have to go out of his way to spend his precious finite lifetime tracking down all their different versions and thoroughly investigating them.

          • ctcss

            Cassidy, I don’t think you read my post very carefully. I told Neil his decision to reject his version of Christianity was fine. It’s his business, after all. And in case you also didn’t catch it, I was taught universal salvation. Which means I am not here to save Neal from anything, nor am I trying to get him to come to the same conclusion as I have come to. If he really finds atheism satisfying, he can stay that way as long as he likes as far as I am concerned. The God I was instructed in has no vendetta against non-believers or different believers. So I rather think you are barking up the wrong tree, at least as far as I am concerned.

            You also seem to have missed what I was trying to convey to Neil. He had brought up the point of 41,000 sects of Christianity some time back. And since those 41,000 sects are obviously not identical to one another, it would seem likely that most (and possibly theoretically even all) are not identical to what it was that Jesus taught his disciples. (And of course there is the question of whether any of the other religions in the world are “true”, as well.)

            Neil, after giving it his all over a number of years, finally rejected the form of Christianity he was raised in because he found it to be lacking. That’s perfectly fine, and he is to be commended for his efforts in being so thorough and also in trying to be so faithful. But having examined and rejected one version of Christianity, he has not succeeded in definitively disproving all of them, nor likely any other religions.

            But the fact that I made that point to him does not mean that I expect him to spend the rest of his life looking at every form of Christianity and every form of religion. I was simply pointing out that his rejection of Christianity (what Jesus taught his followers) was a bit premature. As I pointed out to Daniel Fincke (of Camels with Hammers fame, who has a similar background to Neil’s) “A bad marriage for one person does not mean that all other marriages and marriage partners are also bad. And a bad religious experience for one person does not mean that all other religious pathways are also bad.”

            You asked if I had investigated all other religions before choosing my own. No, I did not. But neither did I investigate all other women in the world before choosing my wife.

            Why not?

            Because I found both my religion and my wife to have qualities that strike me in a positive way. I do not understand my wife as well as I might (or should), but I recognize the potential and depth of her character and realize that there is much that my relationship with her offers to me (and also hopefully, to her.) I have a lifetime ahead of me to explore her wonderful qualities. And this goes even more for my religion. There is no way that I can say I have fully explored my religion and plumbed its depths. I have barely scratched its surface.

            And that is my point. I am still in the game because I have yet to find a reason to abandon it. Indeed, I find my religion to be very interesting. And since I find it to be interesting (certainly not troubling), I really am not likely to be moved to investigate all the other religions until I find a major problem with my own. (And along similar lines, I am not looking around to see what other potential spouses exist, either.)

            And that’s just it. The qualities that I perceive in my religion, or in my marriage (i.e. the environments presented to me by my religion and my marriage) do not make me want to escape from either of them in order to find peace and safety. Which means that I can continue exploring them and working at them with a measure of peace, rather than torment. So when I hear of other people being tormented by their religious environments, I usually wonder what it is that they are encountering. And it usually turns out that their environment is very different from mine. (Not always, but far more often than not.)

            It’s not that I think I have all of the answers regarding religion (or my marriage!) But I do think that I am productively engaged in my current religious pathway. The thing is, the question of God’s existence, and learning what there is to find out about God, is a non-trivial endeavor. Heck, learning anything of substance and depth is non-trivial. We don’t know what we don’t know. And even for those things that we think we have a pretty good handle on, we might find our current knowledge and understanding of it to be a bit skewed. Basically, we are all looking “through a glass, darkly”. But as long we are finding out useful things, pursuing further knowledge strikes me as being a good idea.

            And as for your comment regarding religions that “if any of them were making objectively true claims, that’d be glaringly obvious”, I would tend to disagree. According to the gospels, Jesus’ ministry certainly made people stand up and take notice. The problem was, everyone seemed to have a different take on what they were seeing. To some, he seemed to be the promised messiah. To others, he was a servant of Beelzebub. To still others, he was a troublemaker making waves with the powers that be and putting his own people in jeopardy. And millenia later, a number of people are even questioning whether or not he even existed. And even those who were following him around on a regular basis had questions that they were mystified or troubled by. Whatever “objectiveness” his life offered to those who personally knew him didn’t leave them with absolute certainty as to who and what he was, at least not at the time.

            The problem with “objective” facts is that humans tend to take rather subjective views of them. History and life are not items that are hermetically sealed in an experimental lab setting where they are carefully isolated from intruding factors. They happen as they happen, and we have to make of them what we will. If we are intrigued by them, we may persist in looking further. If we are dismayed or unconvinced, we may simply walk away. That which is “obvious” to one person may be completely obscure to another. That’s just the way it goes.

          • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

            First, nothing in the Gospels really happened. They are historical fiction, a strong-arming of Jewish myth and legend into contemporary pagan religious concepts, and nothing more. Sorry about that. Nobody at the time noticed Jesus or thought anything of his ministry, if he or it even existed before the anonymous author of Mark put pen to paper, an existence which is slowly coming into serious question from reputable sources. If anybody thought Jesus (or whatever nameless kernel of a preacher became Jesus) was important, nobody said boo about it until decades after his supposed death. Please, I do encourage you to try to find a single truly contemporaneous writing about him (in other words, writings from 30-40 CE from eyewitnesses to his ministry). You’ll find plenty of authors active at the time in Jerusalem and thereabouts, and I encourage you to read what they say about events in their region. You will find, just as I did, that not a single one ever talks about anything that even vaguely sounds like the NT character of Jesus or the beginnings of Christianity. Not a single miracle, not a single sermon, not a single healing, not a single word. So when you go on and on and on about how important and earth-shattering he was, please remember that nobody at the time thought so. I know you believe it all really happened, and I used to be Christian so I know why you believe that. But when you talk to non-Christians, please be aware that most of us have read real history and real science and consequently have abandoned the idea of the New Testament being even vaguely a reliable accounting of anything, much less of Christianity’s beginnings.

            Second, while I agree that one need not try every single flavor to know if one likes chocolate, you are on one hand telling him to look into other religions/denominations and criticizing him for not doing so, and on the other saying that you feel no need at all to investigate other religions/denominations. That doesn’t seem fair to me. If it really is fine with you that Neil not waste his time investigating other religions, then why spend all this time telling him why he should? You are doing precisely what you say you are not doing: telling him that his abandonment of religion is “premature” because he hasn’t done enough to satisfy you.

            The decision about how much is enough belongs solely in Neil’s hands. He sounds like a big boy to me. I bet he can decide for himself when he’s had enough investigation of religion and when it’s time to call off the search. If it really is okay with you either way what he decides, then his decision is not really premature at all.

          • Esther O’Reilly

            Which actively publishing Jerusalem authors from 30-40 A.D. do you have in mind? Thanks. Also, when you say “reputable sources” are doubting Jesus’ very existence, to whom are you referring? I may not agree with Bart Ehrman, but I know that he among many others remains wholly unconvinced on that front, and I know that Richard Carrier is more than a bit of a punchline in scholarly atheist circles.

          • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

            You will find a lovely list of contemporary authors right here in a piece written specifically to debunk the idea of contemporary sources for Jesus’ life. The guy’s whole blog is simply amazing, but this is a good start for those who want to know about actual history rather than apologetics-history: http://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/ten-reasons-to-reject-the-apologetic-1042-source-slogan/

            Here is another list of authors active around the time of Jesus; some of these, obviously are not 30-40CE, but it ought to get you started: http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/rmsbrg02.htm Start with Pliny and Philo, who were active right at the time of Jesus.

            As to sources, why yes, I know a lot of folks don’t like Richard Carrier, but that’s okay. That idiot saying he was made up by the Romans is definitely not someone reputable, if you’re wondering. But I’m also very impressed by Dennis MacDonald, whose work showing the strong parallels between Homer’s mythmaking and Mark’s mythmaking is quite striking.

            BTW, I said “get you started” because burden of proof is on the person claiming he is real. My response is that I have never seen compelling evidence for the man, so I conclude that the NT version of Jesus did not exist. It should be easy to prove me wrong. Show me an author from that timeframe who actually wrote anything about him while he was alive or who personally witnessed anything he did. A single one will do. You will find, just as I did once, that despite Christians’ claims that he is soooooooooooo totally a real person, all they’ve got is stuff written decades after the fact by people who either cannot be confirmed as witnesses or who definitely weren’t witnesses. I already did the homework. Now you can do yours. It’ll mean more for you to do it, as you find an author, then another, then another, then another, all mysteriously silent about the Gospels/Acts’ claims.

            As to Jesus’ existence: There was a huge tradition of failed apocalyptic Jewish preachers at the time. Josephus mentions half a dozen (many named Jesus, curiously), though obviously he is not a contemporaneous author. I think that the tradition and mythology of a Messiah settled on the thin shoulders of a real person or several persons all doing roughly the same stuff. In the same way, if you think of “TV Psychics,” chances are you conflate several of them–Miss Cleo, Princess JoJo–into one amalgam. Whoever that man or men might have really been, we’ll probably never know at this point. What I can say for absolute, positive sure is that nobody at the time took any note whatsoever of the fellow. Even Philo, a writer active at the time at court whose writings are often considered a basis for Christianity’s mysticism, said not a word about him. I can also say that I don’t know even reputable mainstream Biblical scholars who would say that the New Testament biography of Jesus is even vaguely a true one. Whoever he was, he wasn’t born in a manger under a super-shiny star, didn’t really escape a great massacre of toddlers and babies under Herod, wasn’t really part of a great census (as we do not have his parents’ records in any census done at the time, and someone only mentions their existence in one centuries later), probably didn’t come from Nazareth which didn’t exist as a settled town at that time, didn’t do miracles, and sure wasn’t handed over by a howling Jewish mob to Pontius Pilate in exchange for a thief in some bizarre tradition of clemency. And just as nobody talks about a single event during his lifetime, NOBODY contemporary mentions any of the events around his death–the sun stopping, Jewish zombies rising from the grave to go talk to people, the temple veil tearing. In other words, whatever a historical Jesus looks like, the Gospels are not his biography by any stretch.

            I don’t think he was made up out of whole cloth, but I do think that he is a syncretistic, mythical construct swaddling an obscure and probably impossible-to-determine real identity. I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out exactly who the inspiration for those myths was. The hunt is fun though, and I hope we never stop asking. There’s probably more to be discovered on this question, and I can’t wait to see it.

  • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

    “It’s an embarrassing thing to encounter a younger version of yourself. So clueless about so many things! Yet so utterly confident in his knowledge about everything! You can only facepalm so hard before it begins to leave a mark. Beyond mere annoyance, however, you often find that the younger version of you (who may even look older, but appearances can be deceiving) is on a mission. He has direct orders from Mission Control to bring you in. Resistance will not be welcomed. He will pursue you and do whatever it takes to coerce you back into compliance with the mission (“You’re breaking ranks, ranger!”).”

    You make it sound like during your Christian years you never even considered the possibility that God might not exist or that some other religion might be true.

    I think that there is a possibility that God might not exist. And if so, I will die with some false beliefs. In the meantime I will raise my family with love and try my best to treat others with love as if I was on a mission from mission control. If I die and, somehow, find out the Christian God does not exist should I face-palm? I guess that would depend on what I find out. What should I have been doing anyway? And how would I have known that is what I should have been doing? Will it really matter that I spent my life trying to love others as if I am on a mission from mission control?

    • David W

      Your post contains these three false points:

      1: Pascal’s Wager.

      2: Insinuation that Christianity is the way, or the better way, to living a loving life.

      3: This false belief won’t *really* cause harm.

      Really…?

      • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

        1) I don’t recall going through Pascal’s Wager although I did suggest we think rationally about our options and the possibility that we might be wrong. Is that not allowed?

        2) I stated my belief that as a Christian we should spend our lives trying to love others as if we are on a mission from mission control. I don’t recall comparing that to other ways of living a loving life. I just suggested that I don’t think doing this is face-palm worthy.

        3) What harm do you think will come if I falsely believe I should spend my life trying to love others as if I am on a mission from mission control?

        “Really…?”

        Since you mention it, I wonder if you believe in a “real” morality or if you believe in a subjective one.

        • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

          1. Pascal’s Wager can be summed up neatly by the exact phrase you used: “the possibility that we might be wrong.” It’s certainly allowed to wonder if you’re wrong about something, but you might want to look up Greta Christina’s very capable debunk of the entire concept. The stakes may be a lot different than you envision. Even Blaise Pascal himself conceded that his Wager was kind of ridiculous. In essence, Christians using the Wager are trying to sell their religion based upon fear of the unknown and a hugely disproportionate threat–both blatantly manipulative of the human psyche. If Christianity were true, or any religion really, surely it would not need to sell itself through such shady methods. I categorically reject such manipulation attempts.

          2. I’ve now been a Christian (Catholic to SBC to Pentecostal) and an ex-Christian for half my life respectively. I can absolutely assure you that loving someone while in the middle of a fairy tale, seeing the others in your life in the context of a fairy tale, doing things for them and to them as a result of belief in a fairy tale, is nowhere near as satisfying or as ultimately meaningful as all of that done in a context of clear-eyed reality. YMMV of course. Some people function well in that kind of fantasy. Obviously Christianity did not work well for me, or I’d still be in it myself. The big problem for me was that a huge subsection of Christians have so redefined “love” (to allow them to intrude upon and try to control others’ lives and to express their extreme disapproval of their eroding privilege) that it doesn’t bear much resemblance to any form of it recognized by reality. Because I wasn’t even operating on a valid definition of “love,” all of that time was a waste for me. I am far more able to love my friends and family (and total strangers) now that I’m not trying to fit them into a false framework or relate to them based upon a faulty outlook and a false paradigm.

          3. I don’t know about you, but I alienated my friends, almost estranged myself from my own family, destroyed my career prospects, and ended up with a raging case of PTSD as a result of my experiences “spending my life trying to love others”–all over a religion that simply is not true. I married a very abusive man convinced that it was “god’s will” that I do so, and after fleeing him I got stalked for a year and a half as he tried to “woo” me back (another word Christians have drastically redefined, for that matter). If you feel that this religion allows you to truly love others and make their lives easier and better, then by all means do as you think best. It’s none of my business what you believe, ultimately, nor any of yours what anybody else believes. Neil’s blog entry here very neatly summed up exactly how it feels to be out of the religion for many of us though. If you feel like you’re happy where you are, then as long as you aren’t infringing upon my rights or liberties, my opinion is that you are an adult and allowed to waste your time however you want. Cheers-

  • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

    “Pascal’s Wager can be summed up neatly by the exact phrase you used: “the possibility that we might be wrong.” It’s certainly allowed to wonder if you’re wrong about something, but you might want to look up Greta Christina’s very capable debunk of the entire concept. ….. In essence, Christians using the Wager are trying to sell their religion based upon fear of the unknown and a hugely disproportionate threat–both blatantly manipulative of the human psyche. If Christianity were true, or any religion really, surely it would not need to sell itself through such shady methods. I categorically reject such manipulation attempts.”

    Considering and weighing the consequences of unknowns is the very heart of making rational decisions.

    Consider this exchange:

    President: Lets bomb the military complex.

    Adviser: But Mr. President it might be a school full of children.

    President: Are you saying there is “the possibility that we might be wrong.”

    Adviser: Yes

    President: That sums up Pascal’s Wager you fool! We don’t “know” its a school full of children. I refuse to be manipulated by some “unknown” threat. Bombs away!!

    You refer to Greta Christina’s blog. After she gets through 3 paragraphs of general ranting she does a fair job rehashing some of the standard objections. But she seems unaware of the responses to those objections. (or she willfully leaves them out) If you want to move beyond the knee jerk reactions you might consider:

    William G. Lycan and George N. Schlesinger, “You Bet Your Life: Pascal’s Wager Defended,” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, Oxford University Press, 1992. (I used to be able to find the paper online but can’t seem to do that now.)

    She said one thing that I think is interesting:

    “Does this even count as “belief”?” Unfortunately she does not define what she thinks belief is. So its hard to know what she thinks a belief is. She questions whether we can choose our beliefs but provides no real evidence to prove our volition plays no role in accepting them. Her remarks also make it fairly clear she is ignorant of pragmatic encroachment theories of knowledge. But it is still an interesting question that she raises.

    “I can absolutely assure you that loving someone while in the middle of a fairy tale, seeing the others in your life in the context of a fairy tale, doing things for them and to them as a result of belief in a fairy tale, is nowhere near as satisfying or as ultimately meaningful as all of that done in a context of clear-eyed reality. YMMV of course. Some people function well in that kind of fantasy. Obviously Christianity did not work well for me, or I’d still be in it myself.”

    I see, first, you conveniently assume Christianity is a fairy tale and then go from there.

    But lets focus on what you say here:

    “…doing things for them and to them as a result of belief in a fairy tale, is nowhere near as satisfying or as ultimately meaningful as all of that done in a context of clear-eyed reality….”

    You indicate your actions get 2 things for you now. 1) your satisfaction and 2) ultimate meaning.

    I am not interested living my life for personal satisfaction. I am interested in your second claim though. Do you think the naturalistic (no creator no God or gods no supernatural) world is ultimately meaningful? Was this ultimate meaning there at the time of the big bang or did it come to exist later?

    Also your comment:

    “Obviously Christianity did not work well for me, or I’d still be in it myself.”

    It did not “work well for you” so you no longer believe it? That’s an interesting claim to make when you are attacking the approach taken by Pascal’s Wager. I think Pascal is actually quite a bit more objective as he is at least choosing beliefs based on what reality might be as opposed to what he thinks “works for him.”

    “I don’t know about you, but I alienated my friends, almost estranged myself from my own family, destroyed my career prospects, and ended up with a raging case of PTSD as a result of my experiences “spending my life trying to love others”–all over a religion that simply is not true. I married a very abusive man…”

    I’m sorry to hear that. It seems allot of people end up not believing in Christianity because of bad experiences with those who claimed to be Christians.

    If you have now stopped “spending [your] life trying to love others” and think that is the key to your satisfaction and finding ultimate meaning in the world, well OK. We can just agree to disagree.

    -Cheers

  • http://nablues.wordpress.com tlethbridge

    The problem with Pascal’s Wager is it presents the choice as binary. It is not. The choice is not either believe in the Christian faith (more realistically, whichever subset of that faith you consider to represent the true faith) or atheism. If the “wagerer” decides to choose faith as the safest course, he must still decide whether to choose to believe in Zeus, Odin, Vishna, Zoroasterism, animism, ancestor worship, Yahweh Mark I (Judaism), Yahweh Mark II (Christianity), Yahweh Mark III (Islam), Mark IV (LDS), and the list goes on and on. Even if the wagerer chooses Christianity, the faith I am most familiar with, he still needs to choose between Armenian and Calvinist doctrines, Catholic vs Protestant, charismatic vs non, infant baptism vs adult, etc. And while you may feel those choices don’t really matter, I have read and known knowledgeable Christians using every one of those categories to determine if someone is hell-bound or not. The wagerer cannot choose them all, most of them are mutually exclusive. Which is the safe bet?

    The other problem with Pascal’s Wager (and the evangelical Christianity I grew up in), which you started to touch upon above, is it treats belief as a voluntary decision. I do not believe it is. While I concede humans do have an ability to delude themselves to a greater or lesser extent, belief is largely involuntary. I may believe my wife would never be unfaithful to me, but if I find her in the act with another man it would not be possible to just continue believing. Can you choose to believe in something you don’t currently believe? Could you pick a different faith and just start believing that one if you decided to do so? Could you even restore belief in something you used to believe in like Santa or the Easter Bunny?

    I stopped believing because I actually started studying my Bible and the faith I had grown up in. As I studied, the handful of contradictions I knew of grew in number, the examples of God behaving like a moral monster in the Old Testament grew in number, and the problems kept piling up until I no longer COULD believe. I wanted to, oh how I wanted to. I read numerous apologetics books that were recommended to put my doubts to rest and books by Christians who had gone through questions and ended up still believing. None of these books gave satisfactory answers. For me, the bottom line was the evidence did not support the faith I had always believed and try as I might, I could not continue to believe it.

    I had zero bad experiences with church or my faith. I do have some guilt about attitudes I once held towards people because of my faith. It was simply a quest for answers where the Bible came up wanting.

    • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

      The false dichotomy and assumed doxastic voluntarism are two of the most obvious problems with Pascal’s wager, but there are many more. Here’s a succinct list:

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager

      I used to think it was the worst possible argument for Christianity until I encountered presuppositional apologetics.

      My deconversion was similar. It certainly wasn’t a choice. It was a reaction to things learned.

      • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

        Pascal likely used a false dichotomy at some point. But I think that does not ruin the whole basis of the argument.

        Assuming Doxastic voluntarism is only a problem if you don’t believe in it. I think most people do accept at least some form of doxastic voluntarism. Do you reject all forms of doxastic voluntarism? If so you shouldn’t blame people for being christian or holding any crazy beliefs.

        As far as your “rationalwiki” entry well, its too bad that it only offers criticisms of the arguments and not any defenses. I don’t think its very rational to only look at one side of an issue. I think that is what happens when people put their agenda before truth. Perhaps it should be called the “agendawiki”.

        I’m not going to go plowing through all the “assumptions” that this wiki thinks are legitimate criticisms. Because some are so bad, I would think you would say I am committing the strawman fallacy. But if you personally believe any objections in particular are strong I would be happy to give my view.

    • http://trueandreasonable.wordpress.com trueandreasonable

      “The problem with Pascal’s Wager is it presents the choice as binary. It is not. The choice is not either believe in the Christian faith (more realistically, whichever subset of that faith you consider to represent the true faith) or atheism. If the “wagerer” decides to choose faith as the safest course, he must still decide whether to choose to believe in Zeus, Odin, Vishna, Zoroasterism, animism, ancestor worship, Yahweh Mark I (Judaism), Yahweh Mark II (Christianity), Yahweh Mark III (Islam), Mark IV (LDS), and the list goes on and on. Even if the wagerer chooses Christianity, the faith I am most familiar with, he still needs to choose between Armenian and Calvinist doctrines, Catholic vs Protestant, charismatic vs non, infant baptism vs adult, etc. And while you may feel those choices don’t really matter, I have read and known knowledgeable Christians using every one of those categories to determine if someone is hell-bound or not. The wagerer cannot choose them all, most of them are mutually exclusive. Which is the safe bet?”

      I agree that we still need to choose between these religions and even choose which version of Christianity is best. I agree Pascal did not address this issue. But I don’t really think its a problem. You use the same analysis of weighing the evidence and considering the consequences here. What is the evidence for Zeus? What are the consequences if you don’t believe in Zeus? If you decide on the Christian God yes you need to look at the different religious sects as well and decide which you should go with.

      Lots of times I think Atheists just throw out a bunch of religions, refuse to critically think about them and based on their refusal to critically think about them decide they must all be equal. Now this of course is not true of all atheists some have reached conclusions that if they were going to believe in God then this or that religion is more likely. But others just pigeon hole all of them.

      “The other problem with Pascal’s Wager (and the evangelical Christianity I grew up in), which you started to touch upon above, is it treats belief as a voluntary decision. I do not believe it is. While I concede humans do have an ability to delude themselves to a greater or lesser extent, belief is largely involuntary. I may believe my wife would never be unfaithful to me, but if I find her in the act with another man it would not be possible to just continue believing. Can you choose to believe in something you don’t currently believe? Could you pick a different faith and just start believing that one if you decided to do so? Could you even restore belief in something you used to believe in like Santa or the Easter Bunny?”

      This is an interesting issue. While I agree we can’t necessarily believe anything we want, I do think we have some control. The philosophical term for this is “doxastic voluntarism”

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/doxa-vol/

      I tend to look at this like the question of whether we have free will. I sort of assume we do because if we don’t there was nothing I could do about it anyway. This is actually one of the philosophical reasons why I tend to reject Christian Churches (or any religion) that say when it comes to our salvation is “It’s all God.” Is God judging us or himself? Also I tend to think rational people should try not concern themselves with things that are out of there control. Now Calvinist Christians (and perhaps you) might disagree with me on this. But I think it is a good example of how I and others who follow the general analysis of Pascals wager need to think through which religion they should follow.

      “I stopped believing because I actually started studying my Bible and the faith I had grown up in. As I studied, the handful of contradictions I knew of grew in number, the examples of God behaving like a moral monster in the Old Testament grew in number, and the problems kept piling up until I no longer COULD believe. I wanted to, oh how I wanted to. I read numerous apologetics books that were recommended to put my doubts to rest and books by Christians who had gone through questions and ended up still believing. None of these books gave satisfactory answers. For me, the bottom line was the evidence did not support the faith I had always believed and try as I might, I could not continue to believe it.”

      There are of course passages out of the bible that make me doubt as well. As a lawyer I often have to deal with bad facts. That is in every case – even cases I believe in strongly I have some facts that I know are going to be evidence against me. In other words as a lawyer I can spin and argue but really this fact is evidence against my case. I like to think I am reasonable enough to accept that there are some “bad facts” for Christianity. Some of the bible passages qualify. :)

      But I think the difference between many protestants and Catholics is that Catholics can roll with these problems a bit easier because we have faith in Christ’s Church and not just the bible alone. Moreover for me personally I am not a strong believer in extreme inerrancy of either the church or the bible. (Yes I know what Popes have said on this.)

      I’m just trying to point out other belief systems have some bad facts as well. What is a bad fact for them can be a reason to accept Christianity. I don’t pretend I can convince everyone to be Christian.

      But really I am content if people just think about things and not entirely act out of emotion or what not. It seems clear to me that you are not someone acting out of emotion since you say:

      ” I had zero bad experiences with church or my faith. I do have some guilt about attitudes I once held towards people because of my faith. It was simply a quest for answers where the Bible came up wanting.”

      I am glad to hear that your decision is was not an emotional one.

      I am not sure if you are atheist/naturalist but you may find that those worldviews come up wanting as well.

  • Donald Butts

    Brilliant essay, Neil.

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