Beta testing a book: Chapter 4: This Is What Your Religion Looks Like to Me

Here’s the link to this week’s chapter of the book I’m working on, Angry Atheists?: Why the Blacklash Against Dawkins, Harris, and the Rest Is Silly. In this chapter:

  • How to refute your religion in three easy steps
  • Mormonism: racism, archaeology, goofy beliefs, and more!
  • Why you should leave the Catholic church
  • Avoiding philosophy
  • dorfl

    This may not quite be all you need to do to see why your own religion is false, but I find that nine times out of ten, the arguments religious believers give to defend their religion can be refuted just by pointing out that they would find that argument convincing if a member of any other religion gave it.

    Shouldn’t it be “wouldn’t”?

  • Laurence

    You use the same C. L. Hanson quote twice in the chapter. It seems really awkward reading the same quote twice.

  • dorfl

    You seem to use the same Hanson quote twice. Is that on purpose?

  • dorfl

    Heh. Ninja’d.

  • kagekiri

    The end of the second paragraph of “Outsider Test for Faith” has a “they’re exempting of the local religion” that should be a “their exempting of the local religion”, or maybe even change the “exempting” to “exemption”?

    I found it depressing when you mention that most people using the outsider test for faith would realize that their beliefs looked silly and then reject them. Sadly, it doesn’t always work that way; it didn’t for me when I was Christian.

    I did that first part (looking at your beliefs as an outsider and realizing their ridiculous nature) fairly early in my life, but my faith-deluded response was “Thank God I was born Christian, because if I hadn’t been born into it and indoctrinated, I wouldn’t have been Christian and would be going to burn in hell! Isn’t God so merciful and loving to know I needed to be raised Christian?”

    Even when contradictions or obvious mismatches in the Bible showed up or morally awful things (genocide by God, God cursing future generations, etc) were brought up in Bible studies or sermons, I was more concerned that it would cause non-believers to reject scripture prematurely, rather than thinking they might be proof that the Bible was hardly infallible, not particularly moral, and possibly not literally true.

    The belief in God is basically so ingrained in some people that I think the outsider test for faith won’t convince everyone or really most hardliners, even if they try to honestly apply it. The first thoughts are “shoot, I need to seek God further” or “I cast this evil thought out in Jesus name! Lord, help me with my unbelief!”, not “maybe God isn’t even real!”

    I guess that critique applies to lots of atheistic arguments about God, and I have thought about this too when reading Loftus’s version, but yeah, I thought I might explain the level of crazy where I thought something was wrong with me, not scripture, when contradictions and obviously silly beliefs came up.

    Even some things where I was like “Theologically, evil doesn’t make sense”, or “predestination, heavenly perfection, and omniscience seem to mess with the idea of free-will being worthwhile”, or “evolution seems to have tons of evidence and that means God doesn’t know much about Creation at all”, my solutions were to brush them aside, pray for more faith, and say such questions were basically irrelevant because OBVIOUSLY, God is real and salvation/heaven are all that matter.

    I’ve brought up atheistic stuff to my still-religious sister, but she still holds out because she thinks she’s experienced God’s hand in her life. It’s hard to get around that delusion with mere arguments, because it’s so deeply embedded in many religious believers. They self-censor their doubts and objections, they fight against even their own reason, it’s really quite frightening and depressing how deep the roots can go.

  • cory

    In talking about the people who claimed to have seen the Book of Mormon plates, you wrote:
    “Maybe Smith coerced those men into lying, who knows?”

    Coercion isn’t a very plausible explanation in light of the historical evidence. Some of those men kept on claiming to have seen the plates even after Joseph Smith had died, they had severed their connection with Mormonism, etc.

    I would say that a better explanation comes in two parts, hallucination and artifice:

    Hallucination: Some people are prone to hallucinations, and new religious movements tend to attract a disproportionate number of these. Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Hiram Page were know to Joseph to be visionary types, which is to say, prone to hallucination, prior to picking them to be witnesses. Page had his own seer stone and started having revelations which he claimed to be equal in authority to Joseph’s, so that he had to be swatted down. Whitmer started his own offshoot of Mormonism and claimed to hear a voice directing him to it. So the both had visions incompatible with the truth claims of Mormonism. Martin Harris was overheard to say that he didn’t see the plates with his “natural eyes” but with his “spiritual eyes,” “like a city though a mountain.” Which sounds to most people like a hallucination.

    Artifice: It would have been well within Joseph’s ability to create a set of tin plates to use as a prop. He could then cover them with a cloth or in a box and let people hold them, rustle the edges with their fingers, etc. (And there are reports of him letting people do this.) Martin Harris claims to have held the plates in a sack, and said they weighed about 50 pounds. Harris thought that only gold could weight that much, but he was wrong. Gold plates of the dimensions he gave would have weighed twice as much, but that’s about what that volume of tin would weigh. Joseph claimed to have these plates and let people finger them under a cloth for a couple years before he started “translating” or anyone claimed to have seen them, so his close acquaintances would have had a while to get used to the idea of them as a physical object.

    Now I don’t know how the best way to summarize all that into one brief, uncomplicated sentence, but I think the word “coerced” doesn’t capture it at all. Perhaps something like this:
    “Maybe Joseph conned those men into thinking they saw the plates, or maybe they hallucinated?”

    • Disagreeable Me

      I think for a lot of people it would be too embarrassing to recant after all those years.

      I’d say psychologically, even someone who has broken with Mormonism would be likely to maintain that they had seen the plates even if they had not.

      Don’t forget also that we have a powerful ability to lie to ourselves if we keep a fabrication up long enough. Memory is malleable. It may be that liars could come to believe their own lies, especially if they fervently wished to believe the lies to be true.

  • Kevin

    Actually, as a “just so” story, the Adam and Eve fable has quite a lot in it. In no particular order, it purports to explain:

    1. Why humans aren’t naked like the other animals.
    2. Why humans have to “work”, unlike the other animals.
    3. Why humans appear to have a sense of right and wrong, unlike other animals.
    4. Why human women have a great deal more pain during childbirth than the goats (it’s the relative pain — “greatly increase” — that’s explained).
    5. Why snakes crawl on their bellies.
    6. Why humans are afraid of snakes.
    7. Why humans have “mastery” over animals (the fact of domestication).

    As a fable, it’s probably one of the most-complex tales I can think of. Just a few short verses and you get all of that and more.

    Aesop would have been jealous, had he been aware of it.

  • mnb0

    Exo 32:23
    For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

    I don’t understand how this means that the christian god is showing his backparts. Wrong quote?

  • mnb0

    I do think the Greek myths are brilliant allegories and I am probably not the only one. In fact I do think them way more brilliant than the ones from the OT. To me it’s obvious that the Ancient Greeks who told, wrote and read those allegories understood far more of human nature than their Hebrew contemporaries.
    What’s more, the Greek allegories also deal with my two main objections to the Abrahamistic religions: the theodicy (Greek gods are neither almighty nor all-good nor all-knowing) and causality (which I reject – the Greek gods are way easier to combine with probability than the Abrahamistic ones).
    I’d like you to expand a little on this.

  • mnb0

    You should imo also add an alinea on that nice modern invention, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The reason I bring this up is simple: every time some religious person argues that his/her religion is special for one or another reason – and eg deserves to be taught on primary schools – his/her arguments can be used to promote the FSM as well. Invariably that religious person falls silent – especially the liberal one.
    For, as far as I know, a liberal version of mormonism doesn’t exist. So a liberal christian reading your chapter will shrug – mý religion is not like that. But you know, pastafarianism is.
    Otherwise an excellent chapter – the best until now. It looks like you are gaining steam.

    • Chris Hallquist

      But the Greek myths aren’t divinely inspired in the sense that even many more liberal Christians seem to mean.

  • Chris S

    I assume that in the first paragraph under the OTF heading it should read “at least many atheists” and not “released many atheists.”

  • Chris Hallquist

    Hey everybody. Thanks for the little things you caught, they’re all fixed now. And thanks for generally saying you liked it. :)

  • Disagreeable Me

    Once gain, good idea for a chapter, and I agree with your general message.

    I’m tempted to say that I realized that since I thought those gods were pretty unlikely, I should think the Christian god is pretty unlikely, but it was even simpler than that. What really happened is that I realized I couldn’t believe in the Christian god with no more reasons than I had for believing in the Greek gods.

    You might want to tidy up this language a bit. I am having a hard time appreciating the distinction between the two realisations you describe. In particular this bit: “I couldn’t believe in the Christian god with no more reasons than I had for believing in the Greek gods.” needs work. The language seems a bit wrong.

    After all, most people dismiss a god without ever worrying about whether they can given an argument against the existence of that particular god, as long as that god is not their own.

    Rephrase this to “most people dismiss particular gods … existence of those gods… those gods are not their own”. Using “a god” in the first clause is confusing as it reads like they deny all Gods. “I deny a God” is generally interpreted as “I deny that there is any God”. Also, everybody denies multiple Gods so its clearer if you use the plural.

    Your statement that writers in past centuries would criticise religion in general while appearing to only criticise other religions is fascinating and news to me. I’m curious whether your interpretation (which seems reasonable) is universal or whether there is a substantial contingent that read Hume (for example) more literally.

    Don’t say “future chapter”. Say “later chapter”.

    Your three steps seems to be more of a two steps repeated. I’m quibbling, but I’m a pretty literal-minded guy so this kind of thing bothers me more than most. Meh. You can probably justify calling “rinse and repeat” a step.

    Good point about appealing to theists to at least understand where atheists are coming from in considering their religion as ridiculous as they find the religions of others. I think there’s a difference though: theists find atheists harder to understand than theists of other religions. Theists intuit that there is something mystical or supernatural about the world, while atheists do not. While they may not believe in other religions, they can at least appreciate where other religions are coming from in a way that they cannot understand atheists.

    Best way to explain what mormons actually believe may be to point people towards that South Park episode! Of course it’s worth writing it out, but referencing the episode might be helpful.

    Great example of ridiculous beliefs regarding Joseph Smith not retranslating the same passages. Blindingly obvious to non-believers. New to me too, so good to read.

    Good point of why Mormonism is largely only more ridiculous than other religions because we have more details about its founding.

    About wandering in the desert for 40 years: isn’t God supposed to have provided manna to sustain them? Are we sure they would have left much evidence or might it have been buried in the sands? The evidence against this happening seems less solid to me than the evidence against Mormonism. This is unsurprising, a lot more time has passed.

    Agree with your point about religions becoming more liberal with time. Good point to make.

    I wonder if discussing Mitt Romney too much makes your book too tied to 2012. Presumably, you’d like your book to be just as relevant in 2020. It might be better to put less focus on particular contemporary politicians.

    I don’t think deists believe in a “particular” supernatural super-being. Their beliefs are vague enough that they are of a totally different character to theists who have very specific beliefs about the nature of god. Deist beliefs are motivated more by a sense that there must be some kind of God to answer questions about the creation of the universe or the meaning of life. They’re wrong, but they’re orders of magnitude more right than Christians. In particular, I don’t find their beliefs ridiculous. I don’t they deserve to be criticised in a chapter about how religion looks ridiculous to outsiders. If you have a chapter answering arguments like the Kalam cosmological argument, the ontological argument et al, then that’s where you criticise the deists.

    Nice points about certainty, specifically again with reference to Mormonism.

    Overall: good chapter. Some interesting bits of information and overall some good argument. You’re probably too hard on the deists and you probably shouldn’t focus as much on Romney.

  • John

    I really like this chapter so far. I’m looking forward to when you finish the part on why one should avoid philosophy.

  • patrick jlandis

    I think you should drop or severely edit that whole first section. Instead of saying “I said this, here’s more on that..” Just give the “more on that..”

    Especially so when you mention what you’ll be discussing in the next chapter.

    It’s kind of inherent in the idea of a non-fiction book that what you’re saying in this chapter builds on, or is related to, what you said before, so why bother pointing it out.

  • patrick jlandis

    “In chapter 1, I wrote: “If a child, say one who’d just watched Disney’s Hercules, asked me if the Greek gods are real, I’d say ‘no’ rather than hedge my bets by saying I lack a belief in them. And I don’t see any reason to treat other gods any differently.”

    Why quote yourself from another section of the same book? Write a new sentence conveying the same or similar idea. Plus, I would phrase that conversation maybe as “Your child,” but definitely as “you would say no.” The idea of the Outsider Test of Faith is to have the other person question their faith, why not illustrate that instead of your own thoughts. It makes a stronger impression I think.

    And instead of “In this Chapter..I will say…” Why not touch on what you are actually going to say in a succinct manner. “This idea of questioning your own god in the same way you question Zues’ existence is embodied in the Outsider test of Faith”..[End Graf, begin discussion of Outsider Test of Faith]

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  • Little Magpie

    Quick quibble:
    “The Torah is the most important part of the Bible for Jews, and it’s pretty important for Christians to.” <– should be "too" …. I couldn't see any sort of page numbering, otherwise I'd say which page it's on.

    I know you're probably looking for constructive criticism of content, not proof-reading, but it's an aspect of my personality that this sort of thing drives me nuts. <:

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