Charity, conclusions and cake

In discussing those I have been describing as members of the Cult of Offendedness and addicts of a counterfeit moral superiority, I do not want to presume that they are acting in bad faith.

They are acting in bad faith, but that's not my presumption, it's my conclusion. I am not attributing malice to them, but rather, having observed and studied their attributes, I am noting that those attributes include a vast reservoir of transparent, naked malice. Pretending not to see that wouldn't be charitable, it would merely be dishonest.

It may be helpful here to remember that the presumption of charity is analogous to the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but those who are, in fact, proven guilty are no longer shielded by that initial presumption of innocence.

So I suppose what I need to do, ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury, is to make my case — to lay out the evidence and to convince you that it merits enough consideration to warrant an indictment. After that we can take this case to court and see whether this malice and bad faith and this corrosive obsession with trying to feel morally superior can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

I will try to do that in future posts. In the meantime, whether or until I can convince others of this, I will continue to speak of what I, myself, have become convinced is true. But that is, again, my conclusion and not my presumption. In that regard, I'm not acting as a prosecutor, but as a witness for the prosecution. A witness's job is to tell what they have witnessed, whether or not what they have seen seems charitable to the accused.

I recently finished Frank Schaeffer's memoir Crazy for God which recounts, among many other things, his impression of the leaders of the religious right — people who have chosen as their profession the taking of offense and the propagation of umbrage. Schaeffer describes such people as acting in bad faith, motivated by malice and a disingenuous desire for power. Here is a taste of his description of them:

There were three kinds of evangelical leaders. The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed — sort of — but knew that the evangelical world was shit, but who couldn't figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else. I was turning into one of those, having started out in the idealistic category.

That's pretty brutal, but it won't do to accuse Schaeffer of being uncharitable here because that description, again, is not his presumption but his conclusion. He is telling us what he saw, what he witnessed over many years and thus what he has come to believe to be true. If he paints a nasty picture, that's because he is trying to capture the nastiness of his subject as accurately as possible.

But let's not end on such a nasty note here. The Pursuit of Offendedness is hurtful and corrosive, but it's also wasteful in that it leads us away from something better.

For a reminder of what that something better can look like, let me offer a shortened retelling of one of my favorite stories from the storyteller-evangelist Tony Campolo. This is taken from his book Let Me Tell You a Story — a sort of mixtape greatest-hits collection.

Tony was invited to preach in a church in Hawaii where he winds up sleepless from the time difference, eating breakfast in a greasy spoon in Honolulu in the middle of the night:

As I sat there munching on my doughnut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, "Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm going to be 39."

Her friend responded in a nasty tone. "So what do you want from me? A birthday party?"

… When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter and I asked him, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me, does she come here every night?"

"Yeah," he said. "That's Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?"

"Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday," I told him. "What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her — right here — tomorrow night?"

A smile slowly crossed his chubby face and he answered with measured delight. "That's great! I like it! That's a great idea!"

Harry, the guy who ran the diner, and his wife, who did the cooking, took to the idea with gusto, baking a big cake that read "Happy Birthday Agnes" and getting the word out to all their other late-night regulars. Tony came back early the next night with crepe-paper streamers and decorations and a big hand-made sign.

… by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. … At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend … and when they came in we all screamed, "Happy Birthday!"

… Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to one of the stools along the counter we all sang "Happy Birthday" to her. As we came to the end of our singing, "Happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you," her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Come on. Blow out the candles. If you don't blow out the candles, I'm gonna have to blow out the candles." And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, "Cut the cake, Agnes, we all want some cake." …

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I … is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry shrugged and answered, "Sure! It's OK. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to."

"Can I?" she asked. Then looking at me she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home and show it to my mother, OK? I'll be right back. Honest!"

She got off the stool, picked up the cake and, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left.

After the party, Harry is surprised to learn that Tony is a preacher.

"What kind of church do you belong to?"

"I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

We can either take offense or we can give a party. It has to be one or the other, we can't do both.

I prefer the one with cake.

  • Katz

    There’s no atheist cannon that tells one to be compassionate, but there is one central fact about atheism that inspires many of us—we’re all there is.
    Here’s where I’m going with this. Simple philosophical implications can be interpreted either way. One could take the implications of the premise of atheism (we’re all there is) and reach the conclusion that we’d better help each other, or one could reach the conclusion that nothing that we do really matters. One could take the implications of the premise of theism (there is a God) and reach the conclusion that we’d better be good, or one could figure it doesn’t matter because He’ll sort it out. So far, the views are even.
    But then the Bible is centered around Jesus, who did good works and commanded others to do good works too. On the other hand, as we often study around here, it takes some mental gymnastics to use the Bible as an inspiration to do the bad things that people do with it. Atheism doesn’t have an analogous center. Therefore, I think Christianity has an edge on atheism in the inspiration-to-do-good-works department. (Whether Christians as a whole end up doing good works more is another question.)
    Well, if I were a Christian, I believe I would be (more) selfish, for the above reasons.
    Of course that’s also possible, but I was replying to several posts that specifically denied the possibility that Christianity could have been the cause of one’s good actions.
    What I meant by the second part of my statement is that there is evidence against events as described in the Bible. The Bible is the argument in favor of God’s existence. As such I think that evidence that the Bible isn’t true serves as an indication that the God described therein doesn’t exist.
    The funny thing is I think the evidence for the events in the Bible is good and I believe Christianity strictly because I think it’s true–making people act good or feel spiritual or whatever is just icing on the cake.
    Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
    The way I’ve heard this story: first you have to remember that it’s specific instructions Jesus gave to a specific, very wealthy, person. The basic principle is that you have to put God ahead of stuff. If you don’t worship your stuff, it’s okay to own it. But the only way to know for sure that your stuff isn’t the focus of your life is to get rid of it all. Jesus could see that, even though the rich guy was obeying all the religious rules, what he really loved was his stuff and that he would need a major shakeup to put the focus of his life into the right place.
    I think people who try to make too big a thing of that are doing it more from ego and a, somewhat ridiculous IMO, fixation on Paul than anything else.
    It’s that RTC focus on Paul again. They’re well on their way to becoming Marcionites (we’ll know they’re there when they start actually removing the bits of the Bible they don’t like instead of simply ignoring them).
    No, it has nothing to do with “too many rules” or “too much condemnation of others” or “a bastardized screwed-up broken politicized version of Christianity.”
    It might, even if it doesn’t for you. Different people are different.
    “Oh no, it’s those other people who do bad stuff. I don’t do bad stuff. I’m a good person.”
    Fun fact: that’s pretty much the evangelistic strategy of Scientology.
    Anyway, I loved the “surprise twist” at the end – but the dog thing completely creeped me out!!!! *shudder*
    I love the dog. I also like Mummy, playing the role of both the seer and the innocent.

  • mountainguy

    Talking about uncertainty, science, knowledge, doubt, etc, it would be good to remind those words from Descartes “Le Discours de la Méthode”:
    “From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters; and as I was
    given to believe that by their help a clear and certain knowledge of
    all that is useful in life might be acquired, I was ardently desirous
    of instruction. But as soon as I had finished the entire course of
    study, at the close of which it is customary to be admitted into the
    order of the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I found
    myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I
    had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the
    discovery at every turn of my own ignorance.”

  • Lori

    But then the Bible is centered around Jesus, who did good works and commanded others to do good works too. On the other hand, as we often study around here, it takes some mental gymnastics to use the Bible as an inspiration to do the bad things that people do with it. Atheism doesn’t have an analogous center. Therefore, I think Christianity has an edge on atheism in the inspiration-to-do-good-works department

    This is one of those things about which we simply disagree. I think that if Christianity actually had an edge we’d be able to see it in people’s behavior and it’s just not there.

    The funny thing is I think the evidence for the events in the Bible is good

    We’re apparently using quite different standards of evidence.

  • David

    Therefore, I think Christianity has an edge on atheism in the inspiration-to-do-good-works department. (Whether Christians as a whole end up doing good works more is another question.)
    I’m not sure how these two sentences aren’t contradictory. I mean, to me the definition of an “edge” in inspiration-to-do-good-works would be that it visibly increases the inspiration to do good works…
    It seems like you might have some unstated background implications here… the duality in the quote only makes sense if you’re thinking of (what you believe to be) some “underlying ideal” to the two viewpoints, and measuring against that regardless of whether actual humans can or do live up to those ideals. Whereas I’m very explicitly focused on how humans will actually live them out.
    For example: you suggest that atheistic belief could lead either to a strong obligation to do good, or to selfish nihilism. Logically, you’re right, those are both consistent viewpoints in a way. But they are far from equivalent with respect to actual human life as it is lived. Most people don’t like selfish nihilism. Most people find meaning in helping others. So if you tell someone “If you don’t help these people, no one will, ever”… one possible, not necessarily self-contradictory response is to give up and abandon all responsibility to society. But because empirically we can see that that’s just not how most people live, and not how most people want to live, I’m not willing to say that your two possibilities are equally valid frames of atheistic ethics. As far as I’m concerned, all meaning is human meaning, so pointing out that if we ignore all we know about human psychology, ethics, happiness, etc., then atheism is logically consistent with something bad doesn’t mean that that’s relevant to the real moral implications of the belief…

  • Ruby

    Katz: Let’s go back to the base concept that you’re not inside someone else’s head and therefore they probably know what they’re thinking better than you do. I’m a generous person; I’m generous because of the influence of Christianity on my life. If I weren’t a Christian, I believe I would be selfish, because that’s my natural disposition and I fall back into it when I let Christ drift away from the center of my focus.
    I’m not sure what to say to that except that if that is what you need to be compassionate, then by all means, keep going to church.
    One might be inspired by the example of Christ; one might be peer-pressured into compassionate behavior by the church community; one might simply feel a
    About atheists being compassionate: of course they can be, but I think there’s less in atheism that would inspire such behavior. As has been pointed out before, there’s no canon of atheist belief; it doesn’t necessarily become the root of one’s approach to the world in the way that religion often does. Atheism is not based around a set of stories about someone doing compassionate things (and whose very life is the ultimate act of compassion) and occasionally taking breaks to tell you that you should do those things too. I think that there are all kinds of things in Christianity that might inspire one to compassion, while atheism (as an essentially morally neutral philosophy) doesn’t have much to say on the subject.

    No, atheism simply states that there is no good evidence that there is some supreme being watching us (and watching over us); therefore, we have to make do ourselves. Since there is no evidence that there is a god who will provide, we have to provide for ourselves and each other.
    Atheism is not based around stories of one compassionate guy–but it doesn’t have to be. Anyone can see examples of compassion every single day.
    But there are quite a few churches that do things individuals can’t do alone or don’t get energized to do alone.
    Case in point: my church gives out craptons of water to people running at the Rose Bowl. It’s reasonable to believe that, if my church wasn’t there, very little water would be given out to those runners, certainly not a dozen cases a weekend.

    And good for them. The nice thing about atheism is that you can do all the nice, charitable things churches do, but without the baggage and dogma.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/shiftercat ShifterCat

    @Bugmaster: have you tried the “your software is only as good as your hardware” argument? That is: assuming for the sake of argument that the Bible is divinely-inspired, that divine message had to be filtered through the brains of a bunch of desert primitives. If God went, “Behold, here are the processes of physics and biology which I in My infinite wisdom and power have invented to keep this universe going…” their heads would explode.

  • Ruby

    Katz: But then the Bible is centered around Jesus, who did good works and commanded others to do good works too. On the other hand, as we often study around here, it takes some mental gymnastics to use the Bible as an inspiration to do the bad things that people do with it. Atheism doesn’t have an analogous center. Therefore, I think Christianity has an edge on atheism in the inspiration-to-do-good-works department. (Whether Christians as a whole end up doing good works more is another question.)
    And Jesus gave his fair share of lousy, quite un-compassionate advice, as well. It takes zero mental gymnastics to use the Bible for “bad things.”
    Atheism, indeed, does not have a similar “Jesus-center.” We simply disagree as to whether that is a good thing. Jesus gave some lousy advice and did his share of not-so-nice things. So I’m quite happy that I don’t have to convince myself that he was perfect or the embodiment of goodness. Atheists can take their examples from the many, many people in the world who are good and smart and generous, but they don’t need to call those people divine. They are just like us, just humans in this world trying to do their best.

  • Ryan

    Anyway, I loved the “surprise twist” at the end – but the dog thing completely creeped me out!!!! *shudder*
    I love the dog. I also like Mummy, playing the role of both the seer and the innocent.

    Ah, I see now, this was a response to a comment on page 2. I tried using the search engine to see if I could find what you were referring to faster, and instead I found an old Slacktivist article from 2007 all about twist endings.
    What made it interesting to me was that Fred mentioned Premonition coming out on DVD, which I watched on rental last year. No one ended up discussing that movie, but I thought it made a nice contrast to Fred’s points about The Sixth Sense. Premonition is a movie that does not stand up to multiple viewings. Watch it twice in a row, and you’ll see plotholes right from the beginning, not to mention the overall Idiot Plot required to make the story work the way it does. And the DVD’s alternate ending turned out to be an unsatisfying mindscrew tacked onto the unsatisfying original ending, removed when the director realized for once that it didn’t add up to anything.
    (However, the ending might have worked if they had gone a little further still and shown who was in the shower. I would have gone with a doppelganger of Linda who stares back and says, “Have you figured it out yet?”)

  • Spalanzani

    [ShifterCat: @Bugmaster: have you tried the "your software is only as good as your hardware" argument? That is: assuming for the sake of argument that the Bible is divinely-inspired, that divine message had to be filtered through the brains of a bunch of desert primitives. If God went, "Behold, here are the processes of physics and biology which I in My infinite wisdom and power have invented to keep this universe going..." their heads would explode.]
    So what’s the point of the Bible being divinely inspired if all the good bits had to be left out or distorted beyond recognition to make the whole thing primitive-skrewhead compatible?

  • http://newscum.wordpress.com CaryB.

    If God went, “Behold, here are the processes of physics and biology which I in My infinite wisdom and power have invented to keep this universe going…” their heads would explode.
    “And lo, God said unto Moses, and let it be written amongest the holiest of your scripture, that Mass is equal to energy times the speed of light squared. And let it be known that time and space are one.”
    And then go on to list all your minutae about eating shrimp. Doesn’t make sense to desert people? Who cares? Because as soon as Einstein postulates e=mc^2 the entire world would have their heads blown and instantly convert to…well, Judaism. God told the Israelites a lot of wierd crap that they didn’t understand, primarily, according to christian doctrine, because that was Jesus based prophecy.
    And the basics of evolution or the atom wouldn’t be that hard to explain. Especially when some ancient document has the correct explanation of an atom vs the popular but incorrect Bohr model. And when these things are discovered to be true, millenia later, THAT’S a powerful argument for the existance of God.

  • Bugmaster

    But then the Bible is centered around Jesus, who did good works and commanded others to do good works too. On the other hand, as we often study around here, it takes some mental gymnastics to use the Bible as an inspiration to do the bad things that people do with it. … The way I’ve heard this story: first you have to remember that it’s specific instructions Jesus gave to a specific, very wealthy, person. … But the only way to know for sure that your stuff isn’t the focus of your life is to get rid of it all. Jesus could see that, even though the rich guy was obeying all the religious rules, what he really loved was his stuff and that he would need a major shakeup to put the focus of his life into the right place.

    It sounds like you might be engaging in some gymnastics right there — though, granted, your gymnastics are not as destructive as the ones you allude to. Still, the Bible is a large book, full of contradictory passages. Therefore, a hefty amount of interpretation is required to extract any coherent meaning at all from it — and yes, that includes reading the Bible “literally”.
    As for the Biblical focus on Jesus vs. lack thereof in atheism… I don’t really see why this is important. If you see Jesus as merely an inspirational figure (real or fictional), then you could easily compare him to other inspirational figures, some of whom are our own contemporaries (and are most definitely real). On the other hand, if you see Jesus as a living incarnation of the Deity, then everything else he did kind of pales in comparison, IMO; I think this is why many Christians are focused on the story of the Resurrection, and not on the rest of Jesus’s life.
    Ultimately, though, evidence talks louder than philosophical musings. Can you provide some statistics showing that Christians are more likely to help their fellow man than atheists ? What about Hindus, Buddhists, or Wiccans ?

  • Bugmaster

    That is: assuming for the sake of argument that the Bible is divinely-inspired, that divine message had to be filtered through the brains of a bunch of desert primitives.

    Someone had answered this question better than I ever could:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOfjkl-3SNE

  • Consumer Unit 5012, with certificate and clock

    CaryB.: “And the basics of evolution or the atom wouldn’t be that hard to explain. Especially when some ancient document has the correct explanation of an atom vs the popular but incorrect Bohr model. And when these things are discovered to be true, millenia later, THAT’S a powerful argument for the existance of God.”

    Never mind nuclear physics–if YHVH had wanted to improve the lives of His followers, explaining GERM THEORY would be the way to go. Plagues, cholera and infections have probably more people than Hitler.
    (But if He was trying to impress scientists, stellar mechanics or atomic theory would probably be the way to go, yeah.)

  • random atheist

    Katz, I disagree with you, completely and totally. Others have already said a lot of what I wanted to say, so I’ll just add this: you say you are a generous person. There are many kinds of generosity. One of them is generosity towards the belief systems of others. Part of that generosity can be, simply, not going in to a debate with a stated attitude that your belief system is somehow objectively the best* and other belief systems are, I don’t know, less likely to make people moral or some such. Especially when, as you yourself have said, the question of whether Christians are *actually* more likely to behave morally than atheists or non-Christian theists is decidedly an open one.
    *It may well be the best *for you*, but that’s a separate issue.

  • random atheist

    Actually, having had the chance to think about this a little more, I’d like to do a quick thought experiement. Supposing Fred had told a story about an atheist doing something unusually kind or wonderful (many instances of which I have known, but I’m not going to put them in here unless someone specifically asks me to, because that’s not the point I’m trying to make). Suppose someone had then responded to that by saying, “Yeah, but it wasn’t their atheism that made them do that. Someone from any belief system could have done that.”
    And suppose, furthermore, that I had then said, “No, this is not true. Atheism is more likely to make people behave well to those around them than any kind of theistic belief. There really is nothing whatsoever that can encourage you to help those around you more than knowing that there is *nothing* outside of human agency that will, in fact, help them.”
    Katz, do you think that, in saying that, I might have been being a little dismissive of theism, perhaps a little rude towards the theists on the blog?

  • MadGastronomer

    Yeah, but it’s exceedingly rare that I actually meet people of the type you’re describing.
    You’re totally invited to meet my mom.

    Thanks! I did say rare, though, not never. Two of my grandmothers do a pretty good job of it; also an aunt, and a now-deceased great uncle who was a Catholic priest. There have been a couple I’m not relater to, too. But they’re a tiny fraction of the Christians I have met.

    Not down with the divine Christ thing, though, so I guess in that case it would be more like honoring a legendary hero.

    Now, me, I’m fine with the divinity of Christ, but I don’t particularly believe in the historicity of Jesus.

    A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and tries to follow his teachings.

    Please don’t insinuate that I think I have the one true vision of what Christianity should be, because I don’t and the people who DO think that are the people who I am actively trying to distance myself from.

    Well, I wouldn’t have, except that it was exactly what it sounded to me like you said. A couple of times now. You couldn’t see how anyone could be driven away by real Christianity, only false twisted versions of it. Sounds to me like you have pretty firm opinions on what’s real Christianity and what’s not. Operative words: “Sounds to me”. This is how you’re coming across. I accept your statement that that’s not what you mean, but you’re still sounding like it to me.
    Or, having read farther downthread, what Jessica said.

    That … begins to make sense. I think it is (1) that bothers me – at least, when it takes the form of deriving joy from incomprehension. (Come to think of it, that might be why some fundamentalists call scientists arrogant – because those scientists are attacking zones of cherished ignorance.)

    Well, I, for one, as a member of a mystery religion, do not find experiences of awe at the numinous to be a celebration of ignorance, but to be moments when I am shown something about the nature of whatever I am experiencing, when I gain knowledge, when ignorance falls away from me about whatever it is. For me, worship in the form of awe at the numinous is all about learning and knowing, and I have absolutely had that experience while studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology… I can’t know everything about these things, but suddenly I know more than I did before.

    I don’t have an objection to meditation, but I don’t see it as something that is necessarily religious or even “spiritual”. My problem with meditation is that I can’t do it. I’ve never found a traditional meditation technique that works for me. My brain just goes & goes, like a hamster on a wheel. The closest I come to meditation is running. I can only get my brain to be still when my body is moving. Running is perfect for that because it’s rhythmic, repetitive and doesn’t require any concentration beyond making sure you don’t trip over anything.

    Actually, that is a traditional meditation, just one that’s mostly ignored in Western culture. But the Buddhists have all kinds of moving meditations, precisely because some people don’t sit still and not-think well.

  • http://faithmanages.blogspot.com/ tls

    I expect one reason that some people have a hard time understanding why atheists (or even agnostics) could be charitable but don’t have a problem with believing religious groups can is because when a religious group runs a charity, their religion is visible, whereas when a secular group runs a charity, you really tend to not know much about the beliefs of people involved. The majority of my local food banks are run by churches, for instance, which means you can easily point to them as an example of charity done by Christians. But no one knows whether or not the people dropping the food off at food drives are believers.
    Since I believe God made us with free will, and it seems logical that therefore, people can choose to do good things quite separately from their actual choice to believe or not believe in God. Free will isn’t an all or nothing proposition; it’s every single choice we ever make. I do believe that people who choose Christianity at least ought to be more inclined to do good acts than not, but I also know that that isn’t always the case, and that same free will accounts for that as well.

  • Tonio

    “All they cared about was the fact that I didn’t believe that there was actually a snake that told some naked woman to eat a piece of fruit and that I didn’t believe that some guy actually built a boat and put a bunch of animals in it and that I wasn’t willing to believe that a loving God would condemn someone to hell just for practicing another faith or not having a faith and that I didn’t believe hell was an actual place filled with fire and endless torture.”
    Jason, that makes sense to me because all those beliefs equate to judgments about other people even when the believers don’t see it that way. The first effectively says that humans are inherently bad, and the latter two say that humans don’t deserve to exist. Do you not understand why others wouldn’t take such belief personally?

  • Tonio

    I suspect that the core of “young earth creationism” is the desire for humanity to be at the literal and metaphorical center of the universe, the desire for humanity to have inherent value in the eyes of the universe. The message I get from Genesis literalism is that the earth was created just for us. In psychological terms, that’s like wishing for external validation.

  • Tonio

    It all revolved around their need for “purpose”, and they were honest enough to recognize it.
    My response to them would be that purpose exists only when we create it for ourselves individually – we can’t expect to be assigned a purpose like a Social Security number.

  • Tricksterson, Pastor of the Church of St. Henson

    Lori: You now have me trying to imagine what an atheist cannon would be like and what kind of ammo it would fire.

  • David

    I expect one reason that some people have a hard time understanding why atheists (or even agnostics) could be charitable but don’t have a problem with believing religious groups can is because when a religious group runs a charity, their religion is visible…
    I think there may be some truth in this, but that sort of thing should be easily fixable through statistics, but isn’t. Meaning, all it should take to explain that one is to say “But lots of atheists are charitable, they just don’t have their beliefs in the organization title” and people would go “Oh, really? Okay.” Which sometimes works, but not for most of the population. Even if people know on some level that atheists are charitable, they still don’t understand why.
    If I could just engage in some wild extrapolation from my own Christian upbringing, I have some thoughts on why at least some people feel this way…
    When I was a Christian, much of my thinking about morality was based on obligation, and on the necessity of doing “the right thing.” And I did do some good things and tried to display charity. Partly just because they were good things, sure, but they were always also very couched in obligation: when doing any overt act of charity or whatever, I was always very aware that it was something I “ought” to do. (And so I always felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, etc., but that’s another topic.) I don’t think this negated the actual good I did by any means, but it was impossible for the act to be separate from the sense of obligation, even if it was something I genuinely wanted to do.
    Now, if asked at the time, I would certainly have said that the good I did was because I was a Christian. How could I have thought anything else? Any time I even contemplated doing something good, my emotions, though not my conscious thought, were filled with the sense “this is good so I should do this because I’m a Christian.” It was natural to conclude that if I did those things, then, it was because I was a Christian. And it’s only a smallish jump from there to wondering what incentive an atheist could possibly have to do good things.
    Now that I’m not a Christian, of course, I find that I still do good things, at least as much as when I was one: having been released from the overwhelming sense of obligation that I didn’t even know was there (I’d never known anything else, after all), it turns out that I generally prefer to help other people. But when your thoughts become too occupied by what you should do in order to be a good person, it can draw attention away from actually allowing your better inclinations to manifest naturally. It doesn’t necessarily suppress them (except when it does; cf. my younger self’s views on the evils of homosexuality), but it can cloud some of the reasons for them. Or at least, it did for me, and I have to suspect I’m not unique in that (though neither am I saying that all religious people do good out of guilt and obligation and would be better off abandoning their beliefs… YMMV, of course.)
    So, that is my take on why some probably noticeable fraction of Christians have trouble imagining why atheists might be just as inclined to do good things as they are. I don’t think it explains all or most of them, though, it’s just the reasoning I’m most familiar with…

  • Dash

    Katz: my church gives out craptons of water to people running at the Rose Bowl. It’s reasonable to believe that, if my church wasn’t there, very little water would be given out to those runners, certainly not a dozen cases a weekend.
    Katz, I suspect I may be misunderstanding you. If so, please forgive me and set me straight on just what you’re saying here. I’m not familiar with “running at the Rose Bowl,” so I’m assuming it’s either people doing marathons (maybe for charity?) or simply doing their regular runs or possibly running during the annual parade. In the two latter cases–and in all three, if we’re not talking charity runs–your church is supplying water to a bunch of presumably more or less middle class runners. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if this seems less like a good work and more like a “witness,” i.e., something that is done specifically to be associated with the church and Christianity and generally with the hope that people will identify their benefactors as being Christians (from X church) and become interested.
    Again, I may be misreading this. Unfamiliarity with local customs regarding the Rose Bowl, which I know primarily as the place my college team goes once every couple of years to get their clocks cleaned by the designated representatives of the Pac Ten.

  • Jason

    @Tonio-
    Jason, that makes sense to me because all those beliefs equate to judgments about other people even when the believers don’t see it that way. The first effectively says that humans are inherently bad, and the latter two say that humans don’t deserve to exist. Do you not understand why others wouldn’t take such belief personally?
    So am I understanding this right? You are saying they get so upset that I don’t take these parts of the Bible literally because those are the parts of the Bible that allow them to judge people and I am taking that power away from them…..or I am I way off? If that is indeed what you are saying, I think you’ve got something there.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    Lori: I just remember that coming back from Mexico you drive a long way before you hit the checkpoint where they ask you if you’re bringing back any forbidden items, like food or fireworks.
    Now I’m tempted to drive through one of those checkpoints just to watch the reactions of the guards when I tell them that I’m carrying forbidden fruit. Then again, I should probably be on my best behavior at those places, since I look like “one of them” (and I don’t mean Mexicans) to many mainstream Americans.
    DON’T TASE ME, BRO!

  • Ruby

    David: Now that I’m not a Christian, of course, I find that I still do good things, at least as much as when I was one: having been released from the overwhelming sense of obligation that I didn’t even know was there (I’d never known anything else, after all), it turns out that I generally prefer to help other people. But when your thoughts become too occupied by what you should do in order to be a good person, it can draw attention away from actually allowing your better inclinations to manifest naturally. It doesn’t necessarily suppress them (except when it does; cf. my younger self’s views on the evils of homosexuality), but it can cloud some of the reasons for them. Or at least, it did for me, and I have to suspect I’m not unique in that (though neither am I saying that all religious people do good out of guilt and obligation and would be better off abandoning their beliefs… YMMV, of course.)
    David, very good points. I think people may be forgetting, too, that humans are…well…pack animals. As such, altruism is part of us, just as it is part of all animals that must work together to survive. We may be the biggest, baddest thing on the planet right now, but it’s not because we’re the biggest or the strongest individually. It’s because we have the abilities to communicate and cooperate. Helping each other is a big part of that.
    Heck, altruism can be observed in toddlers. There was an experiment not too long ago that showed toddlers not only had the impulse to assist others, but could tell the difference between when a person needed to be helped, and did not. Not only that, the tots assisted others even when there was no prospect of a reward.
    Sorry for cut-n-paste, but here is a linky: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11641621/

  • Kemist

    The closest I come to meditation is running. I can only get my brain to be still when my body is moving. Running is perfect for that because it’s rhythmic, repetitive and doesn’t require any concentration beyond making sure you don’t trip over anything.

    Oh dear, looks like you’ve been reading my mind.
    I’ve tried to explain that sensation too to non-running addicts, but they think I’m crazy (and an endorphin junkie).
    Another activity which gets me in a similar state is rock climbing. The concentration and effort needed, all focused on your body, pretty much wipe out every other thought you might be having.

  • http://wenzersaddictions.blogspot.com/ Wenzer

    The closest I come to meditation is running. I can only get my brain to be still when my body is moving. Running is perfect for that because it’s rhythmic, repetitive and doesn’t require any concentration beyond making sure you don’t trip over anything.
    That, and knitting, are about the only meditation-like things that work for me. If I’m knitting something fairly brainless, it has the same attributes as running – rhythmic, repetitive, doesn’t require any concentration beyond making sure I don’t drop stitches.
    On the getting my brain to be still only if my body is moving: I can’t listen unless my body is doing something. So I take my knitting to church, CLE’s, meeetings, etc. I get some weird looks sometimes.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/shiftercat ShifterCat

    Jason asked:

    My question is, if you think Christianity rocks and resonates with you, why not try to find out more about it or one of the other religious beliefs that rock? Even if you don’t necessarily ever get to the point where you have evidence enough where you feel you can believe maybe the philosophy will be something that helps your life.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, because I’ve never been genuinely religious. But if you’re not feeling that resonance on a deep and personal level, it’s not really religious faith, is it? It’d be like love: a matchmaker can say, “You two should work very well together because of all these factors” till the cows come home but it won’t mean much if one or both people just aren’t feeling any chemistry.
    The atheists have been all over your question, but I’d also throw in the example of Mr. ShifterCat. He’s a pantheist who believes that the God of the Christians and Jews exists (and that he’s perceived that God’s presence once), but has never felt called to follow Him.
    Michèle my bell-flower said:

    Hey, I know this is completely off-topic and late, but I wanted to thank whoever it was that recommended “Therefore Repent!”

    You’re welcome. :)
    (A few people have mentioned it here, but I was the first, and I got the props. Nyah.)
    Maji asked:

    Anyone? What IS gluttony anyway?

    In the rebooted World of Darkness RPGs, Vices are defined by how they cause a character to put themselves before everyone else. A character who enjoys gourmet food and wine isn’t necessarily a glutton; a character who is an alcoholic isn’t necessarily a glutton either. A character who borrows (or steals) money from his friends so that he can get wasted on the weekend is.
    Spalanzani asked:

    So what’s the point of the Bible being divinely inspired if all the good bits had to be left out or distorted beyond recognition to make the whole thing primitive-skrewhead compatible?

    I guess it depends on what you define as “all the good bits”.
    CaryB said:

    “And lo, God said unto Moses, and let it be written amongest the holiest of your scripture, that Mass is equal to energy times the speed of light squared. And let it be known that time and space are one.” …And the basics of evolution or the atom wouldn’t be that hard to explain. Especially when some ancient document has the correct explanation of an atom vs the popular but incorrect Bohr model. And when these things are discovered to be true, millenia later, THAT’S a powerful argument for the existance of God.

    The relatively simple phrases and theories we have to explain these things took a meatbrain to come up with, when there was enough background knowledge and observation methods to do so.
    I’m sure I’m explaining this idea very badly, but what I was trying to say wasn’t that Deity could find a simple way to phrase things, like adults writing books for children. The concept I’m trying to express is that Deity’s presence is imposed upon the meatbrain, which has to flail about translating things for itself. Therefore germ theory comes out as cleanliness prohibitions.
    It’s sort of like… um… you know how when you look at the concave back of a mask, there’s an optical illusion that causes you to see the mask as convex? It’s because even though your eyes are seeing the concavity, your brain cannot conceive of a hollow face. So your brain translates the data from your eyes in a way that it can understand.

  • http://barkingreed.blogspot.com Josh

    Jessica,
    As far as I know, it was original. I can remember staying up late at night typing it, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t actively looking at anything written while I was doing it. At the time if FELT a little fluid, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean I was posessed. It is possible that I read something like it and it festered in my subconscious to be vomited out in that form. Or maybe a muse gave it to me. Or maybe there is nothing new under the sun.
    I wonder: is recognizeability in art a good or a bad thing? Does it mean I’m derivative – or that I’ve tapped into some broader strain of the mind-culture? I don’t know. One friend told me I sounded like Nietzsche, another said it sounded like Jesus, and another said I was on crack.

  • Tonio

    You are saying they get so upset that I don’t take these parts of the Bible literally because those are the parts of the Bible that allow them to judge people and I am taking that power away from them…..or I am I way off?
    Jason, I was originally explaining the non-Christian reaction to literalist judgmentality. But your theory about the literalist reaction to non-literalism is an excellent one.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/packbat Robin Z

    @Jason 11:31 PM: Adrian Watts, at your service!
    Katz 11:04 PM, 12:02 AM: I can’t help but think you’re imagining atheism is a coherent religion. Not to troperoll anyone, but it’s not exactly like that. Every atheist has their own ideals and role models, and just because we don’t all point to the same one doesn’t mean we don’t have them. I can be inspired by Vince Coleman whether or not Lori or David or Dash or Ruby or Bugmaster or random atheist or any other non-theist has even heard of the Halifax Explosion – that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own heroes.
    MadGastronomer @ 06:40 AM:

    That … begins to make sense. I think it is (1) that bothers me – at least, when it takes the form of deriving joy from incomprehension. (Come to think of it, that might be why some fundamentalists call scientists arrogant – because those scientists are attacking zones of cherished ignorance.)
    Well, I, for one, as a member of a mystery religion, do not find experiences of awe at the numinous to be a celebration of ignorance, but to be moments when I am shown something about the nature of whatever I am experiencing, when I gain knowledge, when ignorance falls away from me about whatever it is. For me, worship in the form of awe at the numinous is all about learning and knowing, and I have absolutely had that experience while studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology… I can’t know everything about these things, but suddenly I know more than I did before.

    Sure, that doesn’t sound like anything to criticize, but it doesn’t really sound like worship much, either. I mean, I don’t get up every morning and think, “wow, the speed of light is an ultimate limit to the velocity of particles!” I move on, and it seems to me that worship doesn’t.
    Unless it’s something like chess, which you can pound away at for your whole life without fulling digging it.
    …I wonder if I’ve just answered my own question.

  • Jason

    @Robin Z-
    Oh wow, you’re Adrian!!! You’re like the first person I ever met in SL just about. That is such an amazing coincidence!

  • Lori

    @raj: I completely understand your impulse re: the border crossing, but I don’t recommend that you follow through. IME the border guards have no sense of humor. Not just at the Mexico-US crossing. The guards at the Windsor crossing to/from Canada weren’t any fun either. I assume that the job sort of sucks and therefore makes people crabby.
    @Dash: About running at the Rose Bowl: People don’t run in the stadium itself (because it’s locked). They run on the road that surrounds the stadium, the parking lots and the golf course next door. It’s basically a 3 mile oval with almost no traffic and since it’s blacktop, not cement it doesn’t kill your knees. There are quite a few charity run/walk events held there, but when people talk about running at the Rose Bowl they mean just going there to do a regular run. There are people there every day, but Saturday & Sunday are the busy days.
    @Wenzer: I think knitting would work the same way for me if I could get good enough not to have to think about it. The times when I’ve had a stretch that was going well it felt similar to the calmness I get from running. It just doesn’t last because I was never better than a very mediocre knitter. I’m so out of practice now that getting back to it would probably be like starting from scratch, but I’m hoping to do it once I’m finished with my degree and have a bit more free time and money.

  • Tricksterson, Pastor of the Church of St. Henson

    I rather like Niven and Pournelle’s interpretation in their version of the Inferno. They have gluttony being an extreme attachment to the appetite and condition of the flesh (excepting Lust, which is one circle up). So not only do they have overeaters in that circle, but also health nuts.

  • hagsrus

    Craptons?

  • Arynne

    You now have me trying to imagine what an atheist cannon would be like and what kind of ammo it would fire.
    Evangelicals?
    *rim-shot*
    If I remember right, “Judas and Mary” was an early ’60s folk hymn by the same guy who wrote “Lord of the Dance”. And no, we never discussed the sexy. Possibly because “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” took up all our attention… ;-)
    If you find someone to share your time
    and you join your hearts as one,
    I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
    from dusk ’til rising sun…

  • Dash

    Lori, thank you for the information about the Rose Bowl. So what this sounds like to me is simply witnessing, rather than a truly charitable act, in the Christian sense of charity (i.e., the virtue, not the thing you get a deducation for). The people giving out water are, it seems, not really offering anything to people that they couldn’t bring themselves. It’s not like, say, providing school supplies to children who can’t afford it.
    I’m surprised Katz chose it as an example. Katz? If you haven’t left this thread entirely, have I misunderstood?

  • MadGastronomer

    Sure, that doesn’t sound like anything to criticize, but it doesn’t really sound like worship much, either. I mean, I don’t get up every morning and think, “wow, the speed of light is an ultimate limit to the velocity of particles!” I move on, and it seems to me that worship doesn’t.
    Unless it’s something like chess, which you can pound away at for your whole life without fulling digging it.
    …I wonder if I’ve just answered my own question.
    Er, it may not sound like your understanding of worship, but I assure you that the revelation of mystery is a vert, very old form of worship. It is, however, a singular experience — it’s not waking up every morning and thinking that the speed of light is an ultimate limit to the speed of particles, it is like they very first time you actually understood why that was true. Yes, of course, people celebrate the same religious mysteries more than once, but each iteration of the mystery is still a unique experience. And the mysteries — by which I mean both religious rituals like the mysteries celebrated at Eleusis in the ancient world, and more concrete mysteries like the Pythagorean Theorem* or Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity — are also like chess, in that, if you keep looking at them, you can keep finding new things.
    *The Pythagoreans, incidentally, were a fascinating cult. Pythagoras himself considered his theorem to be a statement of mystery. And they believed that beans had a connection to the underworld. Plato was a Pythagorean, and changed the cult so much that thereafter the only Pythagoeans left were Platonists, or nearly so.

  • random atheist

    “Er, it may not sound like your understanding of worship, but I assure you that the revelation of mystery is a vert, very old form of worship.”
    Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
    Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
    And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
    To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
    At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
    In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
    Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
    From dusty bondage into luminous air.
    O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
    When first the shaft into his vision shone
    Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
    Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
    Who, though once only and then but far away,
    Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
    - Edna St Vincent Millay

  • http://faithmanages.blogspot.com/ tls

    So what this sounds like to me is simply witnessing, rather than a truly charitable act, in the Christian sense of charity (i.e., the virtue, not the thing you get a deducation for). The people giving out water are, it seems, not really offering anything to people that they couldn’t bring themselves. It’s not like, say, providing school supplies to children who can’t afford it.
    Giving someone something they don’t currently have but that they do currently need is the definition of charity. Lending a pencil to someone so they can take a test is charity even if they have 30 boxes of pencils at home. They don’t have one there, and they need it to take the test. Giving a bottle of water to someone who forgot or didn’t bring enough is still charity even if they could buy an entire crate of Evian. The idea that charity is only necessary when it gives to those in the most need is actually, IMO, what’s wrong with the U.S. welfare system. Not because that shouldn’t be done, but because it only helps the people who are wholly without what they need and leaves the people who can get most of what they need without that last little bit.
    You may be right it’s also witnessing, but unless the bottles of water come with tracts or Bible verses, it’s not the traditional direct witnessing some Christians engage in. It’s the best kind of witnessing: living the life you think is right based on your religion and letting other people make up their mind about what that means.

  • David

    Giving someone something they don’t currently have but that they do currently need is the definition of charity. … Giving a bottle of water to someone who forgot or didn’t bring enough is still charity even if they could buy an entire crate of Evian.
    But it seems from your phrasing like we aren’t even talking about things that people need, we’re talking about things that would cost them at most a couple dollars (that they likely have), or a minute or two’s inconvenience. Keeping them from that inconvenience is a nice enough thing to do, but I still don’t think I’d classify it as something they “currently need.” And while I agree with your concerns about the welfare system (once you’re in the system it can be difficult to get out), I don’t think it’s appropriate to equate that with preventing otherwise comfortable people from minor inconvenience at a voluntary event. Is it a nice of them? Sure. Is it offensive to “witness” in that way? I don’t think so. But when we start using it as an example of the kind of Christian charity that atheists wouldn’t be inspired to perform… well, that might actually be true. If I was involved in an event I might help out in similar ways but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think of it as charity, it’s just… helping out with the event, presumably because you want to.
    I agree with you that charity is still charity even if you aren’t doing it for those with the absolute most need, but I don’t think that means that every nice thing is an act of charity. If two single people both make six figures and one of them covers the other’s $10 bar tab, that’s a nice thing to do, but it’s not really charity even if, as in your analogies, one of them forgot to bring his wallet…

  • http://profile.typepad.com/packbat Robin Z

    Thank you muchly, MadGastronomer and random atheist! I’ll think on what you’ve said.
    @Dash, @tls, @David: I don’t think it’s too helpful to debate whether or not the act is a charity or not – it’s rather like arguing whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound. Whatever the answer, the act is as much a mitzvah as giving directions to a stranger (for example).

  • Tricksterson, Pastor of the Church of St. Henson

    Arynne: Which version of “Lord of the Dance”? I know of at least three. My favorite is the pagan version by Gwydion Penderwenn
    “She walked on the water
    And the wind was Her horn
    The Lady laughed
    And Everything was born
    She lit the sun and it’s light called Him forth
    The Lord of the Dance first appeared on the Earth
    Chorus:
    Dance then
    Wherever you may be
    For I am the Lord of the Dance
    Said He
    And I’ll lead you all
    Wherever you may be
    For I am the Lord of the Dance said He.
    I danced on the morning that
    The world was begun
    I dance with the moon
    And the stars and the sun
    I was called from the darkness by the song of the Earth
    I moved towards the light and She gave me birth
    Chorus
    I dance on the Sabbath
    When ye chant the spell
    I dance and sing
    That everyone be well
    When the song is over do not think I’m gone
    I live in all music so I still dance and
    Chorus
    They press me down
    But I leap up high
    For mine is a light
    That can never ever die
    I’ll live in you if you live in me
    For I am the Lord of the Dance says He.

  • random atheist

    Tricksterson, I think the original Lord of the Dance was by a guy called Sydney Carter, a Christian song-writer who also wrote a song called Friday Morning – I’ve never heard it, but I’ve seen the following lines quoted:
    It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell
    And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well.
    You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
    You can blame it on the Devil, it’s God I accuse.
    It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,
    I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.
    Apparently, it then goes on to accuse God of being to blame for, well, pretty much everything that’s ever gone wrong with the world. It’s an interesting perspective for a devout Christian!

  • Amaryllis

    Glancing at the end of this thread, which I haven’t been keeping up with, and I see there’s a poetry party going on!
    So, on the theme of every-daylight revelation–
    Ark of the Covenant
    Light has come again and found
    The story true that earth is round,
    The dawning water vastly curved
    Where ocean in its farthest arc
    Is separating from the dark.
    Now is the mind consoled and served
    By steadfast and continuing fact,
    Ocean and light the proof, the pact.
    - Louise Townsend Nicholl

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I think I’d like to chime in behind random atheist and say that engaging in a charity one-upmanship seems to me the very antithesis of charity. I am reminded of those who would boast about their own humility and modestness.
    Me, I think it’s another hardware/software issue. Each of us, if we are to do good, finds the software that, when run on our own particular hardware, produces the best results. I can’t speak as to whether atheism or any particular religion produce objectively the most charity in humans. I can say that for me, Wicca is the “software” that inspires my “hardware” to its best performance in such things as charity, responsibility, awe, worship, happiness, fulfillment, and creativity. Beyond reporting my own experience it would be folly for me to venture.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/shiftercat ShifterCat

    @random atheist: It’s speculated that “Lord of the Dance” is an old song which was Christianized. Certainly Jesus is never referred to as the Lord of the Dance anywhere else, and is rarely if ever described dancing. Any pre-Christian lyrics have obviously been lost, so modern-day pagans have come up with their own.

  • Amaryllis

    It’s speculated that “Lord of the Dance” is an old song which was Christianized.
    Is it? I thought it was a modern carol, written by Sidney Carter with a tune adapted from the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” and lyrics more or less based on the traditional carol, “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.” Which, I admit, is the only other song I can think of which refers to Jesus as a dancer.

  • Arynne

    Well, except in the EXTREMELY sketchy Acts of John, which is bizarre, and anti-Semitic (rather like the “Dancing Day” carol) and mentions the Egyptian Ogdoad (!)…and has Jesus singing and leading a round dance before going to his death:
    To the Universe
    belongs the dancer.
    He who does not dance
    does not know what happens.
    I will flee,
    and I will be fled.
    I will adorn,
    and I will be adorned.
    I will be united,
    and I will unite.
    I have no house,
    and I have houses.
    I have no place,
    and I have places.
    I have no temple
    and I have temples.
    I am a lamp to you
    who see me.
    I am a mirror to you
    who know me.
    I am a door to you
    who knock on me.
    I am a way to you
    the traveler.
    Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in Me who am speaking. And when you have seen what I do, keep silent about my mysteries. O you who dance, consider what I do, for yours is this Passion of Man which I am to suffer.


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