Maybe God is a better person than you think

Jesus Creed serves up a guest post by Jeff Cook on one of my least favorite topics: “apologetics” and those awful show-debates between Christians and new atheists.

I love dialogue, I do not love this approach to “debate.” It turns the conversation into a matter of winning and pushes participants away from their complementary quest for truth and towards thinking of themselves as members of Team Christian and Team Atheist. That’s not particularly instructive, interesting or even entertaining.

That tendency infects some of Cook’s post, which reads in places a bit like a coach’s half-time speech for Team Christian (ugh). But if we look past that to the main point of his post, I think he’s saying something rather interesting and important.

After watching a debate between Team Atheist All-Star Sam Harris and some representative of Team Christian, Cook says:

I thought the Atheist won. … I don’t recall anything the Christian said that made me want to believe in his God, yet I had a worthy list of things the Atheist said that made me think the Christian God distasteful.

Cook cites Pascal, who said that Christianity is bound to be despised unless it seems like something that a good person would wish to be true.

What we quite often see these days, instead, is a form of Christianity that no one wishes to be true — not even many of its believers.

Think again of that “I Am Not Charles Worley” essay. I don’t mean to keep picking on poor Halee Gray Scott for writing that, but it’s too useful here to ignore as a classic example of what I’ve elsewhere called reluctant bigotry.

Scott is correct to say that she’s different from the enthusiastically anti-gay bigot Charles “Concentration Camp” Worley. Worley loves the idea that his faith requires him to exclude and condemn. The opportunity to rail against the evil Other and to campaign against the civil rights of LGBT people is, for him, one of the most attractive features of his brand of Christianity.

For Scott, this isn’t an attractive feature, it’s a bug. She wishes it weren’t so. She wishes that God would allow her to be more inclusive and accepting. She wishes that God was as inclusive as she seems to want to be. She wishes her version of the faith didn’t require her to exclude and condemn and oppress, but she doesn’t see any way around it. And so — reluctantly, and as nicely as she can manage — she winds up excluding, condemning and oppressing right along with Worley.

I think Cook’s basic point is correct: It’s very hard to invite anyone to believe anything that they have no reason to want to believe in. It’s very hard to convince anyone to believe in a God who seems distasteful — even to you.

Here’s the really, really weird part of this: Conservative evangelicals reading this are now convinced that what I’m saying here is that we need to reinvent God according to our own preferences. They think I’m saying we need to change what God is really like and who God really is in order to make the idea of God more popular — more palatable and more acceptable.

Let that sink in for a second. Consider the assumptions that shape that criticism — what one would have to presume in order for that criticism to make any sense at all.

What they’re really saying — what they’re really confessing — is that they believe that the actual truth about God is, in fact, unpalatable and unacceptable. They believe that God’s actual character is, in fact, distasteful — that God is exclusive, condemning and oppressive. And that any attempt to portray God as otherwise is a liberal lie.

In this view, God could decide to cherish us, but simply decides not to. That’s worse than “distasteful,” that’s Lovecraftian.

  • Madhabmatics

    Here, let me quote you:

    “Belief in God, any God, is soothing for people who are afraid of
    death, or people who are oppressed and suffering without hope of Earthly relief.”

    Belief in any god at all is soothing for people who are afraid of death? “Any God” refers to any possible variation of God. We know that some gods do not include afterlifes, or include afterlives that are definitely not soothing.

    Your statement is factually incorrect. You can keep moving the goalposts like a champ, but people can actually see the post you made – it’s still on the last page. Belief in some gods is not soothing at all – that is, in fact, the major theme of this post. That people believe in gods and that those beliefs do not, in fact, soothe them, and it creates disquiet in their life.

  • Guest


    I find the Old Testament God a lot palpable than the New Testament God.  He may be a tribal god; he likes the Jews.  But that’s ok.  I’m a tribal person.  There are groups of people I like more than others.

    This. There are plenty of people in this world who I wouldn’t mind seeing smitten in the slightest. Al Qaeda.  Neo-Nazis.  Jerry Springer guests.   Pat Robertson. A plague of boils or making a few pillars of salt could really do some good if properly applied. 


    “As an atheist, you don’t actually know very much about why people believe in any god, so maybe you should’nt [sic] talk about it.” 

    Ex-religious people have, quite often, done things like read up on the psychology, manifestations, and evolution of religion.  Generally I find I know more about religion that the religious people.  As for why they believe- I’m a fairly typical person.  Many of my more basic urges are fairly universal, including superstition and religion.   I’m a copper-bottomed atheist, but I still toss a prayer skywards when I’m really scared. I still kiss a bible if I drop one.  Old habits die hard, and asking for impossible intercession is a very human things.
    As for the question of “experiencing” Gods- are they literally manifesting in the corner of your room and having a physical impact upon the world producing sound waves that you then sense, and reflecting light that you and others can see?  Have these observations been confirmed by reliable outsiders who are mentally sound?  Have you got a recording of these Gods speaking?  Sound is a physical action- the dispersal of force through a medium.  If you can actually hear your gods, they’re having a physical effect on the world, and that should be recordable.

    If, however, you are simply experiencing subjective feelings of fuzziness and warmth combined with gentle nudging in the direction that you knew to be right all along although you didn’t want to admit it- well, yeah, I’ve had that experience of religion. That’s what religion IS- the exact nature of the “right” actions and the names of the gods change, but that’s essentially it.  Religion is a convenient way of convincing ourselves to do unpleasant but necessary things. “Lord give me the strength to get through this day/quit smoking/forgive my mother/treat others more nicely” is essentially backdoor self-motivation.You’re more than welcome to worship anyway you want. Wouldn’t infringe upon that right for all the tea in China.  However, not everyone shares your beliefs. Some people will find them silly. Some people will find them worthy of ridicule.  People mock my love of Doctor Who and canada mints. I mock libertarians.  You can run around in circles and whine about how everyone is mean and no one understands you and they just hate you for being spechul and OMG THE OPPRESSION OF LAUGHTER, or you can act like a grown up, get over it, move on, and enjoy mocking whatever you find mockable, like terrible RTC books or Joe Biden.  ”Hating” and “laughing at” are two different things. As for Sumerian religions- it wasn’t belief in automatic torture after death. More or less the afterlife was…dull. Nothing really happened, nothing tasted good, spirits mainly sit around reminiscing about what they did in life. An eternal old folk’s home, essentially.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any religion of any size that said “Life’s a bitch and then we all go to hell.”  They tend to promise, at worst, an essentially identical world to this, like the Egyptian religions. 

  • Ursula L

    Exactly. I have had more than one unpleasant circular conversation trying to pin this one down. It just can’t be done.  

    The problem is not (merely) one of circular arguments.

    Rather, it gets into the very definition of what “good” is.

    Now, my understanding of “good” is, I freely admit, quite subjective, starting with my own experiences of the world, adding as hefty a dose of empathy as I can manage, and building from there with a strong reliance on what other people tell me of their experiences.

    If someone says “stop it, you’re hurting me” that is, by my definition of good, a fairly strong piece of evidence that what I’m doing is hurting someone, a reason to stop doing it unless there is a powerful reason to continue (e.g., giving a child an injection of a vaccine, to protect the child from a disease that they are not mature enough to understand, and that, with the injection, they are unlikely to ever directly experience.)  And because I don’t like being hurt, and I’ve observed that pretty much everyone doesn’t like being hurt (with certain clearly defined exceptions related to sports and kink), then an action which prompts a “stop it, you’re hurting me” reaction is one that has a strong bit of evidence saying that it is not-good, and which requires further analysis for justification for it to be considered good.  

    ***

    But consider someone who takes good as being defined, not by human experience and empathy, but simply by “the Bible.”  

    Now, the Bible is a fairly large anthology, with multiple writers, perspectives, etc.

    You’ve got Jesus, in the New Testament.  Who spoke in parables and stories, and mixed metaphors  in all sorts of ways.  Between sheep and goats, and spendthrift sons, and sacks of money buried in the ground, sorting out what the message is supposed to be requires relying on human experience and empathy.

    Both of which are utterly irrelevant to sorting out what is “good” from the perspective that defines “good” by “what’s in the Bible” and only that.  

    Then, you have the Old Testament.  The Ten Commandments and so on.  

    But what does that mean?  It says not to murder, but then you have stories like the battle of Jericho, where the Israelites are told to murder the entire population of the city.  So that rule doesn’t mean much.

    It says not to steal.  The Israelites steal a lot of stuff from the native Canaanite population, but they were told to do that, so it isn’t really stealing.  So respecting property rights is probably good.

    You’ve got the bits about respecting God in various ways – don’t worship other gods, which isn’t a problem when you don’t believe that other gods exist, and don’t consider ways in which material things can be placed above God in human life. The Sabbath? Everyone likes a day off.  Idols or graven images?  Not really culturally relevant, as there are well established excuses why things like photographs or sculpture, even religious sculpture and art, don’t count.  

    Then there are the sex rules.  The general prohibition on adultery in the Ten Commandments, and the various rules in other parts of the OT.  That’s the one thing that you can almost figure out a clear set of rules on.  Make a list of everything forbidden.  Notice that there aren’t really many bits that explicitly state that what you thought was forbidden is actually good. If you think a bit more about the rules, you’ll see that things like consent, personal happiness, and the bodily autonomy of others are completely irrelevant.  

    If you want “good” to be defined  by “the Bible” and without any influence of subjective and suspect human experience, then the rules about sex are ideally suited to be the focus of what you consider to  be good or bad, right or wrong.  

    Adult men have a list of sexual options, which are either promoted (e.g., sex with your wife), permitted (sex with a female prostitute) or prohibited (sex with another man, another man’s wife, or a man’s virgin daughter.)  

    Women are property.  The man who owns them decides when and with whom they may have sex.  A father can arrange for his daughter to be married to a man, with whom she is obligated to have sex, to become a man’s concubine, with whom she is obligated to have sex, or to sell her as a slave, in which case her owner decides when and with whom she will have sex, whether it is with her owner, for her owners profit as a prostitute, or for other reasons of his choosing, such as requiring her to have sex with a guest, or to reward a male slave or servant.  

    Ownership of women can also be transferred by theft, a girl or women being taken captive.  In this way, a wife or virgin daughter can become a slave, physically having no choice but to submit to the sexual decisions of her captor.  And her captor is permitted to use her sexually, or use her sexuality for his own profit, as he chooses.  But she still subject to punishment for sexual transgression if her legitimate owner, father or husband, regains control over her.  The transfer of ownership, from the point of view of her husband or father, was not legitimate, and therefore did not free her from her legal obligation to comply with their sexual control.  If they can capture her captor, they can punish him for using her sexually against their will.   

    A woman who has sex in a way not authorized by the man who owns her is sinning, and will be punished.  There are narrow circumstances when the possibility that that she might have tried to resist a sexual attack and failed can be considered, (e.g., an attack happening outside the town walls, where she is given the benefit of the doubt that she might have fought and called for help, but been physically overwhelmed and her cries for help not heard.)  which is a mitigating circumstance that reduces her punishment.   (That is, the man who raped her is forced to marry her, so that her prior owner is not stuck with ownership of a damaged woman, but she is not killed for sinning.)  

    So, in the rules for sexual behavior, you don’t merely have an area where humane people and Bible-rule-bound people disagree.

    You have an area of ethics which people focused on defining “good” by “the Bible” have their very best and most detailed example of how to define “good” entirely by detailed Bible rules.  The rules have no interest in sorting out such messy, subjective and human concerns as happiness and consent.  ”Good” for a man is defined by what the Bible says a man can do, what the Bible says a man may do, and what the Bible says a man must not do.  And “good” for a woman is defined by absolute obedience to whatever man is designated her owner at any given point in her life.  Within the limit that she isn’t supposed to do anything with a man if he isn’t permitted to do it.  But without any practical means of resisting a man who wants to do something with/to her that he is not permitted to do.  And without the right or power to resist if the man who owns her decides she will comply with a sexual demand,  permitted or not.  And she’s morally and legally responsible for her sexual behavior, without any right or ability to control her sexuality.

    From their point of view, there is no circular argument.  There is no argument at all.  There is simply definition of “good.”  

    Definitions aren’t readily argued.  They’re accepted.  If you accept the definition of mathematical symbols so that “2+2=4″ is defined as true, then if the answer isn’t “4″, then the question can not be “2+2=?”

    And you have an area of ethics  where the Bible is utterly irrelevant to what is “good” by any standard that considers human happiness, consent, equality, respect for other humans as humans, or pretty much anything most of us would consider important in any understanding of ethical behavior.  Our every human and humane objection to defining sexual “good” by strict adherence to Biblical sexual laws is rejected as incorrect and damaged in the same way that we’d rejected a pocket calculator that gave the result “2+2=5.”  

    This isn’t circular argument, but disagreement on the basic definition of “good” with each side absolutely rejecting the other side’s foundational axioms  and definitions of basic terms.  

  • AnonymousSam

    Well, if you want to play it that way, Jesus assures us that if you have even a miniscule amount of faith, prayer will grant you anything your heart desires — the example he uses repeatedly is even as much as moving mountains. So the God of the New Testament is the world’s biggest sugar daddy, I suppose? Except for that whole fiery damnation and eternal torment thing that may or may not actually apply to anyone. Hmm.

  • flat

    Interesting discusion and the comments are really great here is my opinion abot those subjects.

    The reason I believe in God is because I want to believe  in Him.
    that’s all

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    We’ve already had this discussion. You seem to insist that there is only one way to interpret the Bible (also that the Bible is the complete and only core of Christianity, and that your impression of Christianity applies to all religions). I, and I seem to recall I was not alone, explained other valid, commonly held interpretations.

    It’s tiresome to carefully describe nuanced things on the assumption that one is genuinely engaging in dialogue when each time your conversation partner jumps back on square one a few weeks later.

    No, the Old Testament doesn’t make me agree with your assertation about the basis of Christianity. You seem to be happy with your view and I’m too tired to have the same fruitless conversations again, so we’re just going to have to continue to disagree.

  • Benly

     Not being able to understand a being’s motivations doesn’t mean it’s impossible to understand what it wants you to do, though.

    Your dog doesn’t understand why it’s allowed to pee here and not allowed to pee there, or why you want it to drink this water but not that water. It might have its own ideas (“this is the big guy’s water”, “I’m not allowed to mark on his territory”) but they will certainly be entirely wrong. Your dog’s brain is simply not structured to understand the abstract reasons you don’t want him peeing on the rug – but it is certainly capable of being taught that you don’t want him peeing there.

    Likewise, an omnipotent being could quite straightforwardly inform humans “I want you to build churches to me and praise me constantly”. The humans’ guesses about why it wants these things and why it doesn’t just force them to do it if it wants those things would almost certainly be wrong, but it could certainly issue orders we would understand and, given that as you say it is impossible for us to understand its motivations and goals, it’s not unreasonable to say that such a being might find reason to do so.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Headscratches* If we’ve had this discussion before, I have no memory of it. But then again, my memory is roughly as reliable as a narcoleptic watchdog, so I’ll take your word for it. I would, however, like to say that months of following Fred have somewhat improved my disposition toward Christianity — albeit not by enough to avoid having disagreements, obviously.

    What I would say is that I don’t interpret the Bible any particular way, since as I said, there are two irreconcilably different interpretations of God present here- the one who happily takes credit for everything bad that happens to everyone, and the one who is said to be love itself and the source thereof. Each author has their interpretation of God. Some of them seem to have nothing in common with each other. With that in mind, I can’t have any one opinion of what the Bible contains.

    My assertion, however, is that the older stories come from a pair of tribes of particularly barbaric people and their perspective heavily, um, colors the narrative. I’m not certain at all that this perspective has been dropped entirely out of present day believers either, or else we wouldn’t have such a depressingly high number of people who are so very certain that God’s will is made known to us by how many people are killed in a natural disaster, and that God speaks of them secret words in the night which begin with the phrase “Craft many molotov cocktails, that my will be done…”

  • Tybult

    What they’re really saying — what they’re really confessing — is that they believe that the actual truth about God is, in fact, unpalatable and unacceptable.

    Well I’ll be goddamned, but I never thought I’d agree with conservative Christians. (And I still don’t, once you get down to the nitty-gritty*, but I agree with the quoted statement.)

    “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

    That’s a pretty unpalatable message. Oddly enough, it was Fred who helped put that into context for me: 
    If you go all in on this idea, and give away all your stuff, and tell the powerful to stop the empire-making, and embrace the whole radical topsy-turvy worldview, you’re going to become about as popular as the Bubonic Plague.
    The Powers That Be like their throne on top of the world. We saw this just last fall – you bring an assault rifle to a Tea Party rally, it’s all good. 
    You bring a drum and the scent of patchouli to an Occupy Protest? Get ready to eat some billy club, motherfucker!

    And there’s my new personal favorite, Amos (who I think Fred quoted on Superbowl Sunday a few years back):
    “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.”

    That’s why I love him – he’s strolling into a party and saying “this is all horseshit, and there’s a hard rain about to fall, and none a yous is gonna like it.”

    *The nitty gritty being that it’s rich white males saying that God says the poor have to eat shit. As opposed to my own view, which is that the rich should be enjoying a a seven course shit meal every evening around 7 pm.

  • Gale

    How can that square with the concept of omnipotence, though? We can’t explain bacteria or theobromine poisoning to a dog, but that’s because we can’t, not because we’ve decided not to. We don’t have that ability, but if we did, we probably would. By definition, however, a being with limitless power (and perfect knowledge of how to apply that power) cannot be limited by our simple brains if it wanted to make itself understood. We might have trouble working out the reasoning of an omniscient being by ourselves, sure, but if a being is omnipotent, then it could choose to explain to us its complete multi-dimensional infinite-timespan plan purely through interpretive dance performed by a moth tied to a rock, and not only would we be able to understand it completely and easily, it still wouldn’t necessarily change our worldview. That’s just what omnipotence means. You can’t define something as possessing limitless power, and then add in a bunch of implied limitations to make it easier to understand. I think the dog-human analogy isn’t really useful, and actually kinda misleading.

  • MadGastronomer

    Most atheists, such as myself, were born into a religion, and often
    were believers. Which means we are quite qualified to talk about exactly
    why people believe in any God.

    Nope, you’re qualified to talk about why you used to. And since atheists don’t, anymore in the case of those who used to, many of them are pretty biased about why people who do, do. And anyone who makes vast overgeneralizations about why people believe is full of shit.

  • MadGastronomer

    Tone arguments are always a fun addition to any thread. It’s always
    constructive to shut down any criticism of an ideology because the
    person criticizing is a dirty outsider oppressing you with their
    offensive minority* opinions.

    Not a tone argument. A tone argument is when you say, “The way you said that was mean, so I don’t have to listen to you.” I said that an atheist, being without faith in the divine, is in a poor position to speak to why people believe. It is actually a different thing.

    But yeah; why not? If you believe something is as important as the
    -source and arbiter of morality itself- why can’t I challenge that
    belief? My bible quotes are a little rusty from disuse, but didn’t Jesus
    say something about that? Testing everything and keeping only the good,
    or some-such…

    I didn’t say you, or anyone, couldn’t challenge it, either. Did you even read what I said, or did you just assume I said what you think theists usually say? I just want people to stop making broad overgeneralizations about what other people believe and why they believe it. Or don’t believe it. I’m happy to step on the assholes who insist atheists hate God, too. But to insist that other people really think something they tell you they don’t? Is stupid, illogical, and a jackass thing to do.

    I don’t believe my gods are the source and arbiters of morality, and I have no idea what Jesus said, actually, because I am not a fucking Christian.

    Oh, and I’m a young, mentally ill, queer, cis, white, middle-class woman. And pagan. Since we’re making lists.

    Seriously, I generally think atheists are my allies, because I am a firm public secularist. I would love to take religion out of the realm of something that’s talked about in politics. It’s horrible and hateful. And I can’t run for public office, either, because of religious prejudice. (Not that I want to. I’d make a terrible politician.) But atheists who say completely and provably false things about theists-in-general torque me off.

  • MadGastronomer

    The statement was “why people believe in any god.”
    Therefore experience in one religion is enough to say why
    people believe in “any” God. “Any,” of course, means, “any possible
    variation” and so as a former Christian I can discuss one possible
    variation in quite a lot of depth, including why people believe in that
    possible variation, which means I can say why people believe in a
    specific God, and therefore the initial statement is falsified.

    You can talk about why some people believe in God or gods. Not people-in-general, though, which was really my objection. Possibly poorly worded-objection.

  • MadGastronomer

    Ex-religious people have, quite often, done things like read up on the psychology, manifestations, and evolution of religion….

    Blah blah blah, absolutely bog standard asshole-type-atheist (as opposed to the more common not-asshole type) bullshit. Look, asshole, what I was objecting to was the vast overgeneralization. Not everybody believes for the same reasons, so don’t claim they do, is all I’m saying. Because they’re full of shit, as generalization tend to be. And because, consistently, asshole-type-atheists like you simply discount anyone who says they believe otherwise, and call us liars. Which, fuck you.

    And seriously, relying on my experience remains logical whether or not my experience is provable to you. I’m not asking you to believe in my gods, I’m simply informing you that there are, in fact, reasons that include logic. Because logic is a process, not a conclusion.

    And, for the record, while I do, in fact, have a mental illness, my mental illness does not actually include hallucinations of any kind. Since that always fucking comes up in these discussions.

  • MadGastronomer

    I really should know better than to get into this kind of conversation at all. Especially right now. Fine, never mind, you assholes can call yourself the winners here if you want, because I am too fucking sick right now to deal with it.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

     *pats*

    They don’t even seem to have noticed that you’re not a Christian and thus just as subject to oppression by the Christian hegemony as they are.  Or if they noticed they didn’t internalise it. Conflating non-atheism with Christianity is just as bad as conflating being non-Christian with satanism.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Well, yeah the idea that we will inevitably cease to be is somewhat disheartening. Why would you be glad about that news?

    The first time I really, really, thought hard and realized with jarring visceral understanding that there was nothing in my experience before I existed also means that when I die, it will be, from my perspective, as if I had never existed at all.

    There’s something profoundly weighty and disturbing about that.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Did you even read what I said, or did you just assume I said what you think theists usually say?

    I swear, in 90% of internet arguments about religion it’s the latter. I think we need a macro inserted in all posts by people of any faith that says “I am not your fundamentalist relative from Kansas.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    They don’t even seem to have noticed that you’re not a Christian and thus just as subject to oppression by the Christian hegemony as they are. Or if they noticed they didn’t internalise it.

    PatB definitely assumed MG was a Christian–otherwise the comparison to her/his own minority status as an atheist, and reference to how hard it is for atheists to be elected to public office* makes no sense.

    *in America, it’s worth reiterating while we’re on the subject of overgeneralisations

  • Lori

     

    Well, yeah the idea that we will inevitably cease to be is somewhat disheartening. Why would you be glad about that news?   

    How much time have you spent feeling bad that prior to your birth date* you didn’t exist? I don’t mean wishing that you have been around for some event or that you might have been happier in some other historical period. I mean how much existential angst have you experienced due to the fact that before X date there was no you? No longer existing after you die really isn’t any different from that and there’s no necessary reason why it has to generate any more angst.

    *Let’s skip “life begins at conception” and go with this for the sake of argument. Moving the date a few months doesn’t really change anything about this discussion.

  • christopher_young

    Well, yeah the idea that we will inevitably cease to be is somewhat disheartening. Why would you be glad about that news?

    I’m not an expert on this, but my understanding is that to Hindus, this is as good as it gets.

  • Guest


    This isn’t circular argument, but disagreement on the basic definition of “good” with each side absolutely rejecting the other side’s foundational axioms  and definitions of basic terms. 

    After actually taking the time to sit down and read through the Bible- well, I much prefer Fred’s beliefs, but both sides cherry pick.  Yes, the LaHayes of this world cherry pick the mean verses about hating gays and burning in hell and ignore that whole Sermon on the Mount thing, but the Fred’s cherry pick the verses about Jubilee and love thy neighbor and ignore the bits about women being property and Egyptian children being killed.  /Ultimately, if you took a bunch of kids raised on a desert island, gave them a Bible and told them to build a society based on it, what they’d make would resemble no modern religion.  A true Bible believer would without question, take in a stranger, feed and clothe them, help them on their way. They’d be Good Samaritans- and they’d also be willing to drop everything to go stone a witch.  
    It would be a society marked by acts of incredible charity co-existing with acts of  casual brutality- IE, a very typical bronze age tribe. 
    /

    Heck, a lot of hunter-gatherer tribes still demonstrate this today.  Anthropologists often comment that the same society that would cheerfully give you the last loincloth off their waist will also hunt you down and kill you for violating taboos.  An Israelite in the time of Moses would see absolutely no problem with taking  care of the widow and orphan in the morning and selling his daughter in the afternoon.  Trying to apply the standards of three thousand years ago to today’s situations would make about as much sense as applying their scientific knowledge to the search for the Higgs bosun. We’ve changed a lot since then, as a species. We are disgusted by things that they would find not only normal, but admirable ( like owning slaves or selling daughters) while openly supporting democracy, female suffrage, and the rights of children to talk back to their parents without getting a rock to the teeth. /
     I’m simply informing you that there are, in fact, reasons that include logic. Because logic is a process, not a conclusion.

    /
    And logic includes a very, VERY important principle called “Occam’s Razor”  which states that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, generally the simplest answer is the right one.  And “some sort of immortal supernatural being with powers we cannot ken” is NEVER the simplest answer.  
    /Fine, you believe in gods. Whoop-de-doo. This does not make you special, most people do.  But please don’t tell me its “logical” to do so.  Please don’t steal the tools of science and rational inquiry to buttress your demonstrably irrational and unscientific belief. I don’t claim my experimental results are created by Vishnu or Thor or Zeus, please show me the same respect.asshole….asshole….asshole….asshole/*yawns*  You’re BORING, do you know that?  The constant *RAGEFLAIL*  when you don’t get treated like your religion is spechul and different is boring.  It goes the same every time you post anything.  ”Heres what I think.”  ”Here’s why what you think is wrong.”  ”HELP HELP I’M BEING OPPRESSED BY ASSHOLES!”/Want to be taken seriously?  Argue like a grown up and not like a 4th grader that just learned about swear words.  

  • phantomreader42

    IF your theology depicts god as a sociopath, that’s not a sign that you have some deep insight into the nature of the divine.  It’s a sign that you’ve made your god in your own image, and your god is a hateful, vindictive, sadistic, bigoted sociopath because YOU are a hateful, vindictive, sadistic, bigoted sociopath.

  • Lori

    The problem with this is that you have no way to prove the nature of the divine and therefore there’s no way to demonstrate any relationship between the characteristics of god and the characteristics of believers. 

    It’s possible that god is indeed a hateful, vindictive, sadistic, bigoted sociopath and humans who are hateful, vindictive, sadistic, bigoted sociopaths are the ones who see god most clearly because they can relate. It’s also possible that horrible humans have created a false god in their own image, while the real god is actually loving and good. It’s equally possible that the reverse is true. One of the great, enduring problems with the Bible is that it can support either view and a preference for one over the other does not constitute proof of anything. My comparative religions studies were a long time ago and I’m a little rusty, but from what I remember the non-Abrahamic religions are basically the same way. Good people tend to use their religions to reenforce their goodness and lousy people tend to use their religions to justify their rottenness. And so it goes.

  • http://twitter.com/MAGuyton Morgan Guyton

    Fundamentalists “earn” their salvation by making their God distasteful so that He’s a challenge to believe in. It’s doctrinal works-righteousness.

    It’s basically a variation on the Kantian understanding of objectivity. If I can prove that what I believe has nothing to do with my self-interest, then my beliefs are “objective” since nobody can say that I believe as a matter of convenience. If my God is arbitrary and cruel, then He can’t be my invention and must therefore be the real God. Calvinism is modernity enshrined as religion.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    Which is why I call the Bible a Rorscharch blot. I suspect the same applies to most religious texts.

    TRiG.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    God’s law commands all men to tell the truth and forbids lying. This is the reason we “ought” to affirm two plus three equal five.

    Obviously my computer is far more moral than I am, because I can say “2+3=4″ quite easily (I don’t believe it at all, but that’s what makes it a lie) but my computer is incapable of doing so.

  • hapax

    There’s something profoundly weighty and disturbing about that

    I’m always puzzled by people who say things like that. 

    I mean, I’m a Christian, I believe in an afterlife, although exactly what that afterlife consists of I’m pretty cheerfully vague about, except that the Divine that I have experienced would have zero interest in anything approaching “Hell”, unless someone really really wanted to go there, and even then I’m not so sure, but since that someone isn’t me, it’s none of MY business to be opiniong about.

    But.

    I’m not particularly stoked about the idea of continuing to exist.  I trust in faith that I will like it better than I think I will, but on the whole, I’d rather not.  Ceasing to exist, never having existed, actually sound pretty nice.  Restful.  Unlikely to do any damage.  Appropriate to  being a very small and faint and  brief flicker in the vast panoply of Creation.

    So yeah, folks who say that people are *really*  theists — or even specifically Christian — because they “fear death” or want to deny the reality of suffering or anything like that make me wonder who they are talking about.

    Because it’s certainly not me.

  • PJ Evans

     Please don’t call MG an asshole. She knows her gods exist. She didn’t say that she knows anyone else’s gods exitst, BUTshe isn’t putting them down because they don’t have whatever-kind-of-proof YOU consider definite. (Heck, I’ve had experiences that I would say were with a god.) It isn’t hallucination, experimentally provable, or anything else that would fit in your very limited views.

  • PJ Evans

     damn, fucked the tags.

  • hapax

    And logic includes a very, VERY important principle called “Occam’s Razor”  which states that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, generally the simplest answer is the right one.  And “some sort of immortal supernatural being with powers we cannot ken” is NEVER the simplest answer.  

    Y’know what’s really boring?

    People who keep citing Occam’s Razor without knowing what it actually says.

    Which is “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”  Unfortunately, it gets a little tricky when the question of “what is necessary?” is raised.

    You *might* paraphrase that “the simplest explanation that accounts for all the evidence is to be preferred” (note, NOT “is generally right” or “is usually correct”, which is a very different matter;  the principle is phrased as a normative statement, not a descriptive one).

    When “doing science” — i.e., restricting enquiry into material objects and empirical explanations — it is perfectly valid to automatically discount all proposed supernatural entities as prima facie “unnecessary.”

    However, SCIENCE!!!! is not the only valid human activity, nor the only proper venue for logic and reason.  If one is investigating non-material, non-empirical phenomena (such as a subjective religious experience), it is illogical to pre-emptively rule out such entities (although it is equally illogical to pre-emptively accept them.)

    As William of Occam himself, a noted metaphysicist, would surely have agreed.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I’m not sure which point of mine you were addressing. I wasn’t making any assertions about who fears death or not.

    I was, rather, relating a purely personal revelation I had about the actual physical limits on my knowledge of my continuity on this planet.

  • Marc Tompkins

    That _sounds_ awesome, but how does it actually work?  There are plenty of things I would LOVE to believe in, but – short of heavy pharmaceuticals or a cerebrovascular accident – I can’t.

    I’m not saying this to put down your faith – I’m just saying that there HAS to be more to your faith than “wanting to believe”.  

  • hapax

    Sorry.  Invisible Neutrino.  I was more riffing off your post than responding to it.

    Your personal revelation was one that I hear quite often, so it must be a widely held phenomenon; but doesn’t seem to compute in my own worldview.  I suspect that I must be lacking some kind of “perception of self”-component.

  • River Lizard

     Quote” Just one more form of “God defines what is good and truth because GOD IS
    GOOD AND TRUE, and I can prove this because otherwise we’d all just be
    filthy mindless animals doing anything at all!”

    That is so far from the truth it’s almost not worth discussing.  First of all, I haven’t believed in any type of god since the age of 15, some 37 years ago and I’ll match ANY religious person for a moral standard.  You see, religious people believe that people will sin so even if they do it’s acceptable because they just ask for forgiveness and everything will be OK.  I think that’s a complete joke and it makes these religious people look like dirtbag scam.  The type of people I wouldn’t trust as far as I could spit.  They don’t have a problem lying it seems to come natural to them.
    Being an Atheist, I’ve never had the feeling that I could do whatever I want to do.  I’m not sure how people come up with this mind thought.  I’m a human with a brain, I know right from wrong and I know what my moral standards are with living with other human beings.  I know I don’t want to be anything like your god in the OT, he was evil (mean, heartless, etc..).  
    The only person who should be controlling yourself is YOURSELF.  If you don’t know right from wrong then you have mental issues and should seek help and I’m not talking about some silly bible, but medical help.

  • Marc Tompkins

    I’m an ex-Christian atheist, with no Hindu background of any kind, and it still sounds pretty good to me.

  • Guest


     Please don’t call MG an asshole. She knows her gods exist. She didn’t say that she knows anyone else’s gods exitst

    I wasn’t calling her an asshole. She called me an asshole. Multiple times.  I was quoting her calling me an asshole.  Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    People who keep citing Occam’s Razor without knowing what it actually says. Which is “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”  Unfortunately, it gets a little tricky when the question of “what is necessary?” is raised.
    Yes, that’s what William of Occam said.  But Occam’s razor is just named in tribute to him- it could just as easily be called Ptolemy’s razor, because he said: ”We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible”  I heard of and was familiar with Occam’s Razor as a term for years before I even found out who Occam was. Personally, I don’t care what Occam actually said- the man was a 14th century theologian,  I knew more than him about the actual way the world works before I hit first grade, what with knowing that the earth went around the sun and all. The point is that logically, the simplest answer that fits the evidence is most likely the true one, barring further evidence. Sure, the sun could go around the earth- but that requires massively complex mathematics and crystal domes in the universe and all the other BS Aristotle came up with.  If the earth goes around the sun though, everything is much, much simpler. 


    If one is investigating non-material, non-empirical phenomena  
    Science does this all the time- psychology, number theory, and sociology all come to mind. True, psychology does have a physical basis, but given how little we currently understand of how the brain works, consciousness might as well be a non-material phenomena, and it’s certainly not very empirical.  Science is about replicating results and testing variables.
    When “doing science” — i.e., restricting enquiry into material objects and empirical explanations 
    That’s not what science is.  Science is an investigation of the falsifiable.  Which, granted, rules out experimenting on omnipotent beings, since they can just hide.  It doesn’t rule out investigating non-omnipotent beings. And since a LOT of gods, like Zeus and Thor and even Vishnu are expressly NOT omnipotent, they can be investigated by science, as can most other supernatural phenomena, like pixies and ghosts and leprechauns and magic and prayer.  The existence of Yaweh is not falsifiable. The existence of ghosts is.


    However, SCIENCE!!!! is not the only valid human activity, nor the only proper venue for logic and reason. If one is investigating non-material, non-empirical phenomena (such as a subjective religious experience), it is illogical to pre-emptively rule out such entities (although it is equally illogical to pre-emptively accept them.) 

    That first sentence is true. However, it is the only human activity that is capable of getting a demonstrable, replicable truth…or at least something close to it. You need faith for prayer, you don’t need faith for gravity. What you seem to be suggesting in your second sentence is something like the old ghost hunters argument: “You can’t prove they don’t exist!”  Well, no, you can’t prove a negative.  But what are they made of?  How can they pass through walls? Can we measure them? Do they have mass? 
    One of the reasons Occam’s razor works is that complexity opens up so many more questions- what is God made of? Carbon and oxygen? Silicone and Uranium?  superstable elements we haven’t discovered yet? Thought is wee little electrical impulses in our brain. How can a soul think after death? Do they have skulls to contain the electrical impulses? How could a soul see? They don’t have retinas to stop light beams.  Do souls eat? If yes- how? If not- how do they keep going?  What did God come from?  
    Yes, we can use logic for non-scientific activities. But we cannot discover the truth with non scientific activities.  Of course, I suppose one might not care if ones fundamental beliefs about the universe were true or not, but…that is truly alien to me.  The truth is the truth- all the faith and hope that ever was can’t keep a penny in midair.And you know what?  Name me one other proper venue for logic and reason that isn’t concerned with discovering falsifiable truths about the universe. “The back parking lot is usually full by 8 AM because everyone wants a spot in  the shade” may not be the most rigorous hypothesis, but the process used to arrive at it was a fundamentally scientific one- noticing a fact, forming a hypothesis, making observations that support or oppose your hypothesis, maybe even getting independent confirmation from another person. Scientific thinking is what allows humans to function in our daily lives.  

  • Marc Tompkins

    He’s not calling her an asshole.  He’s quoting her, calling him an asshole.

  • Robyrt

    Fred is half right here. God is “exclusive” and “condemning” and all the rest – he is (theoretically) capable of handing out free tickets to heaven to everyone and he chooses not to – but that doesn’t make him Lovecraftian, or distasteful even to his own believers. Fred knows this; he regularly rails against the immoral, the swindlers, the idolaters, etc. and he is perfectly right to do so, because “such as these will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Differences of implementation – what categories of people fall into which groups – are not so easily reducible to sweeping blanket statements. It’s more complicated than that. 

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    God is “exclusive” and “condemning” and all the rest – he is (theoretically) capable of handing out free tickets to heaven to everyone and he chooses not to

    Since when?

    Some people might believe that God is like this – I am not one of them. And given that your comment seems to imply that “God is” this, not “their God” but “God”, I’d prefer it if you’d be less all-inclusive in what you’re saying.

  • Robyrt

    Yes, we can use logic for non-scientific activities. But we cannot discover the truth with non scientific activities.

    Please provide a link to the scientific basis for what counts as art. Surely such an ancient question can be answered by a “fundamentally scientific process”?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    There was once a computer algorithm that ‘learned’ how to make euphonious music by incorporating feedback in the form of votes from a sample audience which allowed it to drop dissonant notes. I don’t recall the details, but I’m sure I could find them if I looked.

  • Guest


    Please provide a link to the scientific basis for what counts as art. 

    Something created by a process that was conceived by a sentient being that is aesthetically pleasing/meaningful to at least one  sentient entity including the creator.  

    I think you’re confusing “definition” with “truth.” We can’t come up with a definition for “life” that doesn’t include a forest fire, but that doesn’t stop us from investigating it. We may not be able to perfectly define art
    Also- “art” is not falsifiable. Also, “Dude, can you like, DEFINE art?” isn’t a hypothesis.  The question “Is XYZ art?”  can be answered scientifically- its not particular hard. Probably some surveys, a few clever questions, and some statistics would be involved. Same way you do psychology, essentially. Not all truths are black and white.

  • Gotchaye

    This is for Guest, and is an attempt to explain what they’re missing about what some people here mean when they affirm various metaphysical statements. Others may want to skip, as it’s pretty long and goes off into the philosophical weeds.

    Don’t assume I’m speaking for anyone in particular, but you’re thinking about things in a fundamentally different way than do many other people.

    Many people have firm metaphysical beliefs in the sense that they affirm that some set of metaphysical statements is true, real for everyone, and that everyone who believes differently is mistaken. If there’s any meat to what these people believe, I think it’s fair to say that their beliefs aren’t justifiable, or at least wouldn’t be justifiable if the believers knew more about other people. But many deny at least one of those three conditions, and it’s important to understand how it is that they can reasonably do that.

    We use “is true” in a lot of different ways in different contexts. When I say that it’s true that “there is a tree outside my window”, I mean that in a very science-y way – anybody could come here and touch the tree if they wanted to. But as we get away from statements about present physical objects and away from our everyday concepts, this gets a lot trickier. This is because interpretation matters more and more, and it’s not really clear what the difference is between two theories which would produce the same observations. Is there fundamental randomness in the universe or is a hidden variables formulation of quantum mechanics true (or is some other interpretation true)? All of these interpretations are falsifiable, but they’re not scientifically distinguishable, because they all make the same predictions. Technically, we have the same problem with even everyday “there is a tree outside my window” statements, given the possibility that we’re all brains in vats or whatever skeptical hypothesis you prefer.

    One response to this inability to distinguish between interpretations is to understand truth as a partly-subjective property of an interpretation that “fits in” well with everything else we’re committed to. A theory has to be compatible with all observations that we believe to be possible, but there are an infinity of theories that would make all of the same predictions, and Occam’s Razor is hard to apply (in some cases) and is also very hard to justify (in general).

    For some people, it makes sense to posit a deity or deities that have certain properties. But, importantly, these people aren’t necessarily rejecting that every physical event has a physical cause, that human minds supervene on human bodies, etc. (these are of course not scientifically unquestionable, but I’m making a point). From the same observations, one could conclude that there simply is no fact of the matter about supernatural entities that don’t cause physical events, that there are no supernatural entities that don’t cause physical events, that there are any number of supernatural entities that don’t cause physical events, or that we can’t know how many supernatural entities that don’t cause physical events there are. But let’s be clear – the evidence doesn’t objectively demand either of the middle two conclusions, and you have to do a whole lot of controversial philosophical work to get to the error theory of the first (you may be interested to know that the majority of philosophers seem to be moral realists, and they’re a pretty naturalistic bunch). The agnostic conclusion is possible, but it’s hard to say that we’ve got to be agnostics about super-nature when we’re allowed to not be agnostics about regular nature (brains in vats, etc.). We’re only being epistemically irresponsible if we don’t acknowledge that we don’t actually Know how things Really and Truly are, and are just interpreting things with our minds. But we’ve recognized that since Kant.

    We seem to be left with being able to pick an interpretation that works, in the sense that it fits with observations, and run with it. People can have metaphysical beliefs that are true, and perhaps even real for everyone, while not actually disagreeing with people with different beliefs. Although it can be insulting to say that someone else’s interpretation, which is just as well-grounded as your own and which is no more unjustified vs agnosticism than is non-skepticism about the external world, is objectively silly or wrong. It makes sense to them, so they run with it, the same as I do with quantum mechanics and fundamental randomness.

    This is way too long, but I tried to be comprehensive (covering everything other than non-cognitivism) because there’s a huge intuitive disconnect here. My own intuitions basically run something like Guest’s, and I still have an extremely hard time wrapping my head around believing in a person-like deity without thinking that it has some existence for everyone or that if everyone knew all of the facts you know, they’d believe in it too. It probably helps that I’m a realist about numbers and morality.

  • Lori

     

    Fred knows this; he regularly rails against the immoral, the swindlers,
    the idolaters, etc. and he is perfectly right to do so, because “such as
    these will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.”  Differences of implementation – what categories of people fall into
    which groups – are not so easily reducible to sweeping blanket
    statements. It’s more complicated than that. 

    Fred rails against those people, but he has made it entirely clear that he doesn’t think they deserve infinite punishment. That’s not a difference of implementaiton, that’s a fundamental disagreement. “Infinite punishment for finite wrong-doing is morally repugnant” is actually a very easy sweeping, blanket statement to make.

  • guest

    It’s a good point, but it’s not emotionally satisfying to me, for this reason.  I may not have been physically present on the earth prior to my birth date, but I’m aware of what existed–I can watch the movies, read the books, look at the paintings, visit (and even live in) the buildings.  I may not have perfect access to the past, and I may occasionally be frustrated that I don’t know what x actually looked like, or what y really said, or what really happened at z, but I don’t have perfect access to all of these things in the present either so I’m used to that.  I have no access at all to what will happen after I’m dead.

  • flat

    Yes but Fred always said that God will be the one to judge us and we shouldn’t try to stop his justice/mercy  by judging the other people.

  • arcseconds

     ”How much time have you spent feeling bad that prior to your birth date* you didn’t exist?”

    This is Epicurus or Lucretius or someone, isn’t it?

    While it’s an interesting way to turn the idea around on its head, and therefore a fun thing, I don’t think it’s a very compelling as an argument.

    How much time have you spent fearing dental appointments that you’ve already had?

    We don’t have symmetric attitudes towards the future and the past about anything, so it’s not surprising our attitude towards our future non-existence is different from our attitude to our prior non-existence.

  • arcseconds

    You know, I once heard this great story about a student who comes up to a professor after the lecture, and enthusiastically displays how he has ‘solved’ all the problems the lecturer raised.  The lecturer just peers at the student (I’m imagining over the top of some horn-rimmed spectacles) and says ‘it must be so easy being you.’

    Unfortunately, Guest, the world is not the simple place you appear to think it is.   Let me attempt to briefly demonstrate,  inadequate though my response will be:

    And logic includes a very, VERY important principle called “Occam’s
    Razor”  which states that in the absence of evidence to the contrary,
    generally the simplest answer is the right one.

    What do you mean by ‘logic’ here?   I doubt you’ll find this in any logic textbook.  I doubt that, because what’s normally termed ‘logic’ at least in English-speaking countries is formal logic, normally restricted to deductive logic, but in any case to things that can be formalized, and Occam’s Razor is notoriously difficult to formulate.  Mainly because it’s difficult to give a formal definition of simplicity.

    Perhaps you meant it more in the way people like Hegel use it?

    What did you have in mind by a ‘simple answer’?

    I mean, on the face of it, ‘God did it’ seems to be a very simple explanation: there’s just the one statement, and it’s a very simple statement, and there’s only one non-observable entity proposed. So presumably you can’t mean simple in terms of simple statements, or in the smallest possible number of entities.

    Also, is there actually any empirical evidence for simple answers being the right ones?  I think simple answers usually end up being wrong, don’t they?  I mean, there’s an inherent simplicity to the old mechanistic world-view held by Descartes and Boyle and so forth: there’s only one kind of interaction, and that’s an immediate contact push.  But that wasn’t right: it was displaced by Newton, who had this bizarre theory that everything attracts everything else, a totally new kind of interaction.  Note that this supplements  mechanical interactions, so it’s immediately more complex than mechanism alone.  It also requires you to consider every particle in the universe to do your calculations, so mathematically it ends up being very complex and completely intractable. And Newton wasn’t right about this, either: our best theory of gravity is now Einstein’s general relativity, and there’s nothing simple about that.  Meanwhile mechanical pushes turn out to be explained by quantum electrodynamics: again, not a very simple theory at all.  

    I mean, honestly, if you’ve got a simple explanation for a phenomenon just coming under investigation, it’s almost certainly going to be wrong.

    By some strange coincidence, I happen to have just been reading this.  I’ve only just encountered  Cosma, but I’m told he’s very smart, and he works on modelling stochastic processes, and he’s having difficulties with the Razor.  He doesn’t know how to apply it, he doesn’t know what it’s doing, and he doesn’t know what justifies it (I’ve stated that a little more strongly than he does, but read it for yourself).

  • arcseconds

    Something created by a process that was conceived by a sentient being
    that is aesthetically pleasing/meaningful to at least one  sentient
    entity including the creator. 

    OK.

    Now define ‘aesthetically pleasing’, and ‘meaningful’. Is ‘meaningful’ supposed to modified by ‘aesthetically’, or does it stand alone?

    Also, this would seem to mean if I see a toilet-brush and admire it aesthetically, it’s art.  A lot of people aren’t going to like that.

    Also- “art” is not falsifiable. Also, “Dude, can you like, DEFINE art?” isn’t a hypothesis.

    I think the point was that art is a valid form of human endeavour that isn’t science and one that science isn’t especially good for investigating.  So, if it’s not falsifiable and not a hypothesis, it’s not science (if we agree with you that science is what is falsifiable which I’m not inclined to),  and can’t be scientifically investigated.  Are you agreeing with Robyrt here?

    I hope you’re not just dismissing art for not being science, because that’s not fair (and kinda circular) :-]

    Also, “art” is a noun.  You can’t really falsify nouns, as a noun on its own can’t be false. 

    And sure, “Dude, can you like, DEFINE art?” is a question,   Are you telling us that questions aren’t scientific?

    The question “Is XYZ art?”  can be answered scientifically- its not
    particular hard. Probably some surveys, a few clever questions, and some
    statistics would be involved. Same way you do psychology, essentially.
    Not all truths are black and white.

    That gives us a whole bunch of data on what people think art is.   They’re not going to all agree with your definition, or with one another, so i’m not sure how helpful that is going to be at even converging on a single answer.

    We could do this with astronomy, too.  We could go survey a lot of people about stars, and write up the answers.  But this isn’t astronomy, it’s psychology of folk astronomy at best.  You’re not investigating the primary phenomenon, which is stars and such.

    So I’m not convinced you’re actually answering the question here.  Answering the question would involve, y’know, actual art.  Starting at paintings, thinking about paintings, maybe even doing some paintings.