Can We Play Not-Nicely Better, Please?

And speaking of sparing feelings without pulling punches, there’s been a donnybrook going between Tom McDonald (Catholic) and Hemant Mehta (atheist) and JT Eberhard waded in yesterday.  I’m not planning to tag in exactly, but I would like to suggest that they have a slightly different fight.

Both Tom’s original post mocking atheism and Hemant and JT’s rejoinder seemed pitched particularly to their own sides, so, even though the posts got pretty heated, it has kind of the effect of a flurry of haymakers that  don’t actually land but certainly go whoooosh.

This all started on April Fools day, when Tom called on Catholics to reach out to atheist friends, but the language he used strikes me (pre- and post-conversion) as a little more than kin and a little less than kind, if you know what I mean.

Go ahead and hug an atheist today. They need it. They live lives of sad desperation caught in a meaningless universe and protest that they’re happy because they see things “as they really are” and are free to enjoy life as it is, and then disappear into the dust and relieve an already overcrowded world of yet another sentient meatbag…

What they need isn’t atheism. What they need is what atheism can never offer. Charity. Faith. Hope…

Atheists offer people an attractive lie: the world all there is, so you might as well just enjoy it. In other words, they look at a broken world, say it can be no product of a loving and omnipotent God, and therefore urge people to just embrace it as is.

There are a number of things I disagree with in Tom’s essay, and I tend to disagree with the phrasing of what I do agree with.   For one thing, just because it might be true to say that people can’t be fully happy without God doesn’t mean it’s persuasive or helpful.  Heaven knows that I was a very unsuccessful math evangelist when I walked around essentially asserting that everyone had a number theory-shaped hole in their heart.  They might not realize how much they were missing out on now, but after the scales fell from their eyes, they’d wonder how they could have ever gone so long without feeling a little twinge whenever they thought of the Fibonacci sequence. (“You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem…“)

However, even though I am a very trustworthy person, I couldn’t always to get people to take math classes purely on my say-so.  Even though I was in fact correct that learning math infuses the world with structure and beauty!  And I would have been quite wrong to tell my friends that, despite their subjective experience, they were actually unhappy, since they were missing out on a way to appreciate the world.  To convince them, I needed to show them some math (possibly Martin Gardner, possibly Flatland).

So, if you’re trying to show, not assert that Christianity fills some kind of gap, there are a lot of ways to approach it.  You could make a philosophical case that you do feel happiness/charity/ethics/etc, but you can’t ground them without God (try The Last Superstition).  You could try to get more specific on exactly what you’re talking about when you talk about Agape (The Four Loves).

But I suspect you actually want art, not apologetics.  It might be best to invite your friend over for a viewing of Of Gods and Men.  And then go over to their place the next weekend for a film of their choosing and more discussion and desserts in a “How ought we love?” film festival.  But I think opening up that conversation takes time and trust.  Both of which are in short supply online.

Mind you, I don’t usually pull off this kind of patience, even with friends.  I’ve more than once gone on lecturing too long, and then, after the room had cleared, turn to the friend that remains and said plaintively, “Why can’t I just shake people into loving math?  They’ll  like it when I win!”  (It worked about as well for me as for Toby).  After all, the first piece of evidence that people see for what math does for me is the way I behave when I pitch it.

There’s been a lot of invective in response to Tom’s post, and, rather than set off a new round, I’d be interested in hearing from JT, Hemant, and Tom (if they’re interested) how they try and convince a good friend that they’ve been missing out on math or classical music or philosopy or whatnot.  And then if everyone wants to go the art-as-apologetics route, I’d be glad to host another symposium.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Steve

    For one thing, just because it might be true to say that people can’t be fully happy without God doesn’t mean it’s persuasive or helpful.

    … or we can just passive aggressively say the same things as Tom.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      As a Catholic, I would also argue that a believer cannot be fully happy in this life.

      I know this is not the point of Leah’s post, but it’s worth noting that the promise of happiness as an outcome of accepting a faith or philosophy is sort of false advertising. More to the point, belief offers a way of making sense of suffering, and suggests the possibility of happiness in eternal life (with fleeting tastes of that joy along the way).

      I’m looking forward to the end of this conflict. Peace.

      • Steve

        The notion that deity belief might be the only way someone can be ‘fully happy’ is wholly dependent on the individual, and in no way translates into some sort of universal declarative notion, which seems to be the implication here. Perhaps a believer might be happiest ignoring arguments pointing out the weaknesses of their beliefs and continuing to be one of the faithful. To me this is akin to putting your head in the sand, but I can’t deny some people might just be happier doing so. But that’s not what Leah’s saying. She qualified her statement with ‘might be true’ which gives some flexibility, but she didn’t limit it to ‘believers’, rather the more general ‘people’, which implies non-believers as well. Perhaps it’s a nit-pick, but it’s also a proposition I strongly disagree with.

        • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

          The notion that deity belief might be the only way someone can be ‘fully happy’ is wholly dependent on the individual, and in no way translates into some sort of universal declarative notion

          This seems like a reductionist claim. In the hypothetical world where teleology existed, it seems like a reasonable claim to make though. That is to say, if we were actually created by a god, it is conceivable that he could have created us in such a way as to only find maximal happiness by doing X, Y, Z.

          I agree with you that this is simply not the universe we live in. But I like the “full happiness” claim, because it’s actually a testable prediction- one I’ve falsified in my own life, as it happens.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Clarifying my first two sentences: you seem to be making a reductionist claim about what it means to be human. Elizabeth/Leah/Catholics seem to be making a teleological claim about what it means to be human. If you presuppose teleology, their claim is at least reasonable (though not necessarily true).

          • Steve

            But I like the “full happiness” claim, because it’s actually a testable prediction- one I’ve falsified in my own life, as it happens.

            You’ve tested it using a sample size of one, yourself, verifying at best that it can be true for 1 person. You might find the testimonies of others similar to yourself to conclude that it might hold true for others as well.
            On the other hand, I’ve tested the same hypothesis on myself, and have found that it did not hold for me, verifying only that at best it does not hold true for 1 person. I’ve found the testimonies of others similar to myself to conclude that it might hold true for them as well.
            What this testing shows is that you can concretely make statements that SOME people are happiest believing while others are not.
            Were we to consider hypothetical universes, perhaps more idyllic than our own I could conceive being happier than I am, even in the case of deity belief. For instance, I find the thought of losing everything very sad. I can imagine dying and going to heaven and getting to spend forever with people I can about, and that being a happier situation than not getting to do so. In this sense, it’s fairly easy to say my current happiness is below a threshold that I could imagine. But day-dreaming and wishful thinking is irrelevant when we’re making claims about the world we live in. Having the current information available to me, it is impossible for me to conclude anything different, and should I choose to actively deny the world in such a manner, I would be demonstrably less happy for living a lie.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Perhaps I was unclear- I’ve tested this hypothesis on myself, and have found that it did not hold for me, same as you. I consider the claim “every human can only be maximally happy when believing in the Christian god” to be falsified, because it was not true in my case (and, apparently, in yours).

            My point was simply that it is a claim that is consistent with the Christian worldview. If there was a god who created everything, and takes a special interest in humans, it is conceivable that this claim could be true. I object to the veracity of this claim (it does not appear to reflect the reality we actually live in), not to the underlying logic of a religion making this claim

          • Steve

            Understood. I don’t object to limiting that statement to the viewpoint of the believer, christian or otherwise. But that IF is a big if, one that in my opinion, deserves that qualifier. Without it I feel there are implications made that deserve addressing… hence my complaints.

          • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

            I don’t think it is a testable claim. You both say you’ve falsified it, but how exactly? To falsify it, it would have to be true that (1) you did not believe in the Christian God and (2) you were maximally happy. But (2) is unknowable. Therefore you can’t have falsified the claim, therefore its not testable.

          • Steve

            Perhaps I’ll try a type of cake tomorrow, or take up a hobby that increase my happiness beyond my present approximated maximum. While I can’t speak for that which I am unaware, I think we’re capable of making fair judgements of my own maximal happiness based on present known factors. In addition, in this particular case we need only evaluate 1 claim, that belief is a prerequisite for full maximum happiness. I feel confident enough to consider the effects on my own net happiness and state that it would be less were I, a very specific me that is identical in all other ways to the present me, a believer. I feel the shroud of falseness projected onto my own life would overwhelm the bliss of the fantasy. Perhaps if I altered myself enough to ignore that which would put my faith in doubt, I might be happier, though in this hypothetical, I would cease being me.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com Jake

            @Adam

            I don’t need to show that I am maximally happy without belief in god, only that I am happier without belief than I am with belief. In that case, theist!me is less happy than athiest!me, and I can safely conclude that theist!me is not maximally happy.

            I suppose you could argue that these two things are untestable in practice- that you can’t simultaneously believe and not believe in god. Fair enough. In order to test these two data points, you’d need to go through a transition of belief. This takes time. It is conceivable that the position I am in right now lends itself towards more happiness than the position I was in when I believed in the Christian god. It does not necessarily follow that I wouldn’t be even happier right now if I still believed in the Christian god.

            However, this fails for two reasons. First, atheist!Jake’s happiness being greater than or equal to theist!Jake’s happiness is at least extremely suggestive that happiness is not strongly positively correlated with theistic belief. And second, if anything, my life is much worse by most objective measures now than it was for theist!Jake. I can think of no reasonable alternative to explain why atheist!Jake is not much less happy than theist!Jake other than that happiness is not dependant on belief in theism. For me, it may even be negatively coorelated.

            So I suppose I should say that I have what I consider to be excellent Bayesian evidence against the claim “every human can only be maximally happy when believing in the Christian god.” Excellent enough for me to conclude that the claim has been falsified.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com Jake

            Addendum: it is virtually assured that I am not living with the belief that makes me maximally happy. If I had to guess, some form of Buddhism would probably be the global optimum- bad things don’t bother you much, and good things are still good. But belief is tricky. You can’t just *decide* to believe something that you know isn’t true- and it’s not clear you should even if you could.

            So I should probably add a further constraint: I have what I consider to be excellent Bayesian evidence against the claim “every human can only be maximally happy when believing in a locally optimal Christian god,” where “optimal” refers to the local maximum of coherence.

          • Adam G.

            *I think we’re capable of making fair judgements of my own maximal happiness based on present known factors.*

            I really disagree. “I can’t think of a way I could be happier” is not at all the same thing as “I am as happy as it is possible for me to be.”

            “don’t need to show that I am maximally happy without belief in god, only that I am happier without belief than I am with belief. In that case, theist!me is less happy than athiest!me, and I can safely conclude that theist!me is not maximally happy.”

            No, that doesn’t follow. That one Jake from the set of atheist Jakes is happier than one Jake from the set of theist Jakes in no way tells us from which set the Happiest Possible Jake can be found.

          • Fr.Sean

            Jake,
            If i might make a comment or two, naturally whether one is happy or not is subjective, cannot be proven or measured. nevertheless, i read something from Anthony DeMello a few years back on the subject. he said that many people confuse things that bring a brief moment of excitement for happiness, but what they don’t realize is that things that bring a brief moment of excitement often bring restless and emptiness. True Happiness is always a byproduct of doing the right thing. aka, doing God’s will (last part is my paraphrase) Furthermore, i remember reading something from Rick Warren, he said that everybody’s life is like a train on two rails, on one rail you have these good things, blessing going on in your life, on the other rail, problems, or things you struggle with. the reason for the struggles is because God is more interested in our character than our own personal happiness (leah’s article on the refiners fire). nevertheless, i think it would be a fairly accurate observation to say that the people who are the most unhappy are those who are always trying to be happy, the happiest people are generally those who are concerned with improving the welfare of others.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            @Adam G.

            No, that doesn’t follow. That one Jake from the set of atheist Jakes is happier than one Jake from the set of theist Jakes in no way tells us from which set the Happiest Possible Jake can be found

            Well, sure. I was treating “belief in Christianity” as the only free variable. We could also talk about theist!6’3″!bilingual!Jake, or atheist!50-year-old!married!Jake (although at what point he ceases to be Jake is a relevant question…). The point at hand is that, when varying theism (in particular, Christianity) as the free variable, atheist!xxx!Jake has happiness greater than or equal to theist!xxx!Jake (by my admittedly questionable ability to estimate happiness).

            This seems to be a nail in the coffin of claims that becoming a Christian will make you happier, which is certainly the implication of the claim that you can’t be fully happy without God.

            @Fr.Sean,

            I actually agree with most of what you said. There is certainly a measuring bias at play anytime someone estimates their happiness in their current belief system. It’s also true that people are often bad at figuring out what makes them happy, and mistake momentary excitement for happiness (I have never understood the fascination with wild parties, for example). My own experience has been that I am happiest when involved in fulfilling relationships with other people, and when pursuing activities that I find intellectually or emotionally interesting. I hesitate to generalize this to all humans, but I would be comfortable saying that it’s probably true for most humans.

            There are basically three reasons I’m happier now than I was in Christianity- first, a freedom to pursue what I think is right without being checked by conservative religious dogma (gay marriage, gender equality). Second, a freedom to pursue knowledge unhindered by faith (there are certain facts about reality you’re not allowed to know as a theist- materialism, reductionism, the historical accuracy of the Bible, the (non)existence of miracles, evolution (in some versions of Christianity- obviously not Catholicism)). And third, a lack of overwhelming guilt at continually disappointing my creator (this has always seemed to me a necessary logical consequence of theism, and one I felt acutely while growing up in Christianity)

            TL;DR- agreed, chasing happiness for happiness’ sake does not appear to be the optimal strategy for humans.

          • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

            *This seems to be a nail in the coffin of claims that becoming a Christian will make you happier, which is certainly the implication of the claim that you can’t be fully happy without God.**

            Dead wrong. I’m trying to sort out the fallacies in the argument, but it doesn’t reduce to just one. Affirming the consequent is in there, but its not the only one.

            Your argument is of the following sort : “Entrepeneurs say that you must be an entrepeneur to have the maximum possible income. But I know this claim is false, because when I quit trying to start a business and got a job, I made more money.” Hopefully that’s clear enough an example for you to see the flaws in your argument.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com Jake

            @Adam G.

            If someone made the argument “you should quit your job and become an entreprenuer, because you’ll make more money,” I would be perfectly justified in saying “Nope. I was an entreprenuer once, and I didn’t make more money.”

            If someone made the argument “you should quit your job and become an entreprenuer, because only entreprenuers can make the maximal amount of money,” the correct response would be something along the lines of “what’s my expected value of becoming an entreprenuer?” If you’re going to make this claim, and then go on to say “well not all entreprenuers make more money than they would at a normal job,” then for the claim to be at all useful, you have to give me more information about my odds of making more money as an entreprenuer, and how much more money I would be likely to make.

            If someone simply made the argument “the maximal amount of money each individual can make is by undertaking an entreprenuerial venture,” then they’ve safely walled themselves off from empirical testing (no matter how much you make, it would be hard to prove you couldn’t theoretically make more money doing something else) at the cost of making their claim totally useless, and removing any basis for us to ever accept their claim as true. After all, I could just as easily posit that the maximal money anyone can make is by working at McDonald’s. Even if you point me to thousands of people working at McDonald’s not making very much money, I can say “well, not everyone who works at McDonald’s is realizing their full moneymaking potential. If they were doing it right, they’d be making more money than Warren Buffet.” Even if you pointed to employees who had left McDonald’s to go make more money somewhere else, I can say “sure, but you haven’t tested every conceivable version of McDonalds!worker, so you can’t know for sure that one of them wouldn’t be making even more money than StockBroker!worker.”

            It is the first argument that I consider falsified. In practice, this seems to be what people mean when they say “people can’t be fully happy without God.” If you’d like to make the second argument, you haven’t provided enough information for me to evaluate the claim. However, given that I’ve already varied the “theism” variable and found a higher utility when that variable is false, I have at least good Bayesian evidence that for me, that variable is not positively correlated with happiness. Just like if I’m a failed entreprenuer, I have at least good Bayesian evidence that quitting my job to go be an entreprenuer isn’t going to increase my total income.

            If you’d like the third claim, you can have it- I will concede it happily, and profer a counter claim that it is impossible to find maximal happiness without Rastafarianism.

      • grok

        @ Elizabeth,
        I agree. We are not promised happiness in this life. What we are promised, at least fleetingly, is “joy”:
        http://divineoffice.org/

        “Zion hears and is glad; the people of Judah rejoice because of your judgments, O Lord.
        For you indeed are the Lord most high above all the earth, exalted far above all spirits.
        The Lord loves those who hate evil; he guards the souls of his saints; he sets them free from the wicked.
        Light shines forth for the just and joy for the upright of heart. Rejoice, you just, in the Lord; give glory to his holy name.”

    • Jake Blair

      JT Eberhard wants conflict…I still remember when he called Chris Stedman, one of the nicest guys around, a “dishonest little shit” over on Mehta’s blog. (last Nov. 7th…and other things since)

      Worse…he routinely uses his blog to smear people and blocks them from responding. Whatever he is, he is not a “free”thinker and not a credit to atheists.

  • ACN

    “There’s been a lot of invective in response to Tom’s post”

    There was a lot of invective IN Tom’s post. And since he intentionally shut down his comments to metaphorically stick his fingers in his ears and chant “neener neener neener” I think responding to him in other forums seems appropriate.

    • Brandon B

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with responses in other forums, but what is the invective supposed to accomplish? Your justification is “There was a lot of invective IN Tom’s post,” so let’s think about that.

      If someone punches you in the face, should you punch back, and why? If you think you should punch back because “He started it,” you don’t have a good justification. If “He started it” is your only reason for fighting, then you’re just not being rational. That’s the sort of behavior we don’t bat an eye at when dogs do it, but as humans we should aspire to more, because we’re capable of more. If you punch back because “If I don’t, he’ll probably keep punching me,” then at least you’ve got something useful in mind you can maybe accomplish.

      • Steve

        I don’t think I understand what you’re trying to say here.

        If someone punches you in the face, should you punch back, and why?

        This would depend on the circumstances. 1) If it was a child who was throwing a fit, then no you should not for what should be obvious reasons. 2) If it was a buddy who was pissed that you made a crack about his girlfriend, then maybe, but you might have deserved it so maybe not. 3) If someone ran up to you on the street and started hitting you, then yes, you should punch them in the face and would be be justified in defending yourself.
        To equate your punching metaphor to the blog post, the equivalent of writing such a thing is equivalent to the third case, except that with comments closed it was a drive by punching (sorry to mix metaphors), which was just cowardly.

        If you think you should punch back because “He started it,” you don’t have a good justification. If “He started it” is your only reason for fighting, then you’re just not being rational.

        If the strength of your argument is ‘he started it’, it’s not irrational so much as just juvenile, but I don’t think that’s the impetus behind the responses. It was such written to illicit a response, and I might add the responses were far more polite then deserved, especially considering the gutlessness of closing the comments.

        • Brandon B

          I’ll try to clarify:
          I used the punching metaphor to argue that “he started it” is never a good enough reason, by itself, to retaliate in kind. As you pointed out, the right thing to do depends on the circumstances, not just the fact that you were punched.

          I agree that a “drive-by punching” is the closest that the punching metaphor gets to the current situation. However, at this point my metaphor is breaking down, because writing a rude response to a rude blog post isn’t “self-defense”. The atheists aren’t preventing any harm to themselves, because all the rude responses seem unlikely to persuade Tom to be less rude, or to stop posting.

          • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

            I don’t know that he’s especially persuadable on this. But not punching back (or whatever) does help to establish a cultural norm in which obnoxiousness is isolated and either chastised or ignored, rather than merely mirrored.

          • Steve

            While I agree in theory the ‘he started it’ isn’t enough of a reason to justify incivility, in reality this isn’t always the case. I only need to point out the different discussions had for going to a war as a responsive action to an attack or as a pre-emptive act.

            Still I don’t think the ‘he started it’ defense is being used here. Though the responses, especially JT’s were certainly heated, they weren’t being overtly provocative. In this instance I feel the responses were appropriate. I can certainly be hit with claims of a bias towards arguments favoring my POV, but I’d have to disagree judging by the pretty much across the board condemnation of Tom’s post from this boards catholics. I don’t, in this instance, equate the heated tone of the responses to the out of left field provocation of the original post.

    • Darren

      I was rather looking forward to Tom McDonald’s case for Atheism being as intellectually credible as Holocaust Denial. I would read that… :)

      • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

        That was probably the single worst thing he said. Not only did he bring in the stench of Godwin there, but it’s just such an obviously false statement. The vast majority of philosophy professors (who I readily concede are atheists) cannot be dismissed as just a bunch of cranks.

        • Theodore Seeber

          I don’t readily concede that the vast majority of philosophy professors are atheists. Most of the ones I know are Benedictines.

          Having said that, I consider holocaust denial and atheism to be in the same intellectual boat, along with flat earth theory and creationism. I do so because they all have something in common: a propensity for denying evidence.

          • Tom

            Well, a philosophy professor I had, who was himself Catholic and talked about going to Mass, said that the majority of philosophers were atheists. I’d be inclined to believe him myself.

          • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

            This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed puts the number of atheists in philosophy depts at 70%, it also usefully breaks down the atheist/theist numbers by subfield: http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/what-do-philosophers-really-think/9255

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            Most of the ones I know are Benedictines.

            Really? You have to meet some Dominicans. They are way better at philosophy!

          • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

            Ted, this is the part where you acknowledge the evidence of that Chronicle of Higher Ed study so you don’t make us Catholics look like a bunch of flat-earthers.

          • Theodore Seeber

            I’ll acknowledge the study. What I won’t acknowledge is the implied consensus=truth conclusion.
            It is entirely possible for reality to be utterly unknown to mankind with our finite brains.

          • Steve

            Teddy… So basically you’re acknowledge the study… just… that you won’t acknowledge the study. Got it.

            It is entirely possible for reality to be utterly unknown to mankind with our finite brains.

            Then as a member of mankind you really don’t have ground to make truth claims about anything. OK.

          • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

            Ted (and Steve),

            I don’t think that the study—or this thread—have argued that consensus=truth. The study cited seems to be purely sociological in its concerns, it just wants to know the demographic lay of the land. The article author, meanwhile, bothers to mention Plantinga as a “very well-regarded philosopher” and carefully frames the final sentence of the article, where he presents his own take on philosophy, morality, and belief, with the disclaimer “for me.”

      • Beadgirl

        I am honestly (despite our debate in the other thread, Darren) puzzled at how much vitriol is directed at the concept of atheism. I think it is (factually, not morally) wrong, of course, but in general I can’t get too worked up about what other people believe or don’t believe. I am far more concerned with how they behave as a *result* of their beliefs or non-beliefs.

  • Darren

    It was pretty amazingly offensive, it made me regret ever saying something nice about him, but it did have a picture of Bender the robot at the top. This proud meatbag appreciated that.

    I must have totally missed it, though, I thought Tom was doing a performance bit about Richard Dawkins after he has a brain aneurism, sees the Virgin, converts to Catholicism, and devotes his life to blog-slapping Atheists (cough, cough, JC Wright).

    • Guest

      Pot meet kettle.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Apparently a lot of people also missed the date that it was posted.

  • MountainTiger

    I’m curious as to what in Hemant’s reply you think was “pitched particularly to [his] own side” in the manner of the original or JT’s reply. I found it an exceedingly polite and modest corrective that I would certainly hope theists would find comprehensible.

  • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

    As a Catholic, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on how atheists ought to have behaved here. I do feel comfortable saying that McDonald’s initial post seems distressingly uncharitable, gratuitously provocative, and poorly argued. Just an awful intervention in the larger conversation in every way. I’m sure McDonald means well (don’t we all?) and thinks he’s righteously speaking truth or something, but this was just a disaster. Perhaps he was provoked by some blizzard of anti-Catholicism (you’re all a bunch of pedophile-enablers, or some such rhetoric) in his comboxes, so he feels entitled to rant like this. But we are urged instead to turn the other cheek. The best thing he could do to move the ball forward would be to apologize.

    • Alypius

      As another Catholic, I agree! McDonald’s snark in this piece was Not. Helpful. From other posts of his, he seems to be coming from a place of “Been There, Done That, and Sooooo Over It” with regard to atheism and has a hard time mustering up a gratuitious amount of patience for those on the other side. (One of the reasons I love reading Leah! She’s not like that.)

      One of the things I really noticed from reading Eberhard’s response was that when he & McDonald use words like “cause” and “natural” they mean completely different things by them. That’s not surprising, of course, because that’s where lots of the really interesting questions of philosophy have always been. The trajedy here, though, is that Eberhard didn’t seem to notice that they’re talking about different things. And part of the blame for that has to lie with the way McDonald’s post is geared more for provocation than illumination. (Not to let Eberhard completely off the hook, though, he certainly spends enough time in the trenches that one would think he would pick that up.)

  • TheresaL

    Speaking of math and your trustworthiness and symposiums, are you still planning on the posts about Naming Infinity? The delay has given me the opportunity to read the book, and now I’m eager to read what everyone else thought about it.

    • Joe

      +1

    • Kristen inDallas

      seconded

      • grok

        Well there was a little bit of discussion via email. Here is one exchange:
        Me: The book seems wrong here in stating that Kronecker did not believe in irrational numbers:

        Book page 40: “Kronecker said, ‘God created the integers, all the rest is the work of man’; he believed that only finite steps could be taken, excluding irrational numbers, which for him did not exist.”

        me: The proof of the existence of irrational numbers, like the square root of 2, was known to the Greeks. It appears for example in Euclid’s elements and apparently goes back to Theaetetus. So I know that at least one of the book’s authors (Kantor) is stated to be a mathematician. It is possible that what they meant to say is that Kronecker did not believe in transcendental numbers (in rough layman speak these are irrational numbers other than square roots, cube roots, etc.) The fact that Pi is transcendental (and that the circle cannot therefore be squared) was first proved by Lindeman in 1882, roughly the same time period as the book. So it is possible that Kronecker may not have accepted the proof or believed in it. This would be a similar philopsophical divide to say Einstein not believing in Quantum Mechanics (“God does not play dice”) even though quantum mechanics was widely accepted in Einstein’s lifetime.

        Person A:
        “Kronecker believed that mathematics should deal only with finite numbers and with a finite number of operations. He was the first to doubt the significance of non-constructive existence proofs. It appears that, from the early 1870s, Kronecker was opposed to the use of irrational numbers, upper and lower limits, and the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem, because of their non-constructive nature.”
        this was taken from http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Kronecker.html
        I believe this is in reference to the original proofs of the existence of square-root of 2 being non-constructive, based on proof by contradiction (which requires the excluded middle).

        Person B:
        After doing some digging, I found something clarifying Kronecker’s position on irrational numbers (with him explicitly mentioning their non-existence). The source is J. Pierpont, Mathematical rigor, past and present, Bull Amer Math Soc 34 (1928) 23-53, and the following quote is from page 39:

        “In a conversation with Lindemann, Kronecker asks “Of what use is your beautiful investigation regarding
        π? Why study such problems, since irrational numbers are nonexistent?” Kronecker’s attitude is made still clearer by the following extract of a letter of Weierstrass to Mme. Kowalevski (1885): “I say that a so-called irrational number has as real an existence as any other object of the mind ; Kronecker on the contrary regards it now as an axiom that only equations between whole numbers exist”"

        It was interesting for me to learn that there are schools of mathematical thought like the finitists who hold fundamentally different beliefs to what i have always thought was “mainstream” mathematics.

  • Darren

    On the topic of Math and Leah’s great love of…

    For your amusement, an (more than slightly) off-color Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic that, God help me, made me immediately think of our mathy hostess:

    (Warning – probably a strong PG-13 for math related sexy-time content!)

    I Love Math

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      There is a parallel between experiencing intense beauty and sexual arousal. I can totally relate to getting that excited about math in a totally non-sexual way. I guess they needed to make it sexual to allow non-geeks to get it.

      • Darren

        And it used my very most favorite of all numbers: i

  • Guest

    “So, if you’re trying to show, not assert that Christianity fills some kind of gap, there are a lot of ways to approach it. You could make a philosophical case that you do feel happiness/charity/ethics/etc, but you can’t ground them without God (try The Last Superstition). You could try to get more specific on exactly what you’re talking about when you talk about Agape (The Four Loves).”

    Leah, frankly, given the disrespect you tolerate in your combox it takes some chutzpah to call out Tom McDonald’s post. I’m waiting for the day the scales fall from your eyes. Catholics have been doing exactly what you suggest over and over on your blog and over and over they are met with snarky, disrespectful and downright obscene responses from many of the atheists who come here specifically for that purpose and they do so without a peep from you until the back and forth gets too heated.

    Patheos has religious channels for a reason and I presume at least some of that reason is a level of vetting that what goes on on the blogs are appropriate to the category it’s listed in. I suggest that much of the atheist dialogue I see tolerated on this Catholic blog more appropriately belongs on the atheist channel. Perhaps you need two blogs – one where Catholic norms and morals are respected and one of the same for atheists where you can engage them in debate on Catholic ideas on their terms. Any Catholics who want to participate could certainly follow you over there and any atheists willing to be respectful of Catholic norms could certainly debate here.

    Like it or not, on this channel (most) Catholics expect the bloggers to be presenting and upholding a Catholic perspective in all things – why else have separate channels? That includes what goes on in the combox you host – and that also includes calling out Catholics as well when they step over the line which is so easy to do in this disrespectful environment.

    • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

      Respectfully disagree.

      I drift back and forth between channels wherever the conversation happens to lead. Chris Hallquist has been quoted as saying, or has dropped by to say, some interesting things lately, e.g., so I’ve been reading a bunch of his old posts (on the atheist channel) because I keep finding interesting things there. I think Patheos is here to “host a conversation,” not to be a sanctuary of some kind. What Leah has here is a blog, not a chapel! We don’t all need to hush and be reverent. There’s a place for that. This isn’t it. Nor should it be.

      • KL

        Beat me to the punch before I could publish! In essence… +1.

    • KL

      Guest, I respectfully disagree. I think part of the reason that Leah has such an active commentariat is because she has created a space in which both theists and nontheists feel comfortable expressing themselves and discussing ideas. That the blog is hosted on the “Catholic” channel merely indicates that Leah is blogging from a Catholic perspective — and she does. But it does not and need not imply that “presenting and upholding a Catholic perspective” goes as far as moderating the combox to preserve Catholic ideas or even values. There are plenty of spaces on the web for insular or even isolationist discussion. Personally, I’m grateful that Leah has fostered such a diverse community of people who choose to actively engage with and respond to her content and to each other. There are far too few spaces like this in the Wild West of the intertubes.

      • Mike

        I agree. Leah I haven’t found it to be too derogatory or vitriolic or whatever.

        Again, I think that’s just their style: they’re avant-garde and pushing boundaries and all that. They think they’re being really witty. Haven’t you ever watched MSNBC? Hello?

    • Steve

      I think you’re exaggerating the number of downright obscene and disrespectful comments. It seems like the very presence of the skeptics here is what bothers you, rather that the tone of our posts. The internet is littered with blog. Patheos has dozens. The catholic channel has a dozen or so all by itself. There are plenty of places where polite alternate views and legitimate debate and discussion can be censored and filtered so your eyes aren’t burdened by opinions different from your own.

      • MountainTiger

        This seems correct. If Guest thinks Darren is an unacceptable non-Catholic commenter, I’m not sure who would be acceptable.

        • Guest

          Show me where I said that.

          • MountainTiger

            Earlier in the thread, you accused him of being an equivalent to McDonald.

          • Guest

            Post my words.

          • MountainTiger

            Are you unable to read them in their original context?

          • Guest

            Are you unable to copy and paste?

          • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

            Guest, MountainTiger is likely referring to your having commented “Pot meet kettle.”

          • MountainTiger

            That is correct, Irenist.

          • Steve

            I’m going to regret wasting time for someone so lazy as not to scroll up, but here goes…

            In response to Tom’s blog post Daren wrote

            It was pretty amazingly offensive, it made me regret ever saying something nice about him…

            and that

            (Daren) thought Tom was doing a performance bit about Richard Dawkins after he has a brain aneurism, sees the Virgin, converts to Catholicism, and devotes his life to blog-slapping Atheists

            It seems clear from this that Daren objected to the content and tone of this catholic blogger unfairly attacking the atheist position, especially in a manner that was both overtly hostile & ultimately cowardly. To this you responded:

            Pot meet kettle.

            We can only assume that you were referring to the well known phrase ‘the post calling the kettle black’, which implies you feel Daren himself is guilty of the same things he was critical of Tom for.
            Following this, MountainTiger said

            If Guest thinks Darren is an unacceptable non-Catholic commenter, I’m not sure who would be acceptable.

            Your feelings were made clear about the

            disrespectful and downright obscene responses from many of the atheists who come here

            and that

            much of the atheist dialogue I see tolerated on this Catholic blog more appropriately belongs on the atheist channel.

            While it’s true, at this point you haven’t mentioned Daren or anyone specifically by name, it is reasonable to assume that it was. This supposition is evidenced by your previous equivocation of him & Tom and is further corroborated by the simple fact that there is a fairly small number of frequent posters you could be referring to, an even smaller number who post from the skeptical POV, and an even smaller number (1) who you took the time to single out on this very page.

          • Guest

            Oh, maybe so. I was actually referring to his hypocrisy however of being offended by the same kind of snark from Tom that doesn’t seem to bother him here, not implying he is one of the disrespectful posters – although he may be, I don’t keep a list ;-)

          • Darren

            Oh, that would just be me and the afore-mentioned “full of applesauce”.

            ;)

          • Darren

            Guest said;

            “Oh, maybe so. I was actually referring to his hypocrisy however of being offended by the same kind of snark from Tom that doesn’t seem to bother him here”

            Oh, I wasn’t offended, just noting that it was written in a (I assume) deliberately offensive manner.

            I rarely try to offend; mostly I aim to entertain with my buffoonery and the occasional on-topic comment.

        • Guest

          No, it was not written to give offense. That’s why I couldn’t figure out what MT was talking about.

    • Mike

      I agree the atheists are pretty scornful and revel in it most of the time but that’s their thing, or haven’t we all noticed. I think they believe that if they can just convince us how ludicrous it all is we’ll jump ship. That doesn’t mean everyone but the majority, at least. I’ve never been offended by it but it does annoy me sometimes and then I go on a rant :) . I think it reflects poorly on them and their arguments mostly. It’s weird though as funny as they think they are most of the one’s I’ve known have been pretty sombre individuals.

      Oh yeah stepping out of line once in a while comes with the territory; is there anything more important or explosive than this question? I don’t think so.

      BTW I think the atheists think you’re gonna crack Leah and admit your conversion was a mistake and that you got swept away. The Catholics are worried you’re gonna crack and admit your conversion was premature.

      BTW there is a couple in our parish, she is a chemist and he is a math prof. She takes the kids to Church; he doesn’t.

      • BlazerJason

        I can pretty much assure you that atheists don’t care what you believe. What we do care about is people who spread lies and misconceptions about us. In addition, pushing religion in gov’t will always prompt a vigorous response. If the religious did none of the above, we will happily become as invisible as you want us to be. If you avoid using terms like “scornful” to generalize millions of people you might get more positive reactions. I mean seriously, try the phrase “all jews are scornful” and see what response you get. Bigotry is uncool, even if it is against miserable, evil atheists.

    • Parker

      Baloney. You seem to desire a parish book club, which is a little bit like R&R from the Church Militant. Here, I think, isn’t the place one reasonably expects to find what you seek.

    • Jesse M.

      Since someone has already posted a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic on the thread, here is another one that may be relevant:

      http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2939#comic

    • Theodore Seeber

      Guest- if you didn’t know, Leah’s blog WAS on the atheist channel up to less than a year ago. Every once in a while, you’ll run into a blog on Patheos that transcends the channel structure. This is one.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I don’t know Leah’s exact comment policy, but as a blogger, I believe it’s perfectly consistent to disapprove of people being jerks but also not try to enforce “don’t be a jerk” through comment moderation for a variety of reasons.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I find the story interesting. McDonald posts on April 1st and closes the comments. On April 10th people are still reacting? This is not like Leah talking math and clearing the room. It is like Leah talking math and leaving herself. Then 3 hours later people are still saying how awful she was for suggesting they should study math. That seems like a more accurate parallel and it seems like a parallel that suggests a nerve was struck. Snarky or not, some people can’t just dismiss what McDonald said. Makes you wonder why.

    • Darren

      I read the story on April 1st, early morning, and the combox was closed.

      Hemant apparently did not hear about it (or at least did not react to it) until a week later.

      JT, I think, posted yesterday.

      Takes a while for these things to filter through, I suppose.

      • Darren

        Oops, Hemant next day…

      • Steve

        Hemants post was from April 2. JT posted yesterday, but it was a long response that might have been a few days in the working.

    • BlazerJason

      No need to wonder why at all, he is a crass, cowardly, bigoted jerk. He is the kind of person who represents all believers. Unless you denounce his tactics, I can only assume you agree with him.

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        I actually have not read the post or really any of his posts. I assume there is something offensive about it. There are a zillion things on the internet that are offensive to Catholics. If a bunch of Catholics spent a lot of time and effort discussing one of them then that fact would be interesting. It would be an indication that this offensive thing somehow pushed the buttons of Catholics more than others. I could possibly answer that for Catholics. I can’t really for atheists. I just think the question is interesting.

        • Darren

          Randy, commenting on a blog post without doing the required reading?

          Tsc, tsc.

  • deiseach

    “Heaven knows that I was a very unsuccessful math evangelist when I walked around essentially asserting that everyone had a number theory-shaped hole in their heart. ”

    I’m an atheist on this one, Leah. I cannot imagine any circumstances under which mathematics could be rendered anything other than an instrument of torture to me. I think I may have the equivalent of dyslexia (dyscalculia?) when it comes to numbers; all I know is that, since quite literally weeping over my copybook at the age of seven because I just could not understand the principle, I have at best dreaded and at worst hated maths.

    Worst rows of my childhood with my father when he was trying to help me with my maths homework. Always ended up with him yelling that I wasn’t paying attention and me yelling back that I really was trying but I just couldn’t get it. If it wasn’t for my Victorian-educated granny who succeeded where the New Maths-teaching school failed, to this day I wouldn’t be able to do long division :-)

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      Well, to stay in the analogy, it looks like you got fundamentalist math from your granny and liberal post-evangelical emerging math from your school. So you need some Catholic math to see how awesome it is.

      • deiseach

        So if we add the Seven Dolours to the Fifteen Decades of the Rosary and multiply by the Nine Days of a novena, then divide by the number of Ember Days…

        ;-)

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          :-)
          For real though, that’s like saying literature must suck because of dyslexia. So, as a stereotypical Irish old lady (I mean it in a good way!) do you stitch? Because lots of math on symmetry groups and the like can be snuck into stiching patterns where math-fearing ladies suddenly find it easy until they notice it’s math. Or music is all math too, you can derive formulas for what sounds good from simple first principles, or look into what exactly is the sameness of two different instruments playing the same tone, etc. Or look at some of the Vi Hart videos Leah likes to post.

          You’re just improperly mathechized I’m saying!

          • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com Beadgirl

            If I may toot my own horn for a bit, I’ve started a needlework math sampler: http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com/2013/03/fibonacci-sequins.html

          • deiseach

            Funny you should mention sewing :-)

            Third class, learning to sew, project was hand-stitching a pocket handkerchief. I kept doing the seams, the teacher kept ripping them out and making me re-do them. By the end, the poor piece of cloth looked like a rag that had been used to clean the grate, and it never did get turned into a hanky.

            Also, I am musically challenged. I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, I have never been able to learn to read music, and I think I may be slightly tone-deaf (again, in school, when the teacher played a note on the piano and asked the class to identify it, I always had trouble; I was the one going “Wait -that’s doh? I thought it was mi!”)

            I love music, I love listening to music, and I’m not in the position of:

            “There was a poor fellow from Tring,
            Who said, when they asked him to sing
            You may think it’s odd,
            But I cannot tell God
            Save the Weasel from Pop Goes the King!”

            But still, it’s very frustrating when practically everyone in my father’s side of the family sings and/or plays instruments (some even make a living at it).

            So maybe there’s something to the link of “lack of manual dexterity- lack of musical ability- lack of mathematical ability”.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            I’m not giving up yet! How about this?

            (Also, my experience with textiles and music is quite similar to yours. I was just looking for baits.)

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            Also: Awesome, Beedgirl!

          • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com Beadgirl

            Thanks, Gilbert. Deiseach, that’s so funny — maybe the problem is that math hates you!

    • Jesse M.

      I cannot imagine any circumstances under which mathematics could be rendered anything other than an instrument of torture to me.

      You don’t think fractals are kind of cool? Try renting the NOVA DVD “Fractals – Hunting the Hidden Dimension” sometime, showed it to some non-mathy friends and they found it really fascinating for the way it connected fractals with natural structures like trees and coastlines. Also, Vi Hart’s “doodling in math” videos are awesome, I like the series of three about plants and the Fibonacci sequence starting here:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0

      • deiseach

        I can appreciate the surface visuals, but when it comes down to understanding the principles, then I’m like the dog in the “Far Side” cartoon – ‘Blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah’.

        :-)

        • Darren

          Deiseach;

          I must confess, I don’t love math.

          I do love science and technology, and I do find the occasional match concept compelling, like pi or “i” (the square root of negative one), and Vihart makes it all look like fun, but that actual equations and numbers? Not so much on the loving it. That is why God made calculators and Math majors. :)

          • Darren

            Arg! stupid auto-correct! “Math”, not “Match”.

          • deiseach

            My trouble is (and it may be that I was badly taught or it may just be that I’m stupid) is that maths seems to leap from “2 x 4 = 8″. Okay. “This is 2 cubed, or 2 x 2 x 2 = 8″. Okay, again.

            Then it goes “And so from this, we can see that it is obvious that csc A = 1/sin A” and I’m “Wait, whoa, what???”

  • Theodore Seeber

    I just think it is interesting and indicative that certain atheists, who claim to be brights and smarter than everybody else, are still falling for an April Fools Day joke.

    • Mike

      Stop :)

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      But if it’s an April Fools Day joke it’s not a very good one; the thing about them is that it should by the end of the day be obvious that you’ve been fooled. This article is plausible enough (in the sense that someone could write it in earnest) that it doesn’t have that obviousness. As I see it, the writer is responsible for what’s written to the degree that the irony is non-obvious.

      • MountainTiger

        There is also the inconvenient follow-up article.

        • http://Disqus Obliged_Cornball

          Yes, this article:
          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2013/04/its-raining-fundie-atheists-today/

          And, you know, there’s also his comment policy:
          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/about-comments/

          But hey, let’s ignore contextual cues beyond the post date (as if that couldn’t have been an allusion to a certain biblical passage or anything).

        • Mike

          Sorry, I just think he was trying to rile you guys up with that April fool’s joke thing. We’re all so jumpy on these blogs eh? We, Catholics and atheists on blogs are probably alot more alike than we’d admit.

          • Guest

            I think what really rankles is that he shut down the combox frustrating their umbrage. That’s why it went to FA, where it belongs.

          • MountainTiger

            I suppose I’ll just have to leave my horses down by the river.

          • Mike

            And they insist atheism is not bitter :) .

          • MountainTiger

            Not bitter, just disappointed. The water is right there, take a sip when you get thirsty. :)

    • Steve

      The whole point of April Fools is that everyone becomes a writer for ‘The Onion’, making up stories that couldn’t possibly be true. The problem is, where exactly is the joke? The part that provoked reactions didn’t have anything to do with the silly notion of the churches creation of ‘hug an atheist’ day, but the tone & content of the rest of the posting. It’s not bitterness that makes this worth pointing out. That posting was a juvenile attempt to insult people then cowardly prevent comments and hide behind ‘April Fools’ that rightly should have been called out as such.

  • calahalexander

    Leah, you are the only person in the world who could make me consider even trying to love math. And that is a monumental achievement. BTW, the Ogre loves Flatland too, and tried to get me to read it. I laughed hysterically and impolitely declined.

    But your combox exhausts me, and you have the patience of a saint. For real.

    However, I applaud your efforts to keep the combox open. I really dislike comment moderation. It’s like living in a fascist regime; you never know if you’re getting the whole picture or just the part the admin wants to you to see. So, high-five.

  • Captain_DG

    Math interests me but it does not compel me to love it.

  • H

    I don’t think that it makes sense to assume that if you like math, everybody else must like it too, and if they don’t, they must just not know enough about math yet. Equally, I don’t think that because some of your emotional needs are filled by Christianity, that means everyybody else in the world will also be fullfilled by Christianity. People are different, they like different things, they have different emotional needs. You can offer a movie to your friend but you can’t make them watch it and even if they do watch it, they won’t necessarily enjoy it. Or they might say ‘I saw that movie once and found the plot contrived’ and even if you say ‘this is the new director’s cut’ they’re within their rights to say it’s not different enough from the old movie to interest them. Or maybe it’s a genre they’re not a fan of.

    I read Tom’s post and it didn’t seem like a genuine call to reach out to atheists, it seemed like trolling. The fact his comments are closed prove, to me, that he wasn’t interested in dialouge or exchanging opinions, he just wanted to upset people. I think you are being far too kind to him.

    • Guest

      If God was just another thing in creation like movies or math or an emotional need to be met I’d probably agree with you. Your inside-the-creation-box reasoning makes me think of a person, blind-from-birth, teaching another blind person how to paint a sunset.

      • Guest

        I don’t mean that to be insulting. I’m just trying to write an analogy that conveys the impossibility of understanding anything about God from such a ‘blind’ view of who and what God is.

        • Val

          In this, theists and atheists are equally blind, so I’m not sure what your point is. Belief is not Special Knowledge.

          • Theodore Seeber
          • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

            Ted, the blog post to which you link actually makes the “everything has a cause -> the universe has a cause” version of the cosmological argument that Edward Feser is always complaining that theists are unfairly accused of making. Considering it’s a Catholic blog, I was sorely disappointed.

          • MountainTiger

            The internet is full of people making arguments that nobody makes. :)

      • H

        Do you have any proof that God is not another thing in creation like movies or math or an emotional need to be met? because the only time I ever experience god it was as a voice in my head which I later realised was me talking to myself in order to fullfill an emotional need. So, what proof do you have for the idea that God is outside creation? What would that even mean? If it’s inconcievable, then how can you state it with such certainty? Isn’t it just that you have a strong feeling that you’re right?

        As far as I’m concerned religion is a lifestyle choice. There are many different religions and denominations all with their own concepts of god and styles of worship, each of which appeals to a subsection of the population based on their personality and random things like where they are born and who they happen to meet. People manage to be happy practicing all these religions. There’s also people with no religion, who manage also to be happy.

  • Guest

    I’m not claiming “Special Knowledge” here. I’m talking about an ability (willingness?) to understand God as Being that transcends all material existence. Anyone who equates God as just one preference among many just isn’t speaking about God at all.

    • Val

      Agreed. In which case I have to wonder what conversation there is to have at all.

      (Obviously we’re having it… I am, as always, just trying to figure out about what.

      • Jake Blair

        Are comments being blocked?

        While pretending they are not?


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