[Turing 2012] Atheist Answer #12

[Turing 2012] Atheist Answer #12 May 29, 2012

This is the twelfth entry in the Atheism round of the 2012 Ideological Turing Test for Religion. In this round, the honest answers of atheists are mixed in with Christians’ best efforts to talk like atheists. It’s your job to see if you can spot the difference. The voting link appears at the end of the entry, and you can look at all entries in this round here.


When (if ever) have you deferred to your philosophical or theological system over your intuitions?

This is a weird question for me, since I don’t feel any particular loyalty to my philosophical system. I believe it because I think it’s true, not because it has some grander or deeper meaning, and not because I expect it to reveal some truth I don’t already know.

That being said, the consequences of one’s basic belief system are not always intuitively clear- nobody makes an intuitive leap from Euclid’s postulates to the fact that the sum of the exterior angles of any polygon equals 360. But applying the basic postulates in a rigorous and epistemologically correct way can gain you this new knowledge.

So I defer to my philosophical system when my basic beliefs necessarily lead to a conclusion that is not intuitively obvious to me. My confidence in this non-intuitive conclusion is identically equal to my confidence in the underlying assumptions (generally pretty high) and my confidence in my correct application of reason to these assumptions (generally lower than my confidence in the assumptions themselves).


Are there people whose opinions on morality you trust more than your own? How do you recognize them? How is trusting them different than trusting someone’s opinion on physics?

Strictly speaking, no, I don’t trust anyone else’s idea of morality more than my own.

If I was to find someone or something that, when we disagreed, was continually proved correct, I would learn to trust it. This is the case with me and science. There was a time in high school when I thought Relativity was ridiculous, and didn’t make any sense at all. I still think it’s ridiculous and doesn’t make any sense at all, but now I believe it. I wasn’t converted on the basis of evidence, but rather on the expertise of the overwhelming majority of people who’ve spent their life studying the subject.

The problem with applying this heuristic to morality is twofold. First, I don’t think anybody is an “expert” on morality, in the same sense that physicists are experts in physics. Second, the way I ultimately determine the truth of a moral claim is by comparing it to my own experience and beliefs. There are tons of people claiming to be moral experts, and the way I differentiate them is by whether or not I agree with them. It seems like even if I tend to agree with one of them, I’m the one doing the final judging.

So if there was someone I had come to trust on moral matters (and there are such people), their opinion would heavily inform my own. But ultimately, I’m the one judging for myself whether or not I agree with them; that’s how I decided they were an expert in the first place. Their moral opinion can’t override my own, because my own moral opinions are the basis on which I consider them to be an expert. This would be like saying you believe in science over evidence- science draws its authority from evidence, so it can’t ever overrule the evidence itself.


Can you name any works of art (interpreted pretty broadly: books, music, plays, poetry, mathematical proofs, etc) which really capture the way you see life/fill you with a sense of awe and wonder? You can give a short explanation or just list a few pieces.

I have a closeted romantic hiding somewhere inside me who loves music and books and poetry; I don’t see [him/her] much. I am occasionally affected by an artistic experience or object, but not in a consistent way. Most of the time when I am, it’s a song that gets me pumped up – almost like a tribal war-chant kind of thing.

I will say that I’m a sucker for the underdog we-vs-them story. Anything where an individual or small group somehow takes on a more powerful (and often corrupt) establishment captures my attention- from Ender’s Game to Harry Potter to The Count of Monte Cristo, even to such tawdry works as The Hunger Games *braces for impact*.

I think by and large, people are out for themselves. If you can find a group of friends that will circle the wagons and protect each other, you’re better for it (both evolutionarily speaking and emotionally speaking). Living on an island is exhausting. I think this is probably the principle thing that draws people to religion and keeps them from leaving- the desire to build and maintain lasting, mutually beneficial relationships; to kill the loneliness monster inside.


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  • If I was to find someone or something that, when we disagreed, was continually proved correct, I would learn to trust it.

    Funnily enough, this is precisely the metric a great many folks use in becoming Catholic, and not just on points of sexual morality. This metric, rather than this brainreading:

    I think this is probably the principle thing that draws people to religion and keeps them from leaving: The desire to build and maintain lasting, mutually beneficial relationships; to kill the loneliness monster inside.

    • brent

      huh? not to be arugmentative – but has Catholicism proved something?

  • Second, the way I ultimately determine the truth of a moral claim is by comparing it to my own experience and beliefs.

    This probably doesn’t beg the question per se, but it does seem to stack the deck. What convinces you on this heuristic? Well, your heuristic chooses which evidence to consider and how to consider it.

    Not as an accusation but as an actual question: Does this count as a flavor of (broadly understood) confirmation bias?

  • deiseach

    This was a hard one for me to decide on, and although I’ve made a decision, I’m still not quite sure I’m right.

    Leah, can I just check – there are equal numbers of atheists and Christians in each round, yes? That is, six atheists and six Christians doing atheist answers, and then Christian answers, and not eight atheists in round one and the same for the Christians? Excuse me being stupid, I’m checking something for myself (and checking myself, at the same time).

    Still – on to round two, and see if I do any better recognising the spots of my own tribe!

    • leahlibresco

      No guarantees on the mix. The same set of people is participating in each round, but I don’t promise an even split.

  • Also, I wonder if the author has considered the nature of such a David and Goliath tale, specifically how such a thing could originated. In the pre-Christian West, typical heroes ranged from demigods like Hercules, children of destiny like Achilles, and far less savory characters like Wayland the Smith. (Weyland, unjustly imprisoned by a brutal king, kills the king’s sons — so far so good — and rapes the king’s daughter at the earliest possibility.)

    Common, low, weak things, standing up righteously against large, dark powers and somehow winning: One more golden egg of a Christian ethos, one that the modern West hasn’t yet thought to abandon.

    • Ryan

      I really think that you are being awfully unfair to Wayland the Smith to imply that he is somehow more unsavory than David.
      David, after all, commanded Uriah the Hittite to his death to cover up his adultry with his wife…

      Also, I believe your “golden egg” comment misses an important point. In the Christian mythos, all the “common, low, weak things” weren’t “somehow winning” against large, dark powers. They were winning because they were backed by the ruler of the universe. In my opinion, this takes a little away from the “small, weak thing” observation, as it is really just the most powerful being in the universe using a small weak thing to blast away whatever he doesn’t like, and using the small, weak thing because it just exemplifies how awesome he(god) is.

      • You’re missing the point: David is rebuked for that sin. Weyland is celebrated. Also, while it is true that God uses the small, weak things, his presence is rarely obvious. There’s a great passage in Perelandra about that.

        • Ryan

          “Wayland is celebrated”

          The truth of this statement is unknown. Was Wayland celebrated? Most certainly. Was it for that action? Perhaps. You see, most(all) of what is known of Nothern European mythology(such as the Edda, for example) that remains was written by Christians who were hostile to the Pagan religions of the figures being written about. That is to say, we don’t really know what the pre-Christian Northern Europeans thought about thier heroes. The Greeks and Romans? Sure, we have primary sources. But, the sources for the north are actually Christian sources.
          Was David rebuked for his sin? Sure. Was he unsavory? Yes, that is also true. Was Wayland celebrated for rape? We don’t know.

          • … what is known of Nothern European mythology(such as the Edda, for example) that remains was written by Christians who were hostile to the Pagan religions of the figures being written about.

            If you’re going to call on the absence of sources — despite Weyland being clearly the protagonist of the fable, despite that such an action would in fact be something to celebrate in a culture steeped in clannish retaliation more than anything — then some primary source documents showing Snorri himself to be hostile to the Norse pantheon would be in order.

            This, despite that his theory regarding the origin of these legends betrays more affection than hostility; in fact, it suggests the same affection many converted pagans throughout Europe felt towards their old ways and customs.

          • Ryan

            “then some primary source documents showing Snorri himself to be hostile to the Norse pantheon would be in order. ”

            Read a translation of the prologue of the prose Edda. It is an account of how God the almighty created the universe and mankind, and how mankind then forgot God and started worshiping a bunch of Trojans because they had superior technology and culture.
            This is a hostile stance. Less hostile than other authors, perhaps, but less doesn’t mean not.
            And since I was referring to all Northern European folklore, read lines 175-83 of Beowulf for a good primary source example of hostility in Anglo-Saxon literature. Just because these are the best sources we have for Northern European mythology doesn’t mean they are particulary good ones for understanding how the pre-Christian folks actually believed. They are, however, excellent in informing us how how Christians two centuries after conversion discussed thier purported beliefs.

          • As regards Snorri: Doesn’t seem hostile at all, the way you put it.

          • Sorry if that looked curt: You deserve more of a response.

            As you’ve characterized it, it very well fits the working thesis of affection being why Snorri and others preserved pagan folklore. As before:

            … it suggests the same affection many converted pagans throughout Europe felt towards their old ways and customs.

            Things such as you’ve quoted Snorri as saying may be said passionlessly, as a matter of fact — much like atheists toss around accusations of absurdity on theists. Working from the doctrine of faith that one has, it doesn’t imply hostility.

            As atheists often say: How can I be hostile to a God I do not think exists? The gandersauce principle would apply this to Snorri: How can he be hostile to gods he thinks never existed? And if he hated the legends, why would he preserve them? No, accusations of hostility do not fit the data.

          • Ryan

            We appear to be drawing opposite conclusions from the same information here, so I don’t see this going anywhere. I would conclude that the statements made by Snorri indicate a hostile paradigm to that of the pre-Christian Norse- one that may well result in a biased narrative. Note I say may- my point is that Snorri(and others) are suspect sources, as they come from a fundamentally different worldview than those who actually held these beliefs. Perhaps Snorri isn’t hostile to the Gods per se, but he is hostile to a worldview that worships them. The affection you refer to seems to me like a rather condescending one, in any event.
            Now, that being said, I see where you could draw the conclusion that perhaps this affection would be reason for Snorri to be more accurate in his reporting(hoping, of course, that nothing got too distorted in the couple of centuries since conversion). I do not believe this to be the case. I doubt we will ever have more common ground on this issue than the fact we can acknowledge we are looking at the same texts.

    • Ray

      I’ll grant that underdog stories are particularly common in Jewish literature as compared to most of the rest of the ancient world (and for obvious reasons if you’re even remotely familiar with the political situation in those parts), but if you can’t find similar underdog stories in pagan literature, you’re just not looking. — Pandavas vs Kuravas, Theseus vs the Minotaur, the Tortoise vs the Hare, Leonidas vs the Persians, Athens vs Atlantis, Socrates vs Athens etc. These aren’t exactly obscure examples. It seems unlikely to me that any of these were significantly influenced by Jewish sources, but if you want a more obscure example of an underdog story that is clearly too old to have been so influenced, here’s one: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/1800egypt-peasant.asp

      The moral being, I don’t think you can even claim this trope as an invention of Judaism, let alone Christianity.

      • Please note: The original comment was “typical.” This may be taken a number of ways, including but not limited to “which stories are celebrated” and “what this suggests about why they are celebrated.” In every way, Hercules outstrips even Theseus in popularity — and this example only makes sense if we choose to ignore that Theseus was a prince and a demigod, depending on who you ask.

        … and the essential feature of the weak protagonist was not being outnumbered but being weak. Also, not just being weak but also winning. In short, Leonidas is a terrible counterexample.

        Your peasant would be a better example — and then we realize it is obscure, unusual, and by your source appears to exist only in fragments. This paints the picture of a legend forgotten through the centuries.

        The essential feature of pagan mythology is that it celebrates a pantheon of Gods who behave just like men — if men were omnipotent and immortal. (This is a paraphrased summation originally from a source I’ve long forgotten.)

        • Ray

          Well, I’m not sure what disqualifies something to be an underdog story (being the secretly anointed king handpicked by Yahweh is ok, but being a prince or a demigod isn’t? Seems pretty “no true Scotsman”-ish to me.) I do know for a fact that Theseus was a direct inspiration for one of the underdog stories given by the OP (the hunger games,) which is more than I can say for David and Goliath (at least as far as relevance to the present discussion goes.)

          In any event, if all you’re trying to argue is that the literature the OP likes is more “typical” of the Tanakh than the writings of Homer, say, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to prove. It seems like arguing I should be a Greco-Roman Pagan if I like literature that features protagonists who triumph through ingenuity and problem solving (Odysseus, Daedalus, Dido, etc.)

          • It’s a question of origin: Daniel wasn’t born king or all powerful but became one, even if by devotion to God.

            And you needn’t stop at the Hunger Games. By the understanding I’ve proposed, the other stories are also don’t qualify as underdog tales per se. Harry was born a wizard; Ender was born a Third — in the Ender universe, brilliance is also genetic. So both of those other heroes was also a kind of child of destiny.

            This observation points, perhaps, at what was being shown: It isn’t one work or another which was addressed but the proliferation of a particular idiom — a genuinely underdog hero. Frodo is a fantastic example, as is Arthur. A fuller case could probably be made that, in a postmodern culture away from God, chance as in the Hunger Games, genetics as in Ender’s Game, or destiny as in Harry Potter are what makes folks special. These are all forces over which we do not have control.

            At this point, we can contrast these underdog stories with fully Christian-as-Christian underdog stories, which should prove interesting because seemingly the latter made the idiom so overwhelmingly popular to begin with. There is a clear explanation, perhaps: In the Christian ethos, everyone has a chance at glory because absolutely everyone — certainly in literature — has the choice of devotion to God.

          • Ray

            “It’s a question of origin: Daniel wasn’t born king or all powerful but became one, even if by devotion to God.”

            (I trust you mean David, not Daniel.) Anyway, I see absolutely zero evidence in the text (I Samuel 16) that God’s favor on David resulted from a choice made by David. The closest thing to a reason for David’s anointment is given in verse 12 — “He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.” Nothing about devotion to God.

            Now maybe you want to ignore that part and skip to I Samuel 17, since it seems to be sort of an alternate continuity. There you see some devotion to God, but the line about the Lion and the Bear indicates God’s been helping David out for a long time, and it is by no means evident that David made the first move in that particular relationship. Also, like in the previous chapter, it is by sheer coincidence that David ends up in a situation that allows him to prove his worthiness (in chapter 16, he’s off tending the flock when Samuel comes, and chapter 17 he’s visiting his brothers to perform an errand.) So in both cases, David fits the “child of destiny” trope much better than the patient and faithful servant trope.

            As far as Christian as opposed to Jewish literature goes, I think the situation is even worse for your thesis. Not only are the heroes generally induced into God’s service by being wowed by miracles (e.g. road to Damascus,) but the only earthly reward for their devotion is almost invariably an untimely death.

          • Good call on the typo.

            David isn’t just special because of the anointing. Throughout the rest of Kings we read reference to David as he who was faithful, unlike these blighters, and the traditional authorship of the Psalms has to count for something.

            Heroes may be convinced by God’s miracles but this never wholly overwhelms the will. Saul disappears for years, at least according to my RCIA lady, and Judases who betray despite their special graces are everywhere in Church history.

            As for the last point, I see you qualified “rewards” with “earthly.” Talk about stacking the deck.

          • Ray

            Well, if you want to look at the whole of Samuel/Kings, the proper genre is somewhere between blatant propaganda and nationalist history, and the part concerning David tends more towards the former. If you actually believe the real David was only pretending to work for the Philistines, or that he passed up the opportunity to kill Saul not once, but twice, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. David was built up as the perfect man, the chosen one, the original template for the Messiah. Everything is set up to make him look good, even in inconsistent ways — like setting him up as the underdog, despite the fact that the other glories attributed to him would make it 100% clear he was in no real danger. (I suspect the one exception to this unending glorification, the Bathsheba episode, is a pastiche of stories set up to eliminate doubts over Solomon’s paternity (was Uriah really abstaining from sex? did Bathsheba’s first son really die?), overlain with some Deuteronomic moralizing added 350 years later by a close associate of the king Josiah.)

            As for the rest: According to Galatians (Acts tells a different story, but I’d trust the probable first hand account over the anonymous account later attributed to Luke — FWIW Acts strongly implies Paul starts preaching immediately), the first thing Paul does upon receiving his road to Damascus experience is to run off to Arabia. It’s not entirely clear what he was doing there, but it’s implied he was preaching to gentiles — verses 16, 23. Paul does deny speaking to the apostles (probably to emphasize the point that his instructions came from God, not men) for 3 years after his experience, but he does not deny preaching. The whole thing very much seems to fit the irresistible call to prophecy trope that is perhaps best exemplified by the story of Jonah, but it shows up in pretty much all of the prophetic books of the OT and in NT incidents like the time Jesus predicts the martyrdom of Peter. As a bonus, Paul claims god set him apart from his mother’s womb in verse 15. It very much looks like it’s God doing the choosing.

            As for whether Christian literature is better described as containing triumph of the underdog stories or martyrdom stories, I still lean towards the latter, because early Christian literature for the most part takes a tell, but don’t show, approach to salvation. sure Jesus says “great will be your reward in the kingdom of Heaven,” but, when we actually see someone die, like Stephen in Acts 7, the story isn’t closed out with a little vignette in Heaven or after the resurrection of the dead, or whatever, showing that Stephen is ok, after all. Yeah, it’s painfully clear that that’s where he thinks he’s going. But the last we see of him is “when he said this, he fell asleep.” Very ambiguous. The focus is on the martyrdom, not the reward, at least the way the story is told.

          • I think we’re ending up like Ryan and I did, drawing opposite conclusions from the same data. Best leave it at this.

          • On further reflection, that charge of “propoganda” as regards is interesting, and not just because even if true it undermines your case completely. Why it is probably not true, among other reasons: There’s a lot more there than Solomon’s paternity charge, and every major player in the book of Kings ends up looking real bad except David, and even he had the Uriah episode. Doesn’t Samuel used language usually associated with Jeremiah before he annoints the first King? But table that. Suppose this is all just propoganda.

            Propoganda is meant to make certain folks look real good. So what makes David look real good? Well, it isn’t that he’s annointed, because a bunch of other guys who end up with egg on their faces start off like that, too. Throughout, the propogandists repeatedly put in the mouth of The Name Himself that David’s best quality was that he was faithful to God always.

            Seems to me that if the books of Kings were utterly false propoganda, that the authors emphasize this point would seem to suggest fidelity to God is very highly valued; indeed, the highest value. So devotion of this kind, as a defining characteristic of a good person, it is distinctively Jewish. It is a Jewish golden egg.

          • Ray

            Ok. The thing you have to understand about Samuel/Kings is that there’s several layers of propaganda in there. The last layer of editing, and the act of compiling all these stories into one place (along with Joshua and Judges) is generally attributed to the Deuteronomist historian, a member of the court of king Josiah (although one who lived to see Judah fall) whose primary concern was showing that throughout history, God rewards and punishes the people and leaders of Israel/Judah for their obedience and disobedience to the laws in the book of Deuteronomy (which is most likely the scroll of law “found” in the temple during the reign of Josiah — 2 kings 22.)

            Nonetheless, Samuel and Kings are based on earlier sources — they’re not perfectly accurate, but they’re way too accurate to be invented out of whole cloth 300 years after the fact. Those sources are themselves propagandic in nature, but often in conflicting ways (some very early sources opposed the very idea of a monarchy, some sources were interested in glorifying Saul, others David, and still others Solomon etc.)

            As it was the dynasty of David that lived on until the end of the kingdom of Judah, it is around the figure of David that the messianic ideas accumulated, so you see more glorification of David than pretty much any other figure in Samuel/Kings (although Hezekiah and Josiah come close.) This is a bit of an interesting problem for the Deuteronomist, because there’s all kinds of evidence that David and Solomon weren’t nearly as into exclusive Yahwism as later kings — e.g. the names (notice how after a certain time, nearly all the king’s names start with Yeho or end with iah. Not so for David or Solomon.) This is why the Deuteronomist waits until the last second before the kingdom of Israel breaks up to mention that Solomon worshiped gods other than Yahweh.

            I allude to some of this complexity in my previous comment, but here’s a more detailed account of how I see the stories relating to David taking their present form:

            1)The secret anointing of David and the story of David and Goliath are written by someone interested in glorifying David (either for his own sake, or the sake of his dynasty.) They are separate stories at this point. Likewise, other incidents from David’s life (the conflict with Saul, David’s time with the Philistines) which are probably meant to explain away potential embarrassments to David are written in such a way as to make David look as sympathetic as possible.

            2)An author interested in the legitimacy of Solomon writes a fairly brief version of the stories meant to eliminate any possibility that his father is really Uriah and not David.

            3) The Deuteronomist historian, who is more interested in moralizing than in Solomon’s paternity, makes the death of Bathsheba’s first son divine punishment for David’s depravity.

            You can find similar explanations for the rest of Samuel and Kings. A key thing to remember is that it is the Deuteronomist that always gets the last word. Expect him to say something bad about a king if there is good documentation of him doing something opposed by Deuteronomy (worshipping any gods other than Yahweh, or even allying himself with a neighboring country that worships other gods.) Also expect him to say something bad about a king if there’s good documentation of that king’s dynasty being overthrown (like Ahab or Saul) or of Judah/Israel suffering military defeat. Seeing as both of these things happened a lot (remember the Deuteronomic history takes its final form AFTER both Judah and Israel had fallen), there’s no shortage of bad things said about various kings.

          • Ray

            Also, can you cite, specifically, which passages you’re talking about when you say this?:

            “Throughout, the propogandists repeatedly put in the mouth of The Name Himself that David’s best quality was that he was faithful to God always.”

            I’ve looked through the relevant sections of Samuel (albeit not very carefully,) and I do not see this claim spelled out as such.

      • Comparing pagan mythology to Grimm’s fairy tales and the Bible would be an especially useful exercise. It’s all the same, Campbell cries — but squint hard enough, everything looks the same.

  • Jill

    I definitely have to agree with the first commenter in thinking this writer is a Catholic, from both the comments on “authority” and the line “something that, when we disagreed, was continually proved correct”, which seems to allude to Chesterton’s remarks that the Catholic Church is a “truth-telling thing”.

    (Or maybe this a rogue atheist who set out to confuse us!)