Archive for the ‘small gods’ Category

15 Questions For Atheists

December 7, 2012 - 12:42 am 42 Comments

Yeah, it’s gimmie content, that I basically borrowed from Ozy (whose own answers I will not read until I’ve hit publish lest I talk myself out of posting in the belief someone else had already said everything, which I’ve been doing way too much lately), but it’s content. And I haven’t stirred this particular pot in awhile.

So, from Loving Christ With Your Mind, 15 questions for atheists and their replies from this atheist.

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Response To Micah Clark: It Ain’t That Bad

June 21, 2012 - 9:43 pm 17 Comments

From the Illinois Family Institute: Warning To America: It Can Get Worse

By “it” he means atheism and agnosticism among young people.

The Illinois Family Institute apparently exists to “promote marriage, family, life, and liberty”. As poster Mr. Clark may or may not be aware, people who doubt the existence of the Biblical God generally get married more often than not, 100% of them have families, all of them are alive and all of them have a choice of positions on the issue of abortion if that’s the specific issue at hand, and most of them are broadly in favor of “liberty”, though most of them would also take a view of liberty that includes not being forced to participate in or mouth along with religious ceremonies, or be restricted by law grounded in an explicitly religious morality. Much as religious people object to laws restraining them from religious practice. (Anti-murder: not explicitly religious. Anti-contraception: generally explicitly religious.)

Fun additional quote:

By the way, everyone believes in something, be it the God, a god or themselves.

Missing from this list: family, community, the temporal order of law, the abstract order of morality, the sweep of human history… everyone believes in something, but not everyone believes moral authority is a chain of authority-people with eternal, personified authorities at the ends. (Lots of people who believe/d in multiple gods don’t, and those gods behave rather more like people freed of moral authority than moral authorities.)

Oh, I know, “family” associations are usually code for “Christian, and fuck your family if it doesn’t fit what we think is the Biblical mold, and fuck liberty if it in some way contradicts what we think God’s will is, even if God was pretty explicit in the Bible that everyone has a choice”. But today, for whatever reason, I am extra tired of the pretension.

Other Sorts of Froth

February 21, 2012 - 5:03 pm Comments Off

So the latest video to go viral in the sorry slog that is the 2012 Republican presidential primaries is this old speech by Rick Santorum speaking to a Catholic university. Depending on who you ask and what their personal bugaboos are, it’s either Rick Telling It Like It Is, an alarming big-government authoritarian justifying any meddle he wants in people’s lives in the name of what they oughtta be doing, a dangerously crazy candidate expounding on his belief that Satan is destroying America, or Nothing To See Here, Move Along.

In the strain of comment coming from people who believe this is either unremarkable or unfair to Santorum, I see three primary arguments:

1) It doesn’t matter because he’s talking to Catholics so therefore it’s religious stuff irrelevant to his ambitions as President.

2) Rick’s being demonized for being religious.

3) It doesn’t matter because he won’t have the power to ban (abortion, contraceptions, sex outside of marriage, being gay, etc.)

I can only believe people who argue the first either haven’t watched the video, or share Santorum’s worldview so utterly they cannot see what’s remarkable about it. He’s talking very explicitly about government, about the history of American government, and what the founding principles and documents of American government mean, and he states very clearly that freedom is defined not by the freedom to do things, but by the “freedom” to act in accordance with God’s will. That essentially makes the idea of liberty meaningless, and redefines it as whatever the person in power believes to be God’s will. That’s a statement of his worldview and governing philosophy that has everything in the world to do with how he would act as the chief executive of the United States of America, not just Rick Santorum, Conservative Catholic. It’s not just Santorum expressing himself poorly, either; it’s a belief he has reiterated time and time again.

As for the second argument: Santorum’s not being picked on for being religious, Santorum’s being picked on because he believes he knows what God’s will is, he also believes the state should have the right to enforce God’s will, and he is running for not merely political office, but the highest political office in the land. Religious freedom means the freedom to believe and practice as you will- not to enforce it on others, even by majority vote.

As for the third- Santorum probably can’t actually get contraception or abortion banned, but that doesn’t make his bedrock belief both in his own divinely mandated rightness and the absolute right of government to legally enforce morality somehow irrelevant. He’s running on culture-war issues in an election where most voters care chiefly about whether they’ll be able to get a job or afford to run a business; it is something he cares deeply and passionately about and has for his entire political career. If he can’t shut up about contraception* and gay people for the campaign to win the primary, it’s fairly ludicrous to believe he’ll set all those issues aside once he’s got the veto pen, the power to push legislation, and the status as head of the military because of “political reality”. There are a hell of a lot of ways to chip away at individual rights without blanket bans or compulsions, and we’ve seen quite a few of them over the last fifteen years or so.

I really and truly do not care if a candidate is sincerely religious. Given what political poison even not being a mainstream Christian is in America, I’d be a hell of a lot angrier if I did. I do care when a politician conflates being religious with a calling to serve as National Pastor with a legislator’s pen rather than whatever civil position they were elected to.

Santorum’s taking a media beating because he richly deserves to, not because the media is just so unfair to religious people.

*I don’t believe this is or should be a huge issue in this election. I do believe it’s extremely telling of Santorum’s worldview that he seems to think the primary users of contraception are wild libertines and not, for example, married couples who do not want nor can even afford unlimited children. Or for that matter single, unpartnered women or girls who are getting hormone therapy as part of normal health care- as I was for many years before I even lost my virginity.

One Minute and So Many Questions

February 9, 2012 - 6:06 pm Comments Off

First, watch the video.

Then, sit back and allow for reaction time. If you are like me you will have many questions. Like:

Why is Purity Bear’s voice so deep? He’s two feet tall at most.

Is it just me or does he seem more sexually jealous than morally sanctioning? Is the dude in the video supposed to be saving himself for marriage or saving himself for Purity Bear?

Is the dude a plushophile? Is cuddling a euphemism? That’s the only thing that makes sense, given you’re not supposed to be saving your cuddles for matrimony.

Is Purity Bear God? Is God cuddly?

Where are they at the end? Is that a church? Where are the other people? Even if you elope you can’t get married without a minister or a justice of the peace.

Oh god, is that his basement? Did the scary guy who thinks a plush God Bear talks to him and cuddles with him take that poor girl to Uncle Bruin’s Chastity Dungeon?

Is this whole thing taking place in the guy’s head, girl included? Does he regularly imagine getting on-hand life advice from stuffed animals when making difficult decisions? Is there an Honesty Giraffe or a Temperance Gorilla?

If Purity Bear isn’t God, is he a different kind of bear? Is this actually a short story about a closeted, tormented youth and his unwitting girlfriend? It would explain why Purity Bear seems more jealous than anything else, and I’m pretty sure that kind of bear is, in fact, cuddly.

At what point did hands flexing become a metaphor for sexual arousal? Is this film code for “Go home and masturbate instead”? Do I need to be careful about shaking out my hand after a long session on a gun with a heavy trigger pull lest I inadvertently proposition everyone else on the line?

Why I Am An Atheist

November 2, 2011 - 5:29 pm Comments Off

The House of Representatives of the congress with 9% of the American people’s approval passes a resolution reaffirming that “In God We Trust” is the national motto. The roof of the Capitol building fails to collapse, there are no earthquakes in DC, locusts fail to appear, and not a single person is struck by lightning.

The President responds by asserting God wants his jobs bill passed. The President is not struck by lightning or plague, the earth fails to swallow him, and does not show the slightest sign of being turned into a pillar of salt or any sort of wretched beast.

God is either not there or not anything like so protective of His name as he used to be.

Cultural Anthropology

August 29, 2011 - 4:35 pm Comments Off

It’s the early part of the Republican field sorting itself out, which means time to pander to the heartland, which means time for the almost entirely coastal and urban-dwelling members of the media to treat this activity and the heartland itself as an excursion to an alien planet, populated by dangerously exotic natives.

Religion becomes a particular sore point, because it is both a slice of the country a candidate- even a Democratic candidate- must at least not overtly horrify, and something that media seems to find extremely puzzling. (I find THIS extremely puzzling- most Americans grow up either religious or around the religious, yet journalists often act as though overt religiosity were not just embarrassing or wrong but actually foreign.)

Now, I’m not one that thinks the religion or lack thereof of candidates is a private thing that it’s simply gauche for the media to question or interrogate; religious and philosophical beliefs often form the bedrock on which a person’s ethical structure is founded, not to mention a fair amount of worldview and what one thinks of the basic structure of the world. It can be tribalistic or inclusive, and it absolutely affects what kinds of actions a candidate may or may not take. (Though not nearly as predictive as their past actions are.) I just wish the media were up to doing it with some degree of literacy or understanding both of the religion they’re talking about, the subcultures within it, and the various interactions between them. There’s rarely an insider’s understanding of the various power dynamics and actual degrees of influence; a very good litmus test is whether someone refers to Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist as an example of Southern Baptists, when Westboro is affiliated with no Baptist convention (Phelps was kicked out decades ago for advising a parishioner to beat his wife) and is in fact something much more like a one-family charismatic cult than it is any kind of Christian sect.

Michelle Bachmann seems to be drawing a great deal of this mix of fear and loathing. I don’t like her at all, I like her husband even less, and her religious outlook is at least mixed up in some of the reasons I find her problematic- but I also find her a fairly garden-variety* sort of Christian according to what I know of American Christians. I see constant darkly muttered references to how the Bachmanns are from some sort of terrifying theocratic sect- and see the word “Dominionist” tossed around a lot- but so far as I can tell she’s not particularly distinctive among serious Lutherans, which aren’t exactly a radical fringe group.

Yes, you can point to people who are or were involved with scary substrains of Christian thought, including Dominionists, as “influences”, but if you combed my bookshelf of everything I’ve ever read that I thought was important and influenced me in some way you could probably come up with a lot of fairly scary things- and this is true for anyone who has ever given any sort of serious thought to anything in their entire lives, especially when dealing with large cultural and philosophical issues. This, by the by, goes for politicians on the left, too- I don’t think Barack Obama is a scheming Alinskyite neo-Weatherman due to his past reading and associations, I think he’s an intellectually fairly shallow man who ran in the right circles and read the right things who is mainly scary because it strikes me the only thing he ever really gained deep understanding of, and competence with, is campaigning.

The fact of the matter is, to be literate within your culture or subculture, there are things you are more or less obligated to read or at least be influenced by just by exposure to those ideas. If you’re not part of that culture, it’s much more difficult to distinguish which references and exposures are part of bedrock, directed belief and which are more like part of the wallpaper. (If you want a good example, the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to be shocked and alarmed by the magic-and-demons aspects of fantasy literature and gaming geek culture is an excellent one.)

Cue Bachmann campaign actually having to explain to the media that a remark about “God getting our attention” about fiscal policy by sending natural disasters was a joke and not a serious attempt to suggest that God is striking us with plagues because he doesn’t like Ben Bernanke. This is what I mean by the tone-deafness of the media in reacting to religious people and religiosity- in a culture in which references to God and what God’s doing or wants are common, it’s very obviously a joke and the audience in the video reacts to it like one. Absent that familiarity, it’s apparently possible to react with unfeigned horror that Bachmann would suggest God is striking us down for our financial hubris.

This is, by the by, one of the reasons I’m very skeptical of the concept of “dog whistles”- which are supposedly code terms politicians and other speakers use to tell their base/shared culture something without alarming the media or unaffiliated people. There’s a difference between secret code language designed to subvert America and the concepts, metaphors, and worldview a speaker shares and may assume; while it may indeed be a shorthand reference for a belief or a point a naive audience would find horrifying, it’s not always, and I think it’s far more often done because that is the vocabulary and outlook the speaker has than because he or she is trying to put one over on the audience and signal his “real” audience what he or she will really do once in power.

The dissection of Bachmann’s “head and tail” comment regarding Obama’s military adventures in Libya as a metaphor for America’s role in warfare is a good example; it’s a quote from Deuteronomy, “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail”. People seem to be freaking out that this is a dogwhistle to Dominionists, because they use the phrase as a theological justification for why Christians have a God-given obligation to rule. Well yes, they do. However, it’s also really common for people in religious circles to use Biblical metaphors, period; I’ve seen serious theological debate, sometimes radical debate, over passages and lines I’ve also seen used as metaphors much as we use any common cultural metaphor to describe a situation. I don’t think it’s any more innately sinister than describing someone entering a difficult situation as “walking into Mordor”.

The interesting thing about dogwhistles is they almost always seem to be identified as such by anyone who is outside the culture/movement supposedly being dogwhistled. Just about every time I’ve seen the reverse- someone thinking a politician is speaking to them/their group in code- it almost always turns out to have been a case of wishful thinking. Most groups really aren’t satisfied with being supposedly represented by a leader who is completely unwilling to speak of their beliefs straightforwardly in public, even if they understand they are an unpopular minority.

If we want to know what Michele Bachmann, or any other politician, believes and how that would affect their governing, our best bet outside looking at their past actions is to ask them- and we’re not going to get anywhere particularly productive or particularly far if the people asking are so illiterate in their own line of questioning that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about. If they are unwilling to answer a straightforward question that isn’t starting off wrongheaded (the theological equivalent of asking an evolutionary biologist why, if humans evolved from primates, monkeys are still around), then that tells us something as well. Otherwise, the most that will be accomplished is further convincing Americans that don’t find Christian culture innately alarming that they are being talked to, and ruled by, a completely clueless self-deemed elite- which are already Bachmann campaign themes.

Don’t want to see her in office? Don’t show her to be right.

*Yes, I’m entirely aware of her views on gay people and evolution. Sadly they are not all *that* exceptional.

The 800 Pound Gorilla Gets Sued A Lot

August 3, 2011 - 4:48 pm Comments Off

So in the comments on posts about the entire American-Atheists-sue-over-WTC-memorial furball, one common theme I’ve seen is questioning of why, with the whole broad variety of religions to harass, atheists with a mind to litigate always seem to pick Christians. Sometimes this goes with questioning of, or actual assumption of, sympathies or common cause with the not-picked-on religions like Islam or Buddhism or Judaism.

The short answer is “no, not at all”. Or at least not that I’ve ever seen in ten years of hanging out either within or watching from afar the activities of the atheist/skeptic/”freethinker” community. The sort of atheist that’s inclined to make this a major group identification and to engage in activism generally thinks all religions are equally silly and dangerous, and if they’re afraid of violent terrorist retaliation I’ve certainly never seen such expressed. They’re usually very eager to jump on things like Boobquake or Draw Mohammed Day.

The reason litigious atheists almost always go after a Christian target is so simple it’s apparently no longer obvious: because Christianity is the majority religion in the United States. That doesn’t mean they necessarily dislike it more because it’s the majority, but because BEING the majority makes it most likely the people managing to piss off the atheists are Christians for a number of reasons.

Reason number one is pure math. If we assume that members of all faiths and lack thereofs are roughly equally composed of really good people, major assholes, and the decent-to-apathetic, just by that sheer factor of majority it makes it most likely that the number of asshole-to-asshole contacts are made by two Christians and is not newsworthy beyond the local, or else between a Christian and some sort of nonChristian. It really only takes one asshole in the contact to make a kerfuffle, but either way most of them are going to be Christians because most Americans are Christians, and for the thing to really blow up to national-news proportions it really helps if both parties involved are.

Reason number two is that in scenarios involving non-assholes who are just making thoughtless assumptions, it’s the majority that is *infinitely* more likely to be making a thoughtless assumption- they assume everybody thinks like them because most people actually do, and thus their assumptions can go quite late in life without challenge. A Muslim, Jew, or Hindu assuming that everyone would be cool with an entire group that is not a church group being led through a Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu prayer would have their assumption last about thirty seconds beyond its birth unless they were in some highly specific sub-communities within the US; Christians making the same assumption would be the entire reason we ever had a culture war about school prayer. A small minority objecting versus almost everyone makes the distinction between issues we see as “just some small group of loud crybabies picking nits” versus “it’s obvious this is the wrong thing to do, everyone is upset!” Likewise we don’t see municipal displays of minority faiths because municipalities where they *aren’t* minorities are rare to nonexistent and it doesn’t occur to them that “everyone” would enjoy it and therefore it’s a great idea.

Related to this point is that minorities, again by virtue of being minorities, simply don’t have the *power* to step on as many other toes as majorities, especially in a democratic system. They can manage a certain amount through activism and legal gadflying, but as a rule the most they can manage is volume rather than real pervasive changes that affect others in ways beyond having to listen to them or having to “play fair” with them, such as allowing seasonal displays of other faiths/nonfaiths next to theirs.

Make no mistake, I believe all faiths and nonfaiths are equally composed of 100% human beings and that they are therefore all carrying an equal load of the entitled, the stupid, the thoughtless, and the out-and-out malicious. What I’m trying to point out isn’t “the majority is full of assholes who do asshole things”, but that being a majority gives more leeway to step on tender toes- whether the fault is with the one doing the treading or not, and that when viewed from the outside, this gives the appearance of a united front of minorities against the majority. The only actual unity is that the minorities are all more likely to have been affected directly by something the majority did than something one of the other minorities did; as soon as someone else becomes the majority, or as soon as one of those rarer cases happen, any apparent ties of unity evaporate.

Other groups may do worse things to minorities elsewhere than Christians do to specific minorities here, but people in general are most concerned with what’s happening in their own back yard, as it happens to be where they live. That, and familiarity breeds contempt- particularly when the familiar also happens to be different from your own identified tribe.

Broken Record Player

August 1, 2011 - 7:46 pm Comments Off

In the very broad spirit of this pair of posts, respectively on a ludicrous lawsuit by American Atheists and equally ludicrous overreaction to particularly tribal Christians, I’m going to engage in perhaps the easiest form of blogging: bitching at people I wish would either get off my side or represent their own better. It’s like yelling at people to get off your lawn, only much more political and in broadcast format.

– Religious symbology is both relatively harmless and something which believers can get really disproportionately riled up over, so why various atheist and secular organizations love to attack it as much as they do is almost completely beyond me. It’s politically counterproductive in that it activates people who otherwise didn’t have a dog in the fight and suddenly feel personally attacked, and it doesn’t actually benefit nonbelievers much at all. We know we are a minority, and having fewer visible reminders does roughly doodly with a possible side of squat; meanwhile it gives the owner of the symbol being attacked a reason to howl to the skies that the infidel don’t just want to be tolerated, they want to wipe they, the symbol-owners, out- and not without justification. We’re surrounded by symbology of things we may or may not agree with all the time- religious, political, other cultural markers of identification, corporate logos, any form of branding. It can be offensive when the owners of such symbology presume to label everyone with it, but its mere presence is not harmful unless you’re a vampire.

– Not all religious symbology is all that neutral. There’s been an on-and-off passing fad with those fighting on the Yahweh side of the culture wars to lobby for Ten Commandments displays, especially in schools and in front of courts, often on the logic that it represents “the first law”. (Which is simply wrong- Hammurabi got there first even by the most generous estimates, yet I’ve never seen a proposal to display the proper compensation for capturing runaway slaves in school buildings for the edification of children.) The argument is that it represents completely common cultural heritage and is simply a set of common fundamental laws, but that only describes the back end of the commandments; the first three are explicit instructions to acknowledge God, that God is a specific God, and that God has specific dictates about how to honor God. For that matter the set’s not even the same depending if you are a Catholic or (some flavors of) Protestant. As a piece of cultural and religious heritage it’s fine and dandy, but in front of a courthouse or public school it makes a rather specific statement that is not in the least neutral or generic.

– Everyone has the right to the same pleasure or displeasure of being subjected to Pat Robertson or Bill Maher. Freedom to exercise religion and freedom of speech means a perfect right to scream at each other until blue in the face with no right or privilege to be insulated to the existence and opinions of the other side. Government need be careful about establishing or endorsing specific sides and there are reams of law precedents set and argued on the topic, but it can also be argued that this clause is there more for the protection of speech and religion from government than the other way around.

– Being a majority, or doing something traditional, is not actually an argument for anything beyond “there are a lot of us” and “but we’ve always done it this way”. Speaking of shekels for slaves, a lot of traditional things practiced by a large number of people were and are simply wrong. The same logic applies to minorities but is much more rarely advanced on their behalf. This is a particularly eyebrow-raising argument when applied to what are ostensibly systems of absolute morality and instructions for applied ethics.

– Speaking of which, if making political arguments and maneuvering is ludicrous to treat as though it were a sport with two competing teams that will win or lose based on total scoring, it’s even more insane to apply this to religion. If politics is the determination of the policies that will affect the entire nation, religions are about humanity in general, morality, cosmology, and immortal souls; if you find yourself acting or arguing as though what were important was whether Team Cross or Team Godless Liberal* has more points scored against the other going into the next quarter rather than what’s right or wrong according to its lights, you need to spend some time in a cave insulated from all media long enough for your scorecard to be hopelessly outdated.

– People being lemon-sucking blue-nosed hate-gargling wastes of human skin generally has more to do with the individual than their side of choice. That said, whenever making an argument that your position produces more people of (positive quality) than (competing position), be acutely aware these people exist and not just on the other side. That sword cuts both ways. You’d think this wouldn’t be an issue given that broadly speaking all relevant sides agree humans are innately flawed, but somehow it’s a perennial favorite.

– Insisting the world is a particular way- be that a community of peaceful, supportive, tolerant, doe-eyed believers versus a howling mob of sinners or a community of peaceful, supportive, rational, energetic and probing skeptics versus a chanting mob of dogmatic ignorant believers- convinces nobody that lives outside your bubble of anything except that you clearly inhabit a bubble. If you are very young this is somewhat understandable, if not suggests that you live in an isolated compound, either literal or metaphorical.

*Yes, I’m quite aware it’s more complicated like this, especially outside the US. However, these are exactly the sides that seem to be playing on the mental gridiron for a lot of Americans, given how often atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews seem to get lumped into one generic, mutually supportive blue team.

Represent

July 25, 2011 - 6:42 pm Comments Off

Here we have an op-ed by Lawrence Krauss about Rick Perry’s call-to-prayer event, which pretty much everyone but the dishonest and the mentally handicapped understand to be a run-up to his expected Presidential bid. Krauss thinks the event is problematic for a number of reasons, chief among which is the way the event goes out of its way to outline its beliefs, including reiterating that all non-Christians are damned.

The predominant strain of comment on this editorial seems to be thus:

1) Krauss is an atheist who voted for Obama and therefore has nothing to say about Christians or Republicans
2) The first amendment protects freedom of religion and expression, including this one
3) Krauss and people like him would JUST LOVE IT if it were a Muslim or atheist doing the same thing, despite the fact that Krauss used specifically those hypotheticals to demonstrate that the event is uncomfortably exclusionary.

Point one is essentially nonsensical- people who disagree with people or institutions comment on them all the time and it isn’t particularly controversial when they do- and point three shows a fair amount of having sheerly not read the article. Point two, however, is absolutely correct; it just isn’t the point of the article.

Perry is entirely free to believe as he chooses, associate with whom he chooses- the saved versus the damned, as it were- and hold assemblies dedicated to those beliefs. The first amendment does indeed protect all faiths and all messages, exclusionary ones or no. As long as Perry is acting in his capacity as a citizen and not the Governor of Texas, holding the event is not Constitutionally problematic. All of it is completely normal and ordinary in a country of a dozen or a hundred faiths, any one of which may believe that all the others are damned to follow so long as nothing is done to hasten them on their way to their ultimate destination.

The reason Krauss’s critique hits home as “problematic” isn’t because of who Perry is or what he believes, but that it’s extremely likely he’s doing it to open his campaign to run for the President of the United States, which is essentially that of chief executive representing the entire populace, not just the Christian one. It’s entirely possible that Perry would govern in the secular fashion appropriate to the office and the civic structure of the US, showing no favoritism or bias and always conscious of what’s appropriate for a chief executive as opposed to a national pastor, but just as he is free to send whatever messages he wants to the saved, the damned are equally free to read anything into the messages he sends about the likelihood of that.

As Krauss points out, the irreligious and the nonChristian combined represent about 21% of the population of the US- and he did not bother to point out, perhaps not feeling it necessary to do so, not all of them vote for Democrats as a matter of course. While it may be possible to win the governorship of Texas with that kind of screw-you-heathen messaging, it is extremely unlikely that it’s possible to win the presidency without that 21%. Remember, Obama’s winning percentage was a decisive win at 52% of the popular vote- and a REAL blowout would be more like the 60% by which Nixon defeated George McGovern in 1972, or the 58% with which Reagan defeated Mondale in 1984.

Perhaps Krauss is dismissable because he’s a Democrat himself anyway, or at least likely to vote for Obama, but it’s unlikely this atheist would vote for Obama either unless he undergoes a major personality transplant and political realignment. I would not, however, be capable of voting for Perry either, and would be staying home with a big bottle of whiskey and a big bottle of aspirin for the next day. Just like every election year without the stop at the polls first.

Dueling Philosophies That Aren't

April 26, 2011 - 4:49 pm Comments Off

Fresh on the heels of the holiday celebrating arguably the most important event in Christianity, we have the lived spirit of Christ’s redemption: triumphalism of how much better Christians are than a disliked out-group. Specifically, the author is out to demonstrate that Easter somehow demonstrates the stupidity of atheism.

To an atheist, this comes off as “our zombie chocolate bunnies make you look stupid!”. Tongue less in cheek, it’s a pretty good demonstration of the number of cultural and philosophical assumptions, often unexamined, one acquires within what we think is a pretty specific belief system.

In a nation that once prided itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage, one out of every five Americans now claims no religious identity whatsoever; and the number of self-proclaimed Christians has declined by a whopping 15%.

Yes, those who believe in nothing seem to be winning more and more converts every year.

Not really. There’s a few bright-eyed souls, usually those that had a dramatic breakup with an evangelical background, who believe in “winning converts” to the side of atheism. Most of us really and truly don’t care. I’d say a much more realistic picture- especially that refusal to own a religious identity or call themselves Christian- is that the churches are losing people, not that we’re winning them.

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

This is the first in a series of assumptions that do a rather impressive job of collapsing his own argument.

Atheism is the simple lack of belief in a god. Since it is a simple negative, it can and does have a lot of meanings depending on who’s using the term and why- everything from “none of the traditional gods exist” to “there is nothing supernatural whatsoever, anywhere”. In other words, atheism and philosophical materialism are related, but separate- philosophical materialism is the slightly harder and more concrete stance beyond “I really don’t think there’s an omnipotent cosmic entity that takes a personal interest in humans”, which is about as much as can really be applied to the vast bulk of atheists.

The problem is that this really isn’t a theory at all. It’s a superstition; a myth that basically says that everything in life — our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation — that all of this is merely the result of biochemical reactions and the movement of molecules in our brain.

What nonsense.

Welcome to Argument From Because I Just Said So, That’s Why.

What he thinks he’s arguing is that one side has a lot more explanatory power and body of philosophy behind it and one doesn’t, and that this is a compelling argument. Technically speaking this is true; you can literally explain everything if you attribute anything you do not understand to “because God wants it that way”, and one has a body of philosophy behind it and the other doesn’t because one is a two thousand year old belief system upon which most of Western philosophy was built and one is a plain and simple lack of belief in the other’s starting premise. What atheists who are philosophical materialists are really saying is “there is nothing supernatural about life, there’s a lot we don’t know and may never will, but we might”.

Or, if I’m going to get snarky about how his argument reads from my chair:

“Atheists are stupid superstitious idiots because they can’t explain as many things as believing that an omnipotent cosmic entity created everything, spent several thousand years dinking around with humanity and being unsatisfied with it, then redeemed it with the blood sacrifice of a Jewish man who now serves as his intermediary can. What rubes.”

We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us.

Therefore omnipotent cosmic entity/resurrected Jew.

Our senses tell us that the world is flat, and yet it’s not. Our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized. Our senses tell us that we’re stationary, and yet we’re really moving at incredible speeds. We just can’t see it.

Therefore… you see where I’m going with this.

If atheists were infamous for telling people that all you needed was the evidence of their senses and there weren’t no dad-blamed big-bearded guys in the sky ‘coz we looked, this line of argument might make some kind of sense, but as it stands it really, really doesn’t. The principles that we know explain the higher orders of organization of the world, and the general operations of natural law, weren’t discovered by theologians, but by people assuming whatever was being studied had a natural explanation consistent with other natural law.

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen.

See above, except now the argument seems to be “atheists don’t believe in anything that can’t be seen and touched and if they did they’d have to admit it was supernatural”. Ideas can’t be seen because they’re inherently abstract concepts, love can’t be seen because it’s an emotional state, and honor can’t be seen because it’s a cultural construct.

The apparent line of argument- anything you can’t touch must potentially be supernatural- is so far doing a rather good job of making the author look dim, not atheists.

This isn’t a new concept. Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have all taught for thousands of years that the highest forms of reality are invisible and mysterious. And these realities will never be reducible to clear-cut scientific formulae for the simple reason that they will never be fully comprehensible to the human mind. God didn’t mean them to be.

Thank you for your rousing defense of unassailable anti-intellectualism. Anything we can’t understand today must obviously not have meant to be understood, and anything we understand today that we didn’t a hundred years ago obviously must have been an exception.

I think I see the point he’s trying to make, but again the problem comes from fundamentally misunderstanding the way atheists think. We don’t lock up like an artificial intelligence in a bad science fiction story trying to comprehend love or the beauty of a flower, we simply don’t assume that things and concepts that aren’t amenable to reduction and reconstruction must or could be supernatural. Reductionism isn’t a life philosophy, it’s just one tool in a toolbox to describe and try to understand the world.

Or, in far fewer words: emergent properties exist and this is not controversial.

Or, in fewer words with more internet snark: FUCKING MAGNETS, HOW DO THEY WORK?!

No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: for his eyes are closed.”

I find quoting the discoverer of general relativity the very next paragraph after claiming that God doesn’t want the mysterious to be understood an absolute scream, I don’t know about you.

Again: atheists don’t disbelieve in wonder or mystery, they disbelieve in powerful supernatural entities with a direct interest in humanity, and think ascribing everything not understood to such entities just because it’s an explanation is silly.

Too many people go through life today with their eyes closed. They miss out on the mysterious because they’re so fixated on what they can see and smell and touch and taste and hear.

People are generally oblivious unless temperamentally inclined otherwise. While I have met one or two atheists this describes, the vast majority of them were so secure in their religious certainties everything that deviated came as a surprise to immediately deny, even things the rest of the civilized world considers well-known facts.

They’re so steeped in the “superstition of materialism” that they’re totally blind to the existence of another world — a radically different world than the one they’re familiar with, but a world nonetheless: a world of miracles, a world of grace, a world of angels, a world of diabolical warfare, a world where the highest values are completely opposite from those of our secular society — where weakness equals strength, sacrifice equals salvation, and suffering equals unlimited power.

Schizophrenics inhabit an exciting world full of mysteries and entities the rest of us aren’t privy to as well.

The last half of that statement is a bit theologically problematic. Christianity says suffering can be redemptive, not that it always is or inherently elevates you, let alone grants “unlimited power” to anyone but Christ.

The third thing that strikes me as odd about this paragraph is the way he’s talking as though Christianity weren’t the dominant cultural influence in the Western world. Sure, there’s a pretty big gap between the church and the world, but most of the values “secular society” has are derived from Christianity and its attendant culture. Including the idea that something being painful or unpleasant must make you a better person if you do it or put up with it.

Atheists, of course, claim that all of this is absurd. Christianity, especially, they say, with its belief in Easter and the Resurrection, is nothing but “wishful thinking” — the product of weak human psychology; a psychology that is so afraid of death that it must create “delusional fantasies” in order to make life on Earth bearable.

Some of them do. Some of us just stop at “divine blood sacrifice, really?” Life on Earth nowadays is really pretty bearable with or without it for most of us.

But is it wishful thinking to believe in hell, the devil and demons? Is it wishful thinking to believe we’re going to be judged and held accountable for every sin we’ve ever committed? Is it wishful thinking to believe the best way to live our life is to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of others? Is it wishful thinking to believe that we should discipline our natural bodily urges for the sake of some unseen “kingdom”?

I’ll actually just grant him this point, which he continues over the next few paragraphs. Not all atheists have leveled this particular charge at the religious, but enough have it’s a valid and true counter-argument.

And yet, atheists persist in this ridiculous notion that human beings “invented” God merely because we’re afraid of death and want to see our dead relatives again. Amazing.

Again, not all of us. Some of us think we did because we’re a designing, pattern-finding species that is deeply uncomfortable with the unexplained, and because a personalized and externalized moral code the entire society can refer to and judge themselves against is a useful cultural adaptation.

The rest of it is pretty stock “our team’s awesome and you won’t beat us because we’re right”. Which, fair enough, the difference between what he takes on faith and what I doubt is the entire point, though I actually do agree that atheists will never stamp out religious belief for pretty much the reasons in the above paragraph.

So, there you have it: it is trivially obvious that all of Christianity’s premises are true because the world would be more boring if not, mysteries are unsolvable and more fun that way, abstract concepts exist, and atheists are poopheads.

I’m still not convinced, me, but if you’ve got any of those Reese’s peanut butter bunnies, we can try those.