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Don’t think, just live

Via PZ, I find the latest iteration of John Gray’s world-weary anti-liberal schtick.

Most of it is the familiar Armstrongesque “religion is not belief it’s practice.” Silly atheists are barking up the wrong hydrant trying to say the beliefs are all eyewash because the beliefs don’t matter so ha. Art and poetry aren’t about establishing facts and religion is like that so ha. Myths aren’t silly and wrong, they’re great stories, except the one about science being a good thing, which is silly and wrong because humanity isn’t marching anywhere because it forgot to bring its boots so ha. You know the kind of thing.

Human beings don’t live by argumentation, and it’s only religious
fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are
literal truths.

Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying
religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved
if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to
get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.

We’d all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs
a religion. But if you do, you shouldn’t be bothered about finding arguments for
joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there.

What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we
live.

I bothered with this just because I wanted to point out the howling absurdity of that final paragraph. As if how we live could float free of what we believe! What we believe damn well does matter very much because it influences how we live.

For instance – if we believe that what we believe doesn’t matter very much then we live without paying much attention to what we believe and whether it’s well-founded or not and whether it could motivate us to do damage or not – we live according to Dunning-Kruger – we don’t know, we don’t know that we don’t know, and we don’t care that we don’t know, because we believe it doesn’t matter.

And by contrast, if we believe that what we believe does matter and we believe that female human beings are created inferior and subordinate by God, then how we live will be shaped by that belief. If we’re men we’ll fuck up the lives of any women we have power over, if we’re women we’ll let our lives be fucked up, in both cases because we’ll think it’s what God wants.

John Gray needs to take a closer look at the world.

Comments

  1. bksea says

    I don’t think most atheists would have a problem if religion was treated like art or poetry. The problem is that it is not. No one says that gays should be denied the right to marry because this poem says so. No one says that climate change cannot be happening because this painting would not let it happen. No one starts a war because the other country has inferior literature…

    When your religion stops fucking over my world, then we’ll talk.

  2. Bruce Gorton says

    What irritates me with this is – on just about every atheist blog I have seen there is a fair degree of focus on the practice of religion.

    We point out the horrors of the Magdelene laundries, along with the evils of the Irish orphanages. We bring attention to the abuses of the missionary movement – not simply Mother Theresa but also protestant missions that spark witch hunts in Africa.

    We point out the negative consequences of evidence denialism when it comes to new age beliefs, and strive to make sure that Islamic nutters trying to silence dissent via violence learn that such only makes the dissent louder and stronger.

    We discuss honour killings and generally disregard that form of multiculturalism that relegates people to a zoo like status of only being valued for their diversity. We value difference for what it brings to the table, not for the sake of it being different.

    And we recognise that people belong to themselves, not to their families or communities.

    We basically oppose the authoritarian practice of religion – where holy figures dictate what is right not due to their superiority of their reasoning or evidence but due to the fact that they are authority figures.

    We have internalised the values of democracy in that we do not require imaginary kings. We have upended the structure of power such that we define strength as being the ability to build rather than destroy, that it is not the power to punish that makes one strong by the power to provide.

    And thus we favour humanity for this proven power, while disfavouring religion, which so readily proclaims its forgiveness. We deny religion the power to condemn us in the first place.

    We deny the priests their self-proclaimed right to judge on issues of morality, issues which they have been found to be deficient in as they preach ideas that prove harmful. I know we speak of their ideas as being antiquated as if that is the grounds for our opposition and yet it is not, it is that in this period of decades, centuries, millennia these ideas have been tried and consistently found wanting.

    We note this in our religious brethren. Christians do not habitually turn the other cheek, or live as the lilies of the field, without a care for tomorrow. They recognise the stupidity of their “son of God” and thus largely ignore what he said. The practice of making up excuses for this is called theology.

    This goes for liberal and conservative Christianity.

    And the other religions when you get right down to it are no different – because the writers of their perfect books of ideas or schools of thought were throwbacks even for the times they inhabited. Religion is a regressive force, it strives to look to the past for greatness.

    We look to the future. We do not despair of the kids of today – we see a generation with its foibles and flaws, but also a generation which if we are honest with ourselves is better than we were because that is what we set out to achieve.

    We are the backs upon which the next generation shall climb to reach higher and achieve more.

    We oppose religion simply in our disagreement with it, but in how opposite to it we are. We offer no heaven or hell except what can be made in this lifetime, and we promote no morality except what can help in this lifetime.

    We do not demand forgiveness, but improvement.

    Religion looks upon life as an ocean of storms and waves which you need to be saved from. We recognise that the water is fine.

    /sermon

  3. says

    As if how we live could float free of what we believe!

    That is exactly what all of liberal religion is, though; behaving contrary to what one believes; thinking your religion is right, and that others are wrong, yet not caring. This is the very center of the demand for “tolerance”: believe what you will, just don’t act on it. Don’t tell others they are wrong.

  4. says

    Something I found really interesting about Gray’s views (and those of many, many, MANY liberal religionists who are faint at the mention of critical atheists) is that for all their talk of poetry, nuance, and understanding, they can’t seem to get us. Just because we think the world would be better off without religion doesn’t mean we think the world would be better off if we indoctrinated atheism into everyone, banned religion from the globe, or tried to use government to force atheism upon others.

  5. Egbert says

    If religion stuck to the realm of religion, then I think most of us wouldn’t have a problem. But religion wants to invade every other realm–politics, morality, science…

    That is my problem with religion–it wants to pretend its true, or that it’s right or that it’s science. If religion gives people meaning and purpose, then fine, stick to that.

  6. says

    John Gray needs to take a course in comparative religion. And Karen Armstrong needs to stop with the silly attempts to turn all religions into Buddhism. Religions may all be equally untrue, but they have very different practices and social effects. It seems to be a particular characteristic of recovering monotheists to note that other religions don’t go around killing people in the name of doctrinal propositions, so they try to reconstruct their particular monotheism as ‘non-credal’ and ‘non-doctrinal’. Or they do the opposite, and try to tell the rest of us that Australian Aborigines and Native Americans have all experienced ‘revelations’.

    It won’t wash. Read Ramsay MacMullen. Read Norman Cohn. Religions are not all of a piece.

    Sometimes this confusion is so profound that — as I discuss in this piece:

    http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2011/09/18/hatches-matches-and-despatches/

    One finishes up with the BBC adding pagans and atheists and calling countries where the two combined outnumber the monotheists ‘non-religious’.

    Last time I looked, paganism (or isms, to be fair) was a religion.

  7. says

    …it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.

    Yeah, and sadly the former group makes up a good part of my nation. …That’s kind of an issue.

  8. jamessweet says

    Two things here:

    One is that I’ll reiterate what I said somewhere else today, WEIT I think, that anybody who wants to take this “you dumb atheists are arguing about the wrong thing” tack must first concede that all religious truth claims are obvious bullshit. Until that concession has been made, we’re totally fine continuing to press that point. Anyone who wants to say we are missing the boat by (for example) insisting that virgin birth cannot possibly be true, must first agree with us that the virgin birth cannot possibly be true. If they cling to the possibility it might be true, then we’re not missing the boat.

    The other thing I want to say is to maybe acknowledge that I (and maybe some of the rest of you?) might have a bit of a blind spot here. Or maybe it’s the rest of the world that does. I’m not quite sure yet. But there’s a fundamental thing that I see differently than a lot of people, and it’s this:

    I don’t understand how something can be neither literal nor metaphorical. I understand how something can be both, but I don’t understand how it can be neither. This came up when I was talking with my wife the other day (a fellow atheist and skeptic, no sympathy for mushy theological speak here!) and she said that it can be difficult when I take things too literally, and I said that I simply don’t understand how something can be neither literal nor metaphor… and she said, “that explains a lot.” So I don’t know if there’s something I’m missing here, or if it’s something I’m getting right and everyone else is getting wrong… but it troubles me that I don’t even understand what somebody would mean by that. If I’m going to say someone is wrong, I feel better if I understand what their arguments are and why they wound up being wrong.

    Don’t misunderstand me; I am still quite confident that I am mainly right about religion. It is undeniably a net negative in the world today, and we sure as hell could with a whole lot less of it — and folks like John Gray are doing a disservice by maintaining otherwise, no matter what their arguments might be. I just wonder if for most people there really is something that is neither literal nor metaphor, to which I am oblivious, and that’s why when I read stuff like this I have absolutely no idea what the fuck he is even trying to say :)

  9. says

    Another thing just occurred to me: Gray’s assertion that long lists of creeds come from Greek philosophy (via Christianity) is historically illiterate. In the Graeco-Roman world, it was the responsibility of philosophy to elucidate moral claims, to provide instruction on how one ought to live. It was not the role of religion to do this, bar the limited importance of oath-taking in Roman religion, which fed into the Roman law of contract.

    The reason philosophy stopped providing moral instruction is because Christians persecuted and often killed the philosophers (Hypatia is simply the best known example of this), culminating in Justinian closing the philosophical schools and academies and expropriating their property. Philosophy was forced — under the burden of considerable pains and penalties — to cede morality to theology.

    I know, let’s give morality back to the philosophers and tell the theologians to go piss up a rope ;)

  10. sailor1031 says

    “it is only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.”

    Oh dear. Another heresy? Well not really, just the same old one again. Just ask the pope. What will it take to make this one lie down? A stake through the heart and burial at the crossroads at midnight (speaking of religious practices)? Okay one more time; If you do not believe that the stories are literally true then there was no “fall of man (and woman)”, there was no need of redemption for mankind, no need for the late JC to sacrifice himself to himself and no need for christianity at all. Christians DO believe these stories, whether they be fundies or not.

    And what, pray tell, makes rationalists ignorant? I venture to think I might easily be as well, or better educated than Mr Gray – and certainly less ignorant on matters of importance; which of course excludes religion. And so are my fellow rationalists.

  11. says

    James…..hmm….I don’t think so (I don’t think you’re missing something etc). I don’t exactly divide things up that way though. Maybe when one is talking about values and the like, neither word seems to fit – but then it doesn’t particularly have to. Is that any help? Or am I just misunderstanding you?

    If it’s a matter of truth-claims, I do think it has to be one or the other. It may be fuzzy or imprecise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not literal.

    I think.

  12. says

    Well, it is John Gray, after all. Even Roger Scruton dismissed him as a “misanthropic nihilist”–and this in an essay defending pessimism. Gray hates anyone who suggests that something like progress might be possible.

    Like all the other “atheist butts” I always wonder when it might occur to non-believers like Gray, who claim to be providing the best arguments for religion, to wonder why none of the people who give these arguments actually believe. The denatured version of religion they present, cranked out mainly by Armstrong, is, as R. J. Hoffman called Tillich’s theology, “methadone for religious addicts.” It won’t get you high, it’s not the real thing, but it might just relieve the cravings for a while. I don’t think Gray or any of the others have a clue about the real thing.

    In answer to jamessweet’s question, something may not be literal or a metaphor when it’s just a story, though your wife may have had something else in mind. In the context of religion, though, it’s pretty much irrelevant. You enjoy a story, but you don’t pray to it. People who go do this do it either in group solidarity or because they believe that there is something to pray to!

  13. Ken Pidcock says

    In most religions – polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions – belief has never been particularly important. Practice – ritual, meditation, a way of life – is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.

    (Excuse me while I try to stop laughing at what John Gray wants us to understand to be most religions.) This is nonsense, the privilege of the essayist but decidedly not the privilege of the vicar. Anyone who actually believes that the truth claims of religions are superfluous to the practice of religion would have to be utterly naïve. I don’t think that Gray is naïve. I think that Gray is disingenuous. He says that religious truth claims are immaterial as a way of saying that religious truth claims should not be challenged.

  14. Roger says

    ” MANY liberal religionists … can’t seem to get us. Just because we think the world would be better off without religion doesn’t mean we think the world would be better off if we indoctrinated atheism into everyone, banned religion from the globe, or tried to use government to force atheism upon others.”

    It’s called projection, C Mason Taylor. They assume everyone else would behave the way they would if they could. The frightening thing is that there are some atheists- we don’t know how many and I hope we never find out- who actually do think like that.

  15. says

    Anyone who wants to say we are missing the boat by (for example) insisting that virgin birth cannot possibly be true, must first agree with us that the virgin birth cannot possibly be true. If they cling to the possibility it might be true, then we’re not missing the boat.

    Yes! Another thing regarding their boat is, I can never really get a handle on what their plan is for improving the situation. It seems to be, by all accounts, sitting by and letting the fundies do whatever they want, occasionally poking their head up to ineffectually ask them to engage with values they do not share (such as “live and let live”).

  16. says

    It’s called projection, C Mason Taylor. They assume everyone else would behave the way they would if they could. The frightening thing is that there are some atheists- we don’t know how many and I hope we never find out- who actually do think like that.

    I’m not so sure. Most liberal believers I know aren’t evangelistic. They reify tolerance. They’re generally content to avoid talking about religion at all, and live their lives in mostly secular ways.

  17. says

    I don’t think that Gray is naïve. I think that Gray is disingenuous. He says that religious truth claims are immaterial as a way of saying that religious truth claims should not be challenged.

    He is naïve either way. He either genuinely doesn’t realize how many true believers there are out there, who take their faith much more literally than he does, or he thinks we are stupid enough to buy that nonsense. I’m not sure which is more likely.

  18. says

    In answer to jamessweet’s question, something may not be literal or a metaphor when it’s just a story, though your wife may have had something else in mind. In the context of religion, though, it’s pretty much irrelevant. You enjoy a story, but you don’t pray to it.

    I think this is right. Sometimes a story is just a story, something the author enjoyed and thought others might enjoy. It’s not literally true, and there’s no metaphor or allegory behind it — at least, none the author intended. What others read into it might be different.

    Also, I seem to remember writing something about why belief matters recently. Yes, here it is.

  19. karmakin says

    Nah, there’s definitely some atheists who would ban religion if they could. But they’re not anywhere close to the majority, and as well, they’re just jamming to the same beat that even “mainstream” religious leaders have set.

    That’s one thing that people like this need to realize. When they criticize atheists for the way we communicate, that in a lot of ways, the way we see what and how should be acceptable for us to communicate has been actually been by and large set by religious groups. They actually set the boundaries, so if you have a problem with them, maybe you need to take it up with those religious groups.

  20. says

    C. Mason Taylor, are you actually speaking for all atheists? Cause I most certainly do not wish to see the end of religion.

    Certainly I can’t speak for all atheists. I can’t speak for all “new” or confrontational atheists either. I was pointing out that when atheists say things like “we would be better off without religion,” that doesn’t necessarily imply supporting anything resembling the methods fundies use. No atheist I’ve yet met, read, heard, or watched espouses those things, despite the fact that liberal religious folk and atheist accomodationists constantly accuse us of doing so.

    Tangentially, I wouldn’t say I wish for the end of all religion either. But of course, it depends upon what you mean by that, and how religion might end. If it were by any kind of force or suppression or oppression, naturally, I’d be very very much against that. If, on the other hand, people slowly turned to reason and evidence in order to form their views about the world, rather than relying on faith and indoctrination, I’d absolutely be in favor of that, especially if it was an either/or proposition compared to what we have now.

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