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What’s the big idea?

Just for the sake of argument, or exploration, let’s take seriously this claim that atheism is a little idea and god is a big one.

Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important.  And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.

Was god a big idea?

Perhaps I’m not taking it seriously after all, because I can’t honestly see that it was.

Really. I can’t. It seems to me that god was and is a very little idea, and a very boring one (which shows how little it was and is). It has no moving parts to think about. It has no detail to think about. It’s like a smooth mound of ice – only less interesting because not organic.

I can’t think of anything that is about god that’s at all interesting – any book or description or analysis, I mean. That’s why movies like Oh God! and Dogma show god as a person, I should think – to make it interesting enough for people to watch.

God is almost never a character in literature, and when it is it’s boring. The only way to make it not boring is to make it like a human – which just shows how boring it is as itself. God is nowhere near as interesting as Hamlet or Dorothea Brooke or Abraham Lincoln or Emily Bronte.

Why not? Because it’s not a big idea, it’s a little idea – it’s simple. It’s just omni-everything…which is as boring as it gets.

This is one reason Jesus is such a big deal, by the way; ditto Mo. They’re there for the interest. Things happen to them. What can happen to god?

All this is in human terms, obviously, but then that’s what we’re talking about. We don’t have access to other terms.

Humans want to go somewhere. That’s built in. We want some kind of improvement. There are a million versions of improvement, just as there are a million versions of happiness, but we pretty much all want it in some form; it’s our engine. Poor god can’t want that, because it’s already perfect. What could be more boring? Big is not the same as interesting, to be sure, but I think the littleness is the source of the lack of interestingness. It’s a little idea because it’s just a formula of words, and it’s one that doesn’t go anywhere. God is perfect; end of story.

One orthodox version of heaven is an eternity of gazing on god, in bliss. That’s always sounded like torture to me.

What am I missing?

Comments

  1. roger says

    Even if god is a big idea, is it a good idea?
    My own opinion is it’s neither big nor good. It’s actually an evasion, an anti-idea. It’s a supposed answer to every question that simply sweeps the questions under the rug.

  2. says

    roger – yes. That’s something I’ve noticed often (as have many others, of course). It closes off inquiry by providing a pseudo-answer that goes nowhere. It’s a stultifier. That’s one of the things I hate about it the most.

    I wonder what Joe meant by saying it was a big idea. I can’t see it as anything but a black hole that sucks real ideas in; as a big idea terminator.

  3. Ken Pidcock says

    It’s clear that Hoffman has never given a thought to the lives of believers. Which is understandable. Believers are not living his life of the mind, so why should he give them any thought? So what if they suffer anxiety in their struggle to believe what they know makes no sense, and worry that their doubts make them bad people? So what if, when they finally accept that they really can’t live honestly as believers, they find themselves rejected by their families?

    Why should R. Joseph Hoffman care? Richard Dawkins cares, but he’s such a little man, eminently nasal and such.

  4. says

    “…This is one reason Jesus is such a big deal, by the way; ditto Mo. They’re there for the interest. Things happen to them. What can happen to god?”

    Oh, I dunno: Plenty, really. He creates a flawed creation, with fallible people in it, who commit an unspecified sin. So he does his block and evicts them. The sins of his own creation get steadily worse. You can say the wheels have fallen off it, big time. (Dr Frankenstein’s situation was a textbook model of good management by comparison.)

    So he then has to recast himself in human form, and come down to Earth to take charge personally. And that’s when it really goes downhill.

  5. A. Noyd says

    No, god is not a big idea; it is a gigantic aggregation of millions upon millions of little ideas, but that’s not the same thing at all.

  6. says

    Ian – oh yeah? I notice a certain lack of particulars! :- )

    Sure, god evicts them – in its character as a person who can be met in a garden. But then what? What does god really do after that? Sit over the fire and think, like Isabel Archer? Talk to the audience, like Hamlet? What?

    And the Jesus bit doesn’t count, because as I said, that’s where they cheat because god is so boring, so they make it be a human for awhile. God-as-human is less boring, but god-as-just-plain-god is deadly boring.

  7. kosk11348 says

    [God] has no moving parts to think about. It has no detail to think about. It’s like a smooth mound of ice.

    Yes. And it’s reflective, so that people who spend too much time staring at it forget they are only seeing themselves projected back.

  8. Sastra says

    I suppose God is presumed to be as big as the brain that creates it. People with strong intellects and deep emotional capacities therefore believe in a transcendent God which is everything a strong intellect and deep emotional capacity can imagine … only more so (that’s the striving part which seeks after transcendence.) An atheist wouldn’t be capable of not believing in THAT God unless they had the same intellectual and emotional chops as the believer, so that they truly understand the greatness of what they’re rejecting.

    An atheist who thinks God is a poor and pitiful idea then must perforce be thinking only of the kind of God weak minds with shallow emotional content come up with. God’s greatness lies in the attitude in which it is regarded, the awe it inspires. We reject it in fear and trembling at our impudence — not because of the size of God, but because of the size of the idea of God.

    Maybe.

    Okay, I’m just trying to figure out here where Hoffman is coming from with his apparent assumption that the greater you think God would have been, the more legitimate your atheism is. You’re supposed to say “WHOA! There’s no God! Alas!” and not “There is no God: duh.” Or “There is no God: ha ha.” Or “there is no God: I don’t care.”

    I don’t think God is either mysterious or grand either. Instead I’m going to damn God — and the entire category of the supernatural along with it — by saying that I think God comes right out of our “common sense.” It’s just obvious that everything is here for a reason and that reason has to do with ourselves. It’s just intuitive that minds and abstractions are magical things that exist in some higher realm and work through some kind of nonmaterial force. It’s just instinctive that we are being watched by someone or something totaling up our mistakes and victories to give us what we deserve. It’s just natural to know that the universe is knit together by unseen moral forces acting below the surface and when we look for what was there at the beginning we will always find a Mind like our own — only bigger. Like a parent. You remember.

    God exists. Duh.

    I mean … duuuuuh. Common sense. The theologians aren’t describing something above our comprehension: they’re putting a lot of bells and whistles on the familiar — minds and the social relationships between things with minds — and ascribing these familiar human concerns onto the cosmos as a whole. As below, so above. The ghost in the universe is the ghost in the machine. Unless ye become as a little child, ye cannot enter the kingdom of God. There’s probably a reason for that.

    And it’s probably because the minds of believers may have strong intellects and deep emotional capacity — but God fits into the mind of a child because that’s where it started.

    So I think you’re right. It’s a little idea. God exists: duh. You have to rationalize belief to keep it, but you have to reason your way out.

  9. says

    And I’m still not a bit sure Hoffmann believes a word of what he wrote, himself. He’s just playing politics, and as long as he (feels he) has to play politics, he might as well enjoy himself looking down on people at the same time. It just looks like an unabashed display of intellectual snobbery.

    It’s funny – “Steph” said

    Of course the best way to attack an essay that claims that atheists are under-educated is to claim the author is over educated – a ‘pompous elitist in his ivory tower’ – and then attack his learning as wrong.

    Either she got that from him or he got it from her, because he said the same thing elsewhere. But it’s wrong. Nobody said he’s over-educated; that’s not the point; the point is that it’s childish and unbecoming for a scholar to go “nyah nyah I know more than you.” I admire erudition; I don’t admire using erudition as a reason to sneer at people.

  10. Stacy says

    Oh, I dunno: Plenty, really. He creates a flawed creation, with fallible people in it, who commit an unspecified sin. So he does his block and evicts them

    Ah, but that wasn’t the Big Concept God that Joe Hoffman thinks we’re too shallow to reject with the proper amount of angst. That was just an anthropomorphized god from the Canaanite pantheon.

    When that god became unbelievable he morphed by degrees into the omniscient, omnipotent god that not even iron chariots can defeat. Who is much less interesting.

  11. Delilah says

    As always, OB is right on target. The idea of god originated in Norway where he was the tallest of a group of courtier-trolls who made straw men for their screed patch full of stuffed pompouskins. When they had perfected this craft, they went on to lesser things, like scaring chickens and children on their way to wee in the middle of the night. They wrote a book but no one could read it, not even the straw men, because it was written in tomten and the trolls had sworn never to reveal the meaning of the runes. And so the idea of god remained very, very small. The End.

  12. Kevin says

    While I would never use the ad hom “you’re over-educated, therefore you’re wrong,” I think the “over” education is a symptom. It’s a symptom of someone fundamentally out of touch not only with belief, but with disbelief.

    He’s so barricaded (but not secure) in his ivory tower that he fails to come down and join the rest of us in the muck and mire. To see what belief really looks like. To see why disbelief does not need to be preceded by existential angst. (Truly, I think this whole episode is merely R. Joseph crying out for help in dealing with his own anxieties and insecurities.)

    Disbelief, after all, is simple. It doesn’t require that one be educated in the fine points of Yeats. Only that one have a brain that actually works and notices the complete and utter lack of evidence or logical support for the existence of any supernatural anything.

    I came to that conclusion about age 8. I suspect there’s more than a little envy from R. Joseph that I arrived at that conclusion organically and intuitively. I didn’t have to work at it. Poor pitiful me, at least according to him.

    And how, pray tell, am I worse off for not working my way through Hume and Nietzsche and Camus until after I reached my conclusion that no god exists? Would my conclusion be wrong? I reached the same target that R. Joseph claims to have reached — my path was quite a bit shorter, that’s all.

    I guess it’s the mark of a superior intellect. Don’t worry, R. Joseph. You can still be an atheist, even though you didn’t get there until after laboring through all those unnecessary steps.

  13. kosk11348 says

    Were many atheists accusing Hoffman of being “a pompous elitist in his ivory tower?” Well, maybe the pompous part. I remember several people laughing at his pseudointellectualism betrayed by his inability to to correctly quote Goethe, but in general the new atheists respect intelligence.

    Funny how “You are pompous and wrong” got turned into “They hate me because of how smart I am.”

  14. roger says

    I reached the same target that R. Joseph claims to have reached — my path was quite a bit shorter, that’s all.

    Perhaps because ‘the journey not the arrival matters’ to Hoffman, Kevin.
    I don’t know, but it may be related to how old people are. For older people deciding and announcing atheism was philosophically and emotionally important- a journey’s end. For younger people it’s a basic assumption and their thinking begins there. Nietszche had to make a fuss about its truth and say it over and over in different ways and Hume could only state his arguments and let people draw their own conclusions.

  15. Dan says

    Pretty watery stuff, Ophelia. I mean, as long as it’s up to you to cut the God-pie, you can decide how big or small the pieces are. If your slice of God-pie is too small, that’s because you cut it that way. If you think the pie tastes boring, that’s because you made it that way. That’s the thing about the God-pie: You get to pick the recipe and cut the pieces. You shouldn’t make and serve yourself a God-pie just to complain about it — that’s tacky. (I think I’ve found my way to a fair restatement of Joe Hoffmann’s point.)

    I think that Joe was trying to get at something else. Pre-modern religious history has been a succession of debates about the right recipe for the God-pie; people fought and died about what ingredients go in it and in what proportion. Then the Renaissance raised the awareness that we have a surfeit of ingredients for God-pie. Then during the gilded Enlightenment, we tried making different kinds of pie out of the same ingredients (Fascism- and Communist-pies were horrible variations of Hegel’s God-pie.) Then Post-WWII, we realized, after the horrors wrought by Fascism and Communism, that we are fated to make God-pies — even if it is just to complain about how small the pieces are or about how boring it tastes — because we aren’t left with the ingredients for anything else.

    Religion has made some horrible God-pies; toxic, bitter things that are best to be rid of. The response of atheism, however, shouldn’t be to offer sugary cereal in place of bad recipes. We should be offering real intellectual nutrition. As long as atheism doesn’t take the concept of God seriously, it won’t be able to do it. That is what I believe that Joe is trying to point out.

    I agree with him.

  16. says

    @Dan

    What exactly do you mean by “taking god seriously”? And why would we need to do that in order to provide intellectual nourishment?

    I don’t get what you’re saying.

  17. Marta says

    Oy, with the three paragraph pie metaphor.

    Yes, yes, call me metaphor troll. I don’t care. A three paragraph metaphor is too much.

  18. sailor1031 says

    restate someone else’s words with an excruciatingly bad metaphor and then say “I agree with him”. The metaphor is so convoluted that I think it possible that you are merely agreeing with yourself.

    As for Hoffman himself, he has a couple of theology degrees from Harvard and a D Phil from Oxford so he has a much deeper hole to get out of than most of us. Give the man some air……

  19. Snoof says

    One orthodox version of heaven is an eternity of gazing on god, in bliss. That’s always sounded like torture to me.

    I figured it was more like the ultimate high. You’re spending eternity so blissed out on supernatural heroin that the part of your mind that might actually get bored shuts down. Basically, heaven is the land of the lotus eaters.

  20. says

    Dan – you probably have a real point in there – so make it literally, so that we can tell.

    One problem with your claim is that it’s not simply true that everybody can design her own god; people who also want to be part of a “community” of believers usually can’t do that. Your claim may be complicatedly true, in the sense that everybody can design her own inside her own head, but that’s complicated because most people don’t live entirely inside their own heads, and personal gods come into conflict with public social shared gods. In other words if you design a god that is radically at odds with the god of your “community” then your beliefs will be difficult to maintain. Pure mystics can design their own gods, but pure mystics are outliers when it comes to religion (and it’s not at all clear that Hoffmann was talking about mysticism).

  21. says

    Oh, I see. Dan isn’t quite the good-faith interlocutor I had assumed. He’s the Dan Gillson who said a great many exceptionally rude things about Eric MacDonald in comments at Hoffmann’s blog. He reposted the pie comment at Hoffmann’s to get approval, which of course was forthcoming. Here’s the core of Hoffmann’s reply:

    atheists are in a terribly self destructive spin, spastically fighting not just religious fundamentalism and godism, but using ridiculous commando tactics to make what is essentially a concept into a liberation movement. I have never said that atheism is for pointy headed intellectuals. Ever. But it would not exist (as you comment) without them. The really destructive idea that atheism is a conclusion forced on us by science, or civil rights or (fill in the blank) is something that needs to be considered; but what I do know is that the study of religion and not science is what forces us to accept a worldview without God.

    1) It’s not a matter of making a concept into a liberation movement; it’s a matter of saying – truthfully – that there is a political aspect to the subject because atheists are a despised group. Atheism is both a concept and a “movement.” That’s not weird or unusual. Feminism too was and is both; so is anti-racism; so are all egalitarian movements and revolutions.

    2) Obviously in some sense atheism wouldn’t exist without intellectuals, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist without academics who sneer at non-academics (and scientists and mathematicians) from a very great height. Personally I love pointy-headed intellectuals and I even consider myself one despite my complete lack of advanced degrees, but I define intellectuals pretty broadly, and I don’t think atheism needs to screen out non-academics. Theism is not reserved for experts, so atheism mustn’t be either.

    3) I think the “idea that atheism is a conclusion forced on us by science, or civil rights” is a straw idea. Yes there are some people who make claims that sound like that in comments on blogs, but Hoffmann talks about “atheism” or “new atheism” in general. It’s absurdly misleading to pretend that all the more obvious “new atheists” claim that “atheism is a conclusion forced on us by science,” let alone by civil rights.

    4) How does he know “that the study of religion and not science is what forces us to accept a worldview without God”? How does he know it’s one and not the other, or one and not a myriad of things? There is no one item that forces us to accept a worldview without God, and not all of us would consider it forcing in any case.

  22. sailor1031 says

    Well in my case, and possibly those of many others, it was study of science and study of religion and study of history all together that quite conclusively brought me to a rejection of the doGs of religion. Hoffman’s arrogance is allowing him to be just a little too glib – or maybe he doesn’t have enough smarts for science so disregards it. I know he’s good at history!

  23. julian says

    It’s not a matter of making a concept into a liberation movement; it’s a matter of saying – truthfully – that there is a political aspect to the subject because atheists are a despised group.

    To a lot of former believers atheism is very much about liberation.

    Liberation from the toxic morality of their parents, of constantly being reminded their sexual desires were evil and going to land them in hell, from having to forgo friendships because their friends were from the wrong faith, liberation from a closed and bigoted mind.

    For the rejection of an oppressive, domineering institution to not at least touch on liberation seems ridiculous. I’m not saying all religions make those demands of their followers (or that these are necessarily valid reasons to reject ‘G-d’) but enough have and continue to that many who’ve broken free (I think Maryam Namazie is a good example) aren’t going to be looking at this from a purely academic perspective.

    Dr. Hoffmann can lament all he likes but these people are entirely right in seeing a dimension to this discussion he’s ignoring. God is more than an abstract philosophical concept. He’s a crucifix nailed over you bed, a gang of militants driving past your street while you try to sleep, an old man dressed in finery and gold lecturing a whole continent on what they can or cannot use to prevent the spread of HIV.

    Hope that made sense.

  24. says

    It makes a lot of sense, eloquently.

    And – again – Hoffmann knows all this. He’s a friend of Ibn Warraq’s for fuck’s sake. At least some of this elaborate display of not knowing is just that, a display.

    (He has a new sneer today. It has one comment. One. Guess who! Saying it’s the best thing of its kind evarrrrrrrrrrr.)

  25. Dan says

    The very same Dan, Ophelia. (Hi, how are ya’?) Eric’s response to “Atheism’s Little Idea” deserved all my polemic; it was maudlin, melodramatic, and insincere — and he tries so hard to be an elegant stylist, and does a bit of showing off himself, but he ends up with such clunky chatter. Needless to say, I think his writing is rubbish.

    Yes, I posted to Hoffmann’s site for approval but I posted to yours for criticism. Take that as a sign of respect for you, and therefore that I did come here in good faith. Mostly, the reason for which I comment on blogs is to practice the art of argument. I’m not entirely confident in my ability to write clearly, so I seek assurances and criticisms where I can find them.

    I wanted to illustrate that the purposes for which we construct the idea of God (make God-pie) correspond to our uses for it. To summarize Pragmatism from Pierce to Brandom: “Ideas are tools.” If our God-construct is weak and flimsy, that’s because we merely want to bash it down; if it is ineffable and sublime, it’s because we want to contemplate or worship it. The idea of God is as big or as small as you need it to be. It can have as many ingredients as you need it to have. You precluded adding any anthropomorphic ingredients to the recipe, the ones which, according to you would make the pie more interesting, so you could say that the idea of God wasn’t interesting.

    Here’s what I perceive to be Hoffman’s direction of thought: In order for atheism to be a fully fledged idea in the sense that it can be used as a tool for ethical or political thinking, it can’t just continually abjure its responsibility to deal with religion constructively. In order to succeed, atheism can’t just be a parasite of a virus. Insofar as I am right about Hoffmann’s intention, I find his arguments compelling.

    Thank you — really, thank you — for responding, Ophelia.

  26. says

    Ophelia @ #8: “And the Jesus bit doesn’t count, because as I said, that’s where they cheat because god is so boring, so they make it be a human for awhile. God-as-human is less boring, but god-as-just-plain-god is deadly boring.”

    Various kings and such have had the idea from time to time that it would be a good PR move to be ordained as gods. But human gods never really sold well.

    There is argument among theologians as to what Joshua bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ) actually thought he was, as against what others thought he was. He was certainly more interesting that was Jehovah, but arguably more fallible. Of course, more is known about his life than about his purported father’s.

    From the gospels (assuming they are historically accurate – big if) we can conclude that vanity was one of his weaknesses: “I am the way, the truth and the life” and all that sort of rock star blab.

    It’s hard to be perfect. Particularly hard if your audience is everyone.

  27. says

    Given all the hullabaloo, I thought I’d better read Hoffman’s original post in its entirety. I will readily admit that it’s well-written, even poetic at times, but at the end I’m left with one question:

    What was the point, again?

    What is his problem with atheism? Is it the lack of a proper understanding of the history of humanism?

    My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t even have read the books mentioned in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.

    Over-reliance on science?

    When they were even smaller than they are now, their father asked them every six weeks, “Whadja get in math and science?” When they had children of their own, they asked them, “Whadja get in science and math?”

    Improper happiness with the lack of a god?

    Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair…

    Insufficient respect of religious beliefs?

    This atheism was respectful of the fact that God is a very big idea, a sublime idea…

    The fact that we think it might be time to retire the horse carriage?

    God is no more “wrong” than a carriage is wrong in relation to a JAG XKR-S.

    At the end, I’m left with the impression of a man who has a big problem with atheism, but I have no clear idea about what that problem is.
    He obviously thinks that there’s something very wrong with contemporary atheism, but I have no clue what he would prefer instead.

  28. says

    Dan – well ok, I’ll go back to taking you as arguing in good faith then. But I have to say your comments about Eric make me angry – at the very least, what he says is far from insincere. Did you look around his blog enough to understand his reasons for establishing it? I don’t think you can have, or you wouldn’t have the gall to call him “maudlin.”

    At least read his Open Letter to the archbishop of Canterbury – which the ABC answered, by the way.

    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2009/letter-to-the-archbishop-of-canterbury/

  29. sawells says

    Dan, try this spin on your metaphor. Religion is offering a wide range of recipes for True Pie.

    There’s ordinary pie, which we eat and it nourishes us and so we live, and different people can make it with different ingredients. But True Pie is different.

    As well as ordinary pie you have to eat True Pie; it has complicated recipes with unusual ingredients, like Virginity and Covenants and Grace; you can only eat True Pie on your knees, or facing Mecca, or sitting in the lotus position ; and only the right people, the priests, the True Chefs of the True Pie, can tell you if you’ve had enough True Pie, or (cunningly) whether you’ve eaten any True Pie at all, because you can’t actually see or touch or taste True Pie, but you need it, oh yes you do, and you must obey the Chefs and give them money and power and obedience so that they can supply the True Pie. Without the True Pie, you will starve — not ordinary starving when you feel hunger, but True Starvation, which, again, you can’t feel, but if you die Truly Starved, you will be Truly Hungry for ever and ever and ever.

    New Atheism, broadly speaking, is about cutting the crap and pointing out: there is no True Pie. The True Chefs are charlatans. You will not be hungry after you die, because when you die, you die. Your ceaseless fret and worry about whether you’ve had enough True Pie is pointless, and it’s stopping you from enjoying real things which you could be enjoying instead: like food, yes, also music and art and literature and dance and love and life and knowledge and science.

    Those are all things which the Chefs say are only real — pifflingly, disappointingly, minimally, only real — and not True.

    And it’s weird that you and Hoffman are lining up to say – oh, of course technically atheism is correct, but you should still be offering people new recipes for the True Pie to replace the traditional True Pies they won’t be eating now. It’s as if you didn’t get the memo. The problem is not any one specific True Pie recipe — the problem is the whole bullshit idea about the True Anything and the denigration of the real as being only real and that’s so small.

  30. says

    In order for atheism to be a fully fledged idea in the sense that it can be used as a tool for ethical or political thinking…

    Are you referring to the idea of atheism, or the movement?

    I ask because the idea of atheism couldn’t possibly be used as a tool for thinking on any subject. It’s a conclusion. It is simply the rejection of god claims.
    It doesn’t even specify a reason for the rejection. It’s entirely possible to be an atheist for stupid reasons.

    The current atheist movement is closely associated with skepticism and tends to favor things like democracy, secularism and equality. However, these are not necessary parts of an atheist movement. It’s just how things are shaping up right now.

    I think it’s relevant to keep these things separate and to recognize that atheism does not in and of itself imply any particular political or ethical views.
    If for no other reason, its more honest.

  31. says

    Now for the comment itself.

    If our God-construct is weak and flimsy, that’s because we merely want to bash it down; if it is ineffable and sublime, it’s because we want to contemplate or worship it. The idea of God is as big or as small as you need it to be. It can have as many ingredients as you need it to have. You precluded adding any anthropomorphic ingredients to the recipe, the ones which, according to you would make the pie more interesting, so you could say that the idea of God wasn’t interesting.

    Yes but the thing about god is that it’s supposed to exist, really, so believers aren’t entirely free to “construct” it – not if they agree that it exists. Of course people do shape it to their own wishes, but the fact remains that there are as it were official views of what god is. It’s that god that I’m claiming is fundamentally boring (which is exactly why people construct something more sympathetic). I don’t think it’s reasonable to conflate the official god with the one that some people construct. We can all imagine wonderful fascinating imaginary friends, but that doesn’t make Official God fascinating.

  32. sawells says

    @Ophelia: as far as I can see, Dan is tacitly admitting that God is a fictional character – God is what you made up – and he’s angry with you for not making up a better God to not believe in.

    In the backstory, Hoffman is angry with us all for not imagining more important imaginary friends.

    Yes, that’s stupid.

  33. sawells says

    Maybe we can concede that God is a big idea in the same sense that the turtle on whose back the world travels through space is a big idea.

    If the turtle existed, it would be incredibly important. Its state of health, its motions and motivation, would be of the utmost concern to everyone, all the time. People of learning would rightly dedicate themselves entirely to the study of the turtle.

    But there is no turtle.

    Hoffman is a man with multiple degrees in Megaturtle Exobiology, trying to convince us of the great importance of the turtle EVEN THOUGH there is no turtle.

  34. says

    Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair…

    That just. isn’t. atheism. That’s something else, a sort of not quite there yet apostasy. It’s something that can only happen to the devout. It’s what happened to people like Mother Teresa and other godbots. Many theists who go through that don’t actually become atheists and if they do their atheism is fickle. Need I point out how Eurocentric, how White, Hoffman’s POV is?

  35. says

    sawells @37 – yes, that finally dawned on me. God is a big idea because anybody can imagine it’s anything, so if you add all those together…well, the result is big.

    But this is the usual cheat, which relies on pretending that all or most believers don’t really believe in Official God. As Julian is finding out, that just isn’t true.

  36. Dan says

    LyleX — My failure to respond formally to your objection reflects my inability to commit myself to more than one argument. I think you raised an excellent point worth discussing — but some other time, maybe.

    Ophelia —

    Sorry to have made you angry. You’re quite right that I am unacquainted with Eric’s writing. I only recently have got acquainted with his blog. He deserves a fair shake, so I’ll drop him an apology and hopefully from there we can get off on the right foot.

    I’m on my way to a movie, so I don’t have time to reply to your objection. I’ll get around to it tomorrow. Until then, ta-ta.

  37. athyco says

    God as a big idea reminds me of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

    God/Santa is a big idea in order to point out the littleness of human minds.

    VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

    But by the end of the piece, he’s danced all around the lack of evidence, piled the burden of proof onto the non-believers, and elevated the humans who do “understand” above those other mere insect men.

    You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

    God is greater than the “boundless world” when someone wishes to argue against those who don’t believe in him. But then he’s small enough to give them the warm fuzzies of faithful and fanciful camaraderie while pulling the wool over the eyes of an 8-year-old.

  38. dirigible says

    God is a big idea like a dinosaur and atheism is a little idea like a mammal?

    I’m having trouble seeing this as a bad thing. Although obviously when it comes to pies, the bigger the better.

    Mmm. Pie.

  39. says

    …If you think the pie tastes boring, that’s because you made it that way…

    Um, no, Dan, we didn’t all write our own versions of the Bible, nor did we make up all those folktales, parables, and hysterical threats of eternal damnation — tasty or not, we got all that from other people, who have been passing them from elder to younger for thousands of years. None of us “made” religion what we observe it to be.

    Analogy FAIL.

  40. Dan says

    Ophelia —

    You’re right, insofar as we walk into a philosophical debate about the nature of the gods, we are not entirely free to construct it according to our vision. In part we construct the gods from the tools that history and reason provide. However, I am not arguing for complete freedom. I’m partly arguing that because of our freedom, our ideas of God are shaped by the uses we imagine for it. Even on a communitarian level, the shape that the gods take is accidental in Aristotle’s sense; the gods can subsist in whatever properties we ascribe to them. The “official” views of God have the same ad hoc character to them as our individualized conceptions.

    I’m also arguing that the idea of God can be anything but small. To my pragmatic definition of ideas (“Ideas are tools”) I’ll add another, call it the Pierce-Brandom maxim: “The meaning of an idea is limited by the amount of inferences we make from it.” Small ideas, therefore, are those whose network of inferences has a short reach. The idea of God doesn’t have a short network of inferences, therefore it is not a small idea.

  41. sawells says

    Dan, just to be clear, are you aware that gods, e.g. the Bible God, are fictional characters? Your words imply that you do, but you don’t seem to grasp the implications; in particular, you seem to think it’s our responsibility to construct hugely important and significant gods, even though they aren’t real. My response: Shan’t, and you can’t make me.

    Just because ideas about gods have been hugely influential in history, doesn’t mean they still should be now. Alchemy was pretty influential back in the day, but it turns out to be wrong, so we do chemistry instead. Dogma has been influential, but it always turns out to be bullshit, so we do science and reason instead.

    Can’t you just let the gods go and let them be the fictional characters they always were, instead of trying to make them mean something more? Why the obsession? You sound like one of those people who thinks everyone should share their obsession with rare French cheeses. Cheese is nice but there are other things in life.

  42. Dan says

    To clarify the Pierce-Brandom maxim, I should have added that I accept the Wittgensteinian maxim “meaning is use” to be true.

    Sawells —

    I’m debating whether or not God is a big idea, not whether or not God exists, nor whether or not God should still be influential. I don’t expect that I’ll convince anyone here. As William James said, “People’s sense of dramatic reality is what they will certainly obey, no matter how much they pretend to follow nothing but points of evidence.” I do hope, if nothing else, that we’ll learn to take the arguments of the other side seriously, and that we’ll let the bad blood between us drain out.

  43. says

    Dan – that’s a perfunctory comment. You’re not really arguing anything, at least not so far; you’re just claiming. I’m sure it’s an argument in your head, but you can’t expect other people to grasp it via cryptic gestures.

  44. sawells says

    Dan, did you note my analogy of the world-carrying turtle? If it existed it would be hugely significant; it doesn’t exist, so it’s not that significant. There are lots of god-ideas which would be hugely significant, if those gods existed, but they don’t, so the ideas are not that significant after all.

    The idea that ideas about gods are very important is itself a symptom of the excessive respect routinely granted to religious ideas.

  45. Dan says

    Ophelia —

    Insofar as my claims have premises and conclusions, I’d say that I have advanced an argument. I’d be happy to clarify anything in my argument that’s cryptic.

  46. Dan says

    Sawells —

    I. So, according to you, in order for something to be significant, it must exist, right? I’ll prove my point by way of syllogism:

    1. In order for something to be significant, it must exist.
    2. The idea of God exists.
    3. Therefore it is significant.

    II. No, the idea that the idea of God is very important is inferred from the fact that human civilization has been organized around such an idea.

  47. says

    That was a cross-post; I was referring to comment #47.

    Dan, you said three times in that comment that you were “arguing for” various things, but you’re not arguing for them, you’re just saying them.

  48. sawells says

    Dan, can’t you even concede that world-carrying turtles are less important because of their nonexistence than they would be if they did exist?

    Also, note that your attempt at a “syllogism” is completely wrong. Firstly, the premise that only the existent is significant does not imply that everything existent is significant; you have committed a basic logical flaw of the “If A then B, B, therefore A” variety. This indicates that you are, bluntly, not good at thinking.

    Secondly, the premise is false and is not a claim I made. read for comprehension or don’t read at all.

  49. Snoof says

    Yeah, that’s a terrible syllogism. Here’s the same logic:

    1. In order for something to be a mammal, it must have warm blood.
    2. Birds have warm blood.
    3. Therefore birds are mammals.

    Two perfectly good premises and a false conclusion due to unsound logic.

    Now, you could try it like this:

    1. All things which exist are important.
    2. The idea of God exists.
    3. Therefore the idea of God is important.

    The _logic_ there is sound, but you’ll find people disagreeing with your first premise, and quite possibly the second depending on your definition of “to exist”.

  50. Dan says

    Snoof —

    I was parodying Sawells’s logic. He came at me with the assumption, “In order for something to be significant, it must exist.” You are right though, it’s not good.

    Sawells —

    Like I said to Snoof, I was parodying your logic. Your statement, “If it existed it would be hugely significant; it doesn’t exist, so it’s not that significant,” only works if you assume that in order to be significant, an object must exist. If you have another assumption in mind, one that controls the direction of the inference chain, then you should state it clearly.

    Ophelia —

    My argument culminates in my final deductive proof: “Small ideas are those whose network of inferences have short reach. The idea of God doesn’t have a short network of inferences, therefore it is not a small idea.” In order to get there, I defined what an idea is (an idea is a tool); I inferred from the Pierce-Brandom maxim a way to measure the size of an idea (how large or small the network of inferences is); as evidence, I gave examples of the ways we use the idea of God. So that, in summary, is my argument.

  51. says

    @Dan

    If I’m understanding you correctly, then I would agree that by those definition, the idea of god is a big idea, since belief in god has wide-ranging implications on your world-view.
    I think most atheists would agree with that. After all, if belief in god did not have serious implications, I doubt anyone would care.

    Incidentally, this disproves Hoffman’s original claim that atheism has turned god into a little idea. The new atheist movement certainly accepts god as a big idea (as defined in the way you’ve outlined), which is exactly why we’re as strident as we are.

    We see that belief has far-reaching and often negative consequences, so we try to argue against it to mitigate the damage on society and individuals. To my mind, the fact that god is a big idea is all the more reason to argue against it.

  52. Dan says

    LykeX —

    I agree wholeheartedly! I believe it was Emerson who said “If you are going to strike at a king, you must kill him.” You can’t expect God to die if you are going to whip him with a wet noodle; and you aren’t going to kill God by going after his jesters. The more seriously that atheism takes the idea of God, the more fatally our arguments strike it.

  53. sawells says

    Dan, I have to conclude that you can’t actually read. I am pointing out to you that the world-carrying turtle is a member of a special class of entities: ones which would be tremendously significant if they existed but are in fact unimportant because they do not. Gods fall into this same category. I can’t see anything other than wilful obtuseness that would cause you to think I was making some kind of universal claim, so i don’t think you are arguing in good faith

  54. sawells says

    Also, Dan, we are not trying to “kill God”, because gods are fictional. We are trying to persuade people not to treat gods as if they were real. Ceasing to pay exaggerated respect to the ideas of gods is a step in this process.

  55. says

    Cross-purposes. I was discussing the claim that “God was/is a big idea,” in the sense of in itself. I wasn’t discussing the claim that “God is a big idea because it has had a big influence.” If that’s all that Joe meant, I certainly don’t disagree, so there’s nothing to discuss. But that’s not what I took him to mean.

    Tiny ideas can have big influences. That doesn’t make them big ideas.

    [For the purposes of this discussion please don’t refer to god as he/him. That assumes facts not in evidence.]

  56. sawells says

    I think one summary here would be that Dan + Hoffman think that God is a big idea because it’s been treated as tremendously important by religions through history. Ophelia + myself are arguing that God is not a big idea in itself – it’s incoherent and uninteresting, as well as fictional – and has been wrongly treated as more important than it deserves.

    Dan + Hoffman think that we must join the religious in treating the idea of God with great respect. Ophelia + myself think that we should publicly treat the idea of God with the lack of respect it deserves, because saying “God is really important” reinforces religious privilege, and because we can’t be forced to treat fictional characters as if they were important.

  57. sawells says

    And I still think it’s funny that Dan didn’t understand the argument about world-turtles.

  58. Dan says

    The trouble isn’t that I’m a poor reader, my friend. The trouble is that you are a poor writer. Take this for an example:

    “If it existed it would be hugely significant; it doesn’t exist, so it’s not that significant. There are lots of god-ideas which would be hugely significant, if those gods existed, but they don’t, so the ideas are not that significant after all.”

    Can you see the logical fallacy I parodied in my syllogism? You argued: If A, then B. -A, therefore -B. (Properly, it would be -B, therefore -A). I countered your argument with a bad argument because it was funny; I was throwing you a bone to get you to shut up. But you’re still insisting that your megaturtle argument is a good argument, even though when we break it down it goes like this: “If A then B; -A, so -B. B if A, but -A, therefore -B.” It’s a bad argument, chum, so that’s why I haven’t bothered to answer your objection.

  59. sawells says

    Context, Dan. Context. Specifically, here’s my introduction of the world-turtle:

    “God is a big idea in the same sense that the turtle on whose back the world travels through space is a big idea. If the turtle existed, it would be incredibly important. Its state of health, its motions and motivation, would be of the utmost concern to everyone, all the time. People of learning would rightly dedicate themselves entirely to the study of the turtle. But there is no turtle.”

    Get it now? In a world which really is carried by a turtle, the turtle is really important, because it carries the world. In this world, which is not carried by a turtle, the turtle is not important- it’s a mere fictional bagatelle.

    Likewise gods. We live in a world which many people have mistakenly taken to be supported by a turtle – i.e. created and sustained and judged by God. But in fact it isn’t. Thus, people have mistakenly thought that the turtle – God – was really important. But in fact it isn’t.

    For the love of mercy, don’t tell me that you think “the turtle which carries the world” is a really important idea even though it doesn’t exist and the world is not carried by a turtle.

  60. Dan says

    No, because you are still repeating the same logical fallacy. Here your argument with context: “By analogy, C = A. If A, therefore B. -A, therefore -B. Therefore, if -C, then -B.”

    I’m still unimpressed.

  61. sawells says

    In other words, what makes the turtle unimportant is that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do – it doesn’t carry the world. The reason it doesn’t do that is that it doesn’t exist at all. Likewise, God is supposed to create the world, do miracles, forgive sins, and come in glory to judge the quick and the dead, but in fact God doesn’t do any of those things, doesn’t do anything at all, and so isn’t that important. The reason God doesn’t do any of those things is that it doesn’t exist.

  62. sawells says

    Sheesh, Dan. Let’s try again:

    (A) Do you agree that, in a world that is carried by a giant turtle, the turtle is very important?

    (B) Do you agree that, in this world which is not carried by a giant turtle, the world-carrying turtle is not very important?

    RSVP?

  63. Dan says

    Sawells, this is getting precious. Think of a new argument and we can talk about it on another thread sometime. See you around.

  64. sawells says

    No, Dan, you’re still not getting the logic no matter how many Bs and Cs you use, because you mistakenly think that “The nonexistent is unimportant” is some kind of universal major premise of mine, which it isn’t. Deal with the turtle, please.

  65. sawells says

    And Dan flounces from the turtle!

    Dan, ladies and gentlemen. The man who cannot say in so many words that the nonexistent world-carrying turtle is not important!

    I think that’s a new low in intellectual cowardice. But very funny to watch. I’m imagining Hoffman’s next column: “The turtle used to be a very big idea, and we should continue to regret the nonexistence of its flippers. Oh, the despair and disillusion and nobility of the true achelonian.”.

  66. sawells says

    I mean, I do understand Dan’s predicament. If he admits that the world-turtle is not important because it’s not there and so not doing what a world-turtle is supposed to do, he has awkward questions to answer about gods. But if he says the turtle is really important despite being nonexistent, he looks like a prat. Far better for him to pretend this argument is beneath him.

  67. says

    …the idea of God is important.

    …in pretty much the same way that racism or geocentrism are important: they’re ideas held by HUGE numbers of people, with major consequences that can’t be ignored; but they’ve since been proven false, so we really don’t have to hang onto them anymore, as anything other than history or explanation of irrational acts.

  68. says

    No Dan, it’s you who can’t logic. You might legitimately dispute sawells’ implicit claim that a thing that does not exist is ipso facto not important. But faffing about (deliberately?) constructing incorrect propositional syllogisms only makes you look bad.

    If you want to discuss properties, such something’s (in-)significance or explanatory capacity or if a thing is green or furious, then you really need to use predicates.

    Aaaanyway, sawells offers us two perfectly consistent premises, not an incorrect syllogism.
    1. ∀(x): P(x) ⊃ Q(x)
    2. ∃(t): ¬P(t) ⊃ ¬ Q(t)

    where:
    P(x) = x is a reasonable explanation of the nature of the world
    Q(x) = x is significant
    and t is the turtle, of course :)

    Then we add the further piece of information that the turtle doesn’t exist, and therefore has no real properties. So ipso facto, ¬P(t) and also ¬Q(t). Still no inconsistency. Though it does get tricky to formalise here – can existence itself be a predicate? Not if you agree with Kant, but not everyone accepts that.

  69. sawells says

    And I didn’t even make the universal claim that the nonexistent is unimportant; Dan pretended I did, to avoid my actual argument re. specific turtles and gods.

  70. sawells says

    Yup, my comment at Hoffman’s place is still “awaiting moderation”. So Dan goes there and says “I think I won” but doesn’t link; I go to provide a link and it’s no dice.

    So, I’m happy for everyone on the web to see the argument and judge for themselves how it went.

    Dan doesn’t want anyone to see how it went.

    What does that tell you?

  71. John Morales says

    Dan:

    The more seriously that atheism takes the idea of God, the more fatally our arguments strike it.

    Wow… just, wow!

    (Such fractal wrongness)

  72. says

    The more seriously that atheism takes the idea of God, the more fatally our arguments strike it.

    Dan actually said that? That’s just a fancier way of saying “I got your attention, threfore I win.” That just shows how childish those godbots really are.

  73. says

    In fairness, another way that “God is a big idea” is that some really big ideas either get credited to God by humans, or are given a human face by humans to help us understand them, and simply labelled “God.” So “God” really isn’t the “big idea,” it’s just the name and face we put on certain big ideas to make them more digestable. So when someone says “God is a big idea,” we should probably try to dig deeper and find out what actual big idea the theist is talking about — if he/she even knows.

  74. says

    So when someone says “God is a big idea,” we should probably try to dig deeper and find out what actual big idea the theist is talking about — if he/she even knows.

    Exactly what I was attempting to do in the post!

  75. says

    I’m somewhat confused myself. For example, it’s clear that Hoffman was pointedly not using Dan’s definition of a “big idea” when he wrote his piece, since by that definition, Hoffman’s accusation against atheism is patently absurd.

    However, Dan seems to be defending him on the basis that they agree on what is meant by a “big idea”. They clearly don’t and I still have no idea what Hoffman originally meant.

  76. says

    Quite; neither do I.

    It’s sad about his commenters. I know him well enough to know that he can’t possibly be happy with them. It’s sad that he can’t attract better ones…But at the same time, it’s his own damn fault.

  77. sawells says

    I think Dan and Hoffman agree only that they are good and new atheism is bad. Since they are both very bad at writing clearly and also very bad at reading for comprehension, they have still not discovered that they actually don’t understand each other at all.

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