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Oct 24 2013

Why Coming Out Matters

In the wake of Oprah’s ignorant comments about atheists not having awe and wonder about the world, Chris Stedman appeared on CNN to answer some equally ignorant questions from the talking heads. One of the things he mentions, which I don’t think I’d seen before, are surveys that show that the shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage has been driven by personal relationships.

As of a few months ago, about 28% of those who supported marriage equality had changed their minds. Where once they opposed it, now they support it. A Pew poll asked them why they changed their minds and the results were very interesting. The largest group by far, 37%, said they changed their minds because they have friends, family members or acquaintances who are gay or lesbian. And that is true of other gay rights issues as well. Knowing a gay person or, more importantly, knowing that they know gay people, changes minds and changes beliefs.

This is exactly why it’s equally important for atheists to come out of the closet too, if it’s safe for them to do so (and sometimes it just isn’t). It’s one reason why the current billboard campaign is so important. It’s easy for people to maintain their negative stereotypes of atheists as mean, immoral or hateful as long as they don’t know any (or don’t know that they know any). Once they actually meet some of us, or find out that they already knew some of us, it becomes more difficult to maintain those prejudices.

I had a funny experience along those lines a couple years ago when I hosted a holiday party that brought together two groups of people in my life whose paths had never crossed before, my poker buddies and my friends from CFI Michigan. So after dinner, the poker players slowly filtered downstairs to my poker room and started playing cards and the CFI folks stayed upstairs and talked. After a couple hours, they all started for home and I went downstairs and joined the game.

I sat next to Liz, with whom I’d played poker for a couple years, and at one point she said, “Did I hear you say you met all those other people at church?” A couple of the people at the table that I know much better kind of chuckled because they know me well enough to know that I’m an atheist. And I said, “No. In fact, they’re all atheists.” And she got very wide-eyed in amazement and said, “Really?” And then her voice went up about an octave. “REALLY?” The unspoken part was: “But they seemed so nice!” She was just flabbergasted at the idea that there were people in the world who don’t believe in God. I’m sure she’d never met anyone who was openly an atheist and it just did not compute for her at all.

But I was happy for the opportunity. It’s a chance for her to have her stereotypes erased, now that she knows that she knows an atheist, and it’s someone she already knew and liked. And over the next couple hours she asked me a lot of questions about what I believe about various things, questions asked out of genuine and unintentional ignorance. And I patiently explained humanism and atheism, how I determine right from wrong, etc. But those opportunities can only happen if you’re open about being an atheist.

Update: I should have included this in the post originally, since this post was prompted by an email exchange with Chris Stedman, who was kind enough to send along the references linked above. He was on CNN recently discussing Oprah’s ill-conceived and ignorant comments about atheists and he did a great job. I can’t seem to get the clip to embed, but you can watch it here.

91 comments

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  1. 1
    bmiller

    My experience has been that the fervently faithful will spend their time trying to convert you. Why my one friend thinks that links to Catholicradio on how to be a “Christian Man” will be of any interest is a mystery to me.

    I just send him quotes from Deathspell Omega lyrics! :)

  2. 2
    Sastra

    My experience has been that the faithful will spend their time trying to avoid the entire topic of religion as soon as they hear you are an atheist. No questions, no discussion, no debate. Just an announcement that THEY know there’s a God and a hasty change of subject, accompanied perhaps by a reassurance that I have a “right” to believe what I want. They just never want to hear or learn any details or reasons.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily an improvement over bmiller’s experience.

  3. 3
    Tabby Lavalamp

    This is why one of the arguments we keep hearing from homophobes opposed to any pop culture depiction of homosexuality is that it normalizes it. Of course it does! It’s very difficult to demonize The Other when a group of people can see that another group are just normal people instead of insidious monsters.

  4. 4
    Artor

    Yep. As an ignorant teenager, I repeated some of the standard homophobic crap that passes for wisdom in Redneckistan. My sister overheard me and pointed out that all her cool friends, who treated me nicely and rode unicycles & invited me to shows with her, were gay. It was an eye-opener, and once I started to think about it, I realized it didn’t matter one bit to me who they chose to sleep with, as long as they were good peeps. And they were.

  5. 5
    chilidog99

    Ed, are you suggesting that its time for Oprah to come out?

  6. 6
    otrame

    On 9/11/2001, while I was at work, after enough time had gone by that we had a pretty good idea what had happened, a friend stopped by my desk and asked, “Who do you pray to?”

    I was a little confused and it showed so she explained that when bad things happened, the first thing she thought of was to pray to God. I said, “I don’t pray. I don’t believe there is anything to pray to.”

    She said, “I just can’t imagine that. I don’t know how I would deal with this if I didn’t have God to talk to about it. I would feel so lost and helpless. I mean what are you going to tell your kids?”

    I said, “Well the one thing I won’t have to do is explain why God would let something like this happen in the first place.”

    I’ll never forget the look on her face. She was feeling sorry for me until then.

  7. 7
    wscott

    Slow Clap for otrame. Spot on, and far more gracious than I probabaly would’ve been!

  8. 8
    Loqi

    I’ve gotten the “but he seemed so nice” from the Catholic parents of a friend when they learned how to use Facebook and looked me up. She had to explain to them that no, I didn’t list myself as an atheist just to get a rise out of people. It startled them a bit. I imagine they’ll be much more startled if they ever find out that their daughter is an atheist, but doesn’t want to come out because of how they might react.

  9. 9
    uzza

    Coming out as a semi-theist(?) here, Oprah didn’t make an ignorant comment, she offered a particular definition of what gods are. The statement that one doesn’t believe in gods is meaningless unless and until one offers a definition.

    Most people here I’m thinking consider a god to be a supernatural being, but since the notion of supernatural is incoherent and meaningless they’re essentially saying that gods are gablloodyg and they don’t believe in gablloodyg. Which is fine, they shouldn’t. Neither should they insist that other people give up their own definition, which at least makes sense, and hew to theirs.

  10. 10
    marcus

    This is also the reason that black/white segregation was so rabidly and single-mindedly pursued by the racist activists. I grew up in a town that was 50/50 yet I never knew any black people until schools were finally integrated in Alabama in 1970(!), my 10th grade year. It changed my life.
    The assholes pursue the ‘separate, dehumanize and alienate’ agenda because it works.

  11. 11
    eric

    Otrame, very nice response. My own thoughts on it…

    I don’t know how I would deal with this if I didn’t have God to talk to about it.

    Um, well, you could talk to other people about it. Like you were doing right then.

    I mean what are you going to tell your kids?

    Some very bad people drove an airplane into a building, and now we should do what we can to help the people who have been hurt or injured.

    Seriously; there certainly can be tough life questions about justice, mercy, and what to do in the face of a human catastrophe. But hers wasn’t one of them.

  12. 12
    Rowan vet-tech

    Oprah didn’t make an ignorant comment, she offered a particular definition of what gods are.

    Does Oprah pray to Awe, and expect a response? Do you pray to Love to help heal cancer in someone? Because what is a subjective experience + neurotransmitters going to be able to do?

    Christians love to trot out God is Love… but they also think God is a thinking entity with powers. They don’t think God is nothing but ‘love’… because that didn’t create the universe, that can’t have a son, and that can’t perform miracles.

    Neither should they insist that other people give up their own definition, which at least makes sense

    But how does their own definition make sense? How are ‘sunrises’ a god? If you want to play that game, they’ve also defined their deity out of existence, because it is no longer a deity at all but a completely natural, unthinking phenomena. I guess my “god” then is the smell of the redwood forests after the rain has stopped. What should I pray to this Odor? Shall I ask it to help me win the lottery? Or… is it not a god at all?

  13. 13
    scottbelyea

    You folks must live in a different world than I do.

    I’ve never felt any need to hide my 45+ years of non-belief. No hassles I can recall … certainly nothing major. No problem wearing a kippa to attend a concert in a synagogue, or bowing my head for grace before dinner. Also no problem with two pleasant Jehovah’s Witnesses dropping my monthly. I mentioned early on that I did not share their beliefs, but I agreed when they asked if they could drop by occasionally. None of this has anything to do anything to with forced participation or belief; it’s simply respect.

    In fact, I have a number of relatives and friends whose religious beliefs I’m quite unsure about. It’s largely a personal matter with me, and it seems to be that way with most whom I deal with.

    I’m in Canada, by the way, and although I’ve never bought the idea that Canada and the US are “just about the same,” the discussions about atheism in the US continue to bemuse me. I honestly don’t know whether I’m seeing a Canada-US difference, or whether I’m just fortunate to travel in more civilized circles.

    Any other Canadians here who could comment?

  14. 14
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Thank you, Ed – you solved my TBT blog dilemma.

    This is why one of the arguments we keep hearing from homophobes opposed to any pop culture depiction of homosexuality is that it normalizes it. Of course it does! It’s very difficult to demonize The Other when a group of people can see that another group are just normal people instead of insidious monsters.

    Tabby Lavalamp – bingo!

    I think Ed’s point about it just not being safe to come out in some places is well-taken; obviously there are places where open unbelief can be very dangerous. However, I think we have a lot of fear of coming out even in societies which have at least a theoretical respect for freedom of thought. The social cost of being “the other” is not nothing – it is huge for many people. That will only be diminished and eased by more people coming out, so it’s the old conundrum…

  15. 15
    uzza

    rowanvt@12
    You pretty much make my point for me with your unwarranted assumption that “other people” means christians, in spite of Nyad obviously not being one and my own dismissal of their beliefs as nonsensical. You seem unable to conceive of any “gods” that are not a diety who grants wishes, or “prayer” that is not asking for stuff.

    Your god can be the smell of a forest, why not? And when you are transported by an inexpressible joy which goes beyond the everyday, when the sense of self seems to dissolve in an ecstasy of awe, some will say you are praying.

    BTW, I’ve had the same experience as Scottbellyea@13, even here in the bible belt. Maybe because I don’t get all offended by terminology?

  16. 16
    Rowan vet-tech

    So… what is the purpose of that ‘god’ then? Why can’t it be “something I enjoy” instead of “god”? Why must it be a ‘god’? And why are you wanting this brand new shiny and utterly *useless* definition of a god, instead of the one that has been used by humanity for quite literally thousands of years? If it is not an entity, why is it a ‘god’?

  17. 17
    scottbelyea

    Why do you care? What difference does it make to you?

  18. 18
    Sastra

    uzza #9 wrote:

    Most people here I’m thinking consider a god to be a supernatural being, but since the notion of supernatural is incoherent and meaningless they’re essentially saying that gods are gablloodyg and they don’t believe in gablloodyg. Which is fine, they shouldn’t. Neither should they insist that other people give up their own definition, which at least makes sense, and hew to theirs.

    The meaning of the term “supernatural” is meaningful enough. It’s basically anything (a force, a realm, a person, an essence, etc.) which indicates something irreducibly mental (mind, agency, awareness, virtue, value, emotion, etc.). In a natural universe everything mental depends on the non-mental; in a supernatural universe at least one thing does not.

    Religious people have a nasty habit of trying to stifle critical thought and criticism by giving their terms deceptively dual meanings — like “God is Love.” Aw, look: if you believe in love, then you believe in God. And that’s what God means only as long as it gets the atheists to shut up and go away.

    We’re not asking people to “give up their own definition.” We’re asking them to be a little more specific.

    scottbelyea #13 wrote:

    I’ve never felt any need to hide my 45+ years of non-belief. No hassles I can recall … certainly nothing major. No problem wearing a kippa to attend a concert in a synagogue, or bowing my head for grace before dinner.

    Yes, the religious are much more tolerant of atheists who make an effort to blend in. I imagine a lot of gay people found that straight folks would be friendlier and more accepting if they didn’t act all “gay.”

  19. 19
    dogfightwithdogma

    Atheists coming out is certainly an important step in changing public perception of and prejudice toward atheists. Oprah most certainly displayed her ignorance and misconceptions about atheism and atheists in the interview with Nyad. And the criticism directed at her has been earned. Oprah’s ignorance and misunderstanding is widely shared by others in our society and this troubles me greatly.

    I am troubled as well by the version of atheism that Nyad seems to hold. It is a brand of atheism that I think is partly responsible for the confusion and misunderstanding held by the public. At one point in her interview with Oprah she makes this statement:

    To me my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity.

    She uses the language of belief – God – in explaining and discussing her atheism. How does this help to clear up the misconceptions held by most people about atheism? Furthermore, this is not the definition of God held by the overwhelming majority of believers. Nor is the God that Oprah described the God in whom most christians and muslins believe.

    I think if you believe in the awe, and the wonder, and the mystery, that that is what God is.

    Neither Nyad nor Oprah have a conception of God that resembles the God whom most believers accept as real.

    Stedman makes an excellent point about Oprah “erasing” Nyad’s atheist identity and lack of respect for Nyad’s atheist identity. It is true that many believers do the same. But I am curious as to why atheists are not expressing concerns about the phrasing and words Nyad used in describing and explaining atheism. I won’t speak for other atheists but Nyad’s brand of atheism is certainly is not a version with which I am comfortable.

    One of the hosts interviewing Stedman read a tweet that Nyad sent to Oprah on October 13:”…the collective respect and awe of all living souls is my definition of God. God is love, in those terms.”

    While we are criticizing Oprah I think we should also be concerned about Nyad’s comments. Her way of expressing her atheism does not, I think, represent the atheism of many, if not, most atheists. In fact, my opinion is that her comments misrepresent atheism and add to the confusion that most people have about atheism and atheists. Her use of the words God and soul – both theistic concepts – is troubling to me. It is tough enough convincing believers that “there are no atheist’s in foxholes” is a myth. Here you have an atheist who refers to God as a legitimate concept. In fact, the God she describes is of the Karen Armstrong type. I also recall that in the original interview with Oprah, Nyad specifically stated that she believes that humans have a soul that remains after our physical death. Again, this is a troubling and confusing brand of atheism. Should we not be concerned about this?

    Like many others, I too think that Oprah should apologize to Nyad for her comment. I also, like others, think that Oprah should invite an atheist, better yet a panel of atheists, onto her show to discuss atheism. Doing so would go a long way toward correcting her own ignorance and that of the public in general. But I certainly would not want another person who articulates their atheism the way Nyad did to be the one representing atheists in the discussion.

  20. 20
    scottbelyea

    You miss my point.

    I make no effort to blend in. On the other hand, I make no effort to get up a believer’s nose, either.

  21. 21
    Gretchen

    Thank you, Sastra, for that on-the-nose reply to both uzza and scottbelyea.

    Scott, if you participate in other people’s religious rituals while not being religious yourself, yes you are makin an effort to blend in. Quite a lot of effort, in fact.

  22. 22
    Sastra

    dogfightwithdogma #19 wrote:

    While we are criticizing Oprah I think we should also be concerned about Nyad’s comments.

    I agree. All your points are valid (and I did make some of the same objections on a couple other blogs.) Oprah’s stated reason for saying that Nyad was not an atheist was wrong — but after reading the interview I don’t think Nyad is an atheist either. She simply believes in a less traditional (or monotheistic) version of God.

  23. 23
    Sastra

    scottybelyea #20 wrote:

    I make no effort to blend in. On the other hand, I make no effort to get up a believer’s nose, either.

    Ok. Would you say that an atheist who refused to wear a kippa to attend a concert in a synagogue or bow their head when grace is said at dinner is making an “effort to get up a believer’s nose?”

  24. 24
    scottbelyea

    Nonsense. It’s called respect.

    And please don’t try to tell me what constitutes “quite a lot of effort” for me. What I describe may be some sort of odd psychic effort for you (I don’t know) but it’s not an effort for me. Quite the contrary; occasionally, it results in a bit more understanding on my part.

  25. 25
    freehand

    Supernatural is easy enough to define: a process, experience, or entity which is not subject to natural law. This is not incoherent. I think there are no supernatural entities or experiences, but that doesn’t make it complicated. Some folks object to saying that anything can happen which is not an expression of nature’s laws, but they’re wrong if that argument is based on definition.

    As a thought experiment, imagine the world as a virtual world residing on a computer. The User and the Programmers may not live in a world resembling ours in any way, or it may be that our virtual world is a shadow of theirs, mimicking the real reality. If the User chose to appear in our world as a god, he/she/it/they could do so, and perform all sorts of miracles, including retroactively changing the past and its consequences. You’ve all read these books, and have seen the movies – you know what a User (or enlightened subroutine) can do.

    This is actually very much like what the Southern Baptists I grew up with imagined.

    Not incoherent at all. Such virtual worlds can induce ghosts, perform magic, etc. Even simultaneous different but contradictory religions and magical systems (multiple players on one game?).

    There is, of course, no reason to think any of this is true.

    I am also rather annoyed with some liberals’ fuzziness in this matter. By trying (I think) too hard to avoid conflict, Oprah and her ilk cloud all meaning in this public discourse. Southern Baptists know very well what gods are – and sorry folks, but I don’t believe in ‘em. I don’t bring religion up unbidden, but if asked I don’t lie about it. (I don’t live in the back hills of Afghanistan, either.)

  26. 26
    freehand

    Gretchen, raised Southern Baptist, it would feel very much like a humiliating surrender for me to bow my head when someone is praying, although I would be quiet if it were at a wedding. But you and I have lived in a far more confrontational culture in these matters.

    If invited to an ethnic Japanese house, would you object or feel affronted if asked to remove your shoes before leaving the entryway?

    Perhaps scottbelyea sees these two scenarios in similar ways.

  27. 27
    Sastra

    freehand #25 wrote:

    Supernatural is easy enough to define: a process, experience, or entity which is not subject to natural law.

    One problem with this is that there is no means here to stop anyone from simply expanding the concept of the natural universe (and its laws) so that it now includes something previously declared ‘supernatural.’ This makes the definition pointless.

    Was quantum “supernatural?” No. Why not? After all, qm seemed to be using new ‘laws’ and violating prior laws of nature? The answer is that quantum wasn’t considered supernatural because it didn’t involve some irreducible mental component. When people like Deepok Chopra start gassing on that quantum is actually a form of Pure Consciousness — hey, now we got woo! Woo = supernatural. Such a thing would turn over the bottom-up view of mind and reality and introduce a Sky-Hook.

    Also, as you point out, your definition might mistakenly place a perfectly material, natural, evolved Programmer (or an advanced alien) using extraordinary technology into the “supernatural” or “God” category. But the point of the thought experiment is that such beings would NOT be gods, they’d merely seem like gods to us.

  28. 28
    Gretchen

    Perhaps scottbelyea sees these two scenarios in similar ways.

    It seems he does.

    However,

    a) Yes, there’s a certain amount of “blending in” involved in removing your shoes when visiting a Japanese person’s house, although
    b) Not nearly as much as a general practice of participating in people’s religious rituals in the way that other believers do, especially when these do not take place in someone’s home.

    There’s a difference between expressing respect for people and their property, and acting as if you share their beliefs when you don’t. Quite a clear difference, I would’ve thought.

  29. 29
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    freehand and Sastra, your 25 and 27 practically demand this link:

    Star Trek TNG (Picard convincing Mintakens he is not a god)

  30. 30
    Sastra

    Gretchen #28 wrote:

    There’s a difference between expressing respect for people and their property, and acting as if you share their beliefs when you don’t. Quite a clear difference, I would’ve thought.

    Yes, I’d think so too. Heck, I have to take my shoes off when I go to my son’s house because he has a white carpet.

    Bending one’s head when others pray is a bit of a hot button for atheists. Wasn’t there recently a huge furor over an atheist congressman just standing quietly during an invocation and refusing to bow his head as if he were also praying? As I recall, the citizens wanted a recall.

  31. 31
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    a) Yes, there’s a certain amount of “blending in” involved in removing your shoes when visiting a Japanese person’s house, although
    b) Not nearly as much as a general practice of participating in people’s religious rituals in the way that other believers do, especially when these do not take place in someone’s home.

    There’s a difference between expressing respect for people and their property, and acting as if you share their beliefs when you don’t. Quite a clear difference, I would’ve thought.

    ITA with this. I think it goes to the issue of the social cost of coming out as atheist. It is interesting that the idea of not participating in these rituals is implied by scottbelyea to be “getting up a believer’s nose” while feeling compelled to engage in believers’ rituals for fear of being “disrespectful” is not considered in any way a case of the believers getting up in the unbeliever’s nose. This is indicative of the power imbalance – and the reluctance of unbelievers to challenge that power imbalance is a real problem for people who hope to see more atheists stepping out of the closet, IMO.

  32. 32
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Bending one’s head when others pray is a bit of a hot button for atheists. Wasn’t there recently a huge furor over an atheist congressman just standing quietly during an invocation and refusing to bow his head as if he were also praying? As I recall, the citizens wanted a recall.

    …and political cost.

    and economic cost and probably other costs.

    I think many of us who have remained closeted or are only recently out of hte closet have been bowing respectfully to religion because of a quite rational fear of the consequences – to ourselves and to our families. The tell is that the “respect” never goes both ways.

  33. 33
    lofgren

    As a thought experiment, imagine the world as a virtual world residing on a computer. The User and the Programmers may not live in a world resembling ours in any way, or it may be that our virtual world is a shadow of theirs, mimicking the real reality. If the User chose to appear in our world as a god, he/she/it/they could do so, and perform all sorts of miracles, including retroactively changing the past and its consequences.

    The analogy breaks down when you realize that it is part of the virtual world’s natural laws that it is at the whim of the programmer. SOME believers see our world similarly. God is not supernatural, just a part of the natural world that is unbound by the same laws that we are.

    My definition of a god: A sentient being whose character or actions are directly responsible for the creation or maintenance of apparently emergent, undirected phenomena.

    Example: A god of the autumn. Autumn appears to be caused by several interconnected but unplanned reactions of billions of individual lifeforms to the simple fact that our planet’s tilt causes some portions of the globe to be colder for a period of its revolution. If we were to discover that in fact some sentient creature (e.g. Demeter) was causing autumn because she missed her kidnapped daughter, and that the effects of autumn could be altered by lightening her mood, then she would qualify as a God regardless of whether you define her powers over the seasons as natural or supernatural.

  34. 34
    Gretchen

    To return to what scottbelyea said originally:

    I’ve never felt any need to hide my 45+ years of non-belief. No hassles I can recall … certainly nothing major. No problem wearing a kippa to attend a concert in a synagogue, or bowing my head for grace before dinner. . . .
    I’m in Canada, by the way, and although I’ve never bought the idea that Canada and the US are “just about the same,” the discussions about atheism in the US continue to bemuse me. I honestly don’t know whether I’m seeing a Canada-US difference, or whether I’m just fortunate to travel in more civilized circles.

    A more civilized circle, I’d think, would be one in which atheists do not feel like they must express “respect” for religious people by participating in their rituals.

    Or let’s put it another way– a more civilized circle would be one in which respect is not defined as participating in other people’s religious rituals, and instead entails not expecting people to participate in yours.

  35. 35
    maddog1129

    Merely saying “I am an atheist” or “atheists exist” or “if you don’t believe in God, you are not alone” is equivalent to “getting up believers’ noses.”

  36. 36
    Sastra

    lofgren #33 wrote:

    If we were to discover that in fact some sentient creature (e.g. Demeter) was causing autumn because she missed her kidnapped daughter, and that the effects of autumn could be altered by lightening her mood, then she would qualify as a God regardless of whether you define her powers over the seasons as natural or supernatural.

    I disagree — I think. The critical issue is going to come down to HOW Demeter causes autumn. If she does so using a machine which makes the temperature go down through a mechanical process, then she’s natural — and not really a god (or goddess.) It’s all ordinary physical causation.

    But if the leaves turn color and the air goes chill just because she is feeling sad — then this is supernatural. The power of her feelings are a causative purely mental force acting on the material world, similar to psychokenesis. That IS God-like — or at least supernatural or “spiritual.”

    But I may be misunderstanding you, in that you might just be pointing out that the means a god uses is more important than whether you label it natural or supernatural. I can agree with that. But then I’d argue for clarity in vocabulary. Religion is fuzzy enough.

  37. 37
    uzza

    We’re not asking people to “give up their own definition.” We’re asking them to be a little more specific.

    Oprah was specific. That’s what started this.

    She uses the language of belief – God – in explaining and discussing her atheism.

    Oh noes!!! she uses the language of god in explaining her lack of belief in god. WTF? What’s she supposed to use?

    Rather than being uncomfortable and troubled that N and O hold views that differ from yours and condemning them as ignorant and wrong, one could welcome a chance to consider other perspectives and learn. Too often people act as if atheism is one monolithic unit rather than a collection of humans with a variety of viewpoints.

    Most all atheists reject a belief in imaginary* beings, but some go farther and insist that the label “god” can never be applied to anything outside the narrowly restricted box of Judeo-Christian tradition. This is sad, as it neglects a vast panopoly of varied and interesting belief systems, as evidenced by Oprah and Nyad, and like it or not, we exist.

    “Why call it god?” Because throughout history in every language that’s what it’s been called. I can’t speak for N and O, but for me it’s because “God” has always meant the creator and sustainer of the universe. The fact that it is turning out to be mainly gravity only fills in the details. I continue to be filled with awe and wonder at gravity, and the fact that some people are incapable of grasping abstract concepts and have to anthropomorphize everything is not really a problem.

  38. 38
    scottbelyea

    No, we don’t seem to be on the same wavelength here. I don’t consider any of the examples I gave as “participating in their rituals,” and I feel no “must” about it.

    Take the example of donning a kippa when offered one on entering a synagogue. I’m not participating in their ritual, nor attesting to any belief. That’s what they ask that adult males do, and I can’t think of any good reason not to. Nor can I think of a good reason to state that I am an atheist.

    An interesting sidenote – I can recall when adult females were expected to have their heads covered in some churches, the one I specifically recall being Anglican.

    Do I consider these things mildly silly? Well, that’s my own affair; there are lots of practices, religious and secular, that I consider mildly silly, but I feel no self-imposed requirement to mention each instance that I come across or to try to explain the “silliness.”

    In any event, call it respect or good manners or whatever, there’s nothing there that offends me,nor do I feel any need to respond.

  39. 39
    scottbelyea

    Hallelujah!

    No, wait … let me put that another way – I agree with your response.

  40. 40
    lofgren

    If she does so using a machine which makes the temperature go down through a mechanical process, then she’s natural — and not really a god (or goddess.) It’s all ordinary physical causation.

    Except that

    1. In order for such a machine to exist, natural law as we understand it would already have to change. What’s the difference between adapting known natural laws to account for the effects of a machine previously thought to be impossible, and adapting them to account for the effects of a creature’s mood? Why is it “supernatural” for Demeter to affect the seasons with only her mind, but “natural” if we put a black box between the agent and the effect that equally violates natural laws as we know them? If Zeus uses a machine that causes lightening, how is that less supernatural than if he scuffs his feet along the carpet of the sky? They’re both impossible.

    2. I included the word “directly” on purpose. If Demeter is merely pushing a button that anybody could push, then she is not really causing autumn “directly.” The machine is controlling the seasons “directly,” and Demeter is doing so indirectly (by pushing the button that makes the machine work). Otherwise humans would be gods by our ability to warm the planet with CO2 emissions.

    If the machine is sentient, it would be fair to call it a god.

    Admittedly, there is some wiggle room in the word “directly,” but I don’t know how much more precise you can get when describing things that are conceptually vague by their nature. If you can do better, you’re welcome to try.

    3. You’ll note that I specifically said that Demeter causes autumn, which is not quite the same as “making it colder.” If Demeter determined the tilt of the planet through natural means, and autumn – the changing leaves, the hibernating bears, etc. – evolved as it appears to have evolved over millennia of life forms adapting to the environment, then I wouldn’t say that Demeter controls autumn so much as she controls planetary alignment.

    4. It’s necessary that the phenomenon controlled by the god be emergent. If Demeter causes the planet to tilt by grabbing it and yanking it sideways, it is not emergent. It’s directed,. If she does it by subtly tweaking the basic forces of the universe in order to guarantee that the earth will have a specific tilt, then she is a god. Again, there’s plenty of wiggle room here, but, again, you’re welcome to try to do better.

    Honestly, I am more OK with sufficiently advanced aliens falling with the definition than I am with weaselly things like “love.” To me when a theist says something like “God is love,” it’s an admission that they have given up. If god does not have something recognizable as sentience it is not a god, no matter how powerful.

  41. 41
    uzza

    Relative to the OP, homophobes constantly flog the idea that anal sex is icky, and all the lesbians are “Wait, … what?” In this case, atheists flog the notion that all theists believe in supernatural crazywoo, and I’m the lesbian here. Or Oprah is.

  42. 42
    lofgren

    “Why call it god?” Because throughout history in every language that’s what it’s been called. I can’t speak for N and O, but for me it’s because “God” has always meant the creator and sustainer of the universe. The fact that it is turning out to be mainly gravity only fills in the details. I continue to be filled with awe and wonder at gravity, and the fact that some people are incapable of grasping abstract concepts and have to anthropomorphize everything is not really a problem.

    I disagree.

    It IS a problem. If you anthropomorphize the forces of the universe as a metaphor to make them more clear, that’s fine. Whatever. No different from doing the same thing with drawings like the Bohr atom or thought experiments like Schrodinger’s Cat.

    But that isn’t the way god has been treated “throughout history.” Throughout history, attributes, desires, whims, thoughts, and commands have been attributed to god. It’s not sufficient to anthropomorphize the forces of the universe for greater understanding of its function. For something to be a god, there must be an assertion that the anthropomorphic creature actually exists.

  43. 43
    Sastra

    uzza #37 wrote:

    Oprah was specific.

    No she wasn’t. Here’s what we got:

    “Well I don’t call you an atheist then,” Oprah responded to Nyad’s disclosure (that she is an atheist.) “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

    Why can’t an atheist believe in “awe and wonder and mystery?”

    Oh noes!!! she uses the language of god in explaining her lack of belief in god. WTF? What’s she supposed to use?

    The problem is that Nyad first said she was an atheist and then went on to describe the God she believes in. At the very least she seems to be a bit unclear on the definition of “atheist.”

    Rather than being uncomfortable and troubled that N and O hold views that differ from yours and condemning them as ignorant and wrong, one could welcome a chance to consider other perspectives and learn. Too often people act as if atheism is one monolithic unit rather than a collection of humans with a variety of viewpoints.

    I can both learn about other perspectives AND think those other perspectives are wrong. This is not mutually exclusive.

    I already know that the definitions of “God” run all over the place. Some of them are so broad they are meaningless — and some of them are just atheism with a confusing vocabulary. Bottom line, there are some features which are unique to what God is supposed to be. Clarity of thought is your friend, regardless of what position you hold. Assuming, of course, that you care about what you believe and aren’t just in love with the idea of belief.

    for me it’s because “God” has always meant the creator and sustainer of the universe. The fact that it is turning out to be mainly gravity only fills in the details.

    No it doesn’t. If the creator and sustainer of the universe is not conscious, has no goals, does not think, has no connection to good or evil, is not just, does not feel, and reduces down to a mindless materialistic force like gravity then we are not finding out what God is like. We are discovering that God doesn’t exist. And that is okay.

    You’re making your belief in God unfalsifiable. Do you really want to place yourself in a position where you can’t possibly change your mind — or even be wrong?

  44. 44
    lofgren

    scottbelyea, I agree with you. The definition of respect that some people are advocating sounds like a demand that other people should tolerate petulent jerks.

  45. 45
    Sastra

    lofgren #40 wrote:

    What’s the difference between adapting known natural laws to account for the effects of a machine previously thought to be impossible, and adapting them to account for the effects of a creature’s mood?

    Because the first one doesn’t involve something which is irreducibly mental. It’s the difference between a perpetual motion machine vs. psychokensis. Yes, they’re both impossible as far as we know — but only one of them is woo, magic, supernatural. The first one would screw up our understanding of physics, but the second one screws our understanding up in a particular way — a way that points to the “spiritual.” Naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental. Dualism is supernatural.

  46. 46
    uzza

    If she does it by subtly tweaking the basic forces of the universe in order to guarantee that the earth will have a specific tilt, then she is a god.

    She of course, being spacetime, or as you call her, Demeter. This thing that you’re anthrpomorhizing actually exists. She just isn’t quite like the cave people thought she was.

    These are fun games, but they have a practical side. Thanksgiving, my family holds hands in a circle and talk to an imaginary skydaddy. They know what I think about it, so it could be awkward, but I join hands and spend the moment focusing on my thankfullness for the natural forces that let me live, and be there–and thank the turkey, dammit. We both give thanks to what we conceive of as ‘god’. No conflicts.

  47. 47
    Gretchen

    scottbelyea said:

    No, we don’t seem to be on the same wavelength here. I don’t consider any of the examples I gave as “participating in their rituals,” and I feel no “must” about it.

    Take the example of donning a kippa when offered one on entering a synagogue. I’m not participating in their ritual, nor attesting to any belief. That’s what they ask that adult males do, and I can’t think of any good reason not to. Nor can I think of a good reason to state that I am an atheist.

    The fact that you are an atheist would be an excellent reason to a) not to, and b) state that you’re an atheist as an explanation as to why.

    Do they have the perfect right to ask you to don a kippa when entering a synagogue, and refuse you entrance if you refuse to comply? Sure. However as I said, that’s not terribly civil on their part. Your not wearing a kippa in a synagogue would, after all, harm nobody. You have the perfect right to choose to wear one, but if you are doing so in order to enter the synagogue, “respect” doesn’t seem like the right word for it. More like obedience.

    An interesting sidenote – I can recall when adult females were expected to have their heads covered in some churches, the one I specifically recall being Anglican.

    Yes, and the same applies.

  48. 48
    Sastra

    uzza #41 wrote:

    Relative to the OP, homophobes constantly flog the idea that anal sex is icky, and all the lesbians are “Wait, … what?” In this case, atheists flog the notion that all theists believe in supernatural crazywoo, and I’m the lesbian here. Or Oprah is.

    Don’t be silly. We’re clarifying definitions because we think you are confused. I realize that not all versions of “God” are distinctly personal — the “old guy with a beard” which is not the God you (or anyone else) believes in. Sometimes god is supposed to be a Force or Power or Essence or Tendency or “Energy.” But if you remove ALL the mental components, then you’ve lost what made God different than not-God.

    Oprah didn’t remove the mental attributes: God is love. Or, rather, Love. She’s reifying an abstraction. Oprah believes in the “Secret” which is a sort of vitalistic Mind force permeating the universe and connecting Mind to reality. Say you want a car and it will appear — not given by Oprah, but granted by the Universe itself as a thinking, feeling, caring sort of nonmaterial essence which YOU can control through being confident enough. Maybe you don’t like calling this “supernatural crazywoo” but … well…

  49. 49
    scottbelyea

    Well, we’ll just keep on disagreeing, I guess.

    “The fact that you are an atheist would be an excellent reason to a) not to, and b) state that you’re an atheist as an explanation as to why.”

    Disagree strongly. Both inappropriate and bad manners. Why should they care about my atheism? And why should I expect them to stand there while I proselytize?

    “Do they have the perfect right to ask you to don a kippa when entering a synagogue, and refuse you entrance if you refuse to comply? Sure. However as I said, that’s not terribly civil on their part. Your not wearing a kippa in a synagogue would, after all, harm nobody. You have the perfect right to choose to wear one, but if you are doing so in order to enter the synagogue, “respect” doesn’t seem like the right word for it. More like obedience.”

    You seem to have the quality that some other posting atheists share – an uncanny ability to read minds and know what others are thinking. To take one blunt example – if I state that I mean it as a measure of respect, who are you to say otherwise on my behalf? Say that your opinion differs, fair enough, but don’t tell me what I should think.

    Maybe 45 years as an atheist isn’t enough, but I haven’t yet developed quite that level of arrogance.

  50. 50
    Gretchen

    “God is Love. Don’t you believe in Love?”
    “Why yes, I believe in love.”
    “Then you believe in God. Let us go to church and pray.”
    “But what does that have to do with love?”
    “God loves us, so he wants us to do this.”:
    “But how can Love love? What on earth is that supposed to be? Not to mention, how can Love want things? What would praying to Love even mean? Why would worshiping Love mean anything different than just….loving people?”
    “Because…..look, just come to church. God loves you, and if you don’t worship him you will suffer eternally in Hell.”
    “….How did you manage to confuse God with love, now?”

  51. 51
    Gretchen

    scottbelyea said:

    Disagree strongly. Both inappropriate and bad manners. Why should they care about my atheism? And why should I expect them to stand there while I proselytize?

    “I’m not Jewish” to a demand to wear a kippa is as much proselytizing as “I don’t smoke,” to a demand to toke and pass.

    You can grab that joint and inhale because it’s the “respectful” thing to do, but they’re still assholes for demanding it.

  52. 52
    Sastra

    @scottbelyea:

    A couple questions:

    First, I don’t think you got around to answering my question at #23.
    Would you say that an atheist who refused to wear a kippa to attend a concert in a synagogue or bow their head when grace is said at dinner is making an “effort to get up a believer’s nose?”

    Second, do you think that a Christian guest of an atheist who fails to remove the cross from around their neck and doesn’t refrain from a silent ‘blessing’ over the meal is being disrespectful to the host?

  53. 53
    exdrone

    My experience in Canada in telling people that I am an atheist is being told that they are not very religious themselves or other replies of indifference, so here in Toronto at least, “coming out” as an atheist is like coming out as a homosexual in San Francisco.

    In terms of complying with religious traditions in public, we have a tradition in Commonwealth militaries of standing up at mess dinners for your regiment’s (musical) march past when it is played by the band at the end of mess dinners. When the march past for the padres is played, which is Onward Christian Soldier, the tradition has been for everyone to stand in support. I refuse to stand. Over time, more and more people are refusing to do so. It’s not a big deal, but I think it’s important to make the point. When I started not standing years ago, it was uncomfortable. A little like not participating in a standing ovation when everyone around you is up. Nowadays, maybe a quarter of the people at a mess dinner remain seated.

  54. 54
    dogfightwithdogma

    @49

    And why should I expect them to stand there while I proselytize?

    Who said anything about proselytizing? Telling someone the reason you won’t engage in their religious ritual or custom is not proselytizing, it’s explaining. Surely you know the difference? But in case you don’t, which your reply seems to indicate is the case here is the definition of proselytizing:

    “convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another

    When you tell someone you won’t participate in their ritual because you are an atheist you are not proselytizing. And if you have to explain to them what atheism means or why your atheism prevents you from participating, you still are not proselytizing.

  55. 55
    uzza

    Sastra@43
    I did not know that Oprah believes in ‘The Secret’, my bad. Yes, crazy. I appreciate your clarifying definitions and I feel that is all this whole issue is really about; when can one call themself an atheist.

    Nyad first said she was an atheist and then went on to describe the God she believes in

    Put like that, yes, she’s inconsistent. I understood that as “an atheist, in that I don’t believe in the usual ‘gods’, but I do believe in this alternative kinda god-thing. Oprah responded by assigning her to a particular box in her own lexicon, labelled ‘non-atheist’, which Nyad may or may not agree with, but it’s not a big deal. Could be we need more boxes.

    Your last paragraph makes no sense because Equivocation.
    If we are finding out that god, the creator and sustainer of the universe, is a mindless materialistic force like gravity then we ARE finding out what god is like, we are not finding out what God, that you seem to think is conscious and just and all kinds of weird shit, is like. I had the grace to say what I meant by the term, you didn’t.

  56. 56
    Sastra

    uzza #55 wrote:

    Your last paragraph makes no sense because Equivocation.
    If we are finding out that god, the creator and sustainer of the universe, is a mindless materialistic force like gravity then we ARE finding out what god is like, we are not finding out what God, that you seem to think is conscious and just and all kinds of weird shit, is like. I had the grace to say what I meant by the term, you didn’t.

    Let me rephrase. If you define “God” as “the creator and sustainer of the universe” and stop there, then you’re leaving out too many critical factors. God has to have some pure mental attributes (such as consciousness and/or goals and/or thoughts and/or emotions and/or a sense of justice and/or a connection to morality) or all you’ve got is a force like gravity. It’s a poor definition because it’s not really what people mean by ‘God” and having your own unique definition is confusing. Humpty-Dumpty and all that.

    Richard Dawkins once did a parody of modern theology, and wondered what it would be like if scientists behaved like theologians. He imagined them insisting that the theory of the ether wasn’t wrong, it was just misunderstood and refined and clarified. But the replacement theory looks nothing like the ether. The scientists would just end up looking like people who can’t deal with being mistaken.

    That’s what I meant by being careful that you don’t define a controversial concept like ‘God” in a way that can’t be falsified.

    My definition: “God”: a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

  57. 57
    scottbelyea

    ““I’m not Jewish” to a demand to wear a kippa…”

    That’s not what you said earlier.

    You said it was an ideal opportunity to say that I’m an atheist and to go on to explain why. Different thing entirely.

    And the pot comparison is just pointless. I can’t believe that you seriously think it’s the same thing.

  58. 58
    dogfightwithdogma

    Scottbelyea @49

    Why should they care about my atheism?

    How about for the same reason you seem to care about their theism: respect for you as a person, courtesy. I am truly puzzled as to why you seem to want to show more deference toward their views than you expect to be shown toward yours? Are you ashamed to be an atheist?

  59. 59
    Gretchen

    scottbelyea said:

    That’s not what you said earlier.

    You said it was an ideal opportunity to say that I’m an atheist and to go on to explain why. Different thing entirely.

    Not why you’re an atheist, why you decline to put on a kippa. You could say “No thanks, I’m not Jewish,” or “No thanks, I’m an atheist.” They take an equal amount of time to say, neither one involves proselytizing, and neither one is remotely disrespectful.

    And the pot comparison is just pointless. I can’t believe that you seriously think it’s the same thing.

    Not the exact same thing, of course, but very similar. In both cases you are pressured to take part in a behavior that is contrary to your identity and which you would never have taken part in on your own (unless you do, in fact, wear a kippa around the house when nobody’s around, just for kicks?), and which it’s disrespectful to you to push on you beyond your polite refusal based on the aforementioned factors.

  60. 60
    scottbelyea

    “How about for the same reason you seem to care about their theism: respect for you as a person, courtesy. ”

    You have things a bit twisted. My “why” comment was referring to why they should want me to explain why I’m an atheist. By the same token, I don’t want someone giving me an uncalled-for explanation of why they are a believer. In general, I don’t particularly care why a person is an atheist, a theist, an agnostic, or anything else. If I care, I may ask.

    “I am truly puzzled as to why you seem to want to show more deference toward their views than you expect to be shown toward yours? Are you ashamed to be an atheist?”

    Now I’m truly puzzled as to what I said that led you to these two (very) wrong suppositions. I tend to b e fairly “live and let live” about a variety of things (not just religion). That seems to disturb some folks, and I don’t know why.

  61. 61
    Gretchen

    and which it’s disrespectful to you to push on you beyond your polite refusal based on the aforementioned factors.

    Actually, I’ll go beyond that. It’s disrespectful full stop to expect people whom you have no reason to assume are adherents of your religion, to abide by the rules of your religion.

  62. 62
    Gretchen

    Now I’m truly puzzled as to what I said that led you to these two (very) wrong suppositions. I tend to b e fairly “live and let live” about a variety of things (not just religion). That seems to disturb some folks, and I don’t know why.

    Maybe because

    1) You don’t seem to expect anyone to extend the same courtesy to you, and
    2) You seem to be quite– pardon the expression– holier than thou about it. Upthread, for example, you suggested that those of us who are not similarly….compliant are somehow uncivilized.

  63. 63
    scottbelyea

    We just seem to have fundamentally different reactions. I’ve never sensed pressure or disrespect or anything negative. Quite the contrary; I’ve been happy to go along with it, and felt no need to consider wearing an atheist t-shirt next time.

    I’m still a bit puzzled at how differently we seem to react, but that may be my lack of insight.

  64. 64
    uzza

    I’ve spent half a century asking people what they mean by “god” and getting answers that range from poorly thought out to shit-smearing insane, but no two ever match so it seems that having one’s own unique definition is the norm. It is confusing, under the sound bites, and it’s irksome when atheists act like these variation don’t exist and we all adhere to some traditional clownshow version.

    I don’t say the thing we’re investigating (creator of the universe, aka ‘god’) has to have x, y, or z, I only ask what it is. If what it is is a force like gravity, fine; now I have my own unique definition. It works for me, and has the advantages of 1) being real, and 2) not putting me at odds with the vast majority of humanity. It’s much more productive to argue that their god is not x,y, or z than to argue there isn’t one.

    I believe in gravity and gods, but not the supernatural, awe and wonder, but not the Abramic God — so am I an atheist?

  65. 65
    scottbelyea

    “You don’t seem to expect anyone to extend the same courtesy to you”

    What courtesy? What do you think I might expect them to do or say. Not trying to be argumentative, but I don’t understand.

    “You seem to be quite– pardon the expression– holier than thou about it. Upthread, for example, you suggested that those of us who are not similarly….compliant are somehow uncivilized.”

    Don’t feel that, and I genuinely don’t know what led to that conclusion. Expression pardoned.

  66. 66
    lofgren

    Sastra,

    First let me say that I am primarily interested in a functional definition of god, so feel free to ignore the following if you don’t feel like getting into it. If so, just tell me how you would define god so that we can continue that conversation.

    The first one would screw up our understanding of physics, but the second one screws our understanding up in a particular way — a way that points to the “spiritual.” Naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental. Dualism is supernatural.

    Can you please explain this more? It seems highly unlikely that you are saying what it appears that you are saying.

  67. 67
    lofgren

    I believe in gravity and gods, but not the supernatural, awe and wonder, but not the Abramic God — so am I an atheist?

    You’re somebody who thinks that obfuscation is preferable to honesty if clarity might cause strife.

  68. 68
    lofgren

    “I’m not Jewish” to a demand to wear a kippa is as much proselytizing as “I don’t smoke,” to a demand to toke and pass.

    This analogy is so bad, I can only assume you are trying to make yourself look like an asshole.

  69. 69
    uzza

    lofgren @67
    Since you’re too lazy to read the preceding discussion, just tell me which part you are too stupid to understand and I’ll expalin it in little tiny words.

  70. 70
    dogfightwithdogma

    uzza @64

    I believe in gravity and gods, but not the supernatural, awe and wonder, but not the Abramic God — so am I an atheist?

    No, you are not. You don’t even meet the dictionary definition of an atheist. You can’t believe in gods and be an atheist. Now if you are defining a god, any god, that does not have the attribute of being supernatural and occupying some position in a supernatural realm then you are using a definition that does not actually describe the concept of god. Therefore continued use of the word god by you only produces confusion. I have no idea how many people you have asked to describe God, but I am convinced that your sampling technique has been next to useless. Every christian to whom I have spoken, and they have been in the hundreds, believes in a God that has a real existence, capable of intervening in the natural realm and in their lives; capable of generating real affects in the material universe. So when atheists talk of believing in God it can’t help but generate confusion.

  71. 71
    scottbelyea

    I’m reminded of Michael Flanders (of F. and Swann) –

    “It has been rightly said that the function of satire is to strip away the layer of illusion and cozy half-truth, and our function … as I see it … is to put it back again.”

  72. 72
    lofgren

    Since you’re too lazy to read the preceding discussion, just tell me which part you are too stupid to understand and I’ll expalin it in little tiny words.

    Maybe you can tell me which part of my comment is inaccurate, because as far as I can tell it describes your position regarding gods perfectly. You have defined gods out of existence so you can continue to claim that you believe in them, so that you won’t upset people:

    She of course, being spacetime, or as you call her, Demeter. This thing that you’re anthrpomorhizing actually exists.

    This is a big bag of baloney. Yes, obviously, something happened that resulted in our planet being tilted in a certain way, and then thousands of generations of competition and adaptation resulted in the season we call “autumn,” with its changing leaves, pumpkins, hibernating animals, etc. But the “forces of spacetime” are not a god. Demeter is the god. The character is the god. The natural forces exist but that is not remotely equivalent to saying that Demeter exists.

    I have my own unique definition. It works for me, and has the advantages of 1) being real, and 2) not putting me at odds with the vast majority of humanity.

    1. Your definition of god isn’t real, it’s meaningless.

    2. Your definition of god DOES put you at odds with the vast majority of humanity, being as you have defined someone rather important to them out of existence.

    It’s much more productive to argue that their god is not x,y, or z than to argue there isn’t one.

    It may be productive in the way that semantic sleight-of-hand often is, but if you arguing that the “creator” of the universe is non-sentient, and in fact not a creator in any meaningful sense of the word, then you’re only trying to get somebody to change their definition of god to a nonsense word. The fact that you’re letting them keep the word doesn’t change the fact that you’re arguing that there is no god in the way that word has been understood for most of human history, is understood by most people today, and will probably continue to be understood for a very long time. It’s semantic bullshit at its finest.

    Even if you succeed in changing the definition of god, that will only mean that we’ll need new words to refer to the thing that the word god refers to now, and a new word to refer to people who don’t believe in it. Your avoiding a debate about reality in favor of a debate about words.

    Any definition of god that does not include sentience is useless.

  73. 73
    Sastra

    uzza #64 wrote:

    I don’t say the thing we’re investigating (creator of the universe, aka ‘god’) has to have x, y, or z, I only ask what it is. If what it is is a force like gravity, fine; now I have my own unique definition. It works for me, and has the advantages of 1) being real, and 2) not putting me at odds with the vast majority of humanity. It’s much more productive to argue that their god is not x,y, or z than to argue there isn’t one.

    We’re not “investigating God,” we’re asking if God exists. So are the theists, technically. Which means that you aren’t under any rational obligation to see if you can find something that “works” and make the answer come out ‘yes.’ The question is a serious one, then. If I am wrong — what would change my mind? A belief in God which is more like an outfit (it works for me!) than the conclusion of an honest investigation is actually less respectful of religion, I think.

    You’re right about all the differences in what people describe as “God.” But I think that despite the variation in the definitions there seems to be a common core which sets the god concept apart from concepts like “reality” or “gravity” or “whatever it is that caused the universe even if it’s a mindless fluctuation in an unstable vacuum.” I have yet to encounter a theist for instance who didn’t think that both God and knowledge of God (and relating or abiding or personally connecting with God) wasn’t important, meaningful, and transformative. So your “God is gravity” may pass among people who are very, very anxious to have everyone believe in God and say so — but it’s not really going to pass analysis.

    It’s that last group that’s worrisome — the theists who like Oprah want to get everyone to say that they believe in God in some way any way just so their own belief seems more secure … and so the atheists are all safely tucked away in cold, unfeeling, mean Robot-land, incapable of appreciating sunsets or feeling awe or love. Since you technically ARE an atheist (Gravity-is-God), this strategy is problematic.

    Is it really more productive to agree that God exists and then try to strip it of divine elements than to just come out and be clear and direct? I don’t know. But the ends may not be as important as the means. And personally I suspect that most theists will simply hear “I believe in God…” and then fill their own views in as needed, ensuring that all the nice people they know all continue to believe in God. I think Ed has a point. Coming out matters more than not putting ourselves at odds with the rest of humanity.

  74. 74
    dingojack

    Dear Opah –
    So exactly how long have you been worshipping 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, Diamorphine and etc.?
    Dingo

  75. 75
    lofgren

    It’s that last group that’s worrisome — the theists who like Oprah want to get everyone to say that they believe in God in some way any way just so their own belief seems more secure … and so the atheists are all safely tucked away in cold, unfeeling, mean Robot-land, incapable of appreciating sunsets or feeling awe or love. Since you technically ARE an atheist (Gravity-is-God), this strategy is problematic.

    It drives me absolutely bonkers when people substitute a semantic discussion for a discussion about something real. Yes, if we define god as reality, then obviously I believe in God. But we are also no closer to understanding my beliefs, or your beliefs, or anybody’s beliefs than we were before the discussion started, and certainly no closer to determining whose are most accurate. We have successfully defined the word but we haven’t successfully communicated anything.

    Even though I don’t like definitions of god that do not include sentience, the best one I have heard (unfortunately I can’t remember where) defined god as “The last mystery.” Essentially embracing God-the-gaps and turning god into that thing that we are always searching for. As long as there is something we don’t know, we will call that thing god in order to give us something to search for. It’s an interesting sentiment with a lot of insight, I think, into human nature, but it’s not very helpful in a conversation about atheism.

  76. 76
    Sastra

    @lofgren #66:

    I defined God earlier thus: trying to make it as broad as possible so that it wasn’t just applicable to Western or traditional versions:

    My definition: “God”: a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

    I’m trying to make it as broad as possible so that it wasn’t just applicable to Western or traditional versions but still contained necessary elements. Not all versions of God create the universe, for example.

    The first one would screw up our understanding of physics, but the second one screws our understanding up in a particular way — a way that points to the “spiritual.” Naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental. Dualism is supernatural.

    Can you please explain this more? It seems highly unlikely that you are saying what it appears that you are saying.

    Sorry, I’m not being clear. I was trying to distinguish between 2 hypothetical things which would both violate natural laws (a perpetual motion machine and ESP) but only one of which would be considered inherently “supernatural.” If our minds can do things without any physical connection or causation — you “just know” what someone else on the other side of the world is thinking, say — then the mind/brain connection is broken and … souls, ghosts, God, magic, and all the proposed supernatural phenomenon are more plausible.

    Richard Carrier explains it much better than I can.

    .

  77. 77
    Sastra

    lofgren #75 wrote:

    Even though I don’t like definitions of god that do not include sentience, the best one I have heard (unfortunately I can’t remember where) defined god as “The last mystery.” Essentially embracing God-the-gaps and turning god into that thing that we are always searching for.

    “The last mystery” doesn’t sound like a definition: it sounds like a strategy.

  78. 78
    dingojack

    Dingo’s Rule of Thumb on Religions:
    If it postulates a supernatural being (or beings) it’s a religion.
    Dingo
    ——–
    A sense of awe, joy, wonderment etc. do not require a supernatural being(s). Therefore these can be part of religious belief but not sufficient to be a religious belief per se.

    PS: Is being depressed, angry, supercilious fearful in of itself ‘a religion’ too?

  79. 79
    lofgren

    a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

    (Sorry, I missed this earlier.)

    Our definitions seem mostly similar, except that you have the added condition that gods must be “non-material” and “pure mental.” In general I think you are using the word “mental” in a problematic way, but specifically in the case of gods I think you are narrowing the field by a lot. This would mean that Mormons do not have a god, for example, because their god has physical form. The ancient Greeks were divided on the matter, but the Norse definitely did. In fact most gods have physical form from what I can tell.

    If our minds can do things without any physical connection or causation — you “just know” what someone else on the other side of the world is thinking, say — then the mind/brain connection is broken and … souls, ghosts, God, magic, and all the proposed supernatural phenomenon are more plausible.

    As I said, I think you are using mental/mind and mind/brain in a very problematic way, and one that strains my definition of supernatural. You seem to be saying that Harry Potter style magic, where energy is conjured ex nihilo by speaking certain words, making certain gestures, and waving a specially carved piece of wood around can be considered “natural” (were they to exist) because those are all physical actions. However, even if we were to discover functional telepathy tomorrow, it would always be supernatural no matter how predictable, how clearly understood, or how controllable it would always remain supernatural. That seems profoundly weird.

    There are workable models of consciousness that would allow for the possibility of telepathy and would require very little alteration to our understanding of physics, chemistry, and even most biology. The only reason that they are supernatural right now is because Occam’s Razor demands we follow the most parsimonious explanation. But given that telepathy could exist while overturning very little of what we know about science, while a giant machine that operates the seasons (or perpetual motion) would change a whole lot of what we know (and Harry Potter would change virtually everything), it seems strange that you would say the more plausible power is by definition impossible.

    I’m also perplexed as to how the existence of telepathy would make the existence of ghosts more plausible. They seem like two totally unrelated claims, like saying the existence of Bigfoot makes Scientology more plausible.

    In any event, if Demeter’s mood makes the seasons change, that doesn’t mean there is no causal connection, it just means that we don’t understand the causal connection. Saying that it is by definition supernatural seems to me to be saying that it by definition it cannot be investigated. In the same way that gravity could be investigated before general relativity was formulated (and even now since general relativity is at least a little bit incomplete), telepathy, or the effects of Demeter’s mood on the seasons, could be investigated even if we don’t have a perfect theory for how they work.

    I think that I am comfortable with the notion that the god’s powers do not require a “pure mental” explanation, in part because I’m still not sure I really understand what you are trying to say with that phrase. If we are all living in an inescapable Matrix, and the program that runs the Matrix is sentient, it seems acceptable to me to call the computer god even though there are entirely physical forces at work.

  80. 80
    lofgren

    it seems strange that you would say the more plausible power is by definition impossible.

    Sorry, I meant by definition supernatural.

  81. 81
    lofgren

    I went ahead and tried to read the Carrier piece, and oy do I regret it.

    It seems like his underlying thesis is that in order to be supernatural, something must be purely mental, for a specific definition of mental that is only used by people who already believe in the supernatural and believe that mental things are it. In other words, in order to be supernatural, something must be purely mental, and in order to be mental (by this definition), it must be purely supernatural. It seems tautological in other words.

  82. 82
    uzza

    Oh dear.
    Sastra@73 : Since you technically ARE an atheist …
    Dogfight@70: No, you are not. You don’t even meet the dictionary definition of an atheist

    The existence of god has never been anything BUT a semantic discussion. The pantheist says “The universe exists; the universe is god; therefore god exists.” and the atheist says “It exists, but you can’t call it god.” The burden is on the atheist to say what it is exactly that he doesn’t believe exists.

    The term “god”, and the notions paired with it, have been morphing unrecognizably, in every language, thru all history. You say “it” has to be sentient. Dingojack is in ectasy about it (^_^) being supernatural. That’s two opinions, with no reason (maybe ad populum) to assign either of those attributes to the forces that create the universe. They are real, they have always been called gods so there’s a name for them if you want it, and I think Sastra’s right that ‘important and transformative’ is part of it, at least when we are outside Robot-land, feeling awe and wonder and all.
    It seem that whether I’m an atheist depends on what the person I am talking to is willing to affix the label ‘god’ onto.

  83. 83
    anne mariehovgaard

    The pantheist says “The universe exists; the universe is god; therefore god exists.”

    If that’s all there is to it (and for you, it certainly seems to be) then it’s completely pointless. The last two parts add nothing. Why do you insist on giving the same object or phenomenon two different names? Is being able to say “I believe in a god” really that important to you? Using your “definitions” it’s not really possible to be an atheist, so describing yourself as a theist makes no sense either.

  84. 84
    lofgren

    The pantheist says “The universe exists; the universe is god; therefore god exists.” and the atheist says “It exists, but you can’t call it god.”

    Because the statement of your hypothetical pantheist is intellectually vacuous, and not particularly fair to real pantheists, who may not postulate an anthropomorphic god but, for the most part, do assert sentience and an ability of us fellow sentient beings to catch a glimpse of this creature and its attributes, at least to some small extent. Those that don’t still assert some kind of supernatural binding of all things. That is, unlike your interpretation of the word gad as fundamentally meaningless, they do claim that a universe-that-is-god is distinguishable by unique characteristics from a universe-that-is-not-god.

    What you have done here, and it is stunning at this point that you can’t see it, is to simply define the word “god” as a synonym for “the universe.” Saying that you are a believer in god at that point makes as much sense as saying that a kid who wears school colors on game day is a spiritualist. It’s a duplicitous abuse the language.

    The burden is on the atheist to say what it is exactly that he doesn’t believe exists.

    The burden is on the person asserting the existence of god to define that term in a way that is coherent and meaningful. If you define the term in a way that is incoherent or meaningless, then you’re not really asserting the existence of anything, so we might as well talk about the actual thing you want to talk about instead of introducing terms that only make the conversation more confusing and less precise. If you want to talk about Love, let’s talk about love. You want to talk about Mystery and Awe or Gravity, let’s talk about mystery, awe, and gravity. Injecting God into the discussion is injecting a layer of deliberate obfuscation.

    That’s two opinions, with no reason (maybe ad populum) to assign either of those attributes to the forces that create the universe.

    And yet those are attributes possessed by gods.Believing that they are not possessed by the forces that create the universe is exactly what makes an atheist.

    they have always been called gods so there’s a name for them if you want it,

    Sure they’ve always been called gods. And that term comes with a whole host of other assertions about reality that you are trying to simply handwave away as if they are simply minor disagreements about how gravity works. But the god you “believe” in, whose existence is indistinguishable from non-existence, is not the same concept as the god asserted by most human beings who have ever lived, even if they do share the lone characteristic of being responsible in some abstract way for the existence of the universe.

    It seem that whether I’m an atheist depends on what the person I am talking to is willing to affix the label ‘god’ onto.

    It seems it depends on whether or not the person you are talking to believes that god is a thing with existence or nonsense word with no useful function in the English language.

  85. 85
    freehand

    Sastra@27: Also, as you point out, your definition might mistakenly place a perfectly material, natural, evolved Programmer (or an advanced alien) using extraordinary technology into the “supernatural” or “God” category. But the point of the thought experiment is that such beings would NOT be gods, they’d merely seem like gods to us.

    Be they might have completely different laws in the “real” universe, and even if we subroutines / virtual people were patterned after them, they would not be subject to our universe’s laws. This is exactly how a Baptist would see Heaven and its denizens.

    If we ran into something like the Star Trek character Q, he would not be supernatural, no matter how powerful, for he seems to be a product of our universe and its natural laws. I have seen persuasive (but not conclusive) evidence that zombies exist. And they are not a product of magic. If the reports I have heard about them are true, they are not supernatural. I have seen no evidence that gods (the definitions of which would make sense to believers) exist(1) in any way. Uzza, I have trouble with any definition of gods that would not distinguish between me and a Southern Baptist.

    We all have definitions in our heads of the various things in our universe – however muddled they may be. I might define a “chair” as “furniture of which the primary purpose is sitting on”. When I see my first bean bag chair I might think “Well, that’s an odd one, but it’s clearly a chair.” But how about my garden walls, some areas of which were purposely arranged so that they could be sat upon? Well, we can easily tweak our definition to include them or not. Either way there’s no confusion necessary. But if we define “chair” in such a way that everything is potentially included, or so many disparate things that we cannot guess which sort of things will eventually end up in the pot, then that word has become useless.

    I have had theists tell me that sports fans worship their team, and atheists worship themselves, and bankers worship money. They usually stop that nonsense when I point out that they seem to be saying that their religion is no different in kind than sports mania or greed. Whatever the difference is, that is what I don’t accept as an atheist.

    Gretchen@28: There’s a difference between expressing respect for people and their property, and acting as if you share their beliefs when you don’t. Quite a clear difference, I would’ve thought.

    I agree. If, say, I were to accept an invitation to dinner at a friend’s house, and he asked me to say grace, I’d politely decline and remain silent. But if he/she repeated the request more insistently, then it would probably become a serious problem. I’ve actually never been in this precise position – this kind of person tends to make their rudeness known in their everyday behavior. I have run into such requests at military functions, school activities, and the like. If a repeated request is directed at me, a polite “Since I’m not a believer, it’s probably best if you ask someone who is.” while looking as bland as possible usually works.

    (1) And by “exist” I mean of course external to human minds. Of *course they exist on paper, in our imagination, as a cultural meme, etc.

  86. 86
    freehand

    To clarify my response to such beings would NOT be gods, they’d merely seem like gods to us.

    I was pointing out that supernatural can be defined as not subject to natural law without being incoherent. Sure, a Baptist would say that the User isn’t god (if the User’s true nature were made known to her). They say now that Thor, Brahma, Zeus, et al aren’t gods – they’re demons posing as gods,

    Since there is no definition of supernatural universally agreed upon, I can work with nearly anybody’s for the sake of a discussion. But I have heard that any attempt to define it is incoherent, and I reject that particular assertion. Something can, in principle, exist without being from our universe, yet still have effects in our universe. Haven’t seen any evidence for it, though.

  87. 87
    AMM

    Re: an atheist wearing a kippa in a synagogue.

    Why is an atheist wearing a kippa any different from any other goy doing so?

    I don’t know about Orthodox Jews, but when I’ve been in a Reform synagogue, I’ve been asked to wear one as a sign of respect for _them_. They were always quite aware that I was not Jewish. Nobody assumed that I believed what they do, nor did they ask me to pretend that I did. Their “house rule” is that men cover their heads, whether they “believe” or not, just as in some people’s houses, the rule is that you take your shoes off when you walk in the door.

    IMHO, there’s a distinction between respecting people’s beliefs and endorsing them. (And, yes, there are beliefs which should _not_ be respected.)

  88. 88
    Michael Heath

    AMM writes:

    when I’ve been in a Reform synagogue, I’ve been asked to wear one as a sign of respect for _them_. They were always quite aware that I was not Jewish. Nobody assumed that I believed what they do, nor did they ask me to pretend that I did. Their “house rule” is that men cover their heads, whether they “believe” or not, just as in some people’s houses, the rule is that you take your shoes off when you walk in the door.

    IMHO, there’s a distinction between respecting people’s beliefs and endorsing them.
    [Heath bolded]

    There’s an enormous distinction between respect and tolerance; where I observe you defectively conflating the two.

    I would have no problem wearing a kippa in a synagogue. My wearing one wouldn’t be a demonstration of respect for their beliefs and rituals. Of course the strident dumb ones would see it that way, but that’s their issue, not mine. Instead my wearing a kippa would be me merely demonstrating that I’m comfortable tolerating practices I find to be benign while I’m welcomed on their turf.

    Some years ago I was in Malaysia on business. My host was a buddhist where he graciously spent his day off away from his family showing me the sights on Penang (island). We hiked up to a temple where he asked me to light something (I think it might have been incense, I forgot). He knew I wasn’t a Buddhist. From my perspective he was just letting me live the life a little; similar to taking someone to a local food joint with unique customs. I happily accommodated his request, where the ritual obviously meant something profound to him in a manner I’ve also observed by some Catholics waiting, and taking communion.

    If the buddhist would have been trying to convert me or convince me of his beliefs like Christianists so often do to me, I wouldn’t have done lit anything. Proselytization, a demand to conform, and a demand to submit, are three reasons I never bow my head or close my eyes when a Christianist prays. I’m fine accommodating those Christians who are not from evangelical or fundie denominations. The proselytization, conformance, and submission dynamics changes the context from one of toleration to one of being pressured – fuck that, I’m free.

    I’m frequently around both types of Christians quite a bit, in spite of the fact Ed and SLC1 claim Christians who don’t believe in a divine Jesus aren’t actually Christians. You’ll have to ask those two gentlemen what religion those Congregationalists are practicing since they call it Christianity which is obviously true to me as well. I find my Congregationalist associates are far more Christ-like than the Christianists. It’s not even close; except for the desire to torture people for all eternity. The Congregationalists I know don’t demonstrate this Christ-like desire.

  89. 89
    colnago80

    Re Michael Heath @ #88

    I can’t speak for Brayton but I have always made it perfectly clear so that there be no misunderstanding, that I consider individuals who don’t believe in the divinity of Yeshua bin Yusef of Nazareth not to be believing Christians. They may follow the rituals of Christianity and be good people but they aren’t believing Christians. By definition, a believing Christian is one who believes in the divinity of Yeshua. Neither myself or Brayton are Christians believing or otherwise. However, believing Christian David Heddle would agree with us. Heddle has made it perfectly clear that a necessary requirement for being a believing Christian is to believe in the physical resurrection of Yeshua.

  90. 90
    colnago80

    Re dingo the chihuahua @ #78

    Martin Gardner broadened that definition to include belief in ideas without evidence. Thus, he considered Dialectal Materialism to be a form of religion as it is a set of ideas with no evidence.

  91. 91
    lofgren

    There’s an enormous distinction between respect and tolerance; where I observe you defectively conflating the two.

    First let me say that I think you, me, AMM, and scottbelyea are all saying the same thing with slightly different words, but since you’re going to make such a big deal out of the specific terms (even when it seems to me that AMM’s message is pretty clear), I might as well say that I think “respect” is the correct term here.

    To me it seems that:

    Tolerate – I’m not going to wear a kippa, but I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t either.
    Respect – I will wear a kippa because you ask me to.
    Endorse – Everybody should wear a kippa because it is the right thing to do.

    Personally I would wear a kippa because I respect the people in the temple and don’t wish to offend them, not because I respect their beliefs. The distinction is fine and at times meaningless, but when it is meaningful it is very, very important.

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