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9/11, and the Shallow Comfort of Religion

When it happened, I wished that I believed in God.

For about four seconds.

I wasn’t an atheist blogger then. I wasn’t even calling myself an atheist. If I’d had the language, I’d probably have called myself a strong agnostic. Whatever the word, I definitely didn’t believe in God. But I had a moment on that day of wishing that I believed. I had a moment of wishing I believed that the people who had their lives stupidly and brutally cut short on that day would get some sort of life after this one. I had a moment of wishing I believed that the people who had flown the planes into the buildings would get some sort of punishment after their death. I had a moment of wishing I believed that this terrible day was part of some larger, benevolent, super-intelligent plan… a plan that I was too dumb and too freaked-out to see. I had a moment of wishing that I believed, and of envying people who had the comfort of that belief.

For about four seconds.

And then I realized:

If I believed in God, I wouldn’t be comforted.

If I believed in God, I’d be furious. I’d want to find the biggest ladder I could, climb up to Heaven, and punch God right in the face.

That was ten years ago today. I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot more since then. That day is, in fact, part of why I’m an atheist, and why I’m an atheist blogger, and why I think about these questions so much.

And here’s one of the conclusions I’ve come to:

I think the comforts of religion are only comforting when you don’t think about them very carefully.

It’s comforting to think that you and your loved ones will live forever. Until you think carefully about what immortality would mean, and you realize that any sort of immortality would either mean being static and unchanging, or eventually changing so radically you’d no longer be yourself. Both of which would, in essence, constitute death, and would thus be a rather monumental missing of the point.

It’s comforting to think that justice will be done and good people will be ultimately rewarded. Until you think carefully about what Heaven would mean. Until you realize that there’s no way to be in a state of perfect bliss created by someone else without losing your ability to make choices. Until you realize that existing in a state of bliss while others are suffering would mean a fundamental loss of the best part of you. Both of which, again, would be a rather monumental missing of the point.

It’s comforting to think that justice will be done and bad people will be ultimately punished. Until you think carefully about what Hell would mean. Until you think about questions like, “how much worse is the best person in Hell than the worst person in Heaven?” Until you consider the inherent injustice, and indeed the cruelly grotesque disproportionality, of any kind of infinite punishment for finite crimes.

And it’s comforting to think that everything that happens is part of a plan — a plan dreamed up and brought to fruition by someone who’s infinitely smart, infinitely powerful, and infinitely compassionate. Until you start realizing that being a cog in someone else’s machine isn’t the most liberating experience in the world. Until you start realizing that the idea of everything being part of an all-powerful being’s plan is simply not compatible with the idea of any sort of free will… and no amount of saying “Is too! Is too!” will change that. Until you start realizing that any being whose plans include droughts, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, tornadoes, parasites, birth defects, genetic diseases, pediatric cancer, and people flying airplanes into buildings has got to be either pitilessly callous or gleefully sadistic, and if you’re going to call that being “good,” you are re-defining the word “good” to the point where it has no meaning.

Religion is only comforting if you don’t think about it very carefully.

The comfort of religion — the idea that religion is good because it makes people happy, even if it isn’t true — is one of the most common defenses made for it. And if you really don’t care whether your truth claims are, you know, true... then yes, in a superficial way, I suppose religion is comforting. It’s comforting to think that the people you love who have died aren’t really gone forever. It’s comforting to think that when you yourself die, you won’t really be gone forever. It’s comforting to think that the injustices of life will someday be righted. It’s comforting to think that the chaos and suffering of life is all really part of a bigger plan, concocted and carried out by someone who’s really smart and really loving and really has his act together, and that as terrible as it may seem in the moment, there’s a really good reason behind it, and it’ll all somehow turn out right in the end.

But when you press believers about these beliefs, and when you ask hard questions about them, they never have any good answers. They always answer with evasions or dogma, convoluted theology or goalpost- moving, vague deepities or the hostile rejection of the very idea of questioning religion. And ultimately, their answers always, always, always boil down to “mysterious ways” or “I feel it in my heart,” “there’s a bigger picture we can’t see” or “it’s not up to us to question God’s plan,” “you have to have faith” or “there are some things we’re not meant to know.” They always, always, always boil down to non-answers.

Religion is only comforting if you don’t think about it very carefully.

And I am unwilling, and indeed unable, to take comfort in a view of life that’s only comforting if you don’t think about it very carefully.

Especially today.

Comments

  1. Chris says

    September 11th 2001 was the day I drew a line in the sand. While I hadn’t been a believer in at least a few years, I became deeply polarized on that horrible day. As a Canadian, I’ve always wanted Americans to understand that when you were attacked, we truly felt the impact of that day, just as if it had been on our soil. I’m aware that many Americans view Canada as the boring upstairs neighbor, but we view you as family. I watched that morning (as did everyone) as the second plane hit, and thought, ‘we’re at war’, and I wept for the loss of life happening in front of me, in the most emblematic city on earth. I never stopped watching the news from that day forward. The whole of Canada was in a pall during that time. We stood in solidarity with American on 911 then, and we do so now.

    To the victims of 911, and to better days.

  2. blotzphoto says

    If I believed in God, I’d be furious. I’d want to find the biggest ladder I could, climb up to Heaven, and punch God right in the face.

    That would be the lesser known “Mike Tyson’s Ladder” ;)

  3. Elf Eye says

    Great post. The evidence for god(s) is that people want there to be god(s). The evidence for god(s) is that believing in god(s) makes people feel better. The evidence for god(s) is that most people believe in god(s). Why can’t people grasp the fact that their belief in god(s) is not something that is itself evidence for the truth of that belief?

  4. Matt says

    I was a committed Christian at the time, and I can tell you it is amazing the kind of mental gymnastics that went on, searching the Bible for the smallest consolation. I heard sermon after sermon attempting to justify God’s goodness in the face of tragedy, and all of it ultimately unsatisfying.

  5. Benjamin says

    Well said, Greta. I’m glad that you were able to use the day to segue into talking about an important point that is frequently brought up whenever religion is discussed. But it’s so comforting. No, no it’s not. And now I have a quotable source for meeting that point.

    Again, thanks and well done.

  6. opposablethumbs, que le pouce enragé mette les pouces says

    I have never understood how anyone could believe in – and call “good” – an omnipotent being that supposedly created sentient creatures capable of suffering and set them up such that practically all of them inevitably would suffer, most of them horribly (in fact really all of them with the possible exception of psychopaths – everyone suffers loss or suffers vicariously at the very least). “Free will” is not dog’s get-out-of-jail-free card, because the abrahamic dog supposedly made us the way we are in the first place – 100% bound to fuck up according to the arbitrary rules of the dog-botherers. And in any case, why should sentient creature A (e.g. child born with agonising, crippling condition) suffer just because dog mustn’t intervene in order to satisfy the conditions of free will? Or torture victim A suffer because torturer B must have their free will? What kind of shoddy deity is this? Oh yes, a psychopathic one.

  7. BobApril says

    Greta – the part about believers’ answers to hard questions rings SO true. And the worst part is they never seem to understand how frustrating that is for those of us asking.

    Chris – I had never met a Canadian until my assignment to a NATO headquarters. At that point, meeting a few among so many other nationalities, allies, friends all, I discovered that you are, at worst, the boring cousin, someone who’d at least understand all the references from our shared childhood. Many of us don’t think about it, especially those (most) of us who never leave our own borders – but I think you’re family, too.

    Coincidentally, that’s where I was assigned on 9/11, watching the news reports on the TV in the Ops Center and realizing, the instant the second plane hit, that we were going to war. And it was comforting to see and feel the response from ALL our allies – we knew you were with us. Far more of a comfort than some imaginary old man in the sky.

  8. AnneS says

    This is so true.

    The day I found out my dad had prostate cancer has to be one of the worst of my life. He was already battling a variety of health issues, and this is the disease that killed his father. I was immensely glad that I didn’t believe in God that day. If I thought there was a divine being, I’d have had to wonder why he’d inflict a potentially deadly cancer on a good man who was already sick, and who had always worked hard and looked after his family and community. As an atheist, I knew it was just a bad roll of the genetic dice.

    Four years later, dad has been cancer-free since his treatment. He’s not alive because of God, he’s alive because of science – science that invented the PSA test that found the cancer, science that allowed his surgeons to remove it, science that will keep screening him and provide further treatment if it recurs. It’s science that will help my little brother if he turns out to have the same mutant gene as his father and grandfather. God, being fictional, is no help at all.

  9. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    The comfort of religion — the idea that religion is good because it makes people happy, even if it isn’t true — is one of the most common defenses made for it.

    So religion is a drug and many goddists are drug addicts.

    Actually, considering some of the goddists I know, they are addicted to religion. It gives them the comforting feeling that they’re worthwhile and loved by the Creator of the Universe™. No matter how hard life gets, God still loves them. It’ll all be better when they die because they’ll be with the God who’ll “hug them and squeeze them and love them and call them George.”

  10. Hank Fox says

    Wonderful piece, Greta! An out-of-the-park home run.

    As to Canadians, that’s one of the subjects I ALWAYS rise to answer, whenever insults come up in chat rooms or blogs. I always say:

    Canadians are some of the greatest people on the face of the Earth! They share with us the largest undefended border in the world, and the relationship is open, friendly and even fun. What better neighbors could you ask for?

    Also: Canadians kindly lent us John Candy, Fay Wray, Rich Little, Pamela Anderson, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Tommy Chong, Raymond Burr, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hume Cronyn, Glenn Ford, Bryan Adams, Paul Anka, Celine Dion, The Guess Who, k.d. lang, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Rush, Hank Snow, Shania Twain, Neil Young, Michael J. Fox, Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Mary Pickford, Christopher Plummer and Jay Silverheels.

    Not to mention Lily Munster (Yvonne De Carlo), Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Scotty (James Doohan) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner)!

  11. Ian says

    I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened and was one of those kids with subscription to The Nation and was well read on how to get CO-status due to my impeding 18th birthday. I remember having a conversation my junior year with a fellow student who was going to enlist: he was convinced that he wouldn’t go to war anyways. I pointed out we were bombing Iraq that moment to enforce the no-fly zone. (Of course he ended up serving in a war or two.)

    So anyways to me 9/11 “well yea of course” moment, so I’ve always thought it was strange when people think it changed everything. To me that’s just a sign they weren’t paying attention. So it was depressing that our president at the time was #1 in the “This Changes Everything” camp. I did have a few weeks of waking up and thinking “shit, did that just really happen?” But intellectually it made sense.

    …however I’m fully open to the idea that I was just a smug high school student, and would’ve been unsurprised by most anything.

    @Chris: Honestly I thought Canadians were always about establishing their unique Canadian identity, apart from the US. After all, Anglophone Canada is culturally closer to the US then they are to Quebec. The Canadian accent fits right in with the other regional American accents (and is certainly closer to “news announcer standard” then other regional accents). The US and Canadian economies are a case study in how unnecessary the Euro is in establishing close economic ties. So when you travel you have to put a big ole Canadian flag on your backpack. :D

  12. Dhorvath, OM says

    What is murder when people live forever? Immortality as a concept cheapens human life, makes a decision to kill an arbitrary number of people without any warning a decision of narrowed scope and minimizes the checks that humanity relies on. Could the same thing be done by people who didn’t believe in life after death? Probably, but I cannot help thinking the idea made the decision a fair sight easier.

  13. lordshipmayhem says

    For me, the attack on 9/11 was not just an attack on the United States – it was an attack on the world, especially the Western world, and all the freedoms that it stood for – speech, religion, from fear and from want. It was an attack from those who believed fervently that we should all worship their invisible, impotent, non-existent sky fairy or else, and in the way that they decreed. None of the other religions, and certainly no lack of a religion, would be tolerated.

    In other words, for the first time since the Crusades we had a war that was as purely a religious conflict as one could get. And like it or not, I was involved – as were all those silly fools standing on the streets demanding we not go to war. Sorry, kids, there are people at war with you, no matter how much you want peace.

  14. hiro says

    Greta, thank you for a wonderful post. I’m a former evangelical christian and 9/11 was the starting point of the long journey to where I am now. Oh sure I had earlier doubts but I crammed them down until that day. I never thought I’d actually see the horror of misguided religion played out so graphically and brutally on our doorstep. I suppose I was always a bit naive.

    And kindest regards to our Canadian friends.

  15. says

    If there is a god and god is a mystery, the only real mystery is why anyone would worship him:

    “a firefighter, Danny Suhr [...] killed by a falling body before he could even get into the south tower.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/21/books/21book.html

    “The Rev. Mychal F. Judge, a fire chaplain, was fatally struck by falling debris soon after administering last rites to a firefighter at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/nyregion/25judge.html

  16. sogn says

    Thank you, Greta, I appreciate this post, although it might have been better to specify that the God in question is that of traditional theism, but I guess that’s assumed since the vast majority of professing religionists in this country would assent to the theological concepts you criticized.

    I do have a problem with the immortality objection, which I’ve heard many times from skeptics/atheists/agnostics:

    “It’s comforting to think that you and your loved ones will live forever. Until you think carefully about what immortality would mean, and you realize that any sort of immortality would … mean …eventually changing so radically you’d no longer be yourself … which would, in essence, constitute death, and would thus be a rather monumental missing of the point.´´

    This would be like someone having told me when I was four years old that there’s no point in wanting to go on living because in 50 years I’ll be a totally unrecognizable an incomprehensible person. 4-year-old Sogn is indeed dead, but he’s still part of the process that led to me here & now. To me, this unending change is one of the principal appeals of immortality. Static, unchanging existence would of course be utterly undesirable, to put it mildly, as you stated.

    I no longer believe in life after death, but I definitely don’t consider it undesirable – depending, as suggested, on how it’s conceived, of course. I believed in immortality for many years, but emphatically not as conceived by traditional theism. I ditched that in my youth.

  17. says

    I just love this post. Like so many others, I’m consistently blown away by your ability to state your thoughts so concisely, coherently and calmly. 9/11 shattered my belief in safety and ultimately in the people who run this country. I desperately wanted to talk to do something to help and to just find a way to deal with the various emotions it evoked, rage and sorrow being two of them… and I remember talking to a friend whose way of dealing with it was to go to a prayer circle every night because that’s how she felt she could help. And I remember thinking, perhaps not fairly, what a cop-out that was, especially if it helped her deal with it. But I didn’t see how it would help those who died, their family and friends who had to deal with the loss, and the rest of the country. Ugh. It still bothers me, both her coping method and my reaction to it.

  18. Tic says

    Nice to see you thinking these thoughts only on this day not on any other day when thousands of other people died

  19. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    I’ve never grasped the goddist concept of Heaven.

    The Christian Heaven is an eternal glee club where folks pluck harps and sing hymns of praise to a megalomaniac. I’d be bored within the first minute.

    The Islamic Heaven is an eternal orgy. That would have enticed me when I was 16 and overflowing with hormones but now I’d be bored within the first hour.

    The Norse Valhalla is an eternal brawl and steak house. I stopped fighting when I was in 3rd grade and got beaten up by a 2nd grader (she was smaller than me). I prefer seafood and wine to steak and mead.

    None of the other Heavens seem particularly interesting either. Where is the opportunity for intellectual discourse, for scientific research (eternity means one can have some really long term experiments), for satisfying curiosity? Most Heavens seem made up by adolescent dimwits whose idea of a good time is standing around and asking each other: “Whadda you wanna do?” “I dunno, whadda you wanna do?”

    Everyone wants to go to Heaven, nobody’s in a hurry to get there. -Old Irish Saying

  20. Anat says

    ‘Tis, some views of the Jewish afterlife is that it’s a debate club. Unfortunately the only topics seem to be Jewish scripture and Halakha (religious law).

  21. Kagehi says

    The Christian Heaven is an eternal glee club where folks pluck harps and sing hymns of praise to a megalomaniac. I’d be bored within the first minute.

    Yeah, its kind of too bad then that the only bits of the Bible itself that tend to address it where the NT copying of Roman religion, which is the one people usually think is Biblical, or the, “You sort of get saved, like a process dump, on a computer, and don’t get to do, think, learn, discover, anything ever again.”, version from the OT. The first one begs the question, “Why the hell bother with life then, if its just to run people through bullshit, to see which ones get to keep living?”, while the later… is being turned into a book, and put on Gods shelf, in case he wants to wander by and look at all of the books he wrote (he would hardly need to read it again, since he, supposedly, would already know everything in it). If you end up with that sort of, “Save file”, type eternity, I would rather be a frakking cylon. Since at least that will upload into a new body. lol

  22. MisterJohnGalt says

    However irrational you believe the religious answers to be, the non-religious ones aren’t much more coherent.  It’s not the fault of theism or atheism — it the general lack of coherent answers to the big questions.

    For example, you say “there’s no way to be in a state of perfect bliss created by someone else without losing your ability to make choices.” But certainly, whether we have the “ability to make choices” at all hasn’t been resolved by science or religion. Certainly, some religions have extinguished free will by doctrines like predestination or omniscience —  but the very premise of science is a also deterministic one, in which the same causes always give rise to the same results.   The fundamental difference between the two approaches is that the laws dictating what we do are conscious under theism and unconscious under atheism.  You are “a cog in someone ‘s (or something’s) machine” in either case.

    I see little coherence to your argument that bliss is somehow made impossible by the absence of choice.  Most people would be perfectly blissful if their every desire was satisfied by a team of servants,  regardless of whether somebody had earlier scripted out their whole life.  Indeed, many arguments for bliss are premised on the absence of choice.  People are happy to be male, female, gay, straight, black, white, etc. and premise their right to pursue happiness as such because they were “born that way” and “can’t  change.”  Bliss has nothing to do with choice. 

    I think that ultimately your position is that is “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  You prefer atheism’s approach to the unanswerable better than religion’s.  Note, however, that under that theory it is the pigs and fools who achieve bliss.

  23. Mattir says

    September 11 was when I moved from believing in any sort of god except a completely impotent but benign entity who could only act via human beings. (The humans are God’s hands thing…) The Japanese tsunami and Fukushima disasters were when I really grasped the total obscenity of almost all prayers of gratitude or petition concerning specific events.

    I hadn’t believed in the heaven thing for a long time before that – it’s more of a Christian/Muslim thing and not much discussed or believed in Judaism.

    And if I never see another photo or video of the WTC on fire, it’ll be too soon.

  24. Isabelle says

    I’m a Christian and wanted to comment on what you said in your last paragraph:). I hope this doesn’t sound harsh at all either;)…I truly am asking politely, its just hard sometimes when you are “typing” and not actually “talking” to someone;). So, with that being said, most athiest that ask Christians to “prove” God exists are just looking to debate;). At least thats been my experience. Athiest cant understand how Christians cant “prove” God exists, while Christians don’t understand why an athiest would expect to see any proof? When you have hardened your heart toward God, condemn Him, dont believe in the bible, have no belief in Him, make fun of those that do, have taken Him out of your life, live an ungodly life (I’m just generalizing this too, not aimed at you personally;), and then expect to see any “proof” that He exists?! Why do you think you will get any “proof”? Why do you think you ever get any proof, when you don’t believe in the Bible? That’s the foundation of God! If you dont believe in the bible, you will never get any “proof” that He exists!! No Christian can ever give you “proof” He exists because only YOU can find that…and, again, if you don’t believe in His words, you will never find Him.

  25. Isabel says

    Where did the idea come from that God fixes every problem so that no believer ever has to suffer? That prayer means asking God to eliminate all sources of suffering? I’m not particularly religious, but really, people are surprised at suffering? God is not supposed to be some benevolent simpleton, like Santa Claus. I believe many people truly are comforted by thinking that God has a larger plan, though our suffering is inevitable, and that we may be reunited with loved ones someday, and so on.

    My most memorable impression on 9/11, almost immediately upon hearing the news, was happiness/relief that my father, who had died several years before, would never know about the tragedy. I am not sure why that thought popped into my head.

  26. says

    I think most of us who end up as full blown atheists go through and agnostic stage, just like you did. I was sure I didn’t believe in the Bible god, but it took a while to finally conclude that there couldn’t be a creator god of any kind.

    As to the Canadians, I grew up less than two hundred miles from the Canadian border and have met quite a few citizens of Canada. I can’t tell them from other Americans and have always considered them friends. Too bad we can’t feel that way about every other human being, but I’m not dumb enough to think a fanatically devout muslim is my friend. Of course, I don’t consider Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, or their fanatical followers, friends either. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they are not.

  27. says

    “And if I never see another photo or video of the WTC on fire, it’ll be too soon.”

    I get tired of hearing and seeing it all over again as well, but I don’t want us to quit showing it. We tend to have much to short term memories and much too much naivete. We need to keep ourselves and the whole nation and world brutally aware of who our enemies are and what monsters their religion leads them to be.

    Lest we forget. Lest we forget.

  28. DSimon says

    [...][C]hanging so radically you’d no longer be yourself [...] would, in essence, constitute death, and would thus be a rather monumental missing of the point.

    Strongly disagree! Sure, given enough time, we’ll change into people different enough that our former selves wouldn’t understand or even recognize us… but honestly, I see a lot of people doing that over the course of only 30 or 40 years!

    Major change doesn’t mean the same thing as death; continuity of personal identity is a tricky issue, but merely changing (gradually, for coherent reasons) into a different sort of person isn’t dying. Do you consider the many differences between yourself now and yourself as a 10-year-old to mean that your 10-year-old self is dead and you’ve taken her place?

    Change isn’t death, it’s just growing up.

  29. DSimon says

    God is not supposed to be some benevolent simpleton, like Santa Claus.

    Being benevolent, even highly predictably benevolent, doesn’t imply being a simpleton. If a child asks their parent for a hug, they can strongly predict that they’ll get a hug; if a child is about to be hurt and their parent sees this, they can strongly predict that their parent will do everything they can to rush to their protection.

    There’s nothing petty or patronizing about expecting a loved one to help you ease your suffering; that’s a big part of what loved ones do.

  30. DSimon says

    If you dont believe in the bible, you will never get any “proof” that He exists!!

    You are quite literally saying that there is no good reason for any atheist to ever start believing in God! If only people who already believe in God can access the justification for that belief, then why should anyone else ever start?

  31. DSimon says

    [T]he very premise of science is a also deterministic one, in which the same causes always give rise to the same results. [...] You are “a cog in someone ‘s (or something’s) machine” in either case.

    It isn’t like there’s a you one place and there’s also physics somewhere else and you both want control of your body but physics is winning. You are implemented within physics, including your various mental facilities for making choices.

    Determinism means that if someone knew absolutely everything about you, they could predict what decisions you would make. You’re still the one doing the decision making.

  32. jack says

    Isabel,

    Where did the idea come from that God fixes every problem so that no believer ever has to suffer?

    It comes from the vast majority of Christians, and theists of many other religions, who conceive of god as being simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly loving.

    Why do you think you ever get any proof, when you don’t believe in the Bible? That’s the foundation of God! If you dont believe in the bible, you will never get any “proof” that He exists!!

    I can’t help but think that you have never sat down and read the bible cover-to-cover. Most Christians have not, and so have no clue as to what is really in that book. I, like many other atheists, have read it, in it’s entirety, cover-to-cover — the way a person would read any long novel. It helps to read a solid modern English translation, like the New Jerusalem Bible, although any but the most sanitized ones will do.

    I urge you to do it. In it you will find a petty, vindictive, cruel, narrow-minded and psychopathic god. A god who botches his creation and in an impulsive temper tantrum drowns every man, woman, child and unborn fetus on the planet, save for one small family and a floating zoo.

    You will find page after mind-numbing page of excruciatingly detailed instructions on how you are to kill numerous animals to appease this god, how the organs are to be arranged on the altar, how the blood is to be sprinkled, how the smell of burning flesh is pleasing to the Lord Yaweh.

    You will find god’s chosen people obeying this god and thereby gaining his support as they slaughter innocent men, women and children to steal their real estate. Then they have a slight memory lapse and start worshiping Baal or a golden calf, and god punishes them with defeat and enslavement by foreign invaders. These cycles of obedience and rebellion are repeated AGAIN and AGAIN, page after page, book after book, century after century of supposed Jewish biblical history. You have to wonder, how could this all-wise, all-knowing perfect god have done such a lousy job of picking his chosen people?

    I could go on and on, but you get the point — or will, if you read your bible as I have suggested, cover-to-cover, with an open mind, and always with this question in that open mind: Is this the product of the mind of the infinitely wise creator of hundreds of billions of galaxies, or is it a collection of the provincial obsessions and self-aggrandizing mythical history of a tiny bronze-age culture?

    Reading the bible is what has brought many former Christians to atheism.

    My most memorable impression on 9/11, almost immediately upon hearing the news, was happiness/relief that my father, who had died several years before, would never know about the tragedy. I am not sure why that thought popped into my head.

    And yet, when something wonderful happens in your life, some joyous event like a child’s birth, don’t you also imagine your father looking down on it from heaven and being pleased?

    Please don’t misunderstand my meaning in this lengthy reply to your comment. You suggested that atheists have hardened our hearts against god, and that that is why we can’t see the proof of his existence. Not so. Most of us were religious in our past. We abandoned that way of thinking because it did not pass the most basic tests of logic, because it makes specific claims about the way the world works that are not borne out by reality, and, for some of us, because we have read the bible honestly and found it repugnant, anachronistic, self-contradictory and full of error.

  33. azkyroth says

    I’m a Christian and wanted to comment on what you said in your last paragraph:).

    So far so good…

    I hope this doesn’t sound harsh at all either;)…I truly am asking politely, its just hard sometimes when you are “typing” and not actually “talking” to someone;).

    Uh oh…

    So, with that being said, most athiest that ask Christians to “prove” God exists are just looking to debate;).

    1) I suppose this could be construed as a nitpick but the term is “Atheist.”
    2) As opposed to what exactly?

    At least thats been my experience. Athiest cant understand how Christians cant “prove” God exists,

    Actually, we understand exactly why this is.

    while Christians don’t understand why an athiest would expect to see any proof?

    The same reason a jury demands to see proof.

    When you have hardened your heart toward God, condemn Him, dont believe in the bible, have no belief in Him, make fun of those that do, have taken Him out of your life, live an ungodly life (I’m just generalizing this too, not aimed at you personally;), and then expect to see any “proof” that He exists?!

    Please try to imagine, if you can, what happens to the internal…um, fine, “logic”…of that statement if one does not begin with the assumption that the specific god you happen to believe in exists.

    Why do you think you will get any “proof”? Why do you think you ever get any proof, when you don’t believe in the Bible? That’s the foundation of God! If you dont believe in the bible, you will never get any “proof” that He exists!! No Christian can ever give you “proof” He exists because only YOU can find that…and, again, if you don’t believe in His words, you will never find Him.

    This is not even an argument.

  34. Chris says

    Dear Isabelle,

    Why do atheists insist on Inline spell-check proof when they know we haven’t any to give?

    Well, I suppose it’s because Christians keep claiming to have the keys to eternity, and the ear of the creator of the universe. Many Christians demand special privileges not granted to Non-Christians, and they use language like ‘the damned’, ‘the hell bound’, ‘the blasphemers’, ‘the sinners’, and so on and on and on, to describe those who don’t believe as they do. They have the nerve to refer to people who have lead kind and moral lives as ungodly. You might think that wouldn’t bother a person who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but you’d be wrong. Un-god-ly – 1. Irreligious or immoral: “ungodly lives of self-obsession, lust, and pleasure”. Many Christians claim moral superiority over every other denomination, faith, creed, and above all, the unbeliever. Christians have subverted science for hundreds of years, suppressed knowledge, persecuted anyone and anything outside of doctrine, and then claimed themselves to be the ones persecuted(and simultaneously the only ones electable). Do you not think the sheer audacity of Christian claims, and the temporal power they demand, should require proof, if not accounting for? Its not merely a simple academic debate for us. The truth has real, tangible consequences. We ask you in order to show you the inherent weakness of your arguments, and by contrast, the unacknowledged privilege you demand from everyone who does not believe as you do.

  35. Chris says

    Dear Isabelle,


    You have hardened your heart to God….. how can you expect to believe?

    Most of us started off as Christians, many of us devout. My downfall started with reading the Holy Bible. I was 13. The next step involved finding out that other religions existed….. concurrently. It was ultimately my love of humankind, and my annoying fixation with insisting that ‘things be true before I believe in them’, that shattered my faith (along with a healthy does of science education).(FYI – please don’t suggest I wasn’t a real Christian, you’ll have to take that on faith) This nonsense that you have to be Super-Open-To-Jesus in order to see things the way they really are; many of us have traveled that road, and it lead to cognitive dissonance. We did not want to give up eternity, or perfect justice, or ultimate meaning, or being loved by someone, even when no one else on earth seemed to. Those concepts, one by one, floated away on their own accord over time. Some of us even mourned the loss of our belief. You try believing in Santa again, and you’ll have some fractional idea of what it would be like to try to reclaim belief in a God for which there is no proof.

  36. Dhorvath, OM says

    It’s not the change of identity that scares me about eternity, I am most certainly not the person I was even a year or two ago. It’s the data storage that seems most frightening. What point eternity if you can’t remember it?

  37. MisterJohnGalt says

    Dear Isabelle,

    I used to be a militant atheist until I let Christ into my heart and into my life. I was hardened to good people like you, and very insulting to them, but eventually was won over to our Lord and Savior.

    Your gentle example will not win over every atheist. But even if you convert just one soul, it will be worth the effort. Eventually someone will see that it is goodness, not arguments, that win the day.

    God bless you.

  38. Greta Christina says

    Do you consider the many differences between yourself now and yourself as a 10-year-old to mean that your 10-year-old self is dead and you’ve taken her place?

    I see your point, DSimon. But when I think about the changes that happened in me over the last 40 years… and when I imagine multiplying those changes by a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, as eternity marches on… it’s impossible to imagine that anything of my old self would be left. Or at least, enough of my old self to think of it as being the same person.

    It’s like evolution. In a few generation, you still easily have enough similarities to think of it as the same species. But over a hundred million years and more, the changes are drastic and the life forms have become radically different.

  39. Isabel says

    “Isabel,

    Where did the idea come from that God fixes every problem so that no believer ever has to suffer?

    It comes from the vast majority of Christians, and theists of many other religions, who conceive of god as being simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly loving.”

    Just to be clear, I think the rest of your comment should be addressed to Isabelle, not me!!

    Still, I grew up in a religious home (Catholic) but never got the message that because God loves me he will step in and protect me from all harm. I did get the message that the Lord works in mysterious ways, that he might have a plan I do not understand from my puny perch. This makes more sense – obviously people have to die to make room for more people on earth.

    Maybe some believers think this way, but do theologians? Is the fact that the world is not perfect, that suffering exists, really evidence against God?

    “There’s nothing petty or patronizing about expecting a loved one to help you ease your suffering; that’s a big part of what loved ones do.”

    DSimon, I guess that is what I was trying to say, that God is not supposed to ONLY be like a loving parent, that that seems a simple interpretation of God (making God a lot easier to dismiss). “benevolent” and “simpleton” were both intended here, I wasn’t saying that all benevolent people are simpletons. And even a benevolent parent cannot ease all suffering.

  40. jack says

    Just to be clear, I think the rest of your comment should be addressed to Isabelle, not me!!

    My apologies. It was late at night, and I didn’t notice that those two consecutive comments came from two different Isabel[le]s.

    Still, I grew up in a religious home (Catholic) but never got the message that because God loves me he will step in and protect me from all harm.

    Did you get the message that god is omnipotent and omniscient? More to the point, do you believe now that god is omnipotent and omniscient?

    I did get the message that the Lord works in mysterious ways, that he might have a plan I do not understand from my puny perch.

    If you cannot understand why god does something, or fails to do something, then you are admitting that we have no way of knowing god’s motives. That means we have no way of knowing whether god is loving, hateful, good, evil or indifferent.

    This makes more sense – obviously people have to die to make room for more people on earth.

    This is not at all obvious if you take religious doctrine at face value. Jesus supposedly rose from the dead, ascended bodily into heaven, is still alive now and will live forever. Adam and Eve would still be alive now had they remained obedient to god and not eaten of the tree he put into the garden, knowing in advance that they would eat from it, because he is omniscient.

    That all people die is obvious, however, if you accept the empirical evidence of biology.

    Maybe some believers think this way, but do theologians? Is the fact that the world is not perfect, that suffering exists, really evidence against God?

    It is evidence against a god who is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly loving.

  41. Isabel says

    “Did you get the message that god is omnipotent and omniscient?”

    Yes.

    “More to the point, do you believe now that god is omnipotent and omniscient? ”

    Why is that more to the point? I am challenging the idea that God supposedly protects all beings from all harm and all suffering.

    “If you cannot understand why god does something, or fails to do something, then you are admitting that we have no way of knowing god’s motives. That means we have no way of knowing whether god is loving, hateful, good, evil or indifferent.”

    Hmm, I guess that is true. But I am not sure if it really addresses the point I made. And it still seems to imply, as your next point does also, that love means protect from all suffering. Even in cases where a parent does have the power to step in and help a child avoid suffering, it may not always be the most “loving ” choice, right?

  42. Kagehi says

    I used to be a militant atheist until I let Christ into my heart and into my life. I was hardened to good people like you, and very insulting to them, but eventually was won over to our Lord and Savior.

    In my experience, and likely many others, this is in fact the *typical*, “angry at god”, style atheists that theists accuse us of being. They didn’t get their via logic, they got there by being seriously damned angry at what they saw as things being done by some inhuman monster. They never rejected religion, per-say, save as an extension of it describing what they did reject, and then someone roped them back in, with all the lovey dovey stuff, and “bam”, suddenly they are not atheists any more.

    Most atheists approach this the opposite way. They examine the religion itself, and conclude that *that* is absurd, while still thinking some sort of super being, with great powers and love exists, then, eventually, realize that without all the religion stuff, there isn’t a single damn reason to assume the later either, and that a lot of the stuff going on in the world contradict it.

    The majority of atheists would call the former, “never atheists”, since the point of atheism is to reject the idea of gods, and you can’t be angry at something that doesn’t exist. You can be angry at something you think does, or might, exist, and from there, its not that hard to absolve this phantom of all the horrors of the world, fall head first into the theological nonsense (especially if its been carefully edited to ignore/explain away all the nasty bits), and thus start believing that it does care about you.

    In any case, this sort of “atheism” is like someone proclaiming, “I have no father”, because they hate their father, not because they really believe they where grown in a test tube, or something. Its denial of a god, not disbelief in one. There is a difference, and its hinges on choosing due to emotion, not logic and knowledge.

  43. A Fairly Friendly Observer says

    do you have any thoughts on the majority of world religions that do not have these beliefs about the afterlife, justice and a plan? there are only three biblical religions and even they do not all believe in these things (e.g., many christianities believe in universal salvation = no justice, many christianities and islam do not believe that you know the spiritual part of you that will live forever, etc.). but in addition to this, there are a wide variety of hinduisms, taoisms, buddhisms, sikhism, indigenous religions, etc.

    lastly, a word of advice: having nothing to do with the thoughts or feelings of religious people, never try to read scripture like a novel. it never is. it will be easier to understand (even if you think it’s nonsense) if you think of it as a newspaper. it often includes (as the bible does), mythology, poetry, wisdom literature, liturgical documents, genuine histories, laws, proverbs, folklore, ethnographies, etc. if you read scripture as though it were a story, you are bound to misunderstand it and its devotees, as much as that handful of its devotees who do the same… and it appears that you know who i’m talking about.

    secular scholars of religion (mostly atheists) take a historical critical or post-morn approaches; the majority of religions, including the majority of christians (catholic, orthodox, lutheran, anglican/episcopal, etc.) take an exegetical view of their scripture, loosely meaning that all of it is “true” and some it even happened. in short. if you read scripture like the fringe do, you’re just going to see it as the fringe see it.

    in other news, i’m fond of your writing on sex work, etc.

    ciao, ciao.

  44. MisterJohnGalt says

    Kahehi,

    My atheism was of the thoroughly philosophical and intellectual variety. It started with my reading of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and I approached a state of godless certainty after virtually memorizing George Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God. (and some parts of Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. ). My focus was primarily on the contradictions between the various attributes and definitions of “God,” and the incoherencies and paradoxes which arise when you try to construct a workable supreme being.

    Gradually I saw the arguments as empty exercises and was not satisfied that they adequately explained much about existence. Reading Harris’s, Dawkins’ and Hitchen’s later efforts in the New Atheist era, I was even less convinced, as their arguments are much less rigorous (to the extent they employphilosophy or theology at all). However, my atheism was never of the “angry at God” species, which, as you note, is not truly atheism at all.

  45. DSimon says

    Even in cases where a parent does have the power to step in and help a child avoid suffering, it may not always be the most “loving ” choice, right?

    Only if you assume a naive definition of “suffering”, i.e. “any kind of pain or hardship”. I agree, for example, that a parent who never lets their child encounter any kind of challenge or difficulty will not be helping them, since such a child would never have much opportunity to develop power on their own.

    However, if by “suffering” we mean something useful like (as a first approximation) “pain or hardship that is extreme enough to significantly outweigh any possible benefit”, then yeah: any loving, competent parent would do whatever they could to protect their child from that.

    The world has far too much of that latter sort of suffering. To pick a few examples: genetic diseases which lead to severe lifelong mental retardation, natural disasters that kill thousands of people randomly and unpredictably, Alzheimer’s disease which literally robs a person of their own identity and relationships. If you claim that these have major benefits that outweigh their very high costs, then be specific about what those benefits supposedly are.

  46. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    @MisterJohnGalt

    I used to be a militant atheist until I let Christ into my heart and into my life.

    While there have been a few atheists who came to Jebus, the vast majority of Jebusites who claim to have been atheists were no such thing. Now I’m not accusing MisterJohnGalt of being a liar, but the chances of him having been an atheist, particularly a “militant” one, are low.

    Whenever I see someone mention that they used to be an atheist, I like to know (1) what made them think they were atheist and (2) what changed their mind.

    A large number of people confuse apatheism with atheism. And a disturbing number think atheism is that time when they attended another, usually mainstream, church, working on the idea if you’re not a True Christian™ you’re an atheist. A large number of “used to be an atheist” stopped going to church for a while. They sort of let their religion lapse, but never actually stopped believing. There is a difference between religion and faith and not belonging to a particular cult while still believing in Jebus is not atheism.

    As for why they “found Jebus”, sadly, it’s always something really lame like Pascal’s Wager or a First Cause or God of the Gaps. At that point, I figure they may or may not have been atheist, but if they were, they were pretty stupid atheists. As such, I don’t see their conversion as much of a selling point (Jebus is so persuasive, he can convert stupid people!).

    But MisterJohnGalt may have been a genuine, fire and brimstone, fundamentalist atheist of the most bigoted and persecuting type.* The probability is low but not zero.

    *5 points for anyone who can name the source of this phrase.

  47. Chris says

    @MisterJohnGalt

    Bertrand Russell – Why I am not a Christian.

    Awesome reading material. I’m glad you brought it up. :)

  48. DSimon says

    It’s not the change of identity that scares me about eternity, I am most certainly not the person I was even a year or two ago. It’s the data storage that seems most frightening. What point eternity if you can’t remember it?

    Heck, even today storage space is incredibly cheap, and we already know enough right now about indexing and compression to basically make this the easiest part to do. We’d have to be pretty damn silly to figure out how to achieve immortality but screw up the straightforward task of an automatic archive with fast remote access.

    But when I think about the changes that happened in me over the last 40 years… and when I imagine multiplying those changes by a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, as eternity marches on… it’s impossible to imagine that anything of my old self would be left. Or at least, enough of my old self to think of it as being the same person.

    I don’t think point-A vs. point-B mental similarity is a useful way of determining personal identity.

    To go back farther than my earlier example, consider the incredibly high ratio of mental difference between you at one year old and you now; it’s probably similar to the ratio between current you and 10,00-year-old you, or even farther! Lots of changes happen to our minds early in life, even after the point when we’re old enough to have a name and a sense of identity. Yet, it would be silly to mourn the loss of that 1-year-old now, even though in a straight-up information theory sense she no longer exists.

    Finally: even if 1-million-year-old you would be a very very very different person from current you, it would still be obviously wrong to pick a point in the future where you’re sufficiently a different person from your current self and just end that future person’s life right then. Even if you-qua-you are no longer around in any sense at all (i.e. future-you has none of your memories or concepts or goals whatsoever), that future person is still a person, and has their own rights and their own life.

  49. MisterJohnGalt says

    For 5 points:  Gilbert and Sullivan, The Gondoliers, although they may have derived the phrase, in part, from a passage in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Disowned.

    Bulwer-Lytton is sometimes also credited with the phrase “The Great Unwashed” (Katie Couric’s opinion of middle America) but this is less than certain.

  50. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    I used to be an atheist.

    It was boring. Go to work, go home, watch TV, take the dog for a walk. You wouldn’t think economics would be boring, analyzing the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services for 6.7 billion people.

    Then I found Jesus and became a Christian. It was so much more exciting. I went around stoning to death disobedient children, shrimp eaters, people working on the Sabbath, farmers sowing fields with two types of crops, anyone who looked atheist, and so on. After dynamiting a Red Lobster restaurant, the evil secular authorities kidnapped me.

    I’m now locked up in a mental hospital and am writing for your help. This is clearly religious discrimination by the atheistic government/police forces. First they came for Kent Hovind and now me. Donate to the ‘Tis Himself Legal Fund®. We need all charges dropped. Also go and stone someone wearing a cotton-polyester blend shirt in Jesus’s name.

  51. MisterJohnGalt says

    It looks like my contractual entitlement to those five points may be defeated by the defense of mental incapacity. Alas.

  52. Dhorvath, OM says

    DSimon,
    I am not particularly averse to augmenting my current capacity through technology, but data costs space to store, even with today’s best options and time to access. Sooner or later I would either collapse into a black hole or the lag between accessing a memory and my present experience would be so long as to be farcical. This is not a simple thing to fix.

  53. says

    As I understand it, the point about (non-static) immortality leading to so much change that the person is unrecognizable is that it destroys the idea of “meeting your relatives” after you die. By the time that you die, your parents (or grand-parents) will have existed for many years without being able to communicate with you, in a very different situation (at a minimum) — they won’t be the same people you knew, or even very similar. It is not so comforting to imagine that, when you die, you will have to meet and live with people who claim to be your great-grandparents but who will have lived many decades without you (or anyone you knew) and so will be close to unrecognizable. This is a recipe for horror, not comfort.

  54. MisterJohnGalt says

    I’ve had to settle for the the Bulwer-Lytton contest ever since they discontinued The Bad Writing Contest in 1998. The final winner was this passage from Judith Butler:

    The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

    I’m not sure if the reason for the cancellation was the inability to top it, or Ms. Butler’s response to the award in the New York Times. Sadly, the contest’s founder died last December, so only us believing Christians will ever be able to ask him.

    Now, Ms. Butler is an atheist. Believers are often accused of basing their faith on incomprehensible and incoherent God-talk — but what, exactly did Ms. Butler believe when she wrapped her mind around that passage?

  55. says

    Thanks for this post, Greta, it was superb. I was going to write something for the 10th anniversary yesterday, but then I realized I didn’t actually have anything to say that someone else hadn’t already said better, so I forbore. But this is really excellent, and I’m glad you were more inspired than I was!

    I was once discussing this with a friend of mine, and she said that the reason some people died on 9/11 and some survived was because God’s plan for the survivors wasn’t finished yet. I said, “So what does that mean for the people who didn’t survive? God’s plan for them was over? Even if they were parents of young children, even if they were newlyweds, even if they had their own plans and dreams for their lives they still wanted to achieve? God decided there was nothing else good or useful they could do with their lives, so he let them die? Isn’t that kind of insulting to those people’s friends and families?”

    She was taken a little aback, and all she said was, “It was just God’s plan.”

    As you said, religion is only comforting when you don’t think about it too hard.

  56. Isabel says

    “then yeah: any loving, competent parent would do whatever they could to protect their child from that.”

    But that might not be best for everyone (which is God’s business) – most parents are fairly “selfish” in wanting the best for *their* children.

    Anyway, I am not really religious or anything, but I don’t really understand the idea of doubting God because it’s an unfair world. That seems to be what you are saying. Whether it’s because of an untimely death, or because of cruelty in nature (the existence of parasites eating a caterpillar alive, as made Darwin question God) or whatever.

    Oh well. I guess I will bow out. I always feel like I am on the witness stand when discussing religion with atheists. Not a fun way to argue.

  57. DSimon says

    I am not particularly averse to augmenting my current capacity through technology, but data costs space to store, even with today’s best options and time to access. Sooner or later I would either collapse into a black hole or the lag between accessing a memory and my present experience would be so long as to be farcical. This is not a simple thing to fix.

    Actually it’s already a familiar problem, similar to a lot of issues we deal with today on things as uninspiring as large-scale financial databases.

    As a first step, you can stave off scaling problems in a database for quite a long time with clever compression and indexing schemes, and the judicious use of result caching. Memories are no exception to this rule: they’ll often involve similar repeated entities (i.e. people, places, times and dates, phrases) with lots of nice distinctive identifiers, so they’ll be amenable to these strategies.

    That only gets us so far, however (although you might be surprised how far it could go, if you’re considering as a baseline the sort of high-tech storage where storage density is limited primarily by black hole collapse!) What really will do the most work in the long term is time series consolidation. Consider: how many important events occur in an average day, that you’re likely to want to specifically recall quickly several years later? One, maybe two? It’s mostly only in the near past that you care more about fine details: You only particularly need quick access on the minute scale for the past few hours, and on the hour scale for the past week or so, and so on.

    If lifespans get longer but (for some absurd reason) we don’t manage to do any better in memory density than the current brain design, we can still just expect that scale to continue going up in steps: quick access for the most important event each month for the past century, the most important event each year for the past millennium, and so on.

    And keep in mind that the less important events are still stored and available, they just take longer to access.

  58. DSimon says

    But that might not be best for everyone (which is God’s business) – most parents are fairly “selfish” in wanting the best for *their* children.

    The point of that metaphor is that if God exists and cares about us the way that parents care about their children, then it’s weird that so many pointlessly terrible things happen to humans that could easily be prevented with even partial omnipotence.

    Anyway, I am not really religious or anything, but I don’t really understand the idea of doubting God because it’s an unfair world.

    Well, it’s a good reason to doubt in the existence of a fair god. An unfair god wouldn’t have any duty to create a fair universe, but that’s not usually the sort of god modern-day monotheists believe in.

    Oh well. I guess I will bow out. I always feel like I am on the witness stand when discussing religion with atheists. Not a fun way to argue.

    Ah, I’m sorry about that. Speaking for myself, at least, I’ve got no desire to make anybody feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. Internet arguments can sometimes seem more heated than either side intends!

  59. Ariel says

    “I think the comforts of religion are only comforting when you don’t think about them very carefully”

    I can only agree. But in opposition to militant atheists, I don’t see any point in forcing the people to think very carefully about their comforts. Or at least: quite often I don’t see any point. Indeed, I would feel bad if my enlightened, atheist campaign deprived the bereaved, the poor, the terminally ill of the comforts they get – however unreasonable these comforts may be. And if someone says ‘Oh, in the process of building our atheist paradise some casualties are necessary – these people just pay the necessary price for building our splendid future’, then in my eyes he is no better than that monstrous god of Old Testament. That’s the point where I part company with many of you … I guess.

  60. fester60613 says

    Although I no longer believed in god on 9/11/01, I had not yet come to identify as an atheist.
    The discussions at that time about those who flung themselves out of the building had a huge effect on me.
    I heard that these individuals who jumped – rather than burn alive – were going to hell because they committed suicide.
    And I heard also – with shock and incredulity – that these people should have >>>stayed and burned<<< rather than jumping because burning would have been a death more honorable to god. W.T.F. I mean really – W.T.F.
    These purportedly "righteous" judgments on these people who chose to jump rather than burn still turn my stomach… as does the thought of a god who's adherents are able to come up with such shameful and cold-hearted bullshit.

  61. Dhorvath, OM says

    DSimon,
    Well, I do have some idea of the amount of data I am referencing with a black hole of human radius. Something like 1.6 times ten to the seventieth power bits in a one metre radius sphere. Of course, QM comes along and says that I can’t store something that small for any substantial length of time, so the practicality of such data density is of course basically limited to zero.
    I do get that between that practical limit and our current brain there is a lot of ground and also that data management can go a long way towards mitigating these effects. Our brain does that now and it is at least part of why I feel so little identification with who I was ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. However, there is still a limit which will require something like what you mention where there is a now me and records that I can access for information about the before me. I don’t see how that would differ significantly from how our current society works with parents and more remote ancestors, perhaps better detail, but still basically : That person is dead, here is what they did while they were alive.
    I am not saying I would turn it down, but it does scare me about the thought of eternity. I would far prefer an eternal life span to be a cumulative experience over a serial experience, but can’t see that as an option.

  62. jack says

    Ariel,

    I can only agree. But in opposition to militant atheists, I don’t see any point in forcing the people to think very carefully about their comforts. Or at least: quite often I don’t see any point.

    I don’t know of any atheist — blogger, author, scientist, whatever — who is forcing religious people to think or to believe or to do anything. A few of us entreat our government to enforce the first amendment, to keep the religious majority from forcing their views on the rest of us. I suppose you could argue that Stalin and his ilk have tried to force atheism on their subjects, and there is some truth in that, but Stalin didn’t really care about religion or atheism. He cared about setting himself up as God, one very like the God of the OT. In any case, I’m pretty sure Greta Christina and like-minded atheists revile Stalin and all he stood for, and I doubt she wants to force anything on anyone. I certainly do not.

    I would also like to hear your definition of a “militant atheist”, or your best example of an atheist who deserves that label. I know of no atheists who carry AK47s, shoot innocent people, bomb clinics or places of worship, plant IEDs, detonate suicide vests or fly 737s into skyscrapers to kill as many as possible for the cause of atheism. I know of many religious folks who do those things for religious causes, and we rightly call them militant.

    Indeed, I would feel bad if my enlightened, atheist campaign deprived the bereaved, the poor, the terminally ill of the comforts they get – however unreasonable these comforts may be.

    I agree, but no one is forcing these people to listen to atheists or to read their blogs and books. Most of them put great effort into avoiding any thought or idea that challenges their religious beliefs.

    I agree, as Greta Christina evidently does, that people get comfort from religious beliefs. Her point is that these comforts are shallow — to which I would add the adjective fragile. There is a danger to these supposedly comforting belief systems. When something terrible happens, like 9/11, or even a much smaller but equally devastating personal tragedy, these beliefs can backfire. The mental gymnastics that protect these egg-shell beliefs from the crushing forces of reality — that God has a plan and works in mysterious ways, etc — can fail for some people in these circumstances. Suddenly that all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God is seen to be asleep at the switch, incompetent, or worse: indifferent or even cruel. At that point, the believer has not only the pain of the immediate tragedy to suffer, but also the agony of abandonment by God and their hatred of him. For such a person, atheism brings peace and acceptance, if not comfort.

  63. Stonyground says

    At the time, in 2001, I naively thought that this incident would turn thousands of people off religion. Religious people are vaguely aware that all religions have caused numerous atrocities in the past but are happy in the knowledge that these things were in the past. A handfull of religious believers committing mass murder in the present would surely convince them that religion is still a bad idea. Of course most Americans are Christians and the Muslims have the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy to fall back on, so religion goes on its merry way, ignoring my pathetic optimism.

  64. Greta Christina says

    At the time, in 2001, I naively thought that this incident would turn thousands of people off religion.

    Actually, Stonyground… I think it’s done exactly that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the post-9/11 decade is the decade when the atheist movement in the United States took a dramatic upswing in both numbers and visibility. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last ten years were when “The End of Faith,” “The God Delusion,” “God is Not Great,” etc., all made it to the bestseller lists. The atheist/ secularist movement in this country has moved into overdrive in the last few years — and I think a huge part of that is in response to 9/11.

  65. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I would also like to hear your definition of a “militant atheist”

    militant atheist, n. 1. A person who disbelieves in god(s) and admits this disbelief in public.
    2. A person who questions why people believe in god(s), thereby making theists uncomfortable.

    In other words, a “militant atheist” is one who’s out of the closet.

  66. Kagehi says

    Gradually I saw the arguments as empty exercises and was not satisfied that they adequately explained much about existence.

    So, what you are saying is you abandoned, “I don’t know, and may never know.”, in favor of complete bullshit, that provides no explanation for anything at all, merely an anthropomorphic, emotional, assertion about there “needing” to be something, to make you feel better about knowing something? Tell me, what exactly does “god” explain, ***at all***, especially which makes any more sense than the thousands of other explanations, of the same sort, that have been invented, and rejected? And which one? Which version? Why is, “Someone, in some completely undefined way, poofed it all into existence, and then set up a lot of absurd rules”, any better than, “Some god masturbated and his seed formed the world, in which everyone is doomed to follow a preordained karmic order.”, or literally any of the others?

    The problem isn’t what is lacking in the arguments of the people you reference, its the vastly worst content of any argument “for” any specific god, never mind the most recent tyrant humanity has invested itself in.

  67. Kagehi says

    Or at least: quite often I don’t see any point. Indeed, I would feel bad if my enlightened, atheist campaign deprived the bereaved, the poor, the terminally ill of the comforts they get

    Wait, what? You would feel bad if they replaced false comfort with real ones, or even just peace of mind? Seriously, how many of those people are anything **but** comforted by things, because they have been convinced by themselves, and religion, that they deserve what they are getting, somehow, for “sinning”, 10%, 20%, 50%? I would say, “likely more than enough that “depriving” them of nonsense would be a net gain. That said, the whole idea that one is on a campaign to actively deprive anyone of something makes about as much sense as suggesting that selling denim jeans deprived people of disco era polyester suits. Though, it might have made them less flammable. lol

  68. steve_t says

    Religious people are vaguely aware that all religions have caused numerous atrocities in the past but are happy in the knowledge that these things were in the past.

    I always find it funny that atheists find it convenient to forget that genocide has been committed in the name of Atheism! Ever heard of Pol Pot or Stalin?

    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely – John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton.

  69. jack says

    steve_t,

    I always find it funny that atheists find it convenient to forget that genocide has been committed in the name of Atheism! Ever heard of Pol Pot or Stalin?

    I think I speak for most atheists when I say that what we are advocating is not merely atheism, but an empirical, scientific and naturalistic worldview based on reason and evidence. Atheism is just one consequence of that worldview. The atrocities of Stalin, Pol Pot and the like make a strong case for our position, not against it.

    You might want to take quick look at comment 69, above, but for an in-depth treatment, I recommend this.

  70. seve_t says

    Jack

    I know of no atheists who carry AK47s, shoot innocent people, bomb clinics or places of worship, plant IEDs, detonate suicide vests or fly 737s into skyscrapers to kill as many as possible for the cause of atheism.

    I just gave you and example of atheists who commit genocide for the cause of atheism. Sure most atheists are normal people who are not criminals, just like most theists. Some theists commit atrocities and so do some atheists! Ignoring the truth is not going to make it go away.

  71. Ariel says

    About “militant atheism”, as I use the term. I start with an explanation from Wikipedia:

    Militant atheism is a term applied to atheism which is hostile towards religion. Militant atheism regards itself as a doctrine to be propagated, and differs from moderate atheism because it holds religion to be harmful.

    Let me stress that I’m not particularly happy with that explanation; I would prefer to use the term in a narrower sense. So apart from the conditions given here, I would list additional ones, like:
    - The militant atheist considers it advisable to use aggressive and derogatory language in his campaign against religion
    - The militant atheist thinks that convincing people of the falsity of religion is one of the most important tasks in our society
    - The militant atheist has a tendency to blame religion for major mishaps of mankind
    - The militant atheist has a tendency to consider religious people as stupid. Even in the case of an obviously brilliant person, he would be inclined to say “well, evidently the parts of his brain responsible for religious beliefs are not so developed as mine”.
    - The militant atheist is an excellent psychologist – he knows better what religious people think and feel than the religious people themselves. Even if they consider themselves quite happy with their religion, the militant atheist remains unimpressed: he knows better what True Happiness consists in.

    Ok, I don’t want to make it too long – I hope you get the general direction.

    Jack,

    I don’t know of any atheist — blogger, author, scientist, whatever — who is forcing religious people to think or to believe or to do anything.

    Yes, it’s probably my fault, I used too strong a word. I didn’t mean the people running around with AK47s :-) See the above explanation, see also below.

    I agree, but no one is forcing these people to listen to atheists or to read their blogs and books.

    When you are engaged in an ambitious campaign of the sort described above, you should take into consideration that your campaign will be successful, right? And if it will, the people would really have no choice than to listen to atheists. Then you could just as well say “no one is forcing these people to watch commercials”. Oh, really?

    Her point is that these comforts are shallow — to which I would add the adjective fragile […] When something terrible happens, like 9/11, or even a much smaller but equally devastating personal tragedy, these beliefs can backfire.

    I agree with the “shallow” part, as Christina defined it. As to “fragile” part, I’m not so sure. When something terrible happens, all beliefs can backfire. That’s a trivial observation and it gives us nothing. You would need a good deal of empirical data to prove your point – to show that atheists cope better with tragedies than religious people. If there are such data, cite them – it would be interesting to know that this is so.

    Kagehi,

    Wait, what? You would feel bad if they replaced false comfort with real ones, or even just peace of mind?

    No. I would feel bad if I eradicated their false comfort and wasn’t able to give them anything comforting in return. And I’m not such a ‘better knower’ to be sure that I would be able to propose them anything. Human condition is rather dire and I try to step carefully … that’s it.

  72. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I always find it funny that atheists find it convenient to forget that genocide has been committed in the name of Atheism! Ever heard of Pol Pot or Stalin?

    I’m sure you can cite quotations from Stalin and Pol Pot where they admitted they were killing people in the name of atheism. What’s that? You can’t? But you made such a strong claim. Too bad your claim is based only on your fear and hatred of atheists.

  73. Kagehi says

    - The militant atheist is an excellent psychologist – he knows better what religious people think and feel than the religious people themselves.

    Let me fix that one for you, “The militant atheist is far more likely to have read things on a wide range of subjects, studying *why* people believe the things they do, and to have spent a **lot** more time, often not by choice, talking to numerous believers, with the end result invariably being that ‘what they think’ tends to fall into a damn narrow set of definitions.” Or, to put it simpler, people are not as complex as they like to think they are, and usually, the ones that protest that X isn’t what I think, turn around and say X the very next time they are talking to someone else about the same subject.

    If having a damn clue how humans think, instead of merely imagining how much of a uniquely precious gem everyone, and their beliefs, are, is militant, then I stand as charged…

  74. Ariel says

    Let me fix that one for you, “The militant atheist is far more likely to have read things on a wide range of subjects, studying *why* people believe the things they do […]

    My problem with this is that I’ve seen it too many times used as an excuse. “I’m an atheist, I belong to the smart ones, so you guys shut the f*** up” – that sort of an approach. We Brazilians have good soccer, so you listen to me – I’m an expert. We French have a great culinary tradition, so be quiet all of you, the big guru is speaking. I have all the rights, not you, because my group is better.

    I hate this. Such an approach doesn’t make us smarter, it just makes us look silly and arrogant. All of us belong to many groups. It may well happen that one of those groups – with me as its member – is statistically better in chess than the average. But another group, also including me, may be statistically worse in chess than the average. We should be very cautious with presenting our group identification as an argument for our special rights and abilities. Unfortunately, many of us in the discussions do just that, and the result is that we present ourselves as arrogant, silly conquerors with shining spears. I hate this.

    NB: Kagehi, it was not directed personally against you – I don’t have reasons to do that.

  75. Kagehi says

    My problem with this is that I’ve seen it too many times used as an excuse. “I’m an atheist, I belong to the smart ones, so you guys shut the f*** up” – that sort of an approach.

    Where I have seen this, its generally an example of one of two things – 1. Lack of patience, because the believers that did show up simply dove head first into the same old arguments, and unless we start programming robots on sites, or real life, which can automatically repeat back the same counters verbatim, its hardly surprising that dealing with it gets damned annoying (and thus leads to the “get lost” reaction). 2. Lack of clarity, on the part of the believer, combined with a refusal to pay attention to what the discussion is actually about. In this case what you get it people waffling on what exactly they “do” think, so much that you can’t tell if they actually have a different view, or if they are just trying damn hard to avoid being pinned down “as described”. But, this doesn’t matter, since you ***a lot*** get people showing up with the argument, “You are misrepresenting the views of believers”, when you are talking about a specific “type” of believer. This makes about as much sense as if you where talking about ecoli poisoning of home made mayo, and some clown showed up to declare, “This has nothing to do with *all* sandwich eaters, I know a lot of people that don’t even use mayo!” The only proper reaction in such cases, if they don’t either a) figure out what the discussion is actually about, or b) stop butting in, is, “Go the hell away, or shut up.”

    The ones that do this *purely* on the basis that someone started out making a goofy, and well known, argument, well… That is a bit of a toss up. Because, on one hand, they have no business jumping into the middle of a situation if they don’t understand what they are jumping into. That, in itself, makes them look dumb. But, some people have to deal with this sort of thing so damn often, they will sometimes jump back at the person, without letting them clear up just what it is that they *are* trying to say. It has happened a few times, where someone has been bludgeoned immediately, as a result of asking the same question as 5,000 prior people, and that they are the 1:5,000 that are not asking it from the well worn position that everyone else has shown up with, isn’t clear *just from the question*. Yet, this is the 5,000th time its been asked, so the assumption, right or wrong, is that they are one of the other 4,999 people.

    Like I said, a lack of patience, exacerbated by the fact that 99% of the people bringing certain things up on certain sites *are* making assertions, or asking questions, from the exact position predicted. I personally think that the people that do it, sometimes, need to take a damn stress pill, and let the person dig their own hole. But, I can understand why people that deal with it more often than I do might be… militant about people showing up, without even trying to look any place else for answers, and asking the same question for the 5,001st time (regardless of what category of believer they may be in).

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  1. [...] thought about this past episode of my life when I read Greta Christina’s latest essay: 9/11 and the Shallow Comfort of Religion.  I’ve been a years-long fan of Greta, and I think this may be my favorite essay of hers [...]

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