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Dec 14 2011

A common atheist delusion

This is just the weirdest thing: Julian Baggini discovers that believers believe. Baggini is an atheist who has in the past sniped at the New Atheists a fair bit; he’s argued that we’re an uninformed bunch who rail against straw man theism, because, he has argued, most practitioners of religion are followers of practice, not belief — they go to church for ritual and community, and all the dogma is dispensable. Now he has surveyed a few hundred believers, and learned that they actually do think the superstitious stories they have been told are very important.

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value.

Jerry Coyne is boggled. So are Eric McDonald and Ophelia Benson. So am I, a bit.

I think I’d call this the Atheist Delusion. Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we’re dead; we struggle to find a rational reason why friends and family are clinging to these bizarre ideas, and we say to ourselves, “oh, all of her friends are at church” or “he uses church to make business contacts” or “it’s a comforting tradition from their childhood”, but no, it’s deeper than that: we have to take them at their word, and recognize that most people who go to church actually do so because they genuinely believe in all that stuff laid out in the Nicene Creed.

It makes the phenomenon of religion even scarier, doesn’t it?

What brought me to this awareness is that the primary angle of conflict in my religious encounters has been creationism: people who believe against all the evidence that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. There is absolutely no practical reason for this; no moral reasoning; no excuse of community; not even an absolute literal requirement in their holy book. You can have a perfectly functional church that worships Jesus and follows all the traditional conventions and yet also accept that geology tells us that the planet is 4.5 billion years old. The praxis requirement simply doesn’t apply. Yet 40% of the people in our country blithely accept a narrow, modern interpretation that imposes a time limit on the age of the creation.

Yet another example was a trivial little incident in which I desecrated a cracker. I knew that people believed, but I expected that the response would be more of a rationalization: I, as an unbeliever, was completely irrelevant to their beliefs, so I anticipated that what would happen is a solid round of excuses in which I’d be belittled, told I just don’t understand the nature of the sacrament, condescendingly explained down to that as a non-Catholic, my actions were petty and unimportant and that I couldn’t really harm Jesus. I got precisely the opposite: a deluge of mail accusing me of doing great harm to God, ruining their religion in a way that demanded retribution, and intensifying their certainty that Jesus was in that communion wafer.

Basically, they did not bow to social realities and adapt to what was a truly trivial event; they doubled down.

I think this is another important element of the New Atheist movement. We take religious people seriously when they tell us what they believe. We don’t indulge in our own rationalizations, trying to second guess what they say and invent a more sensible excuse for their behavior: when someone tells me that they have faith that Jesus’ second coming is nigh, I accept that they’re a deranged and demented fuckwit rather than trying to cobble together a lofty sociological story about individuals fitting into community mores and building rhetorical interfaces to meld with group dynamics. Nope, they really believe in an apocalyptic messiah and are wishing the world would end in a catastrophe before they die.

I don’t believe in fighting against the little social accommodations people necessarily make to get by. I do believe in fighting hard against bad ideas. And that’s a difference between many atheists: do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

110 comments

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  1. 1
    JdRock

    Well, I guess I’m a “New Athiest” then.

  2. 2
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Wow, you’ve really made me think this morning, PZ.

    I like it!

    Thanks…must go ponder what this means to my own tortured ruminations on this subject. Very helpful.

  3. 3
    Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare

    Cracker-gate reminds me…

    I was reading “For Your Eyes Alone–” letters by Robertson Davies, and had a real belly-laugh when he commented on a papal visit to Canada and communion services for some astronomical swarm as “the largest baking of Risen Lord” in recent memory.

    Robertson Davies, I salute you. “Baking of Risen Lord”. Win.

  4. 4
    samsalerno

    I am definitely in the New Atheist camp. What we are witnessing here is the greatest successful sales pitch ever put to the human race. You gotta give them that. The problem is that’s all it is is a sales pitch. There is no substance to the product. But it shows that much of the human race is so gullible that they will by into something that offers nothing. And we rational thinkers are put to task at trying to teach these people rational thinking against the pitchmen of there beliefs.

  5. 5
    Jason Dick

    Well, I’d say that religion is a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas and a kind of social glue. But the social glue is, for the most part, merely a trap used to get people to believe in those disastrously stupid ideas, as well as punish people who stray from them.

  6. 6
    jerthebarbarian

    I thought there might be some personal bias in Baggini’s beliefs, since he’s an academic (surrounded by people who generally don’t talk about personal religious beliefs) in Britain (where apparently religion isn’t as “in your face” as it is in the US). I thought perhaps he just hasn’t been as exposed to the mainstream of religious belief as it exists here in the US.

    But the link at Ophelia Benson’s essay says that he was raised Catholic and got wrapped up in the Methodist evangelical culture when he was a teenager. So you’d think he’d have more perspective on this. Still, I haven’t read his essay so I don’t know how much exposure he’s really had. UK Methodists in my limited experience tend to be social justice crusaders rather than the kind of firebreathing fundamentalists we get in the US. I’d need to read his essay I guess to find out more.

    I don’t know why taking people who say they believe seriously is so hard for some atheists. My only explanation is a lack of exposure to actual religious believers. They’ve spent their lives around people with tepid-at-best beliefs and think that all believers are like that.

  7. 7
    Ing

    I was raised Methodism. I found there are two kinds of Methodism. There’s a big strain of liberal Christianity Dan Brown and Sagan readers who will still rail against Nietzsche and the like as horrible people, and then there’s the missionary strain that uses the first as cover and goes to convert black people and tell them their gods are demons, holds revivals and tries to get small children to cry and be saved.

  8. 8
    d cwilson

    And that’s a difference between many atheists: do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas?

    Well, it’s both. It’s a collection of bad ideas that acts as a social glue.

    I don’t understand why anyone would be suprised that believers do believe in the fairy tales. After all, they constantly and publicly state that they do believe it. It’s why young creationists still exist. I would even be willing to bet that if you pressed the majority of people at the Discovery Institute, they would admit that intelligent design is merely a stopgap measure on the way to bring back YE as the dominant paradigm.

  9. 9
    cicely

    Floor wax and dessert topping.

    The problem is that they insist on eating it in its capacity as a floor wax, and demand that everyone else does the same. That crap ain’t good for you. No sir.
    -

  10. 10
    rturpin

    Orthodox Christianity has always emphasized “right” belief. The creeds still recited today were formulated in the early centuries. The history of the Church, after it gained power, and even before, is rife with persecution of heretics. Priests, preachers, and inspirational literature all teach that belief is part of the route to salvation, and make it their duty to tell what it is Christians should believe. In most protestant churches, the majority of each week’s ritual is a sermon, typically prescribing belief. Churches add to this Sunday schools, for both adults and children, to teach those “right” beliefs. That study is a prerequisite for confirmation of young believers.

    Given this institutional framework to inculcate a belief, why would anyone then be surprised that most believers actually do believe?

  11. 11
    georgewiman

    As a former minister I ran smack into the fragility and fear surrounding those beliefs. I couldn’t even suggest a different interpretation of a scripture verse than the one their grandparents told them, from the pulpit without the pitchforks and torches coming out.

    They believe, but they are like Thomas: “I believe! Help thou my unbelief!” It is the reason they get SO angry when something challenges their belief. In the back of their minds, they know they’ve been reading the parable of the house built on sand, backwards all this time. They’re whistling in the dark.

    That was thirty years ago. I wouldn’t have the first idea how to talk to them now. “That God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, resurrection – all of it – all illusion, all false.”

  12. 12
    bastionofsass

    Since I grew up in a family of devout Catholics, in a community of mostly devote Catholics, I didn’t doubt for a moment that religious people really believe in all the hard-to-believe-that-people-actually-believe-this stuff. Goodness knows I tried to believe, I really did. I failed.

  13. 13
    a3kr0n

    I think people go to church for different reasons, but it sure seems like they really believe in God, which is nutz.
    I’m in the second camp!

  14. 14
    Dick the Damned

    I know that i’m unlikely to change their beliefs, but, whenever religionists get in the media promoting their nonsense, i try to send them the following poem. My purpose is to inform them that some people hold their beliefs in utter contempt.

    Here’s a Hudibrastic verse on woo,
    for superstitious folk like you.

    The Christian’s Jehovah, an Almighty God,
    is a capricious and cantankerous clod;
    and, so far as I can tell,
    the Christian often is as well.
    Confused by dogma, the foolish fogey
    can’t fathom the nature of that Bible Bogey.

    Is it a father, his son, and a g-g-ghost too?
    Well, it should be obvious that’s ridiculous woo.
    And Christians claim this god, in its Empyrean lair,
    is omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and fair,
    but, with the problem of theodicy,
    their dogma is Christian idiocy.

    The Jew’s Yahweh, the meshugener, the jerk,
    set Jews strict rules on when to work,
    how to dress, and what to sup or sip,
    and giving baby boys the snip.
    Myths of Bronze Age, goat-herding nomads,
    have them, metaphorically, by the gonads.

    The Moslem’s Allah, a fierce desert djinn,
    demands under ‘Islam’, literally, ‘Submission’.
    Apostasy is treated just like a crime;
    they’ll threaten to kill you, to keep you in line,
    and if you dare draw Mohammad in a comic cartoon,
    there’ll be riots and killings from here to Khartoum.

    Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist,
    Zoroastrian, Baha’i, Mormon, and Scientologist,
    Confucianist, Shintoist, and Taoist too,
    Spiritualist, Wiccan, and the New Ager into woo.
    Yea, verily, those of each and every religion,
    are mired in the miasma of superstition.

    So, why should yours be the one true faith,
    in a magic, phantasmagorical wraith?
    Belief, without evidence, is just plain crazy,
    ignorant, stupid, or thoughtlessly lazy.
    When evolution happens, it’s due to Natural Selection,
    and life derives no purpose, at a theistic god’s direction.

    I guess that makes me, not so much a gnu atheist, as a wildebeest atheist. Well, an anti-theist really. Screw their religious stupidity.

  15. 15
    makoons

    I was raised in a predominately Catholic area and currently reside in a Protestant community. I have yet to meet a believer that actually believes everything they claim to. Sure the basics are there and believed for the most part, but I haven’t ever met a believer that doesn’t cherry-pick the beliefs they feel most suited to them while discarding the rest.

  16. 16
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    I think this whole resistance to the fact that theists actually believe that shit is to some extent down to projection. We all know theists who are otherwise normal, rational people, so we try to come up with reasons why a normal rational person (modelled, naturally, on ourselves) would espouse these irrational beliefs. The best we can come up with is that they do so for social reasons – and this includes their statements about actually believing the supernatural elements, since (our rationalising inner voice continues) to deny belief in these would get them cast out of the social circle.

    We just need to realise that theists are especially good at compartmentalising.

  17. 17
    Q.E.D

    re: Aggressive Atheist Crackergate

    I got precisely the opposite: a deluge of mail accusing me of doing great harm to God, ruining their religion in a way that demanded retribution, and intensifying their certainty that Jesus was in that communion wafer.,

    See, see? I told your aggressive, shrill, fundamentalist, New Atheism would just piss off theists. Now we accomodationists use sophisticated psychology and never piss off theists by telling them their beliefs are wrong. This sophisiticated “carve a rod to beat our backs with” psychology ensures theists are never upset and can continue beating the crap out of us while we wimper uncomplainingly.

    I told you so.

    - Chris Mooney

  18. 18
    Luc

    I hear this all the time when talking about history. People just can’t deal with the fact that a lot of evil was religiously inspired. That “witches” and heretics were burned alive because of religion and that mass murder was committed again and again on its behalf in the form of wars, crusades and sacrifices. These people tend to look for other motivations, often greed and political power, and argue that religion was just an excuse to hide those “real” motivations. This is typical of people who can’t believe believers really have faith and will act according to what faith dictates, and so they look for a motivation that makes sense to them.

  19. 19
    glennedwards

    I absolutely think you have to accept that most believers actually believe what they profess to believe. Just like believers often wrongly try to “convert” us atheists by simply denying that we really don’t believe in God — or by recharacterizing our belief in some way so that it “really” encompasses theist attributes — we would be wrong to do the same. That is, in fact, the only kind of “respect” I’m willing to accord to religious belief — the respect of assuming that believers mean what they say, no matter how crackpot it sounds to me.

    But I also think that why believers believe their nonsense is often, even typically, bound up in social and cultural norms. Why, for example, to Christians believe the Bible and not, say, the Quran, given that there is no rational, evidentiary basis for saying one is true and the other not? Because that’s how they were raised. That’s the society they live in. Etc. This is obviously no great insight on my part, but one cannot completely divorce culture from belief.

  20. 20
    Ing

    We just need to realise that theists are especially good at compartmentalising.

    I think we need to realize that having someone repeat something and act like they believe it can make them actually believe it since the brain tends to retroactively come up with justifications for its actions.

  21. 21
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    @ georgewiman, 11:

    I will try that parable on some fairly tame believers I occasionally discuss such matters with. But I’d like to point out that sand exists independent of belief and has properly-understood properties, unlike faith.

    Building a life on faith is more like building a house on fairy dust.

  22. 22
    Art Vandelay

    There is absolutely no practical reason for this; no moral reasoning; no excuse of community; not even an absolute literal requirement in their holy book.

    There kind of is though. Believing that absolutely rules out the existence of Adam and Eve or any 2 people made from scratch. They’re the reason that God was such a pissed-off lunatic in the first place. Without them, there’s no fall. No fall…no need for a blood sacrifice. No blood sacrifice…no resurection. No resurrection…no path to salvation.

  23. 23
    jayarrrr

    I thought the cracker had to have magic spells cast upon it before it became Jeebus meat?

    Or did PZ get ahold of a “hot” cracker, all ready to go? I can’t remember.

  24. 24
    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    As someone raised in a fundie home, with family members who deride me for my lack of belief, I am really not surprised by Baggini’s findings. If anything, its a bit of an eye-opener that the atheist community is surprised by this.

    Read the survey results carefully. This is what you are up against. What is a bit of science to someone who literally believes the cracker he’s eating becomes the body of a fully divine yet fully human savior who died for their sins. They firmly believe that death is a reward, a release to the afterlife they have been waiting for, that the end of the world is upon us, and that it is a good thing. These people are SCARY!

    This is why I happily identify myself as a New Atheist. These people hold beliefs that are full-on bat-shit FUBAR. And accomodationists don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of changing their minds.

  25. 25
    georgewiman

    ZincAvenger: “Building a life on faith is more like building a house on fairy dust.”

    OK I’m stealing that. “And the wise man who built his house on sand did a series of core samples and did sink foundation pylons to the depth recommended by his engineers, before pouring his foundation, and his house did stand. But the foolish man who built his house on fairy dust…”

  26. 26
    sisu

    UK Methodists in my limited experience tend to be social justice crusaders rather than the kind of firebreathing fundamentalists we get in the US.

    The Methodism I grew up with was the social justice crusade type. There was a lot more emphasis on the practice of religion – the method, if you will – than the various beliefs. the idea seemed to be that the particulars of your belief didn’t matter quite as much as your outward practices.

    I guess this is one reason that, for me, I honestly have had trouble accepting that some people really believe the totally bananas things that they say they believe. I can’t grasp the level of cognitive dissonance it must take to be, on one hand, a rational, reasonable person, and on the other hand still believe in even the basic tenets of Christianity.

    Apparently I need to get better at taking believers at their word…

  27. 27
    jamessweet

    Best take I’ve read on Baggini’s finding. Love it.

    I’m going to repost a variation of the comment I have made on all the gnus who have covered this: While we are all understandably peeved at Baggini for swipes he has taken at New Atheism in the past, and while I think we all find this conclusion obvious, I applaud him for the exercise nonetheless. There is a subtle difference between us, as gnus, saying, “Your sophisticated theology has nothing to do with religion as actually practiced, and the latter is in direct conflict with science” vs. what Baggini has done, which is to say, “I am going to find the common ground between science and the common practice of religion” and then failing to find it.

    One can always argue that our side, coming from a position of advocacy, had stacked the deck against finding comity. One cannot make this argument in regards to what Baggini has done. He wanted to find that mythical common ground, and failed. Though we always knew this would be the result, we should thank him for nonetheless. He has “replicated our experiment” so to speak, thereby helping to confirm the original result.

  28. 28
    mikmik

    I usually thought that self professed christians really didn’t believe in god because they don’t act like they do. Then, one day, a person that really brought that opinion out for me, (pre-emptively) says, “You atheists really believe in God, don’t you? Because you sure act like you do.”
    This, after seeing me relentlessly discussing how much bullshit the bible had to be and, basically saying what that comedian woman said on that British show, the main reason I don’t fall for it is because I’m not stupid.

    I have to read more of Julian Baggini’s thoughts, but it seems that although they truly believe, they don’t really understand.

    I’ve sat beside several guys here lately(chapel and testimonies are part of the recovery program I’m in) and listened to them proclaim, “praise the Lord” and “hallelujah” as some pastor speaks, then turn to me when the sermon is done and say, “No wonder that freak rails against sex, the fat fuck probably can’t get laid.”

    I mean, seriously, WTF!? Don’t these people listen to themselves?

    They exist in a subculture where the professions of praise and worship are reinforced to ridiculous heights, and that is the measure of devoutness of a person. This is a good time to say to these loudmouths, “Who you trying to convince, me or yourself?”

    It’s how shallow people operate, all show, and no go. Slick production values, shitty screenplay.

  29. 29
    Matt Penfold

    I thought there might be some personal bias in Baggini’s beliefs, since he’s an academic (surrounded by people who generally don’t talk about personal religious beliefs) in Britain (where apparently religion isn’t as “in your face” as it is in the US). I thought perhaps he just hasn’t been as exposed to the mainstream of religious belief as it exists here in the US.

    It is true that religion is not as “in your face” here in the UK as it is in the US, but one only needs to read the broadsheet newspapers to realise the nature of religion as actually practised by many. There is a on-going, and rather bitter, debate within the Anglican Church as to the direction it should take. There is no guarantee the nice side will win.

  30. 30
    tbp1

    @16–I agree with you that most believers believe the stuff that is convenient to believe, or that agrees with their biases, and find a way to overlook the rest. Those of a more liberal inclination manage to ignore all the misogyny, the condoning of slavery, the slaughters and massacres, while conservatives find a way to overlook the Golden Rule, all that stuff about giving all your wealth to the poor, and the like.

  31. 31
    space cadet

    do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas?

    I’m not sure if this is meant as an either/or proposition, but I see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas held by people who believe it is a social glue.

    We only need to listen to the more vocal Fundie leaders who argue that a secular society is a slippery slope that only has one outcome- roving rape/murder mobs who lost all sense of morality when they abandoned God. This position is a result of the bad ideas, held by people who think it’s the glue holding society together.

  32. 32
    tbp1

    Oops, it was #15 I was agreeing with, although I think 16 raises some good points, too.

  33. 33
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    There kind of is though. Believing that absolutely rules out the existence of Adam and Eve or any 2 people made from scratch. They’re the reason that God was such a pissed-off lunatic in the first place. Without them, there’s no fall. No fall…no need for a blood sacrifice. No blood sacrifice…no resurection. No resurrection…no path to salvation.

    You don’t need to believe in the “fall” literally to believe that humans are born sinful and require divine remediation. Lots of Christians see the expulsion from Eden as an allegory of our own proclivity to choose sin, and the sacrifice of the cross as a way to overcome that proclivity.

    No doubt this is also rationally untenable. BUT, if you were to present many Christians with the argument that you present above, this is likely how they would reply.

  34. 34
    chigau (違う)

    The “community” experienced in church is usually “my community is better than your community”.

  35. 35
    jflcroft

    do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

    As d cwilson in #8 suggests, I think it’s important to recognize that both these characterizations are accurate. Religion is both a set of bad ideas and (for some) an important aspect of their community life. Very frequently, when people turn away from the ideas they also leave the community, and find nothing which serves a similar purpose. For many, that’s fine – they find other ways to satisfy the need for community, or find they don’t have much of a need for it after all. But for those who want values-based communities that aren’t religious, I think it’s important to build them!

    The idea of people being brought together around a set of good ideas is one I find very exciting.

  36. 36
    Sastra

    I think one of the major complaints against the gnu atheists is that we don’t focus enough on why so many believers are demented fuckwitted enough to believe. If we only understood the background — the neurology, the biology, the history, the theology, the cognitive illusions, the social and cultural dynamics — then we wouldn’t think they were demented fuckwits and/or we wouldn’t call them demented fuckwits. Instead, we would go into a sort of therapist or anthropologist mode and show some respect for the way individuals and communities have chosen to identify themselves and make sense of the world around them. We would have some distance.

    A fully-informed atheist would perforce proceed gently. Chip away at the unevidenced and poorly formed belief in easy stages.

    Not necessarily. An atheist could have a beautiful understanding of the background behind religion and religious belief and still think it wise to treat believers as if they were not subjects in a study or clients in a therapy session or children in a classroom — but as if they were equals and a dash of harsh reality, plainly spoken and demonstrated, is good for them. Stop being demented fuckwits. Please (<– the moderate gnu)

    The gentle tip-toe method is often reasonable, but it's just as often going to be taken as reinforcement for the belief that religion is very special, faith is very virtuous, and beliefs about religion need protection. A kind approach will often garner a kind response — but not a real one.

    I think a good background of understanding of why smart people believe weird things reveals that people in general are adept at believing opposite things at once — and fostering, enhancing, and creating this ability is the bread-and-butter of religion. Bagginni was surprised to find that people really believe that religious crap because many of them, if approached gently and with respect, will tell the atheist that it's really about practice and metaphor. And they will mean it at the time with the part of their brain which means it. And then they will revert to what they believe when they aren't seeking approval. And they will not notice.

    I suspect Bagginni thought that believers weren't just reacting to the gentle tip-toe method when they said it was about metaphor and practice — because they were sincere. Sure. They're sincere both ways — but when push comes to shove, yes, the demented fuckwits really believe it.

  37. 37
    michaelblayney

    This was actually one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around during my “conversion,” if you will. It was during the height of the hubbub over the Harry Potter series; I remember hearing about how the stories would turn kids to witchcraft and the dark arts and blah blah blah. I didn’t get it for quite awhile. I just thought to myself, like, magic isn’t real. What the hell is wrong with these people? Then, bam, it hit me: They think it’s real. All of it. Crazytown, population: Those guys.

    In a flash, the world suddenly made more — and far, far less — sense than it ever had before.

  38. 38
    Art Vandelay

    No doubt this is also rationally untenable. BUT, if you were to present many Christians with the argument that you present above, this is likely how they would reply.

    And I would respond by asking them why the sacrifice wasn’t an allegory as well. Why are we resolving allegorical falls with literal crucifixions. Answer me THAT, Christian?

    No but seriously…PZ said there’s no literal requirement that they don’t believe in evolution. So I guess I interpret that to mean the ruling out of allegories.

  39. 39
    Dhorvath, OM

    Count me in the boggled court, my first couple of months hanging around here were characterized by regular incredulity, but gradually I came to realize the gap is wide and deep with a far larger set of people than I would have considered plausible.

  40. 40
    PZ Myers

    It was a “hot” cracker. I actually posted a video made by the guy who got it — he had an accomplice video tape him while he was receiving communion, and as he walked back and put the cracker in a baggie, sealed it, and mailed it to me.

    Another weird phenomenon that developed was that a lot of people insisted that I could never have violated an actual, blessed communion wafer, and that I must have swapped in an unconsecrated one. They simply found it impossible to imagine that I, an atheist, would find nothing at all inviolable about a Catholic priest saying some magic words over a piece of bread.

  41. 41
    Matt Penfold

    One of things I found impossible to understand during the cracker episode was how so many Catholics would insist that a consecrated cracker is different from an unconsecrated one, but that nothing had changed in the cracker.

    I really do not know whether idiocy like that should be considered a mental disorder or not.

  42. 42
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Odd the way that the teachings of the Catholic Church become something else at the consumer level. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries (and most likely others, these are just the times I have seen it in print) priests were quite concerned about the host being used for such things as making chickens lay more (hang it over the laying area), keeping slugs out of the cabbages, and other unofficial and unauthorized usages. One folk tale of the time was about a mouse taking a wafer and then all the mouses built a church to house the host. The thinking of the wafer itself as magical harks back to some of the earliest reportings of Christian folk-tales.

    And I, as an historian, have a real problem wrapping my mind around the fact that people a thousand years ago, people who were as intelligent (though not as well-educated) as we, believed this shit. And I still cannot grok in fullness that anyone believes it today. I know, on one level, that they do. On another level I view it as really good faking — though I think that more about those like Donahue, Falwell, and their ilk, than those at the consumer level.

    So yeah, the essay, and the response, are good. I have to caution myself to remember that what I view as a poor D&D milieu is actual reality to some.

  43. 43
    chigau (違う)

    I just had a notion.
    Maybe the Jesusness of the wafer works only on Catholics.
    A Catholic and a hell-bound-heathen could share the same wafer and it would Jesusify only for the Catholic.

  44. 44
    jeevesmkii

    I don’t get it. Why is this new information?

    Seems to me like the practice of being Christian involves, in part, professing to believe various claims which are on their face nonsensical. If you ask them if the Bible is in some sense true, or if Jesus is the son of god, born of a virgin, then of course they’re going to say yes.

    That doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is whether or not they really believe or whether the practice of Christianity is so deeply ingrained that they’ll say they believe without really believing. The only way you can ascertain that is if their practice matches the profession. Do they act as if they believe they have eternal life, for example. Do they behave as if a supervisory deity is watching them even when they’re alone?

    An opinion poll really can’t shed any real light on the matter.

  45. 45
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    And I would respond by asking them why the sacrifice wasn’t an allegory as well. Why are we resolving allegorical falls with literal crucifixions. Answer me THAT, Christian?

    “I’ll pray for you.”

    ;)

    You can sometimes reason people out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into. But good luck with that.

    No but seriously…PZ said there’s no literal requirement that they don’t believe in evolution. So I guess I interpret that to mean the ruling out of allegories.

    I don’t understand. That would mean that they interpret the creation account as allegory only.

    You should get to know some serious Catholics. Scripture does not play a large role in shaping Catholic doctrine or world view.

  46. 46
    Aquaria

    I guess this is one time when growing up in East Texas was an advantage. Growing up there left no doubt whatsoever that the vast majority of christers really do believe all the bullshit. Every last bit of it.

  47. 47
    Art Vandelay

    For what it’s worth, a guy that plays tennis at the same club as me owns the company that makes all the communion wafers for pretty much the entire east coast. The factory is actually right across the street from the tennis club. There’s nothing like the smell of burning flesh right before a tennis match.

    As you could imagine, it’s quite lucrative indeed.

    http://www.cavanaghco.com/index.html

  48. 48
    truthspeaker

    Sastra says:
    14 December 2011 at 10:23 am

    I think a good background of understanding of why smart people believe weird things reveals that people in general are adept at believing opposite things at once — and fostering, enhancing, and creating this ability is the bread-and-butter of religion. Bagginni was surprised to find that people really believe that religious crap because many of them, if approached gently and with respect, will tell the atheist that it’s really about practice and metaphor. And they will mean it at the time with the part of their brain which means it. And then they will revert to what they believe when they aren’t seeking approval. And they will not notice.

    I think you’re onto something here.

  49. 49
    mathnerde

    Many, possibly most, really do believe. Though I think, and I have no real proof of it, there are some that have merely placed their bets in Pascal’s Wager. Some of these might be reached. And ridicule (of the beliefs) can be a good tool for them. But some just double down on the Wager, and put their fingers in their ears and chant La-La-LA.

  50. 50
    Glen Davidson

    he has argued, most practitioners of religion are followers of practice, not belief — they go to church for ritual and community, and all the dogma is dispensable.

    Oddly enough, that sort of religion is exactly what many American religions rail against. The compromisers, the accommodationists.

    Creationism has always fed off of the sort of puritan sentiment in this country, where one leaves the corrupt establishment churches. Well, they even accommodate evolution, you know that they don’t follow the Bible–or some such thing.

    Talk about ivory tower. If Baggini didn’t know that, he didn’t know American religion. As we knew all along.

    Glen Davidson

  51. 51
    Kalliope

    Most of the religious people I come across don’t appear to “believe”, but that’s because I interact with highly educated people. So do most people writing the books that argue against so-called “straw men” posited by Hitchens, et al. They just don’t come across real “believers.”

    But of course most people aren’t educated and most people who identify as religious believe in a genuine cause and effect at the hands of a very specific deity. And of course, it those people whom atheists should be addressing or talking about.

    On another, related note, something occurred to me recently. In the book Into the Wild, a very dedicated Christian interviewed stated that he became an “atheist” after subject died because he couldn’t stand a god who would let him die.

    He wasn’t really an atheist; he was actively rejecting a god he still believed in but despised. I think a lot of believers think that’s what atheism is. Not a lack of belief in any god, but a hateful rejection of god. They think atheists are divorced from a real person instead of never having been married to a pretend person.

  52. 52
    Crow

    In my experience with Xians actually believing what they claim to believe, there is no doubt that they believe in the very literal sense that these things (god, heaven, sin, etc.) are real.

    What I see it coming down to when I really press them is alleviation of the fear of death.

    For instance, my mother (a Xian) gets teary-eyed when I mention that I don’t believe in god. And when I press her on it, she is most concerned with the status of my soul in the afterlife. She is not worried that I am an immoral person or anything of the sort.

    So, at least for her, the part of religion that would be hardest to let go of is the idea that her family (her parents and children, essentially) won’t get to be together in the afterlife.

    And if that belief weren’t real for her, it would not provide the comfort she derives from it.
    What makes her so teary-eyed is that she thinks her whole family will be together in heaven, but I may be absent from the reunion.

  53. 53
    olddaad

    I can see it being several ways in a church – some are there for social reasons; some cherry pick what to believe and some because they really believe all the dogma.

    But, having been involved in church leadership for 18 years before I deconverted, I assure you this is no secret to church leaders. They know what is going on inside the heads of their parishioners. The important thing for the leaders is the focus on building a solid church community from the diverse parts that make up the whole.

    Some of the most intelligent and realistic conversations I’ve had on the unreasonable beliefs of christians has been with pastors and priests who have an objective view of the situation and can discuss our differences without resorting to emotional backlash to win the point.

    Some of the worst conversations were with the hard-headed, stubborn “true believer” pew sitters who only know how to spew dogma verbatim and resort to emotional displays of anger and insult when I did not agree with them.

    It really helps to have lived within a tight knit religious community to get a more realistic view of what goes on within them. Studying them objectively from the outside seems to yield only partial insight into the realities. They are a complex mix of ideas that almost defy categorizing. If the atheist community doesn’t come to grips with that complexity soon, the window may close on our opportunity to overcome religious beliefs and become the dominant thinking force in the free world.

  54. 54
    eveningperson

    “I knew that people believed, but I expected that the response would be more of a rationalization: I, as an unbeliever, was
    completely irrelevant to their beliefs, so I anticipated that what would happen is a solid round of excuses in which I’d be
    belittled, told I just don’t understand the nature of the sacrament, condescendingly explained down to that as a non-Catholic, my actions were petty and unimportant and that I couldn’t really harm Jesus. I got precisely the opposite: a deluge of mail accusing me of doing great harm to God, ruining their religion in a way that demanded retribution, and intensifying their certainty that Jesus was in that communion wafer.”

    I think you were right the first time: people who are confident in their beliefs respond with reasoned arguments or at least humour. Reacting with verbal or even physical violence is a sign that people are insecure in their beliefs, and feel threatened by you. That includes the ranting catholic in another thread.

    I recall Bertrand Russell writing about this a long time ago.

  55. 55
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    YES! THIS.

    The other delusion, I’d suggest, is the notion that all demented-ness is the result of misinformation or some arguable logical mistake. That there is still some buried sanity in there you can always reach, if only with the proper phrasing and sources.

    While that is sometimes the case, like for the successfully deconverted, there’s also the terrible possibility of an irreparably entrenched mind. And the torment of deciding when someone close is a lost cause (at least by your own means) and that you’ll likely never get them out of their epiphanic prison (TvTropes warning). There’s that little inkling that, no, acceptance is what perpetuates the problem; this addict…

    A jarring emotional trauma could change the situation (for better or worse), but that’s not a cloud a compasionate person should hope to mine for silver.

  56. 56
    Jeremy Shaffer

    I could buy that some people claim to believe something that they really don’t because they had another underlying belief that such a profession was somehow required. However, even with that in mind, I would still find it silly to just assume that they don’t believe what they claim, no matter how absurd it may sound. If they start acting in a manner contrary to their asserted beliefs then one could point that out but until then to make such an assumption would be irrational.

    Besides that, we have apologists, like Ray Comfort, claiming that atheists don’t really exist, that we really do believe but say we don’t for what ever reason. I’m sure Baggini could see the absurdity of those assertions but why would he regard his own about believers not believing in what they say as any different? If we expect believers to take us at our word regarding what we do or do not believe, why would we do anything differently for them?

  57. 57
    wholething

    Religion at its best could be a kind of social glue but has always been a disastrously stupid social tar pit of bad ideas.

  58. 58
    frog

    Hurray, I’m a New Atheist!

    I didn’t even grow up in a bad version of religion. I rather liked going to church because the songs were fun and the stories were entertaining. I guess that fact that as a child I recognized they were stories is probably a clue that I wasn’t going to stick with religion.

    I think I was ten or eleven years old when I had a run-in with a girl who attended the local Catholic school (I went to public school). I was at the Catholic school for CCD class, and had stopped at the water fountain. I had fake tattoos on (the kind the came as a Crackerjack prize), and this older girl said something about how I would get thrown out of school for wearing tattoos.

    I looked at her school uniform, I looked at my jeans and t-shirt, and said, “I don’t go to school here.” She said, “You’ll still get in trouble.” She was trying to bully me.

    It was such obvious idiocy and ill-behavior that in that moment I knew: Religion had fucked her mind up; religion was a harmful thing. When it’s so obvious that a prepubescent child can understand it, grownups have no excuse.

  59. 59
    lauradiederich

    I think that this is the real issue with the atheist movement, or rather, its opposition. I’ve come to hope there will someday be a world where all religion is taught in the manner of the ancient Greek myths, as a mark of our heritage rather than an infrastructure for our world views, but I also think that this can’t happen until people are truly taught to question their beliefs. It’s difficult, because rather than question adults, children are taught to depend on their ideals as fact. I really wish that there had been more stress on logic and logical fallacies in my elementary and middle school. As soon as I came to college and learned the ways my mind was tricking me into believing bullshit, I became a deist, and then slowly adopted atheist views after reading some of my boyfriend’s favorite blogs. But I never questioned my beliefs until someone I liked and respected did a good job of telling me to (even in high school I was ridiculed for my beliefs, but because I didn’t respect the teacher who did it, who called me out on my horrible behavior, I didn’t change, and I just dug my heels in and became more of a dick).
    So yeah, I wish logic could become a part of the elementary school curriculum, but I know that’s pretty damn unlikely, and would probably be met with some serious resistance.

  60. 60
    ibyea

    The thing that amazed me about the crackergate is that they acted as if PZ killed God, even thought they believed God was all powerful. Isn’t that weird? It’s like PZ is more powerful than God in their mind just because he broke some cracker. Aren’t those believes contradictory? I really don’t get it.

  61. 61
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @ibyea#60:

    The thing that amazed me about the crackergate is that they acted as if PZ killed God, even thought they believed God was all powerful. Isn’t that weird? It’s like PZ is more powerful than God in their mind just because he broke some cracker. Aren’t those believes contradictory? I really don’t get it.

    Their way to deal with unpleasant dissonance is to ignore/assert ever more fervently until it overpowers any fears of a fragle worldview they’d invested so much in. Bonus points if the offender gives up or is intimidated.

  62. 62
    Deen

    Of course they believe. That’s the price of admission – not just for heaven, but for being in the in-group. Sometimes it even seems that the more crazy or incomprehensible the belief, the better it shows your commitment to the in-group.

  63. 63
    HaggisForBrains

    do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

    I’m a Gnu
    How d’you do!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPgo6s1lBbw

  64. 64
    Ing

    I think you were right the first time: people who are confident in their beliefs respond with reasoned arguments or at least humour. Reacting with verbal or even physical violence is a sign that people are insecure in their beliefs, and feel threatened by you. That includes the ranting catholic in another thread.

    Unless like many, the violent response is codified as part of the belief. Then the more secure their belief the more likely they are to be violent because they’re sure of their moral superiority.

  65. 65
    markr1957

    Re #40 from PZ – I have to admit to desecrating a cracker myself during my neice’s wedding. I wasn’t going to but my wife said we’d stand out if we didn’t play along, so we went up and let the magician give us each a cracker and sip of that nasty shit they call wine.
    I must admit that for years I thought most people felt like me in that they couldn’t possibly believe all the dogma and woo – to the point that I alienated a former friend by saying as much. He was much affronted by my comments and made it perfectly clear that he did indeed believe in magic, and that brought me to the realization that the majority of people who follow a religion actually do think their version of magic is the one true magic….. and they don’t like to be told how bizarre and irrational that makes them.
    I do get confused about the papists though – apparently they’re no longer required to believe in Creation Week, but I don’t know if the Year of the Flood is required believing, or if being a Bob Marley fan is still necessary (Exodus – movement of the people), though it seems obvious that stable day and zombie week are necessities still, and cracker magic still carries the day for canniballistic celebrations. Fundies – both xian and muslim – are a lot easier – if a desert-dweller wrote it, it’s true.

  66. 66
    Aratina Cage

    do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

    What a relief, I’m still a Gnu!

    The social glue aspect people associate with religion doesn’t actually need the religion. I don’t think anything is stopping anyone from willfully assembling with people from their community each week or more. It would certainly be much healthier and I think more productive than the slave mentality that current Christians have where they attend in fear of the consequences meted out by a celestial dictator.

  67. 67
    Aratina Cage

    @ibyea#60

    The thing that amazed me about the crackergate is that they acted as if PZ killed God, even thought they believed God was all powerful. Isn’t that weird? It’s like PZ is more powerful than God in their mind just because he broke some cracker. Aren’t those believes contradictory? I really don’t get it.

    PZ stabbing the cracker was like him taking the Ring from Sauron, or casting an old magick love charm to protect one’s loved one against a death curse, or plunging a balisk fang into a horcrux–you kill the violent aggressor (or that piece of him) in the process, but his spirit lingers on and will soon regain full strength and grow a new body. It angers the followers momentarily, but what PZ did is ultimately futile (according to their myth) and they know it. It’s just a way for them to suck up to the ghoul they worship, something any sycophant would do.

  68. 68
    Aratina Cage

    I meant “basilisk fang”, of course.

  69. 69
    codyreisdorf

    Alexandra Noronha’s “Why I am an atheist” essay following this post fits in so perfectly. And I went through the same process, albeit it in a different religion (I lucked out missing all the guilt that caught her).

    I don’t recall ever believing in any sort of god, but it took me almost 20 years to realize that most people actually did.

  70. 70
    Deen

    @Aratina Cage in #66:

    The social glue aspect people associate with religion doesn’t actually need the religion.

    No, but giving up the religion usually means giving up the social glue as well – at least the glue that that attaches you to the particular community that you happen to be in.

  71. 71
    unclefrogy

    many years ago when I was young and began to learn about the long history of the earth and the many long extinct animals and things I also knew the creation story. I knew they were different and for a long time I would try to fit them together not really seriously but I would try to puzzel out how what I was told that the bible and god were true and how science’s obvious and demonstrable truth could both be true. It was not until I completely stopped going to church and stopped trying to be a believer that I just stopped thinking about all of that. I thinking back on it today which I have begun to do since finding this blog on what I thought then and what I think now. I big difference really is I did not really question religion at all I just tried to fit into what I was learning about the real world.
    I was actively discouraged not to question god or religion but learn religion as truth so I knew it. It was only much later that I really gave it any real thought. I think that religionists just do not ever question their religion they just learn it and therefor believe it. They are never encouraged to think about it in any serious way. It did not really occur to me until I was grown and on my own to think about god and belief and me in any serious way.
    So how do you encourage or foster really thinking about these issues?

    uncle frogy

  72. 72
    ibyea

    @Aratina
    Yes, but that would still mean that in their minds, PZ has some sort of power against God. Think about it, Sauron was greatly weakened when the ring was taken away from him. Sure, Sauron or Voldemort, after their weakening will rise up again, but their weakening does suggest something: They are not all powerful.

  73. 73
    Crow

    I think the great difficulty convincing a religious person to question their beliefs lies in the fact that there has to be a interim period of time between losing the meaning and hope that religion provides believers and the time when you can replace that meaning and hope with a more rational set of beliefs.

    I don’t think a person can go straight from a devout religious mindset straight to a more rational one, and this period of meaninglessness and hopelessness scares the crap out of pretty much everybody.

    It takes a brave individual to embark on that journey intentionally, and frankly, I don’t think most christians are up to it.

  74. 74
    kapitano

    It’s a sliding scale.

    From the Anglican who owns a bible but has never opened it, can’t name 3 commandments and believes whatever’s convenient at the time and attributes into to the magic sky man…to the Hasidic Jew who knows every line of his holy book, is aware of the contradictions, absurdities and obvious falsehoods, but passionately believes them all anyway.

    It’s a trivially true point but: Religion serves different psychological functions at different times to different people. The fundie who’s memorised a dozen scattered passages because they tell him what he wants to hear, the creationist who’s skimmed the book of Genesis and nothing else, Hamza Tsortis who analysed two sentences of the Quran in excruciating detail to make them fit modern embryology.

    Belief is a social and psychological matter, and both these things are complex. But not completely irreducible :-).

  75. 75
    Aratina Cage

    @Deen #70

    No, but giving up the religion usually means giving up the social glue as well – at least the glue that that attaches you to the particular community that you happen to be in.

    Well then, I suppose one resolution to that problem is mass instantaneous deconversion. …Yeah, I know, that is not going to happen. Stepping away from the flock often requires great courage today, and if former believers really want to regain the kind of social bond they got from their old religious institution, they might also require perseverance to build up something that entails a similar social glue without all the dangerous stupidity.

    It’s probably going to be harder at first because it will have to be ethical (no charlatans and no fraudulent business practices unlike with religions) and it won’t have a celestial dictator at its core to: browbeat people into coming to meetings who have very little in common and few common interests, or to silence voices of opposition in the membership on whatever comes up.

    But it could be very easy, you never know. Maybe there is a secular group or club or community partnership or something out there already that you didn’t know about that you would fit right into that will fill in most if not all of whatever social glue you feel you lost when you stopped being part of your old religion.

  76. 76
    Aratina Cage

    @ibyea

    But without all the drama, their myth’s stories would be so bland. PZ stabbing the cracker and taking out Jesus’s eye (or finger, or whatever!) in the process is a bit of theater and the end goal is profit. Better stories = bigger audience = more money.

  77. 77
    Azuma Hazuki

    Why would anyone be surprised that believers believe? They may not be very theologically literate at times, but they do believe. I certainly did, even as I became more well-studied in what it is I actually professed to believe.

    This kind of solipsism is dangerous, people. And it dehumanizes the believers. It’s in effect saying “well they don’t really have the courage of their convictions because that’s silly isn’t it? The poor dears, they must be in such cognitive dissonance…” News flash: they’re not. They pity us. The best way to deal with them is to get inside their heads and simulate their worldview, not to block it off.

  78. 78
    crowepps

    The thing that amazed me about the crackergate is that they acted as if PZ killed God, even thought they believed God was all powerful. Isn’t that weird? It’s like PZ is more powerful than God in their mind just because he broke some cracker. Aren’t those believes contradictory? I really don’t get it.

    The Catholic belief system is rife with instances where the Catholic believer or priest constrains God (by performing or failing to perform baptism, for instance) or in which the behavior of humans has profound affects on God. When children are told their perfectly normal and predictable childish misbehavior makes God SUFFER I would think they inevitably abandon the idea that He’s all powerful. A third grader who is told that his poor spelling test prevented God from allowing Notre Dame to win a football game that weekend learns instead that he and God control the world TOGETHER.

  79. 79
    karellen

    @truthspeaker#48, @sastra#36:

    That’s kind of the gist of Greta Christina’s When anyone is watching essay. Worth reading for a well-considered perspective on the idea.

  80. 80
    timgueguen

    All versions of Christianity have a contradictory take on God. We’re told in one breath God is omnipotent, then in the next we have all these things happening that thwart his supposed will. Indeed the very struggle that is supposed to being going on around us, between God and Satan, can only be happening either because omnipotent God is unwilling to off Satan for some strange reason, or he’s not omnipotent.

  81. 81
    Kel

    Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we’re dead;

    Yep, this. I do not get how can people take it seriously, let alone intelligent educated people.

  82. 82
    David Marjanović

    intensifying their certainty that Jesus was in that communion wafer

    Not “in”. The dogma is that the wafer is Jesus.

    I don’t understand why anyone would be suprised that believers do believe in the fairy tales.

    Lack of exposure is definitely the biggest reason, but… similarly to Markr1957 and codyreisdorf in this thread (comments 65 & 69), AJ Milne, OM, once explained here on Pharyngula why he had such trouble believing that believers believe: because he can’t believe anything that sounds absurd; consequently, when he encountered religion the first time as a rather small child, he thought “what nonsense” and concluded nobody actually believed it. He simply projected this on everyone. I, for one, don’t fit that projection; by default, I believe everything I’m told unless it contradicts facts that I happen to already know. Consequently, I sincerely believed (in a reduced version of very liberal Christianity, but still) till my faith faded away when I was… let’s say 16 through 20.

    And the wise man who built his house on sand did a series of core samples and did sink foundation pylons to the depth recommended by his engineers, before pouring his foundation, and his house did stand. But the foolish man who built his house on fairy dust…

    Into my quote collection.

    You don’t need to believe in the “fall” literally to believe that humans are born sinful and require divine remediation. Lots of Christians see the expulsion from Eden as an allegory of our own proclivity to choose sin, and the sacrifice of the cross as a way to overcome that proclivity.

    Exactly.

    The Catholic Church has even found a way of tying evolution into this: because our bodies are descended from mere animals, we have a “sinful nature” and totally need salvation.

    The current and the previous pope have officially acepted evolution. It’s not a dogma – it’s still officially possible to be a creationist and a Catholic –, but not following it would make you look pretty silly outside the USA.

    One of things I found impossible to understand during the cracker episode was how so many Catholics would insist that a consecrated cracker is different from an unconsecrated one, but that nothing had changed in the cracker.

    Thomas Aquinas tried to explain it by Aristotelian philosophy: during transubstantiation, the substance of the cracker changes, but the accidents – the properties – do not! Instead of one miracle, there are two for the price of one! Praise the Lord who is twice as great as we already believed!!!1!1!eleventyone!!

    For a sufficiently twisted definition of “sense”, this makes perfect sense.

    One folk tale of the time was about a mouse taking a wafer and then all the mouses built a church to house the host.

    Linguistic question: mouses? Is mice dying out?

    And I, as an historian, have a real problem wrapping my mind around the fact that people a thousand years ago, people who were as intelligent (though not as well-educated) as we, believed this shit.

    Education, the sheer amount of knowledge, definitely makes a huge difference.

    Reacting with verbal or even physical violence is a sign that people are insecure in their beliefs, and feel threatened by you.

    No, why?

    Several times in the Old Testament it says you will be punished if you allow sin to occur in the city or tribe you live in. People who believe that believe they must use violence (“resort to” wouldn’t quite be the right term for many of them).

    I do get confused about the papists though – apparently they’re no longer required to believe in Creation Week, but I don’t know if the Year of the Flood is required believing,

    Nope.

    or if being a Bob Marley fan is still necessary (Exodus – movement of the people),

    I don’t actually know. It gets referenced quite heavily during Easter mass, however, and attempts to explain it in natural terms – as opposed to claiming it never happened – are legion.

    though it seems obvious that stable day and zombie week are necessities still

    Yep.

    The Catholic belief system is rife with instances where the Catholic believer or priest constrains God (by performing or failing to perform baptism, for instance) or in which the behavior of humans has profound affects on God.

    Case in point: the eucharist. When the priest speaks the magic words, this somehow forces God to turn the wafer and the wine into himself immediately. I suppose God could refuse but somehow never does. Or marriage: divorce is forbidden because “what God has put together man shall not put apart” – when a priest claims to be performing a marriage, this somehow obliges God to make it so. Except when the marriage is later annulled; then it retroactively turns out God didn’t actually put anything together.

    It’s deeply childish imagination.

  83. 83
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.
    One folk tale of the time was about a mouse taking a wafer and then all the mouses built a church to house the host.

    Linguistic question: mouses? Is mice dying out?

    No, it should have been ‘mice’. That was me being a moron and failing to correct when I rewrote the sentence.

  84. 84
    georgewiman

    When telling a profoundly silly story it is acceptable to say “mouses”…

  85. 85
    DLC

    Baggini : “I have to assume that they don’t really believe all that faith-stuff.”
    “No, they really *do* believe in all that bollocks. ”

    Lesson learned: when you assume, you make an Ass of U.

  86. 86
    aussieseculardad

    It took me years to learn what human brains are capable of. My (then) wife managed to convert from Christianity to Judaism. During her conversion, I thought that she was doing it for some sort of pragmatic reason – to make my Dad happy, or something like that. Then she shocked me by acting like she genuinely believed it. Somehow, she went from believing one evidence-less set of facts to believing another, based purely on her rabbi’s say-so. I can only assume that she was responding to his sincerity and assuredness or something. I don’t get it…

  87. 87
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @Azuma Hazuki#77:

    This kind of solipsism is dangerous, people. And it dehumanizes the believers. It’s in effect saying “well they don’t really have the courage of their convictions because that’s silly isn’t it? The poor dears, they must be in such cognitive dissonance…”

    I had a phone call with a relative who dropped pascal’s wager like a verbal tick, passive-agressively lashed out when the monopolizing repetition was pointed out, and retreated into a long out-loud petition to the invisible friend to convince me he was right. This was after an earlier encounter where his schtick was “They found an empty tomb. Read the bible. Read IT. READ IT. READ IT!…” But he refused to open HIS when I returned and asked him to read the book that comes after Exodus (Leviticus), but he “believes all of the bible”. When I asked why he accepted the bible and didn’t accept the Quran book, he assumed I was rhetorically trying to sell him Islam, enemy outgroup, and ignored the question, even after I said I wasn’t a Muslim (he went back to pascal again). He also didn’t seem to notice when I said he’d burn in hell if he didn’t accept the pope.
     
    Which is more dehumanizing?

    A) They’re intellectually crippled to the point that the most plausable explanation for the high they get in church is an invisible space pixie, who tortures millions for having banned thoughts, is meekly expressing its love for their acknowledging its existence and swearing feality up to and beyond their death.

    B) They’re like anyone else, subject to psychological pressures they’re not aware of, overlooking flaws in superficially appealing beliefs, and do their best to resolve direct experience with hearsay with the information they have. And they’ve ascribed their own meaning to vacuous/absurd turns of phrase in a way that makes sense to them, without coordinating with their neighbors. Then in repeating those idiomatic catchphrases, they don’t realize how insane they sound. But they’re so invested in the sense of identity it provides they panic when someone points out flaws, which also reminds them of the hyped-up fears it’s supposed to hold at bay.

  88. 88
    grumpypathdoc

    Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare @ #3

    I’ve added “For Your Eyes Alone–” letters by Robertson Davies to my Amazon wish list. If any writer can come up with a quip like that, the rest of the read must be excellent.

  89. 89
    kapitano

    @EveningPerson

    There is another factor. That some people’s belief consists in having a target they can hate with all the ferocity they can muster.

    God is a distant, nebulous blob they can nebulously love in a distant way. Satan is a palpable, concrete threat that can give them all the terror, rage and bile they’re addicted to.

    Whether Satan is atheists, gay marriage or a slightly different sect of the same church…may not even matter much.

  90. 90
    neilt

    There is another factor. That some people’s belief consists in having a target they can hate with all the ferocity they can muster.

    God is a distant, nebulous blob they can nebulously love in a distant way. Satan is a palpable, concrete threat that can give them all the terror, rage and bile they’re addicted to.

    Whether Satan is atheists, gay marriage or a slightly different sect of the same church…may not even matter much.

    Wow, you’ve been reading my proud christian and republican cousin’s facebook updates!

  91. 91
    The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge

    I was reading “For Your Eyes Alone–” letters by Robertson Davies, and had a real belly-laugh when he commented on a papal visit to Canada and communion services for some astronomical swarm as “the largest baking of Risen Lord” in recent memory.

    Robertson Davies, I salute you. “Baking of Risen Lord”. Win.

    How come “Risen Lord” is baked (outside of Ethiopia) with unrisen dough? Hmmm, atheists? Yeast goes in, yeast goes out—you can’t explain that!

  92. 92
    cconti

    Sure they believe. But many are so ignorant that they don’t know what they believe.

    This post gave me a chance to go back and read the great cracker controversy, whereas PZ desecrated, among other things, a cracker.

    I was born catholic and as far as what I remember of the Eucharist, that cracker does not turn into Jesus body until the priest consecrates it. Before that point it’s just a cracker.

    Were it not I suppose the workers at the cracker factory would all have to be heretics or miscreant as I suppose they have plenty of rejects like every manufacturing concern in the world and I don’t think they have a priest on staff to dispose of them properly.

    More evidence? take the wine. In church they use any type of ceap wine they can find. That means that any wine could potentially be the blood of jesus and pissing in a glass of wine would be sacrilege.

    I remember my mother using the cracker (Called “Ostia”) to make it more palatable to swallow foul tasting medication. She bought it in bulk at the local pharmacy, I believe (could have been the grocer) and no one would have thought to chastise her for using the flesh of jesus to make the pill go down.

    In fact, there is a point during mass where the priest blesses the wine and the crackers and that’s when they believe it becomes the flesh and blood of the savior.

    Of course, they look just the same and they have never fooled anybody. But that’s not important: all the death threat, all the hate mail and the nasty comments, all for a simple piece of bread that WAS NOT the flesh of Jesus even under the strictest interpretation of the Eucharist.

    Of course, I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure I am right on this one. It would not be practical otherwise. Imagine the delivery truck having an accident and burning to a crisp. You’d have to call the Vatican SWAT team to clean it up.

    I am sorry PZ, you did nothing sacrilegious as far as the catholics are concerned. You are going to have to steal a cracker right after it is blessed. Good luck.

    PS: I was born and baptized in St. Peter basilica, Rome. I do know my catholicism

  93. 93
    Duth Olec

    Guess that means I’m a Neuer Gottesleugner!
    But I’m still an apatheticist when it comes to if this stuff is real. Clearly that is not actually affecting us. The way people use it regardless is where I hold up an atheist sign.

  94. 94
    Storms

    Deeply held beliefs, the core of the persons moral and ethical paradigm from which they derive rationalizations for their behavior, are held for emotional, not rational reasons. They are held because they make you feel safe and/or better than others.
    *Safe as a member of a tribe that’s small enough to deal with in a world that’s intimidating. Whose opinions you generally trust and who probably won’t take advantage of you (haha).
    *Safe knowing that if something happens to you that makes you weak, you won’t be cast out.
    *Safe because these people will defend you when outsiders ‘persecute’ you for your membership (beliefs).
    *Better because the good things you do, even quietly, are ‘seen’ by some omniscient observer.
    ( Of course you forget all the hate-filled, calloused, thoughtless things you do.)
    *Safe and Better because the tribe offers a method (confession, penance, jihad, etc) for making up for your own moral shortfalls.
    *Safe because the deity likes you and accepts you even when life is unfair and you suffer or are stupid or weak, unlike even your tribe-mates who are only people.
    *Better because deity will make all the unfairness you countenance and profit from better for those who suffer at some point after they’re dead.
    *Better because you know that those others who countenance and profit from unfairness and unbelief will be punished and won’t get the goodies when they die.
    *Better because your tribe is better than anyone else’s (or at least just as good).

    Religions hook people socially:
    Carrot: to be a member has the above rewards (as an example)
    Carrot: To make, or be a new member gives short term status.
    Carrot: Kids (and sometimes friends, family, etc) trained to the tribe give status.
    Threat: Kids, etc that leave the tribe cost you status.
    Carrot: Public profession, persecution and acts of ‘faith’ give status. In some, it can even get your family paid while you’re enjoying your bag of goodies as a martyr.
    Threat: Leaving the tribe means forfeiting protection and support, and probably giving up the bag of goodies waiting for you when you die.
    Carrot: Voting/supporting the social/political supremacy of your tribe gives status. (and enhance the political power of your leaders to influence and pick political leaders)
    Threat: Not voting/supporting the tribe might cost you status and get your goodies taken away.

    Many people are operating from FEAR of being outcast and attacked when weak. To examine these beliefs is scary and uncomfortable. They don’t care if they’re rationally consistent. They realize that the tribes dogma doesn’t and can’t make sense, but have bought into the argument that this is what ‘faith’ is, the acceptance of lies/myth/contradiction as true. That their tiny, fallible human minds can’t understand the truth and give up, or that it’s the heirophant’s job to tell them what’s true so they can be mentally lazy.

    They rationalize this against how often they’ve been told that ‘science’ was wrong, or changes it’s mind. Most aren’t educated in science enough to realize that the advance of science is an imperfect process of discovery, but that over time it builds consensus and surety. They just hear the news reports that state both sides of an argument (like evolution/ID) as though they’re equally plausible theories.
    And some who don’t completely swallow the koolaid stay part of the tribe because it’s politically and socially expedient. Thus a plus for the politician and the heirophant.

    So the question is, what do you offer them in return for giving up their tribe? How do we sell the value of being right or rational against this emotional baggage? Being right is scant comfort when you’ve lost your job and the tribe offers a social network to help you find one and perhaps resources while you look, or you’re sick and the tribe members bring food and comfort, or when you’ve done something heinous and the tribe offers acceptance and escape from guilt, or when a loved one is dying and the tribe is there for you, or when an enemy is identified and the tribe rallies in an orgy of bloodlust and hate.

    What does the public see of Atheists besides scathing commentary? What good are we doing in the world that we can point out?

  95. 95
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    cconti:

    I am sorry PZ, you did nothing sacrilegious as far as the catholics are concerned. You are going to have to steal a cracker right after it is blessed. Good luck.

    That’s what started the whole thing: the “abduction” of a consecrated cracker by a young man. It isn’t hard to sneak out with a consecrated cracker. It’s only dangerous if you get caught.

    So, I think the assumption was the cracker PZ desecrated was indeed a consecrated host, and full of Jesus flesh, whether or not that was the case. That’s one of the things I enjoy about the whole thing: the fact that the folks who assailed PZ just assumed it was the real flesh of their Christ.

  96. 96
    defaithed

    By PZ’s definition, I’m firmly a New Atheist (and damned happily so).

    When I was a Jehovah’s Witness, we weren’t in it for the community or tradition or just plain jollies. We *believed*. We claimed to know, as clear as day, that Jehovah was God and Jesus was his son who died for our sins and Armageddon would sweep away “the world” and install God’s “New System”. We took all that as indisputable fact, and – the important thing – we lived our lives accordingly. These beliefs *mattered*, from our small daily actions to our big-picture plans for life itself.

    Don’t listen to the accommodationists who try to pretend that religion is just harmless tradition or community or even “a search for something more”.

    Believers believe. Just ask one (current or ex-).

  97. 97
    codyreisdorf

    David Marjanović, what is really strange is I’m actually a lot like you, I too tend to believe just about everything I’m told too, again, unless it doesn’t fit with something else I already know. I think I was just given enough interesting science books (on the solar system and dinosaurs) and raised in too abstract a religion (christian science) to comprehend or accept what I was being told. By the time I knew what they were talking about it was too late, I already knew too much about the world for religion to be believable. As far as I can remember I’ve always been a strict physicalist.

    I also seem to be a tad high-functioning autistic type, and it’s taken me a really long time to learn that people don’t think the same way or know the same things that I do. But I think this assumption that other people think the same way is fairly universal, it is just coincidentally true for most people (since they happen to think alike, whereas if you don’t, it isn’t). The giveaway is that people just assume I think like them, and tend to think I’m smart because I seem to know all sorts of things they don’t, when in reality I just took an interest in different things than most, so those are the things I know about. And it works both ways, I don’t tend to grasp the things most people do because I just didn’t take as strong an interest in them as most people did (e.g. girls).

    A lot of this first hit me in high school (10 years ago) while talking to my girlfriend (she was—maybe is?—catholic) on AOL instant messenger late one night, somehow Jesus came up, and I said something like “if he even existed,” and she responded with, “what!? Of course he existed!”

    It was the first time I had ever expressed “out loud” my doubting Jesus’s existence, but I expected her to agree—considering the bible is a really old book and it’s full of crazy unverifiable claims, I assumed everyone doubted Jesus’s existence. Her confidence in his existence baffled me, and my questioning it apparently baffled her.

    It is still very strange to me—and depressing—that our species remains so gullible to such an ancient superstition. Imagine how awesome the world would be if we all lived in a scientific, rational, enlightenment frame of mind.

  98. 98
    Kel

    I often wonder how it is people can even have a conversation about a historical Jesus. How does one get passed all the presupposition and expectation that comes with trying to historically determine what is intrinsic and essential to a belief system?

  99. 99
    sawells

    Since we’re back on the Crackergate issue, it’s worth noting that the Catholic distinction between substance and accidents is incompatible with the atomic nature of matter. Theologians act like it’s some profound metaphysical insight, that the thing is really Godflesh but looks in every way like bread, but it’s not a profound insight, it’s just a basically mistaken physics.

    Once you know that flesh is, consistently, certain atoms arranged in certain patterns, and bread is different atoms arranged in different patterns, the idea of something having the substance of one and the accidents of the other becomes utterly meaningless. You wind up saying “Sure, the chemical analysis and the electron microscopy and the X-ray diffraction all agree that this thing is basically starch right down to the atomic level, but trust us, in its true substance it’s the flesh of Jesus”. It turns out that, no, the true substance of a material is the arrangement of its atoms, and if those are bread, the thing is bread.

    I’m sure there’ll be a Sophisticated Thinker along in a second to call me rude names for my philosophical crudity.

  100. 100
    John Morales

    [meta]

    sawells, you imagine that was not noted many, many times during the actual incident?

    it’s just a basically mistaken physics

    Nope. It’s metaphysics, and goes back to Aristotle, though co-opted by Christianity.

    cconti, have you read #40?

  101. 101
    sawells

    @100: no, I just thought it was worth putting back out there, it’s an important point and you never know when new people might see it.

  102. 102
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Generally, when I have a discussion with a religionist, I can tell whether they actually believe by asking what they believe. Those who “believe in belief” will effectively say that, going on about the philosopher’s god and metaphors and all that bullshit. Those who actually believe will stand firm and claim that their myth book really really is the divine revealed truth of everything. It also happens to be that it is much easier to hold the latter to any concrete religious/supernatural belief than it is the former.

    Of course, it can also easily be argued that the former are merely better able to suspend their belief when in the presence of skeptics. Being around us is just the reverse of watching a movie, I guess.

  103. 103
    Deen

    What does the public see of Atheists besides scathing commentary? What good are we doing in the world that we can point out?

    Plenty. Atheists have been the top-ranking team on Kiva for years. An atheist horde from reddit recently collected nearly $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders in a short amount of time. I could easily find more, but I don’t want to end up in the spam filter.

    And of course, there’s the online communities, the SSA, CoR, and all the other local, secular/atheist/humanist communities popping up all over the US at the moment.

    Finally, many atheists support progressive policies, like a strong welfare system and social safety net, as well as affordable health care for everyone, so nobody has to depend on any tribe for such basic needs. Personally, I think this is the best way to give everyone the freedom to choose their tribe.

  104. 104
    Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

    when someone tells me that they have faith that Jesus’ second coming is nigh, I accept that they’re a deranged and demented fuckwit rather than trying to cobble together a lofty sociological story about individuals fitting into community mores and building rhetorical interfaces to meld with group dynamics.

    I need a wider bumper.

  105. 105
    naomimoore

    I think this is very important- atheists sometimes lack empathy with what it’s like to truly believe that the majority of people who have ever lived are going to burn in hell forever. Once you are convinced of this horrific idea, things like being forceful about your religion and indoctrinating your children are entirely reasonable, in fact the decent thing to do. The only problem is: it isn’t true.

  106. 106
    hackerguitar

    The last two lines of PZ’s post are great. They really express the way the New Atheists don’t like bad ideas….and that really seems to get to the core, to the kernel, somehow.

  107. 107
    Margaret

    When telling a profoundly silly story it is acceptable to say “mouses”…

    Actually, I think the proper baby-talk version is “mousies.”

  108. 108
    bwe4

    Baggini is an atheist who has in the past sniped at the New Atheists a fair bit;

    Did you intend to use the capitals there?

  109. 109
    bwe4

    I just discovered the term New Atheists. How did I miss that? Hmm. Live and learn. :)

  110. 110
    markrichardson

    “do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas?”
    I say that is a false dichotomy – its both and more.

    Religions are full of bad ideas and silly myths – but they are primarily about fulfilling human needs – for a sense of belonging and purpose and a sense of connection to something great and wonderful.

    I don’t myself see Yahweh as “great and wonderful” – because I’ve actually read the books of the bible – he comes across as a maniacal hate filled control freak.

    If you *could* make (i.e. deliberately design) a religion that wasn’t full of bad ideas (misogyny, sexual quilt, hate for unbelievers…) but still managed to give people all the sense of purpose and belonging and connection – it would probably compete quite well with the nonsense filled ones.

    So I see the nonsense is largely incidental – not essential.
    ( although some of the nasty ideas may act as psychological hooks – quilt can be motivating…)

    Taking Richard Dawkins meme idea : The purpose of a religion is to get itself remembered and propagated – its not trying to be *maximally* incorrect about nature or anything like it.

    richo61

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