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Aug 22 2013

Baggage

I wrote a short piece for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. It’s not about faith.

I do love how the Christian commenters are split between “my religion isn’t anything like that!” and “my religion is even more like that.”

35 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    I love that post, PZ.

  2. 2
    unbound

    I’m impressed how many atheists have come out in response to the article.

  3. 3
    Doug Little

    I was unimpressed by the responses of the religious commentators, same old, same old. You would think they could come up with some new compelling argument for the existence of their gods, but no.

  4. 4
    Lofty

    Entertaining comments but not as good as at FTB.

  5. 5
    erikschepers

    The first comment I read is somebody thinking PZ should be more accommodating. Fuck that guy.

    Other than that, an excellent article, short and to the point.

  6. 6
    nomadiq

    I thought approaching the article with the idea that atheism is the default position was an interesting one to go with. PZ could easily have gone the other way. I think bringing the idea of the default position back into focus at the end of the article would have made for a better conclusion. However, the points raised were excellent, especially the third (prayer is a waste) and last (its ok to grieve death). They encompass the futility of faith and one of the most positive aspects of disbelief – the ability to fully accept the truth of the nature of our existence. While the obviousness that no one is listening on the other end of the line is great evidence that there is no god, it is our natural disposition to grieve death which demonstrates “atheism is the default”. We grieve by default because deep down we know this final end is ours one day as well and we have no assurance at all that paradise awaits.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    That is an excellent essay.

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    It was short on purpose. They asked me for 800 words, it’s 700 something.

  9. 9
    David Marjanović

    *slow applause*

  10. 10
    R Johnston

    @3:

    You would think they could come up with some new compelling argument for the existence of their gods, but no.

    No, I really wouldn’t think that.

    I would think they’d eventually learn to not bother trying to argue the existence of their gods, to honestly embrace their faith as a strictly personal experience contrary to rationality, and to stop proselytizing, except that’s not any more likely.

  11. 11
    Rey Fox

    I do love how the Christian commenters are split between “my religion isn’t anything like that!” and “my religion is even more like that.”

    I’m guessing there’s a contingent of the “spiritual but not religious” brigade as well. “I don’t do any of that church stuff either, but I can’t give up the general social approval of believing in (the Christian) God.”

  12. 12
    Captaintripps

    Is…is that a list?

  13. 13
    graham

    Nice one PZ. Cuts through the crap and gets straight to the point. There’s no ‘god’ so let it go and get on with your life. Apatheists rule!

  14. 14
    KDoug

    Well said!

  15. 15
    cicely

    Excellent article! The point concerning the pointless guilt (“fear of God” as a desirable state) that at least some of the more popular religions consider a feature rather than a bug, resonated with me particularly strongly.
    -

  16. 16
    anuran

    Nicely done. Reminds me of the the motto of a group of Sufi friends “Found baggage lost here”. You won’t agree with their religious conclusions, but I think you could sympathize with the sentiment.

  17. 17
    anuran

    I have to disagree with the idea that atheism is the default position. We are born religious. We know there are enormous all-powerful Beings who control our destiny, our very lives. They can be Loving Providers and Terrible in their Wrath, arbitrary and capricious. They are called Mommy and Daddy. Later on we find out they are human beings, but that initial pre-rational message is forged into our plastic infant brains. Atheism is a later development if it happens at all.

  18. 18
    unclefrogy

    I would agree with 10. It would be fine if those who were religious would just be content to just live their faith but they insist instead to try and convince everyone else even if they have to threaten death and torture to do it.
    The adopting of the language of reason in the pursuit of that end of converting everyone to their brand of god makes me craaazeeey!
    uncle frogy

  19. 19
    anuran

    unclefrogy, the overwhelming majority of religious people everywhere are “content to just live their faith”. That’s why you don’t hear much from them. They care about where the next dirham is coming from, their kids’ grades, the weather, their families and neighbors and all the things that take up your headspace. It’s the noisy, nasty, newsworthy ones who get splashed across the headlines. My Catholic friend has two bumper stickers “Obama 2012″ and “Teenage Driver: Terrified Parent“. He’s not that different from you or me except that his kids go to CYO dances instead of the regular junior high ones.

  20. 20
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Okay, the best part for me was the kook-spamming of “kookbreakers”. Repeatedly posts a link to some essay I won’t read, justifying it with

    KOOK PZ – does not respect the FREEDOM OF OTHERS TO CHOOSE THEIR RELIGION – TOTALITARIAN SCIENTIFIC WORLD-VIEW THAT IS EVEN WORSE THAN NAZISM

    then going on to post the link again, and again, but taking time out in the middle to say

    note to editor:

    do not touch my comments. Pz’s mission is provoke, attack, and destroy religion. Why should not his own world-view be not subjected to the same treatment?

    because when spammers say, don’t delete my spam, because my spam is totally valuable, editors listen. In fact, that’s how editors make the decision to delete or preserve public comments – they wait for the commenter to post a follow up saying “you can delete my previous” or “if you delete my previous you’re a totalitarian siding with a Nazi”. Because no editor wants to side with the Nazis, amirite?

    Of course, the next time he posts the link, he seems not to have complete faith that editor want to avoid siding with Nazis, because he feels compelled to add:

    leave the link… the opposition has a right to SPEAK as well… the TOTAL OPPOSITION

    Wow. seriously – did kookbreakers read the part about prayer being a useless waste of time?

    That is some funny stuff.

  21. 21
    unclefrogy

    Fuck if the religious believers would just live their faith but no they do not. I was made to go through the catholic educational system and while I was taught some what the basics of how to think I was propagandized with heaven and hell and being cast-out from the family of the church if I did not have faith or did something really awful like blasphemy or something.
    I am reminded of a story I heard a while ago that sounds like how religion functions. It seems that hook worms can suppress certain types of immune reactions and are now being used to treat some people with extreme allergies.
    Religion seems to offer some relief from the terror of being alone with mortality, I can think of none that does not offer the comfort the family of believers as well as relief from the knowledge of our mortality. Even Buddhism while not being a faith like christianity still offers the relief from suffering .
    it is suffering that is the real problem but in its parasitizing, religion just perpetuates the fear and focuses it. Giving little but asking much.

    uncle frogy

  22. 22
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    bizarre – my previous comment did not show right away as it usually would. I did get a “duplicate comment detected”, so I know wordpress got it. Wondering if the moderation function is screwed up? Don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve moderation round here…

    Hmph. Oh well. I’m sure it will turn up eventually.

  23. 23
    anuran

    unclefrogy, you’re a simple-minded bigot, just like the religious people you despise. “I know someone like that, so they’re all like that. And they’re all out to get poor little me.”

    Grow the fuck up

  24. 24
    Menyambal

    PZ, it was well-written, well-thought and amusing, too.

  25. 25
    anchor

    @anuran:

    “I have to disagree with the idea that atheism is the default position. We are born religious. We know there are enormous all-powerful Beings who control our destiny, our very lives. They can be Loving Providers and Terrible in their Wrath, arbitrary and capricious. They are called Mommy and Daddy.”

    Except that Mommy and Daddy actually exist.

    Nope, you’re forgetting that religion is a faith or conviction in the existence of the supernatural. We are born completely oblivious to any notion of the existence of a supernatural uberrealm presided over by an uberbeing. To be sure we are also very nearly oblivious to the existence of the natural world, but at least the sensory information from that real natural environment starts flooding in and shapes our development to inform our conceptual models from the very first. Not a jot of information or guidance ever comes from the supernatural fantasyland – and the stuff that comes from the tradition of words and ritual does NOT come from any supernatural realm, but exclusively from the realm of precocious, creative yet frequently mistaken and self-deceiving imaginations that are generated in the real natural world.

    So next time you see a baby responding to its mommy and daddy with a churlish grin, you may appreciate that the mind behind it is operating on real evidence, quite naturally and freely, very much more upon proto-scientific reasoning than anything remotely resembling a religious HABIT OF THOUGHT requiring considerable indoctrination. The kid hasn’t had time to get spoiled yet.

  26. 26
    Inaji

    Menyambal:

    PZ, it was well-written, well-thought and amusing, too.

    Agreed. I enjoyed it very much.

  27. 27
    anchor

    @Caine, 25: Yes, seconded.

  28. 28
    anuran

    Nope, anchor, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about how the brain works. It doesn’t matter whether the gods exist. What matters is how we are predisposed to view the world. Atheism is not the default position. Theism is.

  29. 29
    chigau (違う)

    Nope, anchor, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about how the brain works. It doesn’t matter whether the gods exist. What matters is how we are predisposed to view the world. Atheism is not the default position. Theism is.

    [citation needed]

  30. 30
    larrylyons

    Nice to see you commenting in the home town newspaper Dr Meyers. Myself I prefer not to respond to the implied blackmail and extortion – if you don’t behave a certain way or worship the correct sky daddy you burn in hell forever. No thanks I don’t respond to blackmail. I prefer what the Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius was reputed to write:

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

  31. 31
    unclefrogy

    If what you are saying anuran, is that we are prone to believing in illusions I would agree with you.
    I to love them, art and theater are all about illusions and suspending disbelief.
    I chose not to live my life enthrall to an illusion.

    uncle frogy

  32. 32
    John Morales

    chigau, I think the human default is magical thinking — it’s the very root of superstition (and why we find Basil Fawlty threatening and punishing his car funny).

    (Organised religion obviously hacks into that predisposition)

  33. 33
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    [OT]

    I think I know why my earlier comment didn’t show up. I’m now convinced that a certain synonym – whose tedious but unintentionally funny comments on the WP site I saw fit to mock in that comment – is Mabus/Markuze or someone similar who has been horrible to PZ. Anything with that name in it is likely to go to auto-moderation, which wouldn’t be checked on his trip (or possibly even auto-trashed).

    Thus I can’t mercilessly mock that person’s posts by name, but I might write up a comment mocking the person’s posts without reference to the person…if I feel like going back.

    Anyway, I feel satisfied that there’s an answer why that comment got lost, so I’m much less focused on figuring out some mystery. My evidence isn’t great & I could be very wrong, but at least I can perceive how it might be that one comment disappeared while others got through.
    [/OT]

  34. 34
    anchor

    “Nope, anchor, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about how the brain works.”

    I am? You are? How dreadfully foolish of me. I guess I couldn’t tell what you were talking about.

    ” It doesn’t matter whether the gods exist. What matters is how we are predisposed to view the world.”

    Ah, consider me ruthlessly corrected. I must not have discussed how we might be predisposed to view the world by either observation or direct interaction or by religious traditions of indoctrination…at least not so that anybody like you would ever notice.

    “Atheism is not the default position. Theism is.”

    Well, that’s the debatable claim you hold, and you make it as if by decree. As chigau urges: citation needed.

    Theism is a cultural artifact. It takes a lot of time and chronic exposure to a certain cultural environment to acquire a theistic worldview or religious conviction. Atheism may also be considered cultural in origin inasmuch as it may be viewed as a response to theism.

    I don’t much like the term “default position” because it implies that an opinion is still present. Suppose we wish to refer to the lack of a position or opinion – not just a state of indifference but the kind of relatively unspoiled slate we typically think of as belonging to very young children? I suggest that condition resembles atheism much more than it resembles theism, in that the mind has not been indoctrinated into holding a conviction on the existence of an imaginary entity that the mind can never refute or confirm by evidence from the natural world.

    John Morales, I think that magical thinking IS an acquired skill, as is a discipline for rational thinking. Let me attempt to explain…

    One big difference is the efficiency and with what fidelity each brings to preserving or processing a same amount of information. I agree magical thinking is the root of superstition, but think of how intricately byzantine conceptual structures are that must be sustained exclusively by brute memory, tradition and ritual, with no other supportive boost or verification that can come from the real natural world other than compatriot cultural or social sources. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to juggle such bizarrely inconsistent parts as compose a typically complex tradition of superstition, and even more effort to find a fit with natural reality.

    Its like a personality accustomed to deception and lying, as in, “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”. Well, it takes a constantly increasing amount of mental effort to keep a bogus conceptual model or narrative ‘straight’ and ‘consistent’ because of contradictions with a real natural world that constantly threatens to erode it.

    World views inspired by science are, on the other hand, not monolithic static edifices which must be preserved against change, but the very embodiment of dynamic change. That’s the other big difference. To my mind that difference (static vs. dynamic views) persuasively suggests that it takes a lot more work to maintain the static but potentially faulty and therefore unstable worldview than it does to harbor a stable dynamic that replaces a potentially faulty view with a better one that is more consistent or comprehensive.

    As a bonus, much of the latter sort of view is already indelibly stored in the world surrounding us for ready consultation or retrieval lest we ever stumble backward or forget. The static religious view must be maintained with a system of dogma entirely supported by civilization, with book and ritual, and nature can never come to its rescue if a fire or other disaster destroys the only source of storage outside of the memories of adherents.

    Traditions of magical thinking and superstition are formed and maintained by the indoctrinations and habituations that accrue from social interactions and the emergent complexities of culture; they do not spontaneously erupt in the mind as fully formed and functional systems of thought.

    For the sake of hypothetical contemplation, think of a child that has somehow managed to survive after being shipwrecked on an otherwise uninhabited island. Nominally equipped with a creative and imaginative mind, the child will entertain all sorts of candidate notions which the child will test against the evidence supplied by the natural environment she has access to.

    Nobody doubts that such creativity and imagination is a fundamental feature of the human mind and that it needs no necessary assistance from a cultural environment to be engaged: its how we figure things out, by throwing all kinds of ideas at a mystery until we find one that best fits as an explanation.

    I think that you are confusing that facility of creative thinking with ‘magical thinking’, which is the acceptance of a conceptual model – a ‘belief’ that indeed may come ready made by some cultural tradition, involving very little if any engagement of the creative faculty in the acquisition – despite the lack of corroborating evidence.

    Magical thinking is a defense of what’s already been embraced as true, no matter what the evidence says: such a habit is creature of culture, is the source of superstition and its closely allied with deception.

    Creativity is the free and untrammeled application of trial concepts: such a discipline is an inherently personal facility, a source of rational thinking and the primary fount that makes science and art – and therefore authentic serviceable knowledge and communication – possible.

  35. 35
    anchor

    I wish to add the following point in response to John’s remarks:

    It shouldn’t be surprising that organized religion hacks into our predisposition for entertaining our imagination. Basil Fawlty personifies his car in his imagination because it gives his mind a means to vent his anger and allows him to ‘punish’ it. That’s not magical thinking he’s exhibiting – its creative thinking in the service of an immediate cause. That may sound like nothing but a rhetorical distinction, but if you read my remarks above, you may find the distinction justified.

    I might succumb to a few moments reverie in the clutches of a pareidolia episode as I gaze on the sky and find myself suddenly struck by a curiously familiar pattern of clouds that reminds me of something that it isn’t: am I to attribute such a visual illusion of the imagination (hardly anything as strong as a conceptual excursion) to the trappings of ‘magical thinking’ in which my mind seriously entertains the superstition that what I see isn’t a cloud but the portent it superficially resembles? It is a big mistake to identify ‘magical thinking’ with the creative faculty responsible for imagination and model-making. They are not at all the same thing.

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