Uncommon Sense

November 22, 2017

Do You Long for “The Holy”?

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 1:01 pm
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I see book titles I find intriguing although not necessarily intriguing enough to purchase the book. One such book recently is “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser. The subtitle was “The Search for a Christian Spirituality.” The short blurb for the book was: “This is an engaging guide for those seeking to rediscover their Christian spirituality and how to apply it to their daily lives.”

My guess is this book is for people who have given up, or are giving up, on traditional Christianity but are missing something. I also suspect that the longing isn’t for the holy.

Many atheists are criticized for their attacks on religion (mea culpa) with the question “What are you going to replace it with?” Some of these people are busy creating secular churches, whatever the Hell those are. Others are in the “religion keeps the masses under control, we are all doomed if you kill religion” camp. My suggestion to them is maybe you should have treated us better.

What I want to address is the “missing something” that people say indicates a need for spirituality, whatever that means to them.

My thoughts ran to a friend who had been brought up in a somewhat strict Protestant church community and who decided to go take in a Catholic service. Boy, she was pissed! The Catholics had better architecture, better costumes, better music, more comfortable pews, everything was better! (I didn’t point out the fact that they had padded kneelers indicated that they didn’t care if you experienced any discomfort, as long as you submitted. The Protestants wanted you to feel the discomfort of your miserable sinful life; that’s why there were no cushions on the benches.)

Many people, raised in a church environment that they have since eschewed would remember the commonality of such services: the joint singing, calls and responses, church socials, the appeals to help the poor around the holidays, etc. I understand missing those things, but they aren’t spirituality.

In my sophomore year in high school, I missed the first six weeks of the school year because I was in hospital with a kidney problem. When I went home, I missed the nurses, the orderlies, and some of my ward mates. They all treated me with kindness and respect.

My point is nostalgia for times that one gets healing, love, and respect and not spiritual longings.

I would like to interview some of these people and ask them what they were feeling that they lost. I suspect many would comment on community, a place of belonging, a place with glorious music (got to sing in the choir, etc.), and myriad other things. I suspect that very few would be longing for a spiritual being that controlled their lives. I can’t imagine they got much direct solace, or advice, or even encouragement directly from their deity. I suspect that all of that came from well wishing members of their community.

I understand missing that.

When I hanged up my sneakers, that is when my college basketball days were over, and I was fully engaged in adult pursuits, I missed the “being part of a team” for decades.

I understand missing being part of a community.

I wonder whether some deliberately confuse these common yearnings and longings for things that fit their agenda better and, well, sell books, too.

September 6, 2017

Slurs Against Atheists

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:50 am
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There are quite a number of common slurs against atheists, coming so frequently and in the same form that I suspect there is a small pamphlet, The Book of Common Slurs Against Atheists, right next to The Book of Common Prayer in church pews. Since these come up so frequently, I have tried my hand as to how to address a few of them.

Atheists hate God. Uh, how can we hate something that does not exist?

Atheism is a religion. Show me a church.

Atheists deny the power of religion. Show me that churches are struck by lightning less than other buildings … or are flooded less … or burn less frequently. Show me the power of religion.

Atheists deny all of the charitable good churches do. No, we just point out that very little of the money collected from members actually goes to charity. If you want to deny this, go to your church and ask them to open the books (let’s see: minister’s salary, utilities bill, building fund, grounds keeping, telephone and Internet, Sunday School expenses, … , no taxes, of course, … ). Whenever there is a natural disaster, church goers are asked to donate more, but so are secular people, so that’s a push, not a credit to churches. Churches are not primarily or even substantially charitable organizations, people.

Atheists just haven’t attended the right church yet. This claim belittles the effort made in becoming an atheist and belittles the position itself. The best response I have ever heard was a rejoinder “How many dicks do you have to suck before you know you are not gay?”

Atheists have no morals. Hello? How many atheists does the person claiming this know? (Generally the number is zero.) If someone whips this one upon you, ask them how they know this. Ask them how many atheists from their personal experience can they use as an example of this claim. (Most immediate resort to “Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot” the holy trinity of atheism, which is why I insist on “personal experience.” Hitler was a Catholic, by the way.)

Atheists believe life has no meaning? So?

Atheists are arrogant. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Hello? This isn’t even on topic. All kinds of people are arrogant.

Atheists are intolerant. Only of stupidity, my friend, only of stupidity.

Atheists can’t find god. This is true. No matter where we look, there is no evidence of his existence. There is a reason theists claim that their god is “beyond space and time,” namely that such a beast cannot be found within space and time. Just how the heck can something be “beyond space and time,” anyway? They keep making this shit up and pretending it is real.

Atheists are against the mysteries in life. Yep. Every time one is removed, life gets better. When people see the fall colors in the trees of the north, they appreciate their beauty. So do I, but my appreciation is deeper because I know why they change color. My reality is so cold and sterile without mysteries, like the mystery of why people get sick or why it looks like the Sun revolves around the earth but does not.

Atheists are smug and sanctimonious. Being right does have its consequences.

* * *

At one point even all Christians were considered atheists. (In pagan Rome, “atheist” (from the Greek atheos) meant anyone who refused to worship the established pantheon of gods.) Soon, we may achieve this exalted state again.





July 5, 2017

Why Don’t Atheists Just Run Amok?

Filed under: Culture,Morality,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:38 pm
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One of the claims of god-fearers is that atheists are dangerous because they have no basis for their morals. Without a god to dictate what “being moral” is, and enforcing that moral code, there is just nothing stopping atheists from raping, looting, and killing, now, is there? I propose to explain why this is not the case, so that the god-fearers can understand.

This is just one point of many that can be made, like “It isn’t any fun,” but the primary reason that atheists don’t just run amok is that is just isn’t safe. Has anyone ever seen atheists run amok, specifically because their is no divine retribution, anyway? I have never heard of such a thing. I have read about numerous cases of bad treatment of people because they weren’t considered real people by the appropriate religious experts, but no amok running, per se.

Getting back to my main point: running amok ain’t safe. Let’s start with a hypothetical situation: a beautiful woman lives on an atheist’s block. If he were to go rape her, I mean, what could go wrong? For one, she may be a martial arts or MMA expert and she may beat the shit out of him. Or she may have a brother, father, uncle or other relative who owns a baseball bat and they may beat the shit out of him. (We have made this an element of society in the form of law enforcement. In Chicago, cops regularly beat the shit out of people, and shoot them, and then drag what’s left in for a trial.)

Obviously there is a great deal of downside to this running amok. When word got around, you could lose your job. Other people would shun you for being an asshole, etc. So, let’s say you embrace the badass nature of amok running, plus you are not a dumb atheist, but a smart one. You realize that to be able to run amok without negative consequences, you need a gang of atheists. There is safety in numbers, it takes a village, etc. So, you gather a gang, all ravening atheists, who form a mutual protection society. You go rape some woman and a male relative of hers takes offense and a baseball bat and comes looking for you and … Bob’s your uncle, you have a dozen guys there to greet him when he shows up. Easy peasey. But the problem with this approach is there is nothing stopping the aggrieved members of society from forming an even bigger gang and beating the shit out of your gang and you, of course.

Such behaviors: bullying, running amok, etc. only “succeed” in the short turn. Eventually you get the shit beaten out of you, or dead. (Ask Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.)

So, the real reason why atheists just don’t run amok is that running amok is a lot of work and it just isn’t safe. Get along with people, treat them well, and you will lead a better life. This running amok idea may sound good to you, but it sounds miserable to us. It just isn’t any fun, you see.

April 9, 2017

Inquiring Theists Want to Know!

Theist apologists are always coming up with questions for atheists, kind of like the questions Catholic kids come up with for their Catechism teachers, e.g. “If God is all-powerful can he create a rock so big even he can’t lift it, Father?” Here is one of the latest:

Without a personal Creator-God, how are you anything other than the coincidental, purposeless miscarriage of nature, spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space for just a little while before you and all memory of your futile, pointless, meaningless life finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness?”

Gosh, as an announced atheist, this makes me want to go slit my wrists, but I am laughing too hard to undertake that task with any skill, so I will just tackle this question first.

Underneath all of the snark embedded in this “question,” is a feeling of superior knowledge, that the questioner knows that without his creator god, life is just futile. (None of the other creator gods will do, don’t you know.)

So, “a coincidental, purposeless miscarriage of nature,” hmm. Well, I can’t be a miscarriage because I actually was born, but coincidental, I’ll own up to that. My parent’s believed in planning their family and I was the third of the two children they planned, so, coincidental I am.

Now, “spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space.” I can detect no spinning. There is a gym nearby that offers spinning but I do not subscribe for that. The planet is “lonely,” that I do not get. The solar system has eight major planets, some minor planets, and myriad moons, etc. This guy makes it sound like there is the Sun and the Earth and little else. He must be reading his Bible. Maybe he means that I am lonely. Well, if I am, then I am very picky regarding having friends with over seven billion other humans to chose from, plus myriad other non-human companions I could entice to come live with me (for free room and board). No, I am not lonely; he got that wrong.

“In the blackness of space?” We seem to be quite well adapted to the light-dark cycles on our planet. The Scandehoovians who experience almost no “dark” during the winter go a little batty behind that, so “dark” is apparently a good thing for us. I like looking up at the dark sky and seeing all of the pretty lights, so not really dark at all, so he got this wrong, too.

But, yes, in a little while (littler all of the time) I shall die and kinda-sorta be forgotten. I still remember my parents and grandparents and other deceased relatives, so I expect to remain in memory of my younger relatives for some time. I am named in a family genealogy that goes back to the 1700’s and am recorded in a number of diverse histories, so will be “remembered” that way to some extent, and I have written close to a dozen books, which will remain available for a very long time, possibly many decades, but really I will not give a shit as I will be dead.

I have to ask, are all of those people supposedly in Heaven and Hell enjoying their immortality? Are they “remembered” by the living? Is not everyone remembered by your God who cannot forget anything (otherwise He would not be all-knowing), so is not everyone, in your world view, remembered forever and ever? Very puzzling attitude then for for you, a believer, to have.

And “your futile, pointless, meaningless life finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness.” I am looking forward to the endless blackness, far preferable to the Lake of Fire you promise my kind. But where do you get “futile,” and “pointless,” and “meaningless” from? Are you saying that because you are a Christian, your life is automatically not futile, not pointless, and not meaningless? If so, you are going to have to provide some details. What is your purpose in life? If it is to end up in Heaven at the side of your God, isn’t that a little self-serving? It sounds a lot like “I am going to get mine and the rest of you can go roast in Hell.” Many of your ilk tell us that good deeds will not get us into Heaven, but faith will, so you exalt people who do not do good deeds by have faith over people who lack faith, like me, who do good deeds. Sounds a lot like “I am going to get mine and the rest of you can go roast in Hell.” It also sounds as if you believe that your God has a plan for you. (He believes in family planning, unlike our current GOP.) Can you tell me what your plan is so I can see whether or not you are meeting your quarterly goals? No? Another thing I just have to take on faith, I guess.

And, last, regarding “meaning” as applied to one’s life. Meaning is something that is created in the hearts, minds, and words of others. You can read about the meaning of people’s lives in Wikipedia, for example. These meanings are divined, if you will allow the use of that word, from others observing our deeds. So, one creates the meaning of one’s life by doing. I can live with that.

And, I can die with that.


March 20, 2017

I Just Don’t Understand

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 7:29 am
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There is a continuing debate over what an atheist is. That this debate continues is baffling. I read about agnostics, hard atheists, soft atheists, militant atheists (Oh, my!), etc. The only reason I can imagine for carrying on these conversations (they are not debates) is they provide opportunities to disparage atheists. I will make this simple: there is a one question test to determine your status as an atheist. Here it is:

Question: Do you believe in the existence of a god or gods?

If you answer “no” then you are an atheist. If you answer “yes” then you are a theist of some stripe (there are literally thousands of variations).

If you answer “I do not know,” then you are an idiot. The answer “I do not know” applies to questions that one hasn’t considered in full or at all or cannot come to a conclusion based upon the evidence offered. This “question” is at the center of all organized religions and if you have had any contact with a religion at all, then you have considered this question. The few of us who have not had any contact with a religion are usual those raised by staunch atheists who deliberately didn’t teach their children about other people’s beliefs in their gods.

If you have addressed this question but decided that you will believe what everybody else believes, for whatever reasons, then you are an idiot.

If you have considered this question at length and still haven’t come to a conclusion, then you are also an idiot. Gods are supernatural beings, like fairies, unicorns, ghosts, zombies, etc. Do you have any evidence for the existence of any supernatural entity, any at all? If you do, please rush that information to researchers who have been looking for centuries for such evidence and found exactly zero.

If you are one of those who accepts the beauties of nature as evidence for the existence of your god, then you must accept that it is also evidence for the existence of all supernatural beings: unicorns, pixies, necromancers, and the rest, which puts you in a distinct minority … of idiots.

So, now that you know what characterizes atheists, can you tell me what they have in common?

If not, you have not been comprehending this as you have read it. Atheists do not believe in a god or gods. Other than that they have … nothing … else … in … common … except maybe exasperation with the people who deliberately do not understand that.

September 6, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 6 and The End

In the first five parts of this series of posts I made a few claims, namely that the dialogue between atheists and theists is both ineffective and really almost nonexistent. I argued that religions exist because they actually do benefit those who participate in them, even though I think the negatives outweigh the positives (clearly, theists do not).

And I heavily excerpted the book “Everybody is Wrong About God” by James A. Lindsay (Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition) which suggested these posts. I encourage you to read this book if you find value in the excerpts.

Now I add some additional thoughts to this mix.

* * *

I describe now a social group for you: it contains both men and women who meet according to schedule in a purpose-built “house” in order to spiritually support a group effort. They wear special clothing when they attend such services and during them they sing songs, and chant ritual sayings. You can see members of this group fervently calling upon unseen forces to affect the outcome of local events. Members of this group often share communal food and drink and support one another in these group activities. Members of opposing groups often elicit scorn and if the potency of this group’s object of worship is challenged by another group, it can lead to violence.

Is this a religious group?

What I just described is an English football club support group. A group of what we would call soccer fans. (I am oh, so tired of the English excoriating us ‘Mericans for calling the game soccer instead of football. They invented the word and carried it to the U.S. and planted it here! Sorry, got distracted.) British soccer/football fans exhibit virtually all of the characteristics of religious groups, including believing in the supernatural. I point this out for two reasons: for one, we come by these behaviors naturally, and two, we can find substitutes for religious practices that satisfy these needs. In fact, the ready availability of sporting contests to be viewed is thought to contribute to a general diminishment of violence. Ritual or staged violence may displace real violence, hmm. I think that view is a bit of a stretch, but it might hold up.

Clearly people have needs for things to be passionate about, to commune with others, to share food and drink, especially drink (certain pubs in England are off-limits to fans of “other clubs” after a game lest there be fistfights). These needs can be met secularly. The fact that the countries which meet the basic needs of their citizens the best are also the least religious of countries is a telling point. There are fewer calls on supernatural agents when natural agents are effective.

I would like to see a relentless commitment to the truth in reality whatever it turns out to be. Currently the level of hypocrisy in human affairs is much too high. For example, Silicon Valley tech executives who advocate for the use of screen-based devices in our schools spend large sums to send their children to Montessori schools which forbid the use of such devices in their classrooms, even at home. Clearly the data show that exposure to screen-based devices is a detriment to developing youths but, well, it is a $60 billion dollar market and there is money to be made. It is always surprising to me that the most religious Americans are also the most committed to capitalism, a form of social interaction in which money is worshiped.

So, a basic strategy in dealing with theists is just taking care of one another. I am not talking about lavish care but meeting basic, Maslovian needs (food, shelter, health care, etc.). Societies that do this have citizens happier than the norm, with anti-social behavior being much lower … as well as religious behavior being much diminished.

This seems to be a good way forward to a better secular future, better than trying to convert theists individually. In fact, I am going to eschew trying to convert theists at all. A better strategy is to outlive them, evolve away from the toxic aspects of religious practices. Make their religious benefits readily available from other sources and the religions will shrink and eventually disappear.

There are many “harmless” theists who will recoil in shock at being portrayed in this manner. They see all of the benefits of their religious association and, through confirmation bias, see none of the other aspects. I suggest that they do not worry because god is on “their side.” Myself, I want nothing to do with a god which picks sides. I wonder which English football club the Christian god really favors, hmm.

PS I will still write posts about the flaws of religion, but this is merely a social, “preaching to the choir,” activity. I suspect that all or almost all of you who like my posts on religion are already post-theistic. I write about religion in a “class warfare” blog because it is a weapon in the class war we are currently losing. If you are part of the “out group” in our economy (most of us now) you are told to “have faith” in things like markets to change your lot. Being religious establishes a basis for such new beliefs being proffered. If you are willing to believe one fantastic thing, why not two, or three?

September 5, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 5

… continuing from Parts 1-4. (If you haven’t read those, please go back and do so. SR)

And, a reminder that the parts in italics are excerpts (not necessary quotes of the author) from the book
“Everybody is Wrong About God” by James A. Lindsay (Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition).
I encourage you to read this book if you find value in the quotes listed.

It is outstandingly unlikely that secure, functioning, healthy governments, like the ones in nations such as Sweden, preside over mostly nonbelieving societies by mere coincidence. Many, though surely not all, of people’s needs for control can be satisfied sufficiently by society when states work to make that happen, and when people know these needs will be met, it appears they reduce their reliance on belief in “God” and stop pretending those needs are met in other ways.

This, I think is a if not the key element in combating theism. It is also not surprising to me that the most conservative, and therefore religious, politicians in this country are against the government providing any more services to its citizens. To do so would undermine their religious hegemony.

Rituals and group-cohesive behaviors of similar kinds are core to a sense of community, and many of these that religious people take part in seem to directly call for a reminder to “God.” One great example is the prayer request, or its extroverted cousin, the public prayer event. We have already discussed how prayer constitutes a coping mechanism related to the need for control, but prayer that is in some way a show of faith—be it by a request to help in a desperate need (control) or by praying in groups or in front of one another—also exhibits community-building functions. Such activities are, in a significant way, visible reminders that the people involved are “on our teams,” almost in a literal sense.

I will be commenting on this after we get through these book excerpts.Cover of Everybody is Wrong About God

Among the advantages of anchoring on a perfect, eternal “God” is simplifying the process of ethical reasoning by essentially eliminating the ongoing requirement to assess and modify one’s own ethics. Belief in “God” allows one to cast anchor into a thought-harbor where things seem steady, calm, and unchanging, protected from the buffeting waves of shifting cultural circumstances. Riding the open seas of cultural valuation takes continual effort that is greatly reduced by parking one’s ship in some harbor or another.

Get behind me, laziness!

“Satan,” or “the Enemy,” is a strange idea … like “God,” Satan is a mythological entity. Satan, though, is a myth that probably was not invented to explain anything more mystifying than the fact that no God exists. Satan, as an idea, exists because no amount of theological mental gymnastics has or ever can satisfactorily surmount the Problem of Evil—that things that are genuinely bad seem to happen (as it turns out, in a way that appears indistinguishable from utter indifference).

Interesting that the Christian god created Satan but isn’t able to uncreate Him or change Him in any way. Is great puzzlement.

The main reason that delusion isn’t quite the right idea to describe religious belief, and that mistaken is a better term, is that while God does not exist, “God” does.

This is the crux of the author’s argument and is repeated in many forms. It is really hard to find a solution for a problem if you do not know what the problem actually is.

Okay, Now What?
This book is a debate opener. It’s presented here to start a much-needed conversation. It is a call for us to go post-theistic and (hopefully) a clear expression of why doing so makes sense. It is not, however, a manifesto about how this can be achieved in the pragmatic minutiae, even if it hopes to provide some overall guiding mechanisms and useful suggestions.

The author does go into some of the possible tactics and strategies that could be used in this context, but clearly doesn’t want to be considered the fount of all of the answers.

We also have to change gears and stop arguing about the claims of theism. Those ideas are dead, and their terms are obsolete and mythological. The fight that remains is cultural, not academic or philosophical. We need to help people abandon faith, mythology, and superstition and to do everything we can to help them come to terms with the psychological and social needs that keep them clinging to ancient stories—as lone sources of ethical guidance, as coping mechanisms, as personal or cultural contextual narratives, and as a means of making sense of a confusing and difficult world.

Basically, making arguments that God doesn’t exist fall under the “flogging a dead horse for poor performance” category. His point is if that question has been answered, why continue to debate answers. They only serve to give credence to the idea that the matter is not settled.

Furthermore, we have to recognize that religion and belief in God meet needs for people, and thus we absolutely must start diligent and serious work into figuring out how to help people meet those needs in a better way.

Again, the major theme, stated over and over.

The data seem uncontroversial; where societies are very successful at The data seem uncontroversial; where societies are very successful at providing opportunities and security, reliance on religious belief drops. Put another way, if people can have their needs met without religion, they often will.

That is for the big picture, as to the small picture …
For the vast majority of people, helping them to uproot their faith does them at least two major favors. First, it treats them as an intelligent adult capable of engaging in serious and critical thought. Second, it helps them be less wrong.

All faith possesses the power for great and needless harm, and all faith is unjustifiable because it mishandles information we pretend constitutes knowledge when it doesn’t. It simply has no room in the process of determining what is true and, thus, what is most likely to produce good results for people impacted by human beliefs, which is all of us. All faith has to go.

One source of support for meeting peoples needs without faith or religion is to support secular government.

As a last word on the need for secularism and the need to encourage it, we should note the chief difficulty with secularization is the one we cannot lose sight of: again, religions are moral communities, hence morality and religion cannot be separated.

Achieving a post-theistic society may require filling the religion gap. The religion gap is the space between (1) where our societies and culture presently are in terms of naturally helping people satisfy the various psychological and social needs for which they turn to religion and belief in God and (2) where those need to be for most people to be able to meet their needs successfully without turning to religion or belief in God.

This is most definitely not by replacing religions with things that look and act just like religions.

The extremely low rate of belief in God among members of the National Academy of Sciences would perhaps be perplexing were it not for the fact that being highly adept at the sciences meets many (but not all) human needs for attribution (nota bene: being adept at the sciences also cultivates epistemic humility and a demand for having proper justification for beliefs). As scientifically minded people learn to find more and more well-evidenced natural attributions for the phenomena of the world, the notion that the rest of our phenomena have natural attributions— that can be understood and thus brought under some degree of our control—becomes more and more comfortable.

It has often been quoted that the fastest ways to lose one’s faith is to actually read the Bible, or to attend divinity school, to which we should add “to acquire a high quality education.”

Helping people to realize a satisfying sense of purpose in life is also a tricky endeavor because it is intimately tied up with a few core human struggles that we seem to remain poorly equipped at coping with: death and extinction. Becoming lost in the sense of powerlessness attendant to those hard facts of living robs people of the ability to see that the most meaningful purposes in their lives are both clear and present. 11 Satisfaction with life and the capacity to help others achieve it are the human purposes, and the fact that these efforts are necessarily local—as opposed to universal— makes them more poignant, not less. Our purposes in life are defined most significantly in those we care most about.

I think when people talk about their purpose in life it is always a post hoc generalization of things already done. It never seems to come up when deciding what to do.

Meaning and purpose in life become almost entirely apparent when we facilitate good work and a sense of community. They become even clearer when people identify themselves with their communities.

I will be comment on this in the next (and I hope final) post in this series.

We have to wean ourselves off the pointless and boring arguments, many of which are over philosophical topics or morals, so that these no longer characterize the debate over religion.

A huge part of this effort is captured in the promotion of being openly nonreligious.

“God,” as a set of ideas, is an important concept for humanity, and it has helped and continues to help billions of human beings attempt to live better lives by allowing them to fulfill many of their core psychosocial needs (and to ignore others). Pretending that when believers talk about “God” that they do not know what they are talking about is condescending and unfair. It isn’t that they don’t know what they’re talking about; it’s that they’re talking about a mythological construct that embodies what they really mean.

Understanding what “God” means could cut through theism completely, but there are obstacles to this. Most notably, faith is an almost insurmountable barrier because it, almost by definition, makes itself unquestionable. Given that, we must uproot faith.

Pant, pant, pant … if you have stuck with this thus far, I applaud your stamina. I hope to wrap up this whole series in my next post.

September 4, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 4

… continuing from Part 3. (If you haven’t read that, please go back and do so. SR)
Also, excerpts are in italics, my comments in Roman type.

Human needs are very complicated, particularly when it comes to understanding complicated elements of reality like the working of the universe, the phenomenon of life, the human mind, experience, culture and society, and, literally, all manner of things. “God” was invented, bit by bit, to provide explanations for everything, meeting our needs for attribution (explanations), giving us a feeling of control over our circumstances, and allowing us to make sense of ourselves and each other in the cultures in which we live. “God” is the ultimate ad hoc concept, filling every gap exactly as it needs to be filled specifically because it needs to be filled. Still, we must realize that when people say “God,” not only do they mean something that refers to things that are real, those things are very important to them. They are talking about their core values. They are talking about how they make sense of and see the world— often the only way they know and have ever known to do this. They are talking about how they resist feelings of powerlessness. They are talking about how they understand themselves and the communities they live in. For believers, whatever mythology may lay on top of these very important somethings, these are at the heart of what they mean by the word “God.” For these reasons, when nonbelievers say, “there is no God,” which we have every reason to believe is true as they mean it, they are saying something utterly unintelligible to believers. Believers believe there is a God because they know there is a “God”— a set of ideas that speak to and help them make sense of their core needs and values. What they don’t realize is that they are making a mistake by accepting theism. By accepting theism, they mistake a myth for reality.

Moral Attribution
Religion simplifies morality by providing the heuristic of making it the desire of a deity. Attributing moral salience to “God” makes morality seem real, which makes it more concrete and thus acceptable, and it also makes morality absolute and final, which is to say simpler. These are very attractive notions when it comes to dealing with an inherently complicated subject like morality.

For many religious believers, it is simply impossible for them to conceive of “right” and “wrong” without anchoring them against the divine, meaning that they’ve turned their unquestionability knob way, way up.

So, when one of us says  we do not “believe in God,” we might as well say we do not believe in morality. This is a case in which the shorthand substitutes for the longer version because the longer version is inaccessible to most. Most Christians could not carry on a five minute discussion of morality because most humans cannot. We know we want it but we can’t talk about it.

Also, the “unquestionable knob” on our intellectual sound boards shouldn’t exist but it does.

“And we pretend that our duty, in deference to all this pretense, is to honor,
worship, glorify, and, in stunning blindness to the irony,
humiliate ourselves before the abstract idealization of meaningfulness.”

We all make mistakes— a point that religious evangelists are often quick to point out in an effort to try convince people that they are making sense when they accuse everyone of being sinners. And this is the sinner’s lament, a haunting melody of needless self-indictment and guilt sung in oughts, shoulds, and if onlys. That the chords are often sinister, rigid, and composed by institutionalized authority, however well-meaning, only makes the song the sadder. All that is required to release the grip of this wight is to realize that moral perfection is a scam. We make mistakes, and this does not imply that we break laws of divine importance. To fall short of an idealized take on the moral values held by an imaginary idealized self is not only normal, it is inevitable.

Since religions are systems of control, including control of theist’s thinking, taking an ordinary fact of life and turning it into something that needs forgiveness for, and then charging for that forgiveness should be seen as diabolical.

The Purpose of Life
“God” as a sense of universal purpose is, perhaps, more pitiable than most other aspects of the abstraction that goes by that name. This is because our purposes in life are hardly mysterious or inscrutable; they’re just small and local: caring for ourselves and each other, raising our children, doing our jobs well, being good citizens, trying to make a difference for other people present and future, searching for and hopefully obtaining happiness, and helping those we love to do the same. Somehow purpose becomes a critical part of “God” because we seem unable to accept our smallness, our locality, our relative powerlessness, and our lack of importance outside of the speck that we share for mere eye blinks of time.

Behind much of this is the puffery included, such as we are made in God’s image when it is God which was made in ours; the universe was made for us, we are here, on Earth, which is the center of the universe, you already have an immortal soul, even though no one can find it, etc.

We pretend a great deal in service to this need too. We pretend that the universe was brought into existence for life, by which we mean intelligent life, by which we mean human beings, even if we throw in a nod otherwise (say, to our beloved pets). We pretend this is the purpose— the telos— of the universe. We go on to pretend, in consequence, that the human vanity is the fruit of all existence and, particularly, of the tree of life. And we pretend that our duty, in deference to all this pretense, is to honor, worship, glorify, and, in stunning blindness to the irony, humiliate ourselves before the abstract idealization of meaningfulness.

Read that last sentence over slowly. I continue to find Christian conservative politicians doing everything they can to diminish life and especially women, the creators of new human life.

We need to understand ourselves. Not only do we need to understand ourselves, but we also need to understand ourselves in relation to our society. Indeed, these needs are interrelated. Our sense of self, and the self-esteem that follows from it, is largely defined in terms of how we understand ourselves in the context of the (moral) communities in which we identify ourselves. Our culture, our community, and our sense of family, actual kin and fictive, all provide the necessary references for who we see ourselves to be, and developing a healthy sense of self-esteem in this regard is a basic human need at the psychological and social levels. Because religion provides an extremely effective framework for succeeding at this goal, “God” plays a significant role in grounding the meaningfulness of the whole affair.

When we do not take care of one another, hucksters step in the claim they’ll do it for us.

So intense and concrete is this sense that many of the (so-called best) arguments for theism— for the existence of God— are simply arguments that these complicated phenomena cannot be explained without appealing to some deity to explain them. Every cosmological argument, every argument to the “fine-tuning of the universe,” every appeal to “intelligent design,” and many to the unique nature of mental phenomena fall into this category, and they all say the same thing. All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth they call “God.”

Admittedly, these are worse than bad answers; they’re nonanswers that frequently stand directly in the way of getting to real answers, but they seem to fill the hole left by the believer’s ignorance.

Isn’t it reassuring to people to know that the answer book accompanying the Textbook of Life lists “God did it” as the answer to all questions. You will pass the test!

Because of the importance of the religious belief structure, believers like these reduce their feeling of cognitive dissonance by rejecting the less important of the two paradigms in conflict, and in these cases, it is science and thereby the threatening facts it has established. Such is the power of an attributional schema that speaks not only to needs to understand, feel in control, and promote sociality, but that also effectively allows believers to deny the reality of mortality.

Belief in antiscientific nonsense, then, isn’t necessarily ignorance. Instead, we can see it as a statement that every educated person who believes in “God” has psychosocial needs that they do not otherwise know how to meet and that at some level are more strongly cherished than holding true beliefs about the world.

And we can see already what the belief in scientific nonsense is getting us. Today the NYT carried a piece on how the rising ocean levels are causing local flooding, even when the sun is shining. But climate change is a myth.

I am sorry this is so long, but I think there are important points to be made and I wish to over- rather than under-make them. More is coming.

September 3, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 3

I am starting to get feedback and, in the interest in high quality communication, I must address some of that feedback so as not to mislead. One reader read what I posted as a call to atheists to offer solutions to theists and their “issues.” If you got that impression, then I have indeed mislead you. I will make no such suggestion. What I have done so far, in my own mind, is to suggest why the dialogue between atheists and theists is both ineffective and almost nonexistent.

When I pointed out the solace provided to members of church communities when a loved one died, I asked: “And, as atheists, what do we offer as a substitute? Some kind of intellectual purity and a feeling of being all grown up because we no longer believe in fairly tales?” Possibly this could have been better written as “What does atheism offer as a substitute?” I certainly didn’t mean to imply that atheists felt any kind of obligation to “fix” theists.

I will suggest, though, that it is in our best interest that theists be “fixed” as they are becoming more and more politically active, pursuing things such as blasphemy laws, declarations of the U.S. being a “Christian Nation,” and such that cannot really coexist with a liberal democracy. But I am a believer in the old trope the “the best revenge is living well.” By just coming out of the closet, atheists now have friends who know them and can’t imagine them, say, eating babies or corrupting youths as some theists claim. This strategy has helped to bring down walls in race and gender relationships.

Joining some movement is not required. An attitude shift may prove desirable, though.

Getting to the Core Arguments

I am going to quote extensively from a book: “Everybody is Wrong About God” by James A. Lindsay (Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition). I encourage you to read this book if you find value in the quotes listed below. Be aware though, that these are excerpts from that book and some of the excerpts contain quotes from other sources. I found the task of keeping those references clean daunting so I am warning you: these are just excerpts from the book and may contain material from other sources. The book itself is loaded with references, linked to original sources (in the Kindle Edition these are hot links).

All of the excerpts will be in italics. Any comments I add will be in “Roman” or normal text. SR

Getting Started

By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost.

This is an argument made over and over. The author argues that theism is bankrupt and making a-theistic arguments simply supports theism as a topic worth debating. This is akin to the recommendation that evolutionists should not debate creationists as it gives them too much credibility.

We shouldn’t continue to conflate the debate over the idea of theism, which is over, with the needed cultural shift away from it, which is not.

“God” is not an element of this world or any other, and it is not a living, breathing entity that has something to do with creation and the fate of the universe or the judgment, reward, punishments, and concerns of people. “God” is an abstraction utilized to pretend something exists that does those things because that pretense allows people to meet or ignore certain important psychosocial needs.

Here is another core idea: people have psychological and social needs that religion and beliefs meet and when those come into conflict with reality, reality is more often than not going to lose. Basically, even with all of the proselytizing, religion would die out if it weren’t working on some level.

But God is a mythological object and thus emphatically not best treated philosophically because philosophy takes the idea too seriously in the wrong way.

People use their “God” attributional frameworks to meet or ignore certain psychosocial needs. These needs are common, it seems, to all human beings as part of our evolutionary heritage, and “God” is one way we’ve tried to help ourselves deal with them.

Every time someone says that he believes in God, he’s saying that he has psychological or social needs that he doesn’t know how to meet.

… religion is a powerful factor in meeting human needs for meaning making, control, and sociality.” Meaning making can be summarized under the term “attribution,” which means “the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events.” Sociality often has at its base at the individual level a core need for esteem, which Hood, Hill, and Spilka define as “a personal sense of capability and adequacy, which is a central part of sociality and is reflected in our relationships with others.” These needs are at once psychological and social, and so they will be referred to as human psychosocial needs throughout.

Here is the list of the primary psychosocial needs being met by religion:
1. meaning making (attributing causes to effects that create meaning)
2. control (having a feeling of control when really there is none)
3. sociality (feeling that one is a responsible and capable part of a social community)

I note that the presentation here and in the next chapter, by necessity, oversimplifies by being too narrowly reductive. That shouldn’t be a problem in communicating the basic ideas, however, and the reader is trusted with being able to realize many more connections between these elements than are documented.

This comment and similar ones get made frequently. The author is very careful not to overstate his case and to point out that a certain amount of oversimplification occurs, sometimes because it is unavoidable and other times when it is useful.

So long as we feel powerless— and in many regards we always will be— we’ll turn to whatever we can to seize a sense of control if we become desperate enough. Poignantly, Hood, Hill, and Spilka note, “Though the ideal in life is actual control, the need to perceive personal mastery is often so great that the illusion of control will suffice.”  At the phrase “illusion of control,” “God” conspicuously enters.

Religion connects individuals to each other and their groups; it socializes members into a community, and concurrently suppresses deviant behavior. As Lumsden and Wilson put it, religion is a “powerful device by which people are absorbed into a tribe and psychically strengthened.”

As will be pointed out later, stating that you are a God believer identifies you as a trustworthy member of a social community. The irony in Christianity being the existence of tens of thousands of different sects, all calling the others “wrong.” So, your beliefs are wrong … but I can trust you to be a moral person who means me no harm.

I also wish to impress upon the reader again that the forthcoming analysis rests firmly on two observations: (1) very many perfectly sane people, some very intelligent and some very educated, have believed in, still believe in, and must mean something by whatever they call “God,” and (2) whatever that something is, theism— the belief that it is a deity that actually exists— does not capture it. The claim then is that “God” exists, and God doesn’t exist. “God” is an idea, an abstraction, that people use to attempt to make sense of the world. The primary application of this abstract idea is to meet various psychological and social needs, to fulfill them by imaginary proxy, or to pretend that those needs do not need to be met. In broad summary, the psychosocial needs that people use “God” to satisfy or ignore fall into three categories: attribution (making sense of the world and what happens in it), control (overcoming a sense of powerlessness), and sociality (community building and finding context for self and others within that community). God, which does not exist, is a mythological construct representing the combination of ideas that get called “God.”

Is this starting to make sense?

(… to be continued …)

July 22, 2016

Morals Are . . .

Filed under: Morality,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:44 am
Tags: , , ,

I am almost finished reading Everybody Is Wrong About God by James A. Lindsay which I have mentioned before. The author makes several novel points (the existence of God debate is over, they lost) and is urging us to shift the focus of anti-theism onto addressing how to naturally meet the needs of god-fearers which are now being met by “god,” that is meeting those needs via nature.

My intent was to write a proper review when I finished but I don’t thing that is possible as there is way too much meat on this bone to gnaw off in one sitting, so I am going to have to treat the various psychosocial needs that religion addresses one at a time. This time I will address “morality.”Cover of Everybody is Wrong About God

The linchpin of this discussion is a question so often asked by theists, namely, “How can you have morality without God?” The author points out the word “God” does not refer to a system of morals described in scripture, which would be problematic at best. The word “God” in this question is actually a stand-in for “morals.” What they are really asking is “How can you have morality without morals?” In the theistic mind, morals and God are synonymous. So, a godless atheist is automatically amoral and because theists aren’t accepting of their biological natures, they assume atheists are ravening animals without restrictions like bars or at least a leash.

Having this equivalence as part of your makeup is a great shortcut. One doesn’t have to have ever thought about morality and how one should act in society. If one is a god-fearer, that is all that is needed. One is automatically a moral person and everyone else in the “club” has been screened and pre-qualified for the same criterion. The fact that most people are fairly moral helps to sustain this delusion. The fact that our prisons are crammed full of theists doesn’t undermine it because, well, they are not “true” theists.

Atheists pointing out that scriptures are riddled with examples of bad behavior by gods, ranging from the petty to the obscene does no good whatsoever, because “God” has all of this cover created for “Him:” God is all-good, good is all-knowing, god is all-benevolent, and if you get in my face, God is all-powerful and will kick your ass (at a bare minimum kick your ass into Hell after you die). On top of that, theists are taught that they (and so you) cannot question God, so there!

There are consequences to these approaches to morality. The obvious ones are shown in scripture. In Jewish and Christian scripture, Yahweh commands his people not to “kill” then goes about ordering the deaths of millions upon millions of people by his people. Careful inspection of the scriptures indicates that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is really “Thou shalt not commit murder” and that is qualified as “Thou shalt not commit murder of a Yahweh believer.” Whether you quibble or not, the net result is it is okay to kill as long as Yahweh says it is okay. As I have mentioned, this is why we always claim that “God is on our side” whenever we go to war.

Morally, most people would say that killing was most repugnant and would only be acceptable in cases in which one is defending one’s own life or the life of a close family member. Most would prefer that criminals be captured rather than killed at the site of their crime. But once “God” has endorsed a certain kind of killing (by a cleric blessing the troops or a Fatwa being issued), look out.

Part of the psychosocial need on display in most theists, and most people for that matter, is the desire for an absolute morality. And the only absolute morality is one dictated by a god, because otherwise we are limited to human agreements which are changeable. (There is a phrase “You can’t legislate morality” which points mostly to the futility of the effort but also to the underlying feeling that morals need something with more heft to back them up (God!).)

Philosophers have struggled to define or describe an absolute morality and have failed miserably because apparently no such thing exists … except in the minds of theists. For theists “God = morals” and “God is absolute” and voila.

Since theists equate God with morals, if you are without God, you are without morals. This is tough spot for an atheist to be in. The problem here is that too many are looking at morality as being a state or condition. I, on the other hand, rather look at morality as a journey rather than a destination. To be a moral person, there is a process that you must hew to and that is before you take action you evaluate how you feel about the effects of your actions using your moral senses, whatever the heck those are.

Most of us couldn’t define our own morality if our life depended upon it. Most would mumble some version of the Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have done to you. This is a common guideline to morality that has arisen in various cultures over most of human history. It is also vastly incomplete, but as a rule of thumb it works for a great many situations. (As an aside, I prefer this statement over the “Do unto others what you would have done unto you” which is an even worse guideline. If I wanted a massage, should I go out and grab people and start massaging them, to communicate my desire for the same treatment?)

But as people we all have feelings and if we consult them (the morality ones) when we act and act accordingly, then we are behaving as a moral person and hence, we are a moral person. Sure, if you are a psychopath, you may think it is perfectly moral to chop up your mailman and store his pieces in your freezer, and you may think that is okay. But morals are completely unnecessary without a society, so in society we interact and offer corrections to one another regarding our shared morals. Parents teach their children. Adults interact in ways from which they can learn things like “maybe I shouldn’t have let my dog dig up the neighbor’s lawn.” These interactions involve quiet conversations and fist fights and everything in between. The morals that really count are the shared ones. If you think it is immoral to wear clothing made of more than one fiber, you are welcome to that belief. It is harmless for you to enforce that upon yourself. If you try to enforce it upon others, though, you are going to be met with resistance . . . and laughter, and ridicule, and a manifold of other social cues as to bad behavior. If you think it is moral to torture puppies and stake their flayed carcasses out on your front lawn, you are going to find out rather quickly that your neighbors do not share that moral but that they do own pitchforks and torches.

It does no good to have an absolute morality (even if one did exist) if you do not consult and follow it. And since basic morality seems to be shared by almost all around the globe (most people think theft and murder are immoral), scripture is not needed to define it. What is needed is interaction. We are currently undergoing global societal interactions over things like female circumcision and honor killing and rape and sex slavery. In some cultures these are considered acceptable. I suspect as those cultures become more immersed in the global society, those practices will be diminished as being archaic and unacceptable. You need only look at the global standing of women in all cultures to see that change, driven by moral feelings, is possible.

What to do to shift the psychosocial needs of theists off of their religion and onto something natural, I haven’t gotten to quite yet. The author insists, wisely, that he is just starting a conversation (actually steering a pre-existing one) and not trying to solve all of its associated problems. More is coming.

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