Atheism, Paganism, and the God of Abraham


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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217 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    the enemies of the Jews are always pagans, not atheists

    You know this means War right?Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Freud once argued that Anti-Semitism is a revolt of the Pagan against the Christian. To Freud, Europeana resented the Jews because they resented what Christianity imposed on them, the self-discipline necessary for Monotheism, as opposed to the more loosely-goosey ways of Paganism.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Christianity sees everyone as potential converts. If they’re an external threat, first you conquer them and then you convert them. The historical roots of Christian anti-semitism lie in the fact that Jews, uniquely, wouldn’t convert, no matter how much pressure was brought to bear.Report

    • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Marranos ring any bells?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Kimsie says:

        But the whole point about the Marranos is that they practiced their Judaism in secret. It was not a sincere conversion. Just like Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jews are not sincere Jews.

        Spain never trusted the Jewish converts anyway and the Marranos still suffered after converting during the Inquisition.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Almost certainly off-topic but I thought you would be get a kick out of this:,2316/

      Though it might go hand in hand with cultural Judaism. Now on to Sammy’s Rumanian Steakhouse.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        Even further off-topic, Mel Brooks was on Fresh Ait yesterday, and revealed (quite seriously, I think) that he’s asked Hitchcock’s permission to parody him in High Anxiety, and not only did Hitch agree, he helped with the script and suggested gags for it, including the following (which wasn’t used):

        The hero is being chased by a mysterious, murderous gang through the waterfront district. He spots a ferry about fifteen feet from the pier, runs toward it, and makes a terrific leap, barely reaching it. He sees the gang still on the pier, shaking their fists and making threats about what they’ll do when they catch up with him,

        And then the ferry, which was arriving, not departing, docks.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          That’s not bad!Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

            It’s pretty good, but not very Mel Brooksian. I think you’d have to add in, say, a director cameo as an obnoxious Jewish peanut vendor:

            “Do you want some peanuts? Only fifty cents a bag!”

            “I need to go, there are …”

            “Where you going in such a burry? Calm down, you’ll hurt yourself!”

            “There are five men trying to kill me!”

            “Kill you? What a situation! You know what you need?”




  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I’ll look for the link latter but after WWII, several European Protestants argued that the church could never fully replace the synagogue in the battle against paganism because Jews on a whole will not or can not backtrack into paganism in the same way Christians could. Jews could become irreligious or atheist but not become Pagan.Report

  5. Avatar NewDealer says:

    How much of this issue do you think is complicated by:

    1. Judaism having a long history of being oppressed by various religions. Ancient pagan cultures tried to make Judaism disappear or more pagan. This is the Hannukah story, the revolt against Helenized Greeks, Passover, etc. I think Judaism would see atheists as just leaving us alone or at least being argumentative at best. Dawkins and the New Atheists go against religion in general but I have never heard them strike out against Judaism like they do against Christianity and Islam.

    2. There is the always controversial topic of Cultural and Ethnic Judaism. Also known as “once a Jew, always a Jew” I know a lot of people of Jewish background who are apathetically agnostic or openly atheist. However most of them still describe themselves as “culturally Jewish” or “ethically Jewish” and many will still join synagogues, attend high holiday services, give their children bar and bat mitzvahs, keep kosher during Passover, feel uncomfortable during Christmas, etc. Many might even choose to marry a religious Jew over a similarly secular Christian because they do not want to have their children celebrate Christmas. They feel a strong binding to their people. My parents are openly atheist and they still like going to services every now and then and sent me to Hebrew school until 12th grade. There are debates about whether you can be a good Jew and not believe in God.

    This sort of cultural and ethnic Judaism seems deeply confusing to anyone who is not Jewish. My atheist friends from Christian backgrounds are deeply perplexed by it, almost to the point of explosive anger at times. At best they celebrate super-secular Christmas and Easter but not much beyond that. I’ve tried to convince them that Judaism is as much a culture and ethnicity as a religion but they are blind to that definition. They would not understand how my mom can be atheist and still like attending services every now and then.

    I can’t think of aReport

    • Avatar Gerry in reply to NewDealer says:

      As an Irish Catholic turned atheist, I understand your friend’s confusion. My first exposure to non Irish Catholics was when I met a Jewish guy on a semester abroad in Italy. He was never religious but when he finally married (an Irish American catholic no less), she had to covert to Judaism so that their kids could be Jewish. I found that utterly strange and fascinating until he explained to me that for him, his background and culture are rooted in an idea, Judaism, rather than a place. No matter where I go I will be Irish and will identify with Ireland. Hopefully my kids will do the same. My culture (the singing, the language) are not dependent on my religion, or lack of it. I learn Irish, not because it is useful but because it gives me a sense of place. For Jewish people, that sense of place comes from their culture which is utterly wrapped up in religion. At least that’s how I interpret it. I am open to being corrected if I am wrong.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Gerry says:

        We are also a product of Disapora in ways that many other cultures were not but we always take the Pale of Settlement and the Shtetl with us, whereever we go.

        Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers is a good book on the Jewish-American experience at least for the majority who came over from Eastern Europe during the late 19th to early 20th century.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Heh. Paganism as it is currently practised today is a silly thing, so many ninnies playing dress-up at a pre-Ren Faire. Actual paganism, as practised in the times when Ymir and Odin were in business and truly worshipped, was a horrible thing, replete with human sacrifice.

    The Golden Calf was the symbol of Toru El, an older version of the Abrahamic God of Israel. El is the Hebrew word applicable to any god, including their own.

    There will be no return to paganism. What passes for The Numinous among these newly-minted New Pagans is a toothless tiger. Sure it’s fun to talk about those Pesky Atheists, so dreary and depressing. Some of them are awfully dogmatic about their Lack of Faith. But nothing is so bland, so useless, so unpalatable, as these New Pagans. Give me an honest atheist any day of the week. At least that guy’s amenable to scientific thought. There are enough mysteries in the world. The wonders of the universe and the human heart are sufficient to engage us forever without needing to gin up a fresh Egel HaZahav and dancing around before it, saying “this is the god who led us out of Egypt” all the facts to the contrary.Report

    • Avatar Joe Cogan in reply to BlaiseP says:

      “Heh. Paganism as it is currently practised today is a silly thing, so many ninnies playing dress-up at a pre-Ren Faire. Actual paganism, as practised in the times when Ymir and Odin were in business and truly worshipped, was a horrible thing, replete with human sacrifice.”

      And Jews no longer stone people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath either, and Christians haven’t burnt many heretics at the stake lately. What’s your point?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Joe Cogan says:

        I have made my point. The New Pagans want nice tame gods to worship, like so many castrated steers on the back forty acres. When they get around to giving those gods a taste of blood, as the Old Religion required, you’ll let me know, won’t you?Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Joe Cogan says:

        Some Jews currently engage in biological warfare to punish/defile heretics.

        Don’t know about the rest, I’m not up on other religions.Report

        • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to Kimsie says:

          “Don’t know about the rest, I’m not up on other religions.”

          Not only not up on other religions but decisively not up on realityReport

    • Avatar PPNL in reply to BlaiseP says:

      What passes for The Numinous among these newly-minted New Pagans is a toothless tiger.

      Yes well what passes for christianity is a pretty toothless tiger compared to the overseers of the inquisition. All religions get reinvented daily and believing the god of today would have got you killed in the past. Believing in the gods of the past today would often get you locked in an asylum.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to PPNL says:

        Indeed it is. Christianity is hardly practised in accordance with the Gospels these days, not that it ever was, truth to tell. The New Pagans wants to reinvent the gods in their own image. Silly creatures, one might almost wish for an old druid priest to be resurrected, so he could cut one of these berobed buffoons open, tie his guts to an oak tree and whip him as until his intestines were wrapped around that tree, in accordance with the proper mode of worship as laid out in the Olden Days these New Pagans seem to admire so much.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    Ah yes, once again with the lack of atheists to have spiritual experiences, as if we are dead to wonder and mystery.

    Dreher does it in a wonderfully back-handed way, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world.

    But it is a notion that should always be challenged; for spirituality and mysticism seem innate to the human condition, and schooling yourself to experience those feelings while resisting irrational worship takes serious effort and constant introspection.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to zic says:

      Don’t you know all atheists are dead inside? 🙂Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Morat20 says:

        When I use my goddess-like voice to tell the billions of flora and fauna that make up the universe of zic, I fear I’ll experience an excess of biliousness in answer. “We are dead inside. Let the great decay begin!”Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I suspect that we’re going to be moving through atheism rather than through paganism. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a hungry beast, after all. He’s going to eat things that were never supposed to be on his plate.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s the Invisible Pink Unicorn impaling the believers on her/his horn of indeterminate length you wrong godded Pastafarian heretic! And also the Affiliated League of Athiests! *lights a torch*Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

        Nobody expects the Atheish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to Reason, and nice pink uniforms – Oh damn!
        [To Cardinal Biggles] I can’t say it – you’ll have to say it.Report

  9. Avatar Joe Cogan says:

    “the enemies of the Jews are always pagans, not atheists”.

    Hardly surprising from an historical perspective, unless the author can think of any atheist societies the Jews encountered between the time of the Torah, and the Middle Ages.Report

  10. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    It may be worth noting also that the criticism of Trinitarian Christians by Medieval Jews, at least as summarized here, would have been similar if not identical to the classic criticism by Muslims, who, unlike the Jews, claim Jesus Christ as a true Messenger of God, but view claims of his or His divinity as shirk. The Christians for Muslims are also people of the Book, but Catholic Trinitarianism is also viewed as a form of polytheism.

    Levinas’ view of atheism as a moment or orientation prefatory to and incorporated within Judaic monotheism is something that atheists in their aggressive modern incarnation will, I think it’s safe to say, tend to reject. The ones who will be able even to conceive of its possibility or arguability will be few and far between. As materialists, they will understand religious belief as a social-cultural tendency of the human animal, possibly explicable by reference to biological or genetic pre-dispositions. The religiosity of a modern atheistic, scientific and materialistic worldview, even if acknowledged as such, will be a religiosity understood from within that worldview.

    It should be added that the inability to recognize the other in oneself and the distinctions as artificial is hardly unique to atheists. In the meantime, a relaxation of distinctions that understands all faiths as ideally the same faith, offers obvious benefits in an age of globalization, but for the same reason appears as a temptation merely to forget or ignore the contents of faith or the meaning of a commitment to revealed truth.

    The modern atheist sees the contents and meaning of faith as non-existent, as things to be gotten over, to be left behind in the childhood of humanity, but offers in exchange the impossible opportunity to be nothing or to be as though not at all, to be mere being, a rock or a dry bone or an infinitesimal fraction of an infinity approaching true nothingness or a death of never having lived. Atheism is a negation, and stands on its own terms as a being-without, or being of an absence, or being of a non-being. Taken as a spiritual vocation it nearly coincides with the outlooks of some schools of Buddhism and Daoism, but atheism does not typically take itself as a spiritual vocation, but rather as the vocation of de-spiritualization or disenchantment. It will not be satisfied except by nothing, by the complete evacuation of that which exists from existence.

    The alternative widely observed and argued among sociologists of religion is the rise of the so-called “Nones,” those who in surveys declare non-membership in any particular church or faith community, but who may frequently describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In surveys of Americans the number of “religiously unaffiliated” has risen from 5% in 1972 to 20% in 2012, from a virtual splinter to a significant minority. I think it’s quite safe to assume that a lot of “mainstream” religion has been substantially “none-ified,” with emphases of “interfaith dialogue,” “ecumenicism,” and so on having become the norm.

    The open question is how to distinguish fading distinctions – or the proposition that polytheism, atheism, monotheism, non-theistic religion, post-theism, and so on, are all inevitable and complementary moments within the any soul – from mere chaos, insouciance, muddle of the type that seems to offer very little at all to anyone, and so, not actually unreasonably, drives those seeking something to depend on back to all those “real” faiths we just got through getting over.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      And here we have a stunning example of what I spoke of up thread:
      The modern atheist sees the contents and meaning of faith as non-existent, as things to be gotten over, to be left behind in the childhood of humanity, but offers in exchange the impossible opportunity to be nothing or to be as though not at all, to be mere being, a rock or a dry bone or an infinitesimal fraction of an infinity approaching true nothingness or a death of never having lived. Atheism is a negation, and stands on its own terms as a being-without, or being of an absence, or being of a non-being. Taken as a spiritual vocation it nearly coincides with the outlooks of some schools of Buddhism and Daoism, but atheism does not typically take itself as a spiritual vocation, but rather as the vocation of de-spiritualization or disenchantment. It will not be satisfied except by nothing, by the complete evacuation of that which exists from existence.

      The bigotry of this is astonishing. And it goes unchecked, unquestioned, nearly every day.

      The Earth is no longer the center of the universe.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to zic says:

        Agree with Zic.

        For a guy that seems to have a very “continental philosophy” approach to how he writes, you seem to have missed that lots of Existentialists believe -in the simplest terms- in the value of faith in life, but are not at all religious believers. Faith is a non-rational commitment. But you don’t have to commit to belief in God (or the Christian God specifically). You can commit yourself to a moral life or an artistic life or a life as an iconoclast.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

          By guy, I mean “CK.”Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Shazbot3 says:

          “Agree with Zic” and “missed what lots of Existentialists believe” are not arguments, they are descriptions.

          According to a preferred and finally nonsensical or at best political definition of “religion” and “God” or “belief in God,” you can “commit yourself” to a “moral life” etc. without that commitment being religious or having the character of religion. Under a different and non-preferential understanding of the phenomenology of religion, “commitment to a moral life” is inherently a religious commitment, a “devotion” – as belief in “yourself” is also a belief in a fictitious all-encompassing being – in the case of the Existentialists taking the form, again, of the displacement of an old holophrase with a new one: The Existential (also suggesting a variant on an old name of “God”) for truly devout Existentialists replacing the Divine, while the identified-religious are defined as victims of falsehood; or religious becomes a synonym for “false,” “non-religious” becomes a synonym for true. So we have a belief-system of the true and the false, the Divine and the not Divine, that insists on its own divine (existential) truth to the exclusion of other belief systems, and whose adherents prefer to consider their beliefs not as “religious” but as true – just like every other true believing true believer of every other religion.Report

          • Avatar j@m3z Aitch. in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            CK, I seriously want to believe that I’m a bit dull, and this isn’t mere word soup. But at best I am capable of reading this (and I admit, I’m just not capable of reading this–I can barely follow Chris’s comments here, and they’re comparatively straightforward), you’re using proof by definition and the rest is just flowery rhetoric. Seriously, can you please reach down to my non-philosophical level to explain this, or can it not translate into plainspeak?Report

            • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

              “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” –G.K. ChestertonReport

              • Avatar James K in reply to Wardsmith says:

                That makes less than no sense.Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to James K says:

                James, it makes perfect sense if you’ve followed the arguments through the centuries. If this is all brand new to you then it might be a bit like saying integrals make no sense before knowing about algebra, let alone derivatives.

                C. S. Lewis put it another way. “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.” Coincidentally in a different thread I posted this link about a scientist, Andrew Parker who previously wrote a book called, “In the Blink of an Eye” concerning the Cambrian explosion that followed – wait for it – the onset of vision. He decided that the Genesis creation sequence had to be correct and his book explains why (by no means does he agree with the YEC timescale of course, nor would anyone who is serious about the subject including the Jesuits who taught me).

                CK is getting some grief here and elsewhere for distilling those centuries’ thoughts into triple distilled 190 proof. Not easy to swallow without some experience with the 80 proof (at least).Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Wardsmith says:

                That’s just a ridiculous exercise in question-begging. The idea of gods and spirits is a malfunction in the human brain’s over-sensitivity to agency. Since the most important thing to humans is other humans, our brains evolved to pay a lot of attention to the intentions of the people around us.

                But this part of our brains is over-active, you can see it in the Fundamental Attribution Error, where we tend to overstate the importance of personality traits to explaining people’s behaviour. You can see it with experiments they’ve performed with children – get them to watch a bunch of shapes moving randomly on a screen, and they’ll start treating them like characters “the square is chasing the triangle and the circle is very sad”.

                Gods are a product of the human brain’s tendency to assume that things are happening because some kind of agent is making them happen. When you approach the universe with a more rigorous eye, it becomes clear there is nothing to it.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to James K says:

                And this is why we can’t have good things…
                like actual RNGs in video games.
                … because people HATE them.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                The idea of gods and spirits is a malfunction in the human brain’s over-sensitivity to agency.

                First, “malfunction” is a judgment in this case, and second, this is only a part of the cognitive basis of belief in supernatural beings.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                The idea of gods and spirits is a malfunction in the human brain’s over-sensitivity to agency.

                First, “malfunction” is a judgment in this case, and second, this is only a part of the cognitive basis of belief in supernatural beings.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                Oh dear God, no James, you won’t enjoy Jaynes. Calling him a hack might be extreme, but if it were possible for someone to be within a fraction of a millimeter of the hack boundary without actually crossing it, that would be Jaynes.Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to James K says:

                So Chris, is your mind wired such that you can only “enjoy” information that reinforces your preconceived ideas? No cognitive dissonance for you? Personally I enjoy wild ideas if they make me think. Jaynes may well have been psychotic (he was a psychologist after all ) but he approached an old dead subject from so far out in left field that there’s nothing less to be said than, “Wow”.

                James, you should come to your own conclusions on what is interesting or not. Don’t just take Chris’ word for it, Chris needs what Chris needs. Maybe you could review this first before you make up your mind. Bottom line, these discussions on metaphysics always devolve to certain terms and pre-terms with inherent “baggage” associated with them. At least Jaynes had the courage to envision a pre-verbal awareness among other things that have indeed stood the test of time. But my memory is dated, I read it when it was first published and no longer have my copy around here. Perhaps my memory has improved the original text after 35 yrs of digesting. 😉Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                Ward, it’s strange that you would accuse me of that after I at least intimated that I know Jaynes. Or after you’ve shown such… inflexibility here in the past. Figuring people out is also not your thing.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to James K says:

                With all the books worth reading, and the limited time available, I can’t imagine why anyone would bother with Jaynes. There was an anarchist writer in Eugene, OR that some of my friends encouraged me to read. His argument was that before language humanity had a better means of truly communicating with each other, that language served only to divide, and that we could only return to the paradisiacal true anarchist world when we abandoned language. Somehow I didn’t find time to read him, either.Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to James K says:

                @Chris, You intimated that you /know/ Jaynes or simply know of Jaynes? From your post no such information is given, you merely state in your usual pedantic way that he is (almost) a hack and we are supposed to take your word for it – no evidence given. Of course /these hacks/: Andrea Eugenio Cavannaa, Michael Trimblea, Federico Cintic and Francesco Monacob don’t know what they’re talking about either. Good thing we have you here Chris! I’ll be very interested to see whether anything /you’ve/ written is even discussed 30 yrs from now. No doubt you’ll have your own website and everything

                Meantime I readily enjoy read opposing viewpoints. That broadens my understanding. By no means do I expect myself, you or anyone else for that matter to have all the answers. I /do/ learn whose views to reject and why, in the course of my investigations. If that makes me “inflexible” so be it. I can be convinced, but it takes more than a “because I said so!” to work on me. 🙂Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to James K says:


                First, “malfunction” is a judgment in this case, and second, this is only a part of the cognitive basis of belief in supernatural beings.

                I was responding specifically to the assertion that humans have some kind of sense for the divine by pointing out the limitations of human perception in this area. As for describing it as a malfunction, I stand by that description, though I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it is one that is unique to theists.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                Ward, I did not know Jaynes personally. He was dead before I really even considered going into cognitive science.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Wardsmith says:

                The kind of reasoning in that book is one of the reasons I’m an atheist.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to PPNL says:

                Is it a sign of potential mental problems that I thought, “Holy shit that article was bad! Now I absolutely have to read that book.”?Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Wardsmith says:

                Oh, and the evolution of vision didn’t spark the Cambrian explosion. No one thinks this. Well, Andrew Parker thinks this. Andrew Parker is wrong.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chris says:

                Scientists are only now grasping what nature of the Cambrian explosion. The early atmosphere was filled with lots of ammonia compounds which can be catalytically converted to nitric acid. The nitric acid combined with early versions of cellulose and chitin analogs to form gun-cotton, and this was deposited in thick mats on the ocean floor. Eventually these thick mats were exposed to the atmosphere, as shallow sea beds were thrust upward by tectonic forces, and this left the coasts with massive layers of dried gunpowder. One bolt of lightning was all it took to blow up the whole surface of the planet.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            When your definition of “religious” is compatible not only with things that are commonly and historically called atheism but with outright materialism, you’re maybe not speaking the same language as everybody else.

            The overall structure of your argument appears to have been to make an outrageous claim about the nature of atheists, and when challenged fall back on idiosyncratic definitions of “religious” and “atheist” such that no actual people would be considered atheists.Report

    • Avatar Fnord in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Let me put it this way:

      The distinction between oneself and the other is the foundation for the feeling of empathy, which in turn is the foundation of love. No one would deny that. But the theist rejects the love of his fellow man as insufficient cause for joy, and the worth of his fellow man as insufficient cause for love. They imagine another being, different and greater than human, to be the true source of joy and love. Joy, love, the call to transcendence, those are within everyone, and are the best part of humanity. But the theist imagines them as part of their imagined divine. The concept of the so-called divine is a denial of the human spirit, taking the best part of the human spirit and denying its humanity.

      The theist rejects the wonder of existence as “mere”. Thus theism, not atheism, is the negation of existence. Life, to them, has value only in pursuit of some mythical other, outside and beyond “mere” existence, as if human striving and human joy and human love were meaningless. It’s the theist, not the atheist, that’s empty inside.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      The Christians for Muslims are also people of the Book, Catholic Trinitarianism is also viewed as a form of polytheism.

      The Muslims did invent algebra, so evaluating “x > 1” for x = 3 was easy enough for them.Report

  11. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    The bigotry of this is astonishing. And it goes unchecked, unquestioned, nearly every day.

    Thanks for making me laugh today.

    Please feel free to go on believing, in your state of astonishment, that your “spiritualism” is actually “atheism,” rather than a substitution of the word “spirit” for the word “God.” You seem to want to believe, or authentically believe, that you can have or declare an intimation of the divine or of “something” – here another word for what others call “divine” – that you can call “spiritual” that is still atheistic, or non-divine, or anything other than a theism by stealth.

    So which statement in the paragraph you quote gets you or your beliefs about atheism or the meaning of atheism so wrong, or is so injurious to the good name of atheism, or, from a self-consistently atheistic perspective, can be taken as “bigotry”?Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:


      The bigotry still flares brightly.

      The presumption, yet again, that one is atheist, and so spiritually dead, or pagan. Very bigoted thought, that.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        I have to admit, and I mean this quite respectfully to those atheists out there, that I have difficulty reconciling atheism with anything that I would call spiritualism. I don’t mean that they are “dead inside” (they love, hate, and so on), but that the emotion and self are derived from something other than a metaphysical spirit. I mean, I generally consider atheism to be the rejection of metaphysical anything. Once you have spirituality, than you’re moving into something other than atheism.

        Objection to the notion that atheists lack morality (or a system of morals) I understand and agree with. Offfense at the notion that they lack spiritualism is not something I am familiar with.

        This is wrong? This is the impression I have gotten mostly from what atheists say (and where my mind was going when I was dabbling in atheism).Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to Will Truman says:

          I would say my spiritual journey is one of not only learning about myself and my place in the universe. It’s a journey of gaining knowledge, understanding, forgiveness, compassion. The revelations of what goes on in the soil of my garden beds, watching it year after year, and contemplating how this — a simple handful of dirt — might matter to the scheme of things seems a very spiritual journey, Will.

          And one that might actually matter more to other humans and non-humans alike, then ascribing ‘spiritual’ meaning to the words of men dead 2,000+ years; particularly when we have little way of knowing what colonized their soil or their guts.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to zic says:

            Do you believe in a spiritual world?Report

            • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Pinky says:

              See my comment about two meanings of “spiritual.”Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                I’m not sure that you can make the distinction between those two types meaningfully, at least not without problems explaining consciousness, or problems explaining why consciousness has value.

                I also get the impression that you’re describing spiritualism, but Zic is expressing anti-religious agnosticism. I could be way off-base though.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Pinky says:

                I would say I am athiest, not agnostic. I think there’s more we don’t understand then we do, and I suppose that could be misconstrued as agnosticism.

                But I also think religion is of value, a roadmap of sorts to human psychological development. To me, the important questions are about why humans have a need to create god; what things about the human condition does that teach us?

                But no, I do not believe in a divine presence outside of man’s creation.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Pinky says:

                I am an atheist and believe in consciousness.

                Explaining consciousness in material terms is difficult, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to do it one day. And God’s existence doesn’t help you with that explanation anymore than “God made the lightning” was an explanation.

                I believe at base our values don’t have a rational basis. (I’m with Sartre on irrational commitments to hold values.) Maybe I’m wrong, though, and reason itself implies that it is rational to accept such and such values, as Kant seems to suggest at points, and it would still be rational to believe such and such about math or logic or ethics if materialism was true. But again, God’s existence doesn’t help you explain morality either: see Euthyphro problem.Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                “I am an atheist and believe in consciousness”

                Do you believe in a sub consciousness? If so how so?

                Further, as a robot how can you trust your belief in either? Couldn’t it just be a glitch in the circuitry? Give me five minutes with a screw driver and a soldering iron and I think I can iron out your difficulties.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Wardsmith says:

                There’s plenty of evidence for the brain being a massively parallel structure. Not the least of which is the ability to recognize vertical and horizontal lines (in different parts of the brain, at the same time)Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:

          Wil, are ideas metaphysical? Are they merely physical? (I’ve been pondering this for several years now, since a blog commenter argued I was not a strict materialist if I believed in ideas.)Report

          • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to James Hanley says:

            Numbers are an even bigger problem than ideas.Report

            • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Shazbot3 says:

              Are numbers not ideas? (Serious question–these are things I don’t know, and am not sure I’m capable of knowing.)Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

                There is a thing called mathematical Platonism that holds that numbers exist in some sense. The other side is that math is just a human invention.

                The problem with the human invention thing is that an alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy would certainly calculate the same digits of pi as us. While details would differ they would develop much the same math as us.

                While math is a human invention it is not an arbitrary invention. It is driven by necessity. This gives it the feel of an object that you have discovered rather than invented.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to PPNL says:

                The problem with the human invention thing is that an alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy would certainly calculate the same digits of pi as us.

                A circle is a concrete thing; that’s just saying that the material world is real.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Yes but pi would be important even without circles. While it is true that we first crossed paths with pi with circles it is also true that pi pops out at us all the time.

                For example e^ipi=-1. How can equation containing four dimensionless numbers be geometrical? What is this strange connection between the base of the natural logarithms and pi?

                Math is about logical structure. Geometry is a subset of that logical structure. Sometimes structure in geometry has deeper connections to the rest of math.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to PPNL says:

                e^ipi=-1 is a better example. Would another intelligent species have concepts anything like the ones that led to that, or is there something peculiarly human about it?Report

              • Avatar Fnord in reply to PPNL says:

                Circles are not physical things. Circles are a model used to describe physical things. I do, however, suspect that they’re a universally useful and parsimonious model, so that aliens would probably have developed the concept.

                They might or might not do complex exponentiation the same way we do, which is what leads to the e^i? thing. But I’m likewise fairly confident any technological civilization will have Euler’s Number (though they won’t call it that, obviously).Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to PPNL says:

                Complex exponentiation isn’t just a convention, is it? e^x is lim(n => inf) of (1 + x/n)^n. Plug in πi and you get -1, right?Report

              • Avatar Fnord in reply to PPNL says:

                It wasn’t my intent to deny that complex exponentiation is universal; I simply don’t know enough to be sure that is, given that I’m trying to be conservative about this (unlike, say, base 10, which I know is not likely to be universal). So it’s possible you’re correct.

                My point was merely that I expect that e IS universal, despite being somewhat more abstract than pi.Report

              • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to PPNL says:

                e^(i*pi)= -1 because e^ix = i * sin x + cos x. That’s what makes Euler’s identity work. But it only does so because we define sine and cosine in terms of radians.

                Radians are a relatively odd way of measuring an angle, though, chosen specifically because they make the math elegant. Whereas when we measure angles for real-world applications, we pretty much just use degrees.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to PPNL says:

                But radians are not ad-hoc. Radians tap into a fundamental property of angles: the ratio of the length of an arc to the radius of the arc describes the angle traced out by that arc.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to PPNL says:

                Yes, radians would be invented by my hypothetical aliens as well.

                Thats what I mean about math being an invention but not an arbitrary invention. There are choices but there are consequences for those choices. You can design a car any way you want but the wheels should be round. You can run a marathon any way you want but you probably shouldn’t be wearing scuba gear. You can do math any way you want but you should probably use radians as anything else will make you look silly.

                Now this gives us a cool way to visualize complex powers geometrically but the math does not depend on and is not limited to geometry. For example are prime numbers geometrical? Yet the Riemann hypothesis uses complex exponentiation and is considered the most important unsolved problem in pure mathematics. It can be viewed geometrically but ultimately is about the distribution of prime numbers.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to PPNL says:

                Circles exist in nature: soap bubbles are spheres (or close enough) because that equalizes the pressure in all directions.

                The complex numbers don’t exist in nature. They’re the result of a process of generalizing and making the result regular and elegant, which may be peculiar to humanity. It’s hard to say, since we have no other intelligent species to compare ourselves to.Report

              • Avatar Fnord in reply to PPNL says:

                The mathematical concept of a sphere is just a “regular and elegant” way of describing the form of a soap bubble. Spheres (and circles) are a model that match reality, but they’re still a model.Report

              • And we know circles are universal because aliens place them in crop fields.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to PPNL says:

                By the way, PPNL, where you been? It’s good to hear from you again.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

                Really? I have never been all that active here. I usually just lurk since I find the commenting software of blogs nearly unusable as the discussion grows beyond a certain size. This blog usually exceeds that useful limit very rapidly.

                I’m surprised anyone takes note of my presence or absence anyway. Anyway my participation will always be uneven but I’m almost always lurking.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to PPNL says:

                Yes, really. You add value. Good to know you’re always out there.Report

          • Avatar Kimsie in reply to James Hanley says:

            Extelligence exists. But it’s a property of a communal, emergent system.Report

          • Avatar PPNL in reply to James Hanley says:

            Wil, are ideas metaphysical? Are they merely physical?

            Yeah, this gets into the strong AI debate. If the brain is just a physical device then we should be able to program a computer for the same function. Would the computer experience its thoughts or is it just a collection of capacitors and transistors charging and discharging in a particular formal pattern.

            This particular rainbow has not yet been unweaved.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to PPNL says:

              There’s been some unweaving.

              And if you truly were able to program in the same functions, the computer would absolutely “experience” its thoughts.

              The issue to my mind is how overly facile your “we should be able to” there is: really facile, or really, really, reeeaaaally facile?Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Michael Drew says:

                The issue to my mind is how overly facile your “we should be able to” there is: really facile, or really, really, reeeaaaally facile?

                I mean in principle. Computers are still a few orders of magnitude short of a brain. Also we still don’t have a very good grasp on how a brain works. But progress is being made rapidly. A hand full of decades maybe.Report

        • Oh, I don’t attribute spiritualism to formal religious declarations or adherence to a book. The “I’m spiritual, but not religious” line seems not-at-all contradictory to me. It just wouldn’t occur to me that they are atheist. (And again, that’s not meant as an insult or a declaration of superficiality or immorality on the part of atheists.)

          I also wouldn’t consider ideas to be spiritual, nor philosophy (morality, ideology, etc.).

          So I guess it’s a question of terminology. Or, as Aitch says, a poverty of language between how I interpret the word “spiritual” and how some seem to use it.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Will Truman says:

            You don’t have a soul, you *ARE* a soul. You have a body.

            Unless, of course, there’s only one substance.Report

          • Avatar zic in reply to Will Truman says:

            I think there’s often a confusion between something that’s spiritual and notions of metaphysical or cult. Much religion seems to have a lot of the insider cult stuff going on; people with secret handshakes, languages, even their own personal conversations with god.

            I very much agree with PPNL; this is a human tendency; it’s somehow hardwired into our brains, I’d guess part of the mechanism we have to ask why and seek answers. Even more, I think this common response combines with other things that reinforce religion and belief in God; we are born dependent, our first moments are cries of need — for food, for warmth, for diaper changes — and we call, and if we’re to survive and thrive, we’re answered. As adults, when moments of stress push us beyond the bounds of our knowledge or ability, I think that inborn tendency to reach out and wail for help, predisposes us toward a belief in God. Our social natures, our questioning natures, our helpless natures, all seem satisfied with constructs that result in organized religion.

            Understanding these things seems very spiritual thing, to me.Report

        • Avatar PPNL in reply to Will Truman says:

          I have to admit, and I mean this quite respectfully to those atheists out there, that I have difficulty reconciling atheism with anything that I would call spiritualism.

          Ok, look at it this way… can an island native that has never had contact with the outside world get a sense of the “spiritual” from his belief and worship of the volcano god?

          I don’t know about you but I would say yes.

          But if this is so then that “spiritual” sense has no connection to the existence of the god they worship. Maybe it has no connection to the existence of any god. Maybe it is simply a biological function of being human.

          Maybe wrapping that “spiritual” sense in a specific dogma is a perversion that limits you and puts you at risk of flying large aircraft into big buildings.

          The world is beautiful. The world is awesome beyond any expression. I have no explanation for that and I am content with not having an answer. Making up stupid pseudo-explanations is about the ugliest thing I can imagine.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to PPNL says:

            I can’t imagine the worship of a volcano god wouldn’t qualify as spiritual. I guess I associate spiritualism, to an extent, with a metaphysical order of some sort. Not scripture, nor an organized religion, but the belief that there is – or is – a supernatural guide to the universe.

            It’s possible here that I am conflating “atheism” with “materialism” in my tendency to see atheists as viewing the physical – that which can be seen and proved – as the benchmark for the order of the universe?Report

            • Avatar zic in reply to Will Truman says:

              It’s possible here that I am conflating “atheism” with “materialism” in my tendency to see atheists as viewing the physical – that which can be seen and proved – as the benchmark for the order of the universe?

              Perhaps; but there is much less proved that what can or might be proved; if that makes sense.Report

            • Avatar PPNL in reply to Will Truman says:

              So how do you define “supernatural”? After all if you worship the volcano god then the volcano is supernatural.

              Sure you attach your sense of awe and mystery to things you do not understand. From there you may progress to insisting that those things can have no explanation. Then you may progress to refusing explanations once found because they destroy the mystery. And so that “spiritual” sense becomes attached to the stupid. Sad really.

              Unweaving the rainbow does not diminish mystery. For example the literal rainbow must have been an enigma to primitive humans. Unweaving it gives us the wave nature of light. But then we find that other particles have a wave nature and light also has a particle nature. We get quantum mechanics. From that we derive Bell’s inequality which is a beautiful enigma that makes a rainbow look like a colored bit of fluff.

              The beauty is exactly in that things can be unweaved to find deeper more profound mysteries. Supernatural things are by contrast a dead end that lead to spiritual and moral decay like tossing virgins in volcanoes. Volcanoes are interesting exactly because they are not supernatural and do not require virgins.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to PPNL says:

                It seems to me that if you are worshiping a valcano, you are assigning supernaturality to it. Otherwise, it’s primarily a fascination geological phenomenon… but I don’t see how it would be worthy of worship.

                You make a case for an appreciation of the beauty of nature. And of such appreciation being just as valid (or more?) than the worship of a god. I’m not really arguing that, though. I’m not arguing the superiority of faith in a deity or faith in the supernatural over a profound appreciation for nature. Rather, I am assigning an adjective to one that I do not really assign to another (which, maybe I should, which is part of the reason I am participating here – to suss that out).

                I mean, I don’t consider environmentalism to be religious or spiritual. This isn’t a condemnation, it’s just a matter of which box I mentally put it in. However, once you start worshipping the Earth – not as a keen place for us to live and for which we should be stewards – I think you do approach something spiritual and, to an extent, religious. Gaianism, which I consider something distinct from atheism.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                I can’t worship the whole of the natural, material world?Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                I dunno. Seems incongruous to worship the natural earth and be an atheist. By worshipping it – rather than loving it or merely appreciating it – it seems to me that you are assigning a divine importance to it.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Trumwill says:

                No, I am assigning it all the importance in the world.

                To worship something out of the world as better than what is in the world is to say that the world sucks in comparison to the other worldly, and I think this world is far more than anything that exists outside of it.

                There is nothing outside of life and nature that is better than life an nature. That is my worship of nature.

                Maybe this is our trouble: How are you defining (even in loose terms) “worship?”

                I can see a narrow definition of “worship” where only something with a will and/or the ability to judge you can be worshipped by you, if you think worship requires doing what the person/thing/god that you worship wants you to do or will judge you badly for doing if you don’t do. But I think that is too narrow a definition of “worship.”

                But if that is just a semantic dispute and I would concede the point.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Trumwill says:

                I mean, what we call hero worship is the worship of people, living or dead, not something divine.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Will Truman says:

                I’m not making a case for appreciating nature. I’m simply saying that a sense of awe, wonder, fear and joy is universal to humans. Some wrap it in mysticism and some think the mystery is degraded by the mysticism. The failure to apply any specific dogma to the feelings and instincts does not change the nature of those instincts. And the mysticism can be dangerous.

                I do not think there is a coherent definition of supernatural so I don’t really need a definition of natural except in the sense of not man made. There is just stuff that probably is and stuff that probably isn’t.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to PPNL says:

                +1. I would strongly second this. And suggest that these feelings of wonder and awe can be triggered by many things.

                Music is another example. Usually a part of religious ceremonies and worship, too. Over the 38 years I’ve been listening to my sweetie improvise jazz, often with a group of musicians who have never met before, let alone played together before, I’ve experienced plenty of that awe and wonder, a feeling of witnessing something extraordinary. After a particularly good session or gig, the musicians themselves often speak of ‘something flowing through them,’ as if what they’d played came from outside themselves.

                This is incredibly common when groups gather to intensely focus on a common interest, and do so with careful attention and focus. We mentally engage on a deep level, and time slips away, wonders happen, we’re open to experiencing them.

                That this happens in nature, when we engage our minds in activities, when we listen, sometimes when we read, is without question. Awe and wonder and a sense of connectedness. But that they are evidence of anything beyond human’s ability to feel awe and wonder and connectedness? That will take some convincing.

                Again, to my mind, the better question is why this is so common. What does it teach us about ourselves.Report

              • Avatar dhex in reply to zic says:

                the book “in gods we trust” touches on this. it’s pretty deece if you’re into that kind of thing.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

                Thank you, dhex. I am interested.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Will Truman says:

          I generally consider atheism to be the rejection of metaphysical anything. Once you have spirituality, than you’re moving into something other than atheism.

          I think that’s about right, Will. “Metaphysics” is a realm of philosophy for me, a way of understanding and clarifying existence. A phrase like “spirituality” or “metaphysics” at least implies that there is some effort being exerted to look beyond nature, beyond the universe as a physical phenomenon, to either discern something supernatural (a Maker, a God, or a First Cause) or to reach a very high level of abstraction in thought(intentionality as opposed to intent).

          That’s not to say there is an absence of awe, peace, appreciation of beauty, and so on, and the poverty of the English language is such that words with religious connotations are sometimes all that we have to describe those mental states. When I’ve gazed in awe at something spectacular like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley, or even the tiny intricacy of an insect going about its tiny life, I suppose one might say that a “spiritual” experience was going on within me — but we need to parse out the notion of “supernatural” from “spiritual.”Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to zic says:

        So, disbelief in atheism is bigotry now? So belief is bigotry, except for belief in un-belief? I think you’re bigoted against people who don’t share your belief in atheism. You are so bigoted that you treat a dispassionate and inclusive account of atheism or types of atheism as potentially logically self-consistent belief systems as “bigotry.” Unless I bow down to your particular account of atheism, apparently, then I am guilty of the worst heresy known to our agnostic pluralistic order, the sin of “bigotry.”

        Up above, you used the phrase “irrational worship,” a phrase that seems to imply the existence or potential existence of a “rational worship.” “Worship” implies reverence to a divine being. If it is a worship of rationality (as or in the place of the divine), then what do “feelings” of “spirituality” and “mysticism” that happen to be “innate to the human condition” but apparently have no other basis, no rationality in themselves, have to do with rationality? It is rational to worship the irrational? So the worship of the rational implies the worship of the irrational? Or the worship of the true requires the worship of the false, or a pretense of belief in that which is unbelievable?

        This is Alice in Wonderland atheism in which the word “atheism” simply means what you want it to mean, because you want to believe that that’s what meaningful means. You want to believe – period. You specifically want to believe that your belief is both belief and non-belief under an adequate inattention to the possible truth value of your statements regarding belief, and that this disinterest in the truth also represents a worship of the true. You want specifically to believe that the word “a-theism” (“a” = “no”; “theos” = god; “ism” = belief system) includes just enough wiggle room for a theism that isn’t theism but also actually is theism.

        Your position amounts either to a commitment to nonsense or ignorance or a tolerable superficiality, or to an admission of the impossibility for you of an authentic atheism. It produces a crisis of faith that leads you to lash out at anyone who presumes to look at its elements. You still, worshiper of the rational, have not responded to a single logical argument, you have merely accused me, as previously you accused Dreher and as you accuse countless others of the worst possible heresy under our civil religion, the heresy of bigotry. Someone who lashes out at someone else for statements regarding belief, with no reason other than that he or she finds them uncomfortable or offensive, making no effort to understand: That person is the true “bigot,” as least for anyone with an interest in using words that have some relationship to what they are supposed to mean.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          While I think this is a gross misuse of the word “bigotry,” I agree with Zic’s statement. Our, or at least your identification of atheism with a monistic materialism (or physicalism — I don’t think most physicalists are materialists) is a very modern thing. Traditionally, atheism didn’t mean no belief in anything other than the physical, but a rejection of God. It was a label applied to pantheists, for example. Certain sects of Buddhism and even some forms of Hinduism have also been treated as atheism.

          This severely undercuts your narrative, particularly the part about “the complete evacuation of that which exists from existence,” but I’m not sure that narrative even applies to the monist, materialist/physicalist versions of atheism. At the very least, it is a narrative that excludes atheism and therefore can’t really say anything about it.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

            Yes, Chris, it is a very modern thing, which is why I referred in my comments to “modern atheism.” I believe the tendency of atheism as ideology, especially obviously in the works of the so-called New Atheists but also more generally and implicitly in the older forms all the way back to those originally called “without god,” is inherently toward reductive materialism or physicalism, and I’m not sure why you consider distinctions on this level between materialism and physicalism particularly relevant or why they “severely undercut” my “narrative.”

            Otherwise, we’ve actually had or begun this discussion before. It is a first-philosophical discussion, so I am not confident that this thread can be a good place for it.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              CK, I consider distinctions between pluralism and monism (and physicalism comes in both pluralist and monist forms) to be what undercut your narrative. You assume that the only possible atheism is a monist atheism, and historically that’s not true, even if the “New Atheists,” who have more co-opted the term than defined it, have made it look different today.

              You’ve taken a gap in our representation of the world, a hole that we perceive (liminally, just on the edge of awareness) as a result of the contingency of our experience, and you’ve reified it, absolutized it, and given it a name. This gap is not even linguistic, it’s both pre-linguistic in its liminal form, and wholly linguistic in your reified form. And you’ve assumed that the gap is the defining feature of existence, and excluded all else as mere nihilism. Your narrative can’t accept the existence of atheism because it cannot speak without the choice you’ve made to reify the hole at the beginning.

              But there’s something worse that you are doing than the sort of maneuver that I find philosophically problematic. You’ve substituted your narrative for every possible narrative, and therefore are forced to assume that every narrative that falls outside of yours, of which yours can’t speak, is inauthentic in a pejorative sense. That’s a pretty shitty way to see people. And it’s not first philosophy, it’s a moral failing.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                That’s impertinent and self-contradictory, Chris. You expect as a first principle that I be open to your beliefs or way of expressing your beliefs (or lack of belief), then resort to crude and presumptuous, personally accusatory language to characterize my beliefs or what you perceive them to be.

                You do not recognize that your “pluralistic” narrative is wholly exclusionary, so not authentically pluralistic at all – because it cannot be. Insisting on plural truth as the one truth is obviously not pluralistic. It is an obviously non-pluriform pluralism. You have decided ahead of time that the world would be a better world if a plural oneness was plural but not a oneness, so you insist that it must be, and that is what makes your perspective precisely what you insist is the one wrong thing.

                The presumption that there is anything “pejorative” about the argument for one position, and therefore for the truth of that position, as opposed to another is entirely yours, and leads you to offer insults.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                First, it doesn’t preclude your narrative, except to the extent that your narrative tells other people that their beliefs are inauthentic, and not merely wrong. And it does that not on a metaphysical or even epistemological level, but on an ethical one. And that’s what you’ve done here: tell people their beliefs are inauthentic, a product of wishful thinking.

                So, my pluralism is exclusionary, on a metaphysical level, in that it says that any monism (and most pluralisms — pluralism isn’t everythingism) are wrong. It doesn’t say that those who’ve arrived at mistaken monisms and pluralisms, as you have, have done so out of bad faith or mere wishful thinking. I think you’ve made a linguistic maneuver, and it has led you astray, but you didn’t go astray because you longed for something non-contingent on which you could hang your own contingency, which would be the equivalent of what you’re saying about atheists (all the while excluding the very possibility of atheism).

                In other words, my own philosophy hasn’t become so exclusionary that your philosophy, not the truth of your philosophy, but even thinking it, arriving at it, speaking it, is impossible, to the point that by attempting (and necessarily failing) to utter it here, you are lying to either us or to yourself (or both). This is what you’ve said of atheists.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                As I was just saying to Mr. Hanley, I don’t have time to play this string all the way out today. However, “wishful thinking” is not the same as “bad faith”: The former is a mistake, the latter is an evil. An insistence on wishful thinking can turn into or be characterized as bad faith, however. “Inauthentic” may also be a problematic term, since, from a morality of authenticity as self-authenticity it is synonymous with the immoral. In a morality of authenticity as authenticity to the true, or of the authentically true, then immorality in the form of bad faith arises out of refusal or resistance to the possibility of truth or of authentication, an imposed stoppage prior to a recognition of necessary implications of untruth.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                I should note that most of the atheists I knew prior to the New Atheist nonsense (nonsense in a philosophical and a colloquial sense) were not physicalists of any sort.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                Really? The handful I knew were pretty much monists.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Some of them might have been monists more accurately described as pantheists (one substance, multiple attributes), but most of them were new agey types, all on about energy and balance and stuff.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                I didn’t consider those people to be atheists.

                In the same way, I suppose, that my Southern Babtists didn’t consider Presbyterians to be real Christians.Report

              • Avatar j@m3z Aitch. in reply to Chris says:

                Why did you bother to know them?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                Some people like to hang out with people they agree with.
                Some people like to hang out with people they disagree with.Report

              • Avatar j@m3z Aitch. in reply to Jaybird says:

                I think you missed the subject, JB…new agers. 😉Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                To this day, some of my closest friends are new agey, if not outright new agers. Hell, one does that kooky Reiki/Network Chiropractor stuff for a living. She’s cool as hell, but when she starts talk about light beings, I tune out.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Chris says:

                Chris, someday, I hope you’ll explain this in plain English.

                (High regard I hold that I think you can, too.)Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to zic says:

                Zic, are you familiar with the family of cosmological arguments for the existence of God? In case you’re not (or on the off chance that someone else read past that first sentence and is not familiar with it), I’ll describe the family of arguments quickly.

                The first, most basic idea in cosmological arguments is that everything in the world of experience, that is, the things that we can perceive with our senses, is caused by something else. Furthermore, each of those causes is also caused by something else, which is also caused by something else, which is then also caused by something else, and so on to the limits of our experience. Because each of the things is caused (and by things I’m speaking really broadly — a thing can be an entity, an event, a process, whatever, it doesn’t matter, thing here just means the highest level of abstraction of which we can speak), each of these things is contingent, in its existence and its nature (that is, in its actually existing and in how it exists: e.g., that water exists, that it is H2O with a particular molecular “shape,” particular properties such as being in liquid form at temperatures above 0 degrees Celsius, and 4 degrees Celsus, etc.). There is nothing in our experience, that is, that we can sense, that is the sole cause of itself, so there are no non-contingent things in our experience.

                Now, a recognition of the contingency of everything in our experience can lead us to two conclusions about the nature of being and the nature of our world, both of which philosophers and theologians have argued throughout history. The first conclusion is that everything, even if we can’t experience it (for whatever reason: because it lies outside of the range of our senses, because it comes before us in time, or whatever), is contingent, which means that there is no first cause (first here doesn’t have to mean first in time, it could be first outside of all time, because time is contingent as well — each moment has a preceding moment and a succeeding moment), no cause without a cause, so the string of causes and effects extends as far as beings extend, which is presumably forever.

                The second conclusion is that there must be something, something which must lie outside of the realm of our experience (because everything we sense is contingent), which is not itself caused by anything outside of itself (that is, anything other than itself). The string of contingent beings concludes (or begins, depending on how you arrive there) at this non-contingent, self-causing being. This is then the cause that animates the entire series of caused things. It is the first cause, the prime mover, God.

                There are various ways to arrive at either of these two conclusions — the infinite series of contingent beings, or the first cause, and I won’t get into those arguments because there are several versions which rely on different types of logical maneuvers, and I’ve already made this way too long. Suffice it to say that these two directions seem to fall naturally, given the nature of human reason, out of the same facts of the matter (namely, the nature of our experience of things). This, at least, is how Kant saw it, and he famously said that ultimately we can’t decide between the two through (pure) reason alone.

                What I was saying about CK’s position is that it arises out of the “sense,” a vague feeling, that though everything we see and hear and feel in the world has a cause (some of which we know, some of which we don’t), there must be something just outside of the grasp of our experience that is non-contingent (and necessary, though I’ve avoided talking about necessary vs. non-necessary, because that will just make things overly complex), that doesn’t itself have a cause, and that is the cause of the string of caused things in the realm of experience. That vague sense, that feeling of something absent, is little more than that, just an absence.

                What I was claiming CK is doing is taking that absence and giving it substance, making it a presence in stead of an absence, giving it being where it was, in direct experience, nothing (no-thing), and then confusing the presence he has created for existence itself. For him, then, everything in our experience only makes sense, only has any sense at all, once that no-thing becomes a present thing that is itself un-caused existence. So when he then argues that atheism denies this presence that he has created out of nothing (out of no-thing… I know I keep saying that, and it looks silly, but I want it to be clear that I’m not talking about nothing in a merely colloquial sense — it is an absence of thingness, because things are contingent, they only become things by being… thinged, but that just makes it sound sillier), what he is saying is that atheism makes no sense, it allows no sense, it is nonsensical, and therefore is not a possible state of thought (because our thoughts make sense, so we can’t possibly base them on something that has no sense?). He then says that when you, or other atheists who claim to believe in something “spiritual” or “transcendent” (outside of the realm of experience), what you are trying to do is have your cake and eat it too: you explicitly deny the first cause, but you still feel that vague sense of something absent where the first cause would be, so you put something there and pretend to yourself that it’s not the first cause. He treats this as a trick of language, which he says must have a word that doesn’t change its meaning while everything else does (because everything else is non-contingent), and you’ve merely substituted “spiritual” for “God” in that position.

                I’m saying that what he’s done is impute something into language that he has created conceptually and then imputed into language. Because he’s done thins, and based everything he can say on his conceptual, pre-linguistic maneuver, he cannot talk about atheism, and therefore all of the things he says, even his denial of the possibility of atheism, actually misses atheism entirely. Atheism is not a possible meaning in his language, so when he denies its existence, he’s saying something that doesn’t have any meaning in his language. He therefore hasn’t actually said anything about atheism at all.

                Does that make sense? If not, I’ll try again (but I can’t promise it won’t be this long and boring the second time as well).Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Dear Jaybird’s atheist non-existent God who may or may not have noodly appendages that was long. I apologize, Zic.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                For the record: The God in whom I do not believe is nothing at all like that accursed FSM.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Chris says:

                No, you done good.

                If I might, he’s taken the notion that there must be some instigator, some beginning point, at the root of things — and imbued that notion with substance, and then proceeded to suggest that because I don’t see the substance he’s clothed a beginning point with, I’m nonsensical?

                (I’m trying to be pithy.)

                I do prefer spaghettimonsters. Or cats. I get that the cat’s both dead and alive.

                I still think much of these types of philosophical/religious shortcomings stem from misunderstanding time; from thinking that it begins and ends like the day begins and ends, or that we have enough of it to taste its flow.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Jay, I was being silly.

                Zic, I think that’s about right. The feeling that something’s not there that should be is so strong that it’s every easy to be tempted to fill it with stuff that’s a lot like stuff we know (like, things) and then forget that it was we who did the filling, and we didn’t just find it like that in the first place. Once you’ve done the filling, though, it’s really difficult to unfill it, so it starts to seem like it’s naturally that way.

                Camus famously said, “The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits.” Some of us embrace the absurd. Some of us try to fill in the pieces on the other side of those limits.

                Coincidentally, I don’t think it’s only theists who try to fill in the pieces on the other side. I think there’s a whole breed of atheist, sometimes branded “new” for reasons that escape me (I’ve known such atheists my whole life), that likes to fill them in as well. Of course, some of the theist fillers remain lucid (fideists… where’s Tom when you need him, right?), while those atheists’ reason lost its lucidity long ago, and they’ve let it run wild in realms where it is completely blind, except to itself.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Chris says:

                Chris, thank you so much for using your precious time to indulge me.

                And you are right; we all want to fill our unknowns with something, a large part of the reason why I think it important to question why we humans have such a tendency to create gods.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Zic, the psychology of religion has been one of my main interests over the last several years. I wrote some stuff about it a long time ago (e.g., here, here, here, and here), but much research has been done since then. I’ve been meaning to write something about it again.

                It’s important to keep in mind that the motivations behind theism and religion, regardless of their truth or falsity, are not entirely philosophical or theological. They are social, ethical, emotional, practical, and intuitive, and we build folk and formal philosophies and theologies on top of those things. Again, this doesn’t speak to their truth or falsity, but it does speak to the tangledness (is that a word?) of the various threads of religious thought and belief.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                Just fine, Chris, as a characterization of my position, except for the attribution to me of views I do not hold, language I haven’t used, presumptions I do not share, and logic I would not employ, and the general failure to refer to the views I have actually stated, the language I have actually used, the presumptions I have actually attempted to explain, or the logic I have actually employed: In other words, at least you did not repeat most of your earlier attacks on my character. So that’s something, but a poor basis for conversation. So I’m wary about addressing particulars, since particular arguments apparently make no impression on the script from which you are reading. If you want someone to defend First Causes, vague feelings, experience beyond experience, and so on, you can just go on inventing him without me. If you want to discuss the arguments I’ve made and the positions I’ve taken, then it would be helpful if you referred to the arguments I’ve made and the positions I’ve taken.

                In the initial comment I made in this thread – the one that inspired the offensive charges of “bigotry” that the accuser neither justified nor withdrew, but simply repeated – I made a prediction based on a statement in the OP. I wrote that “Levinas’ view of atheism as a moment or orientation prefatory to and incorporated within Judaic monotheism is something that atheists in their aggressive modern incarnation will, I think it’s safe to say, tend to reject.” (I might have added, but wrongly thought we might find exceptions, that even atheists or atheist-sympathizers in less aggressive incarnations would find ways to avoid this argument.) I then made several observations referring to atheism pursued ideologically, or, to be more precise, atheism as an exclusionary commitment in relation to faith that resists grasping its own underlying religious nature; as a faith or quasi-faith that is expressed in relation to traditional religion, or (in my view) other faith commitments, as negation, a negation already implied or embodied in the word “atheist.” “Spiritualism” or “pantheism” or “deism,” etc., all express a positive content. Even “scientism,” “materialism,” and “physicalism” at least posit knowledge, materiality, or the physical universe. The only positivity in the word “atheism” is in the “ism” that distinguishes it as a theory, doctrine, practice, philosophy, etc., at all. Its tendency, when it is pursued in isolation or exclusively, is indeed negative and finally nihilistic. In this respect it has much in common with “liberalism” or “libertarianism” defined in relation to negative freedom primarily.

                Though I stand by this critique, and consider it an authentic problem for atheists typified by the conduct and attitude of the New Atheists – who see it as their responsibility not merely to assert their own beliefs but to combat and deny the belief expressions of others – I did not assert that atheists, if they chose to do so, could not examine their own beliefs or structure of belief to find commonality with “traditional” believers, but I did describe some challenges unique to the atheistic stance. I emphasized that exclusionary tendencies were hardly unique to atheism, but what an atheist must surrender to find commonality with, say, a Christian or a Muslim, is precisely as different from what a Christian or Muslim must surrender as traditional Christian or Islamic faith is different from atheism. The distinctions that a traditional Christian is asked to relax or suspend will be different from the ones a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, a Wiccan, a Neo-Pagan, and so on, would be asked to relax or suspend. The particularity of any religion is its mode of exclusion: All belief is first belief about belief and non-belief. Whether such beliefs or meta-beliefs are sustainable, should or must be sustained, or truly penetrate to the core of religious belief as true belief is the very question that defines each religion as a religion, that differentiates Christianity from Islam, or, for that matter, Buddhism from atheism.

                This discussion is, needless to say, a complex one. It has been and in many parts of the world still is a dangerous, life-and-death discussion. No one who enters it in “good faith” should presume to know where it will lead, and should be prepared to hear things that challenge his or her own core beliefs, since the challenge to core beliefs is the entire point of the discussion. If one’s core beliefs are not challenged, then the discussion has not actually taken place. Condemning other participants with the strongest words in your own vocabulary of certitudes, and accusing them of “moral failings” or of “shitty” attitudes or of “bigotry” is simply to drop out of the discussion and to revert to your unexamined assumptions, effectively to declare them sacrosanct under whatever word for whatever in-Chris’s-world or in-Zic’s-world is taboo.

                Prior to that ejection/rejection point, the main response on this thread, which I do not consider especially typical of the wider discussion in the world, either in the present epoch or historically, has been offered by or on behalf of self-described atheists who insist on the spirituality or possible spirituality of their atheism. (Nor do I consider the friends you have mentioned to be representative of the wider discussion or of an atheist position.) The views expressed belong, in my opinion, more in the historical vicinity of pantheism, panentheism, agnosticism, and deism, though they have for the most part not been clearly enough stated to be critiqued on their own terms. Whatever belief in unnameable, transcendent, non-material, etc., forces or sensations ought to be called, it is not in my opinion specifically or effectively expressed by reference to “atheism.” Any closer examination was diverted by the course of pseudo-discussion that instead took place – something I really do not have time for.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Just fine, Chris, as a characterization of my position, except for the attribution to me of views I do not hold, language I haven’t used, presumptions I do not share, and logic I would not employ, and the general failure to refer to the views I have actually stated, the language I have actually used, the presumptions I have actually attempted to explain, or the logic I have actually employed

                Not to be flippant, but while I don’t think I’ve actually mischaracterized your position, if I have done what you’ve said here, then I have done nothing more than what you’ve explicitly and intentionally done with atheists. If it bothers you, perhaps you should take a step back and consider that it might bother others too, then.

                My characterization of your position, which again I believe is accurate, is a characterization of your position that the atheist is not really an atheist, that the atheist tries to “have his cake and eat it too” by replacing god with new divinities, and otherwise can’t make sense of anything. I think you’re mistaken, because I think you’ve mistakenly assumed that something else is needed to make experience comprehensible. I also think you’re wrong to assume that any maneuvers by atheists that aren’t purely atheistic are not, in fact, atheistic, and therefore cannot distinguish them from any other position. I think it’s possible to have a non-nihilistic atheism that simply rejects a certain class of the transcendental, namely the sort that is absolute or non-contingent or necessary and non-contingent, or perfect, and perhaps more importantly, creative. The way existentialists treat truth, for example, is none of these things (nor is it meaning-giving or meaning-creating, it is instead lived experienced).

                But mostly you just irked me with the way you described atheism as wishful thinking. I then had little problem suggesting that your ontotheological position is in fact a… creative act of your own, a filling in by analogy or metonymy.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Also, it is undeniably true that I’ve used different words than you yourself have used. This is because to most of the people here, as you must have observed repeatedly, your vocabulary is impenetrable. I was trying to translate it, to the extent that I speak it, and as such it will suffer from the effects of any translation. But like I said, I still think it’s accurate. I don’t think (as some people do) that this is a failing on your part (I have, as you may have noticed, defended you from such charges on more than one occasion). I just think that if you’re going to use vocabulary that you know people don’t understand and do it in a way that tells them either they don’t really believe what they say they do, or they only do so out of wishful thinking, you’re asking for the reaction you got here. Including mine.Report

          • Avatar zic in reply to Chris says:

            but rather as the vocation of de-spiritualization or disenchantment. It will not be satisfied except by nothing, by the complete evacuation of that which exists from existence.

            If that’s not bigotry, what is the word for it, Chris?Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to zic says:

              I don’t know what bigotry means there, if it is bigotry. Unfair? Yes. Dubious empirically? Yes. Dubious philosophically? Yes. But it doesn’t seem to be “bigotry” in any sense that I’d recognize.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        This. For me, sitting on a canoe on a wilderness lake is an experience so sublime, so far removed from our daily experiences, beyond just an emotional response, that the only words that do it justice are “spiritual,” “divine,” and suchlike. That doesn’t mean I’m pagan, and imagine that there’s some supernatural something either out there or within me. But we have no better language, that both suggests the depth of the experience and is devoid of supernatural implications. This poverty of language should not be taken as an indication that we are fooling ourselves–to do so is to reify the language in a way that suggests the word has a fixed, un changeable meaning, so that all who use it actually mean one and the same thing.Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to James Hanley says:

          Nice, James.Report

        • Though thankfully without attacking anyone with secular curse words, this statement on the not adequately nameable repeats that same wishful self-contradiction among whose elements is the wish that self-contradiction might not be self-contradictory under certain exceptional circumstances. Yet all of these phrases merely repeat the invocation of the declared non-invocable. It is the ultimate cake-eaten-too. The non-believer experiences a kind of remorse over the death of what the non-believer himself acknowledges as the only “justice” available in language, so turns his criticism back on language itself: We have no words for that which we find ourselves incapable of entirely rejecting or of doing without. One word for this thing for which there is no words and may not be a “thing” at all, that seems to lurk everywhere and seems to come closest to us “on a canoe on a wilderness lake” (the I-atheist seemingly utterly alone confronting the being of being) is “God.” Because the word “God” is attached to a politicized discourse as well as, as Blaise puts it approximately, to encrustations of fatuous twaddle, some prefer to substitute near cognates and overlapping terms: “‘spiritual,’ ‘divine,’ and suchlike.” There might be tremendous and bloody justification for this substitution, but it is merely a substitution under a perpetuation of the signified idea. It also happens to be, I think, the moment to which Levinas refers to, of atheism re-subsumed within (mono)theism properly (which means all-expansively) understood.

          Many of the truest true believers of the old rejected twaddles also happened to share skepticism that the names truly attached to the named, and so their sacred scriptures are filled with numerous synonyms, including the Divine, the Eternal, the Timeless, the One, the Unchanging, et al. The reification is the one shared by naive believers of both nominally theistic and atheistic faiths, that the theos or deos invoked positively or negatively in “theism” and “atheism,” because it names or seeks to name the Unchanging, must be, unlike all other words, also un-changing. I refer you to the Divine Locke:

          Under this perspective, the difference between theism and atheism begins to dissolve, and it turns out that what they have in common, their “ism”-ism is more profound and also problematic than their respectively positive or negative attitudes toward “theos.”Report

          • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Is it at all possible to write that as though you’re not writing continental philosophy? Because I simply can’t follow that kind of writing, so I have no idea what you just said, beyond that it’s an effort at rebutting my claim. But as best I can make out–which may not be very good–it’s essentially a claim about what I’m actually experiencing, with no evidence or analytical logic to support it, just high sounding language that obscures the lack of either of those two things. For my part, I don’t see anything controversial in claiming our language has some impoverished neighborhoods–it’s not a criticism of language as much as, I think, a simple statement of fact. One of English’s great strengths is the incorporation of foreign words when we realize they reference a meaningful concept that English doesn’t itself have a word for (e.g, schadenfreude).

            (For the record, I’m a big fan of the Sokal hoax, and am hugely wary of writing that seems, to me, designed more to obscure than clearly reveal. I recognize I may be doing you an injustice. But I just want to make it clear where I am coming from when reading this.)Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

              There is nothing remotely “analytical” about a refusal to read the words right before you, which were highly analytic. I could try to re-state my analysis in different terms, but past experience leads me to believe that you would, Hanley, as you are, again and typically, already in the process of doing, respond by demonstratively and insultingly placing me among those whom you are committed to ignoring, one of your favorite tactics. So either ignore me as you have previously promised to do, or do me the favor of re-reading what I wrote under a sincere effort to understand it. Feel free to identify, analytically, the points where the meaning escapes. Otherwise, I’m not for my part interested in attempting to re-interpret myself for someone committed for personal or aesthetic or whatever other reasons to resisting what I might have to say.Report

              • Avatar j@m3z Aitch. in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                CK, it’s a bit funny to have you insulting me while simultaneously complaining that I’m insulting you. But I can live with it.

                In all sincerity, I am trying to understand what you are writing, and am trying to explain to you why I do not understand it, being open about my reason for suspicion and asking you to extend me an olive branch here. By “analytical,” I mean formal logic style. I’m good with X, Y, therefore Z reasoning. Your approach I’m just not good with–I’m just not the target audience for this style–so I’m asking you to help me understand you.

                If you won’t, you won’t. But I am trying, because I’m really trying to understand your argument.

                So, specifically, where meaning escapes me: this statement on the not adequately nameable repeats that same wishful self-contradiction among whose elements is the wish that self-contradiction might not be self-contradictory under certain exceptional circumstances.

                I just simply don’t follow. I think the “not adequately nameable” is the “what zic and I experience in nature”–is that correct? And what is the self-contradiction in our “understanding” of it? That I don’t get at all. I’d get it if someone just said we were wrong, and that we were actually experiencing “god” or some mystical entity, but I’m wholly lost at “self-contradiction.”Report

              • Thank you, Mr. Hanley. Olive branch accepted with a handshake that I hope you will not take as too forward.

                I wish I could devote my afternoon to continuing this discussion today, but I’ll have to promise instead to return to it as soon as I can, assuming no intervening acts of the Unnameable. I would invite you in the meantime to ponder Locke on the abuse of words (find link below), and also to trust your own intimations of my meaning, since I think that you may understand the main point rather better than you think you do. From my point of view, your selection of the meaning-escaping moment proves as much, since it is a moment where, again in my view, possibility of meaning escapes your discourse. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “escape” will happen again, right there, but, as I said, I don’t have time to clarify. Here is the Locke link again in case you missed it the first time, and I hope you’ll forgive me for seeming to presume anything inadequate in whatever your previous attention to it may have been. I do understand and accept that we are coming from different places:

              • Avatar j@m3z Aitch. in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                A kiss might have been too forward, but a handshake is just right.

                So, Locke on words. I agree. It appeared to me that you were doing what Locke argued against, but I take it now that you are not. So…

                1. If words are just signs of our ideas, then “spiritual” could signify one thing for your ideas and something else for our ideas. Is that a position we agree on, or no? (I don’t want to do a Humpty Dumpty here, of course.)

                2a. From my point of view, your selection of the meaning-escaping moment proves as much, Why (or how) is my canoe-on-a-wilderness-lake moment a “meaning escaping moment”? In what way does it escape meaning? Is it just the inability to put a particular extant word to it that makes it meaning escaping, or is there something else?

                2b. since it is a moment where, again in my view, possibility of meaning escapes your discourse. Why (or how) does possibility of meaning escape my discourse? I’m not challenging you on this claim, but asking for explanation of it.

                To try to explain my position, and why I’m not grasping your argument here, let me use the example of schadenfreude again. Assume a language without any analogue for that word. I assume people would still experience the concept the word signifies, but in the absence of the word they might not be able to communicate the concept well. The meaning then, would still be there, despite the absence of the word. And so when introduced to the word, they immediately–intuitively–understand it and adopt it.

                That’s where I stand with this “non-supernatural-canoe-on-the-wilderness-lake” experience. I don’t see it as lacking meaning, even if we don’t–at present–have a word for it. And lacking a word we go for the available one that is nearest in meaning, but with a slight–but significant–shift in it’s meaning.

                And for me that’s wholly sufficient, but I get the feeling that maybe this isn’t quite on-target with what you are arguing, so that it won’t be anything like sufficient for you. Please set me straight if I’m wrong, but I wonder if you are actually arguing that a “non-supernatural-but-spiritual-seeming” experience is not possible–that it’s really tapping into the supernatural/mystical without our realizing it, or our being able to admit it, or…or?

                I understand you can’t come back to this right away. But so you get a sense of where I stand on this; my position, such as it is, and my area of befuddlement. Of course it may just be that I am unable to follow philosophical arguments to any depth (which is, of course, why I am much more trusting of formal arguments).Report

              • Mr H,

                On your first point, it will be easier for me to respond if I paste it here in its entirety:

                1. If words are just signs of our ideas, then “spiritual” could signify one thing for your ideas and something else for our ideas. Is that a position we agree on, or no? (I don’t want to do a Humpty Dumpty here, of course.)

                I think we agree, but possibly to different effect.

                If there is an idea independent (on the other side of, so to speak) of the signifier “spiritual,” a signified idea independent of the letters and syllables, then the question would be whether in some other system of expression the same idea might not be represented by a different word or words. In short, as I think you do see clearly enough, and as I have already stated directly, your signifier “spirit” may be a word for what others seek to indicate with the signifier “God.”

                To accept as much would not, of course, be to agree that the typical “God”-botherer’s belief system will be identical in all respects to the typical “spirit”-senser’s belief system. We would merely be acknowledging that the two systems taken as systems may have both a similar structure as well as a shared impetus or foundation in experience.

                In my view, to call spiritualism of this type “atheism” tends to deny, or imply the denial of, this commonality or possible commonality, or similarity in structure and foundation. It tends to associate the believer-in-the-spiritual aggressive deniers of the relevance of such “oceanic” feelings (Freud, who claimed to lack them).

                Alternatively, to call this Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) stance “atheism” may seem to reduce the atheistic stance to an allergic reaction to particular faith expressions. The problem for atheism of this type seems not to be the signified idea, but the particular signifier, not an actuality of God/spirit, but the word “God” or those who typically use that word. In a sense, it trivializes atheism philosophically, and accentuates its mainly political character: The problem wouldn’t be with a monotheistic or any theistic belief system, but with what those people who say God or Allah or Great Oogly-Moogly, and who claim to follow the associated belief systems, actually do.

                In scholarly discourse the difference is sometimes observed by the use of the words “Islamicate” or “Christianate” etc. rather than “Islamic” or “Christian” etc. We do not presume to say that, e.g., Pakistan’s foreign policy is authentically Islamic, but we do acknowledge that modern Pakistani cultural is Islamicate. It may be in some important sense also Islamic, but we are not going to pre-determine that conclusion. The conversation that develops without such distinctions tends to turn inane, or worse, as a comparison of body counts associated with ideological flags and great hosts of complicated unexamined presumptions lined up against each other.

                Forgive me if I’m beating a dead horse or a dead deity here, but, since you have stated your uncertainty over my meaning numerous times, I’m inspired to re-assure you, if possible, at least as many times.

                As for points 2a and 2b, I’m afraid they initially derive from a misunderstanding of what I was referring to by “meaning-escaping moment.” I’ll plead the rush I was in (and to tell the truth, am still in), but take full responsibility.

                In short, the moment that meaning escapes was the moment described in the sentence of mine that you selected, not the moment in the canoe. The moment in the canoe is more suggestive of what we might call (or might not bother to call) a “meaning-productive” or “meaning-receptive” moment, a moment I earlier described as “the I-atheist seemingly utterly alone confronting the being of being.” The “I-atheist” is a term of Levinas’ meant to describe utterly self-sufficient consciousness, a sense of self that does not know or need of “others,” including Oogly-Moogly, at all. I am re-purposing the expression here. Levinas introduces it as a kind of infantile and pre-verbal or pre-dialogical state. I am imagining that fully grown-up and highly verbally proficient Mr. H alone in his canoe is returning or feeling intimations of that state of being, but discovering in his aloneness a simultaneous and somewhat paradoxical expansion or augmentation. For now, it doesn’t matter whether the real Mr. H. would use these terms. The imaginary Mr. H is separated from all attachments (alone in a canoe), and so is in this sense reduced almost to nothing in comparison to urban family man and professional James Hanley. All of his appointments, friendships, worries, awards, everyday gratifications, etc., are subtracted from him state of being. He does not need a name or any other words at all either for himself or for his experience, which approach “indistinction” from each other. He cannot say or would not bother to say, has no reason to say, where “he” stops and “experience” begins. There is no one else with whom to hold a dialogue about it. Yet at the same time that he is reduced to this quasi-infant, non-verbal or pre-verbal, nothingness or near-nothingness, he finds himself or his experience being expanded. He is like Wallace Stevens’ “Latest Freed Man,” for whom “everything” is “bulging and blazing and big in itself” – though with appropriate canoe on lake colorations – and the precise opposite of a “vague” feeling or absence, more like a feeling of awe or wonder or of pure feeling, of feeling truly felt, of presence truly present. (If there is vagueness it is a more intense sense of vagueness, or if there is absence it is a more present absence, and so on.)

                The moment that meaning escapes was the one referred to in the sentence of mine that you selected:

                this statement on the not adequately nameable repeats that same wishful self-contradiction among whose elements is the wish that self-contradiction might not be self-contradictory under certain exceptional circumstances.

                The “not adequately nameable” would refer to what is received or traced in that meaning-receptive moment that you refer to as spirituality. The “wishful self-contradiction” is the affirmation of the spiritual under a simultaneous negation of the spiritual. Again, we are back to Locke. In the religious language that I understand you reject: God speaks to you, and you want to affirm God while continuing to resist Him. It would be easiest of all for you if you could maintain your commitment to no-God and also get everything that comes with yes-God (or yes-spirit, or yes-Oogly, or yes-Marx), if you could have your oceanic cake and eat it, too. One “out” would be if under certain exceptional circumstances one could get all that good God-affirmed stuff, but maintain your good name as a non-believer otherwise, a belief-virgin except for those times you happen to kneel down-roll over to pray-screw.

                As for the rest of the comment, we may encounter some static over the use (or potentially abuse) of the word “supernatural” to describe the canoe-experience or the place of “God” or “spirit” (or truth or infinity or the Communist Ideal, etc., etc.) in other belief systems. If an experience of spirit (or relationship to the divine) is meaningful, then it is “natural” or in this way “naturalized.” “Supernatural” requires a dualism – the “natural” vs the “more-than-natural” – that in my view must always break down. Under a non-dualistic, or monist or unitary conception, “supernatural” could only stand for “not yet understood.” Put differently, if the physical laws of “nature” can be broken, then the breaking of physical laws is natural, or the breaking of all other or known physical laws is a law of nature. The other possibility would be that “nature” refers to something partial, not to everything, but to a piece of everything.

                Eventually, belief in two worlds strictly separate, natural and divine, produces the classic proposition of Epicurean atheism: The divine things, in the words of a different poet, never crash through “the flaming walls of the world.” They are by definition irrelevant. If we instead treat the picture of two worlds as a picture of the truth, but not the truth in itself, it may help us to organize our thoughts, but putting any more stress on it tends to to substitute the picture for the possible truth we are trying to make out. It substitutes the signifier for the signified, the word “God” for the god-concept. In Continental philosophy (or popular but weak translations of it) this mistake is called “picture-thinking.” Much later, under some modifications, it is called “logocentrism.” In analytical philosophy, is it simply non-analytic (the worst of all possible sins, I believe). In Zen Buddhism it’s the finger pointing to the Moon, no longer needed after the Moon has come into view.

                You close by stressing the following point of possible misunderstanding:

                I wonder if you are actually arguing that a “non-supernatural-but-spiritual-seeming” experience is not possible–that it’s really tapping into the supernatural/mystical without our realizing it, or our being able to admit it, or…or?

                Yes and no, I’m sorry to have to say, but maybe what I’ve just had to say about the word “supernatural” will help you to understand why I cannot answer more simply. I am arguing, I hope with Locke’s assistance, that it doesn’t really matter whether you attach the letters-and-syllables of “supernatural” or “mystical” or “spiritual” to the canoe. You can call it supernatural or you can call it the most natural thing of all, call it the gloriously merely natural. The beginning point of commonality and non-contradiction would be the observation that the two systems or discourses, so-called mystical and so-called atheistic yet spiritual, have the same ideational structure, Oogly-Moogly viewed from the canoe but also viewing himself from the canoe, at a conceptual vertex or peak or virtual center or limit (all of these are pictures or mere signifiers or words) that serves to organize more particular or complicated or substantial, etc., experiences.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                Thank you, CK. I appreciate the expansive and careful reply. It seems we begin with some fundamentally different assumptions about the world and about the source of meaning. One of my assumptions is that this whatever-it-is that people call supernatural or spiritual or mystical is neither part of a dualist structure nor an unknown/not-yet-understood aspect of the natural world, but just isn’t. Call me a physicalist, perhaps. Anything beyond that seems unparsimonious, a cludgy approach to understanding the world. So the idea that I am simultaneously denying and affirming this non-existent something-or-other not simply baffling to me; it is, within my nderstanding of the world, a non-sense phrase, as curiously devoid of meaning as the phrase “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

                We might as well be monoglots, one Swahili speaker and one Navajo speaker, for all the possibility of real understanding between us here. I say that with no hostility. You and I need other topics to talk about. 😉Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                Of course it may just be that I am unable to follow philosophical arguments to any depth (which is, of course, why I am much more trusting of formal arguments)
                That’s funny, my formal introduction to formal arguments was in a philosophy class. I wish we could use the formal logic symbols here but as I recall when trying them, they don’t work for squat in the combox.

                Meanwhile I want to congratulate CK on diving into murky waters indeed. His comments may seem long but I’m reminded of a quote from Abraham Lincoln something along the lines of, “I was going to write you a shorter letter but I don’t have the time”. I couldn’t even attempt to do what CK has done here, synthesizing millenia worth of debates as succinctly as he has. The overall tenor of the League would do quite well to accept what he’s done at face value without all the name calling. To those whose feelings were somehow hurt by their interpretation of his regurgitation of dozens of philosophers’ arguments in an amazingly condensed manner, I recommend thicker skin.Report

              • Thank you, Wardsmith. It’s truly kind of you to offer support. Am biting my tongue rather than reply to Mr. H’s latest, due to my own time concerns and his own politely expressed desire to leave matters as they stand. So, thanks to you as well, Mr. Hanley, for a good if in my view incomplete discussion.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                CK, I’m comfortable with you either replying or not. I just think where fundamental assumptions differ, there’s little prospect of discussion achieving anything like a meeting of minds. To get to a meeting of minds one of us would have to agree to the others’s assumptions, but how could either of us hope to persuade the other to adopt our own assumptions? They’re the basis of arguments, they’re not themselves based in arguments, so no argument can move a person to new assumptions. The effort can only, at best, leave two people at a continued stalemate, while the non-best outcome is acrimony, which seems an unworthwhile pursuit.

                Ward–yes, I learned formal logic in a philosophy class as well; but of course not all philosophers have a primary reliance on it. And whose feelings were hurt by Ward’s efforts? That’s a strange interpretation from my perspective. As to your assumption, as it seems to me, of something divine or mystical, I imagine your views make sense in light of that assumption. I don’t share that assumption, of course.Report

              • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                @J@m3z, ” And whose feelings were hurt by Ward’s efforts?” Either I’m hopelessly confused here or you are. I was talking about people with hurt feelings calling CK names and impugning his character as if /he/ were the prime initiator of ideas he was merely (and superbly) retelling. There’s one person on this site only whose feelings I have attempted to hurt, frankly because that person (and you know of whom I speak)_ is by no means an addition to intelligent discourse, quite the opposite in fact.

                That our perception of reality is not all there is to reality goes without saying in my opinion. You are welcome to a world view that diminishes reality to what your senses can perceive, but I can’t share that assumption. Philosophers who never heard of formal logic (nor the symbols in which it is expressed) are regularly placed in same as a means for the student to follow along. I read at about 2000 wpm, but when I read CK I have to slow down to 200. The only other author who forces me to slow down like that (in English) is Faulkner so MacLeod is in good company in my opinion.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to j@m3z Aitch. says:

                No, Ward, nothing here hurt my feelings. There’s a style of writing that’s not my cup of tea because I don’t think it’s an effective approach to communication, nor do I think it’s a necessary approach for the expression of the particular ideas, that’s all. It was perhaps unfair to suspect CK of this, but I think Sokal deftly showed that some people use this style for show–if not in fact to purposely obfuscate–rather than for substance.

                I’m open to evidence that there’s more than our senses perceived (but of course that works out as something of a rigged game on my part), but no transcendental something-or-other seems most parsimonious to me, and despite my many (prior) years as a sincere believer in the divine, I’ve not found the lack of the divine poses any problems in understanding the world (in fact I think it resolves many problems created by the divine/transcendent/mystical/etc.). YMMV, of course.Report

              • This is a reply to Mr Aitch , though, if we truly are going to extend this discussion further in this venue, I’d recommend we move to the bottom of the thread.

                I am not sure what you mean by “fundamentally different assumptions about the world and about the source of meaning.” The sentences that follow seem to attribute to me a set of beliefs that, to the extent I’ve examined them, I have sought to disclaim. I just got through explaining that I held a dualistic view, a separation of the “natural” (or “physical”) from the supposedly “supernatural” was unsustainable – at best illustrative or practical, but dispensable and potentially problematic, a picture-thought in place of the needed thought, or finger pointing to a Moonier truth.

                But I don’t want to pre-empt you. Are you able to state clearly what you believe our differing fundamental assumptions are. So, again, for the sake of focus: What do you mean by “fundamentally different assumptions about the world and about the source of meaning.” You must have had something in mind. I don’t think I need a booklength treatment. I’d just like to know what you’re assuming I assume about the world and the source of meaning.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to James Hanley says:

          Spiritual is a nice word because it can mean something like

          1. “I believe there is some spirit to the world, something godly, designed, person-like in the world other than human (and animal) persons.”


          2. “Experiences of the world (nature, art, literature, friendship,etc.) enrich my spirit, mind, or consciousness. I value my conscious experience and the conscious experiences of others and it is good that we live in a world where such beautiful experiences are created in us by the natural world around us.”

          I’m spiritual in the sense of 2. but not 1.

          IMO, believing in 1. can take away from recognizing 2. fully. (Can’t argue for that. Too dumb, too old, and too robotic. But this is my experience.)Report

        • Avatar Fnord in reply to James Hanley says:

          If I might be so bold, may I suggest that the word you’re looking for is “transcendental”? I’m quite prepared to defend that idea that the concept of transcendence is consistent with materialism.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

          I didn’t know you were Henry David Thoreau!Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Though I am no atheist, I’d like to humbly observe that old Renaissance dictum from Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things.

      Atheism and atheists, from what I’ve seen of atheism as laid out in the lives of my atheist friends, is no impediment to what faith provides the faithful. As both Daoism and Buddhism have become encrusted and encumbered by all sorts of fatuous twaddle, it’s hard to make the comparison. Your comparison would work, were all those credulous tales torn away, let us presume this is your case.

      Atheism does not prohibit the pilgrim from taking up his staff and making his spiritual journey through life. The journey, not the destination, defines the pilgrim. If the atheist does not make his pilgrimage to some place of worship, neither does the pilgrim. Belief in this god or that god does not define spirituality. The Big Three Religions improved on the old Idol Based Systems by reducing Allah/Jehovah to an abstract god, whose residence was in the hearts of men. These religions forbade idols because that’s not what gods were. There was no power in idols of wood and stone.

      If the atheists cast aspersion on religions, with their omnipresent, omnipotent gods, like some unpleasant Santa Claus in the sky, keeping a list of who’s been naughty and nice, thus did the Big Three in their turn with the idol worshippers.

      Atheists and believers alike have enough to occupy us without disputing where religion ends and the spiritual journey begins. When the Big Three religions finally get around to disposing of their outdated cosmologies and quit persecuting the freethinkers, then they can at least stand on firmer ground and address the atheists as honest men.Report

  12. Avatar PPNL says:

    Personally, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world. I can have (have had) a fruitful, engaging discussion with my friend and commenter Franklin Evans, a pagan, in a way that I just can’t with friends who have no spiritual or religious beliefs, or a sense of the numinous.

    Yeah, pretty much stopped reading there.

    The idea that atheists are somehow dead to mystery is as small minded and bigoted as thinking we eat babies. I feel the mystery. I just don’t make up stupid and profoundly immoral stories to cover my ignorance.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to PPNL says:

      That’s the Christian point of view. Jews do not believe that atheists are dead inside or even that there is much wrong with them as long as they are basically ethical, moral people. Jews do not particularly care if Jews believe in God or not. In Judaism actions are more important than belief.Report

  13. Avatar Pinky says:

    This whole exercise seems pointless to me. There is no The Society that moves from point A to point B, religion A to religion B. At least, it is very unlikely that we’ll see a widespread movement to regulate belief in the West in our lifetimes. As for whether paganism or atheism is better from a monotheistic standpoint, that’s trying to express something very complicated on a single axis.

    I will say this much. Aquinas taught that piety is a natural virtue. He would agree with Dreher that the act of expressing reverence is essential to man’s nature. The atheist in that sense would be less virtuous than the pagan, all other things being equal.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Pinky says:

      But Pinky, I think Aquinas was wrong about that. Piety is not a natural virtue. It is a facet of a person’s personality, a continuum running from zero to limit. It has little to nothing to do with one’s moral virtue.

      If to worship god is more virtuous than not to worship god, then is it more or less virtuous to not worship at all, or to worship the wrong god? Alternatively phrased but I think the same question: if it turns out that there is no god, then it no longer makes any sense to say that piety is an inherent virtue, so worship becomes virtuous only for its effects — what, then, is the virtue that results from worshipping a false god?Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Piety, to Aquinas, was a form of justice. Justice is that which is owed a thing. So Aquinas’s view implies that piety is just because there is a god. If there were no god, he would not be owed anything.

        But to the believer, devotion to the wrong god is more pious than lack of devotion. A person may excel in piety even though that piety is misdirected. We could say that the 9/11 bombers didn’t lack piety, without making any judgment about the rest of their character. Just as I can be impressed by the courage of someone fighting for communism.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Pinky says:

          Would that include devotion to Satan? (Admittedly, I’m now just being playful; you fully answered my serious question.)Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to Burt Likko says:

            It looks like Kyle knows this stuff better than I do.

            That’s really an interesting question. My guess is that Aquinas would say that no one pursues evil as evil, so no one worships Satan as Satan. I suspect that’s true; from the little exposure I’ve had to Satanists, they define him as an enlightener or in some other way as a positive good. I think that Aquinas also touched on this question from the other direction, saying that if God were not good, we would have no obligation to love Him. That would make sense, if piety is a form of justice.Report

            • Avatar Pinky in reply to Pinky says:

              I’ve been thinking about this, and let me amend my guess to a slightly different guess. If a person is worshipping Satan for his perceived goodness, it would be a misguided but genuine act of piety. If a person is worhsipping Satan for his evilness, then it’s probably intended, not as an act of worship toward Satan, but an act of blasphemy against God.Report

      • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Piety, for Aquinas, is not merely the worship of God, but the reverence due to one’s parents and country. I’m indebted to my parents for my birth and nourishment and to my country for goods and services of all sorts. The particular just response I owe to them is what Aquinas calls piety. In this sense, it’s a natural virtue.Report

        • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

          Piety would extend to God, as it is to God that I owe existence itself, but it would be wrong, in Aquinas’ view, to think of piety only in terms of religious devotion and reverence.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            I read an argument a few months back that discussed (whether or not there was a god or gods) how impiety precedes a society’s (or a culture’s) destruction. Piety is one of those things that can keep a culture going strong… whether or not there is a god or gods.Report

            • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

              I’ve seen atheists argue for the utility of religion. For me, the point is moot, because I’m persuaded that there is a God. I think it cuts both ways. A society may be better off functioning as if there is a God, even without belief in one, but we can only lie to ourselves for so long before the facade crumbles. It’s like the Renaissance Fair, or network news – a charade that everyone is willing to play along with, but only when it’s harmless. When things get serious, the game stops.

              I’ve seen it argued that the West had slowly lost belief in God since the 1920’s, and the seismic shift in culture in the 1960’s was driven by an acknowledgement of the “false consciousness”. But that theory gives credit to both baby boomers and Marxists, so I denounce it completely.Report

  14. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    I’m with Bertrand Russell:

    “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind…. This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

    You can believe in these without any kind of God or gods. There is no logical contradiction in doing so. There is no psychological barrier that prevents doing so. Russell did this easily.

    1. Aim at knowing and spreading the truth as well as you can
    2. Love people
    3. Have compassion and respect
    4. Find life meaningful, even if there is no objective thing that makes it such that it is a fact that life is meaningful.

    I believe in all 4 and do not believe in God or gods. I am an atheist. I have a commitment to following all 4 rules that is, at bottom, a sort of faith.

    Why shouldn’t I do this? What is my mistake?Report

    • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      I agree that you can believe these four principles without having to believe in God or gods. On the other hand, the question of God pertains to them, one and four especially. The truth you would know or spread would include the existence or non-existence of God. And the meaning of life would be different depending on whether life, the universe, and everything has God as its source and destination. The question of God might also affect how one understands the meaning of love, compassion, and respect. In short, belief/unbelief in God would inform how one interprets and applies these principles.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:


        Would you agree we only know those claims that are supported by evidence and logic?

        D you believe there is evidence ( or a logical proof) that shows that we should claim to know that God exists?Report

        • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          Depends on what you mean by knowledge. If you restrict legitimate knowledge to those things known either by way of evidence or proof, you’re excluding intuitions, claims of self-evidence, trust of witnesses, and so forth. You may be fine with that, but it’s a debatable position, and I’m curious to see how far you’d take it. Would you say, for example, that the four principles you mentioned are statements you *know* to be true?Report

          • Avatar zic in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            How can those be truths?

            They are goals, and admirable goals. But a goal, a guideline on how to comport oneself =/= truth.Report

            • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to zic says:

              Yeah, I see these things as goals I am committed to. I do not see them as things that I know to be true.

              IMO, you can’t avoid non-rational commitments.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Exactly. Truth comes in in why you’re committing yourself to those goals and in examining your life to measure how you’re meeting them, where you’re failing.

                But there’s no ‘truth’ to them.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to zic says:

                Yeah, but I would say there is no reason why you’re committing yourself to your goals. If there was some reason X, I’d just ask why your committed to X, and if you said Z, then I’d ask why you’re committed to Z, and so on, forever. Eventually, you run out of answers and have to say “I just am committed to that. I have no reason why I am committed to it. I just am.”Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                I’m not so sure.

                In general, social constructs arrived at over known history (and likely rooted deep in our pre-history) generally move toward your goals or similar goals, so I’d suggest they offer some survival benefit.

                Beyond that, they make the time here a bit easier and secure, without some ease and security, there’s no time to make music, art, story, religion, or any of the other things that we imbue with meaning.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to zic says:

                In light of my being nicer and taking a hiatus from being a robo-jerk, I just want to say to zic that she is one of my favorite commenters here and to the folks who run this place that really think she should be an OP’er.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          In other words, if we only had commitment 1., we wouldn’t believe in God unless there was evidence and logic in favor of doing so.Report

          • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            Do you know that commitment 1 is true? That you should follow it? If so, how do you know it? What’s the evidence/proof that you ought to follow truth rather than falsehood?Report

            • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

              No, the commitment to 1. is itself not rational or something that has evidence in its favor.

              I am not telling anyone that you shouldn’t make a non-rational commitment to believe in God or Satan or Aqua-Buddha. Indeed, I have respect for Kierkegaardian fideists who say that there is no reason whatsoever to believe in God, but they choose to do so irrationally, admitting that their choice has a kind of insanity in it.

              I myself have my own commitments which aren’t rational: apportion belief to evidence and knowledge, love others and respect them, find life meaningful. These commitments themselves are not beliefs or knowledge. I have no illusions that there is some reason for me to believe in them over something else or nothing. I am committed to follow these rules, but there is no reason why I should follow them. These are my existential commitment.

              You seem to think that you have reasons/evidence to believe in God. I want to know what they are and evaluate them. (I suspect, given past experience with such arguments, that your argument will be unsound, but you never know until you look.)

              CK’s argument (not yours, I think) seems (hard to know what propositions he is meaning to assert) to imply that I cannot hold 1-4 without believing in God. But I see no logical contradiction or psychological barrier to holding 1-4 and not believing in God.

              Moreover, when it comes to knowing the truth, I see no reason to claim that we should believe in God. And, as Russell explained with his teapot example, we should be atheists as much as teapostists, and a-Zeusists, and a-SantaClausists, unless we have good reasons t actively believe in the teapot, God, Zeus, and Santa Claus.Report

              • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                For my part, I don’t find the classical “proofs” for God’s existence at all convincing, but I don’t rule out the possibility of rational proof. I do believe that the Resurrection actually happened, but this is a belief based not on conclusive historical evidence or logical proof, but a trust in the veracity of the storytellers.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                You’re not answering the question.

                Do you have any evidence, reasons, or arguments that justify your belief in God?

                Or do you choose to believe in God with the full understanding that you have no more reason to believe in him than to not believe in him, or to believe in Zeus or Vishnu instead of God?

                Please answer yes or no along with your explanation. (This isn’t a question that you can answer “I don’t know” because if you don’t know if you have evidence, then you don’t have any evidence, so “I don’t know” is the same as “No.”)Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Shaz, you accused me of bullying recently. While intellectually I am in agreement with you on this, this comment really comes across to me as bullying.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

                Oh man, you are right.

                I’m sorry Kyle.

                I need a cooling off period. I sound like a jerk all the time and am not noticing it.

                I will take a brief hiatus.

                Thanks James for letting me know.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

                Dude, stop it! Now you seem like a nicer guy than me. 😉Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

                I’ve been watching the entire internet waiting for someone to back down, and there it is. Congrats.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Would “I have had spiritual experiences of God and that’s how I know He exists” be sufficient evidence for someone to believe in God?Report

      • Avatar PPNL in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        In short, belief/unbelief in God would inform how one interprets and applies these principles.

        No, not in any coherent way. Srinivasa Ramanujan had no formal math education yet made massive contributions to number theory. He believed he was being informed by the gods. But then the people who flew the plains into the WTC also thought they were doing god’s will. Maybe they did see this as an act of love and compassion. But I’m gonna call it a justification of brutality and hate.

        Well atheists have also done both acts evil and sublime. Atheists can be as hateful as anyone else. I’m really not seeing the necessary difference.Report

        • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to PPNL says:

          “Inform” doesn’t mean “fundamentally change.”Report

          • Avatar PPNL in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            Yes but my point is informed does not mean coherent. Anyone can claim to be informed by anything and in a sense I have no doubt that they are. But if different people are informed in different and contradictory ways then it seems less useful and less relevant. From the outside it seems like they aren’t being informed at all.Report

  15. Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp says:

    Helpful overview, J.L. For my part, I tend to approach the question of truth, in both a philosophical and religious sense, less as a question of what one possesses and more as a question of what one is oriented or related to. No one can “have the truth” because truth is a product of interpretation and interpretation depends on our place–where and how we’re situated. We’re all trying to make sense of the parts without a clear or complete sense of the whole. In light of this, I like to open my Catholicism to its other: theistic and atheistic and everything else. I do so in the hope that my disposition toward truth may grow and my horizons may expand. I also share my religious faith with the hope that it may benefit others. I see “crisis” and “conversion” not as two opposing results of religious dialogue, one to be feared and the other to be celebrated, but as natural and important consequences of intellectual honesty. They may be good, they may be bad, and the difference may not always be apparent, but so goes with seeing through the glass darkly.Report

  16. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    Here is a sentence that you say is true.

    “truth is a product of interpretation and interpretation depends on our place–where and how we’re situated”

    Is this sentence true as a product of interpretation? Might it be false for others, in other places and times, who interpret differently?

    Plato’s “Recoil Argument” is a killer for this kind of relativism about everything. Because then whether relativism is true is relative too.Report

    • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      It is a product of interpretation, yes, but that doesn’t make it absolutely relativistic. Presumably, when you interpret something, there’s some thing apart from you that you seek to understand.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Interpretation is a matter of determining the meaning. Once you’ve pinned the meaning down, then you check for truth.

        To pick a simple example, the sentence “The Kings have a winning record” has at least two meanings: 1. “The Sacramento Kings have a winning record” and 2. “The Loas Angeles Kings have a winning record.” The best way to state this to say there are 2 separate propositions

        First, you determine which of those sentences is meant by a speaker. Then you check for truth.

        Thus, “The Kings have a winning record” is a sentence that can express one of (at least) 2 different propositions, and each of these propositons can then be checked for truth, after we have -through an act of interpreting meaning- which of the propositions is meant by the sentence.

        It is not the case that the sentence expresses a proposition that is true or false dependent upon the meaning. Determining meaning, a.ka. interpreting, is about determining what proposition is expressed. But truth is a property of proposittions and has nothing to do with interpretation.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          Sorry, that should say “you determine which of this propositions is meant by a speaker in any given utterance.”Report

        • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          You’re assuming meaning can always be pinned down nicely and neatly. If the question is simply what physical object a word refers to, then there ain’t much difficulty, assuming the object can be empirically verified by all relevant parties. But what happens when the there’s not a nice one-to-one correspondence between a statement the the referent? What happens when understanding meaning makes use of abstractions and metaphors and such? What happens when a text lends itself to multiple, conflicting interpretations? Take, for example, the question: Is Hamlet a villain? This question has meaning, but it’s also a question of truth. Does the play actually present Hamlet as a villain? Well, answering this question will depend on a number of things: how you understand the meaning of the word “villain,” how you interpret the meaning Hamlet’s motives and actions and words, and how you interpret the thematic and dramatic meaning of the play’s events. Show me two Shakespeare scholars, and I’ll show you two people who disagree about the play’s meaning–the the meaning of the play is, I would argue, ambiguous. I would argue that there is no THE MEANING of the play Hamlet; rather, there is a text that lends itself to multiple interpretations. You have an ambiguous text and multiple interpretations of it (each of which is really its own text, i.e., a product of thought, language, etc, that calls for interpretation because each has its own meaning). You’ll answer the question–Is Hamlet a villain?–depending on how you understand the meaning of the play, the meaning of the words you use, and, if you’re into the scholarly stuff, how you understand the interpretations of the play.Report

          • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            I believe in a living Hamlet.

            But Shakespeare meant for his words to have some definitive meaning.

            Screw Shakespeare, he’s dead and all we have is his text.

            But we also have the original public understanding of his words.

            Public understanding of his words, hell; he made half of ’em up!Report

          • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            Interpreting a play and interpreting a sentence or two entirely different things. You’re just confusing things. What is confusing you is that we use the word “meaning” for both.

            In the case of a sentence, when we “interpret its meaning” we are trying to determine
            1. What proposition is expressed by the sentence.

            If what proposition that is expressed in a single utterance of the sentence can’t be pinned down, we should say that we don’t know the meaning of the sentence, (or that we don’t know which of these 10 propositions it expresses). We should not that it has many meanings on that utterance. That would be insane.

            When we are “interpret the meaning” of a play, we ask ourselves a myriad of questions, depending on the work of art:

            2. “What life lessons should we draw from these (fictional or not) events?”
            3. “What is the author saying about human nature and/or human psychology in how he depicts these characters’ actions and words?”
            4. “How should we think about human nature and/or human psychology, given what I have seen about these characters actions and words?”
            5. “What does the author want us to think about morality or the morality of such and such?”
            6. “How should we think about morality in general or the morality of these, given that the characters did such and such?”
            7. “What is author trying to say about whether our society is fair or how we treat certain groups of people?”

            Now for any of these questions (including question 1. about the meanings of sentences), we might not know the answer, or we might not be able to know it easily. But that doesn’t mean that there is an answer. Indeed, I would say in every case of these questions about “meanings,” there is an answer, we just don’t necessarily know it in some cases of some plays (or movies or books or whatever.)

            But even if the questions about the play don’t have definitive answers, the question about what proposition is expressed does have an answer, even if we don’t always know what it is.Report

            • Kyle Cupp Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

              A play is made up of sentences. These aren’t two different things for me to confuse, although sentences function in a play in a somewhat different way than they do in other types of discourse. And, furthermore, the meaning of a play is much more than what messages may be derived from it. Bottom line, though: I disagree completely that a sentence can express only one proposition. First, an author can intend to express different and even conflicting propositions (ie, be intentionally ambiguous). Second, no author is a complete master of the language she uses; she writes from within a living and complex world of language. Consequently, the words an author uses may have meaning beyond the intended meaning. See also polysemy and homonymy.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Sorry Kyle, I still disagree but will leave my reply for some other day.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                Quickly and politely:

                You can know the meaning of all the sentences in Hamlet without having any knowledge of the meaning of the play. So the meaning of the sentences (individually or as a set) is not identical to the meaning of the play. This is evidence in favor of concluding that we are doing something very different when we ask the meaning of a sentence(s) and when we ask about the meaning of a story, play, movie, book, etc., even though we use the word “meaning” -misleadingly- for both.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                I agree Kyle. I often write sentences with multiple meanings, and even in Shakespearean English (I wrote a BSG spoof that was longer than Hamlet when only half completed. RDM loved it). Some sentences have little meaning at all, and are just transitions – time fillers, a spoken pause filled with nothing so someone can interrupt. Some are loaded and purposefully carry different meanings to the different people in the scene, and some have meanings that are only revealed elsewhere, either by another sentence or by a later epiphany that you induce. In jokes, you shouldn’t really understand the setup because its meaning is incomplete without the punch line.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          But “The Kings have a winning record” may not have any truth or falsity, depending on context.

          Chatterjay: “Have you had tea, sir?”
          Skinner: “Yes. But another cup would be welcome.”
          Chatterjay: “Aye sir.”
          Skinner: “You know what I was thinking? The Kings have a winning record.”
          Chatterjay: “Is that so sir?”
          Angela: (angrily) “How can you two act so calmly when all about are at their wits end?”
          Skinner: “What is this, dear?”
          Angela: “You heard me! Cynthia has hung herself in the pantry, the Prime Minister has resigned, there’s a giraffe in the kitchen eating all the marmalade, and you two just sit there!”

          There, the sentence can be replaced by any idle observation without altering its meaning, which is filler – unless it becomes important later in the story.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        But the sentence about truth that you uttered is universally true (i.e. it applies to all truths), objectively true and factual, and we should all believe it, yes?Report

  17. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    “the enemies of the Jews are always pagans, not atheists.”

    The Christians have been the cruelest and most awful persecutors of the Jews. Before and during the holocaust. I’m not trying to tar current Christians by association with the Christians of their past, but we must not forget. I don’t identify as Christian, but my ancestors were Christians, and their beliefs (Martin Luther is a big part of the problem, though not the only part by any means) were toxically anti-semitic. I won’t apologize for them by saying that they weren’t that anti-semitic.

    • Avatar James K in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      It did seem passing strange to me that a discussion of the oppression of Jews would ignore the existence of Christianity. Admittedly, I could understand why some Jews might wish Christianity didn’t exist.Report