Gene Expression

God lives, deal with it!

I’m an atheist. Just like some people who are Christians but weren’t always tell me that they “always believed in Christ,” myself, I’ve never believed in God. Before the age of 7 I did avow a belief in God, but in hindsight I see only the most minimal of deisms in my conception of the world aside from the times when I was at the mosque with my family. Religion wasn’t talked about in my family much aside from major festivals, and it wasn’t something I ever really thought about. When I was 7 I was in the library, reading some books on astronomy, and it struck me that there was no reason for God to exist (aside from people telling me that he did exist, or assume that he did). In that moment my implicit atheism crystalized into my conscious explicit mind.

I offer this to preface a note about something that really irritates me about some atheists, and that is a combination of distinterest in, and, rejection of the worldly importance of, religion. This does not mean that I am annoyed by those who contend that religion is not important for personal happiness, or morality, or any other such thing. I think that people like Richard Dawkins have a role to play as a force for skepticism in a demon haunted world. No, what I mean is that people who wish to dismiss the importance of understanding, knowing and engaging religion and religious ideas. This is why this asinine comment rubbed me the wrong way, it seemed the only reason that the individual commented was to state that religion is obviously ridiculous, and there’s no point in discussing it in a serious fashion.

Well, personally I tend to think most religions are ridiculous. I think there are philosophical (a priori) and empirical (anthropology, history, etc.) reasons to be an unbeliever. I don’t think that religions really describe anything in the real world that isn’t plainly obvious. But, as someone who is part of a trivial minority in the United States I think it is important to acknowledge that despite our lack of belief we who do not believe need to take religion seriously, at least as a natural phenomenon about the social universe around us. This was Daniel Dennett’s point in Breaking the Spell. Whether we like it or not, even if we don’t live in a demon haunted universe, most of humanity behaves as if we do, and those of us who are unbelievers in such things better take that into account.

That doesn’t mean that I treat religion respectfully in some ontological sense, in that I think religious ideas should be respected even though I don’t believe in them. I don’t at all, and I don’t think I hide my dismissal of the truth value of religion. To me, the monotheisms possess as much reality as invisible pink unicornisms, but, while the philosophical comparison between the two is warranted in my opinion, the anthropological or social correspondence is totally false. Religion shapes the world around us in a fundamental way, otherwise many atheists wouldn’t be so hostile toward it.

I have stated multiple times on this weblog that I do not believe that on a deep cognitive level religionists really differ. I strongly suspect they all believe in the same god…but, I also take into account that they think they believe in different gods, because this perception of difference makes all the difference in the way religionists interact. Though to some extent unbelievers might be bystanders in interreligious cross-talk and violence, we are involved by the fact of being humans who are citizens of nation-states.

The reaction of some on this weblog to my comments about religion reminds of the reactions to this post over at my other weblog. It dealt with examining Islamic barbarisms in a detached fashion. Though there might have been problems with the presentation of the post, the reaction of many readers was basically animalistic. I seriously considered closing my other weblog because of the reaction to that post because I don’t run weblogs to engage with frothing animals. Humanity is not something we’re born with, it is something we express in day to day life. I have posted before why I blog, and it isn’t to enable someone else’s temper tantrums or emotional outbursts. Both have their places, and feeling is an essential part of being human, but, it has its place. In many ways I think one of the major problems with public discourse in this nation is that people do not properly compartmentalize feeling and analysis. In 2000 many criticized George W. Bush for naming Jesus as his most influential philosopher, and the reason he gave was that Jesus “changed his life.” For myself this wasn’t an appropriate response, it was an emotional/personal one. But, I also know that the fact that Bush got a pass on this issue from much of the public is important, not all irrationalities are created equal. This is a reality of the world around us.

Now, I’m someone who has read Summa Theologia and Atheism: a philosophical justification. When it comes to the logic, the philosophy of it, I know where I lean. That being said, most humans do not live & breath through philosophy, and most humans includes our fellow citizens. As a matter of public policy and understanding of society and human history the way religion is lived and believed on the ground matters a lot. The picayune details that separate the terms homoousios and homoiousios might be boring and trivial details to you, and as a matter of substance I think the distinctions between the two terms basically amounts to word play, but between 300 and 600 the camps which solidified around these two words (Arian and Nicene Christians) moved diplomacy, played important roles wars and entered into major public disturbances, all based on a difference in false belief (in that the nature of God is irrelevant if God does not exist). Sometimes life and death can hang on the whims of human imagination!

Is this a dumb, shocking and inexcusable fact? Yes. But, that doesn’t mean that explanation and description be abandoned, because sometimes the perpetual facts of life are dumb, shocking and inexcusable.

In any case, this is my last word on this topic. There are many weblogs where readers can make witty remarks to show how smart and unsuperstitious they are. In a tone of humor I don’t really mind. But, I really get tired of the attitude that we should pretend as if religion wasn’t a serious factual matter when the reality is that it is.

So, unfortunately I won’t get to posting anything on kinship theory today because I’ve taken up my allotted “blog time” with this. Hopefully follow ups will be unneeded.

God bless :)

Addendum: As a matter of fact, I believe both fundamentalist and mainline Christians adhere to false beliefs. As a matter of reality I understand that there is a large difference between the two groups.

Comments

  1. #1 kemibe
    May 23, 2006

    Well, I feel no particular need to justify my earlier comments per se, but I admit I am somewhat fascinated that you, as an atheist, would assume on the basis of one comment that the person serving it up is not merely an atheist as well but a really close-minded one who fails to recognize the colossal importance of religion as it is reflected in history, psychology and in some of the more “organic” disciplines such as neuroscience.

    Perhaps my less-than-reverent tone threw you, but it’s entirely possible to acknowledge the need to understand belief as a means of understanding humanity while still deeming outcry over a smash motion picture as over-the-top and even hypocritical. For you to assume on account of my differing with you over the implications of Code (a book which kept me occupied for a few days, but that I found unremarkable) that I would suggest ejecting everything related to religion or religious persons into the troposphere — as if a sentient person would even believe this is possible.

    P.S. Sorry I (or whatever image you’ve formed of me)distracted you from whatever it was you would have otherwise written about by cannibalizing your blogging time. I’ll be sure it never happens again.

  2. #2 Lab Cat
    May 23, 2006

    Amen, and thank you. You always write about this topic concisely and clearly. I’m interested but not enough to read the philosophy behind it. Your summaries are very interesting.

    I took a little longer, and it wasn’t really until I came to the US that I “came out” as an atheist. It didn’t seem to matter so much in England. But to deny the heritage of the church and its affect on our culture and society (e.g. the Troubles in Northern Ireland) is to ignore history.

  3. #3 Lab Cat
    May 23, 2006

    My comment is to Razib’s blog, not kemibe’s comment.

  4. #4 Boknekht
    May 23, 2006

    Razib, i found one of your comments in a previous thread particularly interesting & i learned alot from them, i think:

    “in other words, people kill each other over variations in theological minutiae when the reality is that mental concepts of god are very close to each other, and don’t resemble their religious formulae in the least!”

    AND ALSO: “monotheists regularly aver belief in a god they can’t really conceive of, and when psychologists have them tell stories about gods in an impromptu situation where they can’t regurgitate stuff they’ve been drilled in the god(s) they describe is much more like a godling of the days of old than the omni-god of their theologians.”

    I was wondering if stupidity was a factor in this, since a *surprising* (lol) portion of religious & spiritual people are really stupid(& i’m stupid, but they seem even stupider), in my experience. I’m guessing that some of this would apply more to ignoramuses?
    It’s not surprised by this in the least really. You can’t expect the masses to know or care much about the details of their religions, even if they’d defend their beliefs to the death. Theologians are learned men, odd but intellectual, i believe. *Average Religious Idiots* aren’t into learning, of any kind. I bet the average red state *Christian-American* moron, as i see them, can’t even remember half the religious stuff they learned growing up. Theologians & clergy should know, acknowledge, that they aren’t really *getting through* to the masses.

    So yes, what people say or think they believe & what they actually do are two different things. And i bet the more dogmatic, close-minded, non-introspective the person, the greater the disparity, possibly. Sorry about *my*, maybe, dogmatic remarks about the religious there, although my experience tells me that i’m probably not mistaken about them. Ok, i better stop before i explode with misanthropy, lol.

  5. #5 razib
    May 24, 2006

    Perhaps my less-than-reverent tone threw you, but it’s entirely possible to acknowledge the need to understand belief as a means of understanding humanity while still deeming outcry over a smash motion picture as over-the-top and even hypocritical

    yes, it is hypocritical, as my post implied. but that wasn’t the point of the post, and on this weblog (readers) most people aren’t believers in religious fundamentalist, let alone religious, so your comment was simply a distraction. in and of itself it didn’t merit a post, but it is of a kind which seems to crop up with regularity, so i felt the need to post about this issue to prevent it in the future. the key is that there are many places to talk about the hypocrisies and irrationalities of religious people. i tend to do it at ed brayton’s blog for example. this blog on the thread you did it was not the place, the hypocrisy of religious people was irrelevant, what i was focusing on was the history that was being distorted. the fact that certain people are addressing the code in a hypocritical manner does not mean that the facts of the case are false. you may believe that those distortions are not important, but instead you chose to focus on the non-historicity of jesus when that really isn’t relevant.

  6. #6 Boknekht
    May 24, 2006

    Actually, with some reflection on my above comments, i see that i’m the ignorant one here, as i realized that i just went off on a rant that wasn’t really addressing the core of what razib was saying w.r.t his comments i quoted. I just exhibited my own ignorance.

    It would be interesting to ask some pastors or theologians themselves about how they see concieve of a monotheistic deity, i thought.

    I must not comment too hastely when reading Razib’s work as there are always subtleties a dummy like me might not catch. Or i interpret him in the wrong way or just plain misunderstand. Apologies there. My embarrassment though.

  7. #7 Michael Murray
    May 24, 2006

    why is it reasonable for you to conclude that god doesn’t exist but unreasonable for him to conclude that it is ridiculous to discuss it?

    If I waste your time with discussion of things that you do not believe are real, wouldn’t you conclude that is ‘ridiculous’ after a while to hold any further discussion?

  8. #8 razib
    May 24, 2006

    If I waste your time with discussion of things that you do not believe are real, wouldn’t you conclude that is ‘ridiculous’ after a while to hold any further discussion?

    no.

    consider. i do not believe that political position x holds any validity and is ludicrous on the face of it. also, 55% of the population holds political position x and wishes to enact it into law.

    therefore, it is ludicrous for me to take any interest in or enter into reflective examination of the details of political position x?

    do i make myself transparent enough for you? if not, state the exact steps of your logic instead of alluding to them so that we may understand each other clearly.

    let me also take this a little farther: one of the hallmarks of humanity which sets us apart from other cognitively high functioning creatures (e.g., basically chimps) is our ability to conceive of counter-factuals and falsehoods, and model what isn’t and what hasn’t been. sometimes what we model in mind’s eye is distasteful or inexplicable, but our humanity is in part contingent on this ability to wander into unfamiliar mental terrain and suspend disbelief for the sake of extrapolation. what i’m saying is, let’s move beyond the chimp stage of thinking in regards to sophistication here. if something has to ‘exist’ for us to take it seriously, we might as well abandon discussion of abstractions.

  9. #9 kemibe
    May 24, 2006

    Michael,

    Just to supplement what Razib said — beliefs may simultaneously be patently false (or to be “fair,” supremely lacking in supporting evidence) and tremendously important to society. Religious beliefs exemplify this better than any other institutionalized delusions owing to their political implications great and small. Then we have people who manage to reject the evidence that being 50 pounds overweight carries no health risks, that the links between smoking and pulmonary pathology are grossly overstated, etc.

    I am certain that there is a part of me that wishes that beliefs in celestial gods conveniently fitted with humanity’s baser emotional drives would simply disappear, but I also know that this not likely happen, either through “allowing ‘faith’ into conversation” (a la Sam Harris) or by browbeating religious adherents with cold logic. My initial comment on this blog failed to convey all of this, I am sure.

  10. #10 Matthew
    May 24, 2006

    Kemibe,

    It is not just religious people who believe things against the overwhelming weight of evidence. When the facts do not fit our models, we are wont to discard the facts, not the models. That goes for “rational” scientific types as much as religious believers.

  11. #11 Timothy
    May 24, 2006

    Thanks for that eloquent post, Razib. I’m an atheist who was formerly a quite fervent religious believer, so maybe my perspective is a bit different than yours, but I am driven crazy by exactly the same thing. The major religions of the world have had a major influence on culture and philosophy over the centuries, and to ignore that is foolish. It’s hard to understand the world without paying attention to large swaths of it. Further, there are bits of Christianity and Judaism (and I’m sure for Islam as well, but I am not very personally familiar with it as I am a former Christian) that actually present fairly useful ideas (parts of Paul’s letters come to mind). To not learn what things are worth learning from them, realizing what they are in historical context, is akin to ignoring Aristotle because the Greeks believed in Zeus. Well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but you take my meaning.

  12. #12 Oran Kelley
    May 24, 2006

    Razib-

    Odd how similar your response to this fellow is so similar to your response to some of my comments a few months ago.

    I’d like to say that credit is due to you for doing this blog which gives folks like me the opportunity to be snarky once in a while. I, and probably everyone, realizes that when you are producing the volume of provocative and inspiring posts you do, we can’t expect grammatical perfection or for what you post to be the last word.

    But that’s not the point. The success of something like this is measured in the conversations you get rolling: it isn’t meant to be the last word.

    On the other hand, though, you have to realize that as you draw interested readers with strong but different points of view, your views are going to come in for some pretty intense criticism occasionally. And sometimes you are going to stake out ground in a post that’ll end up getting carpet bombed.

    That’s all in the give-and-take of this kind of intellectual exchange.

    I see little in the asinine post you link to that should be cause for offense, and little I’d describe as asinine, and little to indicate that the author denies the importance of religion in world history and the world’s future.

    He’s arguing that the Da Vinci Code is not important to non-believers, and is in fact nothing but a continuation of a long traditon of turning Christ into whatever you want him to be. A traditon that started with Paul, or perhaps with Christ.

    Now I think it can be argued that Biblical scholarship has moved beyond this point, but I am far from convinced that this is the case. Biblical scholarship of believers is now more respectable, but I don’t think it’s much more than legend making even now.

    And even granting that point, I think it is still perfectly reasonable to believe that The Da Vinci Code represents nothing but a passing fad that we might just as well ignore, and that, in fact, (as Dan Dare argues) if it does split up the believers, we can congratulate ourselves on our good fortune.

  13. #13 Left_Wing_Fox
    May 24, 2006

    He’s arguing that the Da Vinci Code is not important to non-believers, and is in fact nothing but a continuation of a long traditon of turning Christ into whatever you want him to be. A traditon that started with Paul, or perhaps with Christ.

    Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The popularity of the book has encouraged a great deal of discussion on history and religeon, thanks in large part to the desire of other media sources wanting a piece of that “bestselling fad” pie. Outside Catholics or Christians, a national debate has started based on a fictitious, if plausable sounding piece of history.

    History, like the sciences, is a field that most people have only a basic knowledge of. Most people lack the skills and detailed research necessary to accurately judge historical claims as they are exposed to them, and rely largely on majority opinion and “common sense” to help valdate their beliefs. So when something comes along with the populist power to change public opinion, there should be concern over whether that change is grounded in fact. It’s part of the reason there is such a fight against the rhetorically polished, evidence-free movement for “Intelligent Design”.

    This sort of thing has happened before, often with dangerous effect. Pop culture has helped to maintain and perpertuate stereotypes and false histories in the past (i.e. every TV western prior to the 70′s). The differences in Civil War history tought in the northern and southern United States is another constant source of misunderstanding and political tension. On the extreme end, false histories that combine conspiracy theory with racist fears have helped turn the public towards acts of unspeakable horror. The modern-day mainstreaming of formerly far-right conspiracy theories like “Azatlan” and “reconquista” today are a chilling echo of past examples.

    Certainly, compared to these sort of racist and ultra-nationalist historical rewrites, the fictional history of “The DaVinci Code” is pretty minor. But it is a mistake to view the populist spread of false history, regardless of how minor, as being culturally irrelevant.

  14. #14 razib
    May 25, 2006


    On the other hand, though, you have to realize that as you draw interested readers with strong but different points of view, your views are going to come in for some pretty intense criticism occasionally. And sometimes you are going to stake out ground in a post that’ll end up getting carpet bombed.

    That’s all in the give-and-take of this kind of intellectual exchange.

    I see little in the asinine post you link to that should be cause for offense, and little I’d describe as asinine, and little to indicate that the author denies the importance of religion in world history and the world’s future.

    oran, i’ve been blogging for 4 years now, and on my other blog we’ve been north of 2,000 unique users a day for 3 years. i understand that ideas come in for criticism. that being said, i make particular demands on new readers to express fully fleshed out thoughts instead of fragments. negation now and then is fine, but i also expect readers to bring something to the table in furthering the discussion instead of using it as a forum to display their own witt. as someone with multiple jobs and two weblogs i’m ‘on the run’ quite a bit and can only put in a finite amount of time polishing and reediting what i post. on the other hand, if you are a commenter your volume is probably not as copious, and you probably aren’t going to say as much, so you have less excuse to be totally clear or precise with what’s going on. the key is to move the ball forward. for example, if i make a clear and precise assertion, you should attempt refute it in a clear and precise manner, as opposed to general dismissals which leave me at the mercy of your mysterious internal mental processes and logic.

    additionally, i do not believe this blog is a ‘public space,’ i am intent on driving the conversation into areas where i am interested. the conclusion isn’t particularly important to me, but i am interested in content and style of discourse, and so i’m going to forcefully attempt to push it in that direction. if i know i can’t push it in the direction i want to, i’ll simply close comments (when i made a reference to “stormfront” a few weeks ago white nationalists started leaving their cyber-calling cards, i deleted their comments and closed the discussion thread).

  15. #15 Oran Kelley
    May 25, 2006

    It is, as you note, a balance issue. However, “moving the ball forward” is not a standard that is always applicable. Sometimes it’s a bad ball or a bad pitch and we ought to just forget the whole damned thing. Pointing that out is not just display. It may seem “negative” or unconstructive, but negativity is a prime defenense against time-wasting.

  16. #16 razib
    May 25, 2006

    It may seem “negative” or unconstructive, but negativity is a prime defenense against time-wasting.

    no, you can ignore the post. ‘time-wasting’ is often contingent on norms which aren’t shared. so again, negation should be coupled with some exposition on why x is time wasting.

  17. #17 razib
    May 25, 2006

    also, let me be a little concrete here.

    if i wrote a post about gravitational physics, and albert einstein left a comment to the effect of, “razib, this is full of shit.” well, everyone should take, and i should take note. on the other hand, that’s not what’s going on here. i’m

    a) talking about issues which are more complex than gravitational physics (in that there are more variables, not that the discipline is really complex)

    b) there aren’t, to my knowledge einsteins dropping by

    in other words, plain opinion is only worth so much. if i state that i think the da vinci code is not just epiphenomenal, and you respond, “you’re wrong,” well, i don’t give a shit because your plain opinion isn’t worth jack shit to me unless you have a lot of specialized knowledge about a topic. “you’re wrong” should be followed a set of reasons why i’m wrong so that i don’t have to mind read. in the da vinci code posts i gave links to a) how many people read the books b) how many claimed to be influenced by them. there are myriad responses you could make (“x” isn’t that many compared to the quackery that is believed out there). my reason for thinking the da vinci code was an issue though was very precise: fundamentalist christians were on the right side on many issues factually.

    so again, i see no reason toward unadorned negativity for most commenters here. if i comment on a paper, and the lead author expresses unadorned negativity, but if it is another joe-schmo, than i don’t give a shit what your conclusion is, i want to know how you came by it. if you can’t rouse your faculties to do this, simply don’t comment. if you don’t like the content of the site, than don’t read it.

  18. #18 eoin
    May 27, 2006

    In discussing why religion still exists, and why it is important to people still we could do well to quote the German Philosopher who said that:

    “Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions…”

    The Philosopher ( Marx) may have thought that socialism – the end of suffering – may have ended religion. Personally I think you would have to end death to end religion, for if we are to age and die, and our loved ones to age and die we will suffer, no matter the material conditions of the State, or society.

  19. #19 Morgan-LynnLamberth
    June 5, 2006

    Thanks ,Razib. Theists just put old garbage into new cans; they like to reword their nonsense as though they had something new to say.Natural causation obviates a need for a designer – natural selction- the anti-chance agency, does the formation accordind to what it works on.As it is eternal,and we fairly well know from Team Ashtekar and others ,the poyverse is eternal.Applying parsimony, we exclude the god notion .By eschewin g the fallacy of composition, we do not ask why it is of the polyverse as we ask of its parts.And it does no good to invoke two catergories of origin and creation as Russell Stanna rd does or the contingency and nececcary being one as they beg the question of whether there is the second category. As no empirical features of the polyverse give reason to think that a god has the attributes ascribe to it, it is vacuous. As theists willnever compose a valid argument for the existence o f a god, I assert the auto-epistemic argument , not the ad ignorantium one here. As a god is just a placebo and we can get inspiration elsewhere, I say the notion is just a superstion as is the paranormal and Big Foot,etd.. I Fr. Griggs rest in my Socratic ignorance an dhumble naturalism.Onward naturalist inquirirs1

  20. #20 morgan lamberth
    June 5, 2006

    I forgot to add that I have schyzotypy,therefore,supposed to to have those weird beliefs, but the opposite happened ,fortunately, for me!

  21. #21 Morgan-LynnLamberth
    June 5, 2006

    My previous post did not appear in which I demonstrate logical fallacies in theistic aarguments. I hope they will yet appear as they buttress Razib’s remarks.

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