Atheists and Mormons

Believe it or not, yesterday's post started as an honest question. I phrased it provocatively because this is, after all, the Internet, but I wasn't just poking atheists with sticks.

This actually started quite a while ago, during one of the previous rounds of squabbling over Dawkins and his ilk, when I started a sentence something like: "What I'd like to see is less 'Religion is Stupid' and more..." and couldn't finish it. I couldn't come up with a good example of something positive to put in place of the "..."

Which was really annoying. After all, I've got a pretty solid idea of what I'd like to see more of from religious people-- the short version is "http://slacktivist.typepad.com/"-- but I don't really have a solid mental image of what I'd like to see from proseltyzing atheists. Or even what would really be possible along those lines.

I ended up abandoning the post, but kept the topic in mind. I was reminded of it this week by the Mormons.

Not any specific Mormon, but the Mormons generally. Specifically, those corny-as-hell commercials they do promoting general niceness. They've done a huge ad buy on the local ESPN radio affiliate, so I've been hearing a lot of those spots.

The current one is, basically, "Talk to your kids." Not in an explicitly threatening way, like you get from the War on Some Drugs: "Talk to your kids, or they'll end up sleeping on the street giving hand jobs for crack." There's a small element of that, but the message is basically just "Talk to your kids. Everybody will be happier."

This is, as I said, corny as all hell. It's also pretty effective. I'm not going to run out and join up, because I know a bit about LDS theology, and, really, if Mitt Romney wants to make the leap to Scientology (seriously, Battlefield Earth?), he's not getting a whole lot weirder. But those ads do a great job of reinforcing the image of Mormons as Just Nice Folks. And that extends somewhat to religious people in general.

That made me wonder again about that "..." from a few months ago, and I still couldn't think of anything to put there. Now, granted, it's not like "Talk to your kids" is an exclusively Mormon idea, but they can at least make an argument that the idea grows out of their religious and ethical tradition, and you just don't hear atheists doing a whole lot of that.

Which is why I asked the question, and why I really liked John Novak's answer:

The ethics of atheism-- my ethics of atheism, at least-- lead me to try to make the world a better place. Most if not all religions will claim that their ethics do the same.

But my ethics of atheism force me to do so in terms of the world itself and in terms of the people within it, rather than the dictates of a being that probably doesn't exist, focussing on rewards, punishments, or other results in an afterlife that probably doesn't exist either.

Hope, for instance, is a powerful Christian virtue and arguably one of the best three philosophical traditions to come out of the Christian tradition. But as an atheist, when someone dies, I cannot allow myself to rationalize or hope that someone has gone to a better place; on the flip side, I cannot allow myself to think that horrible men committing horrible actions will be sufficiently punished after their deaths.

Atheism keeps me focussed on this world, and permits no excuses for bad behaviour, except legitimate error (and thus exhorts me to improve myself, again, in this world, to make fewer errors.)

(Jed Harris says something similar farther down.) Now, there's still a faint element of "religion is stupid" in there, but I like this approach It casts atheism in a positive light, as an active source of ethical principles, rather than primarily putting down religion. If you were running for office as an atheist candidate, this is the message you would want to put out there.

I'd like to see more of that sort of thing. Not just because I think it would be more effective, but because it's at least interesting, which "religion is irrational" is not.

I realize, of course, that to the militant atheist crowd, my comments are about as welcome as those chin-stroker pieces in which David Brooks explains what the Democrats really need to do to win elections. I thought that I ought to give at least some explanation of the reasoning behind yesterday's poking-with-sticks, though. There's another angle on it, too, that I may get to later, but the next few days are a schedule nightmare for me, so we'll see...

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but I don't really have a solid mental image of what I'd like to see from proseltyzing atheists.

Here's what I'd like to see:

* "I see no need myself for any kind of belief in, faith in, or reliance in any kind of higher power."

* "Despite not having any belief in or faith in a high power, I can have a full and rich life."

* "I do not need pronouncements ostensibly from a higher power to live a moral and ethical life. Here is where I draw my sense of morality and ethics: ...."

* "These things about religion are harmful: ..."

(The last part is fine; I do it to. The problem is when the militant atheists take that and say that all of religion is completely evil because of the crusades, because of creationism, etc.)

It's fine for people not to need it or understand religion. Turning their own lack of understanding into justification for absolute condemnation is the ultimate in narcissism.

I don't understand people who like rap music. This does not lead me to conclude that they are stupid or aesthetically challenged. (I mean, yes, sometimes I may think that, but when I step back I recognize that my thinking that was unworthy, and I should rethink my position. Militant atheists don't, they get extremely self-righteous about their position.)

-Rob

Militant atheists don't, they get extremely self-righteous about their position.

Probably has something to do with the "militant" part, don't ya think?

Perhaps the reason you have a hard time putting yourself in the shoes of proselytizing atheists is that a majority don't proselytize. I want to be left alone, and I'm willing to afford religious people the same luxury. It's like sitting in coach on a transatlantic flight: as long as I don't get an elbow in my ribs, I'll enthusiastically stand up so you can run to the restroom, etc. But if pointy parts of your body encroach upon my seat, I'll pretend to be asleep when your GI-tract is suffering from the airplane lasagna.

So, anyway, it's all well and good to ask for positive aspects of atheism as an intellectual exercise, but when you come down to it, THAT'S NOT WHAT IT'S ABOUT. Nobody rejects religion because of atheism's ancillary benefits, just like nobody converts to Mormonism because they want to talk to their kids more, and why nobody spontaneously develops faith based on Pascal's Wager. We're atheists because that is the position that is consistent with the way we believe the universe works. Religious people are religious because that's the way *they* believe the universe works. It's about knowledge and truth, not marketing.

Those "militant atheists" you condemn are so gosh-darn annoying and militant because they believe that truth and rationalism are more important than making everybody else comfortable. When you argue that people will like them more if they're nice, it is totally missing the point. Their goal is not to be liked, it's to be *right*.

I think the problem you are dealing with is that atheism generally defines itself in the negative: what it is not, what adherants don't need, what they don't believe.

As an atheist by breeding as well as temprament, I work to define my "spiritual" self (or whatever you wish to call it) in a positive way:
1. I believe in the strength of scientific priniples and empiricism;
2. I believe that hope always exists;
3. I believe that humanity it capable of high morals and ethics based on compassion, intelligence, and enlightened self-interest.

Stuff like that, you don't hear hardcore atheists saying loudly. I don't, anyway. Mostly I hear what Rob Knop (above post) states, and while a lot of atheists such as Rob do so politely and intelligently, it is still a list in the negative. Hard to rally much around that, or build a good marketing campaign on.

::::KBS

One truly maladaptive result of religious believe is the insistence that bad people will be punished -- eventually. We hear this meme in "what goes around comes around" -- which we actually don't observe. Most bad deeds in fact go unpunished. Slumlord die rich. Good hardworking people who sacrifice for others die poor.

It is maladaptive to waste this life betting on the outcome of the next life when there is zero evidence of life after death. Anyone who supposes life continues after death is simply denying the fact of death and its substance.

It is maladaptive to give a substantial portion of one's income -- nominally a tenth of gross income -- to a multinational corporation no matter, whether it is headquartered in Rome or Salt Lake City, simply because it makes promises for rewards after you die in return for sacrifices before your death.

Since this is the only life we get, it is immoral to distract anyone from that crucial fact.

It's about knowledge and truth, not marketing

This seems false. People are drawn to religion for comfort and community.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 03 May 2007 #permalink

So, it seems to me that whether you believe in god or not is fairly unimportant. What matters is, as indicated by the quote from Novak, how you approach the world as it actually is. And, just like being religious, being atheist doesn't inevitably make you a better person.

It seems like energy would be better spent trying to convince everyone to take knowledge and compassion seriously, rather than trying to convince them that god doesn't exist.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 03 May 2007 #permalink

This week the Mormon candidate for US President answered a reporter's question about books that he enjoyed. The answer surprised me, for its theology, and honesty.

April 30, 2007, 10:24 pm
Romney Favors Hubbard Novel
By Jim Rutenberg
The New York Times

"What's your favorite novel?" is a perennial campaign question, the answer to which presumably gives insight into leadership.

A "Moby-Dick" lover may understand the perils of obsessively chasing of a goal. A fan of "To Kill a Mockingbird" may well focus on racial justice.

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to "Battlefield Earth," a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.

A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney's favorite novels.

"I'm not in favor of his religion by any means," Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. "But he wrote a book called 'Battlefield Earth' that was a very fun science-fiction book." Asked about his favorite book, Mr. Romney cited the Bible.

=====

For comments, see:

Report on the Current Cultural Status of Our Beloved Genre
Posted by Patrick at 11:22 AM * 366 comments

The good news: Even unblinking, homunculus-like Republican presidential candidates, asked for their favorite novel, cite works of modern SF!

The bad news: Mitt Romney's professed "favorite novel" is Battlefield Earth.

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/008932.html

Now, granted, it's not like "Talk to your kids" is an exclusively Mormon idea, but they can at least make an argument that the idea grows out of their religious and ethical tradition, and you just don't hear atheists doing a whole lot of that.

As a couple of other posters have remarked, "atheism" often emphasizes statements in a negative form ("I don't believe X...", "I don't do X...", etc.). I've sometimes preferred "humanist" instead, because most atheists have a basically non-religious humanist approach to ethics, which is easy to express with predominantly positive statements instead. There have been some good examples already in this discussion.

"Talk to your kids" definitely grows out of a non-religious humanist ethical tradition, just as it does for the Mormons. Why don't atheists talk about it more? It seems quite clear to me: "talk to your kids" doesn't just grow out of humanist ethics, it's pretty much at the "duh!" level of obviousness in humanist ethics. Most atheists hardly think it needs mentioning, unless they're arguing with someone who doesn't think talking to your kids is a good idea.

By ColoRambler (not verified) on 03 May 2007 #permalink

Actually Chad, tons of people do that. Adam at Daylight Atheism spends a lot of his time working on that, while still being an uncompromising militant atheist. We're not all like PZ, constantly screaming about how religion is bad and never adding anything positive. As with any group of smart people, there are those who dedicate themselves to thinking about how the shared philosophy relates to the world, and how it can be used to make it a better place.

Honestly, I wish I'd thought of saying that, because it's true. Atheists are in a unique position to improve the world since we see it as it actually is, and we don't count on any Deus Ex Machina to save us. It's a lot easier to help people if you don't believe silly things, like birth control being wrong (how many Africans have died of AIDS because of that?), or that poor people deserve poverty (I know, few people believe that, but they exist).

And Mormonism might have that appearance, but there are places in Utah where Mormon men rule like kings, with harems of 12 year old girls. They have caused unspeakable harm to so many people, that no number of nice Mormons can ever make up for it, at least for me. I have nothing but vitriol for that religion, whether the cheesy commercials are true or not.

For what it's worth, my comments were along the lines of, "This is what I get out of it, and therefore these are the reasons I wish everyone else were an atheist."

The only sense in which this would influence someone's behaviour is if they were a serious hardcore agnostic, literally unable to decide whether there is a God or not, but trying to figure out how to act. In my case (since I am close to that perfect agnostic) I choose to act as though there is no God on a day to day basis.

So what am I? Theist? No. Atheist? Maybe, since it depends on whether or not atheism implies active disbelief or not. Agnostic? Probably. I can't see much philosophical difference between, "The universe arose spontaneously, and then...." and "God arose spontaneously, and then...." I am still left with the question of, "Okay, but why, and how do you know that was first?" and I am still left with the sickening sensation of infinite regress. In any case, they're completely beyond my ability to make a worthwhile decision about, at least at this time, and possibly for all time.

But I categorically reject the notion (and here we segue from theism to religion) that, for instance, there is not only a Creator God, but that he whispered in Muhammed's ear, or led Jews out of Egypt, or incarnated into Jesus son of Joseph, or any equivalent Eastern statements. I suppose I could be a deist, but... enh. The ramifications, of course, are wildly different, but the initial questions and answers are pretty similar to me.

So strictly, I think I'm an agnostic. But functionally, I'm an atheist. Right down to getting annoyed with myself when certain segments of my brain start acting in ways that I recognize as prayerful: "Oh, pleeease, [don't] let such and such happen!" (Which, as much as possible, gets a stern mental rebuke from the science-processing parts of my conscious brain.)

By John Novak (not verified) on 03 May 2007 #permalink

Thoughtful post, thanks. I've been thinking of writing some non-tracts, so I'm printing this message and the topics for ideas.

Stuart Coleman said:
"but there are places in Utah where Mormon men rule like kings, with harems of 12 year old girls."

I respond:
Wow. I'm surprised to find someone would would even say that. In as much as "Mormon" refers to anyone/anything associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (who run the adds Chad mentioned), that's just not true at all.

Mostly I hear what Rob Knop (above post) states, and while a lot of atheists such as Rob do so politely and intelligently, it is still a list in the negative. Hard to rally much around that, or build a good marketing campaign on.

By the way -- I'm the token "actual theist" blogger here. There are lots of agnostics, lots of Chamberlain atheists, but very few (I'm not sure if there are any other than me) willing to come forward and claim to be a practicing theist.

-Rob

But if pointy parts of your body encroach upon my seat, I'll pretend to be asleep when your GI-tract is suffering from the airplane lasagna.

Off-topic, but: I think that strategy could backfire most unpleasantly ;-).

But if pointy parts of your body encroach upon my seat, I'll pretend to be asleep when your GI-tract is suffering from the airplane lasagna.

Off-topic, but: I think that strategy could backfire most unpleasantly ;-).

The trick is to make sure they are afraid of bothering you, so they'll not only keep to themselves, but also think twice before asking you to move.

Be nice to each other, because this is the only chance we get.
Be nice to each other, because the only heaven we'll get is the one we make right here and now.
...and equally important...
Don't take shit meekly - nobody is going to make it up to you when you're dead.

>Wow. I'm surprised to find someone would would even say that. In as much as
>"Mormon" refers to anyone/anything associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of
>Latter-Day Saints (who run the adds Chad mentioned), that's just not true at all

Oh please. Mormon fundamentalist-polygamists are still Mormons. The Mormon fundies say that the LDS church members are not "real" Mormons, too. What you are saying equates to the Catholics saying that no Protestants are Christians, or Baptists saying that no Catholics are Christians, which is a load of crap.

Clark: Wow. I'm surprised to find someone would would even say that. In as much as "Mormon" refers to anyone/anything associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (who run the adds Chad mentioned), that's just not true at all

writerdd: Oh please. Mormon fundamentalist-polygamists are still Mormons.

I have about as much interest in hosting an acrimonious debate about the merits of various brands of Mormonism on this blog as I have in sticking red-hot knitting needles in my eyes.

Future comments on this topic-- in either direction-- will be summarily disemvowelled.

Chad,

With all due respect, how would you suggest someone disagree with key theological beliefs without introducing "a faint element of 'religion is stupid'"? John can certainly defend himself, but as I read it, he is provisionally (notice all the "probably"s?) disagreeing with the truth of those beliefs in close to the most respectful tone possible. At any rate, it's far less insulting than your glib jab at Mormons and Scientologists (har har, "[that] Religion is Stupid"). Now, that isn't entirely without justification in my view, but it undermines your argument for respect for others' beliefs and makes it look more like special pleading for popular religious beliefs. I'm happy to be corrected on that, though. Is there some metric of silliness that distinguish smart theological claims that deserve respect from stupid ones that deserve mockery? Maybe you can give me a list of religions or theological claims I'm allowed to mock (like LDS and Scientology, apparently) and ones I can't call wrong without inherently insulting them.

I'm not defending myself from anyone; I haven't said anything requiring a moral defense. I was just adding a little more detail, in the same vein as (sorry, I've forgotten her name) the poster from the positive theism thread. I disagree with her conclusions, but I liked her comment.

If I were, though, I might start by pointing out that stating my disbelief in God does not equate to stating "religion is stupid," and that expecting an atheist to say positive things about atheism without making reference to the fact that he doesn't believe in God is highly questionable at best.

By John Novak (not verified) on 04 May 2007 #permalink

John,

That's exactly what I was trying to get across by pointing out the civility of your original comment -- you just said it a lot better. Sorry if I implied you needed to defend yourself, I was just clumsily pointing out the obvious that I don't speak for you. I'm really not sure how one is supposed to espouse atheism without the taint of "Religion is Stupid" if your comment doesn't fit the bill. I was also trying to note what I see as a double standard: mainstream religious beliefs are to be handled with the utmost delicacy, but less popular religions can be ridiculed in the course of advocating respect for belief, and nobody takes notice.

All that said, this is why I prefer to indentify myself as a humanist. "Atheist," though literally correct, really provides no information about me as an individual. My Jewish father might as well call himself an "Unchristian."

P.S.: Sorry if I sound a bit snarky toward the end of my last post. I wrote that before my morning coffee, and woe be upon anyone near me before my daily stimulant.

With all due respect, how would you suggest someone disagree with key theological beliefs without introducing "a faint element of 'religion is stupid'"?

I doubt you can. But at least you can make it a faint element, rather than a jumping-up-and-down-yelling element.

Chad: I doubt you can.

I think that's your baggage, Chad, not mine.

On some things, I can say "I disagree, I think you're wrong," without implicitly meaning or explicitly saying, "You're stupid," or "That's stupid." The existence of a God is one of them. (The existence of a God who fakes carbon dating data on dinosaur bones is not, just for contrast.)

After all, one doesn't read Einstein's theory of relativity with the idea that he's calling Newton stupid. Why must this be different?

Qubit: Don't worry about it.

By John Novak (not verified) on 04 May 2007 #permalink