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Posts Tagged ‘god’

(Cross-posted to Tumblr, in response to theunitofcaring.)

I don’t personally experience their level of discomfort around people who believe in the existence of Hell in the same sickening way, but I find this an entirely understandable reaction.

It seems too obvious to even mention, but that’s almost never universal, so it’s worth spelling out: Hell, as generally described or conceived as a place of everlasting suffering, is the most evil idea that is possible to exist.

There are various other interpretations of what Hell is – “an absence of God” or what-have-you – which may or may not be more theologically rigorous than the colloquial usage. But the lasting image in many people’s minds is pretty much congruent with all those Renaissance paintings of lakes of fire filled with sinners. If you go there, you will be tormented without end. And whatever disagreement there is on what it takes to get sent there, this happens to a non-zero number of eternal souls.

Seriously, if you can come up with something even hypothetically more evil than that, leave a comment or something, I’d be fascinated.

So while there’s something horrifying about wishing that somebody would suffer such a fate, there’s an extra layer of grotesquery in accepting that such a self-evidently evil thing could be allowed to exist by a god who claims to love us, and who somehow still deserves our love in return. That it’s a sad necessity, or part of some great divine plan we’re not privy to, and not proof that this god is an abominable tyrant who we must never stop railing against.

All that said… I think the saving grace here is that most people just haven’t thought it through.

I can’t know what’s going on in other people’s brains, but I strongly suspect that many of those who profess a belief in Hell haven’t consciously, deliberately, formed a mental model of all the implications of that belief and truly accepted them. Far more likely that many of them are replacing the question with a different one, and answering that instead.

Rather than “What is an appropriate and reasonable punishment for people who do wrong?” they’re responding to something about how important it is to them to defend the integrity of their tribe, and how strong is the hate they feel toward the out-group. The feeling of enmity toward the other is interpreted as a wish for some non-specific ills to fall on said other, but in practice, they’re probably not imagining anything more appalling or painful happening to them than, say, death. (This is the same misunderstanding of scale as is often seen in the dust-speck issue, where people read “3^^^3” and think “billions, probably”.)

So, yeah. If you believe in Hell, then potentially we could still be friends, although it’s not exactly a great start. If you believe in Hell and we’re already friends, well, just know that I disagree with you on this even more than I disagree with you on politics, and we both know how out-of-sync I am on that front.

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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Let’s talk about not believing in God.

Atheists often frame their position as a simple lack of a belief; they don’t take the active, affirmative, assertive position that theists do, don’t make any direct claim, and simply don’t hold the positive position that “God exists”.

I’ve written before about why the extent to which some atheists take this feels like an unnecessary cop-out.

Atheists should totally be making positive claims. Part of the reason why many are reluctant to do so, is because of an implicit idea that “belief” is a binary thing, something you either have or you don’t.

Christians believe the claim that “God exists”, and atheists don’t. Some atheists might conversely believe the claim “God does not exist”, but many deny holding any such position, and define their own godlessness as a kind of belieflessness. It’s not that they don’t believe in anything – we often have to remind people of our strongly held convictions in favour of love, truth, beauty, cheesecake, and the basic goodness of humanity – but when it comes to God, we simply don’t buy it, and are otherwise keeping out of the argument.

I don’t think this holds up. I think that the usual ways we describe belief are necessarily short-hand for a more complex set of ideas, and that we can afford to start being clearer in our positive declarations.

As an analogue, let’s say I’ve flipped a coin but not yet revealed the result. Do you “believe” that it’s landed on heads?

Assuming you have no improbable insider knowledge about the coin or my tossing abilities (steady), you haven’t a clue which way it’s landed. So, I guess you “lack the belief” that it’s landed heads. And you lack the equivalent belief that it’s fallen on tails. It’s not that you disbelieve either option – they’re both possible, and wouldn’t be especially surprising.

Now let’s say I’ve rolled a fair six-sided die, and am also temporarily hiding the results. What beliefs do you have about the number that’s showing? Presumably you lack each individual belief in its landing on any given number – but it seems like this is true in a different way from the coin-toss. In that first case, if you’d arbitrarily picked one option to guess at, it would’ve been no big deal whether you’d been right or wrong. With the die, if you randomly picked the right one, you’d be a little more impressed. On seeing what number it landed on, you’ve now adopted one particular belief you formerly lacked, just like with the coin – and yet this feels like a bigger deal.

Let’s step it up again. I’ve got a lottery ticket here for last night’s ¬£7,000,000 jackpot. It’s either a winner or a loser, but I’m not telling you any of the numbers on it. Clearly you’d expect some evidence if I wanted to convince you it’s a winning ticket. But do you simply “lack the belief” that I’ve won the lottery, just like you “lacked the belief” that my coin had landed on heads (or tails)? Or are you actually pretty sure I haven’t won?

I’d argue that you’re easily justified in believing I’ve not become a millionaire overnight. The evidence in favour of the idea is so slight, and the odds against it so great, that it seems like a hypothesis worth ignoring. (Even before you consider the odds that I’m lying about having a ticket in the first place. Which I am.)

Now, you might change your mind later, when I invite you round for tea and diamonds in my new gold house, but for now, you’re safe assuming that I haven’t won the lottery. It’s not dogmatic to work with that assumption; it doesn’t imply you’re unwilling to be persuaded by evidence. But come on, clearly I haven’t won the lottery. Frankly, you should be quite content telling me “James, you have not won the lottery”. We’d all understand what you meant. If you can’t make that positive assertion now, then I don’t know when declaring anything to be true is ever going to be possible.

It may seem as if it’s incompatible with acknowledging the possibility that you might be wrong – this possibility can be calculated precisely, after all. But the fact is, we don’t append the phrase “to a reasonably high degree of probability, barring the arrival of any further evidence” to the end of every other sentence we utter. When we have conversations with each other, there’s generally a subtext of “I am not absolutely and immutably 100% certain that this is the case, it is simply the most appropriate conclusion I am able to draw and it seems strongly likely, but I will be willing to reconsider if there’s a good reason why I should do so” to most of what we’re saying.

I don’t “believe” that any given flipped coin has landed on heads or tails. But I can put a probability of 50% on either outcome, which says something more useful than just “I lack belief in any direction”.

With a six-sided die, the probability is 1/6 each way. Is it fair to say “I believe it hasn’t landed on 6”, since I believe the odds are 5/6 against that outcome? Probably not, but I don’t think it matters. If you understand the numbers I’ve placed on each possible outcome, you understand what I believe.

I don’t believe an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. Further, I believe an asteroid will not crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. I believe this more strongly then any of the other examples so far. How strongly? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong somewhere on the scale of increasingly improbable things. In this case, just saying “it’s not going to happen” is a useful short-hand way to get my point across, without going into a lengthy spiel about percentages and Bayesian priors. It gets the gist of my position across in a manner I think most of my audience will understand.

There is no God.

Does that mean I think God’s existence is less probable than, say, flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row? Would I be more surprised to meet Jesus after I die than to roll a string of double-sixes throughout an entire game of Monopoly? Whether or not I have an exact numerical value for my god-belief, these are the terms we should be thinking in. Not that there’s simply a thing called belief which some people possess and I lack and that’s the end of it.

So can we agree that a flat denial of God’s existence is not dogmatic and unfounded now, please? Can we accept all the implied background understanding that goes along with other conversations about the things we believe? Can we maintain useful phrases like “does not exist” without burying them under a mound of tentative qualifications each and every time, when we all know damn well that Carl Sagan’s garage is a dragon-free zone?

And could we stop acting as if being sure you’re right about certain things makes you an inflexible ideological bad guy, regardless of how reasonable it is to be strongly convinced of your position?

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Hey look, my face is back. Did another one of them video things. Went a bit more click-bait-y with the title this time. Maybe it’ll help.

Not sure how well it works. The satire’s not exactly opaque, and it’s not really too on-the-nose either, but neither is it entirely satisfying. Ah well.

Also, here’s an XKCD cartoon which sprung to mind when considering the kind of “but your life is pointless!” arguments I’ve been hearing a lot of lately. It came to me too late to do anything with in the video, but yeah.

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A link to a moving and heart-warming story appeared in my Facebook feed the other day, along with an utterly inexplicable comment from a distant friend-of-a-friend.

It’s not that long a story behind that link, but in short, someone encountered a person who was rude and aggressive; and rather than responding with anger and effrontery in kind, she gave this person the benefit of the doubt and offered kindness and generosity in return. The aggressive person who’d been having a shitty day apologised and was chastened, and it ends with everyone feeling better and more connected to each other and knowing there’s more love in the world than they might otherwise have expected. It’s beautiful.

And here’s what the guy who posted it particularly enjoyed about it:

What’s so wonderful about this story, is that *God* showed up to shower her with empathy; she didn’t force herself or self-generate this deep compassion, but was a free (and freed!) recipient of God’s empathetic, sympathetic & consanguineous heart for this poor frazzled woman.

Now, as it happens, the person telling the story also gave it a religious interpretation. And that’s fine, on the face of it; anything that inspires people to act well and care for each other like this can’t be all bad. She prayed that God would help her to see other people “as He sees them, not as I see them”. If you define God as one who sees people with compassion and kindness and patience and love at all times, this is a fine and worthy aim.

But it goes a step further to declare that the God part – not the wonderful act of human kindness part – is what makes the story great.

Apparently, what makes it a great story is when you stop believing in the intrinsic goodness of people, in our own innate capacity to act well toward others and be caring and forgiving and loving and kind, and start trusting some external and unknowable force to inspire these things in us.

Apparently, it’s not nearly as wonderful to think that humanity might be able to raise itself up to such glorious heights and approach the zenith of all those values we hold most dear, as to presume that our only hope lies in our being granted these feelings of charity and compassion by someone else.

Apparently, we are not powerful, nor capable of overcoming our baser urges on our own; and if God isn’t going to help us, nobody else can, and we certainly can’t help ourselves.

Wow.

And atheists get told that ours is the bleak and cynical worldview.

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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You’ve seen the slogan. You’ve read the bumper sticker. You’ve bought the cereal. You’ve collected the action figures. WWJD is everywhere.

It’s a global trend, a widespread meme, a constantly repeated rhetorical question, which exists primarily – it sometimes seems – to give atheists something to chuckle over, and marvel at the asinine, fantasy-driven approach that some people take to solving their problems.

Against the trend, I think there’s a really powerful idea buried in the clich√©, and it’s odd how unnoticed it tends to go.

The baggage that comes with invoking Jesus is obviously a big hindrance. In some ways it renders the question moot, because Jesus never existed.

Or, I dunno, maybe he did. Different historical scholars seem to have different ideas on this. It may well be that the science is settled, and the controversy is an entirely artificial one which relies on people like me being bamboozled by the way both sides seem to have a significant presence, despite one of them being utterly wrong (cf. intelligent design). It doesn’t remotely matter.

There’s also the question of whether the character of Jesus is really such a wonderful example of the sweetness and charity he’s presumed to exemplify. The God of the Bible is a malicious, spiteful tyrant, after all, and it was Jesus who introduced the idea of sending people to Hell for calling your brother a dick (I’m translating for a modern audience).

The result of which is that most people (including me until, like, this week) don’t really get any further in their considerations of WWJD than being mildly amused that anyone might seriously use what Jesus would do in their situation as a guiding principle for their actions. Even moderate Christians often distance themselves from the phrase, finding their more extreme counterparts bothersome for all the same reasons we do.

But I think the basic idea behind it could do with a reboot, and a closer look.

WWJD comes from an awareness that we don’t always meet our ideals, in our natural, everyday behaviour. We plan to get things done, but flake out. We promise ourselves we’re going to tidy the house, but end up sitting and watching TV all evening. We make grand plans to eat healthily and work out, and then remember how much effort it takes to actually do all that. We want to resolve a dispute with a friend or partner, to apologise and make everything right, but find ourselves getting so wound up and infuriated that we end up shouting, or saying deliberately hurtful things to score a point and make ourselves feel better.

Very few of us can claim to be the person we really want to be. But we usually do have an idea of that person, a concept of the creative, industrious, charitable paragon of virtue we feel like we could be. Even if we regularly fail to live up to that construct in the moment, when it comes time to actually take action.

We could all be doing better. And maybe there’s a useful way to prompt ourselves to do better. If there’s anything about the current direction of your life in which you’re not entirely satisfied with your own performance, ask yourself:

If I were a better person – if I were the diligent, patient, paragon of virtue I wish I could be – then how would I respond to this situation? What would I be doing now?

If you have the time to pause for just a moment, and ask yourself the question… and if you can come up with an answer (which is generally the easy part)…

…then why not just do that thing, instead of whatever inferior thing you were going to do instead?

There are limits to this notion’s scope, obviously. It might be clear that the ideal you would punch out a bear that was threatening your family, or play a heartbreaking violin solo, or solve a quadratic equation for complex values of x – but simply knowing that fact doesn’t help you achieve any of those goals, if you aren’t already physically capable of them.

But surely some of your goals are more attainable. Maybe the ideal you would converse with arse-grobbling shitgibbons on the internet without spitting bile at them about what arse-grobbling shitgibbons they are…

And so maybe you can, too.

Maybe the ideal you would have more patience with the sonofabitch who cut you up and made you slam your brakes on that time, and make allowance for their various human failings without writing them off as a waste of atomic matter and bearing a grudge for the rest of the day…

So maybe you could start doing that now. You already know you’d rather do that than your usual thing.

Maybe the power to be awesome was inside you all along.

Of course, it can be really, really hard to remember this kind of thinking in the moment. When you’re angry or frustrated or frightened or upset, the natural thing is to do what feels, well, natural. Which is generally something other than positing a hypothetical version of yourself and planning a response around that. There’s a way you react to things which feels like the kind of person you just are. It’s not easy to remember to think things over when you’re busy reacting.

Which is why people wear those goofy wrist-bands and stuff, I guess. To help them remember the person they want to be, even – especially – at times when their instinct is to act like the less awesome version. The idea is to cultivate that more thoughtful reaction, the one you wish could be the way you react to stuff, until it becomes such a learned habit that that’s just the person you are.

It’s a really powerful idea… if you can just get past the whole Jesus thing. It’s a shame when religion makes good things so inaccessible.

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