The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

A Few Brief Remarks about Atheism

| 109 Comments

A Twitter conversation about atheism has now passed beyond what Twitter can handle (at 140 characters, the bar is not set high).  Let me lay it out for you.  For the record, I don’t think anything here is particularly daring or outrageous; I just wanted to state it clearly.

I do not believe in God.  I do not believe in any non-material world.  I believe that people who pull the “you can’t prove a negative” stuff have an understanding of “prove” that is narrow and not appropriate to this conversation*.  I believe in science, and that includes taking a scientific approach to the history and effects of religious beliefs.

I believe many militant atheists are unscientific in their approach to religion.  I believe many of them are using atheism as a cover to justify racism and atrocities carried out by imperialism against Arab and North African peoples in the name of big oil.  I feel that twisting a scientific principle out of shape to use it to justify terrorism, the murder of children and other civilians, torture, and attacks on democratic rights is one of the ugliest, most evil things a human being can do.

Belief in God can, should, and (I believe) ultimately will be overcome by education and by the free exchange of ideas.  When religious groups attempt to interfere with science or with the exchange of ideas, or attempt to impose their beliefs on society in general or education in particular, they can, should, and must be fought.  But ignorance masquerading as science is horrid, whether it is creationism, or anti-Muslim hysteria with a faux-scientific cover.

 

*In itself, a fascinating question that I’ll have to talk about one of these days.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

109 Comments

  1. As you say – imposed theocracy (Christian, Islam, etc.) is what must be fought.

  2. I can’t say that I disagree with anything there (though pardon my ignorance, didn’t actually realize you were an atheist; adds another reason for me to buy every damn one of your books).

    This, though: “I believe many of them are using atheism as a cover to justify racism and atrocities carried out by imperialism against Arab and North African peoples in the name of big oil.” Do you see atheists doing this? Or phrased differently, do you see this as the driving motivation behind Dawkins, Hitchens, etc? I don’t, but, then again, I’ve already been confronted with my ignorance once today.

  3. skzb

    William: Dawkins is a tougher case; I believe he is sincere, and incorrect on some points. But here is an example of what I’m talking about: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/04/har-a16.html

  4. The decline of Religion in countries like Denmark and Sweden prove the point that education, combined with an equitable standard of living, can and do replace the need for religion. If your country and community provides for these basic needs, there really is no need to seek assistance from a power outside of nature.

  5. Sam Harris… Agreed. There were a number of reasons that I found “The End of Faith” to be unpalatable. That article does a great job at summarizing them.

  6. skzb

    Beth: There are not enough “+1″s in the world for this comment.

  7. Have a care not to conflate belief in God with ignorance and lack of education. This is one of Dawkins’ biggest weaknesses (that and being a jerk, but that’s a personal opinion and not really germane here). That having been said, I absolutely agree with you. Twisting any ideology, religious or atheist or purple, in order to justify harming others is unconscionable.

  8. skzb

    Jean: It is unquestionably true that many highly intelligent and well-educated people believe in God.

  9. I agree about the “can” and “should”. I am less optimistic about the “will”. Historical precedent does not seem to favor this outcome, unfortunately.

  10. skzb

    Majikjon: That’s kind of a pessimistic attitude when we’re only down by a run and it’s the bottom of the first.

  11. Steve, I agree with the brief remarks in this post entirely. So, um, ditto.

  12. You say racism as if you think there’s something WRONG about being racist.

    Problem, Easterner?

  13. I have trouble saying it’s racism when Islamophobes like Christian and secular Middle-easterners, but if you think that’s quibbling, cool, ’cause the bigger point stands: atheist bigots and xenophobes are assholes, no matter how much they wave their hands and say, “science, science, science!”

  14. I am a religious person, and I believe anyone has the right to believe – or not believe – as they see fit. I do not force my views on those around me, nor do I expect them to do such to me. With that being said, I will only state that there is no ending of faith by humans in this world; they are merely shifting the focus of their faith from a super-human god or gods to a more mortal one, namely science. I have had this same discussion with several of my friends, who are proselyzing atheists but not of the same type of atheism. (It seems there are many “denominations” of atheists.) And whenever I ask where they turn to for answers about things they do not understand, they always say science. This seems remarkable similar to a religious person turning to their holy scriptures for their answer. What is the difference between me and my friends I ask myself? Nothing except where we go to for the answer to life’s questions. That is why it is not surprising a Church of Atheism has been established. It is a religion, or perhaps it has becoming a religion in all but name. And like all religions, it will be politicized by those with power to justify their actions, just as christianity, islam, and every other religion have been used. Sorry to say it, but atheism is just another religious sect on the heap of history.

  15. You know me Steve, Not an atheist but agree with you 1,000,000%. close minded =ness will not have the effect people are looking for on both sides.

  16. I’m strongly anti-religious myself. It’s clear to me that all the major religions are based on primitive tribal notions of how the world works. In some cases that fearful animal basis has a sprinkling of intellectualism on top, but when you scrape away the thin layer of rationality, underneath you find little more than fear of the dark and of loud noises. All religions are profoundly self-inconsistent, and they seem to me to obviously do more harm than good.

    I don’t think it’s inconceivable that our material universe was created in some sense by some kind of exterior intelligence, but it’s obviously an unprovable theorem. Unless there is some magical personal transcendence mechanism we have yet to discover, there is no practical consequence to the answer to that question. Similarly it’s also possible that human life and evolution was deliberately triggered or guided by some in-universe entity that is so powerful as to be godlike in our eyes, but again, there’s no evidence this has happened, and so we might as well assume it has not.

    All that being said, I like playing around with fictional conceptions of theogony and designed creation, because they do serve to address basic human needs. The most important of these needs is evidently to receive some kind of comforting parental guidance through a universe that doesn’t provide any meaning for free. The reality is that we have to work to create that meaning for ourselves — this is after all what religion is, someone making stuff up that pretends to answer the question of meaning and purpose.

    As regards humanity’s future development, I can’t imagine how we will ever progress to any important goals — world peace, post-scarcity civilization, the exploration of outer space, etc. etc. etc. — without discarding the primitive, divisive, and obviously mistaken dogmas that guide far too many of our lives in the present day.

  17. SKZB: Please don’t misunderstand. I do not mean to say it is any reason not to keep trying.

  18. Re: Education: I think it would help the world as a whole if we all learned about all the major religions. I do believe that public schools should be taught the basics of religion, because I believe understanding can lead to peace. (Wow, that sounds profound in a flower child way, but hopefully you get my point.)

    Personally, I call myself agnostic. I believe that religion in general is a human construct to rationalize the unexplainable, because the real truth behind it all is too awesome (in the literal sense) for the human brain to handle. It’s a lot easier to make up a god or gods than to say, “I don’t know.” While there probably are scientific explanations for everything, we haven’t found them all yet. And because they’re infinite, we probably never will. And I think that’s a good thing, because without mystery, life would be boring.

  19. Miramon: As you can see from my moniker I have some connection to religion, and I can assure you that my religion is not based in fear. Awe, yes, and mystery, but no fear.

  20. This Harris guy is proving that religion isn’t required to be a right wing extremist asshole.
    I’m also starting to think there are as many types of atheism as there are x-ian denominations, based on the things I’ve been reading lately.
    Me, I’m going to quietly non-believe in my own home, where I don’t have to prove there’s no god, and I don’t have to prove that I’m atheist enough.

  21. I just told someone in email that my rather mild lutheran faith just fills the void of whatever daddy issues I ought to have but don’t. I like believing in God; I still view it as a privileged indulgence on my part.

  22. “I do not believe in any non-material world. I believe that people who pull the “you can’t prove a negative” stuff have an understanding of “prove” that is narrow and not appropriate to this conversation*.”

    Science as we understand it can handle lots of statistical stuff in the material world. It works pretty well in a wide variety of circumstances and when it doesn’t work well we have reasonable explanations for why it fails. There is no particular reason to assume that there is anything fundamental going on that is not explained.

    So there is no necessity to assume any particular God or anything like that. We can explain everything to our satisfaction without one. Also, there is no particular explanation how the people who started any one religion found out about the things that science does not include. For example, Joseph Smith had books written on gold plates and conversations with angels, but he was only assuming the angels told him the truth.

    The odds are in favor of there being nothing more than science has found, except for more science. But there’s no certainty there. Science isn’t about certainty.

    But then, I have my own personal experience.

    One night I dreamed that I was at a meeting of my caving club, and Ed — who always seemed to kind of challenge me in a sort of friendly sort of competitive way — looked at me and said, “Jet, your eye is a toilet! I mean, really, your eye is a toilet!” I woke up and I had no idea what that meant. It didn’t make sense, and it stuck with me.

    Two months later I got diplopia. One of my eyes turned inward and would not turn out, I couldn’t move it, and the double vision bothered me a lot. Somebody from the optometry department at school gave me an eyepatch, like a pirate eyepatch, but I couldn’t use it with my glasses. Then somebody else from the optometry department gave me another eyepatch, it was made of white plastic, with a big round circular part that covered my eye and an extension that clipped onto my glasses. That one worked.

    I went to the caving club meeting wearing it. And Ed came over to me. He said, “Jet, you know what that looks like? It’s like you have a toilet cover on your eye! I mean, really, a toilet cover on your eye!”

    I have no slightest beginning for a scientific explanation for my dream. But it was only a dream. Science doesn’t need to explain things that happen in dreams.

  23. skzb

    Or, to put it another way: Yeah, sure, science a religion. It just happens to be the religion that was used to produce the computer you just used to call it a religion.

  24. “Scientism”. That’s what religious folks use when they are proven wrong and don’t like it. “You are just to bound up in your faith in Scientism to see clearly.”

    Okay, fine. It is shown by *science*, using such things as found in *Scientism” like “scientific method”, that humans will, indeed, react this way. I am not surprised. And if labeling my lack of faith in their faith makes them happy, who am I to judge? But I don’t have to like it.

    For myself, I rather straddle the fence. I have had far too many “Things that make you go Hmmm” experiences to disbelieve in what is currently the non-material world. (Just because Science cannot measure what is currently termed “supernatural” NOW doesn’t mean that science will NEVER be able to do so.) However, I am not about to put my belief in a bunch of things written by guys over a thousand years ago to explain the world I live in. I am simply not…. gullible…enough for that.

    Lightening was once “supernatural”, and then science came along and explained it. What J Thomas experienced (and I have experienced as well) is currently considered “supernatural”, and I’m waiting for science to get around to explaining it. Demons, and elementals, and ghosts, oh my, are considered “supernatural”, and maybe they are…maybe they are just figments of people’s imaginations.

    Or perhaps they are perfectly natural and real, and at some point in the future, the ability to observe and measure them at will might become available to us. I am not going to pretend to know.

    But currently, I have to agree that atheism IS being used much like religion has been used in the past: as a means to take a system of (non) belief and use it to control those who (do not) believe for political or sociological ends.

    This is what happens when you turn anything into a system, with rules and such, and with the ability to say to someone else, “You’re not a REAL [insert]!”

  25. There is another purpose that religion has served over centuries, that should not be forgotten, if you will allow me for a moment to equate religious belief with religious organizations. That is, for vast millions of slaves, serfs, the uneducated and the overworked, religion has allowed a brief respite to experience beauty, music, ceremony and a multitude of sensory experiences that feed the heart. We need to work on ways of providing these experiences without the “opium” of worship. Read Trotsky on The Problems of Everyday Life. Please.

  26. All Bow Down to Cynthia, for her words of Truth.

    As my boyfriend, a recovering Catholic, has said, “I cannot agree with the Church on most anything, but I have to say that I like the art and the music.”

  27. “Or, to put it another way: Yeah, sure, science a religion.”

    I don’t think science is a religion.

    Science has some rules for how you’re supposed to do things. That is, if you want to apply the label of Science to what you do. It’s fine to be unscientific when you aren’t doing science. Having rules doesn’t make it a religion any more than the rules for bridge make bridge a religion.

    But there are some people who try to use science to fill the same needs that other people fill with religion. I’ve seen that called “Sciencism”.

    People who feel like they need religion can fill that need in surprising ways. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who have religious feelings about bridge. I have seen people who accept Austrian-school economics as a religion. They try to learn the catechism and repeat it whenever something happens that reminds them of it. I expect the people who first developed the doctrines of free-market economics were just trying to figure things out the best they could, with no intention that it would turn into a religion. But there you go. There are probably people who treat Marxism as a religion similarly. Or even — of all things — evolutionary theory.

    Science is not a religion but there are people who worship science as their god.

  28. J Thomas, put that way, then you can say that there are people who worship Gary Gygax as their “god”. And practice A,D&D as a “religion”.

    I, however, just call them “rules lawyers”.

  29. Actually, AD&D is post-Reformation D&D. And they’re “rules Jesuits.”

  30. There is nothing I appreciate more than a discussion with open minded people. 😀 It always feels good to be able to express ones views – no matter how antiquated and annoying – with people who are looking to include everyone in the discussion. While we might not agree on this issue of faith, whether it be religious faith or faith in reason, nothing allows people to come together to bridge their differences better than an all inclusive discussion. The fact that people can intellectually talk about a highly charged issue such as this without resorting to name calling is a sign that perhaps reason can win out in the end. That is why I applaud anyone who opens this type of discussion and allows everyone to point out how they believe, because at the end of the day atheism, christianity, islam, etc. is a personal decision based on one’s own perceived needs. One person may be fulfilled by science alone. Another may need to pray toward Mecca several times a day. However as long as we all allow each person to fulfill that internal need in their own way, accept their “weakness” to believe in something greater than the scientific method or the Bible then I’m sure men and women will progress to the point that we will figure it all out. So with that in mind, I’m going to go look for a blog like what I just described, because I can’t say anyone who posts insulting remarks about people being an “annoying idiot” for voicing their personal belief is anything but a closed-minded fool. I’m sure Galileo felt the same way when the catholic church *yawned* at his scientific theory. Good day, all.

  31. Cynthia, why do we need to come up with other ways? If the opium of worship, as you call it, can be divorced from the bad aspects of organized religion, and certainly not made mandatory (Constantine, you have a lot to answer for!), what does it hurt? Why does it need to be replaced with something else? For the purposes of your point you can equate religious belief with religious organizations, but they actually aren’t one and the same and shouldn’t be permanently coupled. However, as long as people (not Cynthia necessarily) take the Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher approach of lumping everyone who professes some religious or spiritual belief together with the lowest common denominator of religious ignorance or intolerance, no reasonable discussion can be held. And that’s too bad.

  32. I would agree that we can probably preserve the good things in religion, but IMO those good things don’t include belief in god or gods. Ritual, socialization, a common set of stories and metaphors within a community. .

    Incidentally a side note: the “can’t prove a negative argument” seems to me to be easily disposed of. It is the person asserting the positive who has to show evidence. I’ve never heard a convincing evasion of the “burden of proof’ point. Also, very few people who use the “can’t prove a negative” argument seem willing to apply it the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Or as a lot of atheists have said to a lot of monotheists “you are an atheist with regard to one fewer gods than I am”.

  33. Jean, I’ve been thinking today about people who pigeonhole everyone they meet–they end up creating an orderly world that looks nothing like the real one.

    I try to stay out of God discussions because the word means so very many different things, and most of the people who use it, whether theist or atheist, assume their meaning is the primary one.

  34. Will, that’s very similar to what a friend of mine (another friend, I mean) said – fundamentalism is a reaction to complexity. Maybe the ambiguity and complexity of our world today is just too much for some.

  35. @Will:

    I think this pigeonholing thing is very common failing. Eventually the sufferer’s mental model devolves into just two pigeonholes on any subject. One is for allies and one is for enemies — and no one is left in the middle. For these people there is never a nuanced view of any subject, and no one can ever be partially right or wrong. It smacks of paranoid schizophrenia, I think, but it’s common enough that I suppose it’s more normal than pathological, unfortunately.

    So for example, a certain sort of believer categorizes atheists as monsters who deny the obvious truths of the bible out of pure spite, while another type assumes that if anything negative is said about Israel the speaker must be a raving anti-semite, and yet a third type supposes that any criticism of Marxism must come from a crypto-fascist. And the reverse types are just as common: the atheists who hold all a believer’s opinions in contempt even on subjects outside the realm of religion, the anti-Zionists who ignore Arab terrorist atrocities and blame all ills on the Jewish conspiracy that secretly controls Congress, and the right-wing loons who categorize even moderate conservatives (like Obama) as socialist traitors.

    Whatever the form of pigeonholing, it’s inimical to reasoned discourse, compromise, and progress of any kind.

  36. @preacherjean “Rules Jesuits”! LOL Oh ye gods above and below, I LOVE that!

    I will say, however, that Cynthia purposefully asked to be permitted to equate “religious beliefs” with “organized religion” for a moment…..which would tend to infer that she, herself, does not consider these things to be one and the same.

    I have the honor of knowing a couple of people whom I would deem “Real Christians”…those rare folks who do odd things in their religion, such as *actually attempt to follow the teachings of Christ*. They complain about being judged by the standards of those that make the news. I feel sorry for them, but I also know that I spent many, many years being judged by myths, rumors, and people’s perception of *my* spirituality, so although they have my sympathy, I also feel that it is something that comes with the territory if you are outspoken about your beliefs.

    Finding places where you can discuss these things openly, without preconceived notions and prejudices getting in the way, is a lot like trying to find Nirvana.

  37. The thing I appreciate most about the scientific mindset is the uncertainty which, of course, is relative. That, combined with the incompleteness of a sufficiently useful logic (what Gödel said) and also a sufficiently suspicious take on the motives of people who are telling us ‘truths’ leaves us only our own experience to go on.

    And my experience is not your experience, so I cannot with integrity call bullshit on it. Nor would I want to unless it is leading to action that my own experience tells me is going to make me unhappy.

    I have observed good stuff from organized religion. And bad stuff. There are patterns of behavior and group dynamics that, divorced from absolutism, could be far more good than bad. I merely suspect that though, if I had to chart it the error bars would be large.

  38. Science, whether it falls under a precise definition of religion, certainly has a lot of features of one – including tenets, rituals, and zealots. And, if we’re going to compare Science to organized religion, I’m not sure it comes out on top. Religions may have given us wars, pogroms, and fire-bombed abortion clinics (although I tend to see that as people acting out of their primate instincts using religion as cover) But Science has given us global warming and atomic weaponry. Either one of which, if not dealt with very, very carefully, could easily engender more pain, suffering, and death than all the world’s religions combined multiplied by 10 or 100.

    Also, science is limited to what can be proved under its methods. Things that don’t fall into its neat, little boxes tend to get ignored. The best example of this I can think of is the reports of people revived after cardiac arrest. Although the number of people, even with modern science, who survive cardiac arrest long enough to tell anyone anything about the experience, even if they do remember anything, is small, (I remember the figure being about 15% survival two weeks after death) and the number of people who remember anything is also small, the experiences reported are quite consistent.

    The catch being that, by any scientific test, the brain is not working from about 10 seconds after the oxygen is cut off. But people report elaborate, detailed experiences with no measurable brain activity and none of the scientific explanations hold much water. The experiences reported are markedly dissimilar to those reported by people who become unconscious from lack of oxygen or excess carbon dioxide – neither of which tend to engender coherent memories, for instance.

    I am not saying that, because Science cannot currently explain memory generation while dead that Science must be false. Nor am I saying that the apparent continuation of consciousness after death proves that the Pope is infallible. My point is that Science, similar to religions, shies away from things it can’t explain to focus on things it is comfortable with. Which leads me to have as much doubt of the people that proclaim Science is better than religion as those that say the opposite.

  39. CaliannG — I miss you. Thanks for reading carefully. Falco — Having recently been revived after a heart attack (revived several times, in fact), I can assure you that I remember nothing from either before, during, or after. Perhaps we “remember” what we have learned to expect…

  40. “… the “can’t prove a negative argument” seems to me to be easily disposed of. It is the person asserting the positive who has to show evidence. I’ve never heard a convincing evasion of the “burden of proof’ point.”

    Gar, you are correct if you use a two-valued system of logic. But with a four-valued logic that argument fails.

    If somebody makes a positive argument, like “The Christian God plays an active part in collecting and judging human souls”, then the burden of proof is on them to prove it. If they can’t prove it then it remains unproven.

    If somebody else makes a negative argument, like “There is no such thing as the Christian God and He has nothing to do with human souls”, then the burden of proof is on them to prove their claim. If they can’t prove it then that remains unproven also.

    It’s possible to make a scientific argument. “Science has found nothing that resembles the Christian God or a human soul, either one, and we can explain everything we have found, to our satisfaction, without either of those.” This is not actually an argument that there is no such thing as the Christian God any more than not having any modern examples of coelacanths was an argument that coelacanths were extinct before we found a living coelacanth. Although it was a reasonable bet that coelacanths were extinct.

    It’s also possible to make an unscientific sciencism argument. “Science has proven there is no god and no such thing as a human soul, and since we know that science is right that means there is no god and no soul.”

    True, false, unproven. Here are examples of the fourth value.

    “God exists and doesn’t exist, both.”
    “God is completely perfectly good, and God also allows (and Himself performs) great evil that He could easily prevent.”

    Once you accept contradictory claims, then if you’re clever enough you can use them to “prove” absolutely anything. When you have a contradiction then you need to rethink things until it goes away, or else throw away logic. (This does not mean there is anything wrong with Marxist dialectics, which as near as I can tell involves finding things that look like contradictions and rethinking them until the contradiction goes away.)

    Some religions insist that you throw away logic. In general I don’t think there is much benefit to argument with them.

  41. “My point is that Science, similar to religions, shies away from things it can’t explain to focus on things it is comfortable with. Which leads me to have as much doubt of the people that proclaim Science is better than religion as those that say the opposite.”

    Falco, by focusing on reproducible results, science has done very well at getting dependable reproducible results. This has had great economic benefit. So people tend to believe it more. And there is economic and other value in getting people to believe things.

    So for example, the story goes that Moses visited the king of Egypt, and the Egyptian priests tried to impress him by turning their staffs into cobras. But Moses knew that magic trick and he turned his own staff into a blacksnake which ate the cobras.

    Later when some people challenged his authority he told them to light their sacrifice fires with no flints etc. They couldn’t. He spread water all over his hilltop altar to prove he wasn’t doing some trick, and then lightning came down from the sky to light his fire.

    To me the obvious interpretation is that it was another magic trick that he knew how to do, and because he knew how to get people to believe he got more than a million people to follow him.

    And when your life is on the line, when you magic trick had better work or else, scientific reproducible results are your friend.

  42. There’s an odd assumption among many atheists that religious people are literalists, even though the fiercest self-proclaimed fundamentalists will happily tell you what parts of the Bible they interpret metaphorically. But then, there’s an odd assumption among many religious people that atheists are incapable of understanding wonder. I think the war between the ironic and the literal mind is fought more within atheism and theism than between them.

  43. @Cynthia – the remarkable thing about it is that, if people remember something – and most people don’t – the experiences they report are remarkably similar, regardless of culture or expectations. The only real difference is how they label it. Christians tend to talk about having met Jesus, where Hindus talk about meeting the Hindu angel of death. If you’re willing to slog through Parnia’s long, repetitive sales pitch about how we should invest in his beloved Resuscitation Science, Erasing Death has a few tidbits about it, including more exact figures on how many people do remember and some speculation on why most don’t.

    @J Thomas – My observation has been that people want to emotionally invest in a belief structure and, when something comes along that might require them to re-examine their dearly held beliefs, it is often easier to pretend the contradiction doesn’t exist. I find that scientists are just as emotional about what they believe as anyone else, but can have a harder time getting past it because science presents itself as a realm of only logic.

    As far as Moses (and, I think, it was actually Elijah who was lighting fires doused in water) performing miracles, I don’t think the people who wrote the scriptures meant those stories to be taken literally, particularly as that kind of literal mindset is a product of the Scientific Revolution. I tend to read Moses and the snakes as a metaphor for Moses being more powerful a person than the other priests, despite their attempts to tear down his character – which he turned back on them, taking away their power over the pharaoh. Likewise, the lighting of fires story seems to be about a contest between religious leaders.

  44. “As far as Moses (and, I think, it was actually Elijah who was lighting fires doused in water) performing miracles,”

    They both did it. In my literalist interpretation, that means they both knew how to perform that magic trick.

    “I don’t think the people who wrote the scriptures meant those stories to be taken literally, particularly as that kind of literal mindset is a product of the Scientific Revolution.”

    I think those stories were intended to be taken completely literally. Maybe not Genesis, but the stories that pretty much make sense given an Egypt with priests who ran things with magic tricks, which is historical. People were supposed to believe it was miracles because that’s the whole point of religious magic tricks.

    “I tend to read Moses and the snakes as a metaphor for Moses being more powerful a person than the other priests”

    Same here! He knew their trick and did them one better!

    “Likewise, the lighting of fires story seems to be about a contest between religious leaders.”

    Yes! When they couldn’t match his magic trick he could order them all killed and people were ready to do it. When those guys had elections they played for keeps.

    “I find that scientists are just as emotional about what they believe as anyone else, but can have a harder time getting past it because science presents itself as a realm of only logic.”

    Researchers get just as emotional about their own tiny areas of expertise, but very often everybody else judges it on the evidence. Sometimes something slips through and gets a lot of people with emotional biases, but not all that often. Maxwell’s equations were like that — they were hard to understand but they got great results, so after a few decades people believed in them with some fervor. Relativity similarly. Quantum mechanics. Quantum electrodynamics. Big bang theory. In general, when the idea is easy to follow people check whether it works and then accept it or not. When it’s hard to understand they either ignore it or get fervent.

  45. “I think those stories were intended to be taken completely literally.”

    Why? Just because some people take things literally does not mean they were intended to be taken literally. I like stories about superheroes, but that doesn’t mean I believe them.

  46. “I think those stories were intended to be taken completely literally.”

    Actually, they weren’t, according to the rabbinical tradition anyway. And literal interpretation of the New Testament is a very new phenomenon.

  47. Good point. Now I’m suspecting there have been more religious tiffs over how to interpret texts metaphorically than there have about which parts should be interpreted literally.

  48. Will, from the Exodus story on, it reads like history to me. (Not counting Proverbs, Psalms, etc)

    There’s the tribal leadership intrigues. Later there are the religious leadership intrigues. (Like, Samuel took over the Ark etc, and spread stories about how bad the previous priests were, and stories about prophecies that they would be cast down by God, etc.) Later still there are palace intrigues. Each of King David’s sons who looked like the leading contender to inherit the throne had a great big target painted on his back and something always happened to him before David died. There were a series of scandals. The government had a census which people objected to, and then there was a plague that made the census obsolete. People insisted that God did that because he didn’t like the census.

    And somewhere along the line somebody went back and rewrote stuff to emphasize miracles. When you’re in the desert, lightning strikes etc show that your god is the best god. But later people thought that magic tricks didn’t work, and miracles were all exceptional. So they retold the story about the Manna.

    A flock of birds flew over the camp and dropped on it. In the morning the people came out of their tends and saw a lot of little round white things on the ground. They pointed. “What is that?” “That,” said Moses, “is the food that your God has provided to you as a test of your obedience….” But later they changed it into a miracle story.

  49. We’re not disagreeing about it being propaganda. We’re disagreeing about whether it was meant to be read literally. Different books were written for different reasons.

  50. Sorry, but traditional Judaism takes the Torah very literally indeed. As I’m sure you all know, in Judaism the five books are considered to be the true word of God. Every character is sacred and must be transcribed with absolute fidelity from scroll to scroll. The Talmudic tradition allows for rabbinical debate over the interpretation of the words, but brooks no argument over their validity and accuracy. The Torah is the most holy and sacrosanct of all religious texts that I am aware of for any religion, and despite its many obvious inconsistencies and outright antinomies, is not to be treated as mere myth or metaphor by any Orthodox believer.

  51. What Orthodox rabbis teach–or any priest teaches–says nothing about what those books were intended to say.

  52. J Thomas – yes it reads LIKE history. So does Beowulf and Ivanhoe.

    Miramon – Sacred, true and literal are all different things. And Orthodox is different from Reformed, Hasidic, and Reconstructionist (assuming you were speaking of Orthodox Judaism here.)

    Will – you speak wisely, my friend! And it keeps me up some nights.

  53. Miramon, you got me wondering how Orthodox Jews deal with the contradictory parts of the Bible, and the quick googling isn’t very helpful. Yet I don’t find much about Orthodox Jews wanting to kill sabbath violators (Exodus 31:14), so they must’ve accepted some metaphors in their reading.

  54. “J Thomas – yes it reads LIKE history. So does Beowulf and Ivanhoe.”

    Beowulf makes sense except for the dragon. There are various examples of fire-breathing dragons in european writing, and a few dragon-churches etc, but no physical evidence of any such thing in real life.

    It is not at all hard to rationalize many of the miracles in this other book as magic tricks, and others can be explained as for example lies. Gilead may have had someone’s permission to chase his enemies for only one day. When he chased them for two days, saying that the sun stood still for a day to let him kill longer, is a lie he could get away with under the circumstances.

    So there could easily be a solid core of truth-and-lies there. 1st and 2nd Kings reads like something composed or at least heavily edited in Solomon’s reign, largely to suit Solomon, a minor vassal of Hiram of Tyre. Not so very different from what Idi Amin’s court records might look like — mentioning scandals and putting a good face on them, etc.

    Of course, Will is right that what priests today want people to think from scripture (post-Gutenberg) is different from what priests wanted at various times in the past. If we’re interested in what the books were intended to say, should we consider only the last priests who edited them, or the first priests who wrote them, or include everybody in between? That would leave room for a lot of varied intentions.

  55. “Yet I don’t find much about Orthodox Jews wanting to kill sabbath violators (Exodus 31:14), so they must’ve accepted some metaphors in their reading.”

    Will, Paul said that if a woman came to church unveiled she should have her head shaved.

    Once when I was in high school I wanted to see what the other churches were like so I took my sister to a Pentecostal Holiness church. We went into the sunday school and then I noticed that my sister was the only one whose head was uncovered. Also she was the only one who wore any makeup, and the only one wearing earrings. I had not thought to predict it. The woman teaching the sunday school treated her like she was a poor lost harlot who needed lots of sympathy.

    I went back to my parents’ church and saw that most of the women wore hats with at least a little bit of lace or netting or veil on them. I hadn’t noticed before.

    And yet I’ve never heard of any woman in the USA getting her head shaved at church. It just isn’t done.

    For that matter a whole lot of Christians don’t turn the other cheek, either.

  56. Christians who don’t turn the other cheek claim that saying was entirely metaphorical. My favorite Christian rationalization of one of Jesus’s sayings is the story of the camel and the eye of the needle. Some argue that “camel” was a mistranslation of “rope”, which is plausible given the Aramaic words, but misses the fact that you can’t get a rope through a needle. Or they’ll claim that the “eye of the needle” was a reference to a gate in Jerusalem that it was hard to get camels through, even though there are no historical references to a gate by that name.

  57. The Hasids (a branch of Orthodox Judaism) and mainstream Orthodox share that belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Other branches of Judaism are modern divergences from the mainstream. They are also more reasonable, of course, in not being so doctrinaire, but that’s beside the point…

    Now of course the old testament including the first five books was actually composed by a whole bunch of people over a long period, so it’s perfectly correct to say that the stories might not always have been meant to be taken literally. But since the organized priestly religion came into being several thousand years ago, the idea that the Torah is the literal word of God has been one of the most essential core beliefs of Judaism.

    So far as I know there is no evidence that the Torah was ever *not* regarded as the literal word of God in the earliest days of organized Judaism. The whole big deal about the high priest, the ark of the covenant, the secret name of God and all that from back in the day is consistent with that kind of belief system, and I’d be shocked if there was anything in the Talmudic writings that suggested the Torah is a mere human document. It is supposed to be Moses’ transcription of the word of God (though Joshua added some bits at the end) but regardless of who supplied the ink, the words themselves are supposed to be God’s very own.

    Will, as regards the general lack of stoning as punishment in modern Orthodox Jewish communities, I’d say that has nothing to do with accepting metaphor in the scripture. It’s a pragmatic (and often regretful) accommodation to the law of the land. However, you certainly cannot be a member of the Hasidic community if you don’t obey the Sabbath rules, not to mention the other more arcane rules from these books. Theoretically all these personal offenses against doctrine can be forgiven at Yom Kippur, but I have no idea how that is consistent with the punishments meted out in the Torah, so I can’t answer that one at all.

    Anyway, to get an understanding of the kinds of arguments that rabbis use in explaining biblical contradictions, the best way is of course to ask a rabbi. I doubt you will hear many claims that these stories are metaphorical, even from Reform rabbis, and never from the Orthodox. For example, asking for an explanation of why it was okay for God to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (depriving him of free will when he was perfectly prepared to let the Jews go on first request) so that God could then punish Pharaoh and the completely innocent first-born children of all of Egypt is bound to be entertaining.

  58. Whether every religious story is meant to be taken literally is not the same as whether when religious (or spiritiual) people talk of god or gods whether they believe in their existence as conscious or superconcisous entities. Maybe there are rare exceptions, but I would say about 99% of those who consider God or god or (gods & goddesses) to be real, mean that they are actually entities with powers that are more than human and with some sort of consciousness or superconsciousness that is either human or more than human. So in that sense one does not have to accuse a religious person of literalism to to say that they a hold a certain class of belief.

    Thomas, in terms of two valued vs. four valued logic: that does not change the burden of proof. Do you belief that the burden of proof is NOT on someone who claims to have felt the touch of the noodley appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  59. “Do you belief that the burden of proof is NOT on someone who claims to have felt the touch of the noodley appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”

    No. If they claim it, then it is unproven until they prove it.

    But if somebody else claims it is false, that claim also is unproven until they prove it.

    An atheist who says there is no god is making a claim, and the burden of proof is on him to prove his claim or else fail to prove it.

    To my way of thinking, proving there is no god is in subtle ways different from proving there is no living coelacanth. Those differences might possibly make it an easier proof. On the other hand, all you have to do to prove there is no coelacanth is to search the entire volume of the world’s oceans and show there are no coelacanths there. It’s a big job but a finite one. Proof that there’s no god might require something totally different, and maybe a lot more work.

  60. “Some argue that “camel” was a mistranslation of “rope”, which is plausible given the Aramaic words, but misses the fact that you can’t get a rope through a needle.”

    And you can’t get a camel through a needle either.

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich
    man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Yes, that’s clearly a metaphor, and the metaphor says don’t get rich.

  61. Religious person here, not very studious.

    The description I heard as one possible interpretation of the camel eye of the needle gate thing is that a needle was a type of gate in a particular quarter of town, and it was pretty small, and in fact too short for a camel to get through. So they would unload the camel, and then make it kind of crouch down and hobble through on it’s knees. The idea as described to me was the same as the rich kid who Jesus told to sell all his stuff and give to the poor, but that it isn’t the money itself which is the problem. It is the love of that money. I have no idea of the validity of any of that.

    In the Mormon belief, we have to pretty much be willing to strip ourselves of all worldly obsessions in order to make it into the kingdom of god.

    This has nothing to do with Steve’s original point.

    As far as I’m concerned, life is basically the Rimmer-corrupted version of “Better Than Life”, and everyone who makes a certain score or above will make it to “heaven” – whatever that ends up being – after they run out of new lives. The death and suffering and etc here are things we must try to alleviate because that gets us more points, but Bad Things do not ultimately matter because only a small part of us is actually on this world. That is, a child that is murdered will look back and say “man, that guy really took out my dude”, that it will ultimately be no more pain for the child than that.

    This philosophy works well enough to get me to the weekend most weeks. I am confident that the scientific method will reveal lots of cool things and eventually make jetpacks, but I’ve kind of given up hoping for them in my lifetime.

    Beyond that, I say only this: “LALALALALALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

    Also, none of that so much as touches on Steve’s original point, which I think was “mean people suck; people who are mean en masse can suck-start a Harley”, and that is completely valid and I think we all agree with it.

  62. @Will: During the time periods where these “stories” were accepted as Scripture by the priesthood, they were very certainly meant to be taken literally. Just like the stories of Hera turning the poor girls that Zeus got a hard-on for were meant to be taken literally.

    The Greeks believed their mythological heroes were real, complete to building tombs for them within which rested dinosaur bones arranged in a semi-humanoid fashion.

    @Cynthia: I miss you too. I still love the scarf you made for me. 🙂

    @Everyone: HUMANS use “metaphorical” to describe any part of their preferred Scriptures that disagrees with what they want to do. Such is the state of humanity. One of the major differences between Science and Religion is that, in science, there is no such thing as a “metaphorical” interpretation of a study.

    The most recent study I have read concludes that the internal populations of the parasite H. Contortus are more seriously affected by the currently used and popular antihelmintics when such are given with the addition of clorsulon, due to the synergistic effect.

    There really isn’t a “metaphorical interpretation” of that.

  63. skzb

    Caliann: Heh. Nice.

  64. “Just like the stories of Hera turning the poor girls that Zeus got a hard-on for were meant to be taken literally.”

    Uh, no. The Roman Empire’s syncretism wouldn’t have been possible if they’d believed all those stories were distinct. Sure, some Greeks and Romans were literalists, but that doesn’t mean the stories were more than folk tales initially.

    Here’s Xenophanes on gods:

    Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
    all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men:
    theft, adultery and mutual deceit.

    But if horses or oxen or lions had hands
    or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,
    horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen,
    and they would make the bodies
    of the sort which each of them had.

  65. “The most recent study I have read concludes that the internal populations of the parasite H. Contortus are more seriously affected by the currently used and popular antihelmintics when such are given with the addition of clorsulon, due to the synergistic effect.”

    “There really isn’t a “metaphorical interpretation” of that.”

    There really is. I expect you wouldn’t like it.

    But luckily, you can get real honest-to-goodness benefit by taking it literally, and you have no need at all to consider the disgusting metaphors.

  66. “Just like the stories of Hera turning the poor girls that Zeus got a hard-on for were meant to be taken literally.”

    “Uh, no. The Roman Empire’s syncretism wouldn’t have been possible if they’d believed all those stories were distinct.”

    Imagine a time when most people could not read. When a slave might spend his whole life inside the same 20 acres, and his master might go to town on average once a month.

    Where many people who lived in towns rarely left them, and grand religious ceremonies brought together a small minority of people from whole regions — rarely.

    Imagine that the Olympics were kind of like our Olympics, where a select few traveled long distances to compete, and a different sort of select few traveled the same distances to observe.

    Customs differed from town to town. Stories spread by word of mouth.

    What did all those people think? Did they take things literally? Did they have the concept of “just a folktale”? I don’t know. It was a different world. It was thousands of different worlds. I don’t know what it was like.

    I can imagine finding out. Go to Sinaloa. Take a truck into the mountains, and when the road ends take a backpack along foot trails until you reach a village where nobody reads or writes. Learn the language (there will probably be somebody who speaks spanish there who might be persuaded to help you learn). Join the community and spend a few years listening to people and getting a sense of what it’s like. I’ll never do it.

    I know some people who visited there. They wanted to climb into the deep Mazatlan caves. They got permits from the Mexican government. When they arrived everybody stared at them. They displayed their documents and somebody who spoke spanish stared at the documents while they explained they did have permits. The villagers had a long sullen conversation with some anger, in their own language. Then they were shown an empty hut they could stay at. The next morning they started rigging their ropes at a pit, and village children came and stared at them. People sullenly sold them food, pointing at the money to show how much they wanted. The caves had some sort of religious significance but no one would tell them about it. After awhile they started leaving somebody at the top to watch over the rig points. The children stared but never smiled and would not accept candy. When they packed up to leave, the man who spoke spanish told them to never come back.

    That was years ago. By now maybe they have MP3 players. Maybe satellite dishes. Or not.

  67. There are two wrong choices a writer can make when writing about people in the past:

    1. They were like us.

    2. They weren’t like us.

    We filter everything through our understanding, so we interpret according to our bias when we don’t have hard evidence to the contrary. My favorite example of the difficulty of understanding historical people’s religious understanding are the Deists—you can write them as poetic atheists or religiously liberal theists. Einstein’s another example—atheists often claim him, but to do so, you have to simplify what might be meant by “God”.

  68. @Will — I think that’s very true, about the difficulty of writing historical characters.

    Re Greek gods. During the period from which we have written records, it’s clear that few educated people believed in the gods’ existence as human-shaped figures with the attributes assigned by the myths. The famous mystery cults had turned by then into mere sodalities — international social clubs — and literate city-dwellers either didn’t believe at all in the gods, or believed in abstract divine forces but laughed at the idea of the myths being true.

    However, in earlier and less sophisticated periods, it’s undoubtedly true that there was a lot more literal belief. Otherwise, as CaliannG points out, we wouldn’t see those kinds of tombs and other evidence of more sincere primitive styles of worship. We don’t have much history for those periods — Mycenaean and before, so the details are unclear.

    Same thing applies to Rome. By late Republican times, there wasn’t much real belief in the actual gods, but the priesthoods were carried by tradition and the strong Roman civic duties of loyalty and subordination to the state. In Imperial times they imported foreign deities for fun, because they were exotic and exciting, but I don’t think there was much belief among the educated classes until Christianity came in, building on Mithraism and what must have been a desperate sense of the Empire being in danger of falling apart. Earlier in Roman history, before we have as good written record, they probably were much more staunch in their belief in the mythological figures.

  69. Me
    >>“Do you belief that the burden of proof is NOT on someone who claims to have felt the touch of the noodley appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”
    Thomas
    >No. If they claim it, then it is unproven until they prove it.
    >But if somebody else claims it is false, that claim also is unproven until they prove it.

    So I presume that applies to Rayonus Nylotonus Cottonus Woolus, the God of Lost Socks as well….More a reduction absurdum of the particular form of many-valued logic you advocate than argument against atheism.

  70. “So I presume that applies to Rayonus Nylotonus Cottonus Woolus, the God of Lost Socks as well…”

    Yes, of course. It’s unproven until it’s proven one way or another.

    “More a reduction absurdum of the particular form of many-valued logic you advocate than argument against atheism.”

    I don’t see that you have presented anything against that form of logic.

    You could say that there can’t be any such god because you just made him up. That’s a somewhat plausible argument against, but it isn’t a proof — he could have intruded himself into your thinking because he felt like reminding people he’s there, when usually he doesn’t much care.

    Perhaps if you tell us more about your god than his name…. Does he make sure that lost socks are always found by their owners within 10 years? Then I can prove he has failed, for I once lost a sock in the Atlantic Ocean that is still missing and I don’t expect to ever see it again. But if he only returns them within the owner’s lifetime, then it isn’t too late….

    It’s clearly wrong to say that if somebody can’t prove a god exists then that god does not exist. Right this minute I couldn’t prove to you that a kumquat exists. I could show you links, but they could be made up.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumquat
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagon

    Give me two hours and I could probably buy some kumquats at a chinese grocery. I couldn’t show them to you, but I could hold one in my hand. I can’t do that now.

    I remember eating kumquats. I remember the taste and smell. I assert that they are real.

    But then, I used to talk to God and God answered. Like, I prayed that God would make Julie Stiteler into a better person. And God told me to pray for myself first, and when my heart was purer then I could pray for Julie. I could always tell that God was telling me the right thing even when I didn’t like it at all. I could probably talk to God today and be answered, but I don’t because I’m not as good a person as I was then and I’m ashamed to do it. Is that a proof that God exists? No, not even to me. But I know He wasn’t just part of myself telling me what I wanted to hear. He told me what I didn’t want to hear.

    My memories of God and my memories of kumquats are neither one of them proof that gods or kumquats exist.

    Still, if we were sitting together in the same room with a kumquat, and I pointed to the kumquat and said “That’s as kumquat”, I would consider it a proof of kumquat existence. I’ve never yet managed to do that with a god.

  71. “During the period from which we have written records, it’s clear that few educated people believed in the gods’ existence as human-shaped figures with the attributes assigned by the myths.”

    Yes, I think you’re right. And what percent of the public was educated?

    Herodotus wrote about a place where suddenly a 12-foot-long sandal appeared in the temple, and the priests said that Apollo must have lost it, and they weren’t laughed at.

    He said once a political party had a very tall blonde country girl dress up as Athena and ride a chariot into the city, and a lot of people believed the goddess had arrived.

    He scoffed at the people who fell for such tricks, but it appears there were a lot of them.

    During the middle ages were there a lot of people who truly believed in Christianity? Or were they all pretending? I’m not sure how to tell the difference.

  72. Miramon, if I was writing about those times—or any time, I’d simply have a mix of atheists and fundamentalists. I might have more critical thinkers in the earlier times, simply because they were around for the invention of the stories.

    J Thomas, Herodotus thought gullible people were funny. So do I. It would be hard to imagine a time and place without some gullible people. To try to be clearer, I’m not saying all religious people treat religion metaphorically. I’m saying religious people treat religion in many, many ways, and a good number of those ways are more metaphorical than atheists think. And I’m saying the dividing line between an atheist and a theist can be very gray, as people like Einstein illustrate.

  73. “I’m saying religious people treat religion in many, many ways, and a good number of those ways are more metaphorical than atheists think.”

    Yes! It takes a whole lot of effort to make a lot of people even learn how to pretend to all think alike!

    “And I’m saying the dividing line between an atheist and a theist can be very gray, as people like Einstein illustrate.”

    I certainly see a gray blur between agnostics and theists. It seems to me more distinct for atheists who firmly claim that there is no god and no soul and nothing except the material world that can be tested by science. But I guess a person could firmly claim that and then not live it. Or they could claim it not quite so firmly. And the dividing lines could get grayer and thicker….

  74. I think most if not all Athenian citizens, for example, were literate, and it’s from Athens and its colonies that we have the majority of written records from that period. Of course, over half the populace weren’t citizens, including women and slaves, but even so, I believe the literacy rate was quite respectable in the major Greek cities from 500 BC onwards. Out in the villages no doubt the rate was much lower, but then the population was lower in the sticks, too.

  75. skzb

    Will: Regarding Einstein and god, this may interest you: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/06/ein1-j23.html

  76. “I believe the literacy rate was quite respectable in the major Greek cities from 500 BC onwards.”

    That could easily be. The greek alphabet may have been invented nearly 300 years before, which would give plenty of time for it to spread and still be new enough that everyone would want to learn it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Greek_alphabet

    This book: “Literacy and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens By Anna Missiou” argues your point at length, claiming that democratic rule in Attica depended on widespread literacy and wouldn’t work without it.

    http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/reg_0035-2039_1966_num_79_376_3884
    This is a long explanation, looking at scraps of greek stories, plays, banking records, letters, etc. He concludes from meager evidence that around 500 BC the great majority of Athenians were literate, and the majority of Spartans knew their letters.

    Another source said that this has had lively debate for 20 years, but I have the impression your side of it has been coming out on top.

  77. Sure. But does that mean he was being a hypocrite elsewhere, or metaphorical?

  78. ~sighs~ People of ancient times believed in their myths, and their gods. However, taken individually, *some* people did not hold such beliefs. There are, however, quite a number of archaeological finds and digs that show that people’s religion were very much considered a real part of their lives.

    In a dig in Egypt, a bowl was found that had scripted upon it a letter to a dead person. The bowl was meant to carry funerary offerings. The letter, once translated, showed that the writer very much believed that the person it was written to could not only read the letter, but could act upon the knowledge. The writer not only believed in his gods, but believed in the mythos of his culture and time period.

    Is it JUST that individual? No, there were plenty of fragments and pieces of other things of the same sort that show this was pretty widespread. This is simply the best preserved example.

    The people were obviously literate, or else they wouldn’t have been writing on plates, bowls, and other things to communicate with their deities or the dead. They obviously believed, as well, or else they wouldn’t have taken the trouble to do so. This was obviously very real and personal to them, or else they wouldn’t have been writing things like “Would you talk to my sister, your daughter? You know how headstrong she is, but I simply cannot convince her that this is the best course of action. I know she would listen to you.”

    What I don’t think you are going to convince me of is that common people took the time and resources to build shrines, monuments, and all of the other trappings of religion when they did not *believe* those things. (I am not speaking of the giant, fabulous temples commissioned by the rich, etc., although it also seems to me that a majority of them would not waste money building things they didn’t believe in either. You don’t get and stay rich by throwing money away, after all.) It is counter to human nature to waste labor and resources in that fashion.

    There is not a great, big cross in my yard. Nor are there crucifixes hanging around in my house. Nor bad paintings of the Madonna. Why? Because I do not believe in these things. My neighbors, however, have a shrine to the Madonna in their back yard. They burn candles at it and leave offerings of corn there. It’s rather pretty. Why do they have it? Because they believe in it.

  79. “What I don’t think you are going to convince me of is that common people took the time and resources to build shrines, monuments, and all of the other trappings of religion when they did not *believe* those things.”

    Well, some of the builders were slaves who didn’t get to vote. And we have no idea how many people didn’t take part in the building–Minneapolis is full of religious constructions, and an archeologist might conclude that means we’re a religious city, but we ain’t.

    Rich people like to build impressive things as monuments to themselves, but they know people will react better to them if they say those things are monuments to something other than themselves.

  80. Monuments are much like wars: the official excuse can be religion, but when you look closer, it’s just about rich folks.

    Rather tangentially, here’s Kenan Malik on polls showing religious and non-religious folks aren’t that different:

    http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/what-do-believers-believe-not-what-you-might-expect/

  81. “My neighbors, however, have a shrine to the Madonna in their back yard. They burn candles at it and leave offerings of corn there. It’s rather pretty. Why do they have it? Because they believe in it.”

    I dunno. A few of my neighbors have American flags on little flagpoles hanging off the front of their houses. Does it mean they believe in America? Do they pray to the Constitution? It says something about what kind of people they want others to think they are.

    Back to something I’ve tried to say — in the middle ages, what did the serfs believe? Say that once a week they got to go to church and witness a spectacle performed by priests. How much did the priests actually teach them? There would be a scripture reading, and over a period of years an illiterate peasant could hear the whole bible, one reading a a time — in Latin. How many serfs got a clear sense of what it was they were supposed to believe? They didn’t need to understand the details, it was enough that somebody did, and they could say they believed. But maybe the times they actually really understood what Jesus was telling them, were the times they made their own churches and stopped listening to the priests….

    Like, maybe most of the Christians back then believed in Christianity the way most modern science advocates believe in quantum mechanics. They know it’s the right thing to believe in, it’s responsible for miracles, they know they don’t understand it at all, and they’re glad somebody does.

    Not so much “Here’s what I believe and I can argue about it for weeks if I can find a good arguer” but “This is who I am. I am this kind of person, like my friends and relatives and the other people in my group.”

  82. We seem to have morphed from taking written religion texts literally to believing in something. More people don’t take the Bible literally than do (although that may be changing due to fundamentalist influences from South America and Africa) but most of those profess belief in God. Taking religious texts literally and believing in the deity they represent are not the same thing.

  83. @ J Thomas & schmwarf & Steve Halter – It’s the underlying assumption that everyone who doesn’t have a PhD in physics must be a charlatan that I question. The existence of con artists is not evidence that the ability to, continuing my example, prove that souls exist is fake. It’s more likely to be proof that a holy man from an Amazonian tribe is cleverer than we give him credit for.

    Consider just how many tactical nuclear weapons we give to tribes in the Amazonian jungle. Do we expect that, if they have some way of proving the existence of a soul, that they’d just give it to us? If I was my hypothetical jungle holy man and saw some missionary coming to convert me to his religion, the last thing I’d do is give him my most profound and, probably, dangerous knowledge.

    I’m trying not to get into an argument about whether it is possible to prove the existence of a soul, as much as point out that our belief in this thing we call objective reality is based on evidence provided by experts. Evidence that most of us wouldn’t be able to reproduce, even if they did let us at the controls of the LHC. For most of us, objective reality is based on subjective trust in experts.

    I will certainly agree that there is no scientific evidence of the existence of a soul. However, my argument here is that this could be a limitation of the paradigms of science. And, because people who hold the scientific beliefs are likely to dismiss evidence contrary to those paradigms or, if they don’t, risk ostracization, science does not encompass all of reality, nor is it able to.

  84. This is true, preacherjean. However, a lot of people USE Scriptures to back up their own opinions or prejudices….and then a lot of other people use the same Scriptures to back up their belief that the first people are wrong. ~shrugs~ It would likely be more accurate to say that people who profess a belief in XYZ deity have a literal belief in *at least part* of the Scripture pertaining to XYZ deity.

    As for the rest of ya’ll who are arguing that past civilizations didn’t believe in the deities that they built everything from little, hearth shrines to…to tall, majestic buildings: pffffffttt! ~grinz~

    Honestly, when an archaeological dig turns up a bunch of old homes….and every one of those homes contains a little nook that they used for tiny alters to enshrine images of their preferred deities, it is kind of hard to argue that those folks didn’t believe in them.

    Yep, slaves built the big temples, and didn’t have much choice in the matter. You can say that they didn’t believe in the prevalent deities. Well, except for the fact that when they dig up the slave quarters, they find little mud images of the deities that the slaves made for themselves. They used time where they could have been resting, or doing something else, to make images of deities….and you’re going to argue that they didn’t believe and those deities weren’t important to them?

    And the argument that common folks had these things in their houses just to impress upon their neighbors that they were pious people? Or that scientists are mistaking nationalistic symbols for religious symbols…like they haven’t got enough data to tell the difference? Really? That is what you are going with?

    Honestly, when over three quarters of our CURRENT population in THIS advanced, modern, educated, and literate civilization profess a belief in some supernatural being or god, ya’ll find it so difficult to believe that earlier, primitive civilizations wouldn’t have a much higher percentage of such belief? You in fact find it so difficult to come to terms with, that you must *argue* that a majority of them would not hold such beliefs even in the face of a mass of archaeological data to the contrary?

    Ouchy.

    That is all, folks.

  85. CaliannG, I’m not sure whether you don’t understand symbols or you think people of the past didn’t. Are there no important symbols in your home?

    As usual, Wikipedia has a quick intro to the history of atheism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#History They take it back to Vedic India. My suspicion is that religious belief is over-represented in humanity’s written record because writing has long been a concern of priests. I think there have always been people who annoyed priests because of their lack of belief.

    Googling for a little about atheism, I was amused to find this: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100230985/how-atheists-became-the-most-colossally-smug-and-annoying-people-on-the-planet/

  86. “Honestly, when an archaeological dig turns up a bunch of old homes….and every one of those homes contains a little nook that they used for tiny alters to enshrine images of their preferred deities, it is kind of hard to argue that those folks didn’t believe in them.”

    I think you’re right. But I don’t think your example is solid evidence.

    Lots of today’s houses have a little nook full of knick-knacks. Maybe most do. Are these tiny altars to enshrine images of preferred deities? For my wife, maybe yes. She has an image of Kali, two of Buddha, one of Ganesha, One of Glasyalabolas, an onyx pyramid, a crystal cube, some clay sculptures her daughters made, a trilobite, etc. She could probably tell stories about what each item means to her, but I don’t think she worships them. My Christian sister saw them and immediately called their niche a pagan altar. But she has one herself, just different.

    Most people would deny that they believe in their tchotchkes. So maybe ancient people didn’t either. Or maybe modern people do and pretend they don’t.

  87. ~laughs~ See here, J Thomas, that is another rationalization. And again, it is going with *opinion*.

    “Lot’s of today’s houses have a little nook full of knick-knacks.” Yep, possibly. I’m not a knick-knack collector, but I have friends who are. One friend of mine collects little figurines of shoes. Another collects tea-cups.

    And yes, people with disposable income of ancient times sometimes DID collect tchotchkes. But your hypothesis assumes *that archaeologists can’t tell the difference between a knick-knack collection and a shrine*. You mention how your sister mistook your wife’s little collection of deity images for a pagan altar. Is your sister a trained archaeologist? Or a trained anthropologist? Or even someone with a background in comparative religions? Does she realize that those images come from vastly different religions?

    If not, how can you compare your sister’s reaction, or even yours, to someone who has spent their entire lives studying the field? You assume that someone who trained and is knowledgeable in that profession is going to make the same mistakes in perception that any layperson who doesn’t know the first thing about it would.

    Again, I find the defense weak.

  88. “The existence of con artists is not evidence that the ability to, continuing my example, prove that souls exist is fake.”

    Agreed. Just, it has happened often enough that I doubt. There’s a sufi saying that there would be no counterfeit gold unless there was real gold. They are wrong. The existence of quack cancer cures does not prove there are real cancer cures. People believe in what they think they need, because they think they have nothing to gain by disbelieving.

    “… as much as point out that our belief in this thing we call objective reality is based on evidence provided by experts. Evidence that most of us wouldn’t be able to reproduce, even if they did let us at the controls of the LHC. For most of us, objective reality is based on subjective trust in experts.

    Agreed. And what modern experts give us should not claim to be trustworthy. Things that look like fundamental truths today may later turn out to be statistical averages of even more fundamental truths.

    “I will certainly agree that there is no scientific evidence of the existence of a soul. However, my argument here is that this could be a limitation of the paradigms of science.”

    Yes. It’s possible that we will someday discover material results that can only be produced by souls. Or we might find that something that deserves the name “soul” is a material phenomenon that can be studied by science. We can’t prove it won’t happen with later science. Just, there is no indication of that from today’s science.

    “And, because people who hold the scientific beliefs are likely to dismiss evidence contrary to those paradigms or, if they don’t, risk ostracization, science does not encompass all of reality, nor is it able to.”

    Of course science doesn’t encompass all of reality! It encompasses a lot of repeatable experiments. Those have turned up some abstractions which are probably true everywhere. Conservation of linear momentum. Conservation of angular momentum. Things like that. They are probably true about things we don’t understand too.

    Imagine — a financier is about to make a decision. He knows that if he chooses one way his empire will be lost and thousands of his employees will lose their jobs. The other way he will do well and thousands of other employees will lose their jobs. He doesn’t know which is which. He scratches his head. He spins a gyroscope on his desk. Science cannot predict which way he will answer. But science can predict that when he scratches his head and spins his gyroscope, linear momentum and angular momentum will be preserved.

  89. I might also say that ya’ll are assume that we don’t have WRITTEN records of what these folks believed. Darlin’, we have written records of how much barley they bought each week, that two slaves escaped and it was witnessed, who got a divorce last week, *and their spiritual beliefs*. Cultures where literacy was possible, tended to have it be prevalent as well. Heck, we have 6,000 year old *graffiti*.

  90. “… how can you compare your sister’s reaction, or even yours, to someone who has spent their entire lives studying the field? You assume that someone who trained and is knowledgeable in that profession is going to make the same mistakes in perception that any layperson who doesn’t know the first thing about it would.”

    Have the trained experts studied modern knick-knack collection? Have they established that it’s truly distinct from ancient household shrines? I don’t think so.

    We are arguing about subtle points that I’m not sure I understand. What does it mean to “believe”? What did it mean for a Roman household to “believe” in their Lares and Penates? Did they expect the Lares to protect the home from burglars when nobody was home? I doubt it. And yet a home that didn’t have their household gods would probably not really seem like home.

    “Again, I find the defense weak.”

    I tend to agree with your conclusion. On a fundamental level, people did believe in what they were doing. Their religions had meaning to them, more than just everybody pretending because everybody else did. And I find your example a very good one, that widens the discussion and may lead to lots of interesting places. I just don’t see that the example necessarily goes the direction you want it to. I don’t claim for certain that it doesn’t. I don’t say you’re wrong. I say the meanings are confused enough that I’m not sure how to tell whether you’re right.

  91. “I might also say that ya’ll are assume that we don’t have WRITTEN records of what these folks believed.”

    We have LOTS of written records of what we believe. Sometimes we lie.

  92. “Have the trained experts studied modern knick-knack collection? Have they established that it’s truly distinct from ancient household shrines? I don’t think so.”

    Ummm, yeah, actually they have. You’ll find a section on it in here:

    http://www.pdcnet.org/dspp/content/dspp_1975_0002_0082_0103

    More mention of it in here:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=87ji0B-_mjQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Weight+of+the+World:+Social+Suffering+in+Contemporary+Society&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4IcMUsLxEYbkyQGFmoCADw&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=The%20Weight%20of%20the%20World%3A%20Social%20Suffering%20in%20Contemporary%20Society&f=false

    Businesses have studied it here, for the purpose of product design:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1474034608000852

    In fact, the difference between a shrine and/or altar, and a collection of knick-knacks, are *specialties* in both modern anthropology and sociology, and ancient archaeology and anthropology.

  93. FYIE: I haven’t been keeping up with this conversation, but a couple of comments were stuck in moderation, I think maybe because they had links in them.

  94. Darlin’, the illiterate don’t write. Really. People make all kinds of assumptions about history because they assume the records that survived are representative of people’s beliefs. The values of the ruling class are always disproportionate in history, simply because they controlled the resources.

    For one example, see how the beliefs of Deists are misrepresented by fundamentalists who don’t understand that much of Deist religious language was symbolic.

  95. CaliannG, you give the impression that you are assigning this work some sort of validity.

    Your first link is subwalled. The first page is an explanation why psychology has not been scientific and can’t be scientific in traditional terms, but we must relax our concepts of science so we can find a version of psychology we can put that label on.

    The second link is a chaotic collection of philosophical papers, I didn’t find the one about your topic.

    The third is about marketing experiments.

    I might change my mind with evidence, but so far I have seen nothing to indicate that the people you are talking about are even doing science. I would give them the same respect I would a science fiction writer who comes up with a new idea for a fictional society, or anybody who puts a lot of time in thinking about something and develops beliefs. If they’ve thought about it more than I have then they may be onto something. Or maybe not.

  96. Note to self: Do not comment anywhere until you’ve had breakfast. There must’ve been an editing burp between my first and second paragraphs. I meant to say that the Deists are a fine example of people who provide us with writing that’s easy for literal-minded people to misunderstand.

    As for those who don’t write, they include the people who make religious folk despair, the people alluded to as godless or heathen or profane, who concentrate on this world and, if they pray, pray they will not be noticed by people with power.

  97. @Falco: “It’s the underlying assumption that everyone who doesn’t have a PhD in physics must be a charlatan that I question. ”

    I don’t think anyone here asserted that at all. Here’s an experiment you can replicate right now (no PhD required):
    Hold an object (such as a pen or a rock, not a bird or a balloon) in your hand.
    Hold your hand such that it is approximately a meter above the floor.
    Release the object from your hand.

    I just did this and my pen dropped to the floor. I predict that yours would also do so (unless you are currently on a space station or in a centrifuge).

    “I’m trying not to get into an argument about whether it is possible to prove the existence of a soul, as much as point out that our belief in this thing we call objective reality is based on evidence provided by experts.”

    It is true that I haven’t attempted to replicate every experiment in physics. However, the steps to replicate experiments are clearly laid out and are generally replicated by a number of “experts” before those results are admitted as valid evidence.

    Take, for example, the measurement from the CERN people a while back that they were measuring neutrinos exceeding the speed of light. This wasn’t just accepted as a fact nor was it completely rejected. The mechanisms were published and examined. Eventually a flaw was found in their methodology. Their result was testable and had a clear process to either verification or refutation.

  98. “Take, for example, the measurement from the CERN people a while back that they were measuring neutrinos exceeding the speed of light. This wasn’t just accepted as a fact nor was it completely rejected. The mechanisms were published and examined. Eventually a flaw was found in their methodology.”

    Imagine that the theoretical physicists had been looking for that result. There would be much rejoicing. Then perhaps somebody trying to replicate the result would have trouble replicating it. They might take their equipment apart trying to find out what was wrong, and keep puzzling over it until they managed to repeat the error that got the desired result.

    But in fact it was a result that nobody wanted. So they kept looking for the error, harder and harder, until they found an error.

    This is a form of bias that’s very hard to avoid.

  99. @J Thomas. Two of those links were to *books*. You really are going to tell me that you read two, full *books* since this morning?

    Sorry about the first link…I keep forgetting that other people don’t subscribe to sites of scientific studies and journals. Still, they are books. And I notice that you didn’t bother looking it up for yourself. There are 100’s of pages of links on Google Scholar to studies on that very topic, both modern and ancient. To say the topic isn’t studied and that there are no experts in that field is patently false.

    You have lost your credibility with me in this discussion over that.

    @Will: [/START: sarcasm] It is, of course, very well known in sociology that the illiterate and uneducated classes are far less likely to be religious, or be taken in by religion, than the educated, literate classes. [/END: sarcasm] You started in this discussion saying that while the poor of the past may have held to religious beliefs, the higher, educated and literate classes did not. When I said that we have written records of the profession of religious beliefs, dating from well into B.C. until up to the modern era, you tell me that, well, maybe the UPPER classes had religious beliefs that were documented, but the poor did not.

    Which is it? Whichever class you think I might find it the most difficult to show held religious beliefs? The lower classes may not have been literate (although that was more common than you might think… illiteracy wasn’t considered a virtue until the Middle Ages), but there are plenty of other things that show where they put their priorities. Jewelry (although made of clay and string, rather than gold and gems), household items, etc., all show where they put their time and effort…and quite a lot of that was in religious worship.

    And the written record we have are not JUST from the wealthy, you know. Scribes made a good living in ancient Egypt, Rome, and other areas. There was public education in China thousands of years ago.

    Religion was exceptionally important in ancient cultures likely because *they didn’t have science*.

    Sheesh! You would think ya’ll’s entire self image was tied up in the idea that if you got into a time machine and went to visit the ancient Mayans, most of them would believe just like you.

  100. “You started in this discussion saying that while the poor of the past may have held to religious beliefs, the higher, educated and literate classes did not.”

    Uh, no. What you inferred is not what I meant to imply. I understood you to be saying that everyone in the past was superstitious and religious and literalistic about their gods. I’ve been trying to say that I think people in the past were both like and not like us, and that would have to include the presence of atheists as well as people who, like the Deists, could be called atheists or theists, depending on how you interpret their language. I keep thinking about the literal and the ironic mind, and so far as I can tell, it cuts across religious and atheistic people, but based on the criticism of religion from many atheists, it may be that more atheists are literal-minded. Or it may be that the loudest ones on the internet are.

    I continue to think the written record is an imperfect way to judge the beliefs of the writing class. Jefferson wrote one of my favorite sentences, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Does that mean Jefferson was a theist, or does that mean he was a writer with a poetic streak?

    And I’m not sure I would say ancient cultures didn’t have science. They invented, after all.

  101. “Two of those links were to *books*. You really are going to tell me that you read two, full *books* since this morning?”

    I read the first page of your first link, which I could buy for $20. The first page of the intro gave no indication that there would be anything particularly interesting involved. He says he thinks scientific psychology will be possible but we must change our concept of science to something new first.

    I looked at the second, which was a collection of papers about a variety of topics. I looked at a few of the papers and they didn’t seem at all to be about what you were talking about. I looked at the title list and didn’t see anything that seemed to say it was about your topic. I thought, why did she reference a whole book when her topic was hidden somewhere inside it? I got interested in a couple of articles which were witty and literate and didn’t have a lot of methodology. A whole lot of anecdotal evidence that gave a strong sense of the place, that would give a person the impression that he knew what was going on when all he had was second-hand images. I skimmed through the book — it was all like that.

    I could buy your third link for $40. The abstract made it look like a normal human interface design document, it used the usual buzzwords. Ten figures were available, and #6-8 looked like they related:

    Fig. 6. Two of the concepts, showing a horizontal (left) and vertical (right) arrangement of objects, which leads to private and shared displays, respectively.

    Fig. 7. Left: a participant showing knick-knacks in the ethnographic exploration of contextmapping; right: the final prototype of the family gallery in participants’ kitchen during evaluation.

    Fig. 8. With the help of generative toolkits (left), participants expressed their opinions and memories (right); the making of such artefacts generates awareness and provides a framework for expressing underlying needs, values and dreams.

    So here are people who are experimenting with the use of knick-knacks in the context of making better commercial products. That has some sort of promise.

    “To say the topic isn’t studied and that there are no experts in that field is patently false.”

    I don’t say that there’s nobody studying it, I say that I see no evidence of actual science done on the topic. I could find you thousands of experts on how to do astrology, but I can’t find you one that I really trust to do it correctly, that will make valid predictions.

    “You have lost your credibility with me in this discussion over that.”

    You provided links that were supposed to support something, and I feel like you have utterly failed to make your point. Did your second link have the part about household shrines marked? When I saw it, it had thousands of “the” and “of” marked. Was that what went wrong?

    You seem a little hostile. Have I offended you?

  102. “I’ve been trying to say that I think people in the past were both like and not like us….”

    That certainly seems reasonable to me. It’s hard to find generalities about people that are universally true. I think people mostly conserve linear and angular momentum, that’s two things. The farther we get from physics the harder it is.

    “I keep thinking about the literal and the ironic mind….” Yes? One says “The US government is not really a shepherd and we are not its sheep, but it may be useful to imagine it that way. It tries to herd us by fear.” The other says “The US government is truly an evil meat-eating shepherd and we are sheep, and we must become men!”

    Probably there’s a place for both. We need people who make up new metaphors when the old ones stop being appropriate, and we need people who will commit to a plan and follow it even when new metaphors are beckoning.

    “And I’m not sure I would say ancient cultures didn’t have science. They invented, after all.”

    Invention can be done with a process of trial and error. Make small mistakes, then intentionally try to reproduce the mistakes which led to improvements. Occasionally a brilliant flash of insight leads to combinations of things that usually hadn’t been combined.

    Science involves a sort of backward thinking. “I want to find out what makes X happen. I have half a dozen things that I think are involved. I’ll try leaving out various combinations of them and see if I can keep X from happening.”

    It doesn’t always come naturally. Here are the rules for a fun game that helps people improve those skills:
    http://www.logicmazes.com/games/eleusis/express.html

  103. J Thomas: “This is a form of bias that’s very hard to avoid.”
    Certainly. That’s why there in more than one scientist. Scientists are just people and people make mistakes. However, well done science attempts to remove that bias.
    To look at CERN again, they (two independent groups of them) announced a year ago that they had discovered a particle of mass consistent with that expected of the Higgs Boson (the media announced it was found). Since then, large amounts of effort have been expended to confirm that this particle is the expected Higgs Boson.

  104. Will: ” the people alluded to as godless or heathen or profane, who concentrate on this world and, if they pray, pray they will not be noticed by people with power.”
    lol (with a wince)–excellent turn of phrase and unfortunately true.

  105. @J Thomas – I have definitely encountered some people who expect that you could figure out exactly what that financier is going to do if you had an accurate enough map of his neurons.

    @ Steve Halter – I expect a denizen of the Amazon jungle would have no idea what F= G(m1m2/r2) means, just like we would have no idea what a diagram of the soul means if we found an unusually forthcoming holy man willing to draw one. Science is fantastic for explaining physical phenomena. The further you get from that, the less useful a tool it is – take the example of Economics cited above. The part where Science becomes religion is where we come to believe that the Scientific Method is the only way to discover knowledge.

  106. “I have definitely encountered some people who expect that you could figure out exactly what that financier is going to do if you had an accurate enough map of his neurons.”

    That sort of ignorance is pretty common. But it might turn out that when you get that accurate map, eventually it turns on which receptor gets a GABA or ACh seated first. You can predict diffusion when it’s millions of molecules, not so much when it’s just two.

    “The part where Science becomes religion is where we come to believe that the Scientific Method is the only way to discover knowledge.”

    Yes! When science is done well, we know we can depend on it. Other methods are likely to suffer the sorts of bias that science tries to guard against. But they could be true anyway.

    I have seen enough of astrology to figure that the average user does not get very good results. All of the results I’ve seen depended on the sorts of bias that scientists try to avoid. So while there might be exceptional astrologers who actually get good results, I do better to bet against them if it comes to a bet.

    But there could be something unscientific that gets good results. Scientific method could be used to show that it got good results, even if nobody found a good theory to explain how it happened. I can’t prove that won’t happen.

  107. @Falco:”Science is fantastic for explaining physical phenomena.”
    Agreed. Can you give an example of a non physical phenomena?

    Also, note that I didn’t bring any math into my example. I would expect that a denizen of the Amazon would have no difficulty expecting the dropped rock to hit the ground.

  108. A relevant Vonnegut quote:

    “A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends.” — Kurt Vonnegut

    There was also a recent (April 2013) article by Glenn Greenwald in which he called out Islamophobes like Sam Harris — http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus

Leave a Reply