11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists

Note: I have written an explanation of this post.

This question is usually posed the other way around, where someone expresses how atheists are like religious people. However, the framing of the question itself creates a bias, namely by insinuating that atheists are inferior and have the burden of proof to show that they are as worthy as Christians.

Just consider any time that someone from either camp has argued how atheists have morals too, or how atheists also have faith on some things, or how atheists also experience awe and wonder at the universe. The points are valid, but we shouldn’t have to argue them in the first place. So, this post will run the questions and arguments flipped. Why are Christians as worthy as atheists? Let’s sprinkle some religious arguments in here just for fun.

1. Christians also defer to science for *almost* everything (“Atheists also have faith”)

Given that Christians are reading this right now, they are using some electronic device. Perhaps it is the fringe case where they are somehow reading a hard copy of this, which in turn came from an electronic device. Nonetheless, I’m happy to congratulate them. Though they may not know the inner workings of electromagnetism or quantum mechanics—or even believe in them at all—they have managed to willingly use a computer, smartphone, or tablet, which all sprang from human reason.

In addition, most Christians wash their hands, are vaccinated, take their doctor’s suggestions seriously, and basically trust science more than anything else in dealing with their health. They probably move around using a car or motorized transport system, also created by science. When on the edge of a tall building, they don’t jump off, because they believe in gravity just like we do. For almost every aspect of their lives, they use science as the primary tool.

2. Christians secretly doubt the existence of God (“Atheists secretly believe in God”)

As shown above, despite their nominal objections to science, Christians obviously still believe in it. Skepticism is a tenet of science, and Christians who embrace science—specifically, all of them—show that they don’t really with absolutely certainty believe in God. They secretly doubt the existence of God, even though they are too afraid to say it, because they are afraid of being socially ostracized.

After all, isn’t even an evolution-doubter still using doubt?

3. Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu either (“Atheists must believe in something“)

We all treat mythology as what it is—mythology. If asked to write a list of gods we don’t believe, we would both have lists that would span thousands of names. Christians just stop one god short. Here is an extremely abridged list of gods throughout human history (source):

other gods

4. Christians must secretly worship the devil (“Atheists must secretly worship the devil”)

Atheists don’t even believe the devil exists, so how could we worship it? Christians, on the other hand…

5. Christians can also be intelligent (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1)

While Christians comprise 73% of the total US population, only 7% of the elite National Academy of Sciences believes in a god. On the other hand, atheists/agnostics, at 5.7% of the total US population, comprise the other 93%. This means that, picked randomly from the population of the United States, an atheist/agnostic is 170 times more likely to be in the National Academy of Sciences than a Christian. And this is assuming the 7% is all Christian; adding Jews and/or Hindus into the mix causes the disparity to rise even higher.

Of course, atheists on average have higher IQs than religious people. Even regarding religious knowledge, atheists score highest, quite ironically (or quite expectedly, depending on how you look at it). But this does not mean all religious people are unintelligent. Some are indeed very intelligent, and indeed, even they can contribute positively to human knowledge.

6. Christians can have morals too (“Atheists can have morals too”)

While it’s easy for atheists to think in a situation and decide what is right or wrong, it’s much more difficult for Christians who have been trained to defer to a two-thousand year old book to decide what to do and are not allowed to think for themselves, though usually they do. For instance, an atheist might see a gay couple and say, “They are not interfering with my life, so I’ll let them be.” However, a Christian has to weigh the prescribed death sentence on one hand and secular thinking on the other. “Am I obligated to follow up Leviticus 20:13 with my own hands, or does it suffice to contact the authorities? Or, is Leviticus complete rubbish, despite Jesus’ saying that the Old Testament still applies?”

Since I have rarely observed a Christian actually calling for the death of a gay person, despite their divine imperative to do so, I can reasonably conclude that most Christians use reason, not faith, in making moral decisions, and thus have morals too.

Of course, this does not mean that Christians are automatically equally as moral as atheists. At 2.4% of the total US population (excluding self-described agnostics this time), atheists make up 0.07% of the US prison population. An atheist is thus 34 times less likely to be in prison than the average American.

7. Christians can also have humility (“Why are atheists so arrogant?”)

While atheists understand the relative significance of their roles in this enormous cosmos consisting of billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, each with chances for planets that contain billions of individuals, Christians find humility much more difficult. They believe that out of all the billions of billions of possible worlds to choose from, an omnipotent, omniscient God chose them to share His love with, that the entire universe was designed for their temporary experience, that out of the stupefying vastness of the universe, they are special.

religion-location

(Source: imgur)

In addition, any Christian who has prayed to God for intervention must think that they know better than God in that instance regarding what to do. “I know you’re kinda the creator of the universe and are infallible and such, but I think you messed up by afflicting my mother with cancer. If you would kindly remove the cancer, that would be great.” Such arrogance to question God like that.

But anyways, some Christians, namely the ones who are least Christian and believe the least of all the nonsense, still do have humility.

8. Christians can also experience awe and wonder (“Atheists can also experience awe and wonder”)

Atheists look at nature and see wonder everywhere and experience awe in the fact that a set of rules with no inherent design could lead to such an amazing world. On the other hand, Christians believe there is a God that is omnipotent, capable of anything, thus everything they see is merely the result of an all-powerful being, so everything is supremely unimpressive. They wouldn’t experience much awe in watching a champion Olympic weightlifter lift a 1-pound weight.

Of course, this brings us to the issue of whether a Christian who claims to experience awe is a Christian in the first place. After all, if a Christian proclaims to be in awe, isn’t this Christian really an atheist, since only an atheist can truly be in awe? Of course, if one twists the definitions of awe and wonder, it might be possible that Christians can experience them too, only to a lesser degree.

9. Christians can also be happy (“Can atheists be happy?”)

Even though Christians have to always worry about burning in eternal fire, it’s entirely possible for them so believe so strongly that they will be saved that the thought will not trouble them for most of their conscious life. Hence, even Christians can also be happy, even if paralyzing fear is always in the back of their minds.

10. Christians can also love (“Atheists are incapable of love”)

Atheists get to experience genuine love without having to be told. Christians, on the other hand, love because they are commanded to by Jesus, and they desperately want to be on Jesus’ good side when judgment rolls around. It’s hard to call this fake display of affection “love,” but I guess we’ll let it slide.

11. Christians can be good people too (“Atheists can be good people too”)

Is it possible to be good with God? I think the answer is yes. Every year, dozens of Christians manage to survive without being racist, misogynistic, homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, intolerant, superficial, proselytizing, antisemitic, islamophobic, anti-other-faiths, anti-atheist, closed minded, arrogant, or willfully ignorant. So yes, it’s certainly possible.

On the whole, Christians aren’t all that different from atheists, and as we can see from above, they’re not that inferior. Given time, they will see the error of their ways, and when they do, we should gladly welcome them into the ranks of the godless. We are all children of evolution, and we all walk the path we are given, and let those who are given more windy paths go on until they again reach the main path towards a better human society. We must meet one another doing good. “But I believe, I’m a Christian!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

Response to a Response

  • Original post (“On God and Victim Blaming”): [link]
  • Response: [link]

I am glad that you are willing to lay down your thoughts and discuss them. We are in agreement about most things, and that is good. We both agree that many bad things have been done in the name of Christianity. As you said, “I agree with you that people have said pretty bone-headed things using the Bible for support, as you have duly noted at the beginning. Justification of slavery, rape, polygamy, war, almost everything under the sun has been done ‘because of the Bible.'”

Where we disagree is what the cause is. I argue in various blog posts that these “bone-headed things” are intrinsic to the common properties of religion, and the fact that we as a society has progressed this far is in spite of religion, with the recent social progress (women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights) being closely connected to religion’s declining oppressive power in society. On the other hand, you argue that the “bone-headed things” follow from wrong interpretations of Christianity, and that those who take Bible passages literally, often out of context, are not true Christians.

This is partly a definition difference as I am defining Christianity currently to be the religion based on Jesus Christ, whereas you seem to be defining Christianity currently to be the good parts that remain after society deems some parts of it good and other parts of it bad. To avoid seeming too abstract, I want to give a concrete example of what I am saying here. You said:

But before attributing this to Christianity, I want you to ask what kind of “Christianity” they actually believe. It might not, and probably in most circumstances isn’t, be even compatible with the Bible except for maybe the few verses they’ve pulled out of context. The whole tirade on gays by certain “Christian” groups (God hates gays), for example, clearly contradicts Jesus’s teachings. And not just superficially, it utterly runs counter to it.

It is interesting that you mention gays. The Bible is very, very, very clearly anti-homosexual. But as you pointed out, this seems to contradict some of the main messages of Jesus like to not judge and to love everyone equally. It is of course more complicated than that, but there are several ways to resolve this paradox:

  1. The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are actually invalid, and therefore should be ignored. This runs into a couple of issues. First, this betrays the sacredness of the Bible. From what I’ve seen, some Christians are extremely reluctant to admit even a part of the Bible as invalid. This makes sense because the Bible is supposed to be an infallible, holy book. If even one passage is wrong and should be ignored, that makes the whole book no longer infallible, and every other passage is now open to question. Secondly, it destroys the concept that morality comes only through God or only from the Bible. If it’s up to us humans to decide which parts of the Bible to follow and not follow, then on what basis are we making that decision? Clearly not from the Bible.
  2. The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are merely outdated, and therefore should be ignored. This is slightly different from the first case, as maybe God decided that homosexuality was bad only in ancient times, and that it’s okay now. In addition to running into the same issues as in the first case, this runs into the issue of why the Bible should even be used today at all. Maybe pillaging a village was okay by ancient standards, but that would be considered barbaric today. So why take any lessons at all from a two-thousand-year-old book?
  3. The Bible actually does not condemn homosexuality, and in fact, upon a “true reading,” it supports marriage equality. I would feel quite offended if I were a discriminated member of the LGBT community upon hearing this after decades of hellfire speech. “Sorry, we read it wrong for so many years and condemned you so much but it was all because we were just waiting until the last moment to agree with the rest of society. But don’t worry, we really supported you all along.” Really? While this seems to be a happy ending on the surface, it only demonstrates how religion is a reactionary system that must keep (reluctantly) adapting its ancient values to modern society to not lose its followers. Plus, this runs into similar issues as above. If we were all wrong about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, could we all be wrong about other things? Like contraception? Or abortion? Maybe upon a “true reading,” the Bible is actually very strongly pro-choice and treats the pro-life view as ungodly.

However, even if Christians are divided today about an issue such as marriage equality, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Christians in the year 1900, for instance, were against it. (Heck, even from recent years, only 27% favored same-sex marriage in 1996, whereas a whopping 48% did in 2012; in 1996 only 6% strongly favored it, while in 2012 it was 22%.) So if it really is the third and most optimistic case, that the Bible is wrongly interpreted, then why would it be wrongly interpreted for two thousand years? Would a benevolent personal God have his Word written in such an ambiguous way that, due to popular beliefs of the time, would certainly be misconstrued to cause persecution of a group for two thousand years?

If option 3 were to be generally agreed upon (and I think it’s quite likely in the near future), I fear it will only be used to further justify a messed up system. It will only advance the Christian rhetoric of “God is great. He supported same-sex marriage all along, and our wrong interpretation for two thousand years only goes to show how flawed humans are and how we are all subservient to the almighty God.” This is the main difference in our points of view. If #3 occurred, I assume based on what you wrote that you would consider that as more evidence of Christianity’s benevolence (correct me if I’m wrong). In contrast, I would consider that as evidence of how flawed Christianity is as a system. For instance, I think this “war on marriage” debacle could have been avoided from the start if we had abandoned the use of religion as moral guidance.

So yes, Christianity is extremely slow to change to match social progress sparked by more noble human values. One might object, “But that’s not true Christianity, ideally Christianity would adapt quickly.” But I would wonder if this is just doing further definition adjustments, namely defining Christianity to be what is currently considered good (or selective Bible passage-picking to achieve this means), with the circular result that Christianity is good.

As pointed out earlier, since we are changing what is considered to be a correct interpretation of the Bible, if Christianity suddenly accepts homosexuality, then it must reconsider its views on everything else as they were all based on some interpretation of the Bible. Christianity cannot simply go “Okay homosexuality is okay now, by the way abortion is still wrong.” Of course, there is a high probability of precisely that happening.

Now, back to your response. You spend a great percent of the response justifying the Bible passages I cited, and provided contexts for them to argue why they are not what it might seem they are saying. However, even with the “context” and the different interpretation, they still send very wrong messages. I’ll keep the original statements in bold and add the context you provided.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

-Ephesians 5:22-33

Even with this context, it is still a blatantly sexist passage. Wives are told to submit to their husbands, whereas husbands are told to love their wives. How are submitting and loving on the same level? Should a slave submit to their master merely in return for the slaveowner loving the slave?

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:13-25

Even when talking about “servants” and not necessarily about “slaves,” this passage still promotes blind obedience and submitting to authority. In the end, it blatantly promotes being a “sheep.”

The Isaiah passage is quite long so I will quote your explanation here:

Prepare slaughter for his sons
    because of the guilt of their fathers,
lest they rise and possess the earth,
    and fill the face of the world with cities.

First, note that this is specifically talking about Babylon, the nation. Second, the literary style is is more figurative and poetic in nature. This is not a mandate to wantonly kill sons for the guilt of their fathers. So since we are talking about Babylon, the use of the pronoun “his” is clearly referring to the Babylon. In other words, it’s saying prepare slaughter for the Babylonians because of the history of Babylon, lest Babylon rise and possess the earth and fill it with tyrants. I think this is comparable to saying prepare destruction for Hitler’s Germany, lest it tyrannizes the earth. Obviously there are differences, such as God did not destroy the Babylonians immediately, but waited for quite a while. Second, it does not follow that God told Israel to commit the “slaughter,” or even that he allowed them to even participate in it. This is a taunt. Rather, God declares that He will be the one doing the destruction.

I still find it strange that you would worship a God that would wantonly slaughter. There are so many issues relating to the problem of suffering that would relate to this passage as well. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent entity even be in a situation that He needs to taunt His own creation that is evil because He made it? But even on the current topic, I still don’t see how the context makes wanton murder, even by God, justifiable.

Next, also with your response:

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Now, 2 Samuel, regarding the story of David and Bathsheba. There’s not much context here to speak of besides the entire story itself. Basically, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and indirectly kills Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Because David chose to sin, God responds with punishment. Not exactly sure how this is victim blaming or anything like that. Rather, the issue I see here is one of theology; namely, why does a good, omniscient, and all-powerful God permit evil, or is this God even coherent? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question, because it is way too complicated to deal with in an already long response, but many people have written on this subject. However, to give a taste of a response, I think if God, in permitting evil, can bring about a greater good, then it is more reasonable to accept. This is not the same as the ends justify the means, because God is omniscient. Again, this is not meant to be fully laid out argument.

Do you not consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Rape in “broad daylight”? Does something being permissible from God make it moral? Nor does it justify how punishing the son for the sins of a father is acceptable.

Regarding Deuteronomy 20, I am slightly surprised that you would include this passage and not the next few verses. Anyways, here it is.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as theLord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 20:10-18

Again I ask you, does the context really justify it? Your explanation was:

First, this is specifically for the nation of Israel, regarding the conduct of war. Note that this is ONLY conduct; it alone does not imply that Israel should go out and conquer and rule over other lands in an imperialistic fashion, oppressing the people there….

Obviously war causes different conduct. But in modern times we don’t put every male to the sword and take all the women and children as plunder. In the context of my original article being about rape victim blaming, that was my main point. Even for war standards, it’s still a barbaric code of conduct.

Finally, you attempt to justify 1 Timothy 2:12.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

And how is that not incredibly sexist even with the context?

First, it is not consistent with scripture to say that women are not valued…. Second, God has used women throughout Scripture in many important ways (Rahab, Esther, Deborah, etc), including prophetesses, so its not as if women cannot hold authority over men or to teach in the general case.

Do you really want to argue that the Bible is not sexist?

The traditional Christian view of men and women is not equality in the modern sense, but compatibility. That is, men and women play different roles, but neither is inferior to the other. Rather, they complement each other. It’s like saying what’s more important for human life, water or oxygen? If you want to call this sexism, then fine. It’s nothing more than saying there is a difference between a woman and a man. So then the question is in what ways are men and women compatible, and is that coherent? I’m sure there’s much debate on this particular topic, as there is on this particular verse, even among Christians. At the very least, it does not follow from this verse that women are inferior. And for the record, I have no personal objections to female leadership and remain open-minded about this particular subject (and I hope I’m not subjugating other women, though others should probably tell me if I am).

I’ve never heard this view seriously expressed before. I guess I’ll see what other Christians have to say about that view. At first impression though, it reeks of the “separate but equal” sentiment. I’m not saying you’re subjugating women, but if you are going to continue to defend 1 Timothy 2:11-15, then your views aren’t far from it.

Overall your defense of these passages was quite surprising to me. Have you ever seriously considered the possibility that some of these passages might simply be wrong?

Now I have numerous objections to your paragraph on Hell and on the next paragraph, so I will break them up.

With regards to hell, I think it is important to have a coherent theology of it. Even Christians disagree on what exactly it is, other than something that’s really bad for all eternity.

It is really hard to justify how “something that’s really bad for all eternity” is compatible with a benevolent God. For the problem of suffering, even passing over suffering on Earth for a moment, how can you possibly justify Hell? How can you justify why an entity that would create Hell is worthy of worship?

So first, did God create something flawed? No, humans were originally perfect, although they had the capability of being flawed, as demonstrated by the Fall

This makes no sense.

Second, what exactly is the punishment for sinning? Ultimately, it is being separated from God. But if God is the source of all good, then being removed from the source of all good means that there is nothing good left, hence the terrible descriptions of fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth.

In other words, punishment for sinning is Hell. Your suggestion that God might be the source of all good affirms my argument that you are merely wishfully defining Christianity or God to be that which is “good” (yet obviously what we think of as “good” is determined by our society).

In other words, it is impossible to enjoy good things without God. One may argue that in the present world, people who never believe in God still enjoy good things, but that’s because God has not completely stepped back from the picture, but is still involved.

This also doesn’t really make sense. How does God’s involvement with the world affect whether people who do not believe in God enjoy good things? Furthermore, what do you mean by “believe in”? Does a nominal or cultural Christian believe in God?

I will agree with you in that I have doctrinal issues with the statement “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it.” So what is meant by this statement is that, God gives people a choice: either to be with God or be separated from God. The first is heaven, the second is hell, due to the nature of who God is. There are doctrinal disputes on what exactly hell is, if God actively/passively punishes people in hell, etc. but it’s not particularly relevant at this point. Now, more directly to the question of why God would create man if He knew that certain people were going to suffer for all eternity? This is much more complicated, and I would be a fool if I told you I had an answer. However, I think you’re conflating omniscience with causation. Just because God knows the action of men, does that mean He’s inherently responsible for them? I don’t think so, because He did not create humans as flawed beings. However, then this leads again to the problem of evil/suffering, where for some reason God allowed a world in which people could choose to sin, and they did.

I think you’re on the right path here.

I think I’ve covered most of the points you’ve talked about, at least briefly. What I’ve said here is definitely not complete, and I’m sure there are subsequent issues that remain to be dealt with. I personally don’t even think these are the toughest passages to swallow.

I wasn’t choosing the passages that I thought were toughest to swallow. I was choosing passages that demonstrated the support of victim blaming in Christian doctrine.

I will also agree that the Bible has been used to justify terrible things. However, that does not mean that it was a valid interpretation of the Bible.

How do you determine what is a “valid” interpretation of the Bible? As objected in the first part of this article, defining a valid interpretation to be the one that society happens to accept the most doesn’t actually defend Christianity.

At the same time, before criticizing what the Bible has to say, which you have every right to do, I would ask that you not misuse or misquote the Bible. At the very least, learn what the traditional view of Christianity says on the topic and why before you present your own counterpoint to that view, because virtually none of these challenges are new. The Bible IS over 2000 years old, after all.

Since we are defining whatever we want, how do you know you are not misusing or misquoting the Bible more than I am? From my perspective, for instance, you are the one misusing the Bible by taking a work of fiction so seriously as nonfiction, thus contributing to bringing about intolerance and impeding social progress. Also, the original post was not to present new challenges to Christianity, but to present new ways of looking at feminism and religion, namely the similarity in victim blaming of rape victims and of God’s victims. It’s probably not a new idea, but at least its something that most people don’t consider. Finally, the Bible being 2000 years old is reason enough for it to NOT be used as moral guidance for modern society. All the objections to individual passages are just a bonus.

In addition, there is one last minor point I wish to address:

I know very little of the Qu’ran, so I will refrain from commenting on that. However, I do hope to study it in the future, even though a supposed “true reading” of it requires knowledge of Arabic.

While lack of knowledge is a noble reason to refrain from comment, you mentioned as a caveat that a “true reading” of the Quran requires knowledge of Arabic. Depending on how you define “true reading,” this may be true, but the caveat misses the point. Typically, the argument that the Quran must be read in Arabic is to hide it from criticism (Christianity does its fair share too of coming up with ways to discourage people from criticizing the Bible). Perhaps a “true reading” of Mein Kampf requires scholarly knowledge of German, but that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize its ideas after reading an English translation, or even after knowing that Hitler wrote it.

Even then, I think all these minor points are somewhat missing the big picture, though I did want to clarify my views. The big picture argument is as presented in the first part of this post, that our definitions of Christianity are different, and that (based on your defense of the various Bible passages and also your statement on gays) you seem to think of Christianity as having all these positive views or tolerance of certain groups when it in fact reluctantly accepted them only after decades or centuries of oppressing the ones who had those views or belonged to those groups. You think of “true readings” or true interpretations to be definitionally the ones that agree the most with what we currently think in 2013 (like scanning for obscure interpretations of Nostradamus’s writing to show that he “predicted” something, when we are in fact imposing what we already know is true into ambiguous writing). Throughout history, those being oppressed by Christianity (blacks, women, scientists, “witches,” homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, followers of other religions, etc.) couldn’t voice their criticism of the system because they couldn’t criticize something that is defined to be that which is good. But of course, under a “true reading,” Christianity was supportive of all of them all along.

Game of Definitions

The single most frustrating thing I’ve encountered recently in discussions of religion is the confusion that arises when one word has multiple (and sometimes a spectrum of) definitions. Just to illustrate an obviously nonsensical case:

Him: You believe that nature exists, don’t you?
Me: Yeah, of course.
Him: And might you consider God as the laws of nature?
Me: Umm, sure, that kinda makes sense [metaphorically].
Him: Ah, good then, I see that you’ve just accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

As an example of the fallacy called equivocation, clearly the naturalistic “God” in the third line is much different from the specific theistic God implied in the fifth. The vast number of differences between the laws of nature and the Judeo-Christian God prevent you from simply saying, “Nature is awesome, therefore Christianity is true!”

“God”

While this kind of argument is typically not used as directly as stated above, it’s abused so much in discussions of God’s existence. Even though I introduced the argument as an “obviously nonsensical” one, I’ve had that discussion in person at least once.

God_Nature_Demotivational_Poster

After the “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” argument (which is like saying “You can’t prove that Fairies don’t exist” as proof of the existence of Fairies), definition-twisting seems to be the next go-to defense of God’s existence.

  • God is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore God must exist.
  • God is Love, and you’d be a cold, heartless person to not believe in Love, therefore you think God exists.
  • God is the Unknown, and you can’t possibly know everything, therefore God exists.
  • God is Wonder, and we wonder about things, therefore God exists.
  • God is a Higher Power.
  • God is Fate
  • God is Chance.
  • Etc.

Logically, these are all empty statements. If God literally meant “Nature” and everyone in the world who considers themselves religious actually just appreciates nature very enthusiastically, then of course God (by definition) exists, and I wouldn’t be calling myself an atheist or wasting my time talking about this on the internet.

  • (The Flying Spaghetti Monster is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists.)

Unfortunately for the world, God as the target of mass worship is not Nature, or Love, or the Unknown, or Wonder. In America, it primarily refers to the Christian God which behaves as prescribed in the Bible. This difference is of crucial importance. When a more religious Christian refers to God, they are referring to a completely different concept than that of a Deist or naturalist.

As interpreted by a vast number of Americans, God has done particular things in the past and has particular views on many social issues, and for an apologist to claim that God equals Nature is utterly wrong and misleading. Nature doesn’t tell a father to sacrifice his son on the altar and then call it off as a test at the last moment. Love doesn’t wipe out cities or command mass murder. The Unknown does not forbid homosexuality as a sin. Wonder does not set a death penalty on people who work Sundays. Redefining God as something good does not make the entity of the original definition worthy of worship.

“Religious,” “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim”

There is no similarity between the “God” of Albert Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” and that of John McTernan’s “The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.”

Einstein has said, “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” And also: “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”

Though hurricanes hitting New Orleans are in the realm of nature, McTernan’s “God” is obviously not Nature, but a being with a purpose or goal, acting in a highly anthropomorphic fashion. Here’s a link to the original article:

The fact the events are seven years apart is very significant as this number is biblically important. It is the number of completion: God created the universe in seven days. The church, city and nation have not repented and the homosexual agenda is far worse than it was in 2005. New Orleans is still hosting Southern Decadence with open homosexuality manifesting in the streets of the city. It could be that God is putting an end to this city and its wickedness. The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.

Now hold on a second, says the liberal Christian. How can a true Christian say such demeaning things about homosexuals? A true Christian would be open and nice and caring and all those good things!

Of course, the conservative Christian would say the same thing back: a true Christian follows the Word of God! Are you denying that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin?

This is the No True Christian fallacy, where both sides claim to be Christian and condemn the other side for not being Christian. It means so little when someone says, “I’m a Christian” (unless your name is Christian!). Proclaiming Christianity gives virtually no information regarding one’s religious beliefs.

According to a Pew Research study on Jewish Americans, 62% of American Jews stated that being Jewish is mainly a matter of “ancestry/culture” while 15% stated it was mainly a matter of “religion,” the other 23% saying both. Adopting the terms (though clearly not the stats) for Christianity, we can roughly divide Christians into two groups: cultural Christians and religious (or biblical) Christians. It should be obvious for most Christians which group is closer to them.

Most Christians I know are cultural Christians, and even many non-Christians would identify with being culturally Christian. This only magnifies how vague the term “Christian” is.

The term “Muslim” makes the definition gap even wider, given how much more extreme the religious side is. Is a true Muslim the one who carries out a suicide bombing or “fights” for Islam, or the one who “sits at home”? Interestingly, the Quran itself contains an answer (hint: it’s not the peaceful option), though of course apologists will take the most positively propagandized interpretation of that and present such statements in the Quran as evidence that Islam as a religion of peace. I have no doubt that most Muslims are actual peace-seeking, friendly people; however, when a cultural Muslim says, “I am a Muslim,” that means an entirely different thing than when a religious Muslim says, “I am a Muslim.”

It would be so much easier to discuss this if there were different words for, say, cultural Muslim and religious Muslim, as saying two words gets tedious and these particular phrases still emphasize that the term Muslim is shared in common, though it is only an incidental similarity.

For example, in Nazi Germany (at the risk of upsetting Godwin’s law), obviously not all Germans were Nazis; in fact, many Germans held views against the Nazis and were actually persecuted by Nazis. But let us suppose that the exact same word were used for both “German” and “Nazi,” say the word “Gerzi.” Then when a British intellectual writes an anti-totalitarian criticism of Gerzism, which looks like a criticism of Gerzis, the Gerzis get upset, saying they don’t support totalitarianism and that the Gerzis being criticized are not true Gerzis. Thus the intellectual is forced to retract their statement for offending the Gerzis, all criticism of Gerzis is henceforth frowned upon (and is labeled Gerziphobia), and in the end, the uncontested Gerzis attain totalitarian power and start a world war. Fortunately, the Gerzis don’t have nuclear weapons.

“Cameron Diaz”

This is an illustrative passage from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell:

Suppose instead that I was convinced that I did have a secret helper but that it wasn’t you—it was Cameron Diaz. As I penned my thank-you notes to her, and thought lovingly about her, and marveled at her generosity to me, it would surely be misleading to say that you were the object of my gratitude, even though you were in fact the one who did the deeds that I am so grateful for. And then suppose I gradually began to suspect that I had been ignorant and mistaken, and eventually came to the correct realization that you were indeed the proper recipient of my gratitude. Wouldn’t it be strange for me to put it this way: “Now I understand: you are Cameron Diaz!” It would indeed be strange; it would be false—unless something else had happened in the interim. Suppose my acquaintances had become so used to my singing the praises of Cameron Diaz and her bountiful works that the term had come, to them and to me, to stand for whoever it was who was responsible for my joy. In that case, those syllables would no longer have their original use or meaning. The syllables “Cameron Diaz,” purportedly a proper name of a real individual, would have been turned—gradually and imperceptibly—into a sort of wild-card referring expression, the “name” of whoever (or whatever) is responsible for… whatever it is I am grateful for.

It’s pretty clear what this is a reference to. (But hey, at least Cameron Diaz exists.)

“Faith”

Yet another definition-game word is faith. Faith in its usual sense is belief lacking absolute proof, which is very different from belief absolutely lacking in proof, its extended definition as a religious term. As written before on this blog:

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.

In this case, normal faith is associated with lending to the billionaire. You obviously don’t have proof that the billionaire will return the investment, but you are reasonably sure. More hardcore faith is needed with the beggar: maybe you know some additional information or are a good friend of the beggar and know of his future job opportunities; point is, there is some conceivable scenario where you might give $100 to the beggar (at worst, some person now has some means of living for a while). However, religious faith in this analogy would be like taking your favorite box, emptying it, putting your $100 in there, burning the money, sealing the box, and then opening the box every year for the next ten years expecting to find $50 magically appear every time. No thinking person would ever do that.

“Atheist”

Of course, what it means to be “someone who doesn’t believe the existence of a god” will depend on the definition of “God” or “gods.”

There is a slight difference between not believing “…that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree” (summary taken from internet meme), and not having “a sense of wonder about the natural world.”

A couple of months ago, for instance, when swimmer Diana Nyad was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her show, Nyad considered herself an atheist but Oprah responded by telling her she was not. From Hemant Mehta:

The part that struck a chord with me — and many other atheists — was Winfrey’s dismissal of Nyad’s non-religious label. Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an Independent. Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.

If you define God in a way such that everyone believes in God, now you’ve shown that everyone believes in the new definition of God, but that doesn’t change what the original concept of God was, and it doesn’t make the older version any more likely to be true.

“Conclusion”

Talking about definitions these days is a banal task. Thanks to postmodern relativism (or whatever you call the phenomenon), we are used to questioning definitions of everything that can possibly be questioned—which is usually a good thing!—a bit too far. What is truth? Is all truth subjective? Is there nothing objective to be said? Is everything just a matter of biased perception, flavored by the individual? While these are great cognitive exercises, this thought process is unfortunately being applied to things that are not simply a matter of personal taste. “Is Islam justified in carrying out terror because it’s their cultural right to do so? Is it allowed to force women to wear veils because that’s what it means to be a woman in their culture? What makes you think your (Christian) interpretation of God better than theirs?” And so on. You cannot just define God to be whatever you want it to be and then immediately conclude that all the rest of the baggage of religion follows.

On God and Victim Blaming

For the response to a response to this article, see link.

Everyone is familiar with God rhetoric and with victim-blaming rhetoric. But what people don’t seem to realize is that the two are very similar, and when you think about it, you find that God (as the fictional character in the Bible) is the ultimate victim blamer. The following screenshot is from the comment section of a post by “allallt” called “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering“:

Victim Blaming

Sure, so if God kills a thousand people in an earthquake, then it’s the peoples‘ fault for settling there, not God’s. What about hurricanes? Well duh, 21st-century America is just asking for God to send them. (Ignoring even the most basic science, let’s analyze this from the perspective of someone who really holds these views.) Of course, the religious user ends the discussion several comments down with “I will pray for you.”

The “just asking for it” rhetoric is absurd. Does this imply that if someone didn’t “ask for it,” they will be spared of the full consequences? Former Representative Todd Akin (from last year, Republican of Missouri) seemed to think so:

At the time, the press correctly made a huge deal out of this (as well as of other fellow religious Republicans). The trouble is, if you thought that was bad, then you may be shocked to hear that even the most fundamentalist Christians with the most primitive views about rape don’t come close in comparison to fundamentalist Muslims, who have a much more degrading view of women and have given one woman a 200-lash sentence for the crime of being raped. Well, to make it better, she was originally sentenced to only 90 lashes, but then since her lawyer tried to bring this absurdity to light in the international press, the Saudi Arabian court extended it to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison sentence. I really wish I were making this up.

sharia-justice

In 2005, Australian Muslim preacher Faiz Mohamad said in a 1000-person lecture, “A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world…” You know it’s a sad state of the world when a whole class of people make Todd Akin seem like a feminist in comparison.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most extreme victim blamers are often the most religious? I would argue it is not a coincidence, and that the two are very intertwined.

God, the Ultimate Victim Blamer

Now that I have your attention, I would like to take a step back and explain the purpose of this article. In general I think many well-meaning people (both religious and nonreligious) completely ignore the relation between religion and society, or at least publicly ignore it due to the taboo against discussing it. On the contrary, there are very significant correlations between religion and social/political views, and it’s some of these that I would like to bring more awareness to.

So why is God the ultimate victim blamer?

All the rapes, murders, and genocides in the Bible indicate not only that God approves of humans doing the victim blaming, but also that He does the victim blaming himself.

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)

What a great leader, showing such shining examples of paragon virtue to His followers! Of course, many Christians instinctively say, “But that’s the Old Testament, and that doesn’t apply because Jesus.” That objection is technically invalid because Jesus and the New Testament explicitly say the Old Testament still applies. This is often denied, and even if the Old Testament were completely ignored, it’s not as if the New Testament is made up of radiant moral perfection.

God is also the ultimate sexist, who, even besides all those passages about rape, said infamous things as

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

And even without citing particular passages, some of the central messages taught to everyone reek of victim blaming. The New Testament says plenty about Hell, but what other is Hell than God’s punishment for beings that He himself created? In the moral behavior setting, if someone sins and deserves going to Hell, then why did God create such a person who would commit that sin in the first place? “I created something that was flawed, therefore I must punish it for being flawed.” The whole mentality of “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it” is practically the definition of victim blaming. I would urge anyone to compare that to the “they asked for it” mentality. Finally, the predestination setting is just as bad, if not worse—now you are being punished for being the victim of pure chance.

While the Bible is quite horrible at talking about gender equality, there is one book that is arguably worse: the Quran.

. . . If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (4:34)

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (2.228)

Of course, now I’m going to get the “You’re taking it out of context!” objection. So please tell me, what kind of context I am supposed to take 1 Timothy 2:12 under that makes it okay to tell women to shut up? I’ll await your answer in the comments.

In all, the rhetoric of religion and that of victim blaming are very similar, if not identical. Their similarity is moreover not a coincidence, but rather a lingering effect of a time when people believed every word of the Bible/Quran (and many still do). In our age, it seems that to be a “good” Christian is to follow as little of the Bible as possible. So does the best Christian completely ignore it?

Rationality vs Irrationality

This article is based on several conversations I’ve had recently on rationality, and it is supposed to be an overview-type post that explores different areas of the subject. In fact, since this is a pretty heated topic that comes with misunderstandings by the handful, I will be going very slowly and throwing out as many caveats as possible to make sure I’m not misunderstood, though of course this is bound to happen. Because of this, the tone for this article will be rather informal.

Rationality vs Irrationality

It is obvious (to anyone who follows this blog or knows me in real life) that I stand on the side of rationality (though I often intentionally do things that would be considered irrational). Heck, even the blog name is “A Reasoner‘s Miscellany.” Note that the title is not “A Reasoner’s Manifesto” or “A Reasoner’s Main Ideas.” Rather, it is a “miscellany” of various ideas in various subjects and of various degrees of significance. The main purpose of this blog is to jot down random ideas, serve as a diary of thoughts, and also just to satisfy my urge to write. It is not to try to start a revolution or to promote any particular ideology.

Answering this question obviously depends on having precise definitions of what rationality and irrationality are, but as soon as I lay down definitions, some of you will start arguing the definitions rather than the actual concepts. And without this disclaimer, some of you will be arguing “Well it depends on the definitions” as if that refutes my overall argument. It turns out you’re in luck, because in this post, I’m not trying to make any grand overarching arguments, but instead just laying down a bunch of thoughts, which might be followed up on in later blog posts with more fully fleshed out arguments.

Now that many of the meta-caveats are out of the way, I suppose I can finally begin talking about rationality. Of course, even without giving detailed definitions, I feel as if I must give some overall definition to anchor the discussion. Basically, when I refer to rational thinking, I refer to thinking involving logic, facts, evidence, and reason. This is opposed to irrational thinking, which I consider to be thinking involving emotion, faith, or just not thinking (or even the refusal to think). These characterizations don’t exactly match the conventional philosophical terms (which are themselves sometimes disagreed upon), but I think this captures what is generally meant when someone says “That thought process is rational” or “That thought process is irrational.”

Biases are one of the primary obstructions to reason. Two perfectly rational agents using perfect logic and starting with the same information should theoretically arrive at the same conclusion. However, the “perfect logic” assumption is ruined if one of the agents is biased towards one side from the beginning and uses that bias in their “logic,” at which point it is no longer logic. Of course, one of the most important biases is that you are less biased than other people. Thus I must try my best to account for major personal impacts in my life that would push me towards rationality.

The main event influencing my choice towards reason is when I started learning about astronomy when I was in first grade, in South Carolina of all places. We visited an observatory and I quickly became interested in space. Even then, I realized that knowing all these things about space must have occurred through some systematic method of observation, experimentation, and reasoning (though not in terms of these words). We knew there were nine planets (back then, Pluto was a planet) because we saw them through our telescopes and reasoned their existence through their movements and gravitational effects, not because we wished there were nine, or because it would be totally awesome if there were nine, or because it was divinely revealed to us that there were nine.

Religion and Tradition Both Oppose Rationality

Because of my early interest in space I learned by 1st grade about the Galileo incident with the Church (and also about Copernicus to a lesser degree). It didn’t just bother me that the vast majority of people were so ludicrously wrong about something like whether Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth, but rather, that the Church refused to believe the truth and instead demonized the bringer of truth, doing so because they so adamantly believed that the Sun orbits the Earth because their holy book said so. From the moment I learned about this, I could never take “religious logic” seriously (i.e., X is true because it says so in the Bible/Quran/etc).

My views on religion have changed a lot since 1st grade. For instance, my main objection to religion now is not so much that it is fictional, but rather because of the vast social harm it causes due to its irrationality. In fact, throughout most of my life I subscribed to multiculturalism (regarding religion, you have to respect religious ideas no matter how insane they are), and so I wasn’t an antitheist. It was only a year ago that I went from (agnostic) atheist to (agnostic) atheist antitheist.

Another great opponent to rationality is tradition. Similarly to religion, tradition in principle stifles new ideas and is very bad a providing reasonable justification for doing something, i.e. “Because it says so in the Bible” or “Because that’s how it has always been done.” Again along the lines of biases, I have to warn that I am probably personally vested in this topic of tradition vs rationality as I extremely resented how I was treated in my childhood from my Asian parents, and also due to my view of Chinese culture in general. For an explanation, see this post and this one. In context of this post, even at a young age I was capable of making logical arguments and it always frustrated me that whenever I argued with my parents, they could never actually refute what I said, only justifying their actions through tradition, superstition, and authority. I’ve never mentioned it on this blog before, and only to a few people in real life, but in my childhood I was driven by my parents to near suicide. These anti-tradition, anti-superstition, and anti-authority sentiments have persisted.

Intentional vs Unintentional Irrationality

This summer I probably thought about rationality more than I ever have in the past, as my work had to do with making rational decisions. The book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner), made an significant impact. The primary reason I wrote the post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control” was that it was something that I found deeply irrational even though it was being expressed by a number of highly rational people. The fact that it was on July 4th given the subject was pure coincidence.

But that topic was on something that most people probably never think about. Because of this, it’s much harder to call someone with this kind of view “irrational,” as they probably aren’t aware of it. On the other hand, if someone say read that post and thought about pride in randomness, and afterwards still thought it was rational to be proud of one’s race, then it is much easier to consider them irrational. Similarly, I don’t find most religious people irrational since most religious people (at least of the ones I know) never talk about religion, thus they probably aren’t ever in a serious state of questioning religion. On the other hand, some religious people read science books (particularly on evolution) and still believe in creationism, thus it is much easier to consider these people irrational. Just as refusing to accept that Earth orbits the Sun (based on religious texts) is worse than simply not knowing about it, refusing to learn about evolution (based on religious texts) is worse not knowing about evolution. See willful ignorance.

Rationality vs Irrationality in the Media

The distinction between rationality and irrationality is related to many others, like Enlightenment vs Romanticism, future utopia vs past utopia, objective truth vs subjective truth, or science vs religion. If anything, support of irrationality is significantly overrepresented in the media. Does the following movie setting sound (overly) familiar?: The future, advanced technology, but with social inequality, terrible quality of life, what it means to be “human” is gone, nature is destroyed, and evil technologists or even machines rule as the result of the rise of the “rational,” and the day is saved by someone with an old-fashioned, “irrational” mentality often involving some mythical power? Nah, that sounds like a completely original idea. What about the one where nature overcomes technology? Or the religious guy who no one believes who is right the whole time? Or the evil scientist showing that science is bad? Or society claims to know how to treat the “irrational,” using nefarious tactics?

Sure, these are just movies mostly for entertainment purpose, and any societal warnings are a secondary effect. Perhaps I’m way overreacting. I mean, a movie or a novel has to have dramatic conflict, and movie about the future being an awesome place would be really boring to watch. But this does not mean the framing of which side is “good” and which side is “bad” should be so one-sided. One of the only shows that takes the pro-rational side is Star Trek (the [earlier] TV shows, not so much the recent movies). Characters like Spock and Data are as logical as you can possibly get, yet they are on the team of the protagonists. Technology is shown as overall beneficial, and even religion has almost disappeared from humanity (though some of the aliens they encounter have their own religions). In fact, it seems like if some show like Star Trek, The Original Series or The Next Generation, were to be released in modern day, 2013, it would be canned and be deemed far too political and “anti-religious,” as American society is far more anti-science than before (I find it hard to imagine the modern US having a warm reaction to a hypothetical modern-day version of Albert Einstein.)

The only other type of show I can think of that is pro-reason is crime investigation shows, where the protagonists try to rationally deduce facts from clues and from suspects, many of whom committed crimes for highly irrational purposes. But the main theme for these shows are normally concerned with justice, not rationality vs irrationality.

The Rationality of Irrationality

In the second paragraph, I mentioned that I sometimes intentionally act “irrationally.” However, many of these irrationalities are still made from an overall rational decision. In the post “Spontaneous Decision Making,” I talked about how I generally “…don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths.” I will re-quote here an interesting behavior from my Fall 2010 semester:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

But as I later reasoned in the “Spontaneous Decisions” post, there was a method in the madness. I go against patterns on purpose, but all this increases versatility. I try to be prepared for anything, and if I always do the same pattern or plan everything out ahead of time, then I may not be able to adapt quickly to a new situation.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking…

To have a quick response, I try to be accustomed to every scenario, and moreover, practice responding quickly. It is a sort of planned spontaneity. Intentionally making spontaneous decisions is like handicapping yourself during practice. But then when you get to the real thing, you remove the handicap and perform much better. If you can make a good assessment of a situation in 10 seconds, imagine how much better it would be with 10 hours.

In addition, the planned spontaneity is very much like preparing for a later event. Comedians spend a bunch of time preparing content so that it seems spontaneous when they perform it. In speed chess, when you don’t have time to think, the only thing that helps is prior experience. To quote Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Is Art Irrational?

Anti-rationalists often point to art, implying that to be rational is to see art as pointless. Art is indeed a more subjective experience, but is it totally subjective? Many great artists and novelists created works that expressed the style or discontent of their times. In the same way I see history as useful because it provides us with a context with which to view the modern world and the future, I see art as useful to see not just the time period of the artist, but also the lives of the artists themselves. To say “art is subjective” and end discussion with that is a very naive move that shows either a shallow understanding of art or a participation card in the “all truth is subjective” movement.

I can have rational discussions of art, novels, films, TV shows, video games, etc. When you want another’s opinion on a new painting from a famous artist and you have artist friends, who do you consult? Do you go on the streets and find a hobo or crack dealer and ask him about the art? Do you ask your favorite 6-year old relative? Do you consult a physics professor? No, probably not. Even though “art is subjective” and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you go to the fellow artist or art critic to hear their professional, trained opinion. If the art critic’s opinion is worth more than that of the average person, then there must be some part of art that is objective. If you met someone at a formal event who said, “I hate the Mona Lisa, it’s a terrible piece of art!” you would probably think this person is uncultured and has an inferior art opinion despite your belief that art is subjective.

Ordinary Faith vs Religious Faith

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.

Conclusion

This article wasn’t really written in a way that lends to a conclusion, but given the length, I find it nonetheless necessary to include a “Conclusion” section. The post was much longer than I expected (around 2900 words), but I think I gained a more organized view of these ideas. The topic is, of course, open to rational debate.

An Atheist’s View on Religion

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In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts on particular aspects of atheism and religion, but so far there are none that have laid out my views at a glance. So this is an open, informal post designed to do just that.

  • Identification: Agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). (Though typically, the word “agnostic” can be used differently to describe someone who is “between” theism and atheism.)Agnostic_chart
  • Burden of proof: Those believing in a god must prove so. “I can’t prove the planet Kolob doesn’t exist, therefore I must accept Mormonism,” is a ridiculous statement, as is “I can’t prove fairies don’t exist, therefore fairies exist.” Equally ridiculous is, “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”
  • Religion (general): Antitheism with respect to societal impacts. I think the harms outweigh the benefits. This is the primary reason I even post about religion in the first place.
  • Religion (specific): Islam is arguably worse than Christianity, as it justifies and is actively used to justify many violent actions. On the other hand, I don’t really consider Judaism to be a religion: 68% believe you can be Jewish and not believe in God. (I am probably biased in these views, as nearly every Jew I know is a secular Jew, whereas I know otherwise rational Christians who believe steadfastly in creationism.)
  • Religious people: With respect to individuals, I don’t treat religious people differently, since I don’t think it is their fault they were indoctrinated in a particular religion. I think the very devout are misguided rather than evil people, as I believe they are genuinely doing what they think is right. When someone does something terrible in the name of religion, my instinctive response is never “What a bad person!”, but more often along the lines of “Who brainwashed them into believing that!?” I would go so far as to say that the 9/11 hijackers, as well as all those Americans who perished, were victims of Islam, and that the truly bad people were the ones setting it up from behind the scenes. And, for example, I think the correct response to the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year should have been to consider conducting an objective criticism of Islam, but instead, we are too politically correct to do so, thus not helping to stop another such event from happening.
  • Fundamentalists vs. moderates: I don’t hold fundamentalists more accountable than moderates. Here is a link to my main post on this topic.
  • Activism vs passiveness: I think atheists do need to speak up, even at the cost of being perceived as “rude” or “angry.” So far, the main criticism of the “new atheism movement” is that it is rude and angry, not of the actual contents or messages of the movement. Here is the TED talk in which Richard Dawkins introduces this (30 min video):
  • Religion and science: The two are incompatible at the fundamental level—one teaches to not question anything, and the other to question everything.
  • Afterlife, ghosts, ESP, witches, UFOsreincarnation, etc.: No.
  • Morality: Just as a good law code is very complex, accounting for fringe cases and how to deal with ambiguous situations, so must a good moral code. A moral code simply stated in rules of “Do not X” is doomed to failure, especially if the rules are ambiguous, symbolic, self-contradictory, loophole-ridden, and cherry-picked to serve self interests. Here is a previous post on a better moral code, roughly utilitarian. In addition, with respect to large-scale views on morality, I agree with Sam Harris‘s criticism of “multiculturalism.”
  • LGBT rights, women’s rights, right to choose, feminism, universal education, universal healthcare, etc.: Greatly in support. It’s sad when one of the leading stories yesterday was that Saudi Arabian women were protesting a ban that prevented them from… driving. And when you think about the root cause of the opposition to these factors, you start to see a clear pattern with religion. I see all these issues as religious issues, and I don’t want society to fight the same battle many times, which is why I am also in favor of more vocal disagreement with religion. But of course, that would considered offensive, and the status quo is to care about the unjustified sensitivities of a religious group over the civil rights of millions.
  • Political views (on social issues): Liberal, as shown above.
  • What needs to be done: I have an outline for this but it can easily form a new post.

I’m sure there are missing things in this profile, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. I look forward to answering them.

Edit: Received a question on the religion and science compatibility. I agree that I have not quite expanded on the topic as much as the others, and I may write more about this in the future.

Edit 2: Here is the science and religion compatibility post.

No Deal

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There is an opinion article that appeared on CNN yesterday titled “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal.” It sounded like an innocent enough title, and I clicked it, hoping to gain some fresh, calm insight into the modern-day religious situation. Overall I had high hopes as CNN has had some interesting religion stories in the past (such as this one from last week), but also some disappointing ones (such as this one, which I criticized).

In “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal,” the author Rachel Evans uses the classic “just as bad” argument (which I wrote a post on here) in trying to make a silence deal: atheists stop criticizing Christianity based on its fundamentalist leaders and Christians stop criticizing atheism based on its own “fundamentalist” leaders.

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(Image source unknown.)

Now of course, Evans spends three paragraphs bashing Dawkins and atheism before even getting to the deal:

Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children experienced in the 1950s “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”

This comes after an August tweet in which Dawkins declared that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.

At least Evans does not jump on the bandwagon of saying that Dawkins actually defended mild pedophilia (props to her). In fact, Dawkins acknowledges the misinterpretation. But it is still interesting that Evans quotes the phrase “saying that… didn’t cause any lasting harm” as if Dawkins was attempting to make an authoritative statement. With a couple of surrounding sentences:

As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.

This clearly shows that Dawkins is giving an opinion, and presumably knows the others he speaks of are in a relatively well-off condition.

However, the main point that seems to be missed was the question of whether one should judge someone’s actions according to modern day standards. Dawkins considered it to be not as bad (but still bad, obviously) in the 1950s as it is today, when now we know so much more about the harmful effects that it causes. For another example, we would probably consider Thomas Jefferson to be more moral than the leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church, but Jefferson owned slaves, while none of the WBC own slaves. If anyone wants to discuss this I’d be happy to indulge, but this is getting really far from the topic. Anyways…

In the second paragraph, Evans mentions a post by Dawkins which is factually true. Yet she uses the word “declares” as if Dawkins just made it up to anger Muslims.

The third paragraph is just further painting Dawkins as a target, and then says, “I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.” I appreciate Evans’ rhetoric, cleverly overloading words/phrases with positive connotations on one side (“fellow,” “Christians,” “seize the opportunity”, “rail against” [in the context of attacking unjustice]), and then putting “evils of atheism” on the other side. This makes good writing, but it is hardly an impartial view. The bias induced by these paragraphs then set the stage for the terrible deal to come.

In the next three paragraphs, she gets to the deal:

As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it.

I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.

So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?

Again, she is attempting to play the fair mediator position by appearing to treat the two sides equally. Perhaps she genuinely believes this is a fair comparison, and if so, I admire her willingness to bridge the gap.

However, atheist “fundamentalism” is incomparable to religious fundamentalism. We should attack religious fundamentalism because it holds outdated, unchanging, unyielding views on social and moral issues (LGBT rights being the most prominent current issue in America), and because their views actually affect public policy, and they attempt to deny rights and liberties to millions of Americans. And this is Christian fundamentalism we’re talking about: fortunately, very few people are being killed. Religious fundamentalism in the Islamic variety would be much worse.

Atheist “fundamentalism” is quite different in that, even if you take Dawkins, Harris, etc. to be the “fundamentalists,” the main message is to question everything, even their own views. This is hardly fundamentalism, any more than not putting up with intolerance is in itself intolerance.

Next:

Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.

(Believe me. There are plenty of Christians who raise hell every time Robertson says something homophobic or a celebrity pastor somewhere says something misogynistic.)

Again, the situation is asymmetric. The Bible is filled with hateful rhetoric, and it is somewhat up to moderate religious folks and atheists to called out when fundamentalists quote these passages. Some passages literally say to kill gays or atheists. At best, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” implies all atheists are fools. On the other hand, Dawkins uses logical arguments to counter some statements held sacredly by theists, and this is considered to be offensive. No matter what measure of morality you use, it is clear that debating someone and challenging their beliefs is not equally as bad as labeling an entire group of people as fools or holding sacred a book that says to kill many different groups of people.

This brings me to the following point: It sure took a lot of effort to find that quote by Dawkins, and even if fully misinterpreted, it would not even be that bad (e.g. in terms of body count). On the other hand, one can easily find hundreds of far worse examples in the Bible or in the writings/speeches of fundamentalists that require no verbal gymnastics to parse. This yet again demonstrates the imbalance of the deal.

Skipping ahead a bit:

Only then can we avoid these shallow ad hominem attacks and instead engage in substantive debates that bring our true differences and our true commonalities to light.

It’s harder to go this route, and it takes more work and patience, but I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

Yet again, this runs into an asymmetry that makes the deal sound poetic but doesn’t change the fact that it is nonsense. The second sentence really disturbs me:

…I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

When you have a Bible that you know is the truth, isn’t your search for “truth” just to validate the Bible? On the other hand, when you use the scientific method and question everything along the way, there is no ultimate truth you know ahead of time that you are trying to validate. There is a difference between actually searching for truth and cherry-picking evidence to support something you think ought to be true.

Skipping forward a bit more:

And I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.

Again, this is a comparison of apples and oranges. When Pat Robertson says something about homosexuality, for instance, I have no doubt that a vast number of Christians actually disagree with the content of what he says. However, when Dawkins tweets something questionable on Twitter, it is invariably because some people don’t understand the post, don’t get sarcasm, or don’t know of the previous tweet that the current one is referring to. (And yes, I think Twitter is a terrible medium for debating religion, as demonstrated by this.)

Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.

So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.

Here’s something I can agree with. (I still think the phrase “who has the most ‘crazies'” is comparing incomparable things, but I’ll let this slide.) However, I think there is still a huge gap in what we consider to be proper ways to search for truth, and the reason for this gap is a deep difference in our worldviews that cannot be so easily solved by saying let’s talk about the truth.

Evans wrote a good article, but had a very biased vocabulary in a deal-making situation where she should have been more impartial. Also, even if the deal itself doesn’t seem very appealing, it is thought-provoking, and the overall idea is a good attempt at the problem.

No Deal

I think the proper response is to reject the deal, for several reasons:

  • It is hardly a fair deal, as without criticizing Christianity in itself, we cannot actually solve any of the root problems that fundamentalists continue to spread to the public and to political/social policy. On the other hand, the problem with the public image of atheist “fundamentalists” can be more simply solved by telling them to stop using Twitter, and instead stick to platforms where it is not as easy to misinterpret something, or some solution along those lines.
  • The deal assumes that fundamentalist atheism is just as bad as fundamentalist Christianity.
  • The deal doesn’t really solve the root problem; in fact, it only makes it worse by silencing voices in the debate.

A better deal would be for both sides to listen to what the other has to say, and debate the content itself, and not dismissing things just because they come from “fundamentalists” of either side.

(Edit: Hemant Mehta, aka. The Friendly Atheist, wrote a post on this CNN article today as well, also criticizing the false equivalence between atheist and religious fundamentalism. His article, which is quite interesting to read, is here.)