Archive for August, 2010

Sunday semi-sermon: Arguing with a theist

Appropriately enough, my “Arguing with theists” post has evolved into an argument in the comments. A fairly boring one, I’m afraid (Kalam cosmological argument, some flip-flopping on the merits of “materialistic” science, the usual stuff). I’m not posting this to invite people to join in (you’re welcome to, though to be honest I’d prefer if you didn’t, just to avoid confusion and overload), but because it’s one of the more interesting things that’s happened to me lately.

The other is that I finally got a job (woot!), so I’ve been pretty  busy with that, and tying up loose ends while I still have some free time. I’m not sure what will happen to this blog (or my main blog) after I’m working full-time (and maybe more — I also have a part-time gig lined up), but I guess it’ll be an adventure (that’s what my wife and I always say to each other when we’re about to try something that could be a total epic disaster).

(cartoon via Atheist Eve)

Theists I Admire: Mr. Cina

When I first started this blog, and was brainstorming for ideas that could be recurring themes that might help fill up space to keep up with the demand of regular posting (something that, quite frankly, has become more of a problem for me), I hit upon the notion of a recurring theme called “Theists I Admire,” wherein I might express my admiration and respect for people like Gandhi or MLK or Jesus, and show that there is room for mutual respect and admiration between atheists and theists. I never got around to doing any TIA entries, but I kept it in my “scratchpad” as an idea. Which brings me to Installment 1 of my “Theists I Admire” series:

I don’t remember his first name (maybe Henry?), but my 6th grade teacher, the last all-day teacher I had before junior high where I went from class to class, was Mr. Cina. I’ve had lots of good teachers, but when the phrase “best teacher ever” comes up, it’s Mr. Cina who first pops into my mind.

Mr. Cina was probably a creationist — I remember posters on the wall that appeared to be questioning evolution. He was probably a fundamentalist — I remember him asking me if I believed the Bible (I have no idea how the subject came up), and when I replied that I thought parts of it were true, he said, “you either believe all of the Bible or none of it,” which even then struck me as extremely flawed logic. But here’s the thing: Mr. Cina opened my mind like no one else before or since.

Perhaps a lot of it was just me reaching an age where I was questioning authority and stuff, but a lot of was his doing, and may have been connected to his fairly far-out views on things. He spent a great deal of class time going off on tangents about all sorts of things (telling us all the bad chemicals that were in potatoes is one I remember), and he encouraged us to look beneath the surface, and not to take things at face value just because they appeared a certain way (or because an authority told us they were a certain way).

I remember him telling us that there are things out there that people won’t tell us about, or can’t tell us about. And then the kicker: “There are things I’m not allowed to tell you about,” he said. In hindsight, he may well have been referring to his religious beliefs or some such thing, and it could have just been a thinly veiled kvetch about not being able to subject us to prolonged religious indoctrination. But at the time, that simple statement blew my tiny little 12-year-old mind. And it taught me to keep looking past what was in front of me, to see if there was something interesting behind it.

(Toles cartoon via The Big Picture)

Sunday Sermon: The Adams Homily

Things are turmoil-y here, so I think I’m going to turn my Sunday Sermon microphone to the late Douglas Adams (that’s him on the right, from an early appearance in a Monty Python sketch he wrote), in this interview with American Atheists.

This Adams interview is just so good, all the way through. Every time I go looking for a bit I can grab for an excerpt, my peripheral vision drifts to another part that’s just as good or better.

Probably the part that’s most relevant to today’s endless discussions of definitions (agnostic, “strong” or “weak” atheist) and handwringing about being “strident” is this:

I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly.

It’s interesting to see someone using the word “convinced” that way. I tend to think of it as a synonym for “certain” or “totally confident,” while his use seems to indicate a bit more wiggle room. Perhaps I’m misreading it, but he seems to be using “convinced” in the sense of having seen enough to form an opinion. I get the impression he would have said it’s reasonable for a person whose convinced X is true to later be convinced X is false, if more information comes to light. All the same, I think I’ll avoid using “convinced” to describe my own view, lest people jump to the same conclusion.

(pic via Python Wiki)

Arguing with theists

A Redditor posted some tips on “How to talk to theists” and it’s such an interesting mixture of (IMO) good and bad advice that I thought I’d take some time for a point-by-point discussion:

Watch your language!It’s easy to get heated over this topic. I know the two things that make me angry are religion and stupid people so you just have to control yourself for the good of the conversation.

Agreed. Dealing with monumental stupidity and/or willful ignorance can get you flustered, and with good reason. But getting flustered in an argument tends to make your opponent (and, more importantly, any onlookers) think you’re losing.

Learn the psychology of words – Context is everything, and an intelligent thought could be ignored just by the misuse of a single word. Like the word “believe”, this is a relative term. Instead of saying, “I don’t believe in god” say, “god does not exist and I simply acknowledge that fact.”

Yes, how we use words is important. And yes, talking about whether you “believe in God” implicitly endorses the framework in which “God” exists. But calling atheism a “fact” is asking for trouble, unless you can actually prove a negative. Personally, the way I phrase it is “I think (or “My best guess is”) that there aren’t any deities.” That makes it clear that I’m not an agnostic or weak atheist, but it also widens the scope to make clear that I’m not limiting the discussion to atheism vs. 1 specific religion (the better to avoid Pascal’s fallacy wherein one falsely assumes that Christianity and atheism are the only options).

Do the Research – If you know you’re going to get into an argument with someone you don’t see every day, be prepared. The best weapon we have is the collection of faith debunking material found on reddit and various books. I wish it was as simple as saying that there is no proof, but it’s not. It’s hard to come to terms with atheism if you are a theist, because you have to give up a lot of pleasant ideas in order to be freed from the stupidity.

Agreed, although I’m not as dismissive of the value of pointing out that there’s no proof (or evidence) for theism. I think it’s important to keep the burden of proof where it belongs — on the one who’s making the extraordinary claims, not the one who’s doubting them.

Don’t be overwhelming – If you don’t know someone’s religious background, ease out of the conversation. You don’t want to look like an insensitive jerk. God is the equivalent of an afterlife-santa. If you tell them god doesn’t exist, then they freak out because they won’t get their eternity of bliss wrapped with a fancy bow. If you don’t know the person well but you will be seeing them often, give them ideas to work with and pry at their own beliefs.

True, and interesting given the very next bit of advice:

The Double Tap – Right when they start to agree with what you say, make sure they understand it by giving them some additional material to reflect upon.

Like he said above, don’t be overwhelming. If you can get a theist to start agreeing with you, to start walking up the base of that mountain, don’t discourage them by showing them how much more mountain is left to climb. When people get the sense that they’re a little bit wrong, they can keep functioning. When they get the sense that they’re really, really wrong, they sometimes curl up in a ball and refuse to listen to any more, or they lash out like a cornered animal. Neither is constructive for a debate (although head-exploding meltdowns can be fun to watch).

Don’t Use Religious Terms – “God, that was an awful movie.” I know I have a habit of saying these phrases. I feel like a jerk when I don’t bless someone when they sneeze. Saying these colloquial phrases hinders your credibility with the subject. If you talk about spirits, or keep talking about god even out of context, it will make you look like a walking contradiction. It’s so engraved in our brains, for some of us, that this is probably the hardest rule to follow.

I totally disagree, and don’t see how this would have any effect on an argument with a theist in the first place. If anything, using those terms helps cushion the blow by showing the theist that he doesn’t have to stop saying “oh my God” when something’s freaky, or “bless you” when someone sneezes, and also shows the theist that a lot of “God talk” isn’t really God-oriented at all.

(pic via Fleasnobbery)

Sunday Sermon: Science and “spirit”

So, another atheist has added his voice to the chorus of complaint about “strident atheists” who thwart the quest to “literally rise above” the conflict between science and religion.

Astrophysicist Adam Franks writes that we need “a language for reimagining culture,” but one that includes the words “spirit” and “sacred.” He seems to be suggesting that we should pay some sort of homage to the “God of the gaps,” rather than merely acknowledging gaps:

“We do not yet have the language to express ourselves when we seek to both honor the practices of science and the experience of life justly called sacred.  We do not yet have a vocabulary that can acknowledge science and its ethic of investigation as a bulwark against prejudice and bias while simultaneously acknowledging the existence of other “ways of knowing” beyond the deployment of reason and empirical investigation.”

He also seems to think that an idea’s persistence implies some merit: “Can we see what is best in existing traditions and ask why they remain inspiring?”

Sure, but what if the answer is that science remains inspiring because it works really well at getting us closer to truth, while religion remains inspiring because it’s really good at giving people answers they find comforting, while frightening people who would otherwise reject it as utter folly?

(pic via Vampire Freaks)


Sorry for the lack of updates, but I’ve been on a hastily arranged vacation to visit my wife’s family in Canada before I report in for my new job (!!!). I’ll try to post something in the next few days after I get settled back in (currently in Mass., headed to Jersey City tomorrow to get my ID badge, and then I’ll wait for my first assignment).