Is Religion an Identity or an Idea?

I’ve been thinking about why conversations about religion between atheists and believers often go south: why they often feel so loaded, so heated, so personal. I think I have a partial answer, and I want to run it by y’all.

For most atheists, religion is an idea. It’s a hypothesis, a truth claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is. It’s the claim that the world works the way it does, in part, because of invisible supernatural entities or forces acting on the world. It’s not a very good hypothesis — in many cases, it’s entirely unfalsifiable, which makes it pretty much useless, and in the cases where it is falsifiable it’s been pretty soundly falsified — but it’s still a hypothesis.

But for many believers, religion is an identity. They see it as a central part of who they are: like race, or gender, or sexual identity. They don’t see themselves as having, say, Catholic or Baptist or Muslim ideas about how the world works. They see themselves as Catholic or Baptist or Muslim.

So when atheists criticize the idea of religion — either the specific ideas of a specific religion, or the idea of religion generally — the believers take it personally. They don’t see it as a critique of an idea they hold which may or may not be correct. They experience it as a personal attack.

So what can atheists do about it?

Unsurprisingly, I happen to think that atheists are right about this. Religion is an idea. I mean, of course there are elements to it that has to do with culture and family and history and so on. But that’s not unique to religion. There are plenty of cultural and familial and historical traditions that have jack to do with religion. What makes religion unique — what sets it apart from all other cultural and familial and historical traditions, from all other philosophies and ideologies and so on — is the hypothesis that supernatural beings or forces act on the natural world. Without this idea, it’s not religion.

And while there’s obviously an element of religion that has to do with culture and family and history and so on, the identity can be separated from the idea. Look at the phenomenon of secular Jews, or secular Catholics. It’s entirely possible for these folks to keep their identity — their association with a cultural and familial tradition — while thoroughly and cheerfully shedding the hypothesis, the actual belief in supernatural beings.

So I think atheists are right about this. Religion is not an identity. Or rather, it’s only tangentially an identity. Religion is an idea.

But the fact that many believers see religion as an identity makes it harder for atheists to talk with them about it. They see their religion the way many gay people see being gay, or the way many black people see being black — as a core part of their being. And so they often treat any criticism of their beliefs, or even any questioning of it, as an insult, even a personal attack, to this central part of who they are.

So what can we do about that?

I have a couple of ideas about this — but I’m very much thinking this one out loud, and would welcome any new ideas I might not have thought of.

First: I think we need to keep hammering on the idea. We need to keep criticizing it, and criticizing it, and criticizing it.

A big part of what makes religion flourish is the special treatment it gets. The idea that religion is special and should be treated differently from other human ideas and activities is a ridiculously common one. It’s common to think that its leaders deserve special deference, that its holy places and relics should be treated with reverence, that people who are unusually religious must also be unusually virtuous, that it’s inherently rude or bigoted to criticize it. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In an armored tank.

So criticizing religion doesn’t just have the effect of sometimes persuading people out of it. It also has the effect of repositioning religion as just another idea. It has the effect of treating religion the same way we treat ideas about politics, science, art, philosophy, medicine, ethics, social policy, etc. — namely, as fair game. Ideas that have to stand up on their own. Ideas that are only as good as the evidence and reason supporting them. Ideas that can be questioned and challenged and made fun of and blasted into shrapnel, just like any other. Criticizing religion doesn’t just expose religion as a singularly bad, entirely indefensible idea. It reframes it as an idea, period.

And that is a win for us. It’s a win for the obvious reason: because the idea sucks, and when it’s pulled out of the armored tank and forced to stand on its own, it folds like a house of cards in a hurricane. But it’s also a win because, if believers can see their beliefs as an idea rather than as an identity, they’ll cling to it less tightly, and they’ll take critiques of it less personally, and the conversations will be less likely to go south.

So if we want to shift the thinking about religion from “identity” to “idea,” we should hammer on the idea. What else can we do?

I think that when we do hammer on the idea, we need to be very careful, and very rigorous, about hammering the idea without insulting the people.

We need to be very careful to say, “That idea makes no rational sense” — and not say, “You’re irrational.” We need to be very careful to say, “That idea is entirely divorced from reality” — and not say, “You are entirely divorced from reality.” We need to be very careful to say, “That’s a ridiculous and stupid idea” — and not say, “You are ridiculous and stupid.”

For one thing — it’s not true. Okay, sometimes it is. Some religious believers are stupid. You know what? Some atheists are stupid, too. But many religious believers are, on the whole, intelligent and reasonable people in most areas of their lives. Yes, they hold a stupid idea. If holding a stupid idea made you not intelligent and reasonable, we’d all be idiots. The tendency to hang on to bad ideas we’ve committed to is a fundamental human trait, a central part of how our brain works. We all do it. Atheists, believers — all of us. It doesn’t make us stupid. It makes us human.

So we shouldn’t say all religious believers are stupid — because it’s not true. And it also doesn’t help. Specifically — and back to the point at hand — it reinforces the idea that religious belief is an identity. Which is exactly what we’re trying not to do. If someone has been taught that their Catholicism makes them special and virtuous, saying that their Catholicism makes them stupid and crazy reinforces the idea that Catholicism = them. Saying that they’re a smart person who’s holding onto a bad idea that they really ought to reconsider… that helps divorce the idea from their identity. Which helps make the arguments less ugly and divisive — and helps us win the arguments in the bargain.

There are some times when the “personal insult” tactic might be appropriate. Public figures, for instance, I think are fair game. And there are times when it’s just irresistible. When professor Stephen Prothero wrote in USA Today that the atheist movement needed more women because women are so much more sweet and diplomatic, there was no way I could keep myself from responding, “Suck my dick, you pompous windbag.” (Or, to be more precise: “Suck my dick, you pompous windbag. You think getting more women into the atheist movement means you won’t have to face a fight? Bring it on. You smug, patronizing, cowardly, sexist prick.”) When it comes to public confrontations with public figures, a nice bit of creative invective can be bracing, a surgical scalpel cutting through the bafflegab and the treacle. But I think we need to use it very judiciously. And in conversations with non-public figures, in conversations with our friends and family and colleagues and community, I think it’s almost never useful.

Now, even if we are being careful and rigorous about critiquing ideas and not insulting people, believers won’t always notice. Again — the whole problem here is that many believers have a hard time separating the idea from the identity, and they reflexively treat critiques of the former as attacks on the latter.

But when we can rightly say, “Actually, I didn’t insult you — I insulted your idea”? When we can point out that, as harsh as we were about their silly ideas, we never once accused them of personally being silly? When we can point out that, just last week, we had a debate about tax policy or low-carb diets or whether Mondo should have won Season 8 of Project Runway, and they didn’t take our disagreement with their position as a personal attack on their basic nature and the core of their being… and we’re now treating their religion exactly the same way?

That, again, helps re-position religion, away from being an identity, and into being an idea.

And that, again, helps make the arguments less ugly, less divisive… and a whole lot more winnable.

For the record, I don’t think this “identity versus idea” thing is the only reason conversations about religion between atheists and believers often go south. I think the idea of religion itself is one that many believers are very attached to. The idea that there’s a perfect being out there who’s always paying attention to us and always loves us; the idea that our lives are part of some larger purpose, and that the fucked-up bits are part of a bigger plan that’s all going to work out in the end; the idea that death isn’t real — these ideas are very appealing to a lot of people. A lot of people don’t want to be persuaded out of them, and hang onto them very stubbornly. Shifting religion away from being an identity and into being an idea is not, by itself, going to make religion go away, or make the conversations about it go smoothly.

But I think it will help. And in the long run, I think it will help a lot.

Is Religion an Identity or an Idea?
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67 thoughts on “Is Religion an Identity or an Idea?

  1. 1

    While I agree with your basic argument, I don’t think you can support the distinction between identity and idea you are trying to make. “Identity” as a concept does not only contain characteristics intrinsic to a being, it also contains things which are chosen. Even concepts like race and gender aren’t truly intrinsic, since they are social constructs that we can individually challenge. About the only meaningful identities you could have under such a restrictive formulation are sex (not gender) and sexual orientation, since those are pretty much the only two inherent characteristics we have. Race/ethnicity/gender are all hybrids, since we are born/socialized into those identities but can reject them (to some extent). Religion is simply one of the many identities that we can have which is completely a matter of choice if we understand we have such a choice.

  2. 2

    I’ve encountered this more than once.

    It depends on how you define “identity.” Of course, in most cases religion is chosen. In that sense, it need not be a part of one’s identity. But once someone accepts it as part of who they are, it is very difficult to reorient their thinking towards it. Attacking their cherished beliefs is tantamount to attacking them.

    First and foremost, we need to maintain a disciplined tone and in online conversations where tone is difficult to gauge at times, I suggest peppering one’s diatribes with disclaimers. For example, “Please remember that while I disagree with your beliefs, I am not making personal attacks.” Annoying, yes, but also very useful in keeping things civil and constructive. Our mantra could be: It’s not the believer, it’s the belief.

    Also, we need to disengage from people who do not answer our questions, but respond with the stock phrases and arguments we are already used to hearing. Such individuals react emotionally and will not respond to reason. Their belief is motivated by emotion and reason will not budge it.

  3. 3

    Excellent post Greta, longtime reader…first time commenting.

    And while there’s obviously an element of religion that has to do with culture and family and history and so on, the identity can be separated from the idea. Look at the phenomenon of secular Jews, or secular Catholics. It’s entirely possible for these folks to keep their identity — their association with a cultural and familial tradition — while thoroughly and cheerfully shedding the hypothesis, the actual belief in supernatural beings

    In my research I’ve found…and goes in line with sociological literature, that the “belonging” or religious identity is the last shred of religiosity that people leave and thus it is not rare to find secular Jews or Catholics (I did consider myself a secular Catholic for a while during my college years. Most people are born into a religion and breaking up with the belief, which can be done through reason but they still feel some attachment to the community. As a Latino, surrounded by religious people I know how hard it is to reach out or discuss religion because it is part of their identity. In fact, I’ve been involved in many discussions online regarding the importance of religion (specifically Catholicism) as a marker of “Latinoness.”

  4. 4

    Religion is neither “an identity” or “an idea”. Each religion is a complex set of practices, beliefs, identities, communities, etc. It’s the wrong fight to have to try to convince people it is not an identity. Ideas can be the sources of identity.

    If you are gay or bisexual, you would never tolerate a religious believer telling you that homosexuality is just a behavior and has nothing to do with identity. Sexual orientation, in our cultural milieu, plays a massive psychological role in structuring a person’s sense of self, how they order their life projects related to some key areas of human life, etc. Anyone who just wants to tell you to “rethink your behavior because it can be changed” is not going to be persuasive to you.

    Sure, we need to get religious believers to rethink religious ideas but that does not mean disrespecting as “merely tangential” the fact that religion plays a massive psychological and communal role in structuring their senses of who they are. It’s especially hypocritical if we do this as, what I call “identity-atheists”—those of us who make being an atheist an important part of our lives, one which we have to even “come out” to others about and orient various projects around.

    We need to respect the existence of religious identities and appreciate that religions function on many non-cognitive levels providing many non-cognitive goods (even some we may develop affection for) and that it does all this parallel to the ideas that we want to rightly criticize and dissuade them of.

    The key is to learn to appreciate that the identity part of religion can be seen, ignored or admired, as basically benign and strictly cultural, even as various of the practices and ideas can be seen as distinctively immoral or distinctively irrational and be our targets for criticism.

  5. 5

    Mind you, I’m not suggesting we shy away from explaining the folly of Pascal’s Wager when believers bring them up. I am suggesting that we need to consider that we might be wasting our time on some people who respond emotionally rather than offering real responses to our skepticism.

  6. 6

    I don’t think I can argue with any of the above, except to point out that “armored tank” is rather redundant: a tank is by definition a tracked armored vehicle.

  7. 7

    Just so. It takes a bit of prodding to get someone to see the parts of their identity that they’ve chosen (and therefore have the option to choose another) separate from the rest. For those we like and love, we must proceed more carefully, but the discussion is worth having. A good place to begin is not by our disagreeing with them, but helping them question the discordance in their own beliefs; ask them to explain it to you. Many an atheist began by seriously reading the Bible…

  8. 8

    I’m not sure the separation between ideas and identity can be made so clear cut. It seems to me that everyone’s identity is premised on certain ideas or beliefs. If we try to separate the ideas in our head from our identity, what’s left? Honestly, I see nothing left on which to hang “identity” at that point. Some might say our actions define us, and not our thoughts, but we act based on what we think, so I don’t see that working very well either.

    True, not all ideas or beliefs are core parts of identity. Believing that bicyclists on the road are in more danger of collision than those on the sidewalk was not difficult to let go of when I saw the stats, because I didn’t hold it as a core part of my identity. Similarly, I could make the shift from pro-life to pro-choice 10-12 years ago, because that stance wasn’t a core part of my identity. But in both cases, if my belief that evidence and reason were valuable and could answer the questions had been questioned, that idea would be more difficult to let go of, and would receive a lot of pushback, since that idea is a core part of my identity. Take that out, and I’m no longer me, not even an altered version of me. I’m someone else entirely that just happens to look the same.

    So, I completely agree that we need to keep hammering the idea, because the idea is wrong. Religion, for many, is the idea that lets them make sense of the world, that tells them how they fit into the world. We can, and should, strive to change that idea (at least in the aggregate), but I think we must also accept that we are attacking identity at the same time–and that it’s impossible to do otherwise.

  9. 9

    I believe that religious belief and identity are imprinted on people from birth by their parents and religious community (thus you are right to call it an identity) but just as with birds who imprint on a non-avian parent, or dogs that live with (and guard) sheep and believe themselves sheep, religious believers have had their persuasion burned into their minds, and most believe it an inherent aspect of themselves not to be questioned (e.g.: “I am Methodist!”). For that reason I think religious indoctrination of the young is a form of child abuse akin to denying a child a language, raising them to hate an absent parent, sexually abusing them, or leaving them to be raised by wolves.

  10. 10

    Hi Greta,
    Somewhere there is a video, and, I apologize, I don’t have the link handy, on this subject. The idea is that people see god as a being so much like themselves that when you reject god, you are rejecting them personally. This makes sense to me. What do you think?

  11. 11

    I think that for many believers, religion is less a personal identity and more an affiliation with a specific in-group and acceptance of certain authorities.

    I agree with you that believers don’t tend to see it as an idea. Most even seem to believe *that* they should believe more than *what* they should believe. Like, they claim to believe in the bible even if they’ve never read it.

  12. 12

    I think that this way of framing things is right in general, but a bit misleading in the details.

    For one, religion really does function as an identity similar to an ethnic identity sometimes. One case where this is clear is in conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Of course, these conflicts are often combined with conflicts over nationality or heritage, but the “core” of the identity in question is a religious one. There’s one group of people from one community, who grew up in that community going to a particular church, with particular rites, and with certain markers of in-group solidarity. And there are other groups from other communities, going to other churches and with different rites, and with different signalling about their group membership.

    Part of the fallout of this is the phenomenon of “cultural” or “non-practicing” Catholics, who don’t really believe the official doctrines, being either more moderate Christians, or having vaguer or even more atheistic beliefs, and yet who consider themselves still attached to Catholicism in some important way.

    And I think that this is one reason why, when we criticize Catholicism, we need to do so based on the corruption of the Catholic Church, and on the absurd or unethical nature of the official doctrines, which after all don’t just represent corruption, but represent the behavior that the church actually thinks is ideal. For the average Catholic, the relevant question might not be “Why do you believe such terrible things?” but rather, “Given that you have noble intentions, how can you support an organization that says and does such terrible things without objecting?” Catholics, “cultural” or otherwise, have the power to either stop supporting the Church and its allied organizations, or else to try to work to effect change within those organizations. They bear the burden of the Church’s misdeeds if, and only if, they do neither.

    All that said, I think that you are right that the conception of religion-as-identity is ultimately wrong. One of the big problems with categorizing people into different social groups is that we tend to “essentialize” those identities. We look at Mormons from Utah and we think of them as sharing certain traits that compose the “essence” of being a Mormon, and we see those traits as an unchanging aspect of their inherent identity.

    Of course, that’s not remotely accurate. Mormons differ both in personality and in how seriously they take different doctrines. The Church of LDS also changes over time, as opposed to adhering to an eternal and unchanging dogma (even though they like to pretend that the dogma at any given time is always the eternal, 100% true one). And of course people convert to and from Mormonism all the time, regardless of what religion (or region!) they were raised in.

    Giving up this essentialization of religious identity is beneficial to religious groups that are trying to avoid being stereotyped. But it’s also important from the perspective of anti-theists, who are trying to promote the idea that religious beliefs are inherently harmful. If being religious is how people “just are”, then we are being mean for attacking that identity. If being religious is no more an inherent, unchanging quality of a particular person than their political beliefs, or their knowledge of science and history, then we can legitimately propose that people should, normatively, hold to certain beliefs and eschew others.

    One problem here is that groups sometimes essentialize themselves, as a defense mechanism to avoid criticism. One example is how LGBT groups have embraced language about being “born this way” or just “who we are”. This might in fact be factually true, at least in a number of cases where biology is the major factor in determining someone’s sexuality. And this is a useful counter against the more absurd notion that people just choose a sexual orientation or gender identity purely in order to conform with cultural fads. It’s also useful in order to pick out certain groups of people who have been mistreated by others, and to point out the unfairness in this mistreatment (which seems even more unfair if the group is defined by a completely unchosen feature).

    Nonetheless, from a philosophical perspective, this is answering the wrong question. The questions that really divide people are those about which actions are morally wrong. Whether the drives behind those actions are prompted by genetics, non-genetic biology, non-biological environment, an interaction of all those things, or some abstract “choice” is irrelevant. Even if every last gay person chose to act gay, and did so for unique, personal, idiosyncratic reasons, I would not consider it worthy of moral condemnation. To see such a quality as part of someone’s inherent identity may be correct, but it’s also irrelevant to the question of what rights such people should have.

    In the end, we don’t want to settle for convincing people that we are stuck with our sexuality. We want to convince them that they are wrong for seeing it as worthy of moral condemnation in the first place, regardless of whether or not we can “help it”.

    Conversely, I think that it might be at least partially accurate to see religion as being more about “identity” than “idea” for some people. But it is definitely not the case that religion is an inherent, fixed quality of a human being. And the exact balance of idea to identity is irrelevant when you ask about whether the identity/idea in question is actually a good thing. Religion can be condemned as contributing to delusion and unethical behavior, regardless of how central the ideas in question are to some people’s lives.

    Being a schizophrenic, to a much greater degree than being religious, and possibly to the same extent as being gay, seems an inherent and incurable quality of a person. But it does not follow that we should support everything an untreated schizophrenic does as just an expression of their inherent identity.

    Religion is not quite so bad as hearing voices (except when it actually does involve hearing voices), but given that people give it up as a bad habit all the time, it makes no sense to just say that people should be left with their religion because that’s just “how they are”. People may not choose what to believe, but they have a moral obligation to think about their beliefs from an objective standpoint, because that’s the only way to consider other people’s interests. It’s only by reasoning about our beliefs that we can correct inaccurate ideas, ideas that might otherwise lead us to unwittingly hurt others. That religion interferes with this consideration makes it a serious vice, and one that we should be willing to help people give up.

  13. 13

    That was kind of ranty and disorganized in retrospect. Here’s the TL;DR:

    “Essentializing” a socially constructed identity is inaccurate. Whether or not an identity can be changed should affect how we think and moralize about it, but maybe not our opinions about whether or not the identity in question is good overall. But especially for a changeable identity like religious affiliation, the mere fact that the religion is an identity shouldn’t be a shield against criticism, since the identity itself can both cause and be caused by ethically suspect behavior.

    Identities are only worthy of protection when they lack ethically suspect content (race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and gender identity, age, sexual orientation), or when attacks on the identity are untargeted or disproportionate (e.g. it would be immoral to react to scandals in the Catholic Church through legal discrimination or vigilante violence against Catholics, or to protest corruption in government by blowing up random government buildings).

  14. 14

    In my experience, being intelligent doesn’t guarantee you aren’t stupid, it just makes it less likely. What makes a person stupid if not having stupid ideas? What makes them silly, other than saying and doing silly things? The difference between saying “you are stupid” and “your ideas about how the world works are stupid” is just the difference between an implicit and an explicit insult. By criticizing a person’s stupid ideas we are implying their stupidity. If these people really are as intelligent as you claim, they will be able to make the inference and it will makes no difference in how we are revived.

    It might make it worse – if all our insults are underhanded implications we will appear passive-aggressive. I don’t know about you, but passive-aggressive arguments are what drives me crazy about “moderate” believers.

  15. HP

    I think it’s harder than you indicate to separate the ideas from the identities. Religious ideas are crazy on purpose. That is, functionally speaking, if you want to forge an identity — to separate “Us” from “Them” — using ideas, you can’t do that with an obviously sane observation.

    “Sunlight is warm” or “the sky is blue” are lousy ideas if your goal is to establish an identity, because those ideas are obvious and accessible to everyone. But “the Sky is an intangible Person who has formed a unique pact with us” is really useful, if your goal, for example, is to convince a bunch of quarrelsome nomadic tribes to settle down and live together as permanent agriculturalists.

    And in religions today, you can see a spectrum of crazy ideas from “a wee bit fuzzy-headed” to “full-on batshit loony.” And the crazier the ideas are, the stronger the sense of identity. Really truly batshit crazy ideas also have the affect of turning adherents into martyrs, which is a bonus as far as those in authority are concerned.

    I think that, no matter how carefully you construct your criticisms, if you attack a religionist’s ideas, it is an attack on their identity as well.

    This is particularly true of Protestantism, and especially American Protestantism, where religion is defined solely in terms of belief (call it “John 3:16ism”). In Judaism (and to a lesser extent, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), there’s a significant religious role for rituals, duties, and other devotional praxes, which leaves more room for secularization.

  16. Ian

    I’ve seen this exact thing occur with politics as well. Someone who identifies as, say, a conservative or liberal (or even a particular political party) can be infuriating to argue with as a result, all because they take any criticism of their ideas as a direct personal attack.

  17. 17

    One thing that springs to mind is the bit at the end of Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, when she comes out as an atheist to her parents, and her mother is aghast, saying “It’s one thing to not believe in God. But an atheist?!”

    It’s funny to us because we recognize that those are just two ways of saying the same thing. It’d be like saying “It’s bad enough that Obama won the election; but how dare he act as though he’s president?”

    But in Sweeney’s mother’s mind, clearly the two are different. “I don’t believe in God” means “I disagree with this idea”, while “I’m an atheist” means “I have abandoned Clan Catholic and run off to join Clan Atheist”.

  18. 18

    Yes, “identity” and “idea” can be separated.

    Identity is a complex of ideas that define an internal model (self) with an inherent/inevitable self-assessment. While others may share some aspects of another person’s identity, no two identities match precisely; further, identity evolves over time.

    By contrast, an idea may be realized by one person, may be shared with no-one at all or with any number of others; and, if Plato is to believed, ideas remain constant/invariable. (Example: A “chair” will always be a supported platform, conceived of primarily for sitting, with a back againast which to lean. This differs from all other seating devices which, therefore, are called by other names.)

    So while no two Christians (to select one religion as an eample) are the same, theological ideas from a specific sect of Christianity are the same amongst its practitioners — that is, until the idea is challenged, resulting in an evolution of those ideas amongst those who ‘break away’ from the original sect, which has – historically and contemporaneously – resulted in schisms… and sometimes accompanied by excommunication, massacre, founding of completely new religions, etc.

  19. 19

    I wonder what a world of secular religionists would look like.

    What if there were only secular Catholics, say? They show up to mass, they sing and eat crackers and tithe, and they adorn their homes, vehicles, and persons with torture porn…but they don’t believe in their three-part god, miracles, divinity, etc.

    How would we know the difference between a True Catholic ™ and a Secular Catholic at that point? They might not argue anymore. They might not vote in accordance with silly beliefs. They might not donate to every crackpot who can bend a knee at a pew or utter pious nonsense.

    But how would a secular Catholic know when to stop play-acting the role of a Catholic and start behaving as if being Catholic were nonsense?

    And what about the tithes? What’s a Secular Catholic Pope doing with it all? And how is he elected by the Funny Hat Council?

    I doubt that the Catholic Church (or any other religious order) could be made to resemble a tarted up version of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

    – emc

  20. 20

    I agree with a number of the other commenters here, I don’t think you can fully separate an idea from the person. If there is some idea, and I like it so much that I put great stock in it and organize my life around it, it really does become part of my identity. Then when you come along and say the idea is silly, nonsensical, or just plain wrong or stupid, it is implied that it is therefore silly, nonsensical, or just plain wrong or stupid to believe it. Which I have done in a very significant way.

    Not all ideas are like this. There are some ideas I hold that you can disagree with strongly that won’t produce so great a reaction from me, but arguably these ideas aren’t a part of my identity. I’m not sure how to make the distinction between these different classes of ideas, but I think those classes exist.

    But on the whole, I agree with your strategy on how to approach the problem. Even if attacking ideas means, at least indirectly, attacking a person, it needs to happen. There’s no promise that life is always a friendly happy place and you need to expect that occasionally what you personally think and believe is going to come under intense scrutiny.

    We should also be careful to distinguish between criticizing an idea and criticizing a person, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking there’s always a clear-cut distinction between the two. This reminds me of my days as a Mormon being told to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” That always rang false to me when I heard it, in large part because people do/say/believe things because it’s part of who they are and what they value (either by choice, socialization, or biology). Likewise, we can tell people we aren’t criticizing them when we criticize the idea of religion itself (and we can even really mean it), but don’t be surprised if they don’t see it that way.

  21. 21

    There’s a LOT to unpack here, both in the OP and the comments. The problem really is the privilege. That’s the danger that comes from religion, that tank that they drive right through our front door. Tackling that privilege is tough.

    One of the interesting things, when you talk to religious moderates is how often they jump between the secular view and the Theist view, and how fast they jump between ideas and identity. Religion both means everything and nothing at the same time. Likewise, if you start arguing about a literal, Theistic god, they’ll blame you for erecting strawmen, then talk about said theistic god 2 minutes later.

    But the only way to remove the privilege is to directly attack it. But if you do it, the person often will see it as an attack on them, even though you might not intend it that way. It’s similar if someone says to one of us, atheism means that you have no morals. We generally get offended at that sort of thing, and expecting the religious to not be offended at a similar statement is probably not realistic.

    So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place basically. So we make our case as best we can, we challenge the privilege, and try to not look too much like a jerk doing it. But in the end, we’re not trying to convince the person we’re talking to much less than the less committed individuals who might be listening.

  22. 22

    In my experience, if you force believers to acknowledge that religion is an actual idea with actual content instead of a belief system, and you point out that they don’t actually believe the content, there’s an even chance they’ll just retrench and defend the content they formerly would never have considered taking seriously. They’re that scared of losing the identity, and of breaking the number one taboo of religion- not having religion.

    Its why arguments about religious atrocities in the old testament never go well. By making believers aware of the actual content of their purported beliefs, you sometimes just pressure them into trying to actually believe that content, because they think they have to in order to be a good Christian. And the next thing you know, the otherwise decent person you genuinely respected is trying to explain to you why its not *really* rape to have sex with preteen girls captured in war.

  23. 23

    @Patrick: Christians shouldn’t be believing anything in the Old Testament (actually: Tanach, or Hebrew Bible), because the New Testament was supposed to be a set of supercessionist texts, intended to “out mode” and “replace” the Tanach. The minute any Christian starts quoting from the Tanach, I call them out on that…

  24. 24

    JayH- There’s a difference between supercessionist and actually eliminating the entire text. The idea of supercessionism is that the new testament “superseded” the old testament in terms of rules and regulations for the believer, not that the old testament never happened.

  25. 25

    @Patrick: It’s an inconsistent application. While the “history” is thought to be applicable, the rules were supposedly superseded.. except for certain rules they want to keep. Hence, Christians have to point to some “rules and regulations” in the so-called Old Testament because Jesus, the writers of the Gospel, and later Church officials didn’t think to include them in the so-called New Testament.

  26. 26

    I totally disagree that religion (or atheism) is ever chosen. Of course it is much a part of a person’s identity as anything else about them. That aspect aspect of their identity can change, though they cannot consciously change it. I was devout Christian for over 30 years. have been “devout” atheist for around 20 years. I chose neither.

  27. 28

    @Temy: So, you were a devout Christian, and you are now a devout atheist. I presume you CHOSE to be a devout atheist and/or CHOSE to abandon being a devout Christian? One, the other, or both must be true.

  28. 29

    Another mark missed. In general, people do not have enough self confidence to self identify. They must identify with some other group to feel validated. Very few individuals (when we consider society as a whole) have the ability to identify as separate and valid outside of society or some subgroup. Telling people that their deluded beliefs in religions is stupid is received as telling them they are stupid for identifying as they have because they have done as much as they can or know how or are willing to do to find a group they can comfortably belong to. If you remove that from them you DO remove their identity, or the only one that they have found comfort with so far etc.

    Always attack stupid ideas, but always primarily support humanity. You don’t ask a stranded motorist what their beliefs are before helping them change a flat tire. No, it’s not an easy tight rope to walk, but it is necessary that people not feel they are personally being attacked, but that the ideas they subscribed to are being attacked because they are failed and stupid. In order to do this it must be shown why a different world view is both valid and better. To do that often requires arguing some people into a corner where they cannot explain anything about what they believe or why. You have to make people see that what they think is right is not supportable by making them support it.

    Start putting out bumper stickers with nothing but this on it: Leviticus 25:44-54 – God commands it

    Make the believers own up to their beliefs. Push the insanity into their faces and make them explain their beliefs. Until they have to defend it they will pretend it does not need defending.

    Make them defend it. If Christians disown the old testament we can stop sending money to Israel, but they still have to explain why their christ did not denounce slavery. Push their bigotry in their faces. God hates fags, shellfish, gays, disobedient children, fornicators, those who work on the sabbath, non-jews, rape victims, women who speak out, those who worship other gods, those who worship idols, those who do not tithe, those who are not christian, those who tease prophets (fuck mohammed), and many other people who do not do exactly as the church and clerics tell them to do.

    How about this bumper sitcker:

    Failing school? Deuteronomy 21:18-21 should help

    Seriously, all that is needed is to hold their feet to the fire and make them defend their beliefs.

  29. 30

    Excellent post. I agree — if atheists are ever going to be accepted on common ground we need to do the unpopular thing and keep hammering not just on the idea that religion is false, but on the idea that religious belief is not, and should not be, an identity. When it comes right down to it, I think this is the assumption that’s hurting us the most: that belief in God is not a matter of reason, but of character. What “type” of person are you? One who responds to God (the source and expression of all meaning, life, and love)? Or … one who doesn’t (cue scary music)?

    The method of faith divides humanity by throwing out the common ground and importing in a strange new hierarchy. If you are the kind of person who chooses to believe, then you are categorically identifiable as one of God’s own. You’re wiser, more humble, more sensitive, more open to love and experience.

    Atheists must perforce be the opposite.

    I think we have to shift the ground of religion away from the high level of identity/character and bring it down to empirical analysis or we atheists are forever screwed.

    Someone in a group discussion on religion once defiantly told me that her faith defined her total being. I looked at her and said “Well …. cut it out.” It was such an unexpected response that the room laughed. I told her that if she changed her mind about God, she would still never change her mind about the importance of kindness, caring, beauty, and love — would she? She’d still be the same person. She’d still value nature. She’d still love her children. She’d still work for a better future, and appreciate the joys that she had. Wouldn’t she?

    Because if she told me she wouldn’t or couldn’t, then she was telling me that she couldn’t imagine that I could be anything like her — because I was an atheist. And I didn’t think she could think that. We share too much — like a belief that good things matter for their own sake, regardless of whether there’s a God or not.

    You do not die when you change your mind. You do not die when you change your religion, or become an atheist. We can’t acquiesce in the little ‘identity’ drama that tells them they pretty much will.

  30. 31

    Yeah, roughly the same opinion as Daniel @4, with the caveat that religion strongly integrates with your identity once “gotten”. I also strongly suspect this is by design — to make it harder to leave. It has the side effect of making it very hard to criticize religion without religious people becoming offended that you’re being so mean to them.

    My identity contains components of atheism and skepticism, but both are rooted in strong desires for the real truth. If I find evidence convincing enough for a particular religion (which I strongly doubt given the track record, but play along), then I’d be willing to convert. And it would be in keeping with my identity. If people ask me to tell them about myself, unlike some people who start off with “I’m a Christian” or “I’m a Jew” I’d say “I’m a computer nerd who likes video games and ranting on the blogosphere about idiots.”

  31. 32

    Jay @28:

    @Temy: So, you were a devout Christian, and you are now a devout atheist. I presume you CHOSE to be a devout atheist and/or CHOSE to abandon being a devout Christian? One, the other, or both must be true.

    Not speaking for Temy, but I don’t how choice has to enter into being an atheist, or abandoning Christianity. If your character is such that you simply cannot believe something that lacks good reason for belief, even if you desperately want it to be true, then is it really a choice to leave Christianity and become atheist (once the lack of evidence is pointed out to you, anyway)? I don’t see how it is.

    For example, I might desperately want to believe in an afterlife, since I really don’t want to cease existing (die), but I can’t choose to believe in an afterlife. My character is such I simply can’t believe, even if I try, in the absence of evidence. Similarly, if someone desperately wants life to have some sort of universal meaning, and for justice to prevail in the end, then they might want to believe in a religion that says that’s how it all works. But can they choose to believe it, if they have a skeptical character? They may try to fake it for a while, but I doubt they’ll actually believe.

  32. 33

    Greta, thanks for the thoughts. An excerpt from the beginning

    “For most atheists, religion is an idea. It’s a hypothesis, a truth claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is. It’s the claim that the world works the way it does, in part, because of invisible supernatural entities or forces acting on the world.”

    Science makes a distinction between physical and metaphysical, between Phenomena and Noumena. I see a lack of understanding of the metaphysical nature of “causes” in the thoughts you have made and most of the comments made by others.

    True there is no Man up in heaven sitting on a throne: An anthropomorphic God is an absurdity. True religion is full of insane rules made by men to control other:But your rejection of forces as you say “supernatural forces acting on the world” is also an absurdity.

    The forces that control matter are metaphysical, beyond the physical. The fact that the laws matter obey are mathematically precise bolstered Newton’s belief in a supernatural reality. Matter does not account for “mind”. You are not a physical being. It is interesting to note how many great men who did not believe in religious fairy tales believed in a supernatural reality…

    “It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without mediation of something else which is not matter, operate on and affect other matter without mutual contact. …
    Sir Isaac Newton

    The Universe begins to look more like a great thought than a machine. Sir James Jeans British Physicist

    I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
    — Max Planck

    It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware. Albert Einstein

    Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.
    R. Buckminster Fuller

  33. 34


    There is no diplomatic way to ask these, but I’m sincerely curious, and not trying to be hostile.

    I’ve seen a few posts by you, and your writing seems slightly disorganized and grandiose, very focused on connecting the dots and reading between the lines to find big, spiritual ideas.

    So my first question is: do you put together these posts completely on the spot, or do you get most of the ideas and quotes from some particular source (a book, movement, or website)?

    The second question, the one that I’m not sure can be asked nicely, is: Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder that effects the frontal lobe, such as schizophrenia, a traumatic brain injury or ADHD?

    I know that seems very forward, but the question is sincere. I am attention deficit and interested in the ways that people with different cognitive experiences think and communicate.

  34. 35

    Scott Ferguson #33 wrote:

    Science makes a distinction between physical and metaphysical, between Phenomena and Noumena.

    No it doesn’t. Science studies reality. None of its methods make any distinction, upfront, between physical and metaphysical, phenomena and noumena, or natural and supernatural. All you need are regularities that we humans can somehow experience.

    You’re arguing for a form of mind/body dualism and that’s a hypothesis that’s based on evidence — including the evidence of our intuition that “we are not physical beings.”

    Consider this question: if there were a huge number of good, strong, consistent studies demonstrating the existence of ESP, psychokenesis, past-life memories, precognition, out-of-body experiences, energy healing, and ghosts — would you be able to use this fact to SUPPORT your belief/conviction that matter does not account for mind? Would you then expect us to change our minds on this matter, given the evidence?

    Or do you think we ought to ignore and dismiss all these phenomena and learn nothing, because after all science can’t say anything about “metaphysics?”

    Stop kidding yourself. You’re making a testable claim about the nature of reality.

  35. 36

    @NathanDTS: Pretty basic logic if you ask me. Temy was raised Christian, and – as Temy observed, was “devout.” So, that Temy is now an atheist means there was a conscious decision to reject devout Christianity. But rejecting one religion does not equate to accepting atheism; after all, there a myriad other religions to choose. So, why choose atheism?

  36. 37

    @Scott: No ‘debating’ with you, as clearly you know everything… except that the so-called “metaphysical” cannot be tested by scientific method. So to grant anything “metaphysical” the status of “real” (i.e. “Science studies reality.”) means you are unaware of the limits of reality according to the practice and laws/theories of science.

  37. 38

    @Scott: One further point… You have “phenomena” and “noumena” mixed up. Please check the dictionary. Your long list (“ESP, psychokenesis, past-life memories, precognition, out-of-body experiences, energy healing, and ghosts”) are noumena, which are: “objects or events known, if at all, without the use of the senses.” (As opposed to phenomena which are “things that appear to, or are an object of, the senses.”)

  38. 39

    @JayH: As I said in my original comment, “I chose neither.” The illusion of choice in such things is extremely powerful in most people, but an illusion nonetheless. A person’s beliefs about something changes and then the brain informs you of this change and you immediately say, “I changed my mind” or “I made a choice”, when YOU had nothing to do with it and were only informed of the change after the fact. People do not have a right to believe whatever they want simply because no such capacity exists.

  39. 40

    Two points:

    Yes, some ideas about how the world works are very tightly woven with personal identities. I’m politically liberal and an atheist, and yes, these are incredibly important parts of my identity. But they are also ideas about how the world works, and most importantly, I can treat them as such.

    I can be an atheist, and even be very invested in that as a massive part of my identity, and still consciously view that part of my identity as an empirical conclusion about reality. There’s really no conflict.

    Secondly, I’ve actually had a fair bit of luck simply stating this bluntly to religious believers that I talk to. Next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with a religious person, try simply stating straight out that they seem to think of their belief as a matter of personal identity, rather than an idea about how the world works, and ask them if that’s accurate. Then explain that while atheism (or whatever strain of unbelief) is a part of your identity as well, you also consciously treat it as an idea, which it is, because it’s important to you to look at your ideas critically, and dismiss the ones that don’t hold up. You’d be surprised how often this breaks through that wall for me, helping along a more productive conversation.

  40. 41

    Greta, this seems to directly contradict what you told me here [emphasis mine]:

    But for at least some people at least some of the time, there is a real effect in the shock value/ wake-up call of being told that their ideas are fucking idiotic and that they are fucking idiots for thinking that way.

    Now I realize you said that this only works for some people. But your post above seems to emphatically state the negative effect that this sort of thing has on most humans (a claim with which I would tend to agree). As you’ve pointed out, the research on cognitive dissonance is relatively clear (I actually read “Mistakes Were Made” at your recommendation) – people usually hunker down and look for ways to defend their beliefs if attacked.

    Some scientific follow-up questions to ask would be: what percentage of people tend to benefit from being called fucking idiots? Why do these people benefit, and not others – what is it about their personalities that makes them this way? And perhaps most importantly, does an approach where only their *ideas* are attacked work for these people, as well?

    If the answer to the last question is “yes,” then I don’t see how there can be any defense at all for the type of vitriolic personal attacks you meant to defend in your aforelinked comment.

  41. 42


    Consider this question: if there were a huge number of good, strong, consistent studies demonstrating the existence of ESP, psychokenesis, past-life memories, precognition, out-of-body experiences, energy healing, and ghosts — would you be able to use this fact to SUPPORT your belief/conviction that matter does not account for mind? Would you then expect us to change our minds on this matter, given the evidence?


  42. 43

    @JayH Did you read my post? Check again. The quotes were from great men who happened to be scientists. No mention or long list of ESP etc.

    Your confusion stems from not understanding that the “laws” are noumena. They are not physical. The matter acted upon the “phenomena” is physical. Gravity cannot be sensed only its effect on matter. Gravity is a relation between and not in.

    How odd that a supposedly thinking man would discount the great thinkers of science?

    @Scott: One further point… You have “phenomena” and “noumena” mixed up. Please check the dictionary. Your long list (“ESP, psychokenesis, past-life memories, precognition, out-of-body experiences, energy healing, and ghosts”) are noumena, which are: “objects or events known, if at all, without the use of the senses.” (As opposed to phenomena which are “things that appear to, or are an object of, the senses.”)

  43. 44


    There is no diplomatic way to ask these, but I’m sincerely curious, and not trying to be hostile.

    I’ve seen a few posts by you, and your writing seems slightly disorganized and grandiose, very focused on connecting the dots and reading between the lines to find big, spiritual ideas.

    As Thomas Jefferson said ( I love the guy!) “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom!”
    To claim you have seen post of mine before is a goof. Take yourself seriously and try to think through things rather than just come up with an argument “against”. You will be fine.

    Also to quote you…

    The second question, the one that I’m not sure can be asked nicely, is: Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder that effects the frontal lobe, such as schizophrenia, a traumatic brain injury or ADHD?

    Yes, I have the same mental disorder that Newton, Einstein,Fuller et al. had!

    Good luck!

  44. 45

    I will be the first to tell people to stop calling religious people stupid and start focusing on ideas. Just be sure to realize that won’t solve everything, because it’s not just an idea to them, it’s a person. As my mom says, “I can’t stand idly by while you insult my Jesus”. To them, we’re not just attacking an idea or even an identity, we’re attacking a dear personal (albeit invisible/imaginary) friend, and they’re going to respond as such.

  45. 46

    Scott Ferguson #42 wrote:


    Ok. I will try to ask my question another way.

    You have stated that you believe in a supernatural reality in which consciousness is fundamental to the universe. Matter comes from mind.

    Modern scientists believe it is the other way around: mind comes from matter. Materialism.

    However: if ESP, psychokenesis, past-life memories, precognition, out-of-body experiences, energy healing, and ghosts were suddenly demonstrated to a high level of scientific accuracy, do you think that would be convincing evidence that modern scientists were mistaken — and your view is correct?

  46. 47


    your quote “Modern scientists believe it is the other way around: mind comes from matter. Materialism.”

    Here is a quote form a man who won the noble prize in physics.

    Quantum Theory, “all matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration which holds the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter. Max Planck

    Are you thinking that physics is not science? Are you thinking that maybe he is not as smart as you? Have you studied physics?

    Quantum physics shows us that mind moves matter and is primary. All the laws and forces that act upon matter are themselves not material. If physics is not scientific enough then….

  47. 48

    “Have you studied physics?”

    I have. I used to do research on quantum entanglement. We never, and I mean never, reference any metaphysical or supernatural forces whatsoever. I don’t know the details of the Max Planck quote, when, how, why, (or even if) he said that, but it doesn’t represent what most physicists believe. Yes, he won the Nobel Prize in physics. But it definitely wasn’t for that quote, and there are plenty of naturalist Nobel Prize winners as well.

    There was an interpretation of quantum mechanics that said that observation by a conscious entity somehow caused the “collapse” of a quantum state. This is a minority interpretation of quantum mechanics with no empirical support, more a bit of fuzzy and out-of-fashion philosophy than science. The most popular interpretations of quantum mechanics are Copenhagen (“We don’t know what the collapse is, so don’t worry about it.”), many worlds (“There is no collapse, only an apparent collapse due to decoherence between worlds.”), and objective collapse (“There’s a collapse, but it’s an objective, yet-to-be-discovered phenomenon that causes it, nothing to do with consciousness.”).

    Nowadays, anyone linking quantum physics with consciousness is either uninformed, making wild speculations, or lying.

  48. 49

    Oh, and there are also non-local hidden variable interpretations of quantum mechanics, which say that there is no collapse but there is a non-local interaction between particles that causes the appearance of collapse. There’s no apparent connection between said interaction and “mind” or “consciousness”, and in fact the world is completely physically deterministic in such theories (implying that mind is a product of matter, not the other way around).

  49. 50

    @quant @Sastra

    Nice debate from both of you. Creationists say things like “because it says so in the bible etc.” I do not do that. Remember this when you disagree with a statement but just quote a lot of facts instead of really thinking about why someone such as Max Planck would say and think such a thing. There are scores of legitimate thinkers and scientists who believe in a non physical reality.

    I guess we are picking and choosing which physicists and which scientists we believe in and agree with. Your points are valid. I am sure you both do not read many of the scientific writers I agree with and I am sure I dont seek out what you read. Nevertheless I put the great men of science ahead of everyone and i am struck by how many believe in a nonphysical cause behind the world.

  50. 51

    Scott Ferguson #47 wrote:

    your quote “Modern scientists believe it is the other way around: mind comes from matter. Materialism.”
    Here is a quote form a man who won the noble prize in physics…

    Did he win the Nobel Prize in physics for the claim he makes in the quote? I thought not. If he were right and could back it up, though, he should and would have won it.

    But that’s not the issue (yet.) You are agreeing then that there are two theories about the mind: naturalistic materialism and supernaturalistic ‘immaterialism.’ You quote a physicist who (you think) is claiming that supernaturalism is supported by modern physics.

    In which case, you’re wrong in #33 when you argued that atheists didn’t understand the metaphysical nature of causes and were mistaken to think of religion as a hypothesis, “a truth claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is.” That’s exactly what it is. Supernatural beliefs about the nature of Mind, Consciousness, and God can indeed be analyzed — and criticized — using standard methods.

    The “metaphysical” as you call it is not beyond scientific investigation. Supernatural claims are hypotheses about how the world works based on evidence and experience in the world. Which is our first point.

    As for Max Planck, assuming the quote is accurate – how does he know? That’s critical.

    “We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind.” WTF? Why? “Must assume?” That’s not how science works. Is this based on anything in physics, or did the gentleman come up with it whilst sipping sherry in a state of contemplation, as seems likely?

    You don’t understand science. We don’t care who says it: it has to be backed up by data and argument and subject to peer review. We don’t trust authorities because they’re “smart.” The methods do not deal with establishing how “smart” you are. Nobody cares. Show your work. Do the math. Convince your peers. Gather a consensus.

    Whether you like it or not the mainstream view in both physics and neurology is that mind comes from matter. Planck’s hypothesis (which sounds more like an idle speculation, frankly) has obviously been discarded as unfruitful.

    Plus, what quantheory said.

    The hypothesis is not only a hypothesis; it’s wrong. Which is our second point.

  51. 52


    I don’t think that it’s legitimate to base an idea on quotations from random scientists without citation, or even apparently being aware that scientists are not speaking as scientists all the time. Freeman Dyson is one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, yet he’s a Christian and a global warming denialist. Feynman and Hawking are also great physicists, and are naturalists. All three of these people probably have different views on metaphysics from Max Planck, and I each of them gained much more understanding of quantum mechanics than Max Planck (Feynman in particular also has won the Nobel Prize, but all three were brilliant and had the benefit of coming along later).

    I could quote these guys to counter you, but you know what? I refuse, because it doesn’t matter. Physicists are not experts on metaphysics, and so their personal beliefs don’t settle the question. However, what a physicist can do is state whether a metaphysical force is necessary to actually do physics, and I’m telling you, as someone who honestly knows things about quantum physics than Max Planck ever had the chance to learn (having died in 1947), that to the best of my knowledge, no such force is necessary.

    Until you present the actual evidence or line of reasoning that leads someone to believe in the supernatural (not random quotes, but an actual empirical observation or a deduction from a specific, well-established theory), then you haven’t even started to produce an argument yet, and there’s nothing actually there for me to even start to argue against.

  52. 53

    The difference between methodological materialism and philosophical materialism. Learn that difference before you make the argument again, please and thanks, Scott Ferguson.

  53. 55

    Scott Ferguson #50 wrote:

    Nevertheless I put the great men of science ahead of everyone and i am struck by how many believe in a nonphysical cause behind the world.

    And I am struck by how many of your “great men of science” don’t seem to bother to back up their views on a nonphysical cause behind the world with any articles in top-notch peer review journals, like other views in science. I am also struck by how this does not seem to have struck you, too. You apparently ‘put them ahead of everyone’ for the wrong reasons.

    I am also cautious about assuming that all your great-men-of-science quotes mean what you think they mean. I’d be willing to bet they don’t.

    The belief that the mind is non-physical is not a new and daring view: it is old, it is primitive, it is trite, it is pedestrian. It is the sort of thing small children and people who just go on their gut instinct believe. It comes easy. It appeals to common sense. It’s familiar. It’s a cliche.

    When scientists tell us that the world is stranger than we ever imagined, they would not mean there is support for supernaturalism. That was where they started.

  54. 56

    @Scott Ferguson: In response to your claims that noumena/metaphysics are real, I will state that an assertion made without proof can be denied without proof.

    There IS an onus of proof on people, such as yourself, who claim metaphysics are real. There is NO onus of proof on we who deny metaphysics.

    I await solid proof from you or anyone on your “metaphysics is real” team… not just random and unspecific quotations attributed to physicists.

  55. 57

    Forgive me if I say things that have already been said/ask questions that have already been answered, but I got linked to your old site through reddit (the post on why anger is important in atheism as a movement), which brought me here, and I’ve been trying to read posts and comments to get caught up a bit, and anyway I’ll just get on with it otherwise I’ll ramble and no one wants that oh look I’ve already begun to do so…
    I have to say I agree with many of the commenters on the question of religion as a identity versus an idea- based on an anthropological definition of “identity,” which is what I am most familiar with. Religion is part of a cultural identity, as is the generally accepted anthropological conceit. And, frankly, I think that religion is so central an aspect of cultural identity that it is extraordinarily difficult to separate it into an “idea.” That being said, I agree wholeheartedly that religion shouldn’t be exempt from constructive criticism, because I don’t think that there are many (if any) aspects of indoctrinated cultural identity– though “indoctrinated cultural” seems redundant– that should be free from constructive criticism (always keeping in mind cultural relativism).
    For example, female circumcision, or genital mutilation, is part of the cultural identity of many parts of Africa and the Middle East as a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood. My criticisms of this practice ar as follows: it is disempowering, obviously denies the “circumcised” the pleasure of sex, and outright dangerous from a medical standpoint. I have a friend who was born in Sudan, fled from the conflict, and has lived in the US since about the age of 8. Had her family left Sudan any later, she would have undergone female circumcision as was the cultural practice of her village. Her mother still wishes her to have the procedure done. Her mother, mind you, not her father- such is the level of indoctrination into this cultural identity.
    So, yes, I do of course see the problem of religious indoctrination as it forms religion as a cultural identity, making its debates more heated and personal. But, in your post “Trekkie Religion and Secular Judaism: What If Religion Really Were Just a Metaphor?” you noted that your parents were agnostic and atheist- which carries with it its own form of cultural indoctrination. I am fully aware that my “identity” or “idea” of Christianity was very centrally formed by my experiences growing up as a minister’s daughter (ELCA). I would also like to note that you yourself have used the word “identity” in reference to your beliefs in your post “Atheist or Agnostic?” Perhaps your views on your “identity” as an atheist have changed since that post, as it was several years ago. But if not, I do feel it a bit unreasonable to expect those who subscribe to a specific religion to do so as an “idea” but that atheists may call it an “identity.”
    Now on to the questions:
    1. Again, anthropologically speaking, to what extent do you think cultural relativism and ethnocentrism applies to religion?
    2. Is your goal, personally, as an atheist, the eradication of religion?
    3. If so, is your goal then not equality but homogeneity- and then what would we be sacrificing culturally?
    4. Should I capitalize Atheist and Atheism?
    Other irrelevant things:
    As to the post that brought me here: you, with the idea or identity as an atheist, have every right to be angry, as the treatment of atheism and towards atheists in this country and worldwide has been beyond abismal. But I, in all honesty, can’t help getting angry about what feels like an attack on my identity. Did I face some pretty cruel harassment as the only white kid in a predominantly black school district? Yes. Does that compare to the struggles that African Americans as a whole have endured trying to accomplish parity- of course not. Would I equate wading through some kind of mean stuff on reddit, and some ignorant remarks or flash judgements made by classmates to the struggles to that atheists have faced (particularly with the boom of the religious right- largely undereducated in their own texts)? Absolutely not.
    I have had incredibly calm discussions with Atheist friends, and with fellow students as part of my studies (I attend a secular college) and I think that the success or our dialogue was due more to specificity of questions such as “How can you reconcile inconsistencies in the bible?” rather than “How does one believe something so completely ridiculous?” Then again, no one left that table or that classroom a convert- and if your goal is evangelism… well… I really have no idea how to go about doing that, seeing as I have serious difficulties with evangelism of the Christian sort as well.

    This ended up being quite a bit longer than I intended, for that I apologize. If I was unclear about anything, I’ll happily try to clarify– except in the event that the idea I was trying to convey was in fact completely incomprehensible and should be scratched, in which case I promise to rationalize it.

  56. 58


    I’m not Greta (obviously), so I’m not speaking for her. Still, I thought you brought up some interesting points and questions, so I hope no one minds if I give a little perspective of my own.

    First, your post is a little unclear as to your own religious identity, or non-religious identity, but it seems to lean toward theist, so I’m responding with that in mind.

    But if not, I do feel it a bit unreasonable to expect those who subscribe to a specific religion to do so as an “idea” but that atheists may call it an “identity.”

    Personally, I’m going to agree with you on this point. While atheism is not a core part of my identity, as I think I said earlier, it is a part of it. However, I don’t think that we can stop criticizing something just because it is part of someone’s identity — whether that’s a religious view, political view, or anything else. Maybe pointing out that we consider all parts of identity to be ideas that are open to criticism would help in discussions. I don’t know.

    To your specific questions:
    1) I don’t know.
    2) My goal is the eradication of “faith,” defined as “the holding of beliefs in the absence of evidence, or that are contrary to evidence.” Reason and rationality are the counter to this. If eradicating faith also eradicates religion (as it probably would, depending on the definition of “religion” used), then I’m ok with that.
    3) I’m completely ok with losing certain cultural practices if that’s a result of losing faith. I do not consider diversity a primary goal, but rather as something secondary, and sometimes tertiary. Diversity is great, and makes it easier to tackle problems from different perspectives and with different solutions. Faith, however, is not a valid perspective or solution, and any perspective or solution it produces is suspect.
    4) Don’t really care.

    Again, everything preceding is my personal perspective.

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    Reena ~

    Welcome aboard!

    1. Again, anthropologically speaking, to what extent do you think cultural relativism and ethnocentrism applies to religion?

    I’m not an anthropologist. That out of the way, I think the basic questions apply to anyone of any culture. “Do you want to believe things that are true? If your beliefs are false, would you want to know the truth?” I can’t see how anyone could sensibly answer that they don’t care if what they believe is false, nor do I see that as a shot at cultural hegemony.

    Does anthropology as a field find there are cultures that would hew to false beliefs knowing them to be false? That being wrong is, in fact, a cultural value?

    Bear in mind that reality itself is not relative.

    2. Is your goal, personally, as an atheist, the eradication of religion?

    Speaking just for me, I’d say it’s my wish that all religions be abandoned as soon as possible. I don’t know how feasible that end state would be, nor how to enact it, so it doesn’t rise to the level of being a goal.

    My goal is to influence every last True Believer ™ into abandoning their absurd faith. I know it may not be possible in every case, but I have strong ideas on how to make that happen, and I enact that goal when I can.

    3. If so, is your goal then not equality but homogeneity- and then what would we be sacrificing culturally?

    I’ll return to my above statement. It’s not important to me that people change their dress, cuisine, language, mannerisms, artistic expression, an so on, unless we can demonstrate that some aspect of these things is directly harmful. (“In our culture, feeding dung to our babies is an important way to promote their good health!” would be a fine example; that’s a culturally-driven behavior rooted in false beliefs about nutrition, and should be confronted and abandoned.)

    I can’t see how prioritizing the truth is a factor in culture homogeneity. Where is the thriving culture that values being wrong?

    4. Should I capitalize Atheist and Atheism?

    My Chicago Manual of Style is packed away, so I’ve no ready reference to answer that. I can’t see getting up in arms at being referred to as an atheist rather than an Atheist, though.

    – emc

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    @Reena: I agree (almost 100%) with Nathan and Eric.

    But I’ll provide my spin on ‘cultural relativism’, with a background in cultural studies:

    First, the definition: “an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.”

    Second, is this reasonable? Hell no! If so, female circumcision oughta be A.O.K., and slavery. How about torture? How about hacking off the hands of thieves? Stoning adulterers?

    The problem with cultural relativists is they use this as an ad hoc defense when it comes to topics they consider to be positive cultural values; but the minute the spotlight focuses on the cultural practices they consider negative, they are perfectly happy to condemn.

    As for the other three questions – briefly:

    2. Is your goal, personally, as an atheist, the eradication of religion?

    My goal is to live without being judged by others in anything but a court of secular laws – should I commit any secular crimes. As religions are about laws drawn up by humans masquerading as representatives of one or more deity (deities), god(s), spirit(s) — without definitive proof that such divine entities exist. The assertion that such divine entities exist without proof permits me to deny the existence of such divine entities without proof. Hence, I do not wish them applying their fraudulent laws or judgments – based on non-existent divine entities – upon me.

    3. If so, is your goal then not equality but homogeneity- and then what would we be sacrificing culturally?

    Modes of cultural expression are not exclusively the result of religion. In the beginning – to borrow a well-known phrase – human civilization existed before monotheism… and, even earlier, there was a time without animism/polytheism, too. Geography and natural resources are far more influential in shaping culture – what sorts of clothes people wear, housing in which they live, foods they prepare and eat, musical instruments they can create and play, etc. Religion is a very late cultural development. Think about it:

    * 5 million years ago:
    earliest hominids

    * 2.5 million years ago:
    two evolutionary lines of hominids descended from the early australopithecines

    * about 1.5 million years ago:
    one branch evolves into homo sapiens

    * 500,000 years ago:
    one branch evolved further into so-called “modern Man,” homo sapiens sapiens

    * circa 2,800-3,500 years ago:

    * circa 2,250-2,500 years ago:

    * circa 1,800-2,000 years ago:
    Classical Hinduism

    * circa 1,500-1,800 years ago:

    * circa 1,200-1,300 years ago:

    Before ALL these religions, and any other, “culture” existed — in diverse forms. And, even looking at life since these religions were invented by people, MOST material culture is unrelated to religion.

    4. Should I capitalize Atheist and Atheism?

    Technically, the words should be capitalized only at the beginning of a sentence or when part of a proper name (i.e., name of an atheist organization).

    All best,

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    Hullo everyone! Reena here again. Obviously.
    To clear up points that are unclear or respond to ideas in order of appearance:

    Religious identity. Right. Well this is a bit nebulous. I identify as Christian. I’m a theist, obviously- but some days I’m a pantheist and some days I’m a panentheist. I don’t take the bible literally. I recognize that much of it is a record of cultural history. I realize that many many flawed human hands have added, subtracted, commented on the bible, and as such it cannot be taken as a perfect document (much like the constitution). I realize that organized groups of flawed humans can be a tool for evil (see Catholic Church and LGBTQ issues or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) as much as a tool for good (see Southern Baptists and the Civil Rights Movement or The Human Genome Project). I don’t believe in hell, and if it there is such a place, I believe it mostly consists of being confronted with what we have done that is contrary to love and being politely asked to apologize for it. I don’t hold tightly to a rationality of my faith, just as I don’t hold to the rationality of my belief in love, the soul, consciousness, beauty or any other number of things for which scientific proof is lacking. Sometimes I shrug and say, “well, that’s just kinda how I feel.” I know this is ridiculous and frustrating to those who live by absolutes, and wish for scientific proof for all things, but I don’t think “kinda feeling things” has stopped me from the pursuit of knowledge. I don’t believe the idea that religious people do not pursue knowledge because of the inherent belief that “god did it” holds too much water– as centuries of continuous and heated scholarship in theology alone have shown. Theological study has atrophied somewhat in recent years, but the idea that religious people are not grappling with the questions raised by atheists is simply false. We may be rationalizing them, but many of us are at the very least thinking about them.
    TL;DR: Pretty religious, but I do my best to be open minded.
    As for the diversity question- I suppose that I personally see cultural diversity in much the same way that I see biological diversity… that the elimination of either presents serious problem for the continuation of the human race. Thus, preserving cultural diversity is a very high priority for me, which is partially why I have reservations as regard to proselytizing. However, I must disagree with you on the idea that faith has never led to a worthwhile “perspective” or “solution.” If we are talking about scientific progress- well, then, perhaps- blind faith is in direct contradiction to scientific theory. But then again, there have been and continue to be great scientists who are able to make the reconciliation or separation between the two. Sociologically speaking, faith has done great things (terrible things as well, I know- but science isn’t exempt from the great/terrible contrast either) like the employ of non-violence in several resistance movements, not to mention inspiration for the arts. Would/could this have been achieved in the absence of faith? Perhaps. But it wasn’t. And speaking on a personal level, I know that faith can be instrumental to alleviating suffering. My father and I visited my very religious uncle approximately one week before he died of cancer, in hospice, in his home. My father, being a minister, read him several passages on death- particularly Psalm 23, and 2 Corinthians 5:1-7. My uncle, knowing his death was approaching, was visibly soothed by this. I should not like to take that bit of comfort away from him, not for the world. Even if my own faith were taken away, I would not wish to take it from my uncle, in those moments before he died. I know that in that instance, his faith allowed him some calm in the face of overwhelming pain.
    TL;DR Diversity good! Faith sometimes good!

    @Eric M. Cherry
    I’m afraid that “Do you want to believe things that are true?” is pretty much the core of ethnocentrism- the mentality that I am right and you are wrong, and you must change the way you think/behave to be more like me. Of course, everyone naturally thinks like that. Nobody thinks to themselves “boy, I sure am wrong about my deeply held beliefs, and nobody ought to think the way I do.” “Ah!” you say, “But reality is not relative!” to which I answer, “The belief that reality is not relative is a your relative belief of reality” which is probably very frustrating to you, and coincidentally something of a tongue-twister. Even if we look at the concept of reality not being relative from a scientific point of view, which I think is what you are suggesting, there remains the question of quantum entanglement, Schrödinger’s cat, etc. Philosophically speaking, reality is unquestionably relative. No single person will share the same reality, by virtue of there being no two person sharing every moment of life experience. So–reality on the whole, I personally conclude, is relative. As for your question of a society existing that knows itself to hold a false belief, I do not know of one. But what “reality” do you wish to show the world? Is it scientific truth: prevent creationism from being taught in science classrooms? If so, then allons-y! Is it to show that Sharia law, when practiced exactly to the letter, does not make for a functional society? Geronimo! But, irrationality and lack of reason are fairly universal traits. Find me a human being completely rational and reasonable, while maintaining some kind of “humanity”. Honestly, this is what comes to mind when you talk of eradicating irrationality: I really hope that wasn’t offensive, I was just trying to make a point. As to your goals around alteration of cultural practices- I think we do actually agree… to some extent. I, too, think that the only eradication of cultural practices should be those that are demonstratively harmful (on a side note- I couldn’t tell if the dung thing was a joke, and I googled just to make sure there wasn’t a culture that fed its children dung in the name of health- but if you want to have a serious talk about damaging cultural practices, have a gander at New Guinea “Semen Warriors”). Of course that’s a tricky course to follow, as our own cultural mores dictate what is “harmful.” And then, we’re right back where we started.

    @JayH- Obviously the implementation of cultural relativism has been flawed- but I couldn’t disagree more that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Consider, if you would, the practice of the hijab. When France passed its law against conspicuous religious symbols in schools (2004), their intended target was the veil, and to a lesser extent yarmulkes and turbans. Many westerners have argued for “freeing” the women who abide by the hijab, with their outward reasoning that it is a symbol of female oppression. In some cases, this is true. The existence of women who are forced to wear the veil by father/brother in an effort of subjugation is undeniable. However, there are a great deal of women who CHOOSE to wear the veil, who do so as a communication of their culture and of their beliefs, as an expression of their identity. So, the law is inherently ineffective; are we “freeing” girls wearing the veil, or are we forcing them to choose between cultural identity and school? Furthermore, what is the true motive behind the law? Funny how these “conspicuous” displays of religion all represent groups who are either recent immigrants or harassed minorities. This was all undertaken, outwardly at least, in the effort to produce a more secular society, and yet it still boils down to cultural hegemony. Caveat: I support every single article of “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as published by the UN, and I do so with the knowledge that my support is fueled by my upbringing in Western tradition and theology. And yes, that is hypocrisy at its finest. However, it does no good to ignore cultural relativism; you say you have a background in cultural studies– would you, as a scholar, really like to go back to a time before Boas?
    To the second point- a secular court. Does religion hold the monopoly on moral codes? No, but their moral codes are a unifying factor. Of course atheists are not a-moral; that’s an illogical leap. But what IS the unifying moral code for atheists? What does a secular court look like? What are secular laws? Also, as a Christian who believes her primary duty in relation to that identity to be the protection of those who cannot protect themselves, I shall undoubtedly vote for candidates and referendum that feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick, etc. Does that mean that I am creating a non-secular state? Church and state should be separate. Yes, and of course, but a politician’s religious beliefs will undoubtedly influence their vote in the same way that my religious beliefs influence me. So a completely secular court has two problems, in my opinion. 1. What does it look like? 2. How is it accomplished.
    Lastly, the assertion that religion is a recent development for homo sapiens sapiens is simply untrue, and that most material culture does not relate to religion similarly untrue. Certainly the prominent religions of today are recent developments- but if we are talking about religion as defined “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power,” then the nearly all of the earliest finds of “culture” have direct links to religion- be they burials suggesting ancestor veneration, or venus figurines. If we look solely at the arts as a subset of culture, I challenge you to find a single art form without ties to religion. Please note, I am not making the case that culture exists BECAUSE of religion, though there are those who think that religion might have helped- see: I merely wish to point out that because of its ontological nature, religion has been a pervasive force in every aspect of culture. Also, I think you need to check some of your dates– I’m totally not trying to be snobby, really, I promise, but if you get into a discussion with someone else and you use this argument, it would be more persuasive if the dates were right.
    As to religion as a late development in the grand scheme of the universe… you are absolutely right. Human beings in general are a late development to the universe. Our individual insignificance is overwhelming. But I see so much beauty in our status as “life” and our designation of “culture” that I’m afraid our existence as a whole does not seem insignificant, and therefore, this does not shake my personal faith.

    Last but not least, I’ll continue to hopefully not offend anyone by capitalizing or not capitalizing Atheism/atheism Atheist/atheist, thanks for not getting up in arms about it!

    TL;DR Sorry, I talk way to much, and I’m terrible at summarizing, so feel free to just not read if you don’t feel like it.

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    @Reena: I’ll start by saying you are not being reasonable in your argumentative tone… and I feel comfortable saying that as you pose questions which are simply ridiculous and/or impossible to answer.

    One example: “However, it does no good to ignore cultural relativism; you say you have a background in cultural studies– would you, as a scholar, really like to go back to a time before Boas?”

    As we cannot “go back to a time before Boas,” it’s a silly question to ask. What I can say is what I said: “cultural relativists is they use this as an ad hoc defense when it comes to topics they consider to be positive cultural values; but the minute the spotlight focuses on the cultural practices they consider negative, they are perfectly happy to condemn.” Take it or leave it, but don’t persist in arguing the logic.

    The next ridiculous questions: “So a completely secular court has two problems, in my opinion. 1. What does it look like? 2. How is it accomplished.” I say they are ridiculous because: (1) they will not be answered here, in this forum; (2) I’m not jurist, and neither are you; and, (3) I am expressing my desire with no expectation that it will come into being. Why not? Mainly because politicians, jurists, and the general population too often express the feeling that a society without religion is a society without morality… which is not true. But ignorance is found in greater quantities than education; and, all too often, those who are educated, are perfectly content to rule the ignorant masses.

    And, when it comes to religion/spirituality in human civilization… you can’t have religion/spirituality without many people developing a system. Which means, by default, you’ve got a large population before you have religion/spirituality. They did not come into being simultaneously.

    And you challenge me: “If we look solely at the arts as a subset of culture, I challenge you to find a single art form without ties to religion.” How much is enough to satisfy your obviously skewed view of art history? What cultures qualify or don’t qualify? Rather than engage with this ridiculous “challenge,” I challenge you to prove a majority of cultural expression – from all people in all places and all times – is dedicated to religion. You can’t accomplish the task. Why? Because it is untrue. Read more about art history, and you’ll find far too many examples of art that are completely unrelated to religion.

    I’m out of this discussion, as you will pose impossibly large open-ended questions with an un-articulated agenda. All best with that.

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    I didn’t realize I was being argumentative… the thing about the dates was totally honest. As in, 200,000 years ago at the very very most for Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and the Hebrew bible clocks in at 7,000-12,000 years old… and when I read it my brain just kind of said, “Well, that’s not right…” and I get the point you are making… but those dates are nagging on my brain” That’s difficult to convey over the internet. I agree that a society is necessary before construction of religion/dogma- but the size of that society, I do not think is quite so large as you suppose. Being that humans, as primates, are social animals, we have had society for as long as we have been, well, human. If we look to the surviving hunter/gatherer tribes, which was the earliest way of life for modern humans, they all have developed theodicies without cities or large populations. So, that’s what I meant. And the “time before Boas” bit… I was just trying to make a point that the recognition of cultural relativism has been a positive force in several fields, particularly anthropology.
    I was sincere in my questions… and I’m sorry if they sounded ridiculous to you. I wanted to know your opinion, as someone who frequents a blog that talks about Atheism, so you care… and obviously these questions aren’t going to be solved here on this forum, but I want to know more about how you feel. Honest. That’s my secret un-articulated agenda. I just want to learn more about what you think needs to change, and how it can be accomplished. How can I rephrase those two particular questions to make them better?
    And, I suppose the arts bit-I’ll articulate that better. I’m coming from a western theater background, which sprung up directly because of worship, so that’s out. There’s sculpture- for which the earliest known example is a Venus figurine, painting- the Chauvet caves which have the anthropomorphic drawing suggesting a conceptualized spiritualization. Dance is a bit trickier… but I think the earliest is belly dancing- which was originally a fertility dance. The earliest known written music, again, a song to the moon god’s wife. My “challenge,” which I find in retrospect to be terribly worded- was to extricate the arts completely from religion and spirituality- when our earliest indications of them are related to religion/spirituality. Like in “Sacred Canopy,” the Berger book- it’s a sociological look at religion, and it pulls some serious punches, but one of the main points he makes is the development of “nomos” (world-view) into “cosmos” (divine justification) through religion. But, when he uses the word “nomos” he means it synonymously with “culture.” That’s all I meant. That religion is pervasive into all aspects of culture- and I tried (and failed) to demonstrate that with the arts as a subset of culture.
    Look, this is pretty much your house, and if I acted inappropriately, I am sorry. You said you are “out,” so cool, you may not see this. But really, I think if we were having this discussion in person, I truly hope I could have been able to avoid sounding “argumentative.”

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    @Reena: It’s not my house. I don’t make the rules here.

    To provide a couple of reference points:

    [1] For Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., “modern man”) @ 200,000 before present see:

    [ Note: This is different than “early hominids” or “Homo sapiens”. ]

    [2] For date of “foundation” of Judaism:
    According to the Jewish calendar, the world is 5772 years old. To “date” the Hebrew Bible, we can consider a range of hypotheses – from 1400 B.C.E. as the earliest date, during the time of Moses, to 140 B.C.E. by some “Biblical minimalists.” Not that Wikipedia is the greatest source, but it summarizes current range of scholarship at:

    “Positive” influence of cultural relativism in some fields, especially anthropology?
    It is a subjective, Eurocentric view originating in the cultural imperialism of 16th through 19th century colonial powers and their Christianizing missionaries. Early anthropologic academics adopted a view that assumed “Western” criteria for analyzing/judging “non-Western” civilizations/cultures.

    Prehistoric objects as religious/spiritual?
    Conjecture. There is only one way to know for certain: Find written documentation that illuminates religious and or spiritual aspirations as connected to or enhanced by manufactured objects. Hence, the first that scholars KNOW, beyond doubt, that objects were created with religious/spiritual intent, is from recorded history… which is a very short story compared to the history of humanity.

    “Religion is pervasive into all aspects of culture”?
    Subjective. Like too many phenomena attributed to humanity, religions needs to provide some PROOF – not merely hypotheses – to be granted credit for much of anything except being a divisive force, for inspiring genocide, for stealing children from parents, for stealing land from indigenous, and for a host of other malfeasance. Even a pacifist religion like Buddhism was adopted and used for martial purposes and empire-building expansionism.

    Atheists generally eschew assumption and speculation, and expect PROOF. If we don’t have proof, we don’t accept/claim it… hence, the complete opposite of most religions.

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    Hello, again. Away without internet access, here. Back again, to engage with your arguments.

    “I’m afraid that “Do you want to believe things that are true?” is pretty much the core of ethnocentrism- the mentality that I am right and you are wrong, and you must change the way you think/behave to be more like me.”

    Asking, “Do you want to believe things that are true?” is not the same as saying, “You must change the way you think and behave to be more like me.”

    Step one is to ask that question, because the answer matters. If you tell me that you don’t care if what you believe is false, that you’ll happily persist in believing and behaving in accordance with false ideas, then I will happily subject you to scorn, ridicule, and dismissal as a crank.

    If you tell me that you do care, then we’re on. Because if you and I believe mutually exclusive things, then at least one of us is wrong. And if we both care that what we believe is true, and at least one of us is wrong, the best way for both of us to get better is to hash it out. I prove my ideas, you prove yours. Reality is the best and harshest judge.

    The absolute bedrock of this argument isn’t *exactly* that “you must change to be more like me,” or that “I must change to be more like you.” The bedrock is: “If we each want to align our beliefs and behaviors with what’s true, then one or both of us must abandon false ideas.” It’s an allegiance not to the false ideas of our cultures but to what must surely underlay our cultures: a belief that reality matters. (Because what culture exists that would rather believe something false?)

    What has that set of ideas to do with “ethnocentrism”? I don’t see it. If you don’t mind, please explain it — or rephrase, so that I understand what you mean better.

    “The belief that reality is not relative is your relative belief of reality…and coincidentally something of a tongue-twister.”

    Also: it’s gobbledygook.

    Here’s a fine example of the above. You believe that reality is a relative affair. I believe that reality is not relative. These are mutually exclusive concepts. At least one of us is wrong.

    Perhaps you’re playing a semantic game, like so:

    I look at a pile of unthrown bricks. I pick one of them up, I heft it in my hand, and I consider its merits. Then I set it on the table. My companion picks up a lovely murder weapon. She hefts it in her hand, considers my skull’s merits as a brain leaking device, and sets about making an artistic display in crimson.

    To say the least, my little example shows that our perceptions of reality are dissimilar. How we see the world is, of necessity, relative. Relative to my own experience, a pile of bricks may be: debris in my way; a place where my ubiquitous enemies may be waiting in ambush; a sign of urban blight; a sign of development in progress; or something else; or utterly beneath notice. But to say that “individual perceptions of reality are relative” is not the same as saying “reality is relative.” Beside the sidewalk, a specific number of bricks arranged in a specific manner either does or does not exist. Reality doesn’t change based on observation that way.

    That said, I’m not a physicist. The closest I come to being a physicist was my stint in the US Navy as a nuclear qualified electrician’s mate. I learned enough about nuclear science and technology to operate a nuclear reactor, and it’s certainly true that I was not the best and brightest of the guys I served with. So I’m not qualified to say whether any questions of “quantum entanglement” have any applicability to my assertion that “reality is not relative.”

    I *am* qualified to say that every time I’ve heard anyone who *isn’t* a practicing physicist reference quantum *anything*, it has been a load of nonsense used to prop up some absurd notions about how the world works. So, I’ll hear your argument that Schrodinger’s Cat debunks causality in such a fundamental way that anything some wacky preacher wants to believe is valid, and I’ll ask you to prove it. Because I think what you’re saying is bullshit, but I might be wrong. Prove it.

    “Find me a human being completely rational and reasonable, while maintaining some kind of humanity. [Reference to Cybermen.]”

    I want to be certain that I understand your argument here. Do you want to assert that people are either: a) completely rational and reasonable cyborgs determined to stamp out all human individuality, or b) incompletely rational and reasonable, and therefore cannot be challenged to abandon false beliefs?

    Put another way: According to you, is it possible to challenge a false idea that underlies one or more cultural practices without being an evil Cyberman?

    – emc

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