In the summer you may see some urban well-off gardeners smiling broadly to their friends as tell their listeners about their wonderful heirloom tomatoes or other such vegetables. The definition of “heirloom” is debatable, but generally it means a cultivar that is more than 50 to 100 years old. Thus in the proud gardener’s boasting lies the “ancient things are better” argument. But I like to jokingly jab at the boasting urban gardener by saying to their listener that “an ‘heirloom’ plant is only the early version of the plant before they figured out how to make it much better.”
Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion
“Atheist” is a word that provokes disgust or distrust in most Americans. See these studies (there are many more):
1. “: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs” — Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011.
2. “Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice” — Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This distrust and disgust exist because most Americans equate atheism with immorality. This is not because they know immoral atheists, but because they view one of the main functions of their religion (a fear of god) as a check on bad human behavior. So to them a person who does not believe in God is dangerous because they don’t have a belief that will contain their bad behavior.
This sense of disgust makes it dangerous to come out as an atheist in America. But it is far worse in Muslim countries where most agree that “atheists” should be killed (see this Pew research — isn’t theism wonderful?)
So there are many strategies that religion-free people can use if they want to stay out of the disgust category when asked by religious folks, “Are you an atheist?”:
1. Deny your disbelief and just shut them down saying, “Yes, I believe in God.” Perhaps you can just tell yourself that “God” is that warm feeling in your heart when you do something good. Then certainly you believe.
2. Tell them, “Well, I am sort of a Taoist or a Buddhist.” The listener will not be disgusted with you if they feel you believe in some higher power or principles. Again, the reflex of disgust is hard to resist, so don’t tempt them.
3. Tell them you are an “agnostic”, then they will think you are open minded.
But I have a fourth suggestion for today where I suggest you don’t be tricked by the question. Question the question. Show the believer that their beliefs may be far fuzzier than they imagine. Tell them:
4. Well, if an “atheist” is someone who is not a theist, then I have to know what a “theist” is. “Theist” comes from the greek work theos which means “god”. So tell me what sort of god you believe in, and I will tell you if I don’t believe in that sort of god. For certainly you don’t believe in all sorts of gods, you just believe in one. Here is the standard kind of god that I think most Christians believe in:
a) All powerful being/principle/power
b) All knowing
c) All loving
f) Rewards those who believe in him, punish those who don’t
So, if you are asking me if I am am this sort of theist, I can confidently say “no” because I don’t believe in “e”, an interventional deity because we indeed have no evidence for an interventional all powerful, all loving, all knowing being. This is the classic theological question of theodicy But if you want to cut to the chase just point out the most extreme example is the classic “God has never healed a amputee”.
I can then tell that Christian theist that I can’t say with the same confidence that a,b,c,d are false. And as for “e)”, I hope to hell that is wrong. Smile !
So instead of taking the bait of classic questions, make the inquisitioner think about their questions, their words and their assumptions.
Though the questioner may think they know what the word “theist” means, they may be thinking of a specific narrow definition. If all the options are laid out, you may find that you are only atheistic about certain sort of theists, but agnostic about others or maybe even sympathetic to others. For instance, you might like thinking about a power in the universe that informs reality but is not personal, not interventional and does not punish unbelievers.
Remember, their are certainly forms of theism (see here) that other theists strongly disbelieve in. So all believers, are atheistic about some theism.
With all these explorations you may discover that you and the questioner have more important things in common than either of you can even imagine.
Let’s start with a quote by Margaret Atwood:
If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged
I have written elsewhere that most Christian don’t believe what they are suppose to believe. Included in those things Christians rightly should not believe is this saying of Jesus:
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:28 (NIV)]
The problems with this thinking are obvious.
Below I will slowly add links to discussions about some of the main stories within the Jewish Bible.
The Teachings (Torah)
- The Fall: Adam and Eve
- The Flood: Noah’s Ark
- The Tower of Bable
- Abraham’s Covenant
- Birth of Isaac
- Abraham Tested – Isaac’s sacrifice
- Joseph sold by brothers
- Joseph in Egypt
- Israel Slavery in Egypt
- Birth of Moses
- Moses and Burning Bush
- The Ten Plagues
- God Delivery from Egypt
(Exodus 12, Deut 26:8-9)
- The Ten Commandments
The Prophets (the Nevi’im)
- Israel enters Promised Land – Joshua
- Israel rules by judges
- Israel gets first king (Saul)
(1 Sam 9)
- David and Goliath
(1 Sam 17)
- King David — Kingdom forever
(1 Sam 16, 2 Sam 7)
- Solomon becomes King
- Israel divide: Israel and Judah
- Kings rule (mostly bad) for 345 years
(1 Kings 13)
- The Prophets: warn of Israel punishment.
- Jew’s (Israel – North) Exiled: Assyria
(2 Kings 17)
- Jew’s (Judah) – Conquered by Babylon
(2 Kings 25)
- Jonah & The “Whale”
The Writings (the Ketuvim)
- Daniel and the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6)
This series ambition is to write posts for religion-free folks (see the table of contents) to offer them basic Bible literacy as an intro to Judaism and Christianity and to explore religion in general. The Bible is a very long and old text and so expecting even a believer, yet alone a non-believer to read through it is unrealistic. And reading it without guidance and expecting to understand it, is naive. For those reasons, there are thousands of books out there to readers over these hurdles. But this series is for non-believers and it is not meant to be exhaustive, but to offer enough stories to make the reader savvy enough in Bible stories to get a greater appreciation of allusion in common culture, movies and literature to Bible themes. While doing this, I hope to also offer some comparative religions material but even more importantly, show how religion works, which is more important than what religions say they believe. To repeat, here are the themes I will pursue:
Religion-Free Perspective: An introduction for non-believers
The terms “non-believers” or “atheists” or “agnostics” are all labels developed from the perspective that “believing” is the norm and thus pejorative. Here we describe all those people in a positive light as “religion-free”. This would be much like using the term “Child-free” couple vs. a “Childless” couple.
The religion-free folks I have in mind for these posts are those who really have very little knowledge of Judaism and Christianity — not those raised in the some tradition who then rejected it. Thus I am talking to those raised minimally as only cultural members of those faiths, or those who were raised religion-free and who have only some exposures to religion. I have a few people in mind as I write these, and hope they and a few others find this series helpful. Please write ask questions, add points or make objections in the comment section. Believers are also welcome to jump in and comment, but I will not welcome proselyting here. This general rule for this blog and more are listed here.
Bible Literacy: Understanding Biblical Allusions
The Bible, like all religious texts and traditions, is loaded with stories that are packed with moral messages, principles, and wisdom (good and bad). People who have not read or studied the Bible will miss many allusions in literature, movies and even conversations. So even some familiarity with the main stories can broaden your enjoyment of other material.
Many Christianities: Understanding Biblical Controversies
There are as many different types of Christians as there are believers in every other faith. And each will tell you that their version is the best, or at least a real good version. And for Christians, they all use the Bible. So I will tell stories and occasionally show the difference in the ways different Christians treat the same stories.
The versions of the Bible stories we have today have changed over time and their are contrary stories out there. We will explore some of these ideas.
Comparative Religion and Comparative Thinking:
Broader than just understanding the various kinds of Christianities is understanding how all religions struggle with similar issues. Actually, all large systems wrestle with similar issues. I will try offer readers comparisons to help see the deep issues that are often hidden by the superficial explanations offered by any religion or system. Systems are not the sum of their parts, but how those parts all relate to each other and function.
Religion as a Tool: Understanding how religion works
Religion is complicated. Christianity and Islam will tell you that correct belief is central to true religion. But the most important thing to know about a religion is not it’s beliefs (though you will need those), but how those beliefs are used by its believers.
Most Westerners, exposed culturally to Christianity, even if nonbelievers, are subconsciously hypnotized by this idea that a religion is its beliefs. Most folks feel they will understand a religion if they just read a list of their beliefs and maybe some of their history. But religions use their beliefs like tools to pursue social and personal goals. Mind you, believers themselves may tell you that it is all about correct beliefs, but they are wrong. And thus that will be the bias of this series.
This principle of understanding religion as a tool will be the most difficult to convey. You almost have to understand 3 or 4 religions to start understanding the patterns. In this series I hope to pause and illustrate some of the shared ways religions which have very different beliefs, nonetheless link the ones they have to accomplish very similar things to one and other.
Years ago, on one of my early morning walks, alone on a Jersey beach, I noticed something about the seashells in the sand. I noticed that my feet rarely hurt me because most of the shells were facing down, not up.
I decided to test my observation by choosing different spots scattered down the beach to count the shells. I sampled the shells by standing on one foot and using the other to trace a large circle on the beach. I’d then count the number of shells in the circle and calculate the percent of upward facing shells. And sure enough, about 90% were upward facing in all my circles. It looked like I had discovered a physics principle.
I then wondered what sort of physics made this happen. So I gathered a bunch of shells, threw them in the air, and calculated the percentages in the same way. The ratio was much different – about 50/50. So then I put those shells in the retreating waves and watched them flip downward. The percentage approached 90% again. “It must be fluid mechanics,” I thought to myself.
“Fluid Mechanics” — hell, that almost sounds like I know what I am talking about, doesn’t it? But I still didn’t know and as I explored the issue further, I learned more about human nature than I did physics.
Very excited about my beach discovery, I began to tell friends and colleagues. Those patient enough to listen to my ramblings all thought they knew exactly why the shells flipped that way. “Yep, it is the water. It pulls on the shells, flipping them face down.” And they said this with certainty and a tone of voice which also said, “Isn’t it sort of obvious?” But I had put hard work into my experimenting which they seemed to feel was a silly waste of time since the principle is so obvious.
So I decided to elaborate the experiment with an evil twist: I told a bunch of other folks the same story but this time I lied about the shells telling them that 90% of the shells were face up, not face down. And sure enough, the result was the same. Everyone proclaimed with certainty, “Well, it is obvious, the water pulls the shells like a bowl and makes them land face up.”
So, at this point, you’d think my learning here was that people are too quick to settle on a “just-so” theory, but my experiment revealed an even nastier insight.
So you’d hope that when I revealed to these listeners the trickery that they would laugh. I hoped they’d see that I set up the story to reveal that our minds prefer to settle on a “just-so” quick explanations than really digging for the truth. But no, they were angry.
After telling the fictitious story and letting the listener spin their cocky pseudo-scientific certainty, I revealed that I had lied so as to show how easily we were more interested in a quick explanations than a true explanations. But when I did so, people did not say, “Wow, that is fascinating!” but instead they were very upset at my deception and all the stuff the experiments revealed were lost.
We don’t want to know what our minds are doing.