Tag Archives: Religious Dialogue

Religion Images: Results

Below I list the results of  my previous poll of your images of the “the general function of  religion”.  These statistics, of course, tell us nothing about people in general, but only about visitors to the post.  But this little experiment hopefully illustrates the variety and diversity of images we hold concerning religion–mostly negative for readers of this site.

Understanding each others’ images can sometimes aid us in dialogue.  I was surprised to find out that the life-preserver image (strong in my mind) was  only found useful by 3% of you.  And, “poison” image, though not an image I have, resonated with 17% of you –the largest percent.  So I may keep these observations in mind in future dialogues in order to improve them.

Question to readers: In a coming post, for similar reasons, I hope to explore your images of “evolution”.  Before I get there, and ask for a vote, please share images you have of “Evolution”?

Religious Images Poll Results

[5/1/11 –> 234 votes]

Negative Images
Positive Images


Poison
17%


Shackles
17%


Silly
15%


Comfort
10%


Community
9%


Crutches
9%

Boring
7%

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Classifying Atheists (part I)

Atheists come in all different flavors with some of those differences being more important than their similarities.  In this post I will discuss three traits that help separate the variety of atheists out there.  I will then, for fun, I will illustrate them all in one graph.  Remember, sometimes our differences are more interesting than our similarities.  For instance, ironically a theist and atheist may share more in common than they do with their fellow theist or atheist.

# 1  Spectrum of Outreach:

Spectrum of outreach is the ease with which we reach out and discuss our beliefs .  I threw these categories together on the fly, so if you have better ones, let me know.

 2.  Previous Adult Theism:

Were you a theist when you were an adult?  If so, how fervent were you? An atheist who was a former believer has a very different experience and expression that those who were never believers of any religion (“natural atheists”).   And those who were just casual, cultural believers are again very different from those who were fervent.  Lastly, if fervent, those who embraced for mystical reasons versus those for self-righteous reasons are yet again very different – but that is another post.

3.  Systematic Positioning:

How “systematized” is your atheism? How carefully have you thought about Atheism?  Have you read wide variety of other opinions, tried to organize and challenge your thoughts? How intellectual is your atheism?  How staked-out are your positions?  There are lots of ways to say what I am getting at.

Question to readers:  Where do you fall on this graph? (how about your significant others?) Sabio, for instance, is “an eager  G-8” (an orange dot).

I also experimented by throwing a few famous atheists on the chart but I need more.  Are there well-known atheists you can graph for me?  Here are the ones commenters have give data sets for (remember the outreach spectrum):

Here are readers who have contributed already – I linked their website if they have one. If their number is in black, it is because they have not yet told me where they lie on the spectrum of outreach.

Please try to just play along.  Don’t get hung up on precision — the method and categories are all grossly inaccurate and its only real value is to illustrate concepts.   But I think the chart illustrates some interesting points.  Paft II will hopefully clarify my objectives in the post.  Please offer your insights.
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My Related  Posts on “Taxonomy”:

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On Being Forgiven

Being forgiven by others and forgiving one’s self can be incredibly crucial for health and happiness. Religions do well to offer their believers freedom from unnecessary guilt.  In a previous post I wrote about the power of forgiving others.  This post is about the power of being forgiven.  I will tell both a Buddhist story and some Christian examples to illustrate that the wisdom of forgiveness is deeper than any particular religion.

A Buddhist Nun Story

Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha) taught his “Middle Path” for 40 years before dying. We have many texts purporting his teachings. In one such text, the Anguttara Sutra, we read of a Buddhist nun who is seeking learning from one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Ananda.

This text explains the subtle ironic principle that to overcome a limiting and clenched desire, sometimes indulging the desire can be useful. He tells, for example, how paradoxically food can be used to actually overcome gluttony (inappropriate desire of food).   Here, shunning food (extreme dieting) only amplifies the desire for food but moderate eating, over time, is the best way to loose the control food has over your mind.

Ananda then declares that among the desires that need to be calmed in order to obtain deep peace is the driving need for sexual intercourse.  On hearing this, the nun confesses how her own regrets of her sexual indiscretions have left her ill. Ananda gives the nuns confession a light response, suggesting to the woman that she just get over it and move on. Everybody makes mistakes. Live and learn. The nun was hugely relieved and returns to heath.

Christian Stories

Christianity markets itself largely on the forgiveness effect.  Here are only a few examples.

  • John 7:53-8:11 , a later addition to the Bible, tells of Jesus forgiving a woman about to be stoned for adultery. (my post)
  • Mark 2:1-12 tells the story of a paralyzed man who Jesus forgives and then the man is also healed.
  • “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” — 1 John 1:9

Concluding, however, let me offer an obvious caveat before they appear in comments: of course horrendous things or even very dangerous acts need to be held tightly in our minds so that we don’t repeat them.  Casually forgiving ourselves can just lead to repeated errors or crimes.  Christians use the concept of “repentance” (“turning about”) as a needed companion to “forgiveness” to avoid this mistake.  Buddhists have similar checks to avoid this obvious loop-hole.  Forgiveness can be looked at as one of the minds many heuristics — one that often needs nurturing.

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Notes:  HT to great a Buddhist site for the pic: Buddhanet

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Vulnerability and Self-Disclosure

Over the years I have found debates about abstract principles can be greatly enhanced by self-disclosure.  I will use two up-coming posts on Pacifism and Suicide to illustrate this point.  If your debating-partner discloses their experiences with violence or suicide, it could greatly help you understand you their position even if you don’t agree with it.  This seem like common sense but I find many bloggers who feel personal details are immaterial and want to keep their debates limited purely to the argument’s unadulterated logic — and of course, there is not such thing.

I find that when people argue opposing positions on controversial issues, they  can enhance their dialogue by sharing their personal experiences.  This may not resolve issues but hearing your dialogue-partner’s experience may give you empathetic insight into their position such that you can restate your  position with caveats that capture their concerns, thus changing both your position and possibly theirs.  Or, if nothing else, you will feel for the other person and realize that their decision is not just bad logic but, as in all of us, tied together with strongly, understandable emotions.  For thought never occur in isolation but always tied to emotion.

Self-disclosure does, however, come with obvious problems.  You risk that your dialogue-partner may take your personal information and employ it against you using the genetic fallacy.  And though the genetic fallacy is illogical, it can be persuasive to others listening in on your debate.  So then you would loose the argument.  But do you blog to win or to grow in understanding?   Another danger is that your debate-partner may not show any empathy and leave you feeling vulnerable and hurt after a self-disclosure.  Thus the decision to risk vulnerability is complicated.  But if one feels confident enough for the vulnerability of self-disclosure, it can be a very healing and useful technique in building healthy relationships and community.  It is for this reason that I value self-disclosure and vulnerability though I think they should be used judiciously.

Religious debate is a good place to experiment with self-disclosure.  The pure logic of religious person who debates religious philosophy or theology may not budge an atheist, but if the religious person shares their religious conversion or shares how their faith has changed their life, the atheist may be able to listen with a different heart.  Likewise if the atheist shares their negative experiences with religion and how reasoning and empiricism have greatly benefited them, the religious person may be better able to share a few mutual concerns with the theist.

Thus, on blogs, I suggest that self-disclosure pages may help readers understand the arguments of the blogger.  On my site, I have done this on my “About Author” tab.  Take a look if you are interested.  I have found the vulnerability to be nothing but helpful when discussing controversial issues with my readers.

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Non-Exclusive Christians

Over the last 2 years of blogging, I have learned much more about the variety of Christians that exist.  Due to this learning, I have a post which considers “My Favorite Kind of Christian” which I constantly update.  I am fortunate to have several personal Christian friends and on-line Christian friends who hold almost all the qualities I list on “my favorites” list.

But I must say that my MOST IMPORTANT favorite Christian trait is Non-Exclusivity — a Christian who does not feel that non-believers are going to necessarily have a different fate than themselves after death.  In theology, this position is called one’s “soteriology”.

There are two qualities that I feel natural flow from a non-exclusive soteriology:

  1. an open view of others (women, homosexuals, other races).
  2. a missionology where the believer seeks to serve others well before they even contemplate converting others.

Following in second place of favorite Christian traits behind Open Soteriology (along with its tolerance and kindness) is a strong value for science.  I would hold these traits as my favorite for all religions.  All other theological issues (unless I have missed something) fall far behind in the theological pack.  For I care not what a person calls themselves, but how they live and how they use their thoughts and beliefs to anchor and connect their lives.

Question to Atheists:  What are your favorite types of Christians?
Question to Theists:  What are your favorite type of Atheists?

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Few True Believers

Many times, we atheists are battling windmills much like Don Quixote.  We argue against a rare foe.  I found this Pew Research article (Dec ’09) which tells how mixed up Americans are when it comes to religion.  The article shows how eclectic many believers can be.  So, are they just trying to cover all bases or do they just not really care about dogma.  I think it is the later.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
— reportedly by Jesus in Matt 7:13-14 (NRSV)

The Pew Research article shows that Jesus may be right.  For if, as orthodox Christianity claims, accurate belief and submission to it is needed to pass through the narrow gate, then many American believers will be surprised.  So those of you who want people to give up their superstitious beliefs, just remember, many people don’t care much at all about consistency when it comes to superstitions or their dogmas.

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Do Christians need to be cured?

From my series:
How to Cure a Christian

Before beginning this series, I want to repeat some of the basic positions which I have written before.

My starting points:

  • No one is perfectly healthy.  We all need curing.
  • There is no theist god.  So Christian Theology, in pure propositional form, is wrong though it may serve adaptive purposes.

No need to De-Convert

I use to be a fervent Christian, and now, from a Christian perspective, I am certainly an Atheist.  But I happen to think that, just like other religions, Christianity can offer a great deal of benefit to believers and others.  I feel many people are actually better off being a believer than being an Atheist.  So I am a pragmatist who understands that even false beliefs can serve us well.  So often I feel there is no need for a Christian to de-convert.

However, I also believe that though a given faith may benefit a believer, on the other hand, it may be harmful to those around them.  Likewise, some beliefs benefit the believer in the short run but often hurt them in the long run.  For this reason, we all need to watch our beliefs and see how to improve them.  Likewise, we can sometimes help others by moving them toward healthier beliefs.

Learning from a Christian

No one is perfectly healthy and we can all stand to learn from each other.  Our first reflex should be to understand.  That understanding may benefit us far more than anything we think we can offer the other person.  The discipline to truly listen, reflect and act kindly is far undervalued.

De-Converting a Christian

There are a huge varieties of Christianity and I feel some are more healthy than others.  In my post “My Favorite Type of Christian“, I have a table which lists some of the categories of Christian doctrines and state which forms of these doctrines (even though mistaken) are healthier than others.  By “healthier” I mean positions which I feel are offer better long term benefits to BOTH the believer and others — a sort of utilitarian view.

So, I think challenging a Christian to move toward these other positions can often be more important than trying to convert a believer into an atheist.

Cocky Atheist

Yes, to Christians, all the above is still offensively paternalistic.  But in my model, a believer can lead a healthy, wonderful, full, meaningful life but in the eyes of many Christians, my live and the lives of other Atheists, are worthless unless we accept Jesus in our hearts or we will all burn forever in hell.  So tell me, which view is more paternalistic?

But arguing dogma, doctrine, beliefs and the like are often not the only effective ways to change.  In my next posts, I hope to illustrate the complexity of changing our ourselves and others.

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How to Cure a Christian

This is an index post for an up-coming series.  Medicine is my profession and so the “cure” metaphor comes easily to me.  I realize that such a title is naturally offensive to Christians, but what can I say — this is an Atheist site.  At least I am being honest.  Many years ago when I deconverted from my Christianity, I started writing essays which I entitled “Debunking Christianity”, but now there is a website by that name.  And besides, as I gained distance from Christianity (which was easy since I lived in Asia), I realized that it was person-by-person that we affect each other.  And I realized that cures are complicated because a person’s beliefs are intimately tied into their lives and are not simply composed of a list of propositions.  So rather than debunking an abstract thing called “Christianity”, these essays will focus on the individual Christian.

Well, this is suppose to be an index post, so let’s just start the list.  I will link up titles as I post.  But here are some titles I am imagining:

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I don’t want to convert you

OK, that is partially a lie. I do want to convert some of your ideas into other ideas. Heck we all do that.  But I don’t want to convert you away from how you identify yourself.

One reason it is hard to have a true friendship with many Christians is because, in the end, many have a strong desire to convert us non-believers into Christians.  They look for moments to discuss the gospel, to witness to us, to see if the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives.  Worse, they look for every misfortune in our lives to be God’s mysterious way to speak to us and bring us into his fold.  Such a relationship can barely be called a “friendship” — well, unless you really believe that disbelief results in eternal damnation and torture.  But since I don’t, I don’t want those sorts of friendships.  Fortunately, many Christians don’t act or think that way and thus there are several Christians I call “friend”.

Likewise many Christians feel uncomfortable about how I approach them as an Atheist — they feel I am condescending and trying to convert them.  I have thought about this issue and can honestly state that I don’t necessarily want them to stop being a Christian.   This is because, unlike many Atheists, I believe there are all sorts of Christians and with some types I have no disagreements in any meaningful way.  See my post on “My Favorite Kind of Christian“.

Though many Christian friends and I just stay clear from religious conversations,  with others, when we do debate, I try to make it clear that I am not trying to argue them out of Christianity.   Sure,  I may be trying to argue them away from some positions within their version of Christianity — but not necessarily out of Christianity in general.   This may sound pejorative and self-righteous but it is far better to consider your friend mistaken than to consider them damned for eternity for their beliefs.  And besides, I am not really trying to take them outside of their identity —  I feel they can remain Christian and be a fantastic person.  And further, I try to only have this dialogue when we mutually agree to engage.  I am not looking for moments throughout our relationship to sneak in my atheist agenda.

So, I can honestly say I am not trying to convert people out of Christianity but into a better version of Christianity.  If they feel there is only one version of Christianity (theirs!), then I can see why they feel I am trying to talk them out of Christianity.  But they would be mistaken.

I think Christians should considered approaching Atheists in a similar way — focusing on how to make them an Atheist with better belief sets without trying to get them to believe in a god.  I think such evangelism is potentially healthy.  I think such dialogue is useful and can help improve the lives of both friends simultaneously.  Such an evangelism does not look to convert but to effect deep pre-doctrinal ways of thinking.

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Transcendence in Mystical Atheists

How can atheists have “transcendent experiences”?  What would that mean?
Tom Rees at Epiphenom just posted on a recent experiment locating the parts of the brain responsible for transcendence.  The definition Tom gives for “transcendence” was:

the belief [sensation] that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.”

You will notice that I just corrected his definition.  That correction is not just nitpicking, but critical to understanding atheists with transcendent experiences.  Key to that understanding is that many “beliefs” are created after a “sensation” and that for any given sensation, any number of beliefs can be attached.

I recently offered a tool call “Atheists, declare thyself” where atheists or agnostics could describe aspects of their beliefs, experiences and expressions of atheism.  My hope is that the tool offers a method to enhance both dialogue and self-exploration.  This post is an attempt to further these dialogues by exploring the “Mystical Perceptions” category on the table.   The mystical category may seem odd to many atheists.  But I, for one, have had many “mystical perceptions” over the years and yet consider myself an atheist.  Yet as most of the Atheists that have filled out this table to date, I see that most describe themselves as “non-Mystical”.  Are non-mystical atheists the common variety. Perhaps those with mystical perceptions seldom become outright atheists.

I personally feel that most theists don’t have mystical experiences in general either.  Indeed, mystical experiences feed our normal sense of religion.  But a theist and an atheist will walk away from such experiences with different explanations.

Mystics are traditionally despised, excommunicated or at best sequestered by most orthodox monotheisms.  I sense a trace of the same tendency in the atheist ‘community’.   Mysticism is threatening because it reeks of individual interpretation, direct experiences and easily escapes the standardization demanded by orthodoxy.  I feel  A-mystical A-theists are too quick to judge the many altered states of awareness that they themselves may never have experienced — they label those who experience them variously as insane, confused, pathological, crazy, illogical and/or irrational.   These judgmental atheists, limited by their experiences, make false judgments of the world, others and the nature of meaning.   While it is fair game to criticize the beliefs about a perception, to go further and view the experience itself as pathological is, I feel, a mistake.  And indeed, in Rees’ article, there seems a hint of the judgement that mystical perceptions are pathological and yet Tom acknowledges that many Buddhist practitioners have intentionally trained to have such perceptions.   Such a judgment, in my eyes, is similar to a person who has never had good beer, good sex or heard good sitar,  cynically debating anyone who valued beer, sex or Indian Classical music.  Is such cynicism justified?

So, how many atheists have mystical inclinations?  Well, Christopher Hitchens has been the talk of town since he was interviewed with a Unitarian Universalist minister by Vanity Fair.  Eric Reitan, a liberal Christian, does a good piece on it in Religion Dispatches called, “Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?”  Reitan puts forward this question because Hitchens uses Rudolf Otto‘s term numinous to describe “a feeling of awe or wonder” and states that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”  Has Hitchens had mystical experiences?  Should something as simple as “awe” or “wonder” be considered “mystical”.  I will talk about these in another post.  But for now, this points at the complexity of talking about such subjective experiences.  But here is my point:  You can’t easily dismiss the experiences of others just because you have not had them.  The operative word here is “easily” and also note that I am not saying you can’t debate their interpretations of these experiences.

Let’s look at another New Age Atheist — Richard Dawkins.  Could someone help me find a YouTube post I saw months ago where someone claimed to have developed a magnetic induction device to trigger altered mental states?  Dawkins apparently tried the device and felt nothing while other of his atheist colleagues tried and did have altered states.  Was this pure placebo effect for those that felt something or are some of us built (or trained) to perceive such states more easily than others?   It does not really matter.  Perhaps Dawkins really is less inclined toward mystical experiences.   Or, are these New Atheists so bent on characterizing all religions as fundamentalist that they are a bit short sighted of others who share many of their perceptions?

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, describes an enthusiastic attitude toward a naturalistic view of the universe which he calls Enchanted Atheism.  This optimist enchantment points to yet another set of emotions, which I feel are different than the mystical sensations explored by the article mentioned at the beginning of this post and thus, in my table, I listed mysticism and enchantment in different categories.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that we should not allow our limited range of experiences and emotions to narrow our ability to understand others — atheists or theists.

Questions for readers:

  • If you are a Atheist/agnostic, how do you feel about this issue?
  • If you are a Theist, how do you incorporate these science findings into your world?

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Related Triangulation Posts:

  • My Worldview: the first two lists are of my mystical and supernatural experiences (not beliefs).
  • Beliefs, what are they?:  my attempt to understand the nature of beliefs

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