Blog Break November 21, 2007

I’m out of town for a few days and probably won’t be posting or moderating comments until Saturday.

So consider this an open thread to discuss whatever appropriate topics you’d like (as long as your comments don’t need to be approved by me).

You can also welcome a new contributor to this site, Mike Clawson!

This is a very brief intro, but Mike is a Christian pastor who has kindly answered your questions and consistently makes insightful comments on this site’s postings. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and is part of the Emerging Church.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

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  • Richard Wade

    Welcome Mike! It’s an honor to blog along with you. I have admired your knowledge, patience, compassion and energy since we first met. I’m sure you’ll enrich the dialogue here.

  • Maria

    I agree with Richard 🙂

  • Mike too? Cool. You know we all love you.

    I’ve got news on the War on Christmas. It seems that every Christmas, the Google search volume for science decreases! We haven’t been burning enough Christmas trees for our no-God! Luckily, science is still ahead of religion, which, ironically, also seems to decrease around Christmas. Check it out. (idea from Cosmic Variance)

  • Welcome Mike! I’ve enjoyed your comments and I’m thrilled that you’re going to contribute.

    However, I don’t get why Hermant thinks he’s allowed to leave us. It’s like he has a life or something.

  • Mriana

    Have fun, Hemant and have a good Thanksgiving! 🙂

    Welcome Mike! 🙂

  • Thanks guys. I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know when my first post will be – hopefully soon.

  • I’ve got news on the War on Christmas. It seems that every Christmas, the Google search volume for science decreases! We haven’t been burning enough Christmas trees for our no-God! Luckily, science is still ahead of religion, which, ironically, also seems to decrease around Christmas.

    Just a wild guess, but could this simply be because students are off for the holidays and thus are not doing science-related research for a few weeks?

  • Steve Craperson

    “I consider myself a warrior for Christ. Microsoft don’t scare me. I got God with me.”

    Pastor in Microsoft ‘gay rights’ share bid

    — Sheesh! 🙂

  • Mriana

    OK, why burn [Christmas] trees for “no-God”? It makes no sense. I mean, they are trees and if no one is going to take care of the earth except humans, why burn any tree? If there is no god, why destroy something that is so precious to our way of life? Scientifically, trees breathe in CO2 and give us oxygen in return. IF CO2 is the cause of global warming, then why not protest the cutting down of evergreens for holiday celebrations in favour of all the life on the planet? Seems more human centered and more environmentally concerned than putting more toxins into our environment.

    As Bob Price said in his book called “The Reason Driven Life”, “live like there is no god.” Well, if there is no god, then we had better fight for our home planet, not destroy it more.

  • Siamang

    Atheists and Christians blogging together?

    What a novel idea! 😉

    Glad to see this conversation growing. And what a great choice of a blogger.

  • Erik

    Hement, this is more like it! I haven’t read Mike’s blog before but the fact the he chose a title which might be considered phallic is a good sign he’s a okay guy. I hope this contributes to the conversation here for the benefit of all. Thanks for bringing him on, and welcome Mike!

  • Emily

    I’m new to the site and am not sure where to post a question like this so point me in the right direction if I’m in the wrong place.

    Do atheist have some sort of subtle ranking of the goodness or badness of certain religions? Like basically is Christianity the same as say devil worship (I’m sure there are some specific names for devil worship but using correct terminology isn’t my point here)? Or is one ‘worse’ than the other? Obviously it will vary amoung different atheists. I was curious if it’s just the fact that Chrsitians are very predominant in our society (and some are viewed, rightfully so, as being extremist who don’t live out loving people) and therefore being targeted as a ‘faulty’ religion. Just curious…

  • Karen

    I welcome your strategic input here, Mike! happy thanksgiving all. 🙂

  • grazatt

    Just a wild guess, but could this simply be because students are off for the holidays and thus are not doing science-related research for a few weeks? Sometimes the voice of reason come from where we atheists would least expect it to.

  • Well of course, it’s the off-school season. That’s what Cosmic Variance thought too. Why do you all have to deconstruct my jokes? What, are we critical thinkers or something? 🙂

  • Bad

    Hemant’s posting times are generally pretty predictable: he hasn’t learned how to queue stuff up to fake like he actually has a lot of free time all throughout the day. 🙂

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Emily, and welcome. Sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. I hope you haven’t left. You asked,

    Do atheist have some sort of subtle ranking of the goodness or badness of certain religions?

    That is a really interesting question. Certainly atheists in the western world, if they talk about religion will tend to talk about Christianity more than other religions simply because that is the one they are surrounded by. Many have come from Christian backgrounds, and some have had unfortunate experiences at the hands of the type of extremists that you mentioned. In other regions I would expect that other predominant faiths are the main topic.

    But do atheists rank religions “good to bad” by the content of the religion itself? I don’t, but maybe others have thoughts on this. This might be worth a posting of its own.

    If I approve or disapprove of people of faith it’s not for their beliefs but for their behaviors. I have objections when a minority try to impose their beliefs on things that I think should remain secular, such as government, public schools, medicine, science and people’s private relationships, or if through bigotry or hypocrisy they cause suffering to others. I admire and approve of the behaviors of other people of faith who seem to live their messages of charity, compassion and respect, rather than just talk about them.

    Let’s see if anyone else has thoughts on this, and if there is enough interest I’ll consider a posting specifically about it.

  • Emily,

    I second what Wade said (and also think it would be a good discussion for a dedicated post). Two things need to be recognized, though.

    1. Theism is the belief that gods or deities exist and interact with the universe. Atheists just don’t believe that. Atheists, though, are not a monolithic group in how they view religion. I would assume that opinions differ widely. I believe that religions are the anthropomorphism of basic theistic beliefs and as such are purely man-made constructs.

    2. As Wade said, an average atheist’s knowledge of religion is typically limited to the prevailing religion(s) of their region. For example, I’m fairly knowledgeable of Christianity but not so knowledgeable of Islam. I tend to criticize more what I am knowledgeable of.

    I’ll hold off making any list of religions until I’ve thought about it more and if and when there is a dedicated post on this subject.

  • Mriana

    I agree with you, Jeff, including and esp:

    religions are the anthropomorphism of basic theistic beliefs and as such are purely man-made constructs.

    Religion, God, heaven, hell, all of it are human concepts and human creations. There have also been many theories as to why humans have done this and it seems to me, any one or all the theories are correct.

  • Emily,
    I think your typical atheist thinks less of the religions that: a) limit freedoms, especially to women, homosexuals, or the nonreligious b) proselytize c) reject obvious science d) seem to justify violence.

    If you would excuse the blatant stereotyping I’m about to make, I would rank the religions from worst to best in the following order: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Eastern religions. However, this is greatly oversimplifying, since the religion we’re all most familiar with, Christianity, can vary greatly. I think the others would be like that too if I were more familiar with them.

  • Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

    I’m just stopping in while the ham’s in the oven. Then, we’ll be on our way to my sister’s.

    Yes, I think this would be an interesting topic and one that I’ve always been interested in. I was raised by a grandmother who was a Buddhist, for example. I’ve always been intereted in the Hindu religion also. I don’t know much about the Muslims other than the novel “The Kite Runner,” which gave me a little bit of insight into their thought process (not much different than ours.) My husband has done an extensive research on the Islamic religion because of the nature of his work; but I’ve always been more interested in the heart of those people and what makes them who they are.

    Recently, I have been very much interested in the difference between non-duality and duality and what exactly makes a person “enlightened” spiritually. Being a Christian and also knowing other enlightened people who are not Christians is my current unsolved puzzle.

    I don’t know if we can discuss different religions without having someone that is knowledgeable in those particular religions, though.

  • I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining.
    I believe in love even when I am alone.
    I believe in God even when He is silent.

    Graffiti found in 1945 on the wall of a basement in Koln, Germany, where a Jewish believer is thought to have been hiding from the Gestapo.

    From the book God On Mute.

  • stogoe

    Funny thing – it turns out wanting something doesn’t make it real.

  • Emily

    Thanks for the interesting responses reguarding my comment. I’m interested in this ongoing conversation because in my personal opinion “devil worshipers” and other ‘dark’ or cult-like religions (again, not the correct terminology) do not promote love, compassion, caring for man-kind in their theology so I’m interested in understanding how atheist view that side of ‘religion’. Obviously, the goal of mainstream Christiainity should be to love as Jesus did but we fail in that area as individuals and as a church. So I’m kind of wondering what atheist think on ‘religion’ that does not have (in my opinion) the basic goals of loving, compassion, caring as the basis for their faith in any way.

    I think I know what the average atheist might say about such a subject but then I don’t understand things from that side of the coin.

  • Emily, do you know many “devil worshippers”? Except for a few troubled teens (and maybe a few adults that never grew past their issues) I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered someone who openly embraces a “dark, cult-like religion” of the kind you have in mind. I wonder if you may not be stereotyping certain non-Christian religions that you don’t know much about. In my experience, most mainstream religions (even less common ones like Wicca or neo-paganism) would affirm things like “love, compassion, and care for mankind”.

  • Allison

    Hemant, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving!

    Emily, I don’t have a hierarchy of religions per se, and I’m sort of a religious atheist myself (scientific pantheist probably best describes my beliefs). I’m kind of where Richard is here. I’ve heard of a very few religions that don’t have love, compassion, and caring for man-kind in their philosophy, and frankly those few have only a tiny number of adherents, not really enough to worry about. I would not directly rely on Christian descriptions only of another religion, though, to judge the religion itself. This is usually a pretty good launching point:

    Just for an aside, here’s what scientific pantheism looks like, since I mentioned it:

  • Mriana

    Hierarchy of religions? Please! I don’t have one because to me and from research, they are all alike. To say “cult-like” religions you would have to include JW and some Evangelical churches. Originally cult wasn’t a bad word and at one time (when Christianity was in it’s infancy and had many sects) there were many Jesus/Joshua cults.

    Now, devil worshippers, from what I have heard from two Satan worshippers, are misunderstood and people have not researched them to know what they are about. I don’t know. I didn’t stick around for the conversation anymore than I do for some other religious conversations. For all I know they probably have their dying and rising saviour. In fact, I know they do- given the mythology I’ve studied- probably goes something like Marduk and Tiamut or AKA Lucifer and God. Who knows.

    So, when you get down to it, all the religions are alike and all have the same template. So there is no hierarchy of religions.

  • I do not understand devil worship at all, but I don’t think it’s what you think it is. It’s probably just a bunch harmless people with weird beliefs.

  • Mriana

    It’s not what most people think it is, but I haven’t stuck around long enough to get all the details. It is bizarre though. Yet it is harmless- as harmless as any other religion- including Christianity. (harmless is said with sarcasm)

  • From what I’ve heard devil worship (aka Satanism) is essentially Nietzcheism – they exalt the “will to power”, the right to pursue your own desires and impulses with no moral restraints, the rejection of categories like “good” and “evil”, etc. IIRC, I don’t think they really even believe in a literal “Satan” (or a literal “God”. To them the devil is just symbolic of these basic life forces.

    From Wikipedia:

    LaVeyan Satanism, wherein the Satanist plays the role of the adversary to spiritual creeds, espouses vehement social Darwinism, hedonism, objectivism, and atheism. Among LaVeyan Satanists (called so by non-adherents to clarify that they support the ideologies in the writings of Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey), for them the term Satanism indicates “the first carnal religion in human history.” Careful use of the word, according to one website, refers to a “small religious group that is unrelated to any other faith, and whose members feel free to satisfy their urges responsibly, exhibit kindness to their friends, and attack their enemies.”

  • From the Church of Satan website:

    The Nine Satanic Statements
    from The Satanic Bible, ©1969 by Anton Szandor LaVey

    1. Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence!

    2. Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams!

    3. Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit!

    4. Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!

    5. Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek!

    6. Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires!

    7. Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual development,” has become the most vicious animal of all!

    8. Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!

    9. Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years!

  • Mriana

    Center of Inquiry has a podcast on Satanism too, in which they have a guest speaker from the Church of Satan.

  • Emily

    I don’t know any (open) Satanists that I’m aware of.

    My question really was just to determine if atheist view ‘unuplifting’ religions/viewpoints any differently than ones that have goals of virtue and kindness. I guess I mean do you rank me, who is a Christ follower attempting to live a life of love and giving in the same category as someone who by religious standards is only out for themselves and their own benefit. I’m sorry for wording my questions unclearly, it’s sometimes hard to put down exactly what I’d like to know!

    Obviously it depends who you are talking to because I get the feeling some don’t appreciate change for the good in my life if it has roots in religion. Which is understandable, I guess, given your viewpoint.

    Interesting conversation, still though. I think it’s amazing how ranging the beliefs are even within atheism (and branches thereof)….

  • Richard Wade

    Emily, I go by the credo that you are what you do. A person or a religion can talk all about love, charity, compassion and peace, but I’m only impressed by the practitioners whose real world behaviors realize (make real) those things. If it is true that you have taken those basic positive precepts of your religion and turned them into actual habits, patterns of actual behavior that you live, I applaud you for that and I am glad for you and for the people whom you benefit because you have chosen to walk the walk beyond talking the talk. Would that there were far more such as you.

    So while I don’t really have a hierarchy of approval for various religions, your practice would be up near the top.

  • Tara

    I have a burning question:

    Given that living as an atheist presupposes a certain level of intelligence and emotional balance, should an atheist refrain from discussing their worldview with persons who are less fortunate in the areas of IQ or emotional strength, especially persons going thru major personal crisis?

    I would be very appreciative of serious and thoughtful responses!

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Tara, welcome. Your question is interesting, but I’m not sure about the presuppositions behind it. Let’s look at your question a little at a time:

    Given that living as an atheist presupposes a certain level of intelligence and emotional balance,…

    I”m not really convinced that atheists command a higher average level of intelligence and/or emotional balance than any other group when sorted out by beliefs in God or gods. Some people complain that atheists are fools, other people boast that they are brilliant. I’ve met what I would consider examples of both but just like a random selection of people, most seem to be in between.

    But let’s assume hypothetically that a given atheist is as intelligent and emotionally balanced as you are describing. You ask,

    …should an atheist refrain from discussing their worldview with persons who are less fortunate in the areas of IQ or emotional strength,…

    I don’t see the problem with an intelligent and well balanced person discussing their world view with someone who is not as smart or mature. If two dense and immature people discussed such things it seems to me that they could lead each other into unwise conclusions, but even that possibility is just a guess. The only likely problem might be a difficulty in getting an idea or concept across from either one to the other. Communication is an art that requires a sensitivity to the continuing response from the listener. Sometimes smart people have that, sometimes thick people have that, and sometimes neither have that.

    …especially persons going thru major personal crisis?

    Now this is a different matter. If a person of any level of IQ or EQ is going through a major personal crisis, then they are vulnerable and should be handled very carefully with patience, compassion and respect. Being sensitive to that is just like the communication sensitivity, something that both bright or dim people may or may not have.

    I get the sense that your question is implying a kind of unfairness about a smart, stable person talking about world views with a dim, brittle person. That would depend on the motivation behind the conversation. If the smart person’s intention is to manipulate the slower one, or to take advantage in some disrespectful way and to confuse them or convince them of something that is not necessarily in their interests, or something that they wouldn’t agree to if they fully understood it, then that would be, in my personal view an immoral and unethical thing to do.

    At least on this blog, I seldom see such shameful behavior. Often if the cognitive or emotional levels are mismatched there is frustration and misunderstanding on both sides, and it can sometimes even lead to an exchange of insults but it is seldom about an intentional and disrespectful manipulation. On the few occasions that I have witnessed such behavior I have spoken up against the smarter person’s remarks and their motives.

    Regardless of the levels of thoughts and feelings most of the conversations here between atheists and believers is about trying to reach mutual understandings about who each person is rather than a struggle for one to convert the other to their world view. That’s basically futile anyway, and so it gets boring quickly.

    Tara, please tell us more about where your question is coming from, so we can answer it more helpfully.

  • Darryl

    Tara, Jesus said don’t cast your pearls before swine. You may be wasting your breath and you may do more harm than good by speaking openly to someone who is not equipped to deal with the truth. Since you are never obligated to speak of your atheism, if in doubt, I consider it better to say less than more.

  • Tara

    Thank you, Richard and Darryl. My worry is about the emotional impact of loss of faith on some fragile people, and perhaps more people are fragile than we may suppose. In theory it seems abandoning illusions is always a good thing. In practice, I think there is tremendous variability, and in general, I think we may need more data.

    Meanwhile, I tend to be reluctant to discuss my skepticism with believers, unless they have a certain emotional strength (besides having the requisite intelligence to potentially grasp how it is that the complex world we see is the result of natural processes).

    I love to read and hear Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. They are a breath of very clean air. But I am not yet convinced it is a good thing for them to speak to the general public. I have known a few people who I think would fall apart if they lost their faith. And today’s kids, a lot of them are neglected or don’t have the benefit of a stable home, and religion can be one of their few sources of hope and stability and social support.

    We atheists are evidence-oriented, and I haven’t seen evidence that it’s safe for the vast majority of people to relinquish religious illusions. I suspect a lot of religious leaders are atheists who believe most people are better off holding some form of religious belief. Those of us who are openly skeptics are, I suppose, the ones who have come to conclude that skepticism is pretty much a good thing for anyone. I share their passion for truth and for debunking religious mythologies, but I am reluctantly skeptical about whether the masses can operate more effectively without any opiate.

    Because this is a somewhat pessimistic view, I am very much on the lookout for any evidence that I am mistaken. My guess and hope is that in the near future there will be a lot more empirical research on the psychology of change in religious belief.

  • Mriana

    Yes, Tara, for some people, like say my mother, it could be a bad thing. There are times I still feel a bit of saddeness that what I thought was God doesn’t really exist- that it was just a strong emotional feeling that was purely psychological and there are times I still feel a bit of anger because what I was told was all wrong.

    However, I asked for it. I wanted it and I demanded to know the answers to my questions- both the psychological ones, such as “Why when I look into the sympathic and caring eyes of my pet(s) I felt God and saw in them God, esp when I was extremely sad about something?” and the religious ones, which could only be answered through studying both religious texts and mythical texts- like “Why is the Babylonian flood myth (for example) like the Noah flood myth? or “Why is Osiris like the Jesus myth?” These questions could only be answer through studying many texts and through Psychology.

    Once it hit home that there was no historical Jesus and God was a human concept, it hit hard and with a feeling of sorrow, but it didn’t last, probably in part because I was also studying Humanism all that time too or the study of Psychology helped. I don’t know, but now I only have moments where I feel sad or angry about it all.

    Does this mean I think there is absolutely and completely no god what so ever? Sort of. Like I’ve said before there maybe something science has yet to discover that our still somewhat primitive minds attrubite to a deity- like the extremely strong emotions where we feel at one with pets, nature, etc. or some element in us and in the universe that triggers those feelings. However, neuro-psychology hasn’t definitively said yet, but if that is the case it is a god within us- figuratively speaking of course- and it might not be such a bad thing to hone in on that in an effort to better ourselves and in effect make us “god above all gods”- again figuratively speaking. In otherwords, it would mean we would have to realize that the power to better ourselves is within all of us and not some external source.

    Sounds some what philosophical too, but I think that it is where all of this lies- most people cannot fathom relying only on themselves, so they create a god concept that is external and rely upon it like a parental figure, just so they can cope with daily life (a security blanket if you will). For some people, if that concept is shattered, they can’t deal or find their inner resources to cope with life. There in lies the Psychology of Religion.

  • Claire

    We atheists are evidence-oriented, and I haven’t seen evidence that it’s safe for the vast majority of people to relinquish religious illusions.

    Tara, not to worry. Seriously, “the masses”, as you call them, are not the fragile little flowers you seem to think they are. People are quite amazingly tough, once the initial shock of whatever challenges them wears off. On the whole, we’re survivors. Look at the aftermath of any disaster for your evidence.

    And, for those that really are stupid, also not to worry. The stupid tend to be very stubborn and not easily swayed. A person can talk themselves blue in the face and not make the tiniest dent on what a stupid person has decided is true.

    I think you’re pretty safe on this one.

  • Richard Wade

    People here who know me know that I’m often the first to call for gentleness and a light touch with some people of faith. I agree with Mriana that a few individuals should be treated with delicacy, and I also agree with Claire that most people are tough and resilient, and I agree with you that we should be sensitive to the various vulnerabilities of people we talk to and weigh the benefits versus the drawbacks of confronting their cherished beliefs.


    Life is tough, it’s unfair, and for most creatures most of the time it’s unpleasant. Life changes. It evolves and evolution happens because of large amounts of mass death. Whole species are wiped out and the species that depended on those species are wiped out in turn like a line of dominoes of death. Whatever survives by sheer luck or by adaptability move in only to be challenged by the next disaster. When creatures live for a long time in an environment that has not challenged them, they become sitting ducks for extinction. Religious beliefs are a safe, warm environment that doesn’t challenge people to move beyond their present level of maturity.

    The attributes you have described in people of faith are the attributes of children, and I think that is an appropriate metaphor for what religion does to people. Having a perpetual parent figure to watch over them, judge, reward or punish them and to answer all their questions in a single old book keeps them in the role of children. Some Christians even explicitly insist on becoming “as little children.”

    But children have to grow up or die. Childlike minds inside full grown bodies do terrible destruction when they think their parent figure is threatened. They militarize against those with different parent figures or they wrap C-4 and nails around their bodies and get on a bus. 9/11 is just a tip of the tongue taste of what will happen if we don’t grow up soon.

    The religion as opiate metaphor is very appropriate too. This addiction holds us back as a species. We keep rebuilding social institutions based on old models that were in place at the time sacred scriptures were written. We need entirely new social paradigms that don’t have to fit into the religious mold. Opiate addiction is a terrible thing to watch. The addict slowly deteriorates into a feeble robot programmed to do only one thing, to get more opiate. Going “cold turkey” is painful but remaining addicted is fatal.

    We have to grow up as a species or go extinct. Having advanced adult technologies with childish world views and social systems is a disaster waiting to happen. We can insist on challenging childish myths and a few individuals will suffer. Or we can wait for the whole thing to blow up and maybe the few who survive will finally learn their lesson and reject the growth-retarding drug of religion. But with that method there’s no guarantee they will.

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