Tom Gilson

“How I Became An Atheist” by Larry Tanner

This post continues my attempt, begun last month, to gain a sense of person-ness in our dealings with each other–to see each other as real human beings, even where we disagree deeply. Larry Tanner’s story follows:

 

My journey to atheism has been long and complicated. My title indicates that I “became” an atheist, but the truth is I always was an atheist to some extent. I only needed to recognize and embrace it. I grew up in a Jewish household, but my family was not particularly religious. We went to Conservative synagogues, which seemed plenty religious to me when I was a kid. At least, I thought we Conservatives were a religious cut above the Reform temples, which held services in English. In my Conservative household, though, we observed only the “big” holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. I don’t recall observing other Jewish holidays or even Shabbat.

From the time I was in third grade until I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Hebrew School. As with “regular” school, I wanted to do well in Hebrew school, so I worked at it. Nevertheless, my belief was not exactly iron-clad. One time, when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, I declared to my younger brother that I did not believe in God. On the other hand, around the time of my bar mitzvah, I had seemingly swung around the other way, as I considered going on with my Jewish education after the bar mitzvah. I even wondered whether being a rabbi was something that would suit me for a vocation.

To this day, however, I hold onto a fondness for Judaism that has little to do with religious belief or feeling and has everything to do with family. I remember being in synagogue on the High Holy Days during my youth and adolescence. I loved to pray in song alongside my father, so much did I enjoy hearing his beautiful tenor voice. Even a few weeks ago, I brought my family to my brother’s home for Hanukkah. My father and mother, my brothers and their families — we all sang together and had a delightful time. I associate these moments of family goodness and togetherness with Judaism. For me, being with my family is a Jewish thing.

However, along with my confessed soft spot for Judaism, I harbor great reservations about the religion. For example, I do not absolve Judaism of its tribalism, of its bastard children Christianity and Islam, and of its myriad hardships for those who have believed. This troubling side of Judaism is surely also part of my family heritage. Maybe because I have an indestructible core of love for Judaism, I realize now that, like all religions, Judaism must not be regarded as a statement of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people.

This realization about Judaism came slowly to me. For most of my adulthood, I regarded Judaism fondly but also harbored an unsure feeling about the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why were there so many different faiths that claimed to be the one true religion? If Judaism was true, why wasn’t Christianity or Islam? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Where and how were the ‘books’ of the Bible written? By whom were they written and for whom?

In graduate school–I was a scholar of early medieval literature–I learned some of the analogues to stories in the Bible, such as the flood in Gilgamesh. I also learned about problems of textual transmission: texts came in different versions. Some contained errors and corruptions that were preserved. Some were added to or revised. Some were re-cast in the cultural idiom of the new society. Medievalists of my type learn a lot about the development of early Christianity, Christian philosophy, and the interaction of the three Abrahamic religions. I also had a decent background of Jewish history, before and after the common era. As a result, religious doctrines appeared to me to be works in progress, the records of people trying to reconcile the incongruities of earlier texts. For all this, I never broke with Judaism.

As a matter of fact, in 2005, after I’d started this blog, I decided to become more Jewish. I wanted to live a more authentically Jewish life. I studied with Chabad rabbis. I davened every day, and donned tallit and tefillin. I read the weekly Torah portions. I lit candles on Shabbat and sought to refrain from working.

In 2007 or so, I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I wasn’t impressed at first. I wrote this about the book:

I picked up a copy of Richard Dawkins’s The G-d Delusion. It’s a good way to test and define the faith I have been working to cultivate. I won’t give his precise argument – the title of his book does that, anyway. I appreciate the challenge offered by the book, even if the voice reminds me of everything that I associate, negatively, with British intellectualism. A kind of mean-spirited, elitist polemic presented to be wit.

Yet as a result of what I have read so far, I am more and more coming to conclude that, to twist a familiar saying, “The man who believes in G-d’s existence and the man who doesn’t are both right.” Maybe G-d, the One I hope will inhabit the place I am building in my heart, will exist only for me and only in the way I “construct” him. Hence, the “delusion” that Dawkins refers to, the self-reflecting belief, or fiction, that the constructed G-d preceded the constructor and, indeed, had constructed him instead.

Since I wrote this, I’ve come to find myself in close agreement with the main arguments Dawkins makes for evolution, for atheism, and against religious irrationality. Looking back, however, I see that I was struggling against reason to maintain belief in God. I wanted to believe, and Dawkins’s book did not deter me from continuing in that desire. But I also see that I understood God as a personal projection, a concept useful for thinking about the world but of dubious existence in a genuine sense.

And I might have stayed in this mindset for a good long time except for what happened next: I became a ghostwriter and researcher for an Orthodox rabbi. He was looking for someone to help write his book, which would be a Jewish response to the “New Atheism.” I was ambivalent about the project. Indeed, I was certain I wasn’t the guy for the job. I knew some about religion but I wasn’t as knowledgeable or passionate about it as I felt I needed to be. I knew even less about the natural sciences–I was a literature guy, for crying out loud! I had read some science books, but that was it. Evolution was something I only knew in a two-sentence definition.

I wanted to do a good job for the rabbi, so I read and read and read and read. Everything I could get my hands on I devoured and annotated. At first, the rabbi wanted me simply to update material that he had used in previous debates. This material was–no joke–over 20 years old! I very quickly saw that the rabbi was using outdated information and arguments. I told him that everything needed to be re-done from scratch because the old arguments weren’t going to cut it anymore. He wanted to use old quotes that were taken out of context. He wanted to use “gaps” reasoning. He wanted to blame Darwin for Hitler. It was bad material and, worse, it was bad reasoning.

On the other side, I found the scientists provocative, self-critical, careful in their reasoning, and measured in their words. I saw immediately the difference between people who write from direct, first-hand knowledge of the science they put forth and hacks (like me) who aren’t scientists and don’t do science day after day. Don’t misunderstand: I am not talking about the “experience” of science or the “experience” of religion. I am talking about working closely with the primary sources of data, documenting the methodology and data, and using the findings to ask questions about the strengths and weaknesses of various relevant hypotheses about the world. In all the religious explanation of unsavory or incoherent passages in the Bible, I never saw the same level of intellectual rigor, methodological transparency, or questioning of presuppositions.

I should also mention that in the course of my research I was eager to learn about Intelligent Design (ID). However, I quickly discovered that ID was not going to help me develop what I thought would be a legitimate critique of the scientific side of the New Atheism. One big problem is that very, very few credible biologists and working scientists seem to be in the ID camp. Most of the staunch ID people seem to be lawyers, mathematicians, engineers, and journalists. They focus a lot on denigrating evolution (which they call “Darwinism”). Sometimes they have critiques of science, but mostly they beef at the media presentation of scientific research and findings. The ID proponents don’t seem to have any full-fledged research programs and findings that specifically advance their theory. However, my biggest problem with ID was that it was utterly superfluous. Touting intelligent design as a “best explanation” for the diversity of life earth seemed totally unnecessary in the face of the materialist phenomena which were the proper subject of science. Any preceding intention to such phenomena – whether from a super-human being or from a combination of natural factors – were actually irrelevant, so far as I could tell. In my estimation, while the New Atheists supported their rhetoric with evidence, logic, and facts, the ID proponents supported their rhetoric with more rhetoric.

During the book project, I became ever more the religious skeptic. But I thought I could mount a new argument that posited the reasonableness of a certain kind of faith and that criticized the ideas of the New Atheists. The argument I eventually made for religion–specifically about Judaism–was that religion signified a particular way of seeking and achieving a comprehensive (cultural, moral, spiritual, etc.) personal fulfillment:

One can change affiliation, as one can switch political party affiliations. If one is born Jewish, however, one remains Jewish even if the choice is made not to exercise that inheritance. To me, choosing to be Jewish opens up many different ways to be personally fulfilled, beyond intellectual fulfillment and beyond social acceptance. To be Jewish is to be intensely curious about the universe, yet wanting more to learn from it than about it. To be Jewish is to experience real horror when people – any people, but especially Jewish people – behave barbarously, and to take some ownership and responsibility for not having fostered more peace in the world. If I am a Jew, it is not only because I say so, or because I pray and keep kosher. If I am a Jew, it is because every day, and throughout the day, I re-assert my belief that we will all make that connection with transcendence. When we do, and when we are all met together at that celestial place, these worldly identities won’t matter so much.

In the final manuscript, my critique of the New Atheism was that it over-valued science and scientific reasoning as freedom-protecting cultural forces: “Science is itself a blind watchmaker. Science theorizes nature and physical reality as a blind watchmaker because this is what science is. In essence, science projects itself onto the universe it seeks to describe.” Richard Dawkins of course coined the term “blind watchmaker” to describe the way evolution worked. In applying the metaphor to science itself, I was getting at the idea that science was not a complete or totally consistent formal system: science needed to resist ideology and dogma, most especially from itself.

That book project was grueling for the writing, for the toll on other areas of my life, and for the stress of dealing with the person whose name would go on the published book. The project finished at the end of 2008. After this, I kept reading the science and religion blogs that were part of the project. I continued studying the claims, reasoning, and evidence that people brought out. I began posting on some of these blogs as a commenter and debater. I kept learning, and I kept developing my positions. By summer of 2009, I realized it was no longer rational for me to accept

• The claim of existence for God or for any divinity.

• The claim of existence for anything like the supernatural.

• The claim of divine inspiration for the scriptures of any religion.

• The claim of any sort of moral or social authority for any religious group.

I determined that none of the religious faiths or their spokespeople were putting out anything other than fantasy. I decided that it was no longer responsible or honest for me to call myself anything other than an atheist.

And so I say today I am an atheist.

END

Repeating what I said when I posted this invitation:

In my December invitation I assured my guest writers of this:

Once your story is posted, I’m going to strongly encourage others to ask questions, and I’m going to enforce the above-mentioned moratorium on judgmentalism… The questions people ask you should be for the purpose of understanding you for who the writer is, rather than something like, “How could an educated person like you come to such irrational conclusions?” which is really just judgmentalism in thin disguise. Of course if the writer brings philosophical/atheist apologetical topics into the story, those things are open for people to ask about.

The floor is open for getting to know one another better. Thanks again, Larry.

Commenting Restored

The comment function here has been out of service, possibly causing frustration, for which I apologize. You can comment again now, and it will save and post as it should do. First-time commenters' comments will not appear, however, until approved in moderation.

55 thoughts on ““How I Became An Atheist” by Larry Tanner

  1. I can understand how you could come to the decision that it’s not rational to accept the existence for God or any divinity. I was wondering what your rationality tells you about what you are left with. That is, that life can come from non-life, that consciousness can come from unconsciousness, that complexity with natural order can come from randomness and chaos, that rationality can come from irrationality and in the big picture that something can come from nothing.

  2. @G

    “scientific side of the New Atheism”

    I vote this sentence for Joke Of The Week.

    Whatever you may feel about their philosophical bent, the “New Atheists” are largely scientists – Dawkins, Dennett, Myers, Harris, Stenger, etc.

    At the very least they deserve accolades for fighting off the insidious advances of the Creationism/ID crowd.

    @BillT

    that something can come from nothing.

    This is misleading rhetoric. There is always “something”. Whether it’s us making snowballs from fallen snow or snowflakes spontaneously forming as a result of natural conditions, there is always something preceding everything. I make the exception of the universe itself, because we do not (and perhaps cannot) know what preceded it (if anything).

    It amuses me greatly when I see Christians using the word “emergent” (emerging, emergence, etc), as that describes precisely the phenomenon of what BillT mistakenly characterizes as “something from nothing” (that is to say, complexity from non-complexity).

    Then I remember that almost half of all Americans still believe that evolution isn’t real and I get very sad again. Stupid, stupid, stupid…

  3. “I make the exception of the universe itself…”

    Which is, of course, exactly to what I was referring.

  4. Whatever you may feel about their philosophical bent, the “New Atheists” are largely scientists – Dawkins, Dennett, Myers, Harris, Stenger, etc.

    Not really.

    Dawkins is an ex-scientist. He hasn’t been a scientist for decades.

    Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist. Yes, he admires science and refers to it often. That’s not much the same thing.

    Myers, basically an ex-scientist at this point as well who never did all that much.

    Harris is a recent graduate in neuroscience – I have no idea what actual research he’s engaging in.

    Stenger is the most scientific of the lot mentioned, but also the most off-kilter in his pronouncements.

    To say nothing of the fact that to say they are scientists is not to say that the Cult of Gnu has a “scientific side”.

    At the very least they deserve accolades for fighting off the insidious advances of the Creationism/ID crowd.

    What have they done other than write a few books and largely slander people they dislike – for example, by equating Creationism with ID?

    If you want to point at scientific research that has been done and which undermines creationism, you’re going to be pointing at a very different list of names than the Cult of Gnu leadership.

  5. Thank you, Tom, for the invite and for publishing my story. Unfortunately, because of work obligations I have very limited time to be able to respond to commenters. To answer the question of BillT: My rationality tells me to worry about today, and to worry about the real world in front of me and not to worry too much about how or why something came from nothing. This is not to say, however, that I have not read about these matters and formed some opinions on them. For instance I like the account of consciousness in a book called “Good and Real” by Gary Drescher.

  6. “My rationality tells me to worry about today, and to worry about the real world in front of me and not to worry too much about how or why something came from nothing.”

    So you wrote a 2,000+ word essay on the process and the reasons behind why you choose not to believe in God but this one sentence sums up your understanding of your current set of beliefs. Interesting.

  7. I don’t see it or experience it as “choosing not to believe.” I experience it as thinking that I have the correct assessment of affairs. I experience it as there in fact being no gods either to choose or reject.

  8. You can characterize that any way you like. You can think and asses all you like. In the end you made a decision. Making a decision is making a choice. Everyone is making a choice Larry, that is unless you are denying the existence of free will.

  9. @BillT

    So you wrote a 2,000+ word essay on the process and the reasons behind why you choose not to believe in God but this one sentence sums up your understanding of your current set of beliefs. Interesting.

    You know, if you read the very next sentence that he wrote you would have had no basis for making this statement.

    @Crude

    What have they done other than write a few books and largely slander people they dislike – for example, by equating Creationism with ID?

    ID is a subset of Creationism. We know this from court rulings, by its origin, the mission statement of one of its foremost advocates, and the very first line of that institution’s infamous leaked Wedge Document.

    The only people arguing otherwise are those who are desperately trying to give their movement some sheen of scientific legitimacy or those whose tacit mission is to sneak God into the classroom.

    than the Cult of Gnu leadership.

    The first time I saw the “Cult of Gnu” reference was here on this board (Holo, specifically). Once I understood what Holo was referring to I had a pretty good laugh… it’s funny, apparently people think that calling someone a Gnu is a bad thing!

    Atheism is very much like open-source software – freely distributable, transparent, and you have the freedom to do with it what you want. Like open-source, it adds competition to the marketplace and provides another way for fresh ideas to supplant old ways of doing things.

  10. @BillT

    Gotta love the way you worded all of that. Partly ominous, part ultimatum. It’s almost like I can see a Pascal’s Wager appearing before my very eyes.

    Seriously, though, you really did mischaracterize his statements. He said he’s not worried too much about How It All Began, and you conflated that into a statement about how he felt About Everything. To use yet another highly technical term – Booo!

  11. Sault,

    I did not mischaracterize his statements. That was his direct and relevant response to my inquiry. His “…why something came from nothing.” was certainly intended to be inclusive of the other topics I mentioned. That he had “formed some opinions” on possibly one of the topics I mentioned hardly informs us of his understanding of his own point of view or indicates he has any.

    Thanks though for the kind words. Of course, we are all wagering just as Pascal said. I don’t think that’s a good reason to believe but it’s a very good reason to be sure you’ve done your due diligence.

  12. Ok, Larry. I’m not sure why you think my approach is wrong. We are all chosing to step out in faith in one way or the other. Believing that “reality is godless” is a religious belief just like believing that it isn’t.

  13. Ah, the “I don’t have any religious beliefs”. I just don’t believe in God. So you don’t have a religious belief even though you just used the word belief (and quite appropriately as it refers to a position held without proof or held by faith) to describe your ummm… belief and that ummm… belief concerns ummm… God (a (very) religious figure last I looked).

    And please, let’s not do the “I just don’t believe in God”. That’s just semantics. Either position can be described in affirmative or negative terms (as I did above). You, as Larry properly described it, believe reality is godless. That’s an affirmative religious belief because it’s an affirmative opinion held without proof about a deity. And opinions held without proof are beliefs. And opinions held concerning deities are religious. Thus what you have is the very definition of a religious belief. And BTW, having a religious belief does not require one to be religious, have a religion or go to a church.

    Larry. Will this do?

  14. Upon some reflection, BillT is… partly correct. There are atheists who are religious. The first example that comes to mind is Buddhism.

    However, ‘atheism’ is a broad term that does not in and of itself denote religion. Going back to Merriam-Webster,

    Religion

    […]
    1b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

    2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

    […]

    4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    Okay, now let’s start our dissection of these terms.

    Is atheism a religion? Well, definition 1b.1 (I skipped 1a for irrelevancy) specifically denotes God. Atheism is not belief in God. Definition 1b.2 and definition 2 both speak about religious activity or beliefs, and definition 4 speaks about faith. Let’s look at “religious” first.


    Religious

    1: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity [a religious person] [religious attitudes]

    2: of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances [joined a religious order]

    3a : scrupulously and conscientiously faithful
    b : fervent, zealous

    Definition 2 speaks about religious beliefs or observances. Atheism has no intrinsic or codified observances. Definition 3b speaks to determination. I think that it is reasonable to say that it is conflation to suggest that the words ‘fervent’ or ‘zealous’ are not intrinsic to religion, nor are they the defining characteristics that we are talking about. Zealotry is not a part of religion – it is a potential attribute of a believer, though, but the nature of one does not define the nature of the whole.

    Definitions 1 and 3a use the term faithful. Let’s look at the definition of the word ‘faith’.


    Faith

    1: a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty
    b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises
    (2) : sincerity of intentions

    2a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
    b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

    3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs [the Protestant faith]

    We can immediately cross off definition 2a.1 and 2a.2; atheism is not belief in God or traditional doctrine. Definition 1b.1 and 1b.2 are both irrelevant.

    What is interesting to me is that Tom has used definition 1a in regards to Christian faith. It is intriguing to me, but his usage does presuppose belief in God, so it gets crossed off as well.

    Definition 3 requires firm conviction. Again, this is an attribute of the individual and not required by atheism itself.

    We are left with definitions 2b1 and 2b2. The question is again asked – does atheism itself require a firm belief in the non-existence of God? I would argue that it does not, because atheism encompasses such a wide variety of beliefs, from ignosticism to agnosticism to Buddhism. Finally, definition 2b2. Does atheism require complete trust? Absolutely not. Many atheists affirm a strong skepticism to be one of their central beliefs. I may value the scientific method, and consider it one of our most reliable ways to determine truth, but it doesn’t mean that I trust it completely – indeed, doubt and skepticism are built into the scientific method itself!

    Atheism therefore does not fit the definition of ‘faith’. Therefore it does not fit the definition of ‘faithful’. Therefore it does not satisfy definitions 1 or 3a of ‘religious’, and therefore does not satisfy definitions 1b.2 or 2 of ‘religion’. This crosses off all relevant definitions of ‘religion’ regarding atheism.

    In other words, atheism is not intrinsically a religion. Some atheists and philosophies within atheism may be religious in various meanings of the word, but atheism itself is not a religion.

    (this public service announcement brought to you by the English language)

  15. ID is a subset of Creationism. We know this from court rulings, by its origin, the mission statement of one of its foremost advocates, and the very first line of that institution’s infamous leaked Wedge Document.

    The only people arguing otherwise are those who are desperately trying to give their movement some sheen of scientific legitimacy or those whose tacit mission is to sneak God into the classroom.

    No… just no. As one who has thoroughly familiarized himself with the actual, modern ID theory/arguments, it’s painful – though not surprising – to see people still trying the “ID = creationism” schtick. It’s such a naive and invalid (and in many cases dishonest) dismissal.

    None of:
    “court rulings, by its origin, the mission statement of one of its foremost advocates, and the very first line of that institution’s infamous leaked Wedge Document”
    necessarily or sufficiently provides a truthful definition of what the ID theory/field really is. One could always talk to actual researchers in the field, of course…

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3622692/Intelligent-design-is-not-creationism.html

    Still, the response by many to ID reveals anything but objective consideration and analysis, seemingly because of dogmatic adherence to materialistic Darwinism and a phobia of any idea amicable to a theology, both attitudes of which have become entrenched in the mainstream scientific community. Hence havens like the Discovery Institute. I’m not even arguing for or against aspects of ID or evolution here. I just find both fascinating topics and object to ignorant partisan rhetoric.

    (Apologies Larry for taking any more attention away from the article. Your thought-out story is appreciated and revealing).

  16. Sault. Just what part of the following did you not understand?

    “And BTW, having a religious belief does not require one to be religious, have a religion or go to a church.”

    And the above (#21) from someone who accused me of mischaraterizing Larry. I have seen some disingenuous argumentation here but this might be as dishonest an effort as I can remember. Not only completly off point but in tha face of the above quote quite obviously and deliberately so. (Did you think no one would notice?) Take it somewhere else Sault. No one is interested in this kind of nonsense.

    (This public service announcement brought to you by people of integrity.)

  17. Since initial discussion on the post seems effectively to have ended, I have a question to the community: How would you, as Christians, like to be treated by atheists? For those of us who become atheists, or accept atheism, or always have been atheists–what do you think is the proper attitude and approach toward Christianity(its systems of beliefs, institutions, and rituals)?

  18. Larry: Vigorous and open-minded questioning. Call us on BS, but really listen to our response. Question your skepticism as well as our beliefs. Take seriously James Thrower’s challenge, with the life and influence of Jesus in mind:

    “The implication is rather that any naturalistic theory which stands a chance of winning support today will have to find a way of combining the insights of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Durkheim, Weber, and a host of others besides, just as any theory which seeks to substantiate the claims of religion to be a valid response to transcendent reality will have to combine insights from a number of differing religious traditions. Whether a naturalistic or a religious theory can best combine the insights of both of these two main ways of explaining religion remains an open question (Thrower 1999: 203).”

  19. Hi Larry,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I guess as a Christian I’m sick of bring expected to defend beliefs that I don’t hold and are not necessarily entailed by Christianity. It’s a common experience and it gets pretty boring pretty quickly. So as David said really listening does come into play here and I agree with him on being skeptical of your own position.

    I’m of the opinion that atheism undermines much of our experience especially in terms of rationality but also in other areas such that my conclusion is that if atheism is true much of what we take for granted is probably false and that it can’t be affirmed without undermining the very conditions needed to make that conclusion in the first place.

    Now you probably think I’m mistaken in my assessment of atheism and I think your are mistaken in your assessment of Christianity. Now we are not going to get to the source of the disagreement if we don’t listen to what someone actually believes not what we think they believe. I find that interacting with different views can help clarify what I actually believe and expose weak spots in my reasoning but only if the rebuttals offered are actually relevant.

    I also think most public discourse is conducted nowadays with more of an emphasis on changing minds through peer pressure and bullying rather than rational discussion and the debates over religion are no different. No need to curb your rational criticism of Christian belief, feel free to criticize the institutions where there is real fault but at least acknowledge that in many places the local Christian churches are doing real good. I live in Australia where only a small percentage of the population go to church and we also have a very comprehensive social welfare system but the church still provides for the needs of many and without it countless people would be worse off in our community.

  20. David and Melissa,

    Good points, thanks.

    Melissa, I especially agree that atheistic and theistic views differ fundamentally in their conceptions of what reality is, and what’s really possible. As time goes on, I keep coming back to the idea that neither conception can be logically eliminated. That is, I doubt either position can be finally disproved, and I don’t think one can disprove the other.

    So, I guess we either try to knock each other off–figuratively speaking–or we look to somehow confederating in a way that protects the prerogatives of each of us to live out our “creeds” publicly.

  21. “That is, I doubt either position can be finally disproved, and I don’t think one can disprove the other.”

    You couldn’t be more right about this Larry. We are not in the world of proofs. We are in the world of reasoning to best possible inference. We are in the world of finally, when all is said and done, having to adopt a set of beliefs. The question is which one best descibes the world around us. There are implications, very important implications, depending on what we choose.

  22. Larry,

    Completely agree with your first paragraph.

    Coming to an agreement over which “creeds” should be allowed to be lived out in society has always been tricky because, I’m sure you would agree that we certainly don’t have a right to live out whatever beliefs take our fancy and there is disagreement over where to draw the line. Fortunately the legacy of Christianity does still influence much of the moral thinking in western countries (for example human rights) so the disagreements aren’t as sharp as they may be if you were looking at atheists that didn’t have that influence.

  23. @BillT

    you just used the word belief (and quite appropriately as it refers to a position held without proof or held by faith)

    Merriam-Webster, stage left –

    Belief

    1: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

    2: something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group

    3: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

    Belief is trust, a tenet (commonly shared principle or doctrine), or a conviction based upon some sort of evidence. I won’t bump too far into foundationalism or the like, but the blanket assertion that a belief is something held especially without evidence or only upon faith is just… well, wrong.

    (Even for a Christian – you have some sort of evidence in the form of the Holy Spirit, yes?)

    With that understanding, would you like to take another go at how not believing in God is a religious belief? I’ve provided just about all of the relevant definitions; proceed when ready.

    The question is which one best descibes the world around us. There are implications, very important implications, depending on what we choose.

    It may not be the only method, but the single best method to “describe the world around us” is science. If your beliefs don’t align with well-established scientific findings (that the world isn’t flat, orbits the Sun, and is billions of years old, etc), then the only implication is that you are wrong.

    @David

    Still, the response by many to ID reveals anything but objective consideration and analysis

    If for no other single reason, it is suspect because it is propaganda. See Cdesign Proponentsists.

    Other than that, it’s rather difficult to accept one of their leading spin artists as being a “researcher” when his articles couldn’t pass peer review.

    Doesn’t matter, slightly off-topic as far as this thread goes. False knowledge should be addressed, though, so at least it’s out there.

  24. Sault,

    You are quite simply a liar. There just isn’t another word to describe it.

    I said “And opinions held without proof are beliefs.”

    You said “a belief is something held especially without evidence…”

    Evidence and proof aren’t synonyms. So take you dictionary, fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.

    We’re done Sault. You’re a liar and that’s here for all to see.

  25. I apologize for getting a little testy, but c’mon, let’s try not to stoop to insults, okay?

    I acknowledge that I misquoted and misunderstood you as far as what your definition of belief was.

    So, I’ll ask once again – in what way is atheism a religious belief?

  26. @Melissa

    Fortunately the legacy of Christianity does still influence much of the moral thinking in western countries (for example human rights)

    Indeed, we are fortunate that Christianity was born in Greek culture and so thoroughly informed and shaped by it. Not trying to knock the Mosaic law, but can you imagine if we went around stoning perjurers and not being able to wear fabrics of mixed thread? That would be devastating to our textile industry!

    We’d probably have fewer politicians, though.

    Thank you, Greece!

  27. Sault, this has achieved the level of self-parody:

    If for no other single reason, it is suspect because it is propaganda. See Cdesign Proponentsists.

    “Cdesign Proponentsists” is a worn-out story. It never proved “propaganda” in the first place, because one little clue to the history of a book cannot do that. The history of ID is bigger than that. It has also continued forward several years since then.

    The repetition of the claim about this has descended to the level of propaganda.

    The peer review link you intended to leave here seems to have been mixed up with another one. You know what, though? Even without following the link, the proposition you state there is also weak. One researcher’s article not making it through peer review is hardly evidence that a whole field is not to be taken seriously.

    I know this is a contentious topic, but accusations of “spin artists” are no help at all when they’re spun out the way you have just done.

    Larry, do you want to keep ID in the discussion stream? I’m going to let you take the lead on it if you want by writing the next comment on it, if you want. That means I’m not going to let anyone else write the next comment on it. If we went that direction it wouldn’t do Larry’s account here any good–unless he wants to go there.

  28. Sault, my first instinct on reading #33 was,

    “One more of those, Sault, and you’re out of the discussion.”

    It’s a knee jerk response I have to moderate when I see such mindless insults of a faith that many of us here hold and that even Larry respects still.

    I know you didn’t like it when BillT called you a liar, but you don’t help your position any by demonstrating ignorance coupled with offensiveness like this.

  29. (When I say I have to moderate that response, by the way, I’m not telling you it’s always wrong for me to respond that way. I just need to be careful not to do it in knee-jerk fashion. Mindless insults are not appropriate or welcome here.)

  30. I’m not insulting anyone or anything… although I probably did come off a little too jovially. My apologies for that.

    The point is that under the Mosaic code perjurers are indeed sentenced to death and the wearing of mixed fibers is proscribed. On the other hand, Platonism has influenced Christian thought and philosophy, and that’s largely why we have our Western conceptions of human rights and values.

    Ugh. I can see what you mean, though. A little too flippant. Sorry about that.

  31. Sault, that wasn’t only too flippant. It was ignorant and insulting.

    Your knowledge of the context of the Mosaic code in its time is nil, by all that you’ve demonstrated here. Your awareness of the progress of thought since then is no better.

    Your recognition of your own ignorance on these topics is equally dim, and your realization of the effect of your words is no brighter.

  32. I’m not going to pretend that was a complimentary assessment I just made of you, Sault. The difference between that and the insult you delivered is that mine is considerably better informed and in fact true in a way that you would do well to recognize in yourself.

  33. And that’s the end of that for this thread with Larry.

    I hate how people can stoop to these kinds of self-parodying propaganda, spin, ignorance, and insult, and ruin a perfectly good discussion in the process.

    No more.

  34. Tom, If I may just add one further thought to the discussion on ethics and rights? There is a strong Jewish tradition running through the OT, especially the wisdom literature, that relates ethics to our shared humanity (for eg Job 31:13-15). It is these creation-based ethical concepts that are drawn on to support human rights.

  35. Sault,

    Your relpies to me were no less an insult than mine was. And I’ve explained my position on atheism as a religious belief (and your implication I haven’t is insulting as well).

  36. @BillT

    While some atheists may be religious, atheism itself is a metaphysical and philosophical position, not a religious one. My response was intended to be definitive and not insulting.

    @Tom

    You have summarily dismissed everything that I’ve said so far and characterized it as parody and ignorance. Okay.

    I have seen a few emotionally charged and even vehement condemnations of atheism occur here – some that have literally gone on for pages. In light of this, it takes me aback that a short, flippant comment comparing the philosophical merits of a faith informed by Grecian philosophy with one that was not has elicited such a condemnatory reaction. Okay.

  37. Sault,

    1. I did not “dismiss” what you said. I strongly criticized it as being uninformed and inaccurate. I did not go in to supporting every detail of my criticism, though, because it would have taken us on a tangent, and frankly I don’t think drive-by potshots like some of yours call for detailed responses.

    2. I did not speak to (much less “dismiss”) everything you’ve said here. My criticism was directed to specific things you said.

    3. Please don’t go shouting “unfair” to me. I’m doing my best to deal with gratuitous criticism and to keep it germane and at least somewhat supported by facts.

    4. You mischaracterized “one that was not [informed by Grecian [sic] philosophy] even this time around.

    I hate it when threads spin out like this one.

  38. Still prevaricating, huh, Sault.

    Again “Sault. Just what part of the following did you not understand?”

    “And BTW, having a religious belief does not require one to be religious, have a religion or go to a church.”

    It was bad enough the first time but to repeat your dishonest question again is about as low as one can get but that’s not a new place for you is it?

  39. @Tom

    Thank you for your response. I apologize for the misstatements that I have made (I think I actually did spell Grecian properly, though).

    @BillT

    Thank you for your response. I regret that our exchange has gone so poorly.

  40. @Sault
    Hi Sault 🙂 How are you? I hope all is well and that 2013 is going to be a good year for you. BTW – I discovered while playing Facebook Scrabble that ‘sault’ is a ‘waterfall’ 🙂

    Anyway, on to my post.
    It looks to me that you are trying to discount the ‘faith’ aspect of an atheistic worldview, in contrast to a theistic one.
    However, have you considered the question from another perspective? Namely, that all worldviews have within them metaphysical assumptions that cannot be directly tested and proven (for lack of a better word). At best, one can look at the available data, and try to draw inferences that affirm or deny those metaphysical assumptions. Metaphysical Naturalism (probably the worldview of most atheists, at least in the West) is the worldview that there is nothing except the physical universe (or multiverse, as the case may be), and hence there is no extra-physical realm, nor an eternal, self-existent Creator (aka God). Theism, and Christian Theism in particular, is the worldview that reality is more than that – an eternal, self-existent Creator Who dwells in an extra-physical realm (which we call Eternity), Who created the physical universe (or multiverse as the case may be – if so, then perhaps He selected the particular universe that has the best set of parameters for the kinds of life He had in mind, but that’s another interesting topic).

    If you have never read it before, you should get a copy of James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door, here.

  41. @Victoria

    It looks to me that you are trying to discount the ‘faith’ aspect of an atheistic worldview, in contrast to a theistic one.

    Hello, and Happy New Year to you as well!

    I’m not attempting to discount faith – I’m denying that it exists at all for an atheist.

    If ‘faith’ to you means belief and trust in God, and I don’t believe in God, then you don’t get to say that I have faith. Use a different word, a more appropriate word, but not ‘faith’, if that is the meaning that you assign to it.

    Cast slightly differently, I am a metaphysical naturalist, as opposed to a supernaturalist. I have to believe in the supernatural before I can believe in God. Faith is belief in God. I must believe in the supernatural to have faith. I do not believe in the supernatural, so I cannot have faith.

    Said another way, it is inconsistent for you to say that an atheist has faith, then go to church and proclaim how much faith you have in Jesus in how he will work miracles in our lives (or whatever you go to church and say about Jesus).

    It’s a plea to end the (surely unintentional) equivocation. You can dilute the meaning of the word until it encompasses all manner of beliefs, but then the word becomes meaningless and loses potency once you start talking about your own cherished beliefs and trust in your Lord.

    I guess that’s one way to say it. Hopefully that helps.

  42. I never cease to be amazed over the absolute control unbelievers have over the definition if faith. Usually it’s “belief without evidence.” This is a new one; or at least it’s the first time I’ve seen this restriction imposed on all possible meanings of the word.

    It must make it easier to combat faith if you can define it to suit.

  43. I’m not giving ‘combat’ to it – I’m trying to figure out how it’s used, and whether it’s appropriate to use that term when it comes to me.

    Victoria gives an excellent summary of the Biblical usage of the word here. You state here:

    Faith is belief built upon knowledge, and credibly so.

    You use the word in a different and more nuanced way than the Merriam-Webster definition. You go further and say here:

    Faith in God is actually a fact-based confidence or trust in him as a person, that he will be for me today and for all in the future the same God that he has been for me and many others in the past.

    I do not know God, so I don’t fit that definition of faith. I don’t trust God or have confidence in Him, so I don’t fit that definition of faith. I don’t believe in God, so I don’t fit the Merriam-Webster 2b definition of faith.

    I hold a metaphysical position, but that is not the same as having ‘faith’ in the same way that believing in the supernatural is not the same as having ‘faith’.

    As an non-believer, I am trying to be careful and use the words as defined by either commonly agreed definitions (e.g. Merriam-Webster) or usages as believers themselves use the word (e.g. Biblically, or as you yourself have used the word).

    Trying to keep it apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges, going by the standards of the people who say what ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’ are.

  44. The definition I gave was of “faith in God,” not of all “faith.” Believers typically use the word “faith” to mean belief in other things beside God. I have spoken more than once—and recently, too!—of the faith I had in my soon-to-be wife as we approached our wedding day. One of the times I said that was directly to you< . So please refresh your memory, Sault, and think about how “faith” in that sense might apply to objects of faith other than God. Thanks.

  45. I thought I covered that – you have defined the word ‘faith’ to mean ‘trust’. I accept that, but that meaning of faith still isn’t analogous to my metaphysical position about the non-existence of the supernatural.

    Every definition of faith given implies that there is an object to place faith in. If there is no object, can it still be considered faith?

    I guess what is left is to ask Victoria what sense of ‘faith’ she meant, because none of the definitions of ‘faith’ given so far fit.

  46. Not quite, Sault. Faith involves trust, but specifically taking something to be true that cannot be known directly.

    Another example. I’ve been to the world’s major Communist countries, except North Korea, which I have only seen from across the DMZ. When I was growing up I was told that Western freedom was morally, economically, and existentially better than Communist oppression. I had no direct knowledge that this was true, but I had faith in the sources who told me that in various ways. Later on I found out through direct experience that it was true.

    Your object of faith is your information sources (from one perspective) and the naturalistic universe (from another). That’s who and what you count on to be true or veridical, even though you cannot show them true by direct means.

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