Monday, March 22, 2010

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a "normal sized" blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they're afraid to "come out"--in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he's gay. Or they say they've lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don't understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think "nobody's forcing you to believe anything--stop your whining." But they don't understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they've seen on Youtube saying, "I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don't believe in god." And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs--but he can't speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don't think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters--they'd hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won't move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived--not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote's inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful--totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets--just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to "people" and say that demonstrates a "purpose" to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced--if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child--what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, "Even if this god exists, what a monster"?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible--but don't really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can't judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can't fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn't follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible--but that's faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can't take responsibility for a thing if I don't understand what I'm being asked to do. "Just following orders" is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a "responsibility to god" as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong--since the atheist is not shouldering his "responsibility to god." We end up being "irresponsible" for wanting to know exactly what we're doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we'll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation--and refuse to comply until I get it. If I'm going to commit an atrocity, I think it's fair to at least ask to know why I'm being asked to commit it. To you and I, that's reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn't thought of that would get me to comply; but I can't say I'm "taking responsibility for my actions" if I'm simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I'm doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of "being responsible."

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you're doing, you end up being labeled someone who "does what he wants" because he doesn't like responsibility--you refuse to own up to your "responsibility to god."

In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously--that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more "sensible" to trust people who say you can't trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person's head on this "wrongly"? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.


  1. I'm actually constantly amazed and surprised by how many people do break through of indoctrination and programing, from all stripes of cults/religions. I was raised Episcopal/Methodist the latter of which is in hindsight very far removed from most Christianity (and yet it still claims Bush, wtf?) with a more humanistic approach. I wasn't give the hard line many do, though there were clearly mental hurdles set up, so leaving was possible. And yet people are able to recover from direct authoritarian cults, Quiverfull, Islam, Mormonism, Scientology and others that are more threatening about apostates. How do people do it?

  2. "Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a "normal sized" blog entry."

    Haha, we still love you Tracie, even though you tend to write multi-volume blog posts.

    I prefer it that way, though, because you have a unique spin on the issues, and a 2-paragrapher wouldn't do you justice.

    That being said, good post. It's a little long, though ;p

  3. I've really enjoyed the last several blog posts; they're exactly why I check in on this web site every so often! Thanks loads to the folks who write them. (And Tracie, your blog posts are worth reading at *any* length!)

  4. Thanks for the kind comments on the length of my articles.

    Ing, I'm amazed even more that people escape from things like Amish society. Those kids are pulled out of school at early ages, and cloistered to such a degree that I reject their decision to "stay" as a free choice. But look at how society sees it as "quaint" and buys pies and furniture. It's like a tourist attraction based on child abuse.

  5. As I understand it, Amish culture isn't nearly so restrictive and abusive as, say, those FLDS Mormons living off in that West Texas compound that got raided. They're aware that they're separate from modern American culture and don't hide that such a culture exists from their kids. There's a period during an adolescent Amish kid's life called "rumspringa" where the usual youth rebellion is expected — kids will sometimes go off, dress in normal clothing, listen to rock music, even experiment with sex and drugs — and while some kids do choose to leave the fold (and are free to do so as adults), most return after going through this phase, they usually aren't treated with super-harsh discipline when they do (unlike, say, the JW's with their shunning practices).

  6. @Martin.

    Right, the period is actually supposed to be when they decide if they want to continue being Amish. Granted I think if they decide to leave they are cut off from everyone, so there's that, but there is at least a level of transparency.

  7. >they usually aren't treated with super-harsh discipline when they do (unlike, say, the JW's with their shunning practices).

    I've also read ex-Amish testimonies about what happens when they don't--such as women having to leave their children. And in one documentary that highlighted two teen girls who left--one went back--but it was obvious the one who returned did so due, on a good level, to intimidation from the idea of living outside the community (and being totally shunned if she left).

  8. Also, Ing, consider what it would be like to be given that choice as a "teen" after a lifetime of not having full access to external culture. The disadvantage would be huge.

    "Because when they come out they have no money, no clothes, no nothing, and no home to live in."

    But if you read these stories, you see praise for "the good" they learned, like work ethic. Just as in any cult, it gets credit for things that could have been taught just as well without abuse and mind-control and threats of social isolation. I give them no margin.

  9. That is a good point, raised Amish you have few skills that translate to the real world, you'd basically have to start your education over again at high school in order to get anywhere beyond unskilled labor, not to mention lacking the skills for banking, taxes and all. It's weird cause I'm not sure they do it intentionally, but at least they go off and don't try to influence the rest of us.

    BTW, If I may suggest Literature, Warren Ellis's finished comic series "Transmetropolitian" is a trans-humanist political satire. One of the issues is about the far future society's "reserves" places where people live life as if they were in a certain time period and culture inside a Truman Show like building unaware of the outside world. The idea of people leaving such a place like the Aztec reserve (which is restarted every couple of decades due to them inevitably dying out from disease) or the Southern Republican reserve is touched upon.

  10. @Tracie

    You should do a show topic on isolationist or abusive religions that have good press.


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