Explaining Agnosticism

So, I have this running joke that goes, “I don’t care if someone is gay or straight but I hate bisexuals. But that is only because I can’t stand people who can’t make up their minds.”

My son called me on this and said, “If you don’t like people who can’t make up their minds then why are you an agnostic? Agnostics are people who can’t make up their minds.”

So, I explained agnosticism like this: Three people, a religious person, an atheist and an agnostic are standing around arguing about the context of a box without being able to open the box. 

The religious persons says, “As a matter of faith I believe there are all kinds of wonderful things inside the box.”

The atheist says, “Using my giant pulsating brain I have reasoned with absolute certainty that the box is empty.”

The agnostic says, “I don’t know what, if anything, is inside the box because we haven’t looked inside the box.”

Agnosticism, I explained, is a statement about the limits of human knowledge and not a statement one way or the other about the totality of existence. 

My son thought about this and said, “Most likely, if they managed to open the box, they’ll just find another box inside.”

I’m pretty sure he’s right about that. 

39 thoughts on “Explaining Agnosticism”

  1. One other possibility Shannon, what if you have already known others that have opened the box and it’s full of good things, and what if you were allowed a peek into the box and sure enough it is full of wonder and what if you have in your possession a signed legal document that guarantees in blood that the contents of the box are excellent beyond belief; do you just discount all that to your own inability to decide or depend your own limited reason? Sometimes what looks like a leap of faith for those of faith is a tiny sure step. This would be personal experience speaking.

    I too was once an agnostic, then somebody let me look into the box and….

    I changed worlds

  2. I admire the wit of this and share the general point of view. I’m of the agnostic persuasion myself. I just drifted into it out of sheer laziness and shallow rebelliousness. But yet I have a nagging doubt and a bad conscience. I dismiss that doubt in ordinary daily life. I dismiss it in my profession. I’d dismiss it if I were doing science or politics. However, even we hardened rational types seem to need more than logical manipulation of ideas and words. J.S. Mill himself acknowledged the limitations of rationality. He knew Wordsworth’s truth was stronger than his own, and he suspected there was hollowness at his own core.

    Holy writ is the way the human race expressed these deep unreachable truths before there was a scribbling race of middle-class poets. The tales and poems of the Bible are a bit beyond the grasp of any of us. So are “Moby Dick” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Mill never eludes us – and therefore never entirely satisfies us.

    It’s not easy or negligible to think and write logically. Two cheers for clarity and rationality! But to glimpse the mysterious stuff on the others side of the veil – well, that would be good for three cheers and to be carried off the field. That won’t happen to a secular and quasi-rational guy like me any time soon, and probably never. That thought would be a triumphal one if it weren’t for the nagging doubt and the bad conscience that accompany it.

  3. Two quibbles.

    One is the seeming characterization of the religious believer as wholly relying on faith as if that were totally detached from evidence, or in defiance of evidence. I hold with St. Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II that we approach God from two directions, and we rely on both faith and reason — as one of the Pope’s encyclicals was titled “Fides et Ratio”. As I have told my children, that single syllable “et” is essential. Faith and reason are seamless because truth is seamless. If they seem out of joint, you (or I, or whoever) have not thought it out deeply enough.

    Second, the athiest is presented as claiming that his giant brain lets him see into the box. If that were all he were doing, I could ignore him as full of himself, or wonder, if he really is super-smart, if he understands something I do not. What usually happens is less ambiguous. we usually have a very, very smart person who is very good at science assert that his science tells us all that needs to be known, and by a defective logical leap, rules out God and all the ancillary spiritual matters appertaining thereto. The problem is that science is by its nature limited to sense data and the extremely refined analysis of the extremely refined data gathered by scientists to use to “do science”. It is beyond the scope of its competence when it says, for example, there is no God. Now, it is within the scope of its competence when science says that the Earth is some number of billions of years old, for example. As an aside, the problem of rebutting Biblical literalism (often an appendage to a sola scriptura underestanding of Christianity) is a rebuttal of Christianity generally, or religion generally. Not so.

    If I were not a Catholic, as a matter of reason, I would be an agnostic, I suppose, since the rebuttal of one position does not establish the other, it creates doubt about one thing, but not certainty about its opposite. That is the cool, sane, enlightenment position.

    But if I were not a Catholic, and I had the same vehement disposition, as a matter of emotional constitution I would probably be an Atheist. Atheism is a substitute religion, it is not the absence of religion, and it provokes an essentially religious ardor in those who profess it, much of the time.

  4. Thanks Shannon. Your clarity – like Jonathan’s – comes from a purity of style. Reason may lead to Shannon’s agnosticism and Lexington’s faith – but as each acknowledges the other’s good faith, we can be brought to think more. Newman or Darwin, Jonathan Edwards or Benjamin Franklin?
    Today, some believe in “science” but it seems more a stick in the eye to others than a real appreciation of science’s methods, its tentativeness at times & power at others.

  5. Lexington, your comment has the same combination of clarity and conviction that we non-believers both envy and are blocked from access to. I speak as one raised in a Bible-reading Prostestant tradition devoid of churchly hierarchy or learned guidance. That general perspective, still with me, will never quite permit me to make the pilgrimage to Rome. I remain high and dry on the desolate shore – more a Matthew Arnold manque than a John Henry Newman manque.

    The lovely idea of “Fides et Ratio” looks awfully exotic to someone like me. I have read St. Thomas with much pleasure in the power of the mind and much admiration for the worldview. But all those authorities and that chain of deduction always looks at some level like a put-up job. The Ratio part looks like it’s in the service of the Fides part, and Fides is something you either have or you don’t have. When I stopped reading the Bible I didn’t of course start reading the Church fathers, as perhaps I should have. In the sixties one naturally took up other faiths – the writings of the leftist utopians. That stuff didn’t satisfy of course – it was short rations for both the mind and the spirit. Mill was right – the poets are the best humanists.

    Humanism isn’t much of a faith – I wouldn’t call it one – but it has its moments and poignancies. Keats’ description of our human life as “a vale of soul-making” still moves me deeply.(Maybe I just like the Protestant resonances in that phrase.) And, yes, poor old Arnold on Dover Beach contemplating the eternal tears of our human life. Or a more cheerful Wallace Stevens on a Sunday morning in which the complacencies of the peignoir, that coffee and those cut oranges, that darned cockatoo – all lead inexorably to Jesus transmogrified from the tomb in Palestine to the ambiguous undulations of pigeons sinking “downward to darkness on extended wings”.

    There are powers and beauties open to us ambiguous souls who can’t make it up the road to Calvary.

  6. Your funny story exhibits the typical misunderstanding of atheism. Atheism is a-theism, not anti-theism. The atheist is simply a person who has no use for belief at all, including belief in a god. Just like an asexual, who merely has no use for sex and who derides those who are foolishly obsessed with it.

    Because atheists (just like scientists) rely on reason and have no use for belief of any kind, the term “atheist” does not actually fit folks like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and me, which is one of the ideas underlying Dawkins invention of “brights” to replace “atheists.”

    In truth, therefore, agnostic=atheist=scientist and belief=superstition=religion.

  7. Thans, Jimbino, you described me perfectly. I have no use of religion and find the constant quibbling on the topic boring and frankly, unworthy of smart people who should’ve known better. Like seeing bearded men throwing sand to each other in a kids’ sandbox.

  8. I think that people’s actions in their lives tell what they believe. Speak is cheap. Example:

    Religious person “I believe in God and I make choices in my life that reflect my beliefs”

    Atheist “I’m fine with making my choices based solely on human knowledge of science, engineering, economics etc.”

    Agnostic “When it comes to any practical choice about God vs. science, I’m just like an atheist. But I think it makes me sound smarter to say I’m an agnostic when I’m in a philosophical discussion which has no connection to real life.”

    I used to call myself an agnostic when I was a kid. Now it feels pretentious, because I act fully like there is no God. (No anti-religious feelings here, just “I don’t care either way”.)

  9. Jimbino,

    In truth, therefore, agnostic=atheist=scientist and belief=superstition=religion.

    If that were true, then we wouldn’t have two separate words, agnostic and atheist, with two separate etymologies, to describe the same concept. Neither do either have anything to do with science as both ideas existed long before science. Atheism is the proper term for people who hold the firm belief that nothing divine exist.

    If you hold yourself only to theorizing about things that can be observed and measured then you are an agnostic because the possibility always exist that we cannot measure or observe all that is. For example, we might all just be players in a completely immersive video created by an alien race in a real universe that has profoundly different natural laws than ours. They wrote the game so that they could experiment with living in a universe which has only one dimension of time. There would be no way for the characters in the game, using the physical rules of the game, to deduce the existence of the greater universe.

    Richard Dawkins is an atheist in the strictest sense and otherwise nothing more than your run of mill religious bigot. Honestly, calling people who think you “brights”, which by implication means those that don’t are “dims” is suppose to rational? It’s even more revealing when consider that he is actually duplicating the light-vs-dark dualism of all Zoroastrianism influenced religions such as Christianity. I read “The God Delusion” and literally wept to see one of my childhood scientific heros fall so into unreason and hatred.

  10. Perhaps this came home most strongly to me when I asked myself why I preferred an elected official who proclaimed a religious belief. It didn’t seem sensible, I thought, but I felt it. Then, I realized, few of the non-believers I know have the logic nor humility of Shannon – whom I would gladly vote for. It isn’t the lack of belief but rather the belief in – well, themselves; it isn’t the confidence mixed with humility I see in the firmly religious that there is a greater truth nor the profound doubts of, well, Arnold and Shannon might be good examples of the agnostic, rather it is the arrogance of the “Brights.” Krauthammer described the difference between Bush’s and Obama’s positions on stem cells: he disagreed with Bush but refused to go to Obama’s bill signing, his principle reasoning being that the latter was not a morally serious act. We see the difference in governance less between a believer and a non-believer than between a morally serious man and one who was not. Dawkins seems to lack a certain, rather necessary and rather humbling, imagination.

  11. Shannon, you got it backwards: it’s the Christianity, as well as Zoroastrism and all other isms that duplicate an ancient notion of Light vs Dark in people’s psyche. It’s been there since first bonfires in the cave.

    Dawkins’ fervor is the matter of temperament (and perfectly understandable, to me, inability to suffer fools gladly. Sometimes the cap of patience overflows) – just like all those Catholic canons and church writers and monastic fanatics, like Savonarola – or like Luther, from the other side of the isle: these people’s temperament directed their being vocal and more about their beliefs.

    That doesn’t mean all Christians are fiery missionaries (although there are more of them that’s acceptable for my comfort), or that Richard Dawkins is an atheist in the strictest sense – it is enough to be a grown up and have no use for fairy tales to be an atheist.

  12. Personally, I believe that God, knowing that the three were about to open the box, put another box in there.

    Tatyana, could it be possible that your inability to “suffer fools of religion” came not from reason but from the cultural indoctrination you experienced?

  13. Mishu: no.

    Be consistent:
    1)if you think anyone who’ve been told something in his childhood is marked with it forever, you deny that person critical thinking. That’s not nice.
    2) I have been told all kinds of things, for 30 years I lived in SU. Including constant bombardment with anti-capitalist propaganda. According your logic I’d be a flaming radical communist by now. Yet, I’m exactly the opposite.
    3)If anybody experienced “cultural indoctrination”, it’s people whose life rotates on a closed loop of religion.

  14. If you can’t make up your mind about the origin of the universe or the existence of a “force” of some sort compelling order (or lack thereof) in the universe, I believe being agnostic is OK sort of. When scientists don’t understand something, they take the best evidence available and draw the best working theory possible. To that extent, they are not agnostic about the concept, but rather comfortable in their prevailing theory and open to new evidence that might refute it.

    Being agnostic about the existence of the god described in the Christian, Islamic or Judaic texts is really pathetic in my view. Any amount of research reveals them all to be creations of man taken from previous mythology, also created by man. No fewer than 6 mythological characters in history were born on the December 25th, of a virgin, were persecuted, murdered and rose from the dead. Gimme a break. Agnostic about this?? For the most part, the entire contents of the gospels are forgeries and there was almost certainly no historical Jesus Christ. As for the world’s other religions, they too lack any basis in fact, observation or other evidence, whatsoever. Before you declare yourself an agnostic, do a bit of research to see just how feeble your mind is NOT to make a decision for yourself.

  15. I have enjoyed this well measured discussion. Just to be clear if I was not at the beginning, I am a full on sold out Christian, worse than that, a tongue talking pentecostal. Now you would thing that makes me some back country Neanderthal with the intellectual capacity of a gnat.

    I have been so accused, but, without posting a resume, I have been the President/CEO of a major technology corporation in Chicago. Traveled the world and worked as an expat for several years.

    I write a pretty political/economics/spiritual blog of my own with insights that many seem to feel they agree with and or take issue with. And I write for a Blog that seems to be read pretty widely, Say Anything Blog.

    So, I am not hesitant to declare my spiritual understanding and conviction.

    I don’t consider those who for whatever reason have become Agnostic or Atheist as superior or inferior. Perhaps yet not enlightened spiritually. To think otherwise would be intellectually dishonest. I do however respectfully disagree with the conclusions to which they have come.

    I discovered this blog by accident. I had never commented on this blog before today but became a fan of Chicago Boyz some years ago and a daily reader since when one of the members posted a national budget calculator here. I attempted to balance the national budget much to my dismay.

    I appreciate the work done here and the civility with which it is done.

    Keep up the good work.

  16. It takes a subtle mind, Gene, to appreciate that there could be a God who would manifest himself in revelations to mankind made in many different ways in mankind’s history. Indeed, respect for man’s attempt to grapple with the imponderables of our human existence – what I’d call humanism – means we ought to take seriously the God that man has created. Modernists have no use for any of this. That speaks to the impoverishment of modern man.

  17. Without taking a position on religious faith, the most interesting recent discussions of religious faith I’ve read are studies analyzing the evolutionary advantages of religious faith.

    To oversimplify, the analysis goes something like this: religious belief is one of the most powerful known tools of social cohesion and preservation of in-group identity. It also promotes long range planning, confidence, a sense of control over the external environment and resilience in individual believers.

    As a result, strong religious faith is evolutionarily adaptive, which is why it is universal in all known traditional societies. The question of whether there is a God, especially of the anthropomorphic variety beloved by the majority of established religions, is almost besides the point; the human brain is wired for belief so a God would be invented anyway.

    This strikes me as a rather good explanation of many features of religious faith – notably the emphasis that almost all religions put on social interaction between believers. Outside of ascetics and prophets, religion is not for loners. It also explains why identical twin studies show a strongly genetic component for intrinsic religiosity or spirituality. Extrinsic religiosity (e.g. being Catholic like me) is much more correlated with a person’s environment and direct parental influence.

  18. All sorts of research shows the adaptiveness even in the present day of traditional religious belief – correlations with economic success, family solidarity, mental health and even sexual satisfaction. It turns out St. Paul might have been a precursor of Norman Vincent Peale and Dr. Ruth. (Well, he did say it was better to marry than to burn.)

    Believers have a competitive advantage. Belief clears the mind, saves it from fruitless speculative wanderings, allows the Believer to concentrate on other things – making a living, raising a family and coaching Little League. If you can take your beliefs in a seamless handover from believing parents you’ve got a head start on the practical stuff of making a life for yourself.

    The wretched race of intellectual strivers and would-be strivers (of whom I profess to be one of the latter) seem to have to detonate all that solid ready-made masonry and – this is the hope anyhow – build up something in their own terms. Those of us who come out of the Protestant tradition seem especially to need this. Great Protestant theologians like Kierkegaard and Barth indeed see belief in explicitly non-functional terms. K. thought you could only say you believed when that belief made you a pariah in its practical effects. Barth thought that belief was only possible when the thing believed in is utterly absurd, inexplicable and impossible to accept by any rational demonstration. Tillich defined it as “the courage to be”.

    The catholic tradition no doubt has similar tendencies but generally avoids such radically individual statements and rediscoveries. That is its great solace and strength. As a Catholic friend said to me, “No wonder you strayed from faith. You came from this dinky little regional church without history or majesty. I came from the universal church of Augustine and Aquinas. You bawled out hymns and listened to rants in a clapboard building with peeling paint and no organ [it became a gymnasium after the congregation fought and divided over whether the King James Version of the Bible was the only acceptable one]. I worshipped solemnly in a place of mystery, incense and ritual, and I didn’t worry my petty little head about language or thought.”

    He was joking, but he had a point.

  19. K.J. Webb,

    Slaves have a competitive advantage. Being somebody’s slave clears the mind, saves it from fruitless speculative wanderings, from responsibility of making decisions, allows the slave to concentrate on other things – making a living, raising a family. No situations in slave’s life require more effort than consulting a little book with hymns and quotations of the Master to guide him. Behave – and you’ll be taken care for. Follow the commandments of your lord and master – and you’ll have no worry in the word. Stray from the Path – his wrath will strike you for the eternity. That is, unless you fall on your knees and ask for forgiveness.

  20. Then it seems you and I are both singing from the same Hymnal (so to speak), my dear Tatyana. We agree that belief gives a competitive advantage, but neither of us believes that this disposes of the argument for or against belief. The difference between us may lie in my feeling the need to take on board the undoubted strengths of a posture – religious belief – that I myself do not find congenial. In intellectual debate it should be possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Your namesake did that pretty well in “Eugene Onegin” in the performance I saw last night. I vehemently adored the youthful romantic heroine spurned and disappointed by a cad. But still more I admired the mature heroine’s resolve to renounce that still burning passion. Life doesn’t permit us to both love and be happy. We don’t say that love doesn’t exist. We don’t deny a thing of obvious truth and beauty, but it doesn’t keep us from doing the right thing – our duty. That’s tragic, but it’s life. Now that was a Tatyana who knew how to walk the walk and chew the gum.

  21. KJW: the difference between us is that you are a deliberate hypocrite, and I’m not.

    You don’t find in yourself an unquestionable faith, but you want to use religion as career pusher, as means of convenience, as competitive advantage, as passport to social club, as easy answers manual (check any that applies). I have few acquaintances of the same attitude – pleasant people, sociable, easy to get along with. When they move and there is no church of their own denomination, they’d rather change denomination than be on their own in the cold world. At least they are sincere and they don’t pretend to be “righteous”. You, however, want to seat on two chairs at same time – you carry your lack of belief as a cross – and your inner suffering you take as a comfort. What a perfectly Christian idea, in its perversity.

    Tatiana Larina is a male ideal of a wife – for a man like Pushkin. His career as a skirt chaser taught him how unstable a marriage is and how easy it is to seduce a married woman. So when he fell for Natalie Goncharova and proposed, he needed to invent something for his own confidence and peace of mind, some measure that would assure him that other womanizers will not do to his marriage what he so often done to others’. “Duty”, “religion”, “kindness”, “high society manners” – that would do the trick, oh sure…hence the Larina character. But just in case, in his own marriage he made sure his dazzling beauty of a wife was permanently pregnant (and as a result, spent most of the year away from the Court and its temptations). In 6 years of her marriage to Pushkin Goncharova had four children. It is illuminating, to read Pushkin’s letters to her; he doesn’t hide his motives at all.

  22. The main difference between us in this debate, Tatyana, is that you’re the captive of a faith – atheism. No deviation from the party line is permitted. That’s why you call people names and don’t really want to debate. All that stuff about easy answers and joining clubs pretty well sums up your answers and your club. I haven’t joined your club, though I wish you joy of it if it makes you happy. The world is more complex than this if you really want to think about it and not reduce it to slogans.

    Here’s an instance of this lamentable tendency of yours. You seem unable to separate the descriptive proposition that “belief gives a competitive advantage” from the normative conclusion that “we must therefore believe”. Indeed, your conflate of these propositions shows me that your unexamined assumption is that religion’s only real value, if it had any, would have to lie in its behavioral effects (as opposed to its objective truth or beauty). Since you don’t happen to like effects that are so apparently middle-class, you make the laughable statement that I’m boosting religion as a “career pusher” or socializer. Religion may or may not do these things for a person (I doubt it would be much help in the offices I’m familiar with). If you disagree with the observation, deny away. In fact you don’t disagree, you just drag in a conclusion no one has reached.

    Again, whatever I had to say about the tragic nature of life is something you may or may not agree with. If you disagree, say it. You prefer to sneer. You think I must be flaunting some disagreeable personal experience. But, then, poor old Pushkin comes in for the same treatment at your hands, so I shouldn’t be too miffed. The fellow just didn’t have the benefit of a good consciousness-raising session before he wrote an immortal masterpiece. I reckon old Bill Shakespeare and Master D. Alighieri could also have undergone some retraining.

  23. KJW: you covered your flanks thoroughly, a, buddy? No matter what I say – you already labeled me with all regurgitated stereotyped cliches, for every possible objection I might raise.
    And the romantic pose, the “tragic view on life” – why, you’re regular Werter! Mixed with insults, of course – same pattern as with Anon in another thread, just a bit more “educated” words – to show your superiority.

    Pushkin: oh yeah, you’re qualified to defend him – to me! KJW – defender of Sacred Russian culture – from a person who grew up in it. If it wasn’t so self-serving and arrogant, it would be funny. What do you know about Pushkin? How many years you studied him? Can you recite, by memory, at least one of his poems? Have you ever written an essay about him, his characters, plot – have you ever THOUGHT about him?

    A person who attributed to ME a “good consciousness-raising session”, to follow all stupid condescending simplifications hung onto every immigrant from SU – as if I was some sort of propagandist or apparatchik – is the same one announcing platitudes The world is more complex than this if you really want to think about it and not reduce it to slogans.

    I am not “captive” of anything, you pompous bully. I am not member of any party, political or cultural, no congregation or kolkhoz. I am free. My ideas, tiny and insignificant as they are, are my own. Why, I even heard of Rand only 5 years ago!- 20 years after I had been thinking along same lines as her.

    No, I don’t want to “debate” – no more than anyone in this or previous thread. Every religious commenter here builds his/her own little theory about the Enemy, and load that goat with all the sins they can think of, and get irritated when pointed out on their stereotyping. And why would I want to debate, pray say? I’m not 4yo, I have lived a long life, had a chance to think and form my own opinions; if I were still uncertain about my convictions, yeah, I would discuss them – but not now, not on this topic, and not with stubborn blind mill horses.

    I entered this and previous thread with this statement: I have no use for religion. It’s the same statement I’m leaving it.

  24. You don’t want to debate, so why come here? O.K. you don’t like me, I guess I can live with that. O.K. you’re the supreme authority on anything Russian, I can live with that. You got a chip on your shoulder, I can live with that too. But human beings are meant to talk with each other. This isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about discourse. That didn’t happen in the old SU. Get over it, my dear. You ain’t there anymore – unless you’d rather be.

  25. @ JOE: When you write: “Agnostic “When it comes to any practical choice about God vs. science, I’m just like an atheist. But I think it makes me sound smarter to say I’m an agnostic when I’m in a philosophical discussion which has no connection to real life.” What does this mean, Joe? The religious can be scientists and quite good scientists at that, so I don’t understand the point you are making? When you define real life, how do you define real life? Perhaps the religious and the agnostic are defining real in a different fashion?

    And, Joe, when you write: “I used to call myself an agnostic when I was a kid. Now it feels pretentious, because I act fully like there is no God. (No anti-religious feelings here, just “I don’t care either way”.” Perhaps the agnostic occasionally acts like there is a God? Or, the agnostic’s ‘unsureness’ about God doesn’t necessitate any different daily action. I don’t think the argument that, ‘well, you don’t act like there is a God’ necessarily holds water.

    I’m of the agnostic persuasion because you can’t design an experiment to disprove the existence of God, although, I’m sympathetic to those that say, well, but there is no real data trending in that direction, except, one could argue that the data, in this case, is the very idea of God. Maybe it is all just a religious center in the brain.

    I don’t think it’s pretentious or unscientific to say “I don’t know”. In fact, a lot of good science starts with “I don’t know.”

    Hmmm, Shannon, perhaps your pithy joke is better at expressing this…….

  26. One last thing, I believe the culture of agnosticism and atheism or nominal religion has destroyed any semblance of respect for the sacred. This has the net effect of removing the glue that has held our western culture together for five hundred or more years.

    When nothing is sacred, you have nothing to under gird society with. Daffy Duck? Mickey Mouse? Is there an argument that the lack of anything sacred in our culture and in our US social structure has destroyed the fundamental American Ethos of Unity? One nation under __________?

    When I think of how politicians, artists, comedians, TV Show hosts (Jon Stewart and Bill Maher) skewer all things sacred,it makes me wonder if we haven’t crossed some line culturally that cannot be reversed except by a total social collapse. Maybe we have brought this on ourselves by making the Sacred Secular and without honor. We have tried and failed to replace an ideology of sacred hatred with free love, free markets, free speech and independence. It won’t work.

    I’m just asking. Gates of Vienna bloggers. This is a profound and worthy topic. But, it’s only worthy if you take the time to read and think about the whole thing. Here’s a part of the content:

    It is useless to fight Mohammad if you’re too proud to defend a pork chop or a mannequin in the window. Unless you understand the full import of the caption under the Good Baron’s picture at the top of the blog, you don’t have the picture.

    The Enlightenment has disembodied that picture. A country can lose its very soul, be knocked off the very kilter of its continuum under Enlightenment “rights.”

    I understand Profitsbeard’s anger. But he cites few instances, Newsweek articles… I cite the emptying out of Turkey, all of North Africa. I can also cite Fjordman’s brilliant essays about why science flourished here and not elsewhere. The same goes for humor, entertainment, fashion, and everything under the sun.

    It is easy to win an argument against “theocratic maniacs”, but they have their mirror image: the atheist rationalists, the libertarians. So on the one side we have honor killings and chadors and on the other Gay Parades with Virgin Mary dildos. They have everything sacred and we have nothing sacred. We have monomania.

    This struggle is not about teeing off the idiots in the asylum, but about the asylum-keepers having lost sight of sanity.

    If you want to drop an Alka-Seltzer tablet into a barrel of amoebae and watch them get riled up, go ahead. I understand what’s at play. I can get worked up in a lather about how they’re supposedly crazy (they’re NOT).

    Freedom of speech is not going to save the West. Nothing “Enlightenment” will. The sacredness of our homes, our culture, our history, our customs will, if people wake up to them.

    We will fail in our attempt to defend western civilization without holding it together with the glue it needs. Atlas Shrugged. as good as it is, will not replace Holy Writ. It’s just a book. To the people of faith, be it the Koran or the Bible; the very word of God.

    One nation under…..the glue.

  27. @Kranitz: “No fewer than 6 mythological characters in history were born on the December 25th, of a virgin, were persecuted, murdered and rose from the dead.”

    I have yet to find anyone who can identify actual ancient sources that specify those things for the characters they’re said to be about (even the Bible says nothing about December 25.) The original “source” for the claim that many mythological characters share those (and other) characteristics is a book written in the early 1900s by a guy named Gerald Massey, who doesn’t give his own ancient sources for the claim. Nobody can identify actual ancient documents, carvings, etc. about, for example, Krishna that say anything about Dec 25 or any of that other stuff. As you said, people should educate themselves — and with it, people should be careful not to get hoodwinked by bogus historians either pro- or anti- for any particular religion.

    To echo Shannon: it’s sad to see otherwise reasonable people fall into unreason when the subject turns to religion. There are plenty of good reasons you might choose to reject Christianity or any other religion; you don’t need to resort to fabrications to do so.

  28. Thirty comments and yet no mention that maybe there is a cat in the box?

    Or maybe it’s a cat in the box in the box.

  29. LotharBot,

    Even if you are 100% correct and the Christ myth is original, there is no way to defend that:

    1. The Gospels are religious forgeries created 150-180 years after the supposed death of Jesus and are internally inconsistent to the point of absurdity;
    2. The New Testament has been written and re-written thousands of times by unknown authors
    3. The myths contained within each book are recreations of existing astrological myths that were around well before Jesus
    4. There is nothing beyond a few paragraphs in all of written history that even portends to have come from a non-biblical source that documents Jesus, who the bible says was known far and wide. Surely, during one of the most well-documented portions of ancient history, you’d think that SOMEONE would write about a guy performing miracles.
    5. If you analyze the myths within the bible (e.g. the last supper and crucifixion), you’ll see they beg credulity in the worst way.

    At the end of the day, I can posit and write whatever I want and you’ll never be able to prove it false (if I craft it like all religions craft their dogma). But if you want to stand on that platform, you must give equal credence to the Scientologist’s alien supreme being that rules over us from another planet. Are you ready to do that?

  30. Sorry, but I have to comment on the back and forth with Webb and Tatyana:

    1. Atheism is NOT a faith. Faith (in the religious sense) is a belief in something without evidence or reason. Atheism is simply the lack of belief. It is not a cause any more than not believing in fairies is a cause or faith.

    2. I’m not sure that religion gives people a competitive advantage. I believe the analysis that shows it does, might be true for the closed system of people within a group. However, if you view the issue from the macro perspective (e.g. as a world consisting of many divergent belief groups), it confers a decided DIS-advantage on humanity inasmuch as it solidifies belief lines and differences among groups. It contributes to conflict between groups and thereby diminishes the safety and security of each group. Jews (yes, I was raised one) are great at this, calling themselves the “chosen” people. The OT and other laws are clear that the “chosen” ones are good and the non-chosen ones may be dealt with harshly and summarily. Same with Muslims. We are all infidels in their view. Same with true Christians — if you don’t accept their lord, you burn in hell. So if you think there is a competitive advantage to religion, I suggest you are looking at the problem too narrowly.

    3. Why do we need anything “sacred?” To me, being sacred means being beyond reproach, beyond question. That to me is dangerous. Especially since individuals will interpret what is sacred in infinite ways and use what they interpret as justification to supersede laws. The world will not tear itself apart without a divine and sacred law giver. Quite to the contrary, the world has been very adept at tearing itself apart in the NAME OF their respective divine law-givers. Once people clear the fog of mythology and after-life, the picture of their own finite and lonely existence on a sphere billions of light years from any other orb that could support them, I believe they will more greatly appreciate exactly what they have on Earth and how limited and precious it really is. I would also suggest that a divine entity is not necessary for primates to co-exist in social communities. I’m sure we can handle it.

  31. Michael, you sound like a reasonable guy with whom one can do business, intellectually speaking. I think it helps in this sort of discourse to be clear before being polemical. I was being whimsical about “competitive advantage”. Who the hell cares? It’s an interesting question, but noone gets religion for that reason. Religious people in my experience are much more serious about ultimate questions. The fact that their seriousness about such questions makes them more practical in the real world appeals to my sense of irony.

    Do we “need to be sacred”? “Reason not the need”, King Lear said. Human beings don’t – unless they’re sociologists – make that kind of ultimate decision based on the behavioral effects.

    You’re a factual down-to-earth sort of guy. You think it’d be better if we just all got along and stopped taking seriously these big questions. You sound kind of like a Spinoza of the 21st century, except your god is my old namesake, Jack Webb. “Just the facts, ma’am”. No fog of mythology for you, no striving of the human race in art or thought unless that striving leads to science.

    Science is a wonderful thing, but why do scientists – or apologists for science – feel the need to beat the rest of us into submission? A true humanist – whether atheist, agnostic or believer – ought to embrace all the accomplishments of the human spirit, in this age and in all ages.

    Atheism is a bit hard for me to understand in its certitude of things it can’t really know anything about. Yet it’s O.K. with me until the point it begins to militantly diminish and pare down the many other human strivings in us that go beyond “just the facts”. If you really think Dawkins is a finer and fuller spirit than Thomas Aquinas, heaven (as you define it) help you.

  32. Michael,

    As I said in my previous post, there are plenty of good reasons people might choose to reject Christianity, and your reasons #4 and #5 are solidly among them. But then you taint them with:

    – your highly speculative statement as to the Gospel authorship dates (face it, you’re “guessing” just as much as the people who say the gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ time.)

    – your comment that the gospels are “inconsistent to the point of absurdity”. Certainly there are things in the gospels that are hard to reconcile, but in my experience those who claim they are inconsistent to the point of absurdity simply aren’t trying very hard to make sense of them.

    – your assertion that the gospel stories were rewritten many times. We have such an abundance of NT manuscripts from different times and places that we can pretty solidly detect when and where mere typos were introduced. There’s no evidence for significant “re-writes”, and certainly not thousands of them.

    – your bizarre comment about the astrological myths the gospel is supposedly recreating. Again, this goes back to my response to Kranitz (and to Gerald Massey) — I’ve looked for the astrological myths that the gospels supposedly recast; for the most part, the myths don’t exist at all, and in the rare case when there’s an actual ancient myth it’s been stretched and misrepresented in order to create the impression of similarity to the gospels. (I recall one argument that Jesus represents the sun, the “Three wise men” are the stars on Orion’s belt, the “bright star in the east” is Sirius, and that the 4 stars point to the sunrise on December 25. Great argument, except that the stars don’t actually point that way until late February, and there’s not a single ancient astrological myth about those 4 stars pointing to the sunrise. Oops!)

    Like K.J.Webb said, you sound like a reasonable guy, and you sound like you’re trying to argue in good faith. Given that, you may want to do some better historical research regarding the points I raised above. Your points 4 and 5 are solid; don’t diminish their effectiveness by bundling them with garbage.


    “Faith” itself has many definitions. Some take it to mean “believe in something without evidence” (the opposite of reason). Others use it to mean “continuing to believe in something you have good evidence for, even when the evidence is not directly in front of you and/or your emotions might cloud your judgment” (the opposite of forgetfulness or fickleness). This is the sort of faith you (hopefully) mean when you speak about having faith in a spouse or friend’s ability to accomplish something. The first type of faith is a vice, but the second is a virtue. When the Bible uses the word “faith”, it’s almost always talking about it in the second sense; it’s sad that so many modern religious people (especially Evangelicals) have decided to hold on to “faith” in the first sense.

    Here, I take issue with Shannon’s initial analogy. There are religious people who hold the first definition of faith, who would say “I believe the box is full of wonderful things because, uh, I want it to be”; this position is madness. Others will say “I believe the box to be empty because my brain is big and I’ve decided that the box must be empty because that would be simplest”; their position, too, is madness. There are religious people who hold the second definition of faith, who would say “whenever I’ve glimpsed into the box I’ve seen wonderful things, and nobody took anything out of the box, so I believe those wonderful things are still in the box even though I can’t presently see inside it.” There are also non-religious people who will say “I’ve looked inside the box and never seen anything inside, so I believe it has remained empty”; this is exactly the same sort of faith, which as I said before is a virtue. Finally, there are those who will say “I’ve never seen inside the box so I don’t know what’s in it” (agnostics); knowing the limits of their knowledge is also a virtue. You cannot detect who is rational or irrational simply by what they believe to be in the box; you can only detect it by comparing their belief to their reasons for that belief.

    A secondary point throughout this discussion is regarding how “militant” people are regarding their belief. This has little to do with how rational their belief is and much to do with how big of a jerk they are. Jerks cut all across the spectrum.

  33. Michael,
    I’m not sure I made my pov on “competitive advantage” clear. I mean, it’s been debated so many times and was refuted so many times – I thought my “…” is comprehensible enough.
    So – to fill that dotted line – no, I don’t think believers in deities have competitive advantage against non-believers; no more than slaves have competitive advantage vs. free people. And I hope historians of economic systems already came to a consensus on that: slave is comfortable being a slave (given his master is not a sadist and takes care of his property, his working cattle) – but a slave has no incentive to increase efficiency, no incentive for progress, no incentive to think for himself because he does not profit; and he does not profit because he can’t own property.
    Same happens with intellectual and emotional slavery – which is what religion very much looks to me like.

  34. My son thought about this and said, “Most likely, if they managed to open the box, they’ll just find another box inside.”

    I’m pretty sure he’s right about that.

    Or maybe, like Paul Atreides in Dune, when they put their hand in the box they’ll only find pain.

  35. Color me heathen but I fail to see any merit in either religious belief or agnosticism at this point in human history.

  36. Michael: “1. Atheism is NOT a faith. Faith (in the religious sense) is a belief in something without evidence or reason. Atheism is simply the lack of belief. It is not a cause any more than not believing in fairies is a cause or faith.”

    Agnosticism is a lack of belief. Atheism is the BELIEF that there is no God.

    There is a difference between knowledge and belief. I consider myself an agnostic Christian. I do not KNOW whether there is a God, but I BELIEVE there is a God. Belief involves making a choice–it is a matter of will. Knowledge is a matter of intellect.

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