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Peace with the madman

April 3, 2009

I’ve been having this discussion throughout the site (and also on his latest article) with Mormon Heretic, and it’s forced me to think of a few things about myself. I’ve developed a peculiar philosophy (as a result of my experiences or whatever), but I’ve not often had to verbalize my position. A lot of the people I deal with offline simply don’t care to know, but in my blogging, I can dig deeper.

In his article about Jewish, Muslim, and Academic Perspectives on Abraham, MH actually provides a nice little primer on the major things around Abraham. I thought it defined certain Old Testament personalities more humanely — such as Abraham himself, his wife Sarai, her maidservant Hagar, and of course his sons Isaac and Ishmael, who at least theoretically are responsible for some of the major monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Islam, Christianity.

I realized though, that in his discussion about a particularly provoking issue — Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (or perhaps Ishmael, if other perspectives are to be listened to) — we disagreed on completely different issues.It seems that when MH talks about the issue, his greatest issue is reconciling how Abraham would have gotten in the situation in the first place. As he says,

I’m not so sure I believe that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael (apparently there is a disagreement among the religions). However, I do accept that God saved Abraham from making a terrible mistake. To me the most important idea is that God saved Abraham’s son, but I don’t believe God would command anyone to kill their own child.

Although I know I’m probably projecting my ideas onto here, I thought that this might fit well to my rather broken thought frame as laid out in my series on Truth and truth. I’ll just go ahead and continue projecting (although MH will probably come [as he should] to clarify his own thought processes), but my idea is that MH has an idea of Truth…and it relates to God. This gives him expectations on what God would or would not do, and one of the things God would not do is command someone to sacrifice a son (even if in the end, things work out).

I understand this kind of concern, because in fact, I see people who disagree (and are disgusted) with the story (atheists or ex-Jews or ex-Christians, for example) ask, “What kind of God would do this? And why should we worship this God?’

I don’t think I’m necessarily innocent of that, but in this case, I wasn’t so concernd. My perspective allowed me to look and say, “Hey, I don’t have to assume God was in charge of this (because I don’t assume God). I don’t have to assume that things *should* have been better, because any ‘shoulds’ I propose are more reflective of my personally held truths than of metaphysical Truths.” So, for me, when I see injustices, it’s easier for me to not get as frustrated when I realize that we shouldn’t necessarily take for granted that things should be better. There will be good in the world and bad too. The frustration I feel is because I think that truths *can* be changed…so this is a sign that we must make personal progress beyond our limitations and biases.

However…there was something that got to me. My dear friend (can you hear the sarcasm?) Soren Kierkegaard:

“The protestant theologian Kierkegard at the beginning of his book, “Fear and Trembling”, imagines a scene in which Abraham takes Isaac, and binds him on the altar and says to him, ‘I hate you–I’ve always hated you. I can’t stand you, and now is my chance to kill you! And now I’m going to do it. And he starts to kill him, and God stops him just as he does in the Bible. And then, Abraham unties Isaac and holds him and crying, says to him, ‘I thought it was better that you should hate me, than that you should hate God.’”

So, it’s kinda shocking…but instead of being appalled at the idea of Abraham sacrificing his son (not saying that I think that’s all sunflowers and daisies, but I recognize that — if it did happen — I can’t reasonably have expected better), I’m more appalled at Kierkegaard’s proposed scenario.

And THIS is where I ask Soren: What kind of God would do THAT? And why should we worship this God?

K’gaard’s philosophy is ALL about that, unfortunately, what with his knight of faith and ideas on absurdity.

I wanted to explain the title…I think I’ve found peace with the so-called madman. I’m not saying that Abraham is a madman or anything, but to refer back to “I don’t believe in infallible prophets,” I think that if we take the idea of “moral giants” (who we usually attribute this status to religious leaders or the prophets) for granted, then these unrealistic expectations make us create madmen to try to explain them (such as the knight of faith). As I have come to not take “moral giants” or an overwhelming Truth for granted, it’s become easier for me to deal with the reality of people’s shortcomings.

MH said something I appreciated a lot:

I find it interesting that you are an atheist, yet feel your [sic] more positive about your life because of your understanding of Truth vs truth.

I agree with this, and have for as long as I’ve been an out-atheist, and it’s a reason why I don’t fully understand this stereotype people sometimes have that if you are an atheist, then you must be depressed because you have no hope for certain things. But now, I think I know why I don’t just get depressed: atheism, for me, is a way of coming to terms that I shouldn’t expect more and take things for granted. If I don’t expect sunshine and daisies, then when reality hits (good, bad, or indifferent), I can more easily appreciate things. If there are daisies, they are a pleasant surprise. If not, I’m still at peace with the madman.

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23 Comments
  1. Andrew, I think you’ve characterized my position pretty well. I agree with you that K’gaard’s imagined conversation between Abraham and Isaac is problematic, and when I first heard the story, it didn’t really fit with my view of the situation. I can understand why you’re appalled by K’gaard, but at the same token, I still think human sacrifice is worse.

    I know that my believing background creates some “blind spots”, making it hard for me to understand how being an atheist is a good thing. I’d love to hear more about your thought process there.

  2. at some base level, I think that belief still creates some expectations for you that I do not have to subscribe to (but then again, I probably have other expectations in my blind spots that I have problems with). i wouldn’t know really how to explain it without a scenario and I’m kinda lazy to develop one right now.

    At the simplest form, there seems to be a way to reconcile, “Why would God do something like this?” where different people either say, “Oh, because of this,” and other people say, “Well, obviously, God was not responsible for that.” But they still have “expectations” about a God and when things aren’t so great, they have a disconnect between how things really are and how they expected them to be.

  3. Have you ever posted about your “conversion” to atheism? I’m just curious why you find it appealing. Obviously, it works for you (or should I say, it is your truth.)

    I agree that I have expectations of how God should act. I find most of my learning comes from trying to understand why he behaves (or is purported to behave) doesn’t meet my expectation. It isn’t always pleasant to work through these issues, but I think it is usually edifying in the end.

  4. I really should read my posts better. Sorry about the spelling and grammar mistakes.

  5. I don’t think i’ve written a conclusive post about it, since really, it was more that I never believed, but rather, I had to come to a position where I “came out” in nonbelief. I think that’s a good idea for a post in the future though.

    The ‘coming out’ process for me was liberating because it was a way of me to say, “wait…I don’t have to pay deference to a metaphysical framework that would want me to feel inadequate for my poor testimony…because I don’t even believe in this in the first place.” For the most part of my life, I didn’t believe (that was constant), but I wouldn’t think it was *ok* not to believe, because I had expectations about the Mormon metaphysical framework. A good example is about testimonies. The church’s truth (which they claim is Truth) is clever — basically, if you read the scriptures, you should get a confirmation. If you DON’T however, oh, there’s a wonderful escape clause in that you should “desire to believe” anyway. If that doesn’t work, oh, there’s another clause because some have the gift to know and others the gift to believe on the words of others, etc., Endure to the end, etc., So always, someone’s lack of testimony can be blamed on something wrong with them rather than the non universal nature of the church.

    So, without breaking away from this framework, it can be easy to fall into a trap of guilt, even if you don’t believe (and this is where I think you get a lot of *angry* ex-mormons…because they haven’t untangled themselves yet. it is only when they can FULLY break themselves from that chain (which I did when I fully realized the implications of atheism) that they can say, “I don’t believe, so I don’t have to follow this hurtful framework and that is GREAT.”

  6. Hi Andrew,

    It’s interesting to hear your perspective on the story of Abraham and Isaac, and Soren Kierkegaard’s treatment of it. The most troubling thing for me is that it’s often paraded around in Christianity as a great story teaching wonderful moral truths about faith. You should know that Kierkegaard, as I believe we all do here, approached the story of Abraham and Isaac knowing that if something similar happened today (and was not tied to the Bible) people would think it were abhorrent.

    Kierkegaard argued that the story of Abraham showed a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ which he believed was justified to prove his devotion to the religious sphere of existence. It’s something that obviously has very disturbing moral implications, and I don’t personally believe in any such thing. However, he also maintained that Abraham must have knew that God would stay his knife, and that Isaac would not actually be killed. He called this Abraham being in a stage of ‘infinite resignation.’ Remarkable book, no matter your opinion on the whole thing.

    As you know (from the article you linked that I wrote), I think the story of Abraham and Isaac was never meant to be interpreted from an ethical perspective. Just as so many other stories from the Old Testament involving mass slaughter sanctioned by God. It’s clear the writers of the OT used a definition of right and wrong that would scare most people today. The story was just about sacrifice on the part of Abraham. The fact that he was sacrificing a human boy was irrelevant, as children back then did not often hold little status as independent beings. The sacrifice was that Isaac was a long-awaited promise from God to continue his bloodline with Sarah, and just after getting him God wanted him dead. It made no sense, it was ‘absurd’ (as Kierkegaard would say). And yet Abraham did it anyway. It was more about personal sacrifice rather than moral compromise through murder, at least in my own opinion.

  7. I am really refreshed to see that you do not have the *angry* ex-mormon attitude. I really enjoy your point of view. I hope they can untangle themselves, as you have.

    As an atheist, it seems you would have no belief in an afterlife (or at least reject all religious notions.) I have lost a sister to cancer, and a brother to a car accident. The mormon Plan of Salvation is a wonderful truth (perhaps Truth) to me. I don’t know if you have experienced such a loss. How do you think your atheism has/will help you when a loss like that happens?

  8. Tim, since I’m writing this comment on my phone, I’ll wait until I get to a computer to fully address your comments.

    MH, I guess phone typing will force me to conserve words. but, you are correct in that i do not believe in an afterlife. my idea is that we need to focus on this life and this world beyond all else, because this is our current reality. it certainly could be that because of a veil, we can’t remember a preexistence and we cannot discern an afterlife that may truly exist, but it seems to me that regardless, we cannot put our eggs in the basket of something that ultimately does not affect us in this life.

    when my grandmother died, for example, i had to come to the fact that i won’t see her in this life, and there’s nothing to suggest we will see again in the future, so it would be bad faith to assume that with nothing to back it up. now, i guess people might say, “but, even if there is no afterlife, how could it hurt to believe in one?”

    completely avoiding the issues with pascal’s wager, i’d stil say this reasoning is destructive. assuming an afterlife because it theoretically makes you feel better about the nature of things seems like so many who stay in the church because the gospel theoretically brings joy to life. This assumption, when taken for granted and believed beyond our evidences to the contrary, entraps people.

    So I can’t say atheism comforts me or shields me from unfortunate events. But I wouldn’t have it any other way…undeserved hope seems to lead to disappointment when reality finally comes knocking, but if you can just accept things as they are, there’s no problem.

    i think sometimes, people are looking too much at an afterlife which gets in the way of places we could truly progress. we *need* to work on life extension, medical effectiveness, and, if i may actually hope for a second, life revival techniques. this seems more like something we should possibly put hope in rather in this fatalistic afterlife concept

  9. even a phone couldn’t help me

  10. Re Tim:

    Basically, I understand what you had said here:

    Kierkegaard argued that the story of Abraham showed a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ which he believed was justified to prove his devotion to the religious sphere of existence.

    But my question would then become (as I kind of pointed out when I said, “And why should we worship that God?”)…why should we prioritize this devotion to the religious sphere of existence?

    This is kind of my hangup with K’gaard throughout his entire interpretation of existentialism. If we accept that there is despair and that there is absurd…why, of all options, would we submit to a religious sphere of existence like, for example, Christianity?

    I completely understand your point about the different lens of culture that Abraham faced (which is why I’m not necessarily perturbed by the sacrifice on its own, because that was a different time). But my idea would be (and here is where it’s tough to discuss, because the story is kinda integrated with the perspective)…why source Isaac to God in such a way that you are so bound to God telling you to kill him? OK, so you are suspending the ethical for a leap to faith…but why to God?

  11. I’m not sure if I understood you completely, so my answer might miss the point entirely.

    You said: “why source Isaac to God in such a way that you are so bound to God telling you to kill him? OK, so you are suspending the ethical for a leap to faith…but why to God?”

    In the story Isaac was strictly a gift from God. His wife was very old and barren. The fact that she gave birth was fulfilling a promise to Abraham from God. So in a way, Isaac belonged to God as much as he did to Abraham. Abraham’s decision to give Isaac up to God presupposed that this level of obligation to God was justified.

    you said: “This is kind of my hangup with K’gaard throughout his entire interpretation of existentialism. If we accept that there is despair and that there is absurd…why, of all options, would we submit to a religious sphere of existence like, for example, Christianity?”

    I don’t think i’m knowledgable enough about Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” (the book that talked about these spheres) to comment authoritatively of his reasons that the religious sphere was greater than the ethical sphere, and that Christianity was the correct representation of the religious sphere. Nevertheless, it sounds like you’re asking why would anyone pick a religion when the existentialist attitude toward the world is assumed (i.e. existence precedes essence, life is defined by the abundance of absurdities, and meaninglessness).

    I don’t think I have a satisfactory answer for you, but in my opinion it is in philosophies that are as subjective as existentialism that faith in an existential code (which I would define as Christianity if it’s sourced from Jesus) realises its full potential. The statements of Christianity such as God exists and Jesus is the source of meaning in life do not make much sense objectively. Arguments for theism can only do so much, and with the problem of evil the most I could see someone aspire to using reason and logic is deism or agnosticism. Similarly, the most that you could prove historically is that Jesus existed, was executed, and that much of the content in the Gospels was probably accurately represented. Kierkegaard argued that religious truth is subjective. In the same vein, i’d argue that belief always precedes reason in theological debate, and subjective passion is always required to fill up the vacuum that rationalism leaves behind.

    In the presence of absurdities, in hopes of curing meaningless and despair, existential authenticity is acquired through adherence to the message of Jesus (loving unconditionally, radical forgiveness, pacifism, selflessness, etc.). Christianity makes little sense apart from existentialism, at least in my opinion.

  12. No, I understand that in the story, Isaac was a gift from God. (And that’s why I wonder if any further dialogue is even possible…that’s why I said, “the story is kinda integrated with the perspective” — if you are skeptical to these premises, you’re out of luck.) So I can’t really say anything about that much. But yes, I suppose your summarizing of my question is sufficient.

    I guess the answer, as you guessed, isn’t so satisfactory. Because when I think of “faith in an existential code,” I think of an intrinsically personal thing. Christianity is not this, and moreover, attempts to make it such do a disservice to Christianity.

    Christianity is a system that proposes that statements of Christianity as you mentioned (e.g., God exists, Jesus is the source of meaning in life) *are* in fact statements that make sense objectively. Why is this? Because Christianity posits that these things are True (with a big T — I’ve made a few posts about this…but I think I summarized it here), and when it makes such a bold statement, it *does* try to conflate these things with objective statements.

    And this, coincidentally, is my problem with many argument for theism.

    Now, of course, not everyone argues that. Not everyone tries to argue from reason/objectivity for religion. After all, as you note, K’gaard argues that religious truth is subjective. And many others make similar claims. But if religious truth is subjective, then I should be just as free to make my own conclusions and no religious person (especially those of different religions) should try to challenge and say that they are correct (because they have an objectively True belief.)

    It seems that the many things you mentioned about the message of Jesus, for example, do not require belief in Jesus or belief in any religion for that matter.

  13. Andrew,

    I made a misstep. I said that those statements didn’t make ‘sense’ objectively, but obviously they do. What I actually meant was they aren’t justified objectively. Which you would probably agree with as well. I only just realised you recently wrote posts about truth and Truth, i’ll read them as soon as I get some more free time.

    you wrote: “But if religious truth is subjective, then I should be just as free to make my own conclusions and no religious person (especially those of different religions) should try to challenge and say that they are correct (because they have an objectively True belief.)”

    You are free to make your own conclusions, but I think you are implicitly subordinating subjective truth. Why is objective truth more important or defendable than subjective truth? I would argue that most of the positions we hold, especially in the realms of religion/politics/theology/ethics, is subjective truth. Sure a Christian could say “my worldview is logically coherent, and it is making big-T statements about truth”, but he isn’t right. To get to these big-T statements he’s making subjective jumps in his reasoning that pure reason could not get to alone. The same is true of Atheism, I believe. Descartes showed how we can prove that we exist through reason alone, but I don’t think you can do much more. The Teleological argument for theism might get you to the point of an indifferent deist version of God, and the problem of evil might get you to the point where you can claim that no God exists that operate under my own subjective version of morality, but I really don’t believe it’s possible to rationally prove that a specific version of God exists, or that all versions of God ‘must’ not exist.

    Also, you claimed that if a truth is subjective it can’t be debated in the public arena or we can’t make ethical/religious judgements on other people based on those subjective truths. I think there’s a very big difference with cultural relativism (which states that because a certain culture believes something to be ethical while my culture does not believe it to be ethical, I can’t judge that culture for thinking something to be ethical), and saying “I believe with all of my passion and strength that genocide is evil. I don’t have a rational argument for this that does not include my subjective instinct that mass slaughter is inherently wrong, but I still am going to press its truth on anyone that will listen.”

    To borrow language from Kierkegaard, to defeat despair and meaninglessness it is fundamentally important to find “the truth that is true for me… the truth that I can live or die for.” It’s subjective, yes, but it matters more to the person than any rational argument could. Converting someone to a religion always involves persuading them of your own personal subjective truths, or at least unearthing these subjective truths that were lying in the subconscious of the person. I can’t think of anyone that has converted to Christianity based on how strong a rational argument was.

    you wrote: “It seems that the many things you mentioned about the message of Jesus, for example, do not require belief in Jesus or belief in any religion for that matter.”

    That’s true, and there’s a few passages in the Gospels from Jesus that would agree with that also. For example, Jesus once linked redemption from God exclusively on whether we forgive other people unconditionally (Matthew 6:14), and how well we treat the poorest in society (Matthew 25:31-46). The epistle of James also has a verse where he defines religion as visiting widows and orphans in their distress, and also keeping oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27). I hold many religious beliefs about Jesus and God, but I don’t believe they are the essence of Christianity. I’m not sure of the implications this has for people who adhere to the message of Jesus without any religious beliefs attached.

    My education in philosophy is limited to a few elective subjects at university done years ago, so my arguments are crudely presented, but I hope you could at least understand where I am coming from.

  14. Tim, I actually caught your idea that they were justified objectively…but that was my point: people *do* try to justify them objectively and they are crafted in such a way that if you do not try to justify them objectively, they lose their power. Jesus as a personal or subjective truth for you but not for me is *not* what Christianity’s appeal comes from…it’s from Jesus as a universal, objective, seeming fact about the way the universe (regardless of whether it is or not)…it’s from the fact that if you buy that system, judgment is something that is true of the entire universe…mercy and justice are laws of the universe like physics).

    So, while I’d prefer people to justify them subjectively, I also recognize that when they are justified subjectively, they don’t seem to make sense. If Christianity is the objective Truth of the universe (something we cannot fight against), then that makes sense why people believe it. Trust in God and have faith because you won’t get away from it. But if Christianity is subjectively understood…then what is the deal? Why not take subjective experience to validate other conclusions? Basically, if I’m following subjective experience, that doesn’t lead me ANYWHERE near belief in Christ.

    I don’t think I’m implicitly subordinating subjective truth. Rather, I’m subordinating particular conclusions some people make from subjective truth. And you know what, to illustrate a point, I’ll take what you said: I’d similarly subordinate particular conclusions some people make for politics, economics, etc., And this is EXACTLY my point: we don’t hold political ideas or economic ideas with such deference and reverence as we do religious ideas. If I said, “OK, why socialism?” you wouldn’t suggest that I was “subordinating subjective truth.” But I ask, “Why Christianity?” or even “Why theism?” and you do.

    Sure a Christian could say “my worldview is logically coherent, and it is making big-T statements about truth”, but he isn’t right.

    I agree, but the nature of Christianity *is* to make those big-T statements, so a Christian who does so has more legitimacy than a Christian who does not.

    I think you have a misunderstanding of atheism though. At the very least, atheism is merely a lack of belief (a disbelief) in God. There is strong atheism (“I believe there is no God”) but this isn’t necessary for atheism. I wrote about this in my article (which links to another writer’s article) on Mere atheism. But no variety of atheism posits that gods “must” not exist. (in another vein, atheism and agnosticism aren’t mutually exclusive, because agnosticism doesn’t even answer the same question that atheism, theism, deism, etc., are answering)

    (cont)

  15. Also, you claimed that if a truth is subjective it can’t be debated in the public arena or we can’t make ethical/religious judgements on other people based on those subjective truths.

    What? Where? Who? What? Are we even talking to each other anymore? Can you post what comment of mine leads you to believe that I make this position, when I have said *nothing* of the sort to my knowledge?

    I exactly believe your point as you mention later on: “I believe with all of my passion and strength that genocide is evil. I don’t have a rational argument for this that does not include my subjective instinct that mass slaughter is inherently wrong, but I still am going to press its truth on anyone that will listen.”

    And in fact, I wrote about this in an article on moral foundations (based on research that suggests that our moral foundations distinctly include subjective instinct) that this is most likely the case.

    No, I’m stating severely that my position dims my outrage against genocide not because I believe it is not evil, but because I believe that in a world of subjective morality, I can’t expect that people will be “good,” especially according to my subjective views on it. To expect this would be setting myself for repeated disappointment.

    To borrow language from Kierkegaard, to defeat despair and meaninglessness it is fundamentally important to find “the truth that is true for me… the truth that I can live or die for.”

    I do not disagree with this. But then, my question would be…why Christianity, when this universe view has so much baggage. If Christianity is truly true for you, then it is in a way that asserts its objectivity (it’s true for everyone). if Christianity is only true for you, then you are most likely picking and choosing, so you do a disservice to Christianity. I’m not claiming that we have to make a logic-based 10-point plan for conversion, but what Christianity and other religions do is make subjective experiences an *objective* fact of the universe included in an *objective* worldview.

    That’s true, and there’s a few passages in the Gospels from Jesus that would agree with that also.

    somehow, I think that if I brushed that by other Christians, they wouldn’t take to kindly to it. They’d bring up something about Jesus being the truth and the light, etc., etc., no man comes into the kingdom of God except through him, etc.,

  16. Hey Andew,

    you said: “What? Where? Who? What? Are we even talking to each other anymore? Can you post what comment of mine leads you to believe that I make this position, when I have said *nothing* of the sort to my knowledge?”

    I got that from you saying in the last comment: “But if religious truth is subjective, then I should be just as free to make my own conclusions and no religious person (especially those of different religions) should try to challenge and say that they are correct”

    I interpreted that to mean that if religious truth is subjective, people can’t assert that their religious beliefs are correct and someone else is wrong. Accordingly, they can’t be debated because they can’t be extended beyond the individual. I’m guessing that was a wrong interpretation?

    you said: “somehow, I think that if I brushed that by other Christians, they wouldn’t take to kindly to it. They’d bring up something about Jesus being the truth and the light, etc., etc., no man comes into the kingdom of God except through him, etc.,”

    You’re making the assumption that everybodies definition of Christianity is the same. Anyway, all I did was quote some verses, if other christians want to get angry at what Jesus had to say i’d be used to it. I know there are verses that lead to the opposite conclusion as well.

    you said: “If I said, “OK, why socialism?” you wouldn’t suggest that I was “subordinating subjective truth.” But I ask, “Why Christianity?” or even “Why theism?” and you do.”

    I never did that. You asked “Why Christianity?” and I pointed to subjective reasons for belief. I said that you were subordinating subjective truth when you then said that Christianity doesn’t make much sense subjectively. This whole objective/subjective distinction, and it’s many layers, is getting confusing for me. Are objective statements about the truth of the universe arrived through subjective conviction and passions a big-T truth statement?

    you said: “I think you have a misunderstanding of atheism though. At the very least, atheism is merely a lack of belief (a disbelief) in God. There is strong atheism (”I believe there is no God”) but this isn’t necessary for atheism. I wrote about this in my article (which links to another writer’s article) on Mere atheism.”

    That’s fair enough. I wasn’t aware that atheism could overlap with agnosticism like that.

  17. I interpreted that to mean that if religious truth is subjective, people can’t assert that their religious beliefs are correct and someone else is wrong. Accordingly, they can’t be debated because they can’t be extended beyond the individual. I’m guessing that was a wrong interpretation?

    People are still of course free to assert their religious beliefs are correct and others are wrong…regardless of the subjectivity of your beliefs, you can argue for the legitimacy of your position in debate. But, you wouldn’t conflate this with an idea that this is the Truth (e.g., the way that the universe objectively is.)

    For example, let’s say that nihilism is True (e.g., that’s the way the universe is). So, there are no objective meanings…the universe and all that’s within it is objectively meaningless. This is not to say that we should all go around directionless. I take a Nietzschean view of existentialism in that rather, from our subjective experiences, we press forward with power and influence. The objective meaninglessness of everything we come up with doesn’t hold a candle to the subjective valuation we give to it (e.g., objectively, a key is just a lump of metal, but this doesn’t stop us from creating subjective valuation: a home, a car, etc., that it fits into.)

    You’re making the assumption that everybodies definition of Christianity is the same.

    Most certainly not. However, I argue that out of all possible definitions of Christianity, since we do not know a True definition, the smaller, subjective definitions battle it out crudely for power and influence. And, unfortunately, some definitions “win” out over others, especially with interpretation of scripture, spread of the religion, etc., This would be like saying, “Socialism is True, so don’t pay attention to that majority of people that has misinterpreted it!” No, really, that majority of people pressed forth their subjective definition…so they create socialism’s social definition. That you can find different verses for different conclusions really suggests an inadequacy of the religion, but that’s neither here nor there.

    I said that you were subordinating subjective truth when you then said that Christianity doesn’t make much sense subjectively.

    And what I’m wondering is…would you claim that someone was subordinating subjective truth if they said that “communism doesn’t make much sense subjectively?” I guess I can see your point about how the whole objective/subjective distinction is getting confusing (I get long-winded when I think I’m not being clear…which paradoxically makes me more unclear), but to answer your question…yes. Let’s say Christianity is True. That means salvation is a “law” of the universe much like physics. It *is* a part of physics, so to speak. The Atonement and similar ideas in theology that are under the Christianity subset are reality, if Christianity is big-T true. So, even if one is converted to Christianity through subjective experience, if Christianity is True, it is still objectively so. This is the power of Christianity, I think. Salvation is an objective thing under Christianity.

    I wasn’t aware that atheism could overlap with agnosticism like that.

    I’ve tried to write about this lots and lots (for example, here)…agnosticism is a position on known. Atheism is a position on belief. If someone asks me, “Does God exist?” I’m going to say, “I have no idea…I don’t know.” I’m agnostic.

    But if someone asks me, “Do you believe God exists?” I’m going to say, “No.” I am atheist. (However, do not confuse that with the question: “Do you believe God does not exist?”…that is the question of a strong atheist, which I am not. I simply lack a belief in God…I do not actively believe god does not exist.)

  18. Andrew,

    I think I understand you much more now, and it’s been a nice and productive exchange.

    you said: “And what I’m wondering is…would you claim that someone was subordinating subjective truth if they said that “communism doesn’t make much sense subjectively?””

    Probably. “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” is an idea that necessarily (but not sufficiently) requires a strong subjective passion towards the welfare of other people. Using Marx’s analysis of exploitation built into the capitalist model as a political ideology requires some degree of subjective passion to go along with it. I guess what i’m saying is Christianity is something like that, for me at least. To make objective statements like “God exists”, “Jesus is Lord” into something that is actually meaningful it must be through subjective passion towards the ideals of Jesus being enacted through our lives. Otherwise Christianity becomes a set of intellectual statements that aren’t really justified exclusively by reason.

    This leads into what you said here: “Let’s say Christianity is True. That means salvation is a “law” of the universe much like physics. It *is* a part of physics, so to speak. The Atonement and similar ideas in theology that are under the Christianity subset are reality, if Christianity is big-T true. So, even if one is converted to Christianity through subjective experience, if Christianity is True, it is still objectively so. This is the power of Christianity, I think. Salvation is an objective thing under Christianity.”

    I do see what you mean. Do you think that if people come to these big-T conclusions about the world, but through subjective means, then it dilutes the statements into little-t conclusions? Take myself for an example. I believe that God exists, that the message of Jesus is the one true way towards existential authenticity, an escape from meaninglessness, and forgiveness from God. I also believe this would be true for everyone who approached the words of Jesus and embraced them whole-heartedly. However, i’m not going to pretend that I have logical arguments to prove that these statements are true. All I have is subjective passion, conviction, and instincts. I want to share with people these subjective dispositions should I ever be asked, but I also do not want to make too many objective statements about other people’s religious beliefs (i.e. i’ll condemn a world leader for killing innocent people, but I don’t want to say that all buddhists are going to hell because i’m not convinced that jesus was clear about the existence of what we refer to as hell and that people of other faiths are necessarily doomed to go there.). I also believe that the essence of the religion is found within this subjective passion, and not the objective statements that they lead to (although I do hold them).

    What does that make me in the whole objective/subjective debate with big-T and little-t truth statements? I’m obviously not as well read as you are on this issue, so i’d appreciate your opinion.

    you said: “agnosticism is a position on known. Atheism is a position on belief. If someone asks me, “Does God exist?” I’m going to say, “I have no idea…I don’t know.” I’m agnostic.

    But if someone asks me, “Do you believe God exists?” I’m going to say, “No.” I am atheist. (However, do not confuse that with the question: “Do you believe God does not exist?”…that is the question of a strong atheist, which I am not. I simply lack a belief in God…I do not actively believe god does not exist.)”

    This makes sense to me. I’m a little surprised i’ve never come across this distinction before. Do all athesists recognise the distinction and classify themselves accordingly? Admittedly I am not that informed about atheism, which i’ll blame on my strict Christian upbringing and my inability to read as many books as i’d like to.

  19. I don’t want to detract from your conversation with Tim as I find it interesting. But Andrew, it sounds like your family is still probably TBM. How do they react to your atheism? (You’ll probably want to make a new post for this–I know it’s off-topic for your Abraham/Kierkegaard topic.)

  20. Re Tim:

    To make objective statements like “God exists”, “Jesus is Lord” into something that is actually meaningful it must be through subjective passion towards the ideals of Jesus being enacted through our lives.

    I understand this (and I’m not disagreeing with it), but…my questions would be why would subjective passions toward the ideals of Jesus lead to people making objective statements like “God exists” or “Jesus is Lord.” It’s quite easy to come to the same following of ideals without these kinds of statements. My issue is that Christianity proposes so much *baggage*…so I can see how some parts would be subjectively validated, but this does not necessarily make critical parts of it validated.

    I do see what you mean. Do you think that if people come to these big-T conclusions about the world, but through subjective means, then it dilutes the statements into little-t conclusions?

    No, the status of big T vs. little t conclusions of the world is a function of those facts or conclusions, and not of people. In other words, if something is a Big T truth, it’s big T regardless of whether people came through it through subjective means or not. If someone is a little T truth, then it’s little t regardless of objective means.

    However, I would say that if something like Christianity is a big T truth, then it could be the case that the subjective experience required to validate it is *also* part of a big T truth. This is similar to what I think the religion already suggests: the ‘fact’ of the universe is of estrangement from God/meaning/whatever, and through subjective validation (e.g., faith, spiritual experiences, etc.,) one comes to salvation (which is another fact that one must come to terms with.)

    So, based on your classification, I’d have to ask you: do you believe that Jesus is truly divine? Do you believe that God truly exists? Is salvation and the afterlife something that is real (regardless of who goes where)? If you do, then you believe in these as Big T Truths. These are facts of the universe (even though you gained a belief in them through subjective experiences). This would be consistent with Christianity, but then again, Christianity has some other baggage to be considered. If not, however…then…it seems less attractive than many, many other things.

    This makes sense to me. I’m a little surprised i’ve never come across this distinction before. Do all athesists recognise the distinction and classify themselves accordingly? Admittedly I am not that informed about atheism, which i’ll blame on my strict Christian upbringing and my inability to read as many books as i’d like to.

    I don’t think I can speak for all atheists (I mean, if Christianity is fragmented, think about atheism? we don’t even have official denominations), but I think more atheists realize this distinction. I think many people who don’t understand the distinction are agnostics (who may not like the terms atheist or theist) and theists. Popular culture has also made the term seem worse or more extreme than it is.

  21. re MH:

    my family isn’t so TBM. My dad has…eclectic beliefs…he believes in a lot of things under the sun, but he doesn’t see how anyone can see the universe and be atheist (they must be blind).

    So we don’t talk so much about that too often.

    yeah, i’ve got a lot of ideas to write about now

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