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Throwing the baby with the bathwater: Spirituality

May 31, 2010

I was reading this blog linked from Patheos, and I think that the blog author meant well. His idea: Take what you need and leave the rest behind. His application? Spirituality and religion.

I think this is a solid concept. The “opposite” of this (I suppose) is often known by a different phrase: “to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The idea is that a baby is of such obvious great importance that one who throws one out with the bathwater has made a grave and foolish mistake.

And so, the author wishes to establish, many people make the same when they throw out “spirituality” with “religion.”

One of the questions everyone asks at this point is: what does it mean to be spiritual? What does “spiritual but not religious” mean?

LeoBrunnick, from the same article linked above, provides a working framework:

They move off through life expanding and growing in every dimension of what it means to be human – intellectual knowledge, sexual expression, social dynamics, physical growth and maturity – but leave their spirituality as a withered, immature self.  And they miss the opportunity to explore that which is of ultimate importance (why am I here, what am I supposed to do while here, and where do I go next) with a community of like-minded seekers.  And that, ultimately, is a lonely way to go.

So, I guess, spirituality is in answering questions of ultimate importance with a community of like-minded seekers.

I think, as I said at the beginning of this article, that the author meant well. However, I think that in the process, he misses some critical things.

One: he misses the obvious point that people can answer questions of “ultimate importance” without subscribing to ideas such as spirituality, supernaturalism, deity, and the like. Since these are human existential questions, they can be answered by humans for humans.

Two: he misses the related point that if one doesn’t believe in spirituality, supernaturalism, deity, and the like, then to discuss the answers to these questions in a “community of like-minded seekers,” one would have to have, of course, like-minded seekers. Pursuing the answer to “questions of ultimate importance” in a Patheos or “Huffington Post Religion” environment may be distinct from pursuing such answers in a conservative, traditionalist religion, but still, it’s not — at least, for many of the people this author wants to address — a “like-minded” community. Instead, what seems to be all the rage with these new kinds of groups (especially Huff Post Religion) is a kind of wishy washy feel-good woo that seems to lack much substance at all, but is disdainful of both more rigid, established (and often “conservative” or “traditionalist) religions and of the admittedly rigid, vocal, [theologically lightweight] “new atheism.”

He misses the point, in other words, that this whole craze about “spirituality,” soft and squishy as it is, may not be the baby at all for many individuals, but part of the dirty bathwater. (Although I suppose babies are soft and squishy too…)

I see some nobility in the latter part — there are both good and bad people from and within religions. Nevertheless, I think this lesson can be learned without inundating children in a religion (especially when one does it with intentions like):

In today’s world so many people have rejected their religion.  And that is OK and even natural (after all, I tell my wife “we must ground our children in a solid tradition … how else will they know what to reject at age 18?”)

I find it strange (and a bit cruel) to purposefully introduce someone to an environment precisely so that the individual will have to learn to “detox”. I’m sure life will give plenty of chances for people to learn this without artificially introducing new situations.

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80 Comments
  1. I’ve always been of the opinion that even giving your children something to rebel against as young adults is better than giving them no direction at all – just because mom and dad want to be “hip” and “open-minded.”

    When are people going to figure out that kids aren’t a personal fashion accessory?

  2. My point isn’t “give them no direction at all.” Rather, it’s more, “don’t purposefully give them a direction that even YOU know you don’t believe in, specifically with the intention of having them rebel against it” (which is probably closer to what is “hip” and “open-minded” these days.)

    when are people going to figure out that kids aren’t macchiavellian target practice?

  3. I don’t define spirituality in the same way that Leo at Paheos does. For me, spirituality is defined as seeking and experiencing a profound sense of connection with nature, people, animals, the universe, and everything. God, religion, and a community of like-minded seekers aren’t necessarily required.

    Beyond that simple definition, I find a territory that is inhabited by far too many rules and far too much regimented speculation… so much so, that I personally find that spirituality is crushed out of existence by the weight of authoritarianism, tribalism, and conformity.

    But, that’s just me and my squirrely, atheist/agnostic, crunchy, long-haired view of the world. I’ll keep on hugging trees, all the same. 🙂

  4. Seth, religion isn’t necessary to give a child a sense of direction. To imply otherwise sounds like yet another variation on the assertion that morality, ethics and purpose in life aren’t possible without religion and/or a god belief. That’s complete bunk, as plenty of non-religious people and atheists have all of those things.

  5. I suppose not timberwraith. But hope you’ll pardon me if I note it looks better than the alternatives out there.

    It’s possible to have morality and ethics without having a point.

    I agree Andrew that you should teach kids what you actually BELIEVE in.

  6. Chris permalink

    “I agree Andrew that you should teach kids what you actually BELIEVE in.”

    Heh, subtle slam on atheism? I know for a fact that I will teach my future kids the skeptical/scientific method. I think they should even evaluate my beliefs and come to their own conclusions of whether my beliefs are rational. For example, I happen to be a little right of center politically. I hope I don’t ever “brainwash” my kids politically. I want to present both sides as best as I can and let them decide for themselves. This is what my parents did. In fact, I’ve gone back and forth on many political positions. I’m glad that I don’t feel the parental pressure to believe one way or another…. this lets me examine politics a bit clearer with less bias or influence.

    And what do you mean by alternatives? Could not an atheist parent teach their kids all the good things that religion has minus the “doctrine?” Is it the doctrine that makes it better?

  7. I guess the problem is that I just feel that what the author Andrew responds to has done to religion (basically gutting it of any real point), atheism does to life generally.

    Sure, atheists can be as moral as anyone – often moreso than many religious folk.

    But where’s the motivating drive? The overarching point? Where’s the narrative that pulls it all together? Where’s the engine?

    I mean, I suppose that when an atheist is moral, it’s nice and all. But it never seems to rise much beyond the level of all nice things being nice together for niceness’ sake. Love is love. Love is loving. Sort of a warm bath of words rendered down to a vague sort of sentimental goo – but lacking any real point. Not really going anywhere important.

    It’s nice to be nice and all. But really, in an atheist paradigm, you might just well not be nice as be nice.

    I mean, if you go postal down at the local shopping mall, does the earth care? Does the scientific method care? I mean, what’s offing a few more fat Americans who are over-consuming 100 times their share of resources at the expense of others? Is it much of a loss?

    Or maybe you think it is. But why?

  8. I don’t know how and why you keep coming to this conclusion.

    The “point,” where we “go,” and indeed what is “important” must be sought, lived, projected, created, and defined by us.

    The earth doesn’t care. The scientific method doesn’t care. And yet, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t *anything* that care. But the earth and the scientific method aren’t the only things here. Instead, what’s more important is *us*. *People*. And we certainly care; we certainly find things important.

    Why can’t the motivating drive, the overarching point, narratives to pull things together, and engines to power it all come from humanity?

    Maybe I’ll take the bait. You said, “But really, in an atheist paradigm, you might just well not be nice as nice.”

    Sure. What’s the problem here. What’s the problem with this radical cliff where you understand that there is a very real option to jump off? What’s the problem with recognizing that you have that kind of huge decision always available. Nice, not nice. Stay on the cliff, jump off the cliff?

    Of course, jumping off the cliff will take life down a decidedly different path. Not being nice will take your life down a decidedly different path as well.

  9. I suppose not timberwraith. But hope you’ll pardon me if I note it looks better than the alternatives out there.

    Religion has played a role in everything from slavery and colonialism to civil rights and feeding the poor. Consequently, I see religion as being a morally and ethically neutral institution. Religion can be used to justify both good and evil actions as morally acceptable, given the appropriate time in history and the appropriate needs and values of the host culture. Knowing this, I remain unimpressed with religion’s claim as a trustworthy basis for moral guidance.

    It’s possible to have morality and ethics without having a point.

    It’s possible for some forms of religious instruction to teach morality and ethics without having a point. I’ve run into religious people who are unable to logically justify their stance on various moral issues beyond stating, “It’s God’s will.” or “That’s what it says in the holy text of my religion, so that’s what I believe in.” To a non-believer, these justifications are empty, pointless, and arbitrary because they rely upon circular reasoning.

    I agree Andrew that you should teach kids what you actually BELIEVE in.

    Aye, and teaching a child one’s notion of right and wrong and teaching a child why those things are as they are would constitute teaching what one believes in. Atheist parents actually do that. Totally weird, huh?

  10. If you want a good example of “spiritual but not religious,” watch the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series. The shows deal strongly with themes of sin, redemption, prophecy and destiny, but almost never religion. Jana Riess (who is LDS) covers this pretty well in What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide.

    As you probably know, series creator Joss Whedon is an atheist.

  11. Looks like more was posted while I composed my last response.

    Seth said:

    It’s nice to be nice and all. But really, in an atheist paradigm, you might just well not be nice as be nice.

    I mean, if you go postal down at the local shopping mall, does the earth care? Does the scientific method care? I mean, what’s offing a few more fat Americans who are over-consuming 100 times their share of resources at the expense of others? Is it much of a loss?

    Or maybe you think it is. But why?

    This seems to imply that the only reason that *you*, Seth, behave in a civilized fashion is because of God. I find that prospect to be both saddening and horrifying. How about behaving in a civilized fashion so that other living, feeling beings aren’t hurt, injured, exploited, etc.? It’s called empathy and one doesn’t need a belief in a deity or a religion to experience this. I’m dumbfounded when I run into religious people who believe that empathy would somehow vanish is their belief in god were to dissolve.

  12. That last sentence is supposed to read:

    I’m dumbfounded when I run into religious people who believe that empathy would somehow vanish if their belief in god were to dissolve.

  13. You guys seem to have missed the part where I wrote that atheists can be just as moral, if not moreso, than religious people. I didn’t say that reasons for being nice vanish. Nor if I lost my faith in God would I stop being nice.

    But I personally don’t really see any overall point if you take the overrarching narrative out of the picture (and it doesn’t have to be the Christian God necessarily). Nietzsche understood this – which is why he attempted to posit the “Will to Power” as a viable alternative meta-narrative for humanity to use.

    I just don’t see what atheism has to offer that I can’t already get as a Mormon. Like timberwraith said, religion isn’t necessarily nice or otherwise. You can be moral within it, or pretty reprehensible.

    But it has an overall point to offer. I have not found one in atheism. The atheist life seems to me – not immoral – but just plain barren. And not even barren in all respects. But barren in overall purpose.

    • “I have not found one in atheism. The atheist life seems to me – not immoral – but just plain barren. And not even barren in all respects. But barren in overall purpose.”

      Seth have you ever been an Atheist? (Wondering how you came to the above conclusion)

      I think it is a given that most people will search for a purpose and find one regardless, there are two great books I can think of off the top my head that to a great job of articulating this “Man’s Search for Meaning” and “Denial of Death”

      My personal experience and observations of family and those I have had close friendships with throughout my life is that those that have had to work out their own value and moral systems void of a religion seem to have a more substantial sense of purpose whereas the religious ones seem somewhat superficial and mainly for the purpose of display.

      For me personally the easiest road or path of least resistance would have been to just stick with Mormonism and there have been times I have envied those that could just accept the religion of their parents and make it fit, but in the end when I compare the TBM me to the Atheist Me the TBM Me was the one that lacked any real substance and was barren in purpose as it wasn’t one I ever had to really define for myself.

      • coventry, I’ve been borderline agnostic for years now on a variety of issues and even considered going that route for the whole package more than a few times. Kind of worried my wife for about a year once.

        So don’t think the atheist position has only ever been hypothetical for me. It’s more than a hypothetical that I contemplate from a safe distance within my own secure religious paradigm. It’s something that I’ve been very close to at times and took seriously.

        After due consideration, I just don’t like it. It really just offers me nothing of value.

        • That is to say BEING an atheist offers me nothing I want.

          Atheism itself has offered me things of value – AS as religious person. But no reason to cross over.

          Just didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

          • Interesting …. a cultural Mormon could in fact be an Atheist…. going back to the other conversation… Believer or Atheist in and of itself is meaningless.

        • Note: I said agnostic, not atheist.

          I never have been an atheist. But I’ve been close enough that the stance is more than just a hypothetical for me.

    • But it has an overall point to offer. I have not found one in atheism. The atheist life seems to me – not immoral – but just plain barren. And not even barren in all respects. But barren in overall purpose.

      I think the issue you are running aground upon is that atheism, in it’s most stripped down form, isn’t the life-encompassing body of philosophy that some forms of religion try to be. Atheism involves not believing in a god, or put in other words, atheism is the lack of a belief in a god. That’s it. Any additional philosophies are up to the person who has adopted atheism. You have to think on your own two feet. Nobody is going to hand you a ready-made worldview simply because you have become an atheist. You have to ask your heart and your mind for guidance. The process requires deep thought and exploration. It takes work. If you don’t feel up to engaging in this effort, then this path is probably not for you.

      If you are someone who has found religion to be controlling, oppressive, abusive, hypocritical, prejudiced, incoherent, illogical, unbelievable, and/or nonsensical, then the prospect of engaging in this process of exploration is probably going to taste of sweet, sweet freedom. If you are someone who has found religion to be largely satisfactory, then the thought of going through this process is probably going to seem frightening, empty, and chaotic.

      Whether or not you choose to jump down the rabbit hole is up to you, but do keep in mind that plenty of people have survived the journey with heart and mind in tact and are entirely grateful for the opportunity to have done so.

      • Great.

        How about this then…

        I become an atheist, and then add Mormonism on for a sort of meta worldview.

        Sound good?

        • If that works for you, then fine. 🙂

          I’m guessing that you think that becoming an atheist implies that one looses their previous philosophies in a flash of nihilistic combustion, leaving the person without bearing. It doesn’t work that way. Becoming an atheist (or an agnostic, or a non-believer) opens the opportunity to explore outside of the boundaries of one’s previous belief system, but whatever key values have been crucial to you throughout your life are unlikely to evaporate in a wisp of godless doubt. Dropping one’s belief in a god or religion can provide an opportunity to grow in ways that simply weren’t possible before, but that’s not the same as loosing all of one’s values and perspectives.

          So, do keep Mormonism as a meta worldview if that works for you. You might very well wind up doing that regardless of conscious intent… if you wish to become an atheist, that is.

        • Right, but I’m not talking about values here. You can get those anywhere (though arguably most “western” atheists are merely borrowing a lot of Christian notions of morality – but that’s another debate entirely).

          I’m talking about an overarching view of the purpose of humanity.

          The comment was, of course, meant tongue-in-cheek. Once you add a meta-narrative to atheism, you don’t really have atheism anymore I think. Rather you’ve become something else.

          So I can’t really be an atheist who happens to believe that the point of the human race is to rise up and become gods.

          • Seth, when you make this argument, it sounds to me something like, “Once you add a dessert to a fashion style, you don’t really have that fashion style anymore I think. Rather, you’ve become something else.”

            Desserts and fashion styles cover different issues. yes. But that doesn’t mean that by adopting one, you abandon the other. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

            Atheism is an umbrella. A set. As a set, it only divides any and all people, ideologies, worldviews, WHATEVER that do not involve belief in deities from those that do (theism).

            If you did not believe that there were a god, you could STILL believe that the “point” of the human race is to rise up and BECOME gods. It would not nullify atheism.

          • though arguably most “western” atheists are merely borrowing a lot of Christian notions of morality

            And Christianity has borrowed from the many host cultures it has been harbored by. It has also borrowed from the narratives and beliefs of the religions and cultures that preceded it.

            Social and cultural forces don’t work in isolation. They are constantly producing a synthesis of the present, the past, and the perspectives of all of the people living within a culture/society.

            I’m talking about an overarching view of the purpose of humanity.

            With 40+ contemporary religions on the planet, I don’t think humanity has reached a consensus on what that might be. Mormonism, atheism, and agnosticism are but mere chunks of carrot and potato in a much larger stew pot.

            The comment was, of course, meant tongue-in-cheek. Once you add a meta-narrative to atheism, you don’t really have atheism anymore I think. Rather you’ve become something else.

            Actually, I know atheists who also practice Judaism. One can be and atheist and find value in the beliefs and rituals of a particular religion. I’ve also met atheists who practice Christianity, too. I wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek. I was quite serious.

  14. I think research has shown kids tend to embrace the beliefs of their parents especially if the parents have a good relationship. So if you want your kid to be an Atheist and you plan on a divorce, take your kid to church. Or if you want your kid to be a Christian, but you fight constantly with you spouse, tell you kid their ain’t no god.

    Maybe it is better to have a neighborhood of loving parents with kids who belief exactly what their parents do.

  15. I have been wondering how to even see where Seth is coming from…and I don’t think I’m making much progress.

    To the extent that I can see what Seth is saying, “Atheism doesn’t have a central narrative, so it doesn’t seem to have an overall point,” the two thoughts that come to my mind are 1) Well, duh. it’s not supposed to have a central narrative. There doesn’t have to be an overall point. and 2) why do you want a central narrative and an overall point?

    It seems to me that just as it’s apparent to Seth that people can be moral as atheists, it seems apparent to me that people can project their own “points” and “narratives” without a overarcing meta-narrative or an overall point.

    So, why is it that the overall point or the overarcing meta-narrative is still a hangup?

    • Beats me Andrew.

      But without one you folks are going to have a hard time convincing me that you know where we are all going.

      • Who said anything about knowing where we are all going, though?

        That seems to me to be the thing that the various dogmatic groups, religious or otherwise, do (so there you go, there are the attempted metanarratives), but which we find at odds with our experiences. So, we say: one size doesn’t seem to fit all. When we say this, you say the equivalent of, “Well then, what size do you propose!” We say, “Find your own size,” and you say, “You don’t have an all-fitting size.”

        uhhh, right. One size doesn’t fit all. What’s the problem?

      • Are you saying that atheism can never have anything more than individual appeal – but never broader social appeal?

      • No, what I’ve been saying is that atheism isn’t even about that. Individuals will — as a completely different question to that of the existence of god — pursue things that appeal to them. “Broader social appeal” is just coordinated individual efforts for coordinated individual goals.

      • @Seth

        You seem to really have trouble distinguishing between atheism and the world-view that atheists adopt, which has nothing inherently to do with atheism itself. Atheism has no world-view apart from the lack of belief in gods. Atheists have many disparate world-views, most of which contradict with each other. You seem to constantly be conflating atheism with the other beliefs that some atheists profess.

        I personally don’t believe there is any overarching point to life nor any purpose to the universe. It just is. There is no inherent meaning to anything. While it might be true that many atheists also believe this, (and I’m not sure that it is), that doesn’t mean I don’t create my own subjective meaning for my life. As humans we all do that – create our own meaning, even those, like you, who are in a religious community where there are right and wrong “answers” about the universe, create their own narrative that fits their life, their circumstances, their beliefs, and their individual experiences. One size never fits all, not even in Mormonism. Your beliefs regarding Heavenly Mother should be evidence enough of that.

        I’m curious as to why you assume 1) we as humans are “going” anywheres at all and 2) that we need to know where we’re going, even assuming we are 3) and what do you even mean by “going”? Do you mean life after death?

        @Andrew
        To respond to the point of the post, I’m one of those who sees spirituality as inexorably and inherently tied to religion, and a symptom of the same thing that causes religion, and as similarly superfluous for my life. Basically I have a hard time separating out spirituality from the supernatural, and a hard time calling non-supernatural, atheistic beliefs or ideas spiritual. Because it’s such a hazy and ill-defined term, it can be used to describe just about anything, which makes it pretty much useless.

        • Craig, I do have trouble with the distinction – because I just don’t see one.

          • Your refusal to see the difference is makes no sense.

            Atheism has no inherent meaning attached to it. Nothing really has inherent meaning. We create our own meaning for everything. I’m not claiming atheism has an independent meaning attached to it. All it is is the lack of belief in a god. That’s atheism. That’s it.

            You’re trying to interpret atheism and the worldviews that atheists adopt from viewpoint of Mormonism where there’s an eternal point to everything. Most atheists don’t think that, and trying to figure us out from a Mormon epistemological view doesn’t work because the Mormon view assumes things we generally don’t believe about existence (like overarching inherent meaning.)

            What meaning it does have depends on the weight and importance you put on gods. Personally the only real reason I’m an atheist or even have to worry about the concept of atheism is because I was raised and live in a theist society. If society were basically atheistic, it would indeed become a meaningless position, just as being aZeusian or aThoric is generally the default assumed position, and has no real meaning in our society. The lack of belief in gods only has meaning because of how impactful the actions of theists are on atheists.

        • I don’t get that, Seth. The distinction between the worldviews that atheists may hold and atheism seems analogous to the difference between the worldviews that theists may hold and theism. I don’t confuse Christianity with Islam, and I don’t see Christianity as undistinguished from its umbrella set, theism.

        • I just don’t see that atheism, as such, ever has any meaning independent of whatever broader ideology one wishes to affix to it. By itself, it just seems like a non-position bereft of any particular meaning worth paying attention to.

        • “I just don’t see that theism, as such, ever has any meaning independent of whatever broader ideology one wishes to affix to it. By itself, it just seems like a position bereft of any particular meaning worth paying attention to.”

          Nevertheless, no one confuses Muslims with Christians. And if someone identifies as a “theist,” then one doesn’t confuse the minimal position this implies (e.g., belief in some formulation of deity) with the particulars of the broader ideology (Islam, Christianity, Asatru, clockmaker deism) one wishes to affix to it.

        • I don’t really see the word “theist” as having all that much more independent meaning than the word “atheist.”

  16. Seth,

    but that’s entirely the point. “Theist” tells you little. It doesn’t tell you how many gods, of what the god(s) require or favor. But nevertheless there are still many “brands” of theism EVEN if you view it as relying on broader worldviews.

    Nevertheless, sometimes, it is that minimal, forceless descriptor “theist” that we want to use as a grouping. That still doesn’t eliminate all the difference between a Mormon and a Muslim.

  17. I am definitely a “One-Size-Does-NOT-Fit-All” ist
    well before I am an Atheist !
    Good phrasing

  18. After due consideration, I just don’t like it. It really just offers me nothing of value.

    I didn’t become an atheist because I found it advantageous or more personally fulfilling or anything like that. I just found that it was the scenario most likely to be true, given the evidence we have.

    We had a song in church: Do what is right, let the consequence follow. I guess I took that to heart, because I try to believe what is true, and I try to use sound principles of evidence and reasoning when finding out what that is.

    • “I just found that it was the scenario most likely to be true, given the evidence we have.”

      Daniel, supposing this statement to be true… I don’t think it is true, but just supposing it is –

      So what?

      So you found something true. Big whoop. Now what use is it to you?

      • Are you saying it’s better to live your life by a useful lie than to deal with reality? Why does a fact have to be immediately personally useful?

      • To repeat, I don’t think it is a lie.

        But Craig, what are you dealing with reality for? To what purpose?

        And yes, I would say that if reality is of no use to you in some fashion, you ARE better off without it.

        That said, reality is actually a highly fungible and malleable concept. Even my own imaginations can qualify as reality per se.

        Everyone in America seems to be after the “TRUTH.”

        I’d wager less than 10 percent are actually equipped to do anything worth a damn with it though.

    • I find this attitude distinctly puzzling, to say the least.

      Copernicus: The planets revolve around the Sun!
      Seth R.: Big whoop, Copernicus! So what?

      Louis Pasteur: My experiments show that diseases are caused by tiny ‘germs’.
      Seth R.: Oh, well, good for you, Louis Pasteur! What good is that?

      Truth matters, that’s what. Once you know something true, you learn stuff, and you can use it to find more true things. Then your understanding increases. At least, it does if reality is your guide, and you’re trying to find out more about our world and universe instead of just trying to confirm what you already think all the time.

      If reality isn’t your guide, and you don’t think what’s true matters, then there’s not a lot we have in common. We’re really working toward different goals.

      I’m astounded, I really am.

      • But in these cases, truth doesn’t matter because it’s true. Truth matters because it is useful. That planets revolve around the sun has useful implications. That diseases are caused by germs has even more useful implications.

        This doesn’t mean that all truths are useful (sigh, not meaning directly to evoke that talk). And if a truth isn’t useful, then what is the point. What does it matter? Especially against a falsity that is very useful.

  19. Even a truth that has no direct utility to us now is better than a falsehood.

    Sometimes people don’t realise the utility of something until hundreds of years later. It took a long time for people to discover the utility of Bayes’ theory of probability. I’m using it right now on a language task, and it works just great. Things that are true can eventually lead somewhere.

    But falsehoods are dead ends. Try and build on them, and it all turns into slop.

    • why?

      You’re basically saying, “because it’ll have direct utility to us later,” but what if it *doesn’t*?

      Meanwhile, it’s very clear that you can build on a falsehood. People apparently do it all the time. Unless you want to validate religions.

    • If you build on a falsehood, two things eventually happen:

      1. It becomes obvious that the falsehood (or false system) doesn’t match reality.

      2. The false system makes predictions that come out wrong.

      Both of which we can see in religions.

      Even if a true idea doesn’t have any direct utility, I’ll still take it over a falsehood.

      • Andrew, can you think of something that’s true but not at all useful to know that it’s true? I’m not sure I can. And even if a known truth isn’t useful now, who knows when it might be. And even if something is true but not useful, I still prefer to know and structure my life according to what’s true.

        Another question is, is there any connection between truth and goodness, and falsehood and badness? I think there probably is. All I know is that I much prefer knowing the truth of something than living either in ignorance, or knowingly in falsehood. Sure, lots of people seem to be happy living according to lies and falsehood, but as Daniel pointed out, once you start building lifestyles/worldviews/religions that are based on false assumptions, you inevitable run into a huge, self-contradictory mess. I’m not claiming my assumptions are all correct, but with the available evidence, it’s the best I’ve got. Sure an afterlife as a reward might sound nifty (assuming I get to go to the nice part), but I prefer to live according to reality, rather than a comforting lie. Maybe it’s just me, but living a lie isn’t satisfying.

        • I’m with you, Craig. I prefer to know what’s true and then make my choices. But then I’m kind of funny that way.

          I think truth is far more likely to lead to happiness and satisfaction than falsehood. And I try not to mistake my imagination for reality.

        • At the risk of getting into a discussion on cultural relativism, I’d say *any* social institution. When we form social institutions, we are literally making stuff up to serve our purposes (thus, they are useful.) If religions are seen as social institutions (albeit ones that propose to be more than social institutions), then it’s very easy to see the social impact (both positive AND negative) they have. This makes them VERY tangible, and furthermore, it makes the *ideas* behind them incredibly real.

          As for truth and goodness, I’m not quite sure I want to get into a fact/value distinction. One does not get an ought from an is.

    • Even if those two things happen, that doesn’t nullify the utility that the falsehood has provided for individuals, and that doesn’t give utility to true ideas.

      As long as the falsehood has this utility, then it’s not the case that it doesn’t match reality. At least, not entirely so.

  20. Lies are useful in controlling other people, that’s for sure. In that case, they don’t know it’s a lie.

    But we started this by talking about accepting ideas that we ourselves believe to be false. Why would you accept an idea that you believe is fraudulent, over one that you believe is true? Could you give a example as to how this could be useful?

  21. Actually, let me rephrase that a bit.

    I’ll allow that lies can be very useful to disseminate, but not to believe. Can anyone give me an example of how it would be more useful to believe a false idea than a true one?

    • timberwraith permalink

      Lie: Brushing my teeth adds a fun and enjoyable start to every morning!
      Advantage: Healthier teeth

    • timberwraith permalink

      That was a joke, btw. 🙂

    • if you believe in something, then you wouldn’t really refer to it as a “false idea.”

      If this is the case, then you can’t talk about “accepting ideas that we ourselves believe to be false.”

      If you mean believing that something (actually, unbeknownst to us, is false) to be true, then I COULD just argue for the placebo effect. People say, “placebos don’t do anything.” That’s incorrect. Placebos are tremendous. Our system of medical testing, since it tests things against the placebo as a “baseline” demonizes the placebo unfairly.

      But even still, I’d probably go to social institutions again. These are very useful, but they are all made up wholesale.

    • No, now hold on there. A social institution is not untrue in the same way as a belief can be untrue. Social institutions are constructed, perhaps, but they are not the same as lies.

      I would like an example of an untrue belief that you would find more useful to hold, rather than holding its corresponding true belief.

    • why can’t a philosophy or worldview be as constructed as a social institution, and therefore not really in the realm of “untrue” (as you say)?

      For example, let’s say some kind of nihilism is true (whether in general or a moral nihilism, or whatever else). Regardless of this, we can be moral fictionalists, etc.,

  22. Wrong language guys. The word “lie” denotes an active attempt to mislead.

    What we are talking about here is simply things that are not true. No one said anything about “lies.” Your use of that word merely makes it look like you’re taking things here personally, that your objectivity has been compromised, along with credibility.

    But not to lose sight of an important point here – the question of God is not one of truth or untruth such as is subject to verification of the sort you guys are talking about anyway.

    At the end of the day, the premise that God exists is just as likely as the premise that he does not exist. So there really is no basis for declaring it an “untruth” to begin with. For you, God cannot be anything more than an unestablished premise.

    He cannot rise to the level of an “untruth” and most certainly not a lie. For you to claim otherwise is to make an assertion about reality that you cannot possibly back up.

  23. “the premise that God exists is just as likely as the premise that he does not exist”

    No, I don’t think that it is.

    • I’m sure you don’t Craig. But nevertheless…

    • Why do you think the two are equally likely, Seth? Show your work.

      When there are two possibilities, the probability between them is not always distributed equally. E.g. either a random number is evenly divisible by 100, or it isn’t. Two possibilities, but not equiprobable ones.

      • Prove they aren’t equally likely Daniel.

      • You made the claim, but okay.

        I find the likeliness of your god not existing to be higher than the likelihood of it existing.

        1. The likelihood of any certain thing not existing is higher than that of it existing because there are many possible alternative scenarios where that thing doesn’t exist, but only one in which it does.

        2. It may be that it’s not possible for your god to exist. It’s impossible for something to exist if its existence would entail a logical contradiction. I can say that square circles do not exist, nor do married bachelors (unless someone radically redefines those terms). I’m not sure if your god fits that category, but there are some seeming contradictions that could be explored: a being that is omnipotent, yet cannot do everything; a loving being that allows eternal punishment; a being that allows free will, but knows what’s going to happen in advance; an almighty power that must obey rules.

        3. Your claim distributes too much of the probability mass to Elohim. Other gods have as much evidence for their existence, so we must also say that the probability of Thor existing/not existing is 50/50, Ganesha is 50/50, Amun-Ra is 50/50, and so on. Too much probability! The only way this could work is if we allow that the probability of the existence of each god is independent of the others, but followers of Elohim insist that he exists to the exclusion of the others.

        That’s why I think the two possibilities are not equiprobable. Now why do you think they are?

        • “The likelihood of any certain thing not existing is higher than that of it existing because there are many possible alternative scenarios where that thing doesn’t exist, but only one in which it does.”

          Yeah? Name em.

          #2, ah, the problem of evil.

          But you see Daniel, that only refutes a certain VERSION of God.

          No dice.

          #3 is irrelevant, because this is not a question of whether all the different theological claims are true, but merely one claim. And if you are going to be silly like this, why not throw atheism in there in the pot with all the other God options. This would then make atheism statistically LESS likely to be true because it is sadly outnumbered by all the other alternatives out there.

          Which you would obviously reject as a stupid conclusion. But it’s basically the same one you just made.

          Here’s how it stands:

          Option 1 – Some form of God

          Option 2 – No form of God

          And either option is really just as likely as the other.

        • No, as I’ve said — just because there are two options does NOT mean they are both equiprobable.

          I’ve put my reasons out there, and we could discuss them. I’m more interested in your reasons for putting those two options at 50/50 probability. Come on.

        • When you have a multiple choice question about a topic that is unanswerable and only offers two options – then both are, for your purposes, equally likely to be right.

          You’ve tried to add factors to the equation like the problem of evil to weight the conclusion and I’ve already noted why this doesn’t work – it only attacks certain VERSIONS of God.

          But if God turns out to be something like “Q” from Star Trek, then your objections based on the existence of evil become utterly irrelevant. Which is why bringing up the problem of evil fails to weight the evidence one way or the other on the ultimate simple question of “God or not?”

          And you also tried to rig the game by restricting me to the Judeo-Christian God, even though I placed no such restrictions on the question of “God or not?” So bringing up all the Hindu gods out there was an equally irrelevant move.

          For purposes of my question, on the one hand you have a universe which has some sort of god figure(s) existing in or over it, or under it, or whatever. On the other hand, you have a universe where none of these things represent reality.

          Both are equally probable – because both are equally unprovable.

        • Well, thank you at least for reminding me once again that talking about gods is useless until the theist (that’s you) defines the god in question clearly and unambiguously.

          Which leads you into a strange quandary. If you do define your god in very specific terms, you have more and more explaining to do as to how you could possibly know the stuff you claim to know about him on the basis of zero evidence. If, however, you keep it vague and allow for a broad definition of god, then you have put forward an essentially useless argument that says nothing at all. I do not envy your position either way.

          I thought you were going to stick to Elohim, like in the last thread. It seemed a reasonable assumption. Now you’re falling back on an undefined supernatural being. You should say clearly what your god is.

          • “If you do define your god in very specific terms, you have more and more explaining to do as to how you could possibly know the stuff you claim to know about him on the basis of zero evidence. If, however, you keep it vague and allow for a broad definition of god, then you have put forward an essentially useless argument that says nothing at all.”

            I agree with this. But it applies equally well to atheism as a position. The more general it is, the less point there is to it. But once atheists start trying to add stuff to the basic premise of there is no God, then they have an increasingly difficult time establishing their position.

  24. timberwraith permalink

    *sigh*

    You know, I’ve been an atheist/agnostic for so long now, that I have simply stopped caring if there is some super duper entity watching over the universe. If folks want to believe in god, that’s fine. If folks want to believe that the universe is inhabited by a diffuse, undefined spirit force, that’s cool. If folks want to believe in a sentient cosmic toaster that spit the universe out billions of years ago in a puff of toasty goodness, well, that’s OK by me, too. Pass the butter and marmalade, please.

    Some people’s truth is encrusted with the bread crumbs of cosmic wonder. Other people’s truth is encapsulated by a book written by a British fellow. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of living my life, I’ll mind my own business and continue to sip my coffee and read my book.

    So, the thing that really did burn my cheese, was when someone implied that atheist parents probably will have difficulty raising their kids with a sense of direction. I am bothered when a theist shows up, waving his sense of morality around, and says, “See! Mine’s bigger than yours.” And yes, I do see the occasional atheist waving their British fellow’s book around, saying “See! My morality is bigger than yours.”

    I dunno. Perhaps we could take a different approach?

    • I think the consensus was that atheism doesn’t provide any moral direction. Atheists get direction from other places. Basically by adding something else to a moral and social universe they see as atheistic.

      Thus an atheist couple is just as likely to do a good job of parenting as a religious couple.

      • Interesting. Are you in agreement with this? I’m not trying to being a smartypants by asking this. I’m just asking for clarification because “I think the consensus was…” uses language that could imply more of an observation rather than agreement.

      • I’m more or less in line with it. I can’t really back up the “just as likely part,” but it seems true to me.

      • Hmmmm.

        Well, I suppose this thread is ending on a more positive note than it started.

  25. Chris permalink

    I think many theists themselves are not even motivated by the idea of God/afterlife/etc. There is something different going on. For example, what motivates the ‘once saved always saved’ Chrisitans if their salvation does not depend on works? Are they really motivated by the bigger picture of a God? Maybe some are… but the ‘once saved always saved’ doctrine seems like a free ticket. Their motivation to do good seems to come from somewhere else.

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