Category Archives: Atheism

The parable of the priest at the atheists’ group

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an excessively long post on religion, but I was inspired today. Normally I would put most of it below the fold, but I haven’t posted in like a week, so I’ll just let it fill the empty space on the front page.
Fred Clark has a couple of interesting posts at Slacktivist: the first one about what he calls “Biblical illiteralists”—fundamentalist Christians who don’t understand literary device and insist that obviously metaphorical stories from the Bible are historical fact—and the second post about the same tendency among some atheists—those who claim that, because some stories in the Bible are risible when interpreted as historical accounts, this casts doubt on the entire religious enterprise. This latter struck me as a bit straw-man-ish at first, but when I thought about it I realized that I do hear these kinds of simplistic arguments for atheism at times. In fact, it reminded me of an experience I had when I first came to Berkeley.
During my first semester here I didn’t know very many people, so I sampled some of the student groups in the hopes of meeting some friends. One group that looked interesting was a kind of weekly discussion group for atheists with topics centered around morality, metaphysics, and religion (as a societal institution). Hoping perhaps for a continuation of the classic late-night dorm room bullshit sessions, I showed up for a few meetings.
Inevitably, the group contained a number of what Fred Clark calls “sectarian atheists”, which is partly why I was reminded of this. I was also surprised and amused to see an older man with a priest’s collar at each meeting. He was in fact a priest, ordained in the Anglican church, and attended the meetings not just to tweak us atheists (although he did seem a bit mischievous) but to participate in the dialogue, and generally made positive contributions to the discussion.
The standard format called for an invited speaker each week who would get the discussion started by talking on some topic of interest. One week the priest himself was invited to give his side of the story. He talked about his view of religion and his role as a priest, and some of his comments were strikingly similar to what Fred Clark says in the posts I linked above. He discussed literary devices, metaphor in particular, and emphasized that metaphor is a natural mode of communication for humans, employed heavily by the Bible, and it’s a mistake to try to read metaphorical passages as historical accounts. Of course he was talking not only about religious fundamentalists but about atheists who insist on this very naive reading of religious texts, some of whom were in the audience.
Two things struck me as I listened to his talk: first, that the priest was making a lot of sense even if I didn’t see things the same way, and second, that many of the people in the room simply didn’t understand what he was saying. Judging from the picayune and tangential objections they were raising, they had entirely missed the point and were convinced he had to be wrong simply because he was religious. When Fred Clark talks about sectarian atheists, these are the people I think of. That was the last meeting I attended; I was unimpressed by an atheists’ group where the most sensible person in the room was a priest.
Going back to Fred Clark, in the first of his two posts he points out that (for example) the Noah’s Ark story has precisely the form of a just-so story (in the original Kipling sense), where the point of the story is not an accurate recounting of facts but to pass on some more abstract principle. Whether one is religious or not, to read it as something other than a parable is crazy or obtuse. But because of the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy in some circles, people on both sides get hung up on whether Noah’s Ark happened exactly as it says. I agree with Clark that this is extremely silly.
But it seems to me that this silliness is not limited to the “Biblical literalism” crowd; in fact, it extends to almost all Christians. I imagine one can get a sizable fraction of Christians to agree that Noah’s Ark is just a parable, and likewise the creation story, and Jonah-in-the-whale and the story of Job and so forth. But what about the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection? My sense (I don’t have polling data) is that the historical truth of the resurrection is a core Christian belief, and almost all Christians believe it. And yet, if Noah’s Ark has all the trappings of metaphor (and it does), so does the resurrection story. Journeys to the underworld and returning from the dead were extremely common tropes in ancient mythology, with clear metaphorical connotations. There’s no reason to read this particular instance as a historical account, but almost all Christians do.
Indeed, many will argue that someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a Christian at all. Reading the obviously-metaphorical parts of the Gospel as metaphor removes the divinity of Jesus, makes him perhaps a notable quasi-historical figure like Socrates or Buddha, about whom some tall tales were told to illustrate his teachings. And the same could be said about the Bible as a whole. Once we view the book as a collection of fantasical morality tales, God becomes a fictional character, a narrative conceit that links the stories together. And so it’s very strange indeed to turn around and say, well, this was all just metaphor but this one character in the story really exists!
So I don’t see why a sophisticated reading of the Bible, recognizing metaphorical passages as such, doesn’t lead directly to atheism. Probably in a lot of cases people set apart the sections corresponding to core beliefs, like the resurrection, and refrain from analyzing them in this manner, while freely interpreting more disposable stories (like Noah) as parable.
Can someone be a Christian and yet interpret the Bible consistently as metaphor? I once met such a person—the priest who spoke at the atheism group. As he explained his beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus was an illustrative story and God was a metaphor for a kind of collective property of humankind, not a distinct metaphysical entity. His Christianity was then based around his belief that this metaphorical structure was extremely valuable for understanding human nature. (This would be the part I didn’t agree with.) Nevertheless, if the word atheist has any meaning, it means someone who doesn’t believe in any gods as actual metaphysical entities, and so to my mind, this man was an atheist—one of us! Unfortunately the more dogmatic atheists in the room couldn’t see past his collar, and never grasped what he was trying to say.
And that’s the parable of the priest at the atheists’ group. Although this one did really happen.

A world of atheists

There’s a really interesting post by Matthew Yglesias from last week that I only got around to reading today. The topic is the argument one sometimes hears that the widespread nature of religious experience is somehow evidence of the supernatural. The whole post is worth reading, but here’s the punchline:

There’s clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts — in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. — but there’s no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don’t believe that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don’t believe that Muhammed was Allah’s greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don’t believe that you’ll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Stephen F. Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Nomenclature of the godless [corrected]

There’s been some recent discussion on various blogs of the notion that the term “Brights” be used to describe atheists, agnostics, etc. This was coined by Daniel Dennett Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, and promoted by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, among others. I was going to write a post about how lame this is, but Kieran Healy already said it a while ago.
The problem isn’t that “Bright” is arrogant, but that it’s really dorky. Kieran is put in mind of the Comic Book Guy but I think a more apt Simpsons reference is to Martin Prince. There’s a kind of earnest, optimistic cluelessness about the idea that’s just asking to get beaten up by Nelson. I’m with PZ Myers, who is just fine with “atheist”. Even if it is associated with some particular obnoxious individuals, “atheist” has force and seriousness that “Bright” is sorely lacking.

Thoughts on neurotheology

I don’t mean to repost all of Pharyngula’s links, but here’s an article about neuroscience experiments into religious experience. One scientist claims to be able to produce religious sensations in 80% of subjects by applying magnetic fields to their brains. This doesn’t surprise me very much; more amusing is that he gave the test to hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins and it had no effect. The article speculates that this might be evidence of a kind of “talent for religion”, but I wonder if it could be the opposite: since Dawkins never goes to church, he doesn’t exercise that part of his brain so it becomes less sensitive. I know I’ve seen experiments that show that certain types of mental exercise will have a measureable effect on brain physiology. But you neuroscience people can correct me if I’m just making this up.
One issue that I haven’t seen raised is that, at least in my experience, the sensations one has in a religious context aren’t unique to religion. Back when I was a believer and a regular churchgoer, I would have feelings of oneness and a kind of glowing happiness that I thought at the time came from the presence of God. But I also get these feelings while out running, or at a good rock concert, or when I have some new insight about physics (either through my own experiments or hearing about some new and interesting result). So is this the kind of feeling that the neuroscience experiments are inducing? The article also mentions a “sensed presence”, which I’ve never had in church or elsewhere (except for sleep paralysis experiences, but I think that’s a bit different). So do most people get the sensed presence in church, and I’m just insensitive to it like Dawkins? It’s an interesting thought, that the experiences of most religious people might be qualitatively different from those I had when I was religious.

But I still… haven’t found… a solution to the problem of evil.

Slacktivist has excerpts from U2 frontman Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mostly, it’s good stuff, in which he chastises George W. Bush for not doing more to fight poverty around the world. But there’s one section that I thought was very self-defeating, because while Bono wants to make this a religious mission, he runs right into the problem of evil (which I’ve written about before). I have to wonder if Bono is really thinking about what he’s saying here:

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill … I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff — maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono is describing people who live in abject misery, and if we are to assume that God exists, the obvious question to ask is, why does God permit such suffering at all? It seems to me that one of the following statements has to be true:
1. God doesn’t know about the suffering of the poor.
2. God knows about the poor but does not care.
3. God knows about the poor and cares about their suffering, but is powerless to help them.
Now religious people generally try to obscure the issue rather than admit that one of these things is true. But Bono in the above remarks has just ruled out statements 1 and 2, so we are left with the disturbing fact that Bono believe in a god who has less power to help the poor than George W. Bush, or Bono himself. Why even refer to such a being as a god? Seems more like sort of a concerned spirit, or something.
One could argue that God works his will through the charitable actions of humans. This doesn’t reflect well on God’s character: basically, he’s the lazy manager who gets his subordinates to do all the work, and then takes all the credit at the end.
Or one could argue that the charitable impulse itself comes from God. This, in addition to resembling a common and vicious slander against atheists, argues for a very weak god indeed, as (by Bono’s own admission) there is not nearly enough charity in the world.
So what good is it to the poor if God is with them? If man living in a cardboard box could trade the presence of God for a roof over his head, shouldn’t he do it?

Ok, you can stop now.

Michael Newdow is still at it:

Judge Rules Pledge of Allegiance in Calif. Schools Unconstitutional
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 14 — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the law requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional and said he was ready to issue an injunction to three California school districts to halt the daily reciting of the pledge.

I heard Newdow speak at Berkeley a couple years ago. He seemed like a good, well-intentioned guy, and I agree with him on a lot of things. But I wish he’d put his quest on hold for a while. This is terrible timing: it’ll just create a backlash that’ll provide lots of support for whatever theocrats Bush nominates to judgeships. Obviously “under God” in the Pledge is unconstitutional, but equally obviously the Supreme Court won’t rule that way after two appointments from Bush. So there’s no way to win here.
Not to mention that there are ongoing battles over church/state separation on issues that actually have a major impact, like the teaching of evolution. Insofar as activists have limited resources it’s probably better not to focus on purely symbolic issues.