© Chris Port, 2010
The following extracts are edited highlights from a Facebook discussion thread on religion and atheism over several days in October 2010.
“Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.” ~ Don Hirschberg
ME: Depends on what you mean by 'religion'... For myself, I would say this: if you are religious then you believe that things in the natural world HAVE a meaning and a purpose (given to them by something supernatural like a god or gods); if you are atheistic then you believe that things may be GIVEN a meaning and a purpose only by sentient beings in the natural world (or not, as you wish). This means that Atheism is not the LACK of belief but simply a different FORM of belief, the primacy of the tangible over the intangible. Tangibility is a very sticky subject, as the physical world and the senses are not as intuitive as many people think. The attached debate map on Probability, Statistics and Bikinis will give the intrepid reader some idea of the rhizomatic epistemological crosswiring needed to jumpstart a consistent argument.
We are somewhere between the world of the senses and the world of the mind. Although, if there isn’t really such a thing as ‘I’, I don’t really have too much of a problem with an equally ‘non-existent’ god...
D: Will re-read this and comment when I have less Vodka in the system! LOL Interesting discussion though.. having studied the "big six" as part of my degree recently... does really truely not believing, and believing you don't beleive, count as a belief?!?! x p.s For the record.. religion wise.. I am on the fence! LOL. x
ME: It tends to make more sense after you've had a few vodkas. God has that kind of humour :)
D: God has to has the hugest sense of humor ever..... for a number of reasons! ROFL x
J: Aethiesm is a belief, but it is neither a religion nor a philosophy.
D: Oh I am getting confuddled now.... lol x
ME: Good opening gambit J. I hope everyone has a glass of vodka to hand... I agree that atheism is not a religion (although there are some sophist lines of argument that could be used to demonstrate a 'family resemblance'). These would be specious, however. My main big thing point is that atheism is a positive belief system rather than just a negative rejection of a belief system. I suppose I'm creating a distinction between 'devout' atheists (those who have pondered the issues and made a philosophical choice) and 'casual' atheists (those who just can't be bothered with thinking and see religion as either nutty or naff). I don’t think we need waste too much time and thought on casual fashion atheists since they have little of interest to contribute to the debate. Atheism may not (yet) be a recognized school of philosophy, but it does require philosophical thinking to become an active choice rather than a lazy opt-out. I suspect Dawkins et al. are beavering away to make atheism a consistent philosophical doctrine. But I agree it’s not quite there yet. How’s the vodka going down D? :-)
D2: Atheism is not a religion, being a very very very strong Athiest i can tell you that my Atheism covers more than religion for me, i also do not believe in ghosts, santa, tooth fairy, unicorns, gremlins, ogres, fairies etc etc, Atheism is just a word that tells people thats what my opinion is, its not a religion at all... ever....ever.... neverever :). For me its just a word i use so people know what i think without going into detail and explaining every aspect and why i came to that conclusion :D
D: Vodka doing good ta Chris.... OK... "My main big thing point is that atheism is a positive belief system rather than just a negative rejection of a belief system." ...Isn't the whole point of religion a belief, a belief in God.. or Buddha or......or......... so a negative beleive.. i.e. a true belief there is nothing... IS a belief... I think... need more vodka! ROFL x
D: Ah.. ******.. caught me out there... I DO believe in ghosts.. have had multiple encounters, since the age of 4.. and been attacked with scars to show.. I believe in multiple universes.. we CANNOT be the only air sustaining planet.. I am convinced I have lived before... a few times... so reincarnation a big yes.... as for the tooth fairy and santa.. nar.. my purse knows the truth there! LOL Funny.. I can beleive no problem in the occult.. but give me religion and "true" belief and I argue the toss! LOL Having studied them all.. Buddhism is the one I am leaning towards... Buddha was a real man.. he actually lived.. not materialized now and then to the chosen few.... and reincarnation etc is all accepted.... Liking a religion that fits my way of thinking!x
ME: I would argue that a passionate atheist must deal with profound consequences for their views on life, morality, meaning etc (whether they initially realize it or not). They have a much tougher task ahead of them than dogmatic deists. The main comfort of religion is that, regardless of the suffering and injustice of the natural world, there is some supernatural plan at work. There will be some form of divine judgment and justice. It will all 'come out in the wash', so just try to be a nice person and all will be well. Marxists despise and reject this comfort as a con-trick and a false cosiness, the so-called ‘opium of the people’. Once this comforting narcotic outlook is rejected, there are some soul/mind-chilling consequences of ‘reality’ to deal with. I would argue that a passionate atheist must go through the same traumas of belief as the most angst-ridden religionist experiencing a ‘crisis of faith’. At heart, atheism is the belief that human beings must make the best of this life because that’s all there is. It is a huge responsibility, and the scale of the task is daunting. Atheism, if devout (and yours does seem to be in the sense of heartfelt rather than religious) takes great courage (and an advisable sense of the absurd). I think the closest I’ve come to an atheist ‘school’ of philosophy is in the Theatre of the Absurd (Samuel Beckett, etc.). It’s funny, painful, liberating and chastening. Like looking at the stars. Makes you think sometimes... :-)
D: OK..Belief = divine plan, all will be better in the after life, no matter how your years on earth were spent........ devoted atheism = shit happens.. live with it..it's called life, you screwed it up!! Actually, I would love to be a devout believer... no matter what crap is thrown at me it is for a reason.The Greater Good.. instead of I have just screwed up..... again..... sadly, I am just an argumentative cow, who loves a good fight and is happy to screw up and start again.... p.s absurd I like!!! xxx
J: I don't believe that such a thing as a devout aethiest can exist. Aethiesm is merely a reaction to a religion. Without religion, it could not exist. Imagine how many things don't exist, which we haven't imagined. We can only disbelieve in them once they have been imagined. I don't see how anyone can be devout about something which is both entirely reactionary entirely reliant upon opposition in order to exist. A Christian can be devout without aethiests to compare themselves to. An aethiest can't be devout without a Christian to compare themselves to. What you're really discussing, I feel, are things which are somewhat removed from theology itself. I see no reason to give religion credibility it doesn't deserve by opposing it against aethiesm as some kind of equal rival. I don't even like the idea of calling myself an aethiest for this reason. Simply, take god out of the equation, and discuss philisophy, not aethiest philosohy.
ME: Hmmm. D... If you simply shop for a religion that feels comfortable, is this really a 'belief' or merely the spiritual equivalent of another shot of vodka? Is this what you mean when you believe in spirits! Are Buddhists just happy-go-lucky karma alcoholics? :-) (Buddha does have a beergut, and a big grin...) Our culture has gone through a prolonged period of materialism, which is not the same thing as atheism at all. In essence, materialism just believes in the comfort of the moment and the future on credit. But eventually, the bills drop on the mat and we have to face up to some sobering hard ‘facts’. This is when people either hit the bottle big time, or run to the nearest strong arm religion or party. That’s when it all gets a bit dangerous. The times they are a-changin’. The fences are a-wobblin’... Or possibly it’s just your slurred vision...
D: Ok.. Lets take god out of the equation..... I have no problem with Buddha.. for reasons above... the same with Jesus.. I am happy to beleive a man walked the earth telling us to be nice and was persecuted for his beliefs.. after all.. what... has really changed in 2000 years.. open your mouth in the wrong place and Wham... bye bye! When it comes to the big guys.. Hmm... too much shit happens in this world.. pedophiles being my number one.. an all caring god.. I think not! Give me a pissed off ghost any day.. them I can cope with...frequently do in fact..... religious be all and end all... I still need to be convinced! X
D: ****. happy to share the Vodka.. sending it through now! LOl x LOL Chris.. just saw your post.. synchronized typing ! LOL OK.. I am OPEN.... always have been.. probably always will be, I do believe.... but no idea what I believe... ... But..a couple of years ago, as part of a humanities degree, I did ...the History of Religion....and Buddhism just seems to sit the most comfortably with what I already believed in... death, reincarnation, Karma, ghosts etc.. they all fitted in... I mean.. how can you be dead and a ghost.. AND reincarnated to do it again.... all at the same time.. I have heard of multiple personalities.. but seriously! LOL But the road to Nirvana worked... as I see it.... But still very happy sitting on the fence until something convinces me to jump.... Will be interesting to see what the jumping point is..... the only thing I am sure of.. there will be none of this stoopid abstinence, your body is a temple and no alcohol crap! ROFL xxxxSee More I am sooooo printing this all out tomorrow when I am clear headed, needs to be read and digested properly.. maybe then I will understand what the hell I am on about!!!!! LOL xxx
ME: J, you're walking into a philosophical MINEFIELD with some of those terms! I think Dawkins would get quite upset hearing you describe atheism as 'merely a reaction to religion'! Instead, he would probably argue that it is a justified true belief based on rigorous, testable, painstaking research and logic, whereas religion is empirically untestable and has failed to address the rational inconsistencies in its own belief system. Equally, I think it is unfair to dismiss religion as undeserving of credibility. For all its faults (and I agree, there are MANY faults with religion) there can also be great wisdom and compassion and, indeed, great art. The various religions are, to some extent, schools of philosophy in that they consider some of the deepest questions of life. Where they fail by modern philosophical standards is that they ultimately require their adherents to accept their doctrines on the basis of good faith rather than logical consistency. This is where it all gets TERRIBLY complicated. The usual cop-out is to claim that perhaps it is more logical to interpret religions as artistic and moral parables rather than literal ‘truths’. However, this does seem a bit hypocritical as religions don’t usually promote themselves as ‘art’! Wittgenstein (the later) pulled up his ladder at that point. My main concern is that people THINK and DEBATE rather than settle for easy answers. If you haven’t already seen it, I strongly recommend the film The Ninth Configuration which addresses many of the issues we have been discussing. Whether you agree or disagree with the film’s premise and conclusions, I think it is a fascinating, emotional and thought-provoking film. I think the You Tube links are buried somewhere in my notes...
Here we are... On The Problem of Evil... Watch one of my favourite films (another influence on Marty)
The Ninth Configuration (Dir: William Peter Blatty, 1980)
‘A Theological Thriller’, about the problem of evil... and the mystery of goodness...
“How do you fight a war called madness?”
Colonel Kane, a Marine psychiatrist suffering from nightmares, arrives at a castle in the American Pacific Northwest where shell-shocked and insane soldiers from the Vietnam war are being treated. The castle's staff has been unable to control the patients, many of whom are suspected of faking their illness to get out of combat. The permissive Kane opens himself up to listen to anything the soldiers have to say to him in an effort to heal them, while at the same time suffering from his own demons...
The Ninth Configuration: Featurette - Film critic Mark Kermode introduces some of the main themes
Part 6 of 11 (9’27”)
Hamlet and Insanity for Dogs (5:00-8:34)
Hamlet and Insanity for Dogs (5:00-8:34)
Readings of the film
“William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is a clever, theological drama disguised as a black comedy…”
Kermode has described The Ninth Configuration as "a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action. From exotically hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the claustrophobic realism of a bar-room brawl, via such twisted vignettes as Robert Loggia karaoking to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag, Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on."
I particularly like Part 6 - Hamlet and Insanity for Dogs (5:00-8:34)
J: I disagree with you about Dawkins, and actually I disagree with you for the precise reasons that you give... The scientific method is built on peer review. Exactly as you described, athiests reviewed the empirical and statistical evidence for and against both religion and athiesm, and found religion wanting. It is in exactly this sense that I mean it is a reaction to religion. Moreover, an awful lot of painstaking research goes into criticising and reviewing scientific theories, most of which turn out to be false. The amount of work gone into proving it false is irrelevant, surely. x is false, but I don't become a 'believer in disbeliving x'. It just falls by the wayside as another disproven theory. If falsetheoryx isn't imagined, then it has no need to be disproven. I'd like you to not imagine something, then to disprove it :) Aethiesm - ESPECIALLY in the way that Dawkins and co go about it, is entirely reliant on religion...as can be seen by the combatative nature of all of those guys...
When I say that religion is not even a valid rival of aethiesm, I mean this in a strictly scientific sense. I am all for the philosophy behind religion, but religion without god is just that...philosophy.
ME: Leaving aside the semantic quibble of whether atheism is ‘reactionary’ (yes it is, chronologically and methodologically, but the current resurgence of religious fundamentalism is a political reaction to Enlightenment values) we’re now blundering into an ontological quagmire. Even logical consistency (as exemplified by mathematics) has some shaky claims on ‘truth’. At this point, I’m going to save myself some effort by copying and pasting this from my (rather one-handed) discussion on Metal’s Facebook, grandiosely entitled ‘On The Need For A Renaissance - The resynthesis of art, philosophy and science’. After a while, it just saves time to quote myself :-)
Depends on what you mean by 'truth'. 2+2=4 may be true, but that doesn't mean anything other than 2+2=4. It is an axiom. To ask what it means is meaningless. You either accept it or you don't. If you do, it doesn't mean anything. And if you don't, then (mathematically) you can't say anything else. Read up on Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems.
Only in aesthetics and ethics will you find meaning - and (I suspect) it is meaning that people want from their truths, rather than mere pedantic consistency. (For a 'simple' explanation, read up on Objectivism, Subjectivism and Relativism, and sophisticated variations thereof in 'Humour in the Holocaust - Instalment 1 of 7 - Chapter 1: Introduction. What are laughter,comedy and humour?' – about halfway down).
Maths is not a meaningful language because its notation has no subtext or context. It communicates nothing. However, its self-referential expansion to develop consistent patterns of logic (which some find elegant and beautiful, expressing infinite complexities in pithy formulas – like poetry but with numbers) hints at something deeper... Truth is intangible. Like the humble electron, it is affected by our clumsy measurements. Once you realize that it cannot be grasped, only then have you truly understood it. Truth, like humanity, is inherently paradoxical, a probability waveform. Confused? If so, good. Like quantum theory, if you think you understand it, then you don't! That's a good starting place for science and art...
"... as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." – Albert Einstein.
"... as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." – Albert Einstein.
D: OK.. I am now lost.. can we try a debate on Gothmans theory of Institutionalism.. I got that! LOL xxxx
ME: Truth, logic and consistency are human constructs. We attribute importance to them for various practical, moral and aesthetic reasons. Pattern recognition and consistency have evolved in our species because they were useful survival traits.... So, once, was religion. Whether it is now a help, a hindrance or a harm is currently the subject of much heated debate. The real question is whether science and religion are actually talking about the same thing. Dawkins is happy to allow artistic fiction to tell us meaningful truths about life (he is a cultured, aesthetic writer) but he is not happy to allow religion to do the same because (a) he believes it is a fiction posing as a truth, but more importantly (b) because he believes it is harmful. Art, if you like, is a ‘good’ lie and religion is a ‘bad’ lie. Even in its benign, compassionate form, he believes that religious belief acts as the thin end of the wedge for irrational indoctrination (often without choice) and, ultimately, an intolerance of scientific methodology. In essence, there is no middle ground or fence to sit on. I agree with most of what he says, but I do see some gaps in communication. We have a good old dialectic here: science versus religion, each making moral claims about what is ‘good’ for humanity. Is there a synthesis, or do we have to jump one way or the other? I would plead for some breathing space to allow Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ to develop a more ‘artistic’ dialogue. Stop worrying about ‘reality’ (whatever that may be) and start analyzing how we communicate. That’s enough big talk for one night. Night night x
S: A guy in the street asked me if I believed in ever lasting life. I said no. He asked me if I'd ever thought about it. I said "yeah, when I was a child." He asked me if I believed in God. I said "I don't have time for this. I'm late for work...." He said "God will always have time for me and that it's never too late to find time for him." I said "fair enough mate but I really can't stand here having a protracted conversation with you, I've got somewhere to be." He said "we all have a place to be and..." I interrupted him and said "look mate I said I CAN'T have a protracted conversation with you and now you are causing me to do exactly that. I don't care if God exists or he doesn't. It makes no difference to me in the slightest. I believe in sex, drugs and rock n roll." He laughed. It wasn't really a joke. How rude of that man to laugh at my beliefs when I never took the Michael out of him for clearly being mentally challenged.
ME: LMAO I won't waste any of your time ******. But, if nothing else, God is good for nutters and jokes. I've come up with a new word. Apatheist: someone who is apathetic about God. Good luck with the hedonism. Sex and drugs and rock n roll. Now Dionysus, THERE was a god who knew how to have a good time... None of this everlasting life rubbish. Drink, dance, fornicate with serpents, then get torn to bits by sex-crazed women and have your head carried into town by your mum on a pole. Who said religion was boring?
J: I agree, the problem with religion is that it a) tries to prove science as false and b) is fiction prosing as truth. I see no harm with any religion/philosophy that knows its rightful place. And I only know OF the language games...I know no...thing about them. Something I have to look into, I think. Any recommendations for a starting point?
ME: You could try Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief edited by Cyril Barrett. Nothing written directly by the mad old boy here. It’s a compendium of notes taken by his tweedy pipe-chewing students in his private rooms in Cambridge in the summer of 1938.
(Extract from one of my earlier threads on Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor).
A great man, a lucid thinker, and a twinkle-eyed speaker. Oh bring back ‘talking heads’ TV (and civilized, albeit foolish, smoking). I highly recommend The Problems of Philosophy as an introduction to those who want to start thinking clearly about life, the universe and everything.
As an analytic philosopher, I think Russell sometimes got ‘truth’ entangled with consistency. Depends on what you mean by ‘truth’. And, like (the later) Wittgenstein, I don’t think you can meaningfully separate ‘truth’ from use.
For example, what is the ‘truth’ (or the use) of a chair? To the unthinking universe, it is just some atoms amidst other atoms, which are mostly empty space anyway. To the egocentric cat, it is just a convenient snoozing perch. To human beings, it can be something to relax on, something to eat on, a carpenter’s work of art and beauty, something to sign a war or peace treaty on, something to interrogate a man on, something to kick away from under a man’s feet and hang him. So, what is the ‘truth’ of a chair?
Analytic philosophy usually reveals only the truth (or consistency) of the analytical language, not the ‘truth’ of the subject. ‘Truth’ is a human observation, a pattern, Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance concept’, not an inherent quality. So, brilliant and lovable as he was, Russell was actually mostly wrong. But he did get a lot right! 9/10 from me :-)
He was wise enough to realize that his slightly bonkers protege, Wittgenstein, was a revolutionary philosophical genius. “He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: 'There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.' When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.”
Wittgenstein was elusive on the subject of God, though I suspect his ‘ladder’ leads to something metaphysical (I’m now climbing into misty skies of understanding!). "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)" Then, it gets a bit complicated...
‘A common misconception is that philosophy is something like religion really. A good line to take in the face of this is to observe that philosophy is concerned with the undermining and questioning of dogmas, whereas religion is all about accepting and supporting them.’ (Jim Hankinson, Bluff Your Way In Philosophy).
(On the ‘Presocratics’) ‘... not all of them came before Socrates, and in any case they formed no coherent school: many of them in fact didn’t even form coherent individuals.’ (Ibid.)
(On the ‘Sceptics’, who didn’t believe anything) ‘It is said that Pyrrho’s scepticism was such that friends repeatedly had to stop him from walking off cliffs, under passing chariots, into rivers, which must have been a full-time job, although they seem to have been pretty good at it, as he lived to a ripe old age. He is said to have visited the Indian Gymnosophists, or ‘naked philosophers’, so-called from their habit of conducting nude seminars. He once got so irritated by repeated public questioning that he stripped off his clothes (perhaps under the influence of the Gymnosophists) leaped into the illusory River Alphaeus, and swam powerfully away, a tactic the hard-pressed bluffer might well consider emulating.’ (Ibid.)
(On the dramatization of philosophy, or ‘Marty Gull’, taken from Manifesto For Drama Education in the Twenty-First Century, © Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 2000)
‘Any pragmatic manifesto for Drama Education in the twenty first century would need to outline how our subject can participate more deeply in the language games of commerce since (in the narrower context) this is the dominant discourse of our current era. In the broader context of Postmodernism, however, it could be argued that we need a paradigm shift, away from philosophies of drama education and towards the dramatization of philosophy itself. At present, drama and the theatre do not seem capable of the rhizomatic interconnections of knowledge performed so consummately by television, computer games and the Internet. John Lanchester (1999) believes that:
‘... theatre is so dead, as a form, that it isn’t possible for anything interesting to happen on the contemporary stage. It is a heritage activity rather than in any sense an “art”.’ (Lanchester 1999: A1).
If Lanchester is correct then, rather than teaching a living artform, we may be teaching a ‘dead’ heritage activity which will render the old process versus product debate obsolete in a way never envisaged by any of the protagonists. A manifesto for drama education in the twenty first century will probably best be served in the short term by adopting Hornbrook’s (1998) eclectic subject curriculum, in particular the promotion of interculturalism (c.f. Sita Brahmachari in Hornbrook 1998) which, as a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective, is well suited to the fragmentation of narratives in this Postmodernist era. In the longer term, however, the relevance of that broad church subject curriculum may still fade with interest in the artform itself. Unless theatre in the public domain can dramatize the philosophical implications of Postmodernism itself (which, curiously, seems to have affected Drama more than its literary parent, English) then Drama Education is still living on borrowed time. The Modernist obsession of experimentation with form has long outlived its relevance or welcome. The prolonged scepticism of Postmodernism has produced a scepticism about theatre itself. Theatre needs a new content, new ideas. Whether such new content or ideas are even possible after Postmodernism is not yet clear, but one thing is clear; if they are possible, then it will be new writers who will have to provide them. A Drama Education manifesto for the twenty first century is therefore a plea: we need new writers and we need new ideas.’ (Chris Port, 1999).
"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." ~ Stephen Roberts
ME: I contend that it is a category error for both theists and atheists to believe or disbelieve in God as an empirical phenomenon. Beauty is not an inherent quality in the physical world but an attributed one in the mind. An aesthetic atheist is quite capable of believing in something that doesn't exist other than as a rational construct. The problems only start when theists claim that the construct is independent of the mind. An aesthetic God is as rational as 'truth' or 'beauty'. An empirical God is just as absurd as beauty without a beholder. The underlying debate is not one of physics but of meaning. Science has nothing to say about meaning, only about information. My first response when someone asks whether I 'believe' in God is 'depends on what you mean by God?'. I believe in stories far more than I believe in atoms. Stories make sense. Atoms don't. Then it gets a bit complicated ... :-)
X: Shelley was expelled from uni for atheism
ME: He probably gave an apple to the teacher. How appropriate. The forbidden fruit of knowledge got us booted out of the paradise of ignorance. Then the same thing happens in the gardens of academia. God, whatever He is (or isn't) is certainly a sense of humour…