The Limits of Discussion


Sorry There Weren’t Any More Jokes

I said in passing last time that I was depressed. There were more personal reasons for my depression than the (very depressing) Brexit and global warming, but I didn’t want to write about the other issues.

Those other subjects have been simmering in the background since. I’ve not been sure whether to blog about them, or whether to blog again. Talking about our personal problems in public risks exposing more of ourselves – and others – than we find comfortable later. It can also suggest we think we’re more interesting than we actually are.

I don’t have pretensions to be particularly interesting or special or important, but I did start this blog with the intention of exploring some of my inner stuff and sharing it, in the belief that the facts of our lives – any of us – can be useful to others. I’m attempting to touch on those other issues now for that reason, and because I need to get them outside of my head, although I’m still not sure if I’ll get to the end of this and publish it.

The subject matter here has meandered a fair bit, but lately got fairly heavily into religion, criticising various Christian works. Two long discussions have ended with me questioning what the point of it all is.

Blogging helps – or helped – give my life purpose. By discussing the issues I discussed, I felt that I was making a difference, however small. It occurred to me often that I didn’t need to, that there were plenty of other, more qualified, people criticising religion or pseudo-science. As with protest marches, we can always stay home and not bother, but if everyone did that there’d be no-one marching. With critical thinking and religious scepticism, there is a march to go on, there’s a protest to be made, there’s a good fight to be fought. It’s important, because ill-considered, fundamental beliefs motivate ill-considered actions. The main focus of my blogging, and a good chunk of my self-esteem, had become my helping the “skeptical community”.

But I was overtaken recently by a feeling of hopelessness after two major setbacks. I expressed my hopelessness last time about tackling global warming, but I was probably even more hopeless about people waking up from religious delusion, and I was, and am still, questioning whether it does any good, arguing for scepticism.

I can’t believe it doesn’t, because I know it did for me. I was at one time a mystic arguing the other side, and it was the arguments of sceptics that changed my mind, for which I am immensely grateful. It’s possible that all my outpourings since (a great many more on YouTube than here) have made a difference to one or two people without my knowledge. But I have no positive evidence that I’ve influenced anyone similarly, and a lot of evidence of either no movement at all, or worse, deeper entrenchment of the other in their point of view. Of course, I have had positive responses from other sceptics, which have been very important to me.

The Philosophical Christian

A big part of my wounding came from a very, very long, very depressing discussion with one particular Christian, Paul Hill, whom I met on the YouTube comments of a Dennett interview. Paul argued respectfully, and with some rigour, so I enjoyed engaging him on a couple of topics. When he revealed that he was a Christian, and I said I was an atheist, we began to discuss this difference, still with respect, and we continued via email. We both wrote at length, one of those complex discussions where paragraphs are inserted under paragraphs, resulting in a lot of repetition and some confusion. He began writing Word documents to attach to the email, and the nested style of replying went on there, even adding coloured text to help keep track of it all. We took weeks or months between replies, and this continued for a couple of years up until last December, when I finally decided I’d had enough and didn’t respond again. He may be expecting me to yet – I haven’t said I’m done.

One thing that kept me engaged was that he has a PhD in philosophy. Surely, if you can straighten out misunderstandings with anyone, it should be a philosopher. And there was that politeness, the willingness to argue and listen, which I always appreciate, and the depth of discussion into meta-questions of how we decide what may be or is true.

I was aware that philosophy takes many forms, from the formal logical propositions that can be analysed and proven true or false within the confines of the system, to much muddier waters, propositions about the world (ontology), and about knowledge (epistemology), where meanings depend on definitions of words, balances of evidence and other fuzzy judgements. We talked about all that, too, but with little agreement on anything. Before long, the tone became less friendly, more critical of the other’s methods, assumptions and ability in the subject.

Unfortunately, Paul is hung up on a few things: first, whatever argument he makes, it is designed (consciously or unconsciously) to be compatible with Jesus=true; second, he imagines that his semantically-sensitive arguments (or ones he repeats from Medieval Christian apologists or ancient Greeks) can be worked through like analytical propositions, for example:

  1. There is a world.
  2. Nothing comes from nothing (and nothing cosmologists or fundamental physicists say about it will be taken seriously).
  3. Therefore, there is a Creator.

He is afflicted with too much confidence in his thinking ability, which is either very poor naturally (I don’t believe this) or is distorted very badly by the first two problems. He is too confident in philosophy as arbiter of truth, rather than empirical findings.

Paul’s politeness meandered into passive aggression as I criticised such arguments, and instigated even more irrational support of his views. The last thing he wrote suggested that, because I expressed concern about him (his delusion), this means I’m closer to a Christian than I know. As I’ve illustrated with a couple of writers in recent years on this blog, all thoughts, to some people, suggest “God’s truth”. I showed care, therefore God. Had I not cared, therefore (my lack of) God.

Paul stated many things that should set off claxtons in anyone, especially the philosophical, including that God was the answer to all questions (and, conversely, that whatever explanation science might discover for phenomena, there remained the necessity for God to make that the way it was). Rather than seeing this as a worrying indication of the artificial convenience of the idea, as one might question a purported cure-all offered by a salesman, it either seemed perfectly sound to Paul within his limited world of philosophical jargon, or else he was adept at pretending to himself and me that it made sense.

The Argument from Contingency (sketched above) has all manner of logical holes in it, to the point that it should be considered long debunked, a silly ancient relic of an argument, a rationalization of a superstition, no more. It is not possible, for example, to be confident that anything that is might not have been (“contingency”), which is where the argument formally begins, nor that this condition necessitates an external cause.

The arrogance of those who imagine their wordy formulas can do the work in a paragraph that decades of head-scratching and experimentation by university cosmologists has not yet clarified is truly astounding. Most pertinently, should we disregard these problems and follow the argument to its logical end, it requires only that there is a “first cause”, which could be no more than a very peculiar uncaused event, causing one other event. It does not follow that this uncaused cause is God, with all the qualities attributed to a God, that he loves humans, or sends them to Hell, that he had any intention to create a universe, or became his own son and killed himself and then came back to life, to try to tell us things he wasn’t prepared to spell out any other way.

It is quite staggering the infantile arguments he came out with to support the Jesus story, along with profound-looking sophistries.

One of the most central and silliest went something like this:

  1. Jesus made the unique and crazy-sounding claim that he was God.
  2. To do this, he must have been mad or God.
  3. Mad people are violent and dangerous.
  4. Jesus was the opposite, loving and trustworthy.
  5. Therefore he wasn’t mad.
  6. Therefore what he said was true; he is God.

As if there weren’t enough utter nonsense in that sequence already, and as if it didn’t all beg the question of whether the Gospels can be trusted on what they say about Jesus, he casually dropped in this little “additional information”:

To enlarge on some important matters hereabouts, Christ wasn’t even all that gentle – at least some of the time. He despised the Pharisees with a heart of burning gold. And have you read some of the things he said? I can tell you they worry me. Christ was not gentle, meek and mild except in some enormously nuanced senses of those terms. Nor was he harmless, at least to our ordinary, degraded ways of thinking about ourselves. In his own words, “I bring not peace but a sword”. The money changers in the temple didn’t think him particularly gentle, either, as they picked up their scattered coins.

If I had several lifetimes to spare, it would be interesting to find out which parts of what Jesus may or may not have said “worry” Paul, and exactly how they worry him, but they clearly don’t, as yet, worry him sufficiently and, quite frankly, life is too short to keep arguing with a brick wall. The above screams at me, not only of someone wrecking one of the foundations of their own argument (which I pointed out), but also of a sickening blindness of the (imagined) victim to their (imagined) abuse. If Daddy is defined as “all-good”, then his despising certain tribes of people with a heart of burning gold, or his declaration that he doesn’t bring peace, but wields a sword, his anger, his lack of forgiveness, (his sending people to Hell to burn for eternity while he and the saved watch) – all these are transformed in the mind into good things.

When challenged on the fact that this undermines the argument, Paul just reinterpreted it, indeed, virtually turned it upside-down. Jesus did not hate people, but their wrong acts, he said, asking me (an ex-therapist) the patronising question of whether I had ever heard of the principle of hating the act, not the person? I might have pointed out that that’s not what he said Jesus hated, he said Jesus hated “the Pharisees”, but it was all so dense and there were dozens of such directions to take at once.

Paul was incredibly patronising, picking up almost every criticism I brought and lecturing me on the importance of it, several times bragging about his academic qualification in the subject and telling me I was a novice and therefore didn’t understand philosophy. The whole thing was so blatant, and I felt increasingly cornered by my competing emotions: pity for his delusional state despite apparently having the mental ability to work his way out of it; and anger at being subject to such utterly transparent bluster.

I wanted to write about it. That’s what I do, isn’t it, I thought, confront irrational beliefs and write my blog about it? But I haven’t mentioned this until now, probably because there is so much of it, all so unimaginably stupid. It felt like it would be an enormous piece of work to report on it after the fact and do it any kind of justice (this is a tiny taster), and doing so would be like self-abuse following abuse from Paul. I considered publishing the whole discussion somewhere, perhaps here, to avoid the work and let people read it if they feel inclined. Paul seemed to welcome the idea, as if convinced that he comes out of it looking good. I may yet.

Anyway, here I am trying to make some sense of it. Paul has commented here (on the no-free-will question), and he might feel inclined to respond to this. I’d have to cross that bridge if I came to it, and I’m not in favour of censorship, but I think he’s said all I wish him to say to me. There may be an argument for giving a right to respond, but he has his own website.

I do feel a great deal of pity for him, and can therefore understand and forgive his abuse of reason and me. He came to Christianity quite late, when he met a woman priest, whom he married. She obviously had a very profound effect on him. Obviously, I do not think it was a good effect. He is now a “lay reader”, so preaches the Gospel himself. These are strong motivations to defend his mental status quo.

It is hard to know how much to say, but it feels impossible now not to add that his wife died. I imagine that the danger of feeling disrespectful and deepening his loss might add an unbearable weight to the psychic enertia he shows, beyond the enchantments of the religion that other people might feel. I had much less powerful reasons to resist (although I had some) when people challenged the things I believed in.

So, of course, this scarring is atypical. I should not think everyone is as entrenched in their views as Paul, because not everyone preaches every week the very views you’re hoping they’ll analyse dispassionately, following conversion to that view by a beloved deceased spouse. On the other hand, the general outcome of discussion is entirely typical of those I’ve had with dozens of other people on untenable ideas from aliens building the Pyramids to the Young Earth. I’m in dire need of some good news from the campaign front if you have any.

Closer to Home

I don’t want to say too much about the details of my second major disappointment in this regard in recent months, because it involves my partner, but I feel I have to say something. She is a Christian, and through the last decade, since I gave up belief in God(s) or supernatural entities or mystical dimensions, this has created a serious tension between us. When I was a “Buddhist”, or “Hindu”, or whatever the hell I was for the previous decade, at least we had the common ground of belief in something beyond the physical, although she didn’t quite get my belief and I didn’t quite get hers. We could enjoy moaning about how blind all the materialists were, all the scientists scribbling their rubbish on whiteboards. Since I became an atheist, and particularly since I began including Christian criticism on my blog (which I don’t think she reads, and doesn’t mention), the tension has increased.

For a long time we engaged in occasional discussion of religion and atheism when we happened to slip into it. We both enjoy discussing philosophical subjects. I was probably the more confrontational, partly because belief in God is a positive position, which I think requires rational support. I’m fairly sure she has been more bruised by these encounters. Over the years since, I thought we’d come to an agreement that we’d not avoid the subject altogether, but try not to make a big deal of it either.

I was shocked, therefore, during one such argument lately, that she said I had said I wouldn’t bring the subject up again, that we’d agreed not to talk about religion. I don’t remember ever saying such a thing, and I’m not sure I believe her, but people do – I know – remember things differently, and my memory isn’t great at the best of times. Anyway, I desisted and haven’t mentioned it again. That’s that, it seems.

I think I am perfectly happy never to mention it again (that’s how I felt then and still feel now, but who knows?). I know she hopes that I’ll see the light of God, and she has the self-control not to preach to me or suggest that I try to believe or try going to church. I see no reason why I should continue to try to get her to see the light I see. People have the right to choose their beliefs.

I also feel it would be wrong of me to write much about this in public, of course, if she doesn’t want to discuss it even in private, but I felt it would be disrespectful of myself not to write about it at all (and I have no intention of avoiding the subject of religion generally here). I can’t predict the future. I may feel differently later. I intended to be open about some of the more private things in my life, and it is difficult to work out how much to say on this. It’s a real personal challenge and has set me quite a moral puzzle. There’s still quite a bit for me to work through.

As I suggested, one of those is how much the activity of sceptical criticism is actually useful and important, and how much it merely serves my ego. Perhaps there is some research on the effects of arguing with religious people, but it is presumably a difficult area to investigate. I hope those I’ve argued with understand that I see it as an act of love, not of spite. And of course, my kindness might be evidence of God, but it might not. There are other explanations.

I’m reminded of some words in a Kate Bush song,

Them heavy people hit me in a soft spot,

Them heavy people help me,

although she was probably talking about New-Agers at some encounter group. Them heavy people at the James Randi Educational Foundation certainly hit me in a soft spot, and it helped me a great deal. Not trying to help others, especially those you love, is a difficult challenge. But so is trying to work out what might help, and that might include not doing anything.

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11 Responses to The Limits of Discussion

  1. Yakaru says:

    Hi John,
    …Yes, it is difficult to decide how much to share personally on the internet. I do think it’s worth at least hinting at some of it though, as you have done. Religion/atheism was one of several factors in the dissolution of my previous relationship. It didn’t bother me that my partner had religious beliefs: in fact I was glad when she dropped her New Age ideas and sought out her Jewish roots. Judaism has dealt fairly well with the non-existence of its central figure, but despite this she could never get over my atheism. I tried to tell her that’s largely because of a bunch of Jews that I’m an atheist, but that didn’t seem to help much either. We could, though have some interesting talks about the Bible. In fact I found it fascinating getting interpretations of the “Old” Testament from the horse’s mouth, rather than the genuinely silly attempts of Christians to pretend they understand it. There were other problems, as I said, but that was still a fundamental divide.

    Most of my friends are somehow spiritual. I try and occasionally fail to avoid arguments. As a rule, I will immediately and bluntly object to the law of attraction; I will diplomatically say something if I think they are using ideas that endanger themselves in the short term; I won’t complain if they talk of astrology or some such; I will demand equal time if they want to tell me about some idiotic guru they have been seeing, and I won’t be diplomatic, and I will warn them of this in advance. (There is about 30 years of experience behind those rules, dating from pre-atheist times!)

    I greatly admire your ability to engage with Christian philosophers and the like. I lack your patience when it comes to understanding perspectives and ideas that I find objectionable. Unless ‘advance and destroy’ has a good chance of short term success, I’m outa there. But really, I just find it incomprehensible that anyone seriously believes any of it and isn’t just trolling. But they do seem to….

    Although, noticing that detail of the bereavement he suffered, I recall a Christian asking me when I was 20 whether or not I believed in God. I said no, and she said “But I would have thought with your father dying, you would have turned to God.” I said “I prefer to face the truth, whatever it is.” She said “I don’t know, I just think it’s nicer to think that someone is in heaven.” When I said that I’d only want to believe that if it really seemed to be the case, she just looked baffled, as if I’d spoken meaningless words. I think the religious have had so many millennia where it was not really possible to apply a standard of truth to religious claims, that they still ahven’t caught up with the reality of science.

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru,
    I don’t know much at all about Judeism (and precious little about Christianity). I’m puzzled by your statements about Judeism dealing with the non-existence of its central figure – and that it was largely because of a bunch of Jews that you’re an atheist – wha???

    I just did a bit of reading on the difference between the OT and Torah, etc., but I don’t need to go there. It only legitimizes fantastical inventions to start comparing them.

    I’m not sure it’s patience, exactly, that keeps me arguing, but a failure to remember that people don’t change their minds often, and can appear to be open to reason, so I get caught up in thinking I might get through to them, despite all my previous efforts being in vain. And it’s fun to some degree, and I learn quite a bit that way.

    It’s kind of comforting to know that your mind boggles as well at people’s odd attitudes to belief. There’s a lot to learn from that reaction of the person who thought you’d turn to God after your father died. Many people’s thoughts are flotsam on the shore of their feelings. There’s an innocent style, where they gaze at you incredulous when you suggest there’s more to having opinions than how it makes you feel (if you can forget you don’t really believe it). And then there are the sophisticates, like Paul, who pretend their beliefs are worked out rigorously, not the result of feelings, but when you get to see their working, it’s like the kid’s who’s cheated at his maths homework; it doesn’t point to the answer they submitted.

    Our problem is we’re no good at forgetting we don’t really believe what we made ourselves believe because we thought it would be a good idea to believe it.

  3. Woody says:

    Great post John, Thoughtful and often quite inspiring. In my heavier surfing days I joined in ‘discussions’ with believers in the divine powers and so on and so forth. Sometimes we were spitting back and forth a little in what was more a car-park scrap than discussion. But I remember exchanging ideas politely with more than one believer on ‘The Atheist Oasis’.
    Elsewhere (I cant remember which blog), I exchanged with Young-Earth Creationists and learned the validity of that old saying, “Never debate a Creationist !”. I feel some bond with you in your descriptions of how the Critical Thinking and reasonable assessment bugs gripped your life, so to speak. I don’t remember if i’ve told you or Yakaru this before, but in a Main switchboard supervisor job, there were certain times of the year when the phones were almost dead for weeks. It was quiet and calm and when I had a spare minute I clicked onto a link for ‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’, an online compendium by Robert Todd Caroll. The scientific method, The value of this or that type of evidence and how they may weigh upon one’s reasonable and rational conclusions. The various Logical fallacies that so many use to support their incredibly unlikely beliefs. The common biases that we are all susceptible to, which can naturally bend the angle of our views.
    I’ve learned a lot from you brother in the time since we began exchange here. Years are still marching on since those older days and I find myself sometimes listening a little more keenly to the different views of others, because as skeptics, we know that the subject of BELIEF is very important.
    As for gods, religions and their scriptures, i’m not convinced.
    How surprising would it be ? If Jesus really was a rough sword-wielding rogue. Considering that a number of times, in the new testament, he calls for strict adherence to the laws and codes of the old testament, he may well be a rather unpleasant sort, if indeed he or some version of him ever existed.
    Thanks for your online work mate.

  4. Yakaru says:

    Regarding my weird short-hand assertions about Judaism…

    My gf was a fairly literal-minded New Ager when I first met her, then she began to explore her Jewish roots. I found that where there would always be a nasty argument if we talked about New Age beliefs, after she got more Jewish (and fairly traditional at that), it was suddenly much easier and far more interesting to listen to her ideas. She already new the texts & cultural heritage quite well, and was quick to say that you have to figure out how to interpret the OT because it’s dangerous if you take it literally. I think the emphasis on a ‘relationship’ with god, rather than insisting others follow a bunch of rules softens it all. Plus they (generally) don’t try to convert people.

    The Jews who turned me towards atheism were especially Spinoza (in case you haven’t already read it, his Theological-Political Treatise is devastating — no wonder they excommunicated him!); Hithcens, Jerry Coyne, Karl Popper, and a bunch of others…

  5. lettersquash says:

    Hi Woody, yeah the Skeptic’s Dictionary has been a very useful resource for me over the years too, and every time I go there I find something really interesting. I still consider myself a bit of a novice on all the different subjects – cognitive biases, logical fallacies and whatnot – but I think we get to a point where we make the switch from trusting personal experience over scientific evidence and reason to realising that we haven’t a hope of judging anything properly without the latter, and really cannot trust our own private thoughts about things. It’s taking me a little bit longer to realise that some people are just not ready for that, or can’t get there. Paul Hill, for instance, kept undermining this requirement for scientific assessment of claims with the silly idea that we are “natural knowers”. However much he paid lip service to the fact that our knowing is distorted by all sorts of biases, he clung to that ability to just know stuff as a way to justify his faith.

    Yakaru, thanks for the clarification. I must check out that Spinoza! I forgot there are a couple of main ways of thinking about what Jewishness is, the religious belief and the tribal definition through the maternal line. Interesting point about interpreting the OT making it “softer”. That is also one of the biggest dangers I see in religion, though. Yes, it might make a creed less dogmatic, and there aren’t those starkly ridiculous arguments about talking snakes, but it allows the believer to go back to concentrating on that “relationship” with their invisible friend. I imagine you’re aware of all this, I’m just riffing on these ideas.

    It’s a much less serious issue, perhaps, non-literalism, (especially if the literalism is about deliberately killing infidels or dismissing people who get in the way of our God-given national destiny), but it’s a slippery slope and easy to go one way or the other on any question if it suits the needs of keeping the faith. This habit then seems to add further confusion to the mind of those who resort to it, like that of arguing for natural explanations for particular miracles (Jesus might have actually been born parthogenically, for example, if there are examples of other animals that only have the one parent, which there are). Unless they’re careful they don’t realise they’ve just turned a miracle into a non-miracle, and made their God-man a mere mortal. They don’t ask themselves whether aphids and honeybees also resurrect after death (it’s almost certainly true some of them can walk on water).

    Great to get both your input again guys, thanks. I feel a bit more motivated to keep blogging, and it was good therapy getting those issues off my chest!

  6. Yakaru says:

    As I understand it, the early Jews believed that Yahweh would deliver them heaven on earth where they would be rulers of everything. After a while they noticed things didn’t seem to be panning out that way at all. (One of the reasons they rejected Jesus’ claim to messiah-hood was what happened to him. I can only agree. I’ve always been baffled by Christians praying to him for help — really — you think that guy can protect you?)

    Anyway, the term ‘secular Jew’ rolls off the tongue in a way that ‘secular Muslim’ or ‘secular Catholic’ doesn’t.

    I’ve also referred to the Skeptic’s Dictionary very frequently over the years. Normally I’d be happy to report that Dr Caroll even linked to my work on Bruce Lipton, but somehow being a leading authority on his teachings doesn’t give me any kind of buzz. It’s a lonely fate — not even Lipton himself understands his own teachings. But when I feel I’ve wasted my life, and look at all the mistakes I’ve made, I can at least tell myself it was all better than the time I spent reading his work.

    I’ve often thought, John, that my only criticism of your writing is that there’s not enough of it. Your piece on free will, for example, is absolutely first class. I wish I had your clarity and ability to hold vastly differing viewpoints in view while analysing a them. And you understand spirituality in a way that only people who take it seriously can do, and that is a rarity among skeptics, I find.

    …And Woody, when are you going to start a blog? I’ve noticed over the years that you have plenty of value to say and a succinct way of saying it.

  7. lettersquash says:

    Thanks, Yakaru, for those kind words. (Hey, I was actually going to say the same thing to Woody about blogging, but I’m hardly one to talk right now!)

    I think I’ve got a fairly balanced view of my strengths and weaknesses as a blogger. I don’t think I’d mind if I felt I was a pretty lousy writer if it seemed to be doing some good, moving the people it’s intended to move (even slightly). I’m very happy if my words support other critical thinkers, of course, but it feels like preaching to the converted most of the time, wishing the other side would listen up. They’re mostly busy criticising us (or praying for us).

    And maybe it’s not that important. Taking apart the lies of the money-grabbing cancer quacks, that’s amazing work, and you should definitely buzz about being Dr Caroll’s go-to Lipton expert! Wow, I’d crack open a bottle of something special.

  8. Woody says:

    That’s where I found a the link to Spirituality is no Excuse, in ‘the dictionary’, I’m so glad I found it. I’m also pretty sure I read and enjoyed most of the comments there from this other guy, Lettersquash, and was glad to find out he has his own blog, self-titled. You’ve got me thinking now mate, about a possible blog,

  9. lettersquash says:

    Nah, I doubt you saw my comments on skepdic, Woody. I don’t remember commenting there at all, but if I did it was probably before the LS name anyway. Glad to hear you’re considering a blog, but it was that Yakaru fella’s idea – you can blame him! 😉 Hey, Yakaru, I can’t find anything on skeptic linking to you. Was the link you mentioned somewhere else? On the Skeptics Dictionary I can only find Bruce Lipton in the “Future” list – i.e. people or things to get round to writing about later, I think – and it just links to Lipton’s site.

  10. Yakaru says:

    It’s just two links on this page —
    http://skepdic.com/news/newsletter1306.html
    enbedded in this text:
    “(for more on Lipton, see…. Bruce Lipton, Quack, Ignoramus, and Bruce Lipton: Quack, Creationist, Buffoon, PhD.)”
    I read Woody as meaning he found your blog by reading your comments on my mine.

  11. lettersquash says:

    Ah yes, mysteries solved. It’s been a long day.

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