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:
- There is a world.
- Nothing comes from nothing (and nothing cosmologists or fundamental physicists say about it will be taken seriously).
- 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:
- Jesus made the unique and crazy-sounding claim that he was God.
- To do this, he must have been mad or God.
- Mad people are violent and dangerous.
- Jesus was the opposite, loving and trustworthy.
- Therefore he wasn’t mad.
- 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.