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February 18 2009

Spiritual Atheism: Buffy, Angel, House, & Doctor Who. One of the most insightful trackings of the Whedonverse as an allegory not only for individual journeys, but for the evolution of society through the Industrial Age.

Stipe42 uses Buffy and Angel among other genre shows to illustrate the next phase in our cultural evolution and the humanitarianism of atheism.

That was a pretty good read. It didn't go very in-depth about the shows themselves, but it did put a number of insightful thoughts into words.
As someone that has more than a few issues with religion and God in general, I really enjoyed reading that. I especially liked how he traced the progression of spiritual understanding between the characters, and how that relates back to ourselves. Most of all, I think the message he tries to get across about how our actions matter is something valuable for everyone, regardless of faith (or lack thereof).
The industrial age came with all the bluster and violence of machinery and ideology.


If you mean that it came as a result of the Protestant work ethic and a bunch of rich men trying to make money then yes. And it didn't suddenly just happen, it was a gradual process over several decades. Personally I would go for a better analogy.
"If thereís no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters Ö then all that matters is what we do."


I still think that's one of the best lines in the whole of the 'verse.
Personally I would go for a better analogy.

Is that an analogy?
If you mean that it came as a result of the Protestant work ethic and a bunch of rich men trying to make money then yes.

Hey, don't forget the Great Methodist Pie Swindle, that also made a contribution (or maybe that's a subset of the Proddy work ethic ?).

Really nicely put and some interesting points. Personally I think the philosophy itself glosses over a few issues - e.g.
Insisting that society cannot have a concept of morality without god is like insisting that an adult cannot have a concept of morality without parents. The opposite is true. In reality, it is only as adults, free and unfettered adults, that we truly adopt any sort of meaningful and mature morality. Thatís the morality that comes from deciding to be the kind of man we want to be.

well, yeah but the issue is, on what basis do we decide what kind of man (or woman) we want to be ? I.e. what are the foundations of morality (and that's why some people are uncomfortable without a final arbiter to lay those foundations - a final arbiter doesn't solve that problem IMO, it just shifts it off at one remove, but you can kind of see where they're coming from) - but it was a good read nonetheless and I love the insight about The Doctor as a sort of "post-gaps" character, that the joy of him is knowledge of the universe but that a universe where you're always the one that knows, the one without a gap to retreat into for comfort can be a desperately unwelcoming place. In other words, it had me at "Heís like fire and ice and rage..." ;).

This isnít cynicism or shallowness, this is faith at its most pure. Faith that the universe can be known, that there is no cheating, no cosmic sleight of hand.

Also absolutely spot on (though I might swap 'faith' for 'belief' in this case, only because of its connotations, not because it's necessarily wrong). But that's the big suspense of 'House' and always has been i.e. is House's world view right ? (I say 'suspense' but in fairness if you take a step back, we pretty much know the outcome, the show plays with us but ultimately I can pretty confidently say there will never be a celebration of irrationality on 'House' or for fellow 'Bones' fans, there will never be a Teddy Parker on 'House' - David Shore is too much of a curmudgeon. Or maybe he just thinks what he does matters. And he should ;).
Isn't "spiritual atheism" a more "edgy" way of saying agnosticism?

I've always been grateful that the Buffyverse has never gone out of its way to close its metaphysical doors to Christians -- characters that don't believe in anything aren't offputting, but a mythology that does would be for me.

For a lot of people, Angel's line in "Epiphany" is the most important thing -- for me, Kate's answer is. Kate is there to remind him that there is at least an argument for providence in his life. That's something I appreciate about "Amends", too.
Isn't "spiritual atheism" a more "edgy" way of saying agnosticism?

Not unless you equate spirituality with the supernatural, no.

(as the article points out, an appreciation for the actual majesty of the universe can be spiritual too since spirituality is about how you feel about something, not necessarily the something itself. Certainly true of Einstein for instance and his "old one" - not a personal god, despite what some might tell you, but his shorthand for "the rules")
Stuff like this is always interesting, but the one thing that never seems to come up in these musings, is just how IS "God" being defined? Always bugs the heck out of me.

I guarantee no two people think of "God" the same way, whether that means as a convenient fiction, useful archetype, or something else entirely. So to even talk about "God" strikes me as a very imprecise thing to do. Such understandings are subject to all the variety that is human, which is to say reality or experience.

For such a weighty subject, I think the only thing that CAN be agreed upon is that there IS a subject to ponder, discuss, and wrestle with and that we've had the privilege of viewing some damn fine mind food.

BTW did anyone else feel as though it was implied that Atheism is the inevitable sign/outcome of maturity despite the mention of the Omega Point as the future?

That all said, it was a nice, thoughtful piece of writing and I and My Brain thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the link.
there is at least an argument for providence in his life

Depends a bit what you mean by "providence," doesn't it? I mean, if it's simply "more powerful beings than he is playing around with his destiny" then, sure--there's not just room for that, it's explicit (the PTB, for one thing, the Senior Partners, for another). Are the PTB "god" though? Is what they do part of some grand plan? Well...it seems unlikely, given the Jasmine story.

My problem with the idea of "special providence" is that it always seems to make God more random-psycho-killer-with-a-sentimental-streak than anything. For every "so God in his infinite love and wisdom decided to save this baby/my life/my dear old ma etc." story, you're saying "so God in his infinite wisdom decided that the six million Jews who died in the Shoah just deserved it" or "oh yeah, about all the other babies who died from that epidemic--God just couldn't be effed to save them; the big game was on and he needed to make sure the underdog won." I can make sense (just) of a God who simply sits back and watches the world unfold--I can't really make sense of a God who mostly doesn't bother to act, but every so often (for what, shits and giggles?) decides to perform a little miracle to "save" someone.
I only read the Buffy/Angel section. I can't say I found it enlightening nor specifically revealing. I think the writer failed to really offer a substantial comparison of the historical/societal evolutions with either Angel or Buffy. While there appeared to be a coherent thought, it wasn't organized very well. It came off like a rambling blog entry that had been edited to more cohesive.

Gripe, gripe, gripe...

It would have been more interesting had the article really examined the lack of God in Buffy and Angel. Particularly, in Angel, where the role of supreme being is replaced merely with the somewhat vague, "Powers that Be." What's interesting, though, is while both shows are essentially mum on Christianity, the cross does exist as something repellent to evil (vampires). For all the exploration of the universe of demons, and various "hells," Christianity is pretty much relegated to the side, except when it's used again for contrast (i.e., an evil priest).

I figure what I'm saying, is that the article missed an opportunity, and who knows, it may be well tread ground that I haven't come across. I think the author needs to grab a better and more thorough understanding of history, rather than use it broadly to make some analogy of a maturing civilization. Of course, what I don't agree with, is the author's assumption (or my misinterpretation of it), is that civilization at it's peak should be without God or organized religion.
It is Joss' stories that have helped me find my own philosophy as an young adult male. He has dared to ask questions that seem to usually be forbidden on regular TV. He likes to explore beyond the known universe and the usual societal rules, and look for real answers instead of just the ones that we are handed.

I don't know where I would be without him and George Carlin since I was surrounded and raised by christian conservatives in real life until just recently. Joss and George are not the only ones breaking the mold, but they deserve to get a lot of the credit in recent history. They have also inspired others to follow in their footsteps.

I have long wanted to have a church of sorts for non-religious people like myself to go and share their ideas and ideals within. Maybe Joss could write our non-holy scriptures. Then we could get together each Sunday and watch Whedonverse shows. :)

Yes, I am joking since it will probably never happen, and it might be a little too Scientology like. I still kind of wish it could happen though.

Until then I will just have to gather with like minded friends at the alter of whedon (in front of my TV) every Friday night and watch Dollhouse and other Whedonesque shows.

He seems to be focused on corporate fascism right now, but he might explore religion again someday.
Oh dear. This'll be the one that gets me in trouble here.

(Goes to read.)
So long as you're civil to everyone, stay reasonable and avoid ad hominem attacks you might be surprised filops ;).

I can make sense (just) of a God who simply sits back and watches the world unfold--I can't really make sense of a God who mostly doesn't bother to act, but every so often (for what, shits and giggles?) decides to perform a little miracle to "save" someone.

Well then you've clearly never really been caught up in a big game in that case ;-).

*hand wave* It's free-will though, that's why he has to let it happen. Or something ;). I.e. best will in the world, what you mean is you can't make sense of a loving god that would do that (what you, snot monster, might well be calling "big G God" deliberately i.e. the "specific" God not god) - that sort of thing is right up the alley of the malicious prankster that House is so afraid of though (which is why in many ways, to me, the Greek and Norse gods make a lot more sense, at least believers in them accepted that the world would sometimes turn around and do really - apparently - unfair shit to you. With the Christian God it's always part of his plan to which i'd say "Dude, your plan sucks" ;).

Which is related to the trouble with defining god in these discussions i.e. once you do a lot of "his" properties/actions can be called into question (and have been for hundreds of years, even by believers). Which makes some people irritable ;).

BTW did anyone else feel as though it was implied that Atheism is the inevitable sign/outcome of maturity despite the mention of the Omega Point as the future?

Yep, I did too. You ask that like it's a bad thing though ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2009-02-19 01:06 ]
Saje, I do find them equivalent -- supernatural means, after all, "over nature".

Snot monster, Jasmine strikes you as an honest person? I don't really take the rest of your post, or this thread, as an invitation to explain these things, but there is far more detailed explanation available than there will ever be questions to answer.
The problem with Atheism is that it too is self-defined around around the concept of "G/god."

OED:
definition atheism: Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of God or gods. Also godlessness.

So the question still remains: "What do you mean by G/god?"
The OED is unhelpful on this point IMO, as anyone who's discussed the issue with the various people in their life knows, there seem to be infinite conceptualizations.

Personally, I want a third option. There has to be something else other than the inevitable dualistic dichotomy. I just haven't come to any readily understandable conclusions yet.
Well, there might be infinite conceptualisations (there aren't though ;) but nevertheless, I know what I don't believe in when I say "I don't believe in God (or gods for that matter)" and if you were to somehow work through each of those "infinite" conceptualisations I could tell you whether I believe in it or not (and, by implication, whether I consider it a god). There are listable and unlistable infinities in other words.

(as a rough answer - I don't believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator and I also have severe doubts about a being that's any two out of those three)

Saje, I do find them equivalent -- supernatural means, after all, "over nature".

Yeah but 'spiritual' means

A. adj. I. 1. a. Of or pertaining to, affecting or concerning, the spirit

and 'spirit' means

I. 1. a. The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.

My point is, traditionally that "vital principle" or "breath of life" is seen as being religious in nature (as coming from without) but it doesn't need to be. And though the strict definition seems to suggest you can't be a materialist and spiritual, I think the way it's commonly used is broader and can be seen more as "that which gives your life meaning" (which obviously doesn't need to be supernatural).
*hand wave* It's free-will though, that's why he has to let it happen. Or something ;).

As I said--I can (at least "kinda sorta") make sense of the God who just sits back and lets it all unfold.

I.e. best will in the world, what you mean is you can't make sense of a loving god that would do that (what you might call "big G God")

I get a little confused at this point. What's "that" here? If it's "let things happen" then, yeah--I do think a "Big G God" can do that. What I can't understand is the "Big G God" who doesn't "let stuff happen" but who reaches in and fixes the odds--randomly. As, for example, in "Epiphany," a Big G God who suddenly says "you know what, I actually kinda like Kate--let's suspend that whole "vamps can't enter people's houses without an invitation" thing, just this once."

- that sort of thing is right up the alley of the malicious prankster that House is so afraid of (which is why in many ways, to me, the Greek and Norse gods make a lot more sense, at least believers in them accepted that the world would sometimes turn around and do really - apparently - unfair shit to you. With the Christian God it's always part of his plan to which i'd say "Dude, your plan sucks" ;).

Oh, "prankster gods" make all kinds of sense--but they're not "providential" in KingofCretins sense, are they. Nor are they really "gods" in anything like the Judeo-Christian sense, either. If anything, they're more like the Senior Partners or the PTB--very, very powerful demons/spirits/boogeymen. I mean, if we come into contact with a race of extremely powerful aliens who show us that they made our world and planted the seeds of life on it etc. etc. we haven't met "gods" have we--even if we've met "the creators of the world," and even if they tell us that every so often they've interfered in our lives to randomly save the odd baby from a plane crash, or let a vamp in to save a suicidal cop.
Snot monster, Jasmine strikes you as an honest person?

Actually yes, mostly; that's one of the reasons she's so scary. But even if she's lying about everything, that doesn't really change anything, does it? It's still true that within the Angel storyspace, there are superpowerful beings that interfere--rather randomly--with events here-below. It also remains unclear that that interference is part of any larger 'divine scheme.' That is, we're simply left without guidance on the question of whether or not the PTB are anything more than very powerful demons/spirits/aliens/what-have-you.

there is far more detailed explanation available than there will ever be questions to answer

Link?

[ edited by snot monster from outer space on 2009-02-19 01:46 ]
Oh, "prankster gods" make all kinds of sense--but they're not "providential" in KingofCretins sense, are they. Nor are they really "gods" in anything like the Judeo-Christian sense, either.

Yeah, that's what I was trying (and failing as it turns out) to say with the "Big G God" comment i.e. if you're using God precisely to mean the JC God (the new, improved all-loving one ;) then I totally agree, reality doesn't make sense in light of that.

But it doesn't need to go as low as "very, very powerful demons/spirits/boogeymen." we don't need to start messing around in "merely superior" territory - you only need to lose omni-benevolent for that god that puzzles you to make sense (i.e. omniscient and omnipotent aren't exclusive to "randomly fucks with you" - though any intentional action does raise the problem of fore-knowledge i.e. why do it if you can do anything and you know what's going to happen ? Being unlimited pretty much makes acting pointless. Or maybe it makes it pointless for every reason except "shits and giggles" - sort of "if nothing we do matters, we might as well have a laugh" ;).

Course, believers would claim that because it doesn't make sense to us doesn't mean it doesn't make sense (which is where the *hand waving* comes into it. IMO ;).
Well, as an atheÔst myself, this article certainly spoke to me. Although there's a bit of a 'young atheÔst overconfidence' here (i.e.: if we all "grow up", we would all become atheÔsts, which I'm not sure is true at all).

And yes, that particular Angel quote is still as close to my personal life philosophy as any work of fiction has ever gotten. It still gives me the shivers.

In all other issues here: pretty much 'what Saje said' so far ;).

Although, I don't quite get this:

Isn't "spiritual atheism" a more "edgy" way of saying agnosticism?

Not unless you equate spirituality with the supernatural, no.


AtheÔsm: there is no God (or, more often than not: I don't believe there is a God). Usually (but not necessarily) this goes hand in hand with materialistic views. It certainly does in my case, although there's nothing in the definition that says you can't have an atheÔst who believes in the supernatural.

Agnosticism: we can't know if there is a God or not. Not now and not ever. So let's just not worry about it.

Now why would either "spiritual atheÔsm" or "atheÔsm + belief in the supernatural" equate to agnosticism? I don't quite get that.
Course, believers would claim that because it doesn't make sense to us doesn't mean it doesn't make sense (which is where the *hand waving* comes into it. IMO ;).

Ah yes, the famous "moves in mysterious ways" handwave.

As someone said above, "god" is a famously ill-defined term. I suspect that there's something inherently impossible about "omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent" but I can't prove it. But I think there's something radically different between the "omni" gods and the "non-omni" gods. That is, it's not just a difference in degree, it's a difference in kind. In the end, what--other than terminology--is the difference between a greek god like, say, Hephaistos, and a "demon/spirit/boogeyman"?

Is Angel a "god" because he's immortal and has supernatural powers? How many more powers would he have to have before we could call him a god. If Gwen were immortal, would she be a god?

Put it this way: for a god to be any help to you in the "what's the meaning of it all" discussions, he has to be somewhere up there on the three big omnis--without that he's just another player on the chessboard.

[ edited by snot monster from outer space on 2009-02-19 02:04 ]
But I think there's something radically different between the "omni" gods and the "non-omni" gods. That is, it's not just a difference in degree, it's a difference in kind.

Yeah, the Greek gods aren't Gods because a) you can't have Gods (two supreme beings is an oxymoron - what are they, joint supreme ? ;) and b) even if you could, they wouldn't fight each other since they'd both be aware that they were, literally, the immovable object and the unstoppable force. And the Greek gods ? They did some fichtin' ;).

As someone said above, "god" is a famously ill-defined term. I suspect that there's something inherently impossible about "omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent" but I can't prove it.

Well, it's even more granular since it depends how you define "omniscient" (e.g. is it all knowledge - including the future - or "only" all current knowledge) and "omnipotent" (is it anything that can be conceived, even by an omniscient being or "only" anything that's logically possible - to take it back to the playground, can God swim ? Can God create a rock so big he can't lift it ? Can God do things that are logical contradictions like, for instance, allow free-will and control the outcome of those choices ?). When you add other common JC properties like "perfection" it becomes even murkier because, basically, how do you improve on perfection ? I.e. why would a perfect being even be capable of change (or of intent/action, thoughts even, which involve moving from one state to another - if you're in a perfect state isn't the only way down ?).

So for instance, if God has total foreknowledge and is all-loving, why would he create Man even knowing the we would fall from grace and start committing evil on each other ? I.e. how can an all-loving being knowingly cause suffering without a contradiction in terms ?

And if he doesn't have total-foreknowledge then isn't that a limit on a limitless being ? Again, contradiction. Course, there're all sorts of ways around these issues and it all does depend on the definition used (and on reason/language even being useful to talk about God. But then describing him at all - as The Bible does - seems to tacitly accept that our words do sometimes apply).

Now why would either "spiritual atheÔsm" or "atheÔsm + belief in the supernatural" equate to agnosticism? I don't quite get that.

That's also true, yeah, that it doesn't follow. Agnosticism doesn't affirm the supernatural and atheism doesn't deny it.

(i'd say "what GVH said" but the resulting circularity might doom us all ;)
Yeah, all those familiar paradoxes are part of why I suspect there's no internally consistent definition of the three big omnis. But the "our partial understanding is too feeble to comprehend"-out is always open. People never seem to realize the damage that particular escape clause (another side of the "god moves in mysterious ways"-out) leaves in its wake , though. It really is burning down the building in order to save it.

If I can't understand God and can't understand his actions, then it's absurd to pretend that I can be sure that his ultimate purposes are benevolent.

Which leaves us back with the PTB. They seem to be on our side--but how the hell would we know?
If logical issues like circularity could doom us, wouldn't religion have destroyed us all a long time ago, Saje? ;)

Also: logical problems with God + "If I can't understand God and can't understand his actions, then it's absurd to pretend that I can be sure that his ultimate purposes are benevolent" (or assume any of the other things any religion ascribes to Him have any value) = huge part of the reason I'm an atheÔst.
Joss had this on his profile for Dollhouse

Philosophies: Existentialism, Agnosticism

As someone pointed out above there is a cultural difference in the definition between atheism and agnosticism. This is an important difference for Joss since he never denies the possibility that something may exist in his stories. He just does not presume to know for certain what those forces are. Meanwhile the Existentialist in him is always trying to find the answers. The "Powers That Be" are probably the best example of this. They might be gods or God but we really never find out.

A good philosopher will never stop looking for the answers even though it is unlikely they will ever find them.

My problem with most religious zealots is that they pretend to know the answers and just stop looking. Instead of improving themselves they just try to sway others to their way of thinking. This is not progress no matter how you look at it, and usually ends up in violence.

I do agree with the writer that to progress we must look for answers, but atheism (the denial of god) is not searching for something better, it is just saying that you know that god doesn't exist. Therefore an atheist of this sort is no better or more evolved than someone that says god does exist without any proof.

I used to call myself an Atheist when I first turned away from religion, but I think I prefer Agnostic Existentialist these days. It means I am searching for answers using science and philosophy while not excluding any possibilities from the mix no matter how far fetched they might be.
@Jaynes Hat: I agree wholeheartedly, and thanx for the info about Joss's profile.

When I said this was insightful, it was with the knowledge that this basically is a blog. Pajiba is primarily a TV/Movie criticism site, but they have the same family feel as Whedonesque. Everyone knows each other, and not a lot of random outsiders contribute. This one struck me as particularly profound because it was posted there and struck a chord with me because of the particular shows it incorporated.

I have been an Agnostic Chaos Magician for several years now. Agnostic in that there is no way I can know enough information to actually decide there is or isn't a G/god, because I philosophically understand that our concepts of such things' existence have nothing to do with those things' existences. Chaos Magic is a practice, putting one's will into the universe, yadda yadda, and has more to do with belief and faith than belief and faith in any one thing.

I've always liked Joss's avoidance of things like actual angels or "gods" or "God", because it made his characters more real -- we may fight evil on a daily basis, but ultimate good may be a myth that we've created to comfort ourselves. If these characters had divine confirmation, it would make them less human and more zealoty, i.e. crusaders. Their struggles are more relatable this way.

Anyway, this was my first post that made it. Usually you guys are too fast for me. I'm really proud of how intelligent and rational this comment thread ended up, considering its subject matter. Thanks, guys!
Me, I think that both Angel's great line and Kate's right after it are important.

Basically I think the universe is run by a god who wants us to grow up and live on our own -- the Angel quote -- while also occasionally lending a hand to get us over the rough patches -- Kate's side.

And yes, I know this is kind of cheating.
And yes, I know this is kind of cheating.

Hey, you really are ManEnoughtToAdmitIt!
Yo! Atheism, by definition, only covers the god thing, and not any of the rest of it. Atheists don't believe in god. This does not exclude the possibility of other forms of the spiritual and/or supernatural.

Not everyone who believes in god is a fanatic, nor is every one who does not believe in god.

On the other hand, some atheists are totally A-wing fanatical zealot types. I hear that the theists have their own G-wing, too. I wouldn't drink that if I were you.

Exploring spirituality without god does not make a person agnostic. Agnostics, by definition, are on the god-fence.

I could draw a diagram for the confused.

I found that many of the statements made by the author succinctly summed up my own brand of godless spirituality. I'm the person that has to live with me, not some [benevolent/malevolent/omnipotent/apathetic] sort of [man/woman/goat/robot] in the sky. I'm staying out of the A-wing, but I am deeply committed to the idea that my actions in this world matter more because nobody is keeping score.
Jaynes Hat: "Joss had this on his profile for Dollhouse

Philosophies: Existentialism, Agnosticism"


If you mean this, that's an editable wiki, and there's no reason to think Joss wrote it himself. If you found that somewhere in a Joss interview or such-like, I'd be interested to hear it.

But I think the votes are pretty much in on this one - Joss has described himself as an atheist, and said:

The Onion: Is there a God?
Joss Whedon: No.
O: That's it, end of story, no?
JW: Absolutely not. That's a very important and necessary thing to learn.


And I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with this definition of atheism:

Jaynes Hat: "I do agree with the writer that to progress we must look for answers, but atheism (the denial of god) is not searching for something better, it is just saying that you know that god doesn't exist. Therefore an atheist of this sort is no better or more evolved than someone that says god does exist without any proof."


"Atheist" is one of those words that tends to get defined according to your belief or non-belief in God/gods - but in my case it's simply a lack of belief in deities. Many atheists I'm acquainted with neither think they have all the answers, nor have they stopped looking for them. And many of us don't believe that we're necessarily "better" or "more evolved" than folks that believe in a God or gods - in my case, it's a step in my personal evolution, is all. It says, or requires me to say, very little about yours.

Like many of you, this works for me, too - when I first heard it, I thought it really nailed what I'd come to believe. It still does:

"If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters - then all that matters is what we do... cause that's all there is."
Kind of a lightweight article, compared to some I've read on the subject of religion and BtS, but this I loved:
"Spirituality is something distinct from religion, the search for meaning is not the same as the acceptance of god"

I've always loved the Angel quote, how could anyone not, it is deeply profound, no matter what you do or don't believe.

Something that always gets left out of these discussions is Buddhism, which can be related to both of these quotes.
Basic Buddhism has a lot in common with atheistic existentialism, in the sense that they share a common thread of belief that the most important thing we as human beings can grasp, is that actions have consequences. (Dollhouse, anyone?) :)
Both philosophies are grounded in the belief that we shape our own destinies/realities by learning to understand this basic fact, and trying to take action accordingly, i.e. with the "this will have consequences" part in mind.

Although I don't like or in any way relate to Dr. Who, I loved the mention of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, to whom one of my favorite quotes is attributed"
"A truth once seen by even a single mind, always ends up imposing itself on the totality of human consciousness"

Big peeve: (Quote from article):"We're a civilization trying to figure out what the hell it means to be a man."
How about a "person"??? Because language matters and this kind of gender-exclusive language still demotes the status of women to the "Adam's rib" place.

So much more to say but I'm keeping someone awake at a bad time. I shall return (like it or not) ;)
If I can't understand God and can't understand his actions, then it's absurd to pretend that I can be sure that his ultimate purposes are benevolent.

Yeah which is why i'm not so sure the "our partial understanding is too feeble to comprehend"-out is "always open". I.e. as you say, folk can't have it both ways - either what we know about God is true (with all those familiar paradoxes) or what we know about God is highly questionable, in which case why worship him (when you could, after all, be worshipping a being that's actually evil once you understand him better for instance) ?

"Atheist" is one of those words that tends to get defined according to your belief or non-belief in God/gods - but in my case it's simply a lack of belief in deities. Many atheists I'm acquainted with neither think they have all the answers, nor have they stopped looking for them.

Exactly QG. As comes up time and again in the whole atheist/agnostic debate, not believing in something is the default position, it's not an expression of certainty, it's more like saying "This is what I think's the case at the moment".

That said, what further information can we uncover that might persuade an atheist that there actually is a God ? Because I don't see new evidence for his existence coming to light anytime soon, unless he actually reveals himself to the world (and even then, how would he prove he's God and not just a small 'g' god or even a really powerful alien or whatever). As with a lot of things, it's about how you interpret the existing evidence, so in that sense I have stopped searching for an answer to the specific question "Is there a God ?" because I personally am satisfied that there isn't. That doesn't mean i've stopped searching for answers to e.g. "What's the meaning of life ?" or "What's the nature of morality ?" or other "big questions".

(and as you say, Joss is most assuredly an atheist, even a self-described angry atheist)
Well I'm sure glad someone else brought up Buddhism and by this I mean essential Buddhism as opposed to Zen, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, or any of its many permutations.

I don't feel very qualified myself to expound upon it as I feel as though I have only flirted with its ocean edge, but as I was reading the essay I was thinking "But what about Buddhism?"

The Buddhist concept of G/god does NOT fit within the parameters as laid out in the essay and I hope someone more experienced and comprehending than ME out there can explain just how that is so.
This is what I absolutely love about The Jossverse: you can pretty much live your life by the moral, spiritual and philosophical lessons that are taught!

If nothing we do matters ... then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause there's all there is, what we do

On of my most favourite lines in the entire Buffyverse!

As to whether there is a God or not, I think that even if he doesn't exist, people like to believe that he does, because then we are never truly alone: putting faith in someone/something is what keeps some people going. A deeply religious person who has no one will believe that God is always on their side.

When we're in a difficult situation, we pray to God for help, or we blame him for what has happened because it's easier to think that someone is responsible for everything than it all happening for no reason. And since we are supposedly all equal in the eyes of God and he loves us no matter what, you can get away with blaming him. But that raises questions such as why the Holocaust happened - if it was to teach people how not to behave, it was a pretty harsh way to do it!

I truly think that humans have created the idea of God as a way of explaining what cannot be understood (e.g. how every minute detail in the universe was created - it's difficult to believe that there aren't any brains behind it) and he is also a way of keeping us in line and helping us do what is universally seen as the right thing.

Having said that, I can't deny or acknowledge the existence of a higher being because I haven't as yet seen any hardcore evidence and as Saje said "unless he actually reveals himself to the world (and even then, how would he prove he's God and not just a small 'g' god or even a really powerful alien or whatever)", but that won't stop me from looking for answers, even though I believe that there are some things in the world we are just not meant to know because curiosity is a part of human nature. It's when we get too curious that bad things start to happen.

Tbh, I don't really need a God to keep me going, I just need a Joss Whedon show!
All of this seems to presuppose that when using the term "G/god" an external, exclusive, autonomous entity is meant.

Just sayin', there's other conceptions of G/god.
Well, anyone can call anything their God, as I mention Einstein talked about "the old one" as if "he" was an actual external entity but he's on record as not believing in a personal God - what he meant by "the old one" was the rules that govern reality, the laws of physics in other words. If he was a theist at all then he was probably closest to a Pantheist.

I just don't think it's particularly useful to the discussion to say "We don't even know what God is because it's different things to different people" when we all have some idea of what God is and if pressed could probably give a concrete (heh ;) list of properties of the God we personally do or don't believe in. We don't know what everyone means when they talk about God because people vary but we have a close enough idea to at least talk about it with a common frame of reference (or to realise we're talking about different things and adjust our approach accordingly).

And I was under the impression that Buddhism didn't have a god at all (but i'm pretty ignorant of it) ?
Like Saje I think that QG really nailed it when she said:

"Atheist" is one of those words that tends to get defined according to your belief or non-belief in God/gods - but in my case it's simply a lack of belief in deities. Many atheists I'm acquainted with neither think they have all the answers, nor have they stopped looking for them.


It really is one of the biggest misunderstandings about atheÔsts out there, that they think they have all the answers.

Just sayin', there's other conceptions of G/god.


That's true, BreathesStory, but some of those definitions become less and less practical, fast. For instance, there's people who say that God is "everything". We're literally all part of God and God is in everything we see. Well, as a materialistic AtheÔst, there's not much left to discusss. I believe in everything too, I just don't call it God. But as soon as you ascribe "more" to that God (i.e. a will, or a presence outside of nature, for instance), than we start to gradually have more and more problems like the ones pointed out in this thread. So all in all, for most intents and purposes: the vague definition of an external God used here, covers a lot of religious bases.
I love how people think they understnad history . . . .
Okay, way back upthread my point was simply that words are imprecise in their definition and understanding, especially words like G/god that are a symbol of an archetype.

All I know is that personally the word G/god doesn't bother me. It's a useful construct, but in general the way other people talk about G/god generally makes me very tense. They always seem so...emphatic, certain. And I never agree with them. Which isn't a problem for me, but always seems to be for them. I think this is rather a shame as this philosophy/religion/how do I live my life? stuff is my absolute fave to talk about and unfortunately not really well suited to a forum such as this. (Too slow, no real back and forth exchange.)

I do lean towards thinking that there is something that can be called "G/god," if only for the reason that we as humans seem to have a built in internal concept of it. I call it the G/god Hole. Nothing else seems to fit there. Otherwise I don't believe we would even be talking about it. The idea that "G/god" is a manufactured concept to help us deal with the (currently?) inexplicable doesn't really work for me. I think its a bit of a cop-out and pretty much ends the debate/search. (So no fun there.)

This is all completely subjective of course, as it must be. Mostly it bothers me when people put G/god in a box. I never think you're talking about G/god at that point.

For anyone interested, my personal definition of G/god:

...AND...

Yeah, no one else ever gets it either, but I haven't been able to come up with anything better.

On Buddhism: It's a five thousand year old tradition with all the thought and development that goes along with those centuries and I know a thimbleful about it. To say that it has no G/god IMO is overly simplistic and approaching the whole G/god thing from a decidedly Abrahamic religious bent. Since a good portion of the world does not follow one of these it seems sort of well, short sighted and a bit insular.

I would never call myself a Buddhist. I can't seem to categorize myself as anything. But I like reading about Buddhism because the world view is so different than anything I grew up with and it unsettles my interior world in new and pleasurable ways. Anything that expands my concept of the world is a place I want to visit.
Wasn't the Buddha from around 500 BC ? Or are his ideas just a sort of summary of pre-existing ideas from much longer ago ?

Mostly it bothers me when people put G/god in a box. I never think you're talking about G/god at that point.

Here's the thing, IMO to talk about God in any meaningful sense (in fact, to talk meaningfully about anything IMO) you have to put him/it in a box because we have to know what a thing isn't for it to even be a thing (otherwise it's everything ;). People don't like doing that because we're reared to think that putting things in boxes is bad because it's restrictive or judgemental - "Don't label me !", "Don't pigeon-hole me !" etc. - but ultimately it's essential to communication (we put words in 'boxes' and call it language) and even to making sense of the world around us (numerous optical illusions revolve around fooling the brain into putting things in the wrong 'box' for instance).

And besides, it's believers that have put God in a box by describing him. It's not really on to then turn around when atheists point out the problems with that pre-boxed God and say "Yeah, well, you can't put God in a box". Saying that as soon as you limit God you're not talking about God is the ultimate in hand-waving IMO. If, as soon as anyone points out a contradiction in the nature of God as many e.g. Christians accept it, we're able to turn around and say "Yeah, well, God by definition can't be limited so you're not talking about God so that's not a contradiction any more" then that truly ends the debate IMO - it's ad hoc and therefore impossible to discuss or argue for or against.
I'm not saying the box is bad, just that it is not real, which people always seem to forget. Words are useful, as is the dissection, but they are not the thing itself.

Ummm yeah, five thousand *eye roll*. No idea where that little gem came from. You'd think I would have caught it amidst my numerous previewings. This is what happens when I log on before breakfast or tea. I was just too interested in what y'all had to say to risk the thread rolling off the front page.
I love how people think they understnad history...


If you are saying that there is no way to truly understand history then I agree. People can never truly know the past from other peoples words and perspectives. Even in 100 years with all sorts of video evidence, historians will have a hard time proving their point beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is why as a former history student (masters in history) I always had to compare several different sources and try to draw a conclusion based on several different perspectives. But what if they were all of one perspective like the Christians that chronicled the life of Nero?
We will never know the truth of that man.

But if you meant that you understand history more than someone else, then you are also not understanding the true nature of history.

All we can do is try to get a general consensus of what happened with the least amount of emotional interference. As a former history student I learned that history is not a science. If you want facts go study archeology. You will probably not get any more answers about our past, but at least it is based on fact even if your interpretations of those facts are wrong.
"Atheist" is one of those words that tends to get defined according to your belief or non-belief in God/gods - but in my case it's simply a lack of belief in deities. Many atheists I'm acquainted with neither think they have all the answers, nor have they stopped looking for them.


I agree. As I said I was one of those atheists that kept fighting the culture on the definition of the word.

In the end though I just decided to go with agnostic since while it means the same thing, the cultural meanings assigned to it are much different.

My beliefs didn't change, just the words that I used to describe them to others since there are a lot of cultural biases on this subject.

You might be right, but that doesn't mean you should always fight the uphill battle when there is a escalator going up the hill right next to you.
Agnostic doesn't mean the same thing as atheist surely since agnostics are claiming the existence of God or gods is unknowable in principle. Atheism is just the belief that God or gods don't exist i.e. it's a stronger claim in some ways, weaker in others (cos though agnostic is often seen as the more wishy-washy, less committal position it's actually equally certain of what it's claiming, it's still making a definite claim about the state of the world, it's just a claim of fundamental and eternal uncertainty).

This is what happens when I log on before breakfast or tea.

No worries BreathesStory, all pre-coffee comments get a special dispensation as far as i'm concerned - you should see some of the stuff i've posted while commenting uncaffeinated ;).

I'm not saying the box is bad, just that it is not real, which people always seem to forget. Words are useful, as is the dissection, but they are not the thing itself.

Well, true but then that's true of everything and yet we still, for instance, consider that we know what a pigeon is, well enough to talk about pigeons without qualms anyway. In fact, with God specifically, you could make a case that the box is the only definitely real aspect of the whole thing i.e. because God may not have an actual referent in the real world it may not make sense to say that the description isn't the thing itself (or at least, doing so is assuming that which is in question to begin with).

And if you're saying that we can't meaningfully discuss God because our words aren't up to the task then I don't necessarily disagree. But if one set of people believe our words are up to describing him then they have to play by their own rules i.e. they can't then turn around and say "mysterious ways/unknowable divinity" only when it suits them.
Okay, it's now official. Saje is my spokesperson for this thread. But seriously: quit making all the points I wanted to make while reading this thread before I have a chance to. Where's the fun in that? ;)
I thought that agnostics allowed for the possibility that all Gods/religions might be equally valid while atheists contend that none are. Personally I always enjoy a different take on religion and God, but it is a touchy topic for almost everyone.
Saje, no disagreement from me. How very meta all this is.

It's a wonder people ever manage to get along at all with all these challenges to our egoic self-conceptions. (Not you in particular, just pondering the general human condition.)

Perhaps in the end what it comes down to is simply:
Is this useful to me?
Does this help me navigate my life and become my ultimate self?

Which of course is the beginning of the argument of "Why are we here?" ;-)
Well, i'm bored at work personally... Ohhh, I see what you mean ;).

It's a wonder people ever manage to get along at all with all these challenges to our egoic self-conceptions.

I think we all live in denial or at least compartmentalise our beliefs to a huge extent. Personally, for instance, i've a horrible suspicion that free-will is an illusion and the universe is deterministic but I spend the vast majority of my life acting as if my choices matter and I have conscious control of my own future. Actually accepting determinism leads to sitting in the corner gibbering in existential angst, best to do so then "pretend" you don't I reckon ;).

I thought that agnostics allowed for the possibility that all Gods/religions might be equally valid while atheists contend that none are.

Nah embers, an agnostic is

A. n. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

whereas an atheist is

A. n.

1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

But seriously: quit making all the points I wanted to make while reading this thread before I have a chance to. Where's the fun in that? ;)

Heh, we need a conch shell to pass around or something GVH ;).
Actually accepting determinism leads to sitting in the corner gibbering in existential angst


Actually only if you were pre-determined to do so, right, Saje? ;).

Also, actually, embers, was kinda right in the fact that an agnostic would allow for the possibility that any given religion might be right (all religions can't be right, because they're mutually exclusive ;)) and an atheÔst would say they believe those religions which feature a God are at the very least wrong in that particular aspect.

But then again: an agnostic would feel that there's no way to prove that any particular religion is right anyway, so what does it matter in the long run ;).
I dunno, in one sense an agnostic might feel that all religions were wrong because all religions (that i'm aware of) claim to know something about their god (and an honest agnostic would surely have to believe they were wrong to claim to know about the unknowable ?). I.e. they'd accept that any religion might be right but contend that it would be purely by accident/coincidence (since we can't know).

Actually only if you were pre-determined to do so, right, Saje? ;).

I bet I was though, it's just like me to be pre-determined to do something like that ;).

Nah embers, an agnostic is

A. n. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.


Boy, I can't count the number of times I've been around the track on this argument. Strong agnosticism, weak agnosticism, strong atheism, weak atheism....

Personally, it always seems to me that if you want there to be two distinct schools of thought labeled "atheism" and "agnosticism" then you need to make one of them into a nonsense position. Self-described "agnostics" tend to make "atheism" into a nonsense-position by saying that atheists claim to have "proven" the nonexistence of god or the believe in the nonexistence of god as an article of "faith." It is, of course, impossible to "prove" something's nonexistence (except by virtue of logical self-contradiction).

Self-described "atheists" tend to make "agnosticism" into a nonsense-position either by saying it just means not having made up your mind yet or by doing what Saje did above when he said that it meant holding that the divine was in principle unknowable. That's a simply self-contradictory position: "I know one thing for a fact about the divine: nothing can be known about the divine!" Even if it wasn't self-contradictory, it's absurd. If there's a God (old man with a beard on a cloud type), then he can make himself known or not. Nothing in our experience can give us any evidence to "disprove" the possible existence of such a God, and nothing in our experience could support the claim that such a God, if he existed, must remain unknowable.

To me, the only real philosophical difference between atheism and agnosticism is that theists tend to find the declaration "I'm an atheist" to be confrontational, while they tend to be o.k. with the declaration "I'm agnostic": presumably because they (incorrectly, but understandably) take the former to imply "you're wrong" and the latter to imply "you could be right, I don't know."

As to the "real" meaning of the term agnostic: well, the word is only a century and half old and was invented by Thomas Henry Huxley. His definitions of the term weren't entirely consistent, but it's pretty clear from his own writings that he didn't originally mean anything like "the divine is in principle unknowable"--he simply meant "we don't have any good evidence of the divine yet." A case in point:
I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can Iówho am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deedsóhave to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.


I think the vast majority of atheists would agree that if evidence were forthcoming to support it, they'd be entirely happy to adopt the "God hypothesis." Just as they'd be happy to adopt the "unicorn hypothesis" if evidence of the existence of unicorns could be brought forward.

Because I don't see new evidence for his existence coming to light anytime soon, unless he actually reveals himself to the world (and even then, how would he prove he's God and not just a small 'g' god or even a really powerful alien or whatever).

Actually, I don't see that as a problem. If God is omnipotent, then ex hypothesi he has the power to make us know that he is God--and know that this is the truth. If an omnipotent God does suddenly show up, that is, he won't have to resort to persuasion, argument, "look what a big miracle I can do" tricks or any of that. He simply wills us to "see face to face" and lo...it is so.
Brilliant!! Stipe42 is an amazing thinker and writer. His analysis is so right on.
I suppose that anything that can be claimed to be known about G/god should have at least survived being a tested hypothesis and then attained the level of theory. I think we can't know a lot, but we might be able to deduce something. The only attribute I've been willing to admit as a contender is: G/god is creative.

I think a lot of free will is definitely an illusion. Free will occurs only if one is aware enough of one's own thoughts and motivations. To attain all-around free will involves a lot of observing, questioning, seeing, and accepting of all the crap that goes on inside. Some of it ugly. Lots of navel gazing. Lots of work.

And then it involves CHOICE. The big scary. To accept free will is to accept the existence of the vast number of choices we make at every moment and the responsibility for them. Even the default ones. This rarely happens from what I've seen.
Yeah, i'm in denial about that too ;-).

Actually, I don't see that as a problem. If God is omnipotent, then ex hypothesi he has the power to make us know that he is God--and know that this is the truth.

Yeah but a god or powerful alien could do that too, how would we know the difference (at least until the real God arrived to show us the error of our ways) ? Just because it's not really true doesn't mean we're aware of that (unlike God, we're definitely limited beings). In that sense it's a lot easier to prove the existence of unicorns.

And I don't consider agnosticism to be a nonsense position and wasn't trying to suggest it is (i'm agnostic about at least one definition of god for instance - the kick-start creator of the universe that then completely backs-off) so if 'in principle' implies that's what I think I retract it. It's just that 'unknowable' or 'impossible to know' or something similar is part of every definition of agnostic that i've seen, i'd like to see that changed to 'unknowable until we know otherwise' or 'impossible until it turns out to be possible' if that's what's actually meant (then I could paint it as a nonsense position ;).
I.e. they'd accept that any religion might be right but contend that it would be purely by accident/coincidence (since we can't know).


Agreed, Saje (but then, what else is new :p).


Also, snot monster, I'm not sure I agree with this:


That's a simply self-contradictory position: "I know one thing for a fact about the divine: nothing can be known about the divine!" Even if it wasn't self-contradictory, it's absurd. If there's a God (old man with a beard on a cloud type), then he can make himself known or not. Nothing in our experience can give us any evidence to "disprove" the possible existence of such a God, and nothing in our experience could support the claim that such a God, if he existed, must remain unknowable.


It's actually a well-known school of thought, mostly among religious scholars, that God is unknowable (I.e.: Transcendence). That he's outside of the boundaries of our knowable reality and we can not possibly hope to know Him. I have always assumed traces of that school of thought in agnosticism. And even if there isn't, it's still not a nonsense position persť. Assuming that the answer to a question is beyond human comprehension is quite possible, I'd say.

Or, to quote wikipedia:

Agnosticism (Greek: α- a-, without + γνώσις gnōsis, knowledge; after Gnosticism) is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims ó particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of deities, ghosts, or even ultimate reality ó is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently impossible to prove or disprove. It is often put forth as a middle ground between theism and atheism.


And yes, there's a difference between strong and weak agnosticism. Heck, there's even agnostic atheÔsm. They're complex terms, but they are, in the end, two different things and not just because the one chooses to define the other as nonsense/stupid.
OED:
agnostic n.-A person who holds the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena. Also a person who is uncertain or non-committal about a particular thing. (emphasis mine)

Does this mean I'm agnostic?...or just inarticulate?...and maybe confused?
I've decided that my manual was lost.
I need to go grab my towel.
Yeah but a god or powerful alien could do that too, how would we know the difference (at least until the real God arrived to show us the error of our ways) ? Just because it's not really true doesn't mean we're aware of that (unlike God, we're definitely limited beings). In that sense it's a lot easier to prove the existence of unicorns.

No, a powerful alien could induce in us an illusion of "knowing he was god." An omnipotent god (remember, start from the hypothetical position that in fact an omnipotent god has popped up--not from the position that someone claiming to be an omnipotent god has popped up) has the power to make us know that s/he is god AND know that this is true knowledge. That's the fun of being omnipotent.

It's actually a well-known school of thought, mostly among religious scholars, that God is unknowable (I.e.: Transcendence).

Oh sure. But then in most of those cases it's simply theism--and fideistic theism at that, right? You say "I have faith that God exists, but I know that my human understanding is too limited to grasp the awful mystery of Godhead...." There are plenty of people who call themselves "agnostic theists" (and if we took "agnostic" simply to mean "non-gnostic" then "agnostic theism" would be a good descriptor of mainstream Christian/Jewish/Muslim thought--[ETA: "now I see as through a glass darkly; but then face to face"]).

But if you're wanting to carve out a non-fideistic "agnosticism" as a "third way" between "theism" and "atheism" (which most users of the term do wish to do), then that position strikes me as a nonsense. How do I claim non-faith-based "knowledge" of an unknowable God? How do I say "I know that the Almighty is the kind of being of whom nothing can be known"? How, even, do you say "if there were an Almighty, he would necessarily be of the kind that cannot be known"? What possible evidence could one advance to support such a claim? One can, of course, make a leap of faith and believe in such a divinity, but that's no different from making a leap of faith to believe in a God who hates shrimp-eaters, or a God who faithfully rewards stamp-collectors.

Saje, above says that he's "agnostic" about a kick-start type of God (a God who wills the universe into existence and then just leaves it running). But what's the difference between being "agnostic" about that and being "atheist" about that? Saje's "agnosticism" simply means "I am yet to see sufficient evidence that there was such a being." And what else would his atheism mean?

[ edited by snot monster from outer space on 2009-02-19 19:21 ]
(i'm agnostic about at least one definition of god for instance - the kick-start creator of the universe that then completely backs-off)


I was right there with you until I read Dawkinsí thoughts on the matter. His argument is basically that if you try to assign probability values to each imaginable explanation for the creation of the universe, any god should get a comparatively low score. This follows from the necessary assumption that a god is extremely complex and therefore improbable.

So at least we have some way to reason about these things, and that leaves it open to atheism.
My father was of the firm belief that agnosticism was the only reasonable position, and by that he meant that God & what happens after death are unknowable by any living person. So it's certainly a real definition that people use & live by. It wasn't absurd because he didn't limit his definition of God to the omni x3 guy mentioned above. He felt that whatever there is, we clearly aren't able to figure it out.

The difference between him and me is that since I believe omni x3 (or even x2) is so unlikely that he is, for all practical purposes, impossible, I feel that to be honest, I have to call myself an atheist.

And what else would his atheism mean?

Well, I don't know about Saje's atheism, but for me it has something to do with degree. If I'm "agnostic" about something I accept that it's possible (i.e., discovering that it's true wouldn't cause me to completely revise my world view). If I'm "atheist" it's because finding out that thing is true would completely upend my view of reality.
No, I'd say that Saje's agnosticism to a kick-start type of God means that he feels we can't know whether such a God exists (presumably because He interfered in our affairs once and his influence is completely absent from reality now). I wouldn't agree with him on that (I think the "fingerprints" of such a God in the kick-start would still make Him knowable and the fact that this God still has some substance and is therefore presumably outside of reality, makes Him a logical problem to my mind, which is why I would be atheÔstic even with regard to such a God), but that doesn't mean he can't be agnostic with respect to one type of God and atheÔstic with respect to another.

That's - I think - the key factor here. Yes, it makes no sense to say you're agnostic to any type of God one can concieve of. That makes no sense, because one could easily concieve of a God whose existence would be dead easy to disprove. But it also makes no sense to be atheÔstic with regard to any type of God one can concieve of (although, granted, slightly less so). AtheÔsm and agnosticism are relative "beings". You need a God to disbelieve. That can be as broad as you'd like (me, I'm atheÔstic with regard to all Gods that claim to be supernatural and/or omni-something), but in the end you still need something.

ETA: plus, what jcs said re: agnoticism/atheÔsm.

[ edited by GVH on 2009-02-19 19:49 ]
No, I'd say that Saje's agnosticism to a kick-start type of God means that he feels we can't know whether such a God exists (presumably because He interfered in our affairs once and his influence is completely absent from reality now). I wouldn't agree with him on that (I think the "fingerprints" of such a God in the kick-start would still make Him knowable and the fact that this God still has some substance and is therefore presumably outside of reality, makes Him a logical problem to my mind, which is why I would be atheÔstic even with regard to such a God), but that doesn't mean he can't be agnostic with respect to one type of God and atheÔstic with respect to another.

That's nicely put, but I still think it's incorrect. That is, I think the only reason you're making a distinction here is sociocultural, not logical.

That is, it is trivially true to say that "the nonexistence of something that, by definition, cannot be discovered is unprovable." Thus, yes, of course a 'god' who by definition leaves no traces will never be known, and cannot be disproven. But that is tautologically true, and can be happily acknowledged as true by any "atheist."

Here, again, the point is to compare this to beliefs that don't have such a heavy weight of sociocultural significance. Do we need two special classes of types of disbelief in unicorns? One for people who disbelieve in unicorns that can be seen, but happen not to have yet been seen, and one for people who disbelieve in unicorns that are, by definition, undiscoverable?

Atheists "do not believe in god." That's all. They don't have "faith" in god's nonexistence. They don't regard god's nonexistence as something that has been demonstrated by scientific deduction (although they may hold that certain claims about certain specific gods have been disproven, or are logically unsustainable). Atheists, then, do not believe in an "unknowable god" in exactly the same way that they do not believe in "unknowable unicorns." In that case, as in the case of the "knowable god" all they can say is "these things have not, yet, been demonstrated to exist, there is, therefore, no point in basing any of my actions upon their presumed existence."

My father was of the firm belief that agnosticism was the only reasonable position, and by that he meant that God & what happens after death are unknowable by any living person. So it's certainly a real definition that people use & live by. It wasn't absurd because he didn't limit his definition of God to the omni x3 guy mentioned above. He felt that whatever there is, we clearly aren't able to figure it out.

The difference between him and me is that since I believe omni x3 (or even x2) is so unlikely that he is, for all practical purposes, impossible, I feel that to be honest, I have to call myself an atheist.


It seems to me that the difference you're describing here is a difference in "hopefulness." That is, your father hoped that there might, in fact, be something and you don't feel particularly hopeful. But your father had nothing whatsoever to base that hope on--and, apparently, knew it. So, in fact, you both shared the same position with regard to god's existence ("there's no available evidence to let us form any opinion as to the existence of a god or an afterlife")--you just had different attitudes towards that position (your father: "I hope that, in spite of this, there will be something"; you: "I'm pretty sure there won't be anything").

If you say that the difference is something to do with "probabilities" (your father considered it 50% possible that there's something there / you consider it 8% possible...say) I would say that that may be a good subjective description of your two positions, but

A) thinking that "the existence of god has a higher probability than N%" is not something that most agnostics regard as the definition of their position. And where could you set that percentage so as to create a stable philosophical position?

and, more importantly,

B) discussions of the "probability" of god's existence are, in my opinion, strictly meaningless. To assign a "probability" to an event you need a "frame" that defines how many times such an event occurs in X many tries. In other words, to say if a "god" is "probable" in our reality you need to be able to run a few thousand test-realities and see how many of them turn out to have gods in them. We've only got the one reality, and it either has a god or it doesn't.

Thus talk of the "probability" of god's existence is nothing more than misrecognized talk of the speaker's hopefulness about God's existence. To define a philosophical position called "agnosticism" as "those people who feel more hopeful than not about the existence of god, but don't feel absolutely certain" would, I think, be silly--people would be flickering in and out of their "agnosticism" as their mood varied.
I wouldn't agree with him on that (I think the "fingerprints" of such a God in the kick-start would still make Him knowable and the fact that this God still has some substance and is therefore presumably outside of reality, makes Him a logical problem to my mind...

Well, what if he kick-started it exactly as if it arose naturally ? I don't see there necessarily being a way to tell the difference (no "fingerprints" to find) and i'm fairly happy saying that it's impossible for us to take observations from before our reality began. I.e. that "events" that occurred before the first event (as far as we're concerned) are unknowable to us (hell, as things stand now, events that occurred more than a mere - ;) - 13 ish billion years ago are unknowable to us).

(though as hence says, it seems reasonable to make assumptions based on probabilities but that's assuming something of the nature of this god and unlike with the more specific definitions of God, since this one isn't meddling in reality and isn't claimed to have any properties beyond BreathesStory's "created the universe" then I think quite a few - maybe all - of the contradictions are avoided)

Saje's "agnosticism" simply means "I am yet to see sufficient evidence that there was such a being."

No, as the above has hopefully made clear (both my comments and GVH's), it doesn't mean that, it means "I don't believe that evidence one way or another is obtainable even in principle".

An omnipotent god (remember, start from the hypothetical position that in fact an omnipotent god has popped up--not from the position that someone claiming to be an omnipotent god has popped up) has the power to make us know that s/he is god AND know that this is true knowledge. That's the fun of being omnipotent.

Hmm, yeah that makes sense. Something about it still feels off though but I can't put my finger on why. Seems to be saying while we can still doubt we'd find it doubtful (because he might be an imposter) but once we became incapable of doubt we wouldn't doubt it.
Saje's "agnosticism" simply means "I am yet to see sufficient evidence that there was such a being."

No, as the above has hopefully made clear (both my comments and GVH's), it doesn't mean that, it means "I don't believe that evidence one way or another is obtainable even in principle".


Yeah--but that's just why you're yet to see such evidence (and, of course, never will). Again, though, that only creates a spooky "oooh, maybe there really IS a God" frisson because of the weight of cultural baggage behind it. Once you start adding in "and maybe we're followed everywhere we go by pink teakettles, but EVERY TIME WE TURN AROUND THEY DISAPPEAR!" and "and what if the gravity is actually the work of special gnomes that accompany every object of mass and push it towards others BUT THEY DON'T SHOW UP ON ANY OF OUR INSTRUMENTS" and "what if you're just a brain in a glass jar and the WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION CREATED IN YOUR MIND!!!" it begins to be a little less impressive.

Things which by definition cannot be proven or disproven abound--there's no end to them. I think the only useful philosophical attitude towards them is "these are of no possible interest to us by definition unless something changes and evidence of their existence appears."
Yeah--but that's just why you're yet to see such evidence (and, of course, never will). Again, though, that only creates a spooky "oooh, maybe there really IS a God" frisson because of the weight of cultural baggage behind it.

So isn't the idea that we can't know whether such a god exists or not pretty much the exact definition of 'agnostic' ? So why question me when I say i'm agnostic about that definition of god ? Just for the sake of it or what ??

Personally it doesn't give me a frisson of any kind because it doesn't have anything to do with our reality (and by definition, can't). If anything it's more like acknowledging the frustration of certainty always being beyond us.
Jaynes Hat: I was basically just allowing myself a generalized curmudgeon's reaction to the article. During my breaks at work I don't have time to come up with a detailed post; I might have one later.
So isn't the idea that we can't know whether such a god exists or not pretty much the exact definition of 'agnostic' ? So why question me when I say i'm agnostic about that definition of god ? Just for the sake of it or what ??

Because there's no difference between the atheist's position in regard to such a (hypothetical) god and the agnostic's.

I mean, typically the attempt to define two separate positions called "atheism" and "agnosticism" is an attempt to distinguish between two different attitudes towards the question of a god or gods' existence, right? If you want to change that meaning into a description of "two different attitudes towards the existence of different postulated types of gods" that's doable, of course, but A) a radical departure from current usage and B) a completely unrelated question.

In other words, under your definition, there aren't two bodies of people, one of which are "atheists" and the other of which are "agnostics." There is simply one group of people who are "atheistic" with respect to "provable-but-unproven gods" and "agnostic" with respect to "gods that are by definition unprovable." That seems to me, at least, to be an unnecessary proliferation of terms for what is essentially one position.
Personally it doesn't give me a frisson of any kind because it doesn't have anything to do with our reality (and by definition, can't). If anything it's more like acknowledging the frustration of certainty always being beyond us.

Well, that sounds like another side of the frisson-coin. I mean, why be "frustrated" by that any more than by the unprovable unicorns and the unprovable gnomes and the unprovable brain-in-jardom? Things that are unprovable by definition are unprovable by definition. C'est la vie.
Thus talk of the "probability" of god's existence is nothing more than misrecognized talk of the speaker's hopefulness about God's existence.

I guess you're right in the sense of the difference being one of attitude, but "hope" is the wrong word. I certainly wouldn't hope (even to 8%) that everything I believe about the world is wrong.

And I probably don't belong in a conversation that's trying to put belief in a god into a "stable philosophical position" anyway. I think for most people belief (or lack of belief) in "something more" is more of an emotional response than a philosophical position. I suspect there's some hard-wiring involved.

but once we became incapable of doubt we wouldn't doubt it.

Yes, if the naughty alien makes us incapable of doubt, we're in trouble.

what if you're just a brain in a glass jar and the WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION CREATED IN YOUR MIND!!!"

I find this one more probable than the pink teakettles. :)
Saje, I'm a little confused by your description of your being an atheist in most respects but an agnostic when it comes to the hands-off sort of god. I would say that my feelings are quite similar on the matter. I don't feel strongly enough about there not being such a god to call myself an atheist (though I'm probably 99.9% sure there isn't). That tiny niggling doubt prevents me from calling myself atheist. I therefore feel that I, for lack of a better term, am agnostic.

Doesn't claiming to be an atheist deny the possibility of the existence of any sort of deity as part of your world view?
I find this one more probable than the pink teakettles. :)

How about blue? ;-)

Though, again, "probability" isn't a meaningful term here. All that's really referencing is "I'm familiar with the brain in a jar thing from lots of sci fi stories and philosophical discussions, but the pink teakettle thing is utterly weird and new." If you came from a culture where, say, the Virgin Birth, or the God's detestation of those who eat certain foods, or the idea of bodily resurrection had simply never cropped up in as hypotheses, then those would sound just as "improbable" as the Pink Teakettle thing.
Doesn't claiming to be an atheist deny the possibility of the existence of any sort of deity as part of your world view?

Well, it's nice to have a self-described agnostic come along and prove my point that self-described agnostics have to create an essentially untenable definition of "atheism" to have it be distinct from their own position.

There are (a very, very few) self-described atheists who do, in fact, say "the existence of God has been disproven beyond any possible doubt whatsoever." The vast majority of self-described atheists that I know, however, say "there is no god" in exactly the same spirit as they say "there are no unicorns" and "there are no elves" and "there aren't any UFO's buzzing isolated Texan towns." That is, until you give us evidence to believe in those things, we're going to carry on our lives on the assumption that they don't exist. But of course new evidence could come to light, so of course it is possible that such things exist.
Doesn't claiming to be an atheist deny the possibility of the existence of any sort of deity as part of your world view?

I'm picking and choosing a bit I guess Jossizboss but the point i'm making is that my disbelief in most gods is because most gods actively don't make sense to me. Kick-start god at least doesn't seem actively contradictory so it seems just as reasonable to say I can never know and leave it there.

(atheism is disbelief in gods but I don't see it as being disbelief in the possibility of gods. And i'm not 100% certain either. Ever. About anything ;). But i'm sure enough in my own mind to decide one way or another. Could I be wrong ? Of course)

That seems to me, at least, to be an unnecessary proliferation of terms for what is essentially one position.

How is it one position when they're two different claims snot monster ? You seem to be saying there's no difference between "provable but unproven" and "unprovable" but to me there clearly is.

You also seem to be saying that being agnostic about that sort of god is trivial because it's definitionally true but I never claimed otherwise - to be honest that's partly why i'm puzzled you even argued the point. I'm agnostic about that sort of god because there's no reality for it not to make sense against, so is everyone else if they've any sense (or at least agnostic anyway, some might go further). There's no reason to think it's true but there's also no reason to think it's not true (beyond general guidelines like not multiplying entities beyond necessity etc.) because it's definitionally beyond reason and since we can't know one way or another I accept that and move on.

I mean, why be "frustrated" by that any more than by the unprovable unicorns and the unprovable gnomes and the unprovable brain-in-jardom? Things that are unprovable by definition are unprovable by definition. C'est la vie.

What ? Are you deliberately misunderstanding me cos you're bored at work too and are trying to drag this out ? ;) I'm not frustrated by the fact I can't disprove this god, i'm frustrated because we can't know for definite that the universe arose due to entirely natural processes - we'll never know what happened just before the start. And yeah, I realise that's life and I should just get over it, cheers for that blinding insight.


ETR 'in principle'. Cos of the past ;)

[ edited by Saje on 2009-02-19 22:14 ]
Snot Monster - Umm, which is why I said "as part of your world view", not that the existence of a god had been adequately disproven.
Snot Monster - Umm, which is why I said "as part of your world view", not that the existence of a god had been adequately disproven.

But I'm saying that most atheists I know don't "deny the possibility of the existence of any sort of deity" as part of their world views. They just say that no deity has yet been proven to exist.
Though, again, "probability" isn't a meaningful term here.

T'was a joke, dude.

(I was using "probable" to refer to my emotional response to your scenarios, not my philosophical position. Because of what I just said about belief [for most people] being an emotional response rather than a philosophical position...OK, not funny. Did you hear the one about insect reflection?)
How is it one position when they're two different claims snot monster ? You seem to be saying there's no difference between "provable but unproven" and "unprovable" but to me there clearly is.

You also seem to be saying that being agnostic about that sort of god is trivial because it's definitionally true but I never claimed otherwise - to be honest that's partly why i'm puzzled you even argued the point. I'm agnostic about that sort of god because there's no reality for it not to make sense against, so is everyone else if they've any sense (or at least agnostic anyway, some might go further). There's no reason to think it's true but there's also no reason to think it's not true (beyond general guidelines like not multiplying entities beyond necessity etc.) because it's definitionally beyond reason and since we can't know one way or another I accept that and move on.


Seems to me that we were just talking past each other. I thought I was having a discussion about whether "agnostic" and "atheist" usefully describe two different philosophical positions. You thought you were having a discussion about whether or not there's a difference between "provable" and "unprovable" gods. I still think that using "agnostic" to describe your attitude towards unprovable gods is just going to be confusing (look how you already confused JossIzBoss, for example). I think it would be clearer to say "as an atheist, there are certain claims about god I recognize as disproven, some I recognize as unproven, and some I recognize as unprovable."

But, in the end, we all have to pick the terminology that makes most sense to us: we just need to be clear in our definitions. You will agree, though, won't you that having a definition of "atheism" and "agnosticism" in which the "atheists" not only agree with the "agnostics" but are in fact the same people is not, well, conventional, right?
You said my position was: There is simply one group of people who are "atheistic" with respect to "provable-but-unproven gods" and "agnostic" with respect to "gods that are by definition unprovable."

And yep, that's pretty close to what I think. I.e. I reckon if you asked almost any agnostic if they believed in Zeus or Aries they'd come back with an unequivocal "No", not the party line of "We can't know either way" (they're atheists about every god but one, about which they're agnostic). And I think that's a widely enough held view that it's the default, not the exception (in my case i'm an atheist about every god but one - possibly anyway, must admit I haven't tried to come up with any others - about which i'm agnostic). So the positions are distinct (not, as you seem to think, "essentially one position") but they can be held (about different gods) by the same person.

I will hold my hand up and admit that that's either using using a broader, arguably less widely accepted usage of 'agnostic' (as per the American Heritage Dictionary for instance (my emboldening):
ag∑nos∑tic (āg-nŏs'tĭk) Pronunciation Key
n.

1.
1. One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God.
2. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.
2. One who is doubtful or noncommittal about something.

adj.

1. Relating to or being an agnostic.
2. Doubtful or noncommittal: "Though I am agnostic on what terms to use, I have no doubt that human infants come with an enormous 'acquisitiveness' for discovering patterns" (William H. Calvin).

or it's using the strict definition imprecisely and in a context where it's probably reasonable to expect narrow, precise usage). And that could be confusing.

It seemed appropriate because we were talking about gods but maybe not as it turns out.
So the positions are distinct (not, as you seem to think, "essentially one position") but they can be held (about different gods) by the same person.

Let me try to describe the distinction you're making, and tell me if I'm getting it right (if you can be faffed ;-)). "Agnosticism"--for you--is "the recognition that a god could exist whose defining attribute is that he is unknowable, and that this question is essentially undecidable." Right? And "atheism"--as you use it--is "the recognition that no claims that have been advanced about evidence for the existence of 'provable' gods have yet been substantiated." Is that fair?

The reason I would say these are essentially the same is that you only have to take "provable" out of the "atheism" claim and you've got the "agnosticism" claim covered as well.

As to the relationship of that distinction to common usage: most agnostics that I know aren't all that interested in inherently unknowable gods. I mean, I know that the term has occasionally been applied to apophatic theology, but, as I showed with the quotation above from Huxley (who should have some say in the matter, having invented the word!), that's not what it originally meant. Huxley thought that evidence might be forthcoming, he just didn't think that any had yet been found. I think most agnostics leave open the possibility that all will be revealed on t'other side of the curtain--that when we die we'll finally get to read the Big The Universe for Dummies Book in the Sky (ETA: and I guess that a majority consider it possible that they'll receive some revelation in their lifetimes).

Anyway, it looks like we essentially agree that there really aren't two different groups of people with two coherent and yet competing philosophical attitudes towards the Divine--one of which is "atheism" and the other of which is "agnosticism." Me, I think it would be best to get rid of one of the two terms altogether (and I don't much care which). You think there's a useful distinction remaining to which we can re-apply them. I think I can see your distinction, I just think that it's not significant enough to need naming, and if you're going to name it better to use terms that don't have so much baggage already hanging off them.

We're on the same page, if not at the exact same sentence.

[ edited by snot monster from outer space on 2009-02-19 23:49 ]
Well, I for one as an agnostic do not believe that I'll receive a revelation in my lifetime or on "t'other side of the curtain". I wouldn't think that most agnostics would expect that either.
Jaynes Hat; If there's an Ethical Culture Society or American Humanist Association accessible to you on their service days, it might be a genial environment for you.

BreathesStory; Well, there is really no middle postion between a thiestic-in-the-terms-of-modern-monotheism universe and a non-=theistic one. But inside that ultiamte state,ment, there's plenty of option.s

Glad everyone ehre sees that pagan deities and the ultimate or alck of same are separate concpets.

[ edited by DaddyCatALSO on 2009-02-20 02:47 ]
Once more unto the breach ... ;-)

Agnosticism"--for you--is "the recognition that a god could exist whose defining attribute is that he is unknowable, and that this question is essentially undecidable." Right? And "atheism"--as you use it--is "the recognition that no claims that have been advanced about evidence for the existence of 'provable' gods have yet been substantiated." Is that fair?

It's not unfair, put it that way. For 'agnostic' my own emphasis wouldn't be on "the recognition that a god could exist" it would be on the "that this question is essentially undecidable" but I accept there're agnostics and there're agnostics.

The reason I would say these are essentially the same is that you only have to take "provable" out of the "atheism" claim and you've got the "agnosticism" claim covered as well.

For some types of agnosticism, agreed. But since it's at least possible that there are agnostics that hold to their "unknowable" claim come what may (their belief might be that a god would/will never reveal himself, even can't and remain a god - strong agnosticism basically) then it seems worth having the distinction. To be honest, that's the only sense of it which is worth calling by another name IMO and it's what i'd mean if I specifically self-identified as an agnostic (which is partly why I don't ;).

Anyway, it looks like we essentially agree that there really aren't two different groups of people with two coherent and yet competing philosophical attitudes towards the Divine--one of which is "atheism" and the other of which is "agnosticism."

Basically, I think most people are a mixture of both BUT just not about the same god(s). The strict definitions don't seem to allow that (because they talk about all gods, they don't let you pick and choose) so in that sense I agree that the terms have a history (and baggage) that's not necessarily that useful. But it still seems worth acknowledging a distinction because at the extremes, they're different. I might say there're three groups of people in fact, those at the two extremes ("cannot be known" and "is knowable but cannot exist") and the rest of us ;).
Well I'm sure glad someone else brought up Buddhism and by this I mean essential Buddhism as opposed to Zen, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, or any of its many permutations.
The Buddhist concept of G/god does NOT fit within the parameters as laid out in the essay and I hope someone more experienced and comprehending than ME out there can explain just how that is so.

BreathesStory | February 19, 12:49 CET


Well BreathesStory, that would indeed add a completely new and interesting dimension to the discussion. But don't hold your breath, :) The believer/atheist/agnostic discussion often comes up here, and I've given up on trying to inject a Buddhist perspective into the mix, you just aren't going to get any takers.

These discussions, from my point of view, always stay "in the box". The box being religion/belief is defined as one or another form of Patriarchal Monotheism (western/linear traditional concepts), atheism defined as a total lack of belief and agnosticism defined as "I'm not sure and so wont take a definite position" (with a lot of nit-picky variations on agnosticism).

"Essential" Buddhism, as you so nicely put it, doesn't fall exactly into either of the latter two categories and not at all into the first. I've heard it argued that you can be both an atheist and a Buddhist, but this, in my experience, is not true.

Buddhism, while not believing in a "god" (the historical Buddha was "the enlightened one", not a god, nor did he profess belief in a god). On the other hand, a belief in Buddhism definitely requires a belief that the universe contains something spiritual, i.e. "beyond the totally material here and now", that plays a role in how a combination of destiny and free will play out, in each individual life. (Destiny is seen as the difference in being born on the streets in a slum and being born into a powerful, wealthy position. Free Will is seen as the actions we take within that matrix. :)

This is the "essential", but Buddhism, same as Christianity, is colored by the culture in which it evolved/exists. My personal connection is to Southeast Asian Theravada, a very strong sense of relating that I picked up on three trips to Thailand and arguably the purest form of historical Buddhism.

But wanna see everyone go totally silent? I'm about one third Buddhist and two thirds Wiccan. What I can't find in Buddhism that I really need for my own sense of spiritual connection, is a validation of female spiritual energy in the form of a Goddess (not one of many goddesses in the pantheistic forms of Buddhism).
These two belief systems actually have a lot in common and make a very good fit. Wiccan thought is circular rather than linear, just as is Buddhist thought. And the belief that you help shape reality with your personal actions ("right action", in Buddhism) are contained in both.

And in the marvelous words of Laura Roslin (in 'Faith'), regarding my statement about "a Goddess" .......
"It's a metaphor".
Shey, yeah that would do it. I've a passing familiarity with Wicca myself, although I don't practice. Living a bit in a Boulder Colorado "commune" will do that for you. I can totally see the complementary fit.

I always end up at the basic position that everything, although differentiated, is connected. Every layman's explanation I've ever read about Particle Theory only reinforces for me that all this separation is nothing more than an illusion.

I can't take the credit for "Essential Buddhism." I actually got that from a book by Steve Hagan, a Zen Buddhist Priest, called Buddhism: Plain and Simple. It is Buddhism completely stripped of it's cultural baggage - or as near as I figure anyone can get.

If you're interested, some of my more immature and incomplete musings:

All religions are a cultural response to the need to take our right place in the universe: to BE. Thus all religious (and anti-religious) responses are True to some extent because they were conceived of by human beings and we cannot be other than we are. Some are more true than others. I believe there are as many paths to knowing as there are people. How could it be otherwise?

Religions form when a kernel of truth strikes a cord with enough people that they get to kill two birds by not only attaining a deeper understanding but also has the added benefit of the connecting experience. Of course then they promptly forget their original purpose in most cases, being only human, and usually manage to fuck everything up a bit, ending up hurting as often as helping.

It is no wonder that you haven't had any takers here on the Buddhist thing. It is a completely different way of regarding the universe and outside the current indoctrination we now enjoy, Scientific Materialism. Our current Cult of Science has done us no favors among the ill educated masses. And this doesn't even take into account how ignorant we all are as to metaphor. As a fellow enculturated westerner I have to say, Buddhism will mess with your head. I love that.

That's probably the reason I've become somewhat obsessed with anime and manga too. They not only employ a very different form of story telling, they also tell a completely different story. For me it is a breath of fresh air in exploring the human experience.

After all, in the end, we are only the story we tell ourselves.
Well, I for one as an agnostic do not believe that I'll receive a revelation in my lifetime or on "t'other side of the curtain". I wouldn't think that most agnostics would expect that either.

"leave open the possibility"≠"expect." If you don't leave the possibility open at all, then I take it you've closed that final .01% of doubt that you professed above.

The believer/atheist/agnostic discussion often comes up here, and I've given up on trying to inject a Buddhist perspective into the mix, you just aren't going to get any takers.

Well, the problem with Buddhism is that it doesn't offer any answers to the "atheism/believer/agnostic" questions. I mean, you have self-described Buddhist theists and self-described Buddhist atheists. From what I have read of Siddhārtha Gautama's actual teachings--such as we can piece them together from the historical record--there's almost no interest in the "divine" at all. There's no "god" reference in the Four Noble Truths or in the Noble Eightfold Path.

You don't get "takers" on a Buddhist perspective on these issues for the same reason you wouldn't get "takers" on a "plumber's perspective" or a "obstetrician's perspective." The "Buddhist" part of the "Buddhist" perspective simply has nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of the divine.

(Just to be clear: obviously a theist Buddhist, or an atheist plumber or a theist obstetrician [and their counterparts] can have plenty of useful things to say about these questions: what I'm saying is that nothing that comes strictly from their Buddhism, plumbing, or obstetrician experience will directly help shed light on these issues.)
I would say rather that Buddhism has nothing to say concerning the existence of a external, exclusive, autonomous divine entity. It of course does not say anything about 'sky father' or any of those sorts of permutations.

But why does the discussion need to stop with that? The TRUE atheism/believer/agnostic question/issue seems to be: "How do you identify/name yourself?" and since these labels have, to my mind, been felt to be a little confining, as I think the above thread illustrates, maybe the working definition of 'G/god' needs to change. I think Buddhism might have plenty to say about THAT question.

Hence my original statement that there are other conceptions of 'G/god.' The fact that other conceptions are not commonly recognized as 'G/god' might be part of the problem. Of course having a nice label for one's self is kinda comfy and convenient, but it obviously doesn't capture the personal variations.
I would say rather that Buddhism has nothing to say concerning the existence of a external, exclusive, autonomous divine entity. It of course does not say anything about 'sky father' or any of those sorts of permutations.

But why does the discussion need to stop with that?


Well, it only stops with that if that is what the discussion is about. You'll notice that several of us, up above, agreed that the term "god" is problematic. If you go the Spinozist route, for example, and say simply that "god is nature" then you can't be "wrong" exactly, can you. That's the same as the "hidden" god--it's a god who hides in plain sight. On the other hand, if we disagree about whether or not god is nature, there's nothing further to bring to the discussion. Just as if I say "nature's name is Bob" and you say "no, it's Jade," there's nothing we can bring to the discussion to help decide it.

You think that Buddhism has something to do with the concept of "god." That's fine--there are Buddhists who agree with you and Buddhists who don't. But if the concept of "god" you're working with is one that doesn't really get affected by "atheism/agnosticism/theism" arguments, why do you feel "left out"? If it is the kind of God who is affected by those arguments, then...what's the problem?

I guess the short version of this is: o.k., what do you think your particular brand of Buddhism brings to the table that in some way would resolve or avoid the above discussion?
snot monster from outer space,

Wow. I came across as feeling left out? % )
Should I be pouting now?
Huh. I don't feel left out.

Okay, obviously I haven't done a very good job of explaining myself.
Unfortunately, I don't have the time right now: RL calls.
I will post a hopefully more coherent reply tomorrow and if you're still interested...
Bloody RL (I read a quote once that went, roughly, "Real Life is just another window and it's not even usually my best one". Bit pathetic but it made me smile ;).

If it is the kind of God who is affected by those arguments, then...what's the problem?

See, this is pretty much my issue with the "defining god limits god when actually god is all things to all people" idea - I think there's an element of truth to it (people's conceptions of god do vary though not in every way, they usually share a lot of commonalities - the space of "possible gods" is far from infinite if you like) but it gets said and that's pretty much it, it doesn't really seem to advance the debate, rather it pretty much suggests meaningful debate is impossible. Then it becomes a list of our different beliefs without any requirement to relate it to the nature of reality or even necessarily to compare belief systems with each other. We all get to say what each of us think as if that has some inherent value regardless of content, explanatory power or even coherence.

Which is no doubt nice for some folk, it's certainly less confrontational (since there's no real need to justify your beliefs, the ultimate safety of "Hey, it's just what I believe" is always available - same as it would be, within reason, with the interpretation of fiction) but for me it's not nearly as interesting.

And you are all maniacs of the first water BTW, nature's name is clearly Dave.
I've found that a number of Buddhist writings and teachings have helped me profoundly to live my life more fully and authentically. But (not being flip here) so did (and does) The Church of the Subgenius, the fiction of Robert Anton Wilson, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the novels of Doris Lessing, the writings of Carl G. Jung, and Mr. Hofman's little invention.

And none of them changed the fact that I haven't believed in deities since I was about 8 or 9. Au contraire. But I am a spiritual person, interested in a number of related practices and teachings, and I do believe in teachers. I don't find this at all inconsistent with my basically atheistic position.

These teachers don't come up in discussions like this one, because they are about how I live my live without believing in a God or gods.
I've a lot of time for the Tao te ching. Not only are there a lot of interesting, maybe even profound, ideas in there but there seems to be something about the poetry of the language that's borderline hypnotic, just reading it relaxes me (some translations work better than others in that way, as you'd expect).

(it doesn't hurt that it's basically non-theistic, non-proscriptive and has a lot of stuff about, y'know, being nice to each other - hard to argue with that really. One way of looking at the Way is kind of like Einstein's "old one" too so it's not necessarily in opposition to a naturalistic perspective)

Doesn't say much about the nature of reality of course, but it's not worthless either.

[ edited by Saje on 2009-02-21 00:10 ]
Then it becomes a list of our different beliefs without any requirement to relate it to the nature of reality or even necessarily to compare belief systems with each other. We all get to say what each of us think as if that has some inherent value regardless of content, explanatory power or even coherence.

I agree entirely. Actually, what I find odd is the way that theists are often untroubled by the radically different conceptions of 'god' that other theists have, while being deeply troubled by atheists. In the US, at least, many people find public professions of atheism inherently provocative and offensive; the implication is that you're somehow mocking or deriding the beliefs of the faithful. And yet, faithful Christians, say, have no trouble with public professions by faithful Jews or faithful Hindus--without it ever seeming to occur to them that the Jew or the Hindu cannot say "my faith is true" without logically saying "and your faith isn't." I mean, sure, the atheist is saying "all your faiths are untrue" but is that really so different?

And, of course, as soon as I say that I know that most people of faith reading the above paragraph will be itching to say "no no no--I recognize all religions as different paths to the same spiritual truth" or some such thing. But what, really, does that mean? I mean maybe if you'reone of those New Agey "take a bit of Native American faith here, take a bit of Hinduism there" types that makes sense, but what if you're a devout Baptist who says "Jesus is the way, the truth, the light"? You really can't pretend that someone who worships the myriad gods of the Hindu pantheon believes in the "same" God as you do. You really can't both be right. Nor can any two of the devout Christian, the devout Hindu and the devout Buddhist be right. Not, that is, unless nothing at all that they say about the nature of the divine is meant in any way to provide an actual description of the way the universe works.
Interesting blog and even more interesting debate.

But just to give it a little twist, what do you think about this little quote:

Itís like how the greatest coaches were always the mediocre players, because nothing came naturally to them, they had to obsess over and analyze every detail, fight for every inch. Itís that struggle that imparts insight and wisdom.


Doesn't this remind you of Topher's speach about the weaknesses in actives?

And to twist the metapher even further, back into more religous territory:
In the discussion above, historical events of mass murder etc. are mentioned as arguments against certain kinds of gods. But couldn't these just be the weaknesses for mankind to overcompensate, so that later we are perfect for the job the universe/the gods need us to do? It's not like 10.000 years as civilised or even 5 million years as self conscious human beings are that much on a universal scale.

(This is not nessecarily what I believe, but it might be an interesting thought.)

And btw., I am not sure what I am, but I am definitely not a pure materialist (of the "I am dead, that's it." variety), because I could never accept that I won't read the big "The Universe for Dummies" book at some point. :)

P.S.: About all those "omnis" mentioned in the discussion and their distinctions. Could you be omnipotent without being omniscient? After all, if you can do everything, you can make yourself know everything as well, can't you?
Loved your comments BreathesStory. But you're still not going to get Buddhism into the discussion on any meaningful level, much less Wicca or the issue of patriarchy in most religions.
I stand by my observation that these threads always basically stay "in the box", i.e. "believers", (as opposed to atheists), are defined as those who believe in some version of Patriarchal Monotheism.

This I really have to take issue with:

The "Buddhist" part of the "Buddhist" perspective simply has nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of the divine.

snot monster from outer space | February 20, 19:16 CET


That is a really inaccurate statement about many, if not most types of Buddhism. Just FYI, because I have no time to elaborate.

ETA: for falling asleepness. ;)

[ edited by Shey on 2009-02-21 13:59 ]
But couldn't these just be the weaknesses for mankind to overcompensate, so that later we are perfect for the job the universe/the gods need us to do? It's not like 10.000 years as civilised or even 5 million years as self conscious human beings are that much on a universal scale.

I think we're way short of 5 million years as self-conscious human beings personally but sure kurna, a god could be doing all this to test us or strengthen us for some upcoming job. That's exactly the sort of god House consciously disavows because a) it's along the lines of "what if we're all brains in vats ?" i.e. unprovable and b) ultimately it makes our pain and suffering meaningless in the here and now, makes the individual just a step on the way to the "perfect" end result (it's for this specific reason IMO that House says "I find it more comforting to believe that all this isnít simply a test"). Unless, presumably, you happen to be lucky enough to be the end result - anyone who thinks that of us put your hand up. Now read a newspaper. Is your hand still up ? ;)

You really can't both be right. Nor can any two of the devout Christian, the devout Hindu and the devout Buddhist be right. Not, that is, unless nothing at all that they say about the nature of the divine is meant in any way to provide an actual description of the way the universe works.

Yeah, I think that hits the nail on the head. Some people act as if their religion describes the world (e.g. as if god has a referent, The Bible is literally true, mother nature is an actual entity etc.) and some people take bits and pieces (or even use an established religion in toto) as a sort of "self-help guide", to provide a kind of manual for living. "Religion" to them becomes "how I see the world and things that make me feel better about what I see" (i.e. ways of dealing with the world as they experience it, regardless of its actual nature).

Life can be hard though and I don't, in general, begrudge folk finding their own way to live it, so long as they're not hurting anyone else. The issue with that sort of believer comes when they then accidentally come to think their belief system also describes the world. It's understandable, most religions claim to hold the truth about the nature of reality so when you use a religion differently (or make one up ... Hubbard ! ;) it's easy to believe that everything religions claim is also true of your "religion", that if you're "religious" you're automatically making claims about reality rather than just your own beliefs.

Both kinds of believer are a problem for those of us that would rather public policy was framed through reason as much as possible but these believers are arguably more of a problem because their beliefs may not even be internally consistent (they haven't usually even had to stand up to the sort of examination the Abrahamic religions have over the last few thousand years for instance and we've already discussed the issues they have). That doesn't matter when it's just a coping mechanism for reality, kinda does when you're deciding the course of a nation.
The "Buddhist" part of the "Buddhist" perspective simply has nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of the divine.

snot monster from outer space | February 20, 19:16 CET


That is a really inaccurate statement about many, if not most types of Buddhism. Just FYI, because I have no time to elaborate.


If you say it's not true only of "most types of Buddhism" then you're saying it's true of "some types of Buddhism." If you say that, then you're agreeing with me that the "Buddhism" part of the equation isn't what contributes to the discussion. Please note that I expressly said that a "theist Buddhist" has plenty to say about these issues, it's just that it's their "theism" that's important here, not specifically the fact that it is "Buddhist theism."

Could you be omnipotent without being omniscient? After all, if you can do everything, you can make yourself know everything as well, can't you?

That's a fascinating question. Can there be an omnipotent god who lives in a world in which the future is unknowable, say? I suspect that we're touching on the points at which the omnis become self-contradictory (god making an object he himself cannot lift etc.). But this sort of thing makes the brain hurt without really resolving anything very much, in my experience.

Loved your comments BreathesStory. But you're still not going to get Buddhism into the discussion on any meaningful level, much less Wicca or the issue of patriarchy in most religions.
I stand by my observation that these threads always basically stay "in the box", i.e. "believers", (as opposed to atheists), are defined as those who believe in some version of Patriarchal Monotheism.


You know, one option that is available to you other than saying "no one listens to us Buddhists" would be actually saying what the insights are that you think Buddhism has to offer on the questions under discussion in this thread and seeing if people do, in fact, ignore them. I mean, so far the most that has been concretely said about Buddhist doctrine in this thread has been said by me.
So, the thread is dead.
Sorry, I meant to write more.
I really like to follow through on what I say I'll do.
But, RL...

A relative has lung cancer.
Prognosis - not good.
And now I feel ripped. Or numb. It's a toss up.
And I just can't seem to get my brains to work.

I was having so much fun too.
Thanks for the debate.
Maybe...another thread, another time...
So sorry to hear of your situation, BreathesStory. I hope, if the prognosis is accurate, that you can get to spend as much time as possible with your relative and say whatever needs to be said (even if that's just chatter).

All the best.
Best thoughts and wishes are with you, BreatheStory.

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