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June 14 2010

Religion in Firefly. A nine-part serial exploring the representation of religion in science fiction.

The author presents some interesting ideas and integrates some of Joss' views into his analysis.
There's more on BSG, Doctor Who and Star Wars among others.

Recently found myself in an amusing religious debate with Adam Baldwin over at Twitter, or at least the guy running his verified account. Turns out he's a bit of a conservative christian who thinks all our founding fathers were devout or perhaps skeptical but surely none of them were deists or atheists. "Barring aberrations" he'd say.

I can't help but wonder if he and Joss Whedon ever found themselves talking about religion on the set of Firefly, or if they quickly learned that's a topic to avoid if they want to shoot the script & not each other.
@ZachsMind, I know he and Scott Allie get into some interesting debates on Twitter :)
Remember lurking on a few of Adam Baldwin's debates on fireflyfans.net a few years back. I almost always disagreed with him but he was almost always fair and reasonable in how he did it from what I recall, seems like the sort of guy you could have a good discussion with over a few beers (or coke/whatever if he doesn't drink) even if you knew going in that you had very little common ground, beliefs wise.

(and re: your founding fathers, whether they were, on average, devout or not - which is debatable from the little I know of them - seems irrelevant since they still seemed pretty keen on the separation of church and state. No need to "creatively edit" school books ;)

Some of the other entries are quite interesting particularly, as you'd imagine, the BSG one, even if I don't agree that it's "a brilliantly ambiguous mythology" by the end since it seems quite plainly theistic, not ambiguous at all. But then that either/or nature is something I accepted years ago - so much happened that had an apparently supernatural explanation that either God(s) existed in the BSGverse OR an equally exotic sci-fi explanation was needed. The 'Firefly' entry didn't seem to say much to me. Joss writes about belief from an atheist viewpoint ? Well, yeah, that's what he is. Religious faith, by definition, isn't something you sit down and work out rationally so it's pretty much impossible for someone without it to genuinely understand what it must be like (unlike rationality which we all use, just not all the time). I also disagree that most Christians wouldn't acknowledge there're inconsistencies in the Bible, most of the Christians i've ever known freely admit it (but then I don't think i've ever discussed religion at any length with a Biblical literalist mainly because i'm fond of my head and therefore against bashing it off a brick wall ;). And it's nice to see "Blake's 7" get a nod (it pre-dates "Cowboy Bebop" by quite some way ;).

I don't like the use of words like "clumsy", "shallow" or "puerile" when he dislikes/disagrees with an approach, bit lazy that IMO (they convey only that he doesn't like the approach, not why) and he also seems to believe that sci-fi somehow "owes" religion and religious people a balanced depiction. Well no, it doesn't, if a creator believes religion is an unalloyed negative then they're entitled to portray it that way, after all, how many shows over the years have portrayed it as an unalloyed positive ? I'm going to check out this Charles Taylor he mentions though, coherently reconciling materialism with theism seems like a big ask and it's therefore worth seeing if/how he pulls it off (hopefully not in the way most religious scientists do i.e. compartmentalise, compartmentalise, compartmentalise ;).
Whedon: "I don't actually have anything against anybody, unless their belief precludes everybody else's."

So Whedon precludes the beliefs of others who preclude the beliefs of others.

Got it.
@ZachsMind: I remember hearing that Alan Tudyk (a hardcore liberal) and Adam Baldwin (a hardcore conservative) would get into a lot of (good-natured) arguments about politics on the set =)


As for Adam... I haven't agreed with a single opinion he's had (how anyone can decry Sesame Street is beyond me), but at least his arguments are intelligent and he plays fair. Which is a lot more than I can say for most conservatives online.


ETA: @filops: I'm not sure that's the best way to put it (unless you were being tongue-in-cheek). He's just saying he doesn't have time for people who have beliefs that override other people's beliefs. It's basically the same stance as "I hate people who are hateful". Obviously no hate is good, but ambivalence towards hatred is even worse.

[ edited by Matt7325 on 2010-06-14 14:26 ]
Most of the founders were devout. Some were deists. Some switched around as they got older. Atheists were pretty rare then, but you get people like Thomas Paine. They all did, in one way or another, support a secular state, but that meant different things to different founders. Just keep in mind that they were people, well educated for the time, and had a variety of beliefs about a lot of things. Trying to pin such a large group of people down into even two or three categories is going to get you into trouble. Their religious beliefs were very nearly as diverse as you'd find today, though in different ways.

Adam Baldwin is a conservative, yes, and usually handles debates on these things quite reasonably. Of course, I say that as a right-leaning libertarian myself (not a believer, but an agnostic).

As for atheism in Joss's work, I'd say that's a fair wash. I mean, none of his works are anti-religious belief, and religious characters always get a fair shake. Book's faith, for instance, is not shared by Mal, but it's never denegrated. It's obviously sincerely felt, and Book's contribution (even when religious) is usually considered positive. Otherwise, religious belief is usually not even talked about.

Also, it's a mistake to confuse evangelical Christians with fundamentalists. There are actually surprisingly few strict biblical literalists out there. They tend to be loudest. Still, most Christians recognize the limitations of the bible.

It is yet another mistake to think that Christians aren't rational about their faith. Many are. To say that "religous faith, by definition, isn't something you sit down and work out rationally" hasn't read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, John Henry Newman, Hans Kung, Karl Barth, John Calvin ... well, you get the idea. Systematic theology is a very old discipline. Just remember that until the 19th century, almost all work in science and philosophy in the West was done by people of at least nominal Christian faith.

Aactual religious belief tends to be far more diverse than our categories. And I say this as someone with a degree in political philosophy. Pidgeon-holing people on this topic is a mistake.

[ edited by ern on 2010-06-14 14:27 ]
It is yet another mistake to think that Christians aren't rational about their faith. Many are. To say that "religous faith, by definition, isn't something you sit down and work out rationally" hasn't read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, John Henry Newman, Hans Kung, Karl Barth, John Calvin ... well, you get the idea.

No, you misinterpreted what I said ern (not your fault, my wording was ambiguous). Those Christians started from a position of "Clearly God exists so how can we explain these mysteries/prove his existence beyond doubt ?" rather than "Does God exist and if so, how can we explain these mysteries ?" i.e. they had faith to begin with. Faith can't be arrived at rationally, you either have it or you don't (one working definition of it is "firm belief in something for which there is no proof" which is, as I say, irrational by definition) but that doesn't mean it can't be examined rationally (whereupon ultimately, if you're intellectually honest, you're bound to admit that it has no rational basis. This, BTW, is also true of materialism ultimately, though i'd contend it's a smaller leap but then I would wouldn't I ;). That said, the number one "reason" for believing in God that i've come across from most Christians [ETA]that i've met[/ETA] is some variant of "Well, there has to be more to it than this". Plainly there doesn't, hence irrational. FWIW BTW, i've read some of those authors and found the experience very rewarding, despite not being a believer myself.

Just remember that until the 19th century, almost all work in science and philosophy in the West was done by people of at least nominal Christian faith.

Well that precludes the Greeks who've a fair claim to being "in the West" (and obviously weren't Christians) but I know what you mean. I was well aware of this anyway but as it happens i'm reading "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson at the moment so the extent to which "natural philosophers" of the early Enlightenment were Christians (often of a fairly radical bent by today's standards) is front and centre in my mind. They sought to explain God's creation in order to glorify him, not undermine him.

[ edited by Saje on 2010-06-14 15:34 ]
I remember when Serenity was filming someone said there was a perpetual political debate going on set all the time. On Twitter 95% of Adam Baldwin's tweets are links to conservative political articles. I follow Bill Maher and he has fewer politically theme tweets than him. I was hoping for funny stories from the set of Chuck, but it wasn't happening.
You know what's sad? Adam Baldwin will never be -the- Republican actor, because that Steven Baldwin is already the go-to guy as Republican actors go. Steven is more famous and so is his brother who I guess he is supposed to be countering, and Adam has the same last name so to avoid confusion he'd probably never really be that well known a Republican. Which is a shame because if I was going to vehemently disagree with an actor, I'd prefer it be someone who acts well.
It is yet another mistake to think that Christians aren't rational about their faith.

Careful ern! I said something similar in a long-ago thread that went on forevah and I ended up committing on-line ritual suicide (though it didn't take, obviously).

That was an interesting if slightly odd read. The author didn't seem so keen on one scene I really liked, where Inara seems to be giving Book benediction or something in her shuttle and puts her hand on his head while he kneels in front of her. I suppose it was heavy-handed but I liked it a lot. Also when he's writing about Book's take on faith (it's not supposed to "make sense" in the way that River is talking about) he says:

This is not a view of the Bible that many Christians would share, and indeed reads like a non-believer attempting to justify the right for others to believe what they do not.


which I can't agree with at all. I thought it was a lovely way of putting something that I have heard plenty of Christians say, and I didn't at all think it sounded like the justification of a non-believer. But I always get a bee in my bonnet when people start talking about what "many Christians" think or would think since they're generally going by a much smaller sample size than they think they are.

Interested and sort of baffled by the Joss quote at the end:

I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't and that's just how that works.


I always wonder if people who don't have faith really mean it when they say that they would like to. I can't quite fathom wishing I believed something I don't. It just seems weird to me. I get the fascination with it and feeling a kind of emotional draw to it, but I don't get wishing that you believed it.
"...you're bound to admit that it has no rational basis."

I'm not disagreeing with you, but most religious people actually would. Most religious people think their belief is perfectly rational, and will give you very long and involved (and self-consistent) reasons for their belief. It only looks irrational from the outside from people with a different (ie, materialist) definition of rationality. Think of it like non-euclidean geometry. It doesn't look rational from your perspective, but that doesn't mean it isn't. The idea that rationality is limited to materialism is a modern bias that's worth kicking aside, if for no other reason that it gets you absolutely nowhere with religious believers.

"Plainly there doesn't, hence irrational." Of course, it's possible (likely, in my mind) that you're right. But it's possible we're wrong. Science can neither prove or disprove it. Neither can religion. It's only irrational if it doesn't *have a reason.* Science can no more offer concrete first principles to reason from than religion. Both are based on unprovable assumptions. I think the point I'm trying to make is that the question isn't about which is rational and which isn't. Both are rational, in their own unique ways. But materialism is, in my mind, is *more* rational. Again, this sort of argument seems to run in circles, so I think it's better to argue with religious people on specifics, rather than first principles.

As for the Greeks: sure. But a good bit of the work of creating a real materialist science was *getting past* Aristotle. I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, and his Baroque Trilogy. He does a good job of understanding the philosophical complexities of the times. It's stunning how convoluted the ideas of republicanism, protestantism, commerce, freedom and natural philosophy were at the time. It's like a arch: remove one and the whole thing falls apart. We tend to forget this in the 21st century.

And as for Adam Baldwin: he's already very well known in Republican circles. Most of the people I work with (mostly conservatives) have heard of him. At least as many as have heard of Stephen Baldwin. Stephen Baldwin is better known for his Christianity than his politics, though. Maybe that's changing.
Agreed that that quote by Joss is weird/sounding potentially inconsistent with other comments I recall him making about belief and the lack of it. But oh well, he and everyone else is allowed to flip-flop on what degree of atheism or belief they subscribe to or how they prefer to verbally express it. It seems like the kinda thing non-believers sometimes say to be polite and placate the faith-filled listener, or maybe in some grasping attempt to find some common ground/sympathize with the faithful. Or they miss their safety net maybe, if they used to believe (which is also kinda odd, because the truths you're aware of now were still true before you aware. Even if you could go back to the "blissful ignorance" of childhoood and remain there throughout your adult life, God and heaven still don't exist (until/unless proven otherwise, not holding breath).

catherine said:
I always wonder if people who don't have faith really mean it when they say that they would like to. I can't quite fathom wishing I believed something I don't. It just seems weird to me.

Can't speak for others, but there're likely some who don't exactly enjoy the potential unsureness/insecurity they may feel when left without fluffy fantasy father-figure to take care of them/their soul/the universe.

I wouldn't wanna go back to being Catholic/Christian/believing in God/gods, or even the in-between "it-could-all-be-true-somehow" stage, not even in some hypothetical sci-fi/fantasy scenario where I could do it for a day so that I could then analyze those feelings the next day when back to myself. Have a good enough memory of being a child and teen who was conned into it, wouldn't wanna go back to that. Aside from hating the alternative (the knowledge of the prospect of oblivion/being nothing when you die), I can't see any reason why someone would consciously choose to buy into the lie or say that they wish they could (hey, let's call it an age-old mistake[n assumption]. 'Cause to be fair to ancient humans, they didn't have much else to work with at the time. Impatience/frustration and the fear of not having an answer available to their surroundings probably spurred on the development of religion. The Big Mistake, I don't wanna go back to putting stock into society's Big Mistake. We know better/we know different now)

I get the fascination with it and feeling a kind of emotional draw to it, but I don't get wishing that you believed it.

Yeah, I mean, until humanity has the benefit of seeing what a completely atheistic society would look like...which won't happen unless a bunch of atheists buy a decent-sized island/planet, populate it, cut off ties with the outside partially-still-believing population, and exclude religion/myth from their teachings to their young, which would kinda be sad IMO 'cause you'd have to lose or heavily edit the teaching of human history to accomplish that, in which case you're just substituting one lie for another...the attatchment is gonna be there for a good long while, in some capacity, until there's a more significant and widespread shift toward atheism. Non-believers (can't speak for all) will usually be curious about why others believe what they do, what they believe, how they justify their beliefs to themselves and continue on with them instead of abandoning them.

ern said:
"The idea that rationality is limited to materialism is a modern bias that's worth kicking aside, if for no other reason that it gets you absolutely nowhere with religious believers."

Heh, so by that rationale, for some, maybe only worth kicking aside when interacting/debating with religious folks ? ;) Depends on how one feels about compromising in order to potentially win minds--or at least hold the ears--of religious folks, for more extended lengths of time than they may be normally prone/willing to listen to you (when you're playing hardball/less flexible in your mindset/mode of conversation regarding rationality).

Also, we'd have to be clear on making up a new definition/interpretation of rationalism when having these kinds of debates in a let's-humor-them frame, 'cause the most basic definition of rationalism in my dictionary reads, "philosophy which regards reason as the only guide or authority".

I actually wanted to discuss/speculate on Firefly some more before hitting the "post" button, was gonna stay far away from the thread you guys and Saje are on ('cause I know my limits and you guys are more articulate/educated on the matter), but I always find this particular topic hard to resist (there's probably something in that, relating compulsion to faith, but nothing concrete in my head to run on. Not even in a mushy, liquid state. It's still gas and I'll probably forget about it in an hour or less).

Mal. Wish the blogger had gone into Mal's loss of faith (unless he still had some capacity of religious belief, in addition to his faith in his crew/people, and was just an angry-at-God type instead). There's a ton he could've explored there, especially if he'd gone further than what the show and film gave us and examined what some of the fans speculated about where Mal might end up. There were some great theories about how by series' end, he'd regain his faith (a lotta viewers loved that theory and saw it as the logical conclusion to a big part of his character arc), there were less (but still great) theories about Mal coming to terms with a permanent loss of faith...More than the comparative window dressing of the symbolism, setting, and supporting characters, Mal remains the biggest mystery of the series in terms of what he believed in the "present" of the show and (feels like to me), would've been the most richly rewarding in seeing his faith explored, regardless of which side of the line he ended up on (didn't seem the type to straddle it/go agnostic).

Don't agree with the writer that Whedon has more respect for Inara's "beliefs" than Book's. Unless prostitution is a belief in 500 years. Even if we assume Inara is a Buddhist, I don't think the fact that Mal declines to deride Inara for those beliefs but takes many opportunities to poke Book for his Christianity somehow means Whedon respects Inara and/or her beliefs more than Book and/or his beliefs. Do we know whether Inara was really a Buddhist, was that established within the series or mentioned by one of the writers, or is that just an assumption on this blogger's part and he's really reading into the trappings of Inara and her surroundings (as he pretty much admits to) ? Kind of shaky ground to make a point on. Yes, her "House" (the temple-looking place she was teaching at) had Buddhist statues and it's mentioned that she's praying for Mal in Serenity (which later seemed to turn out to be a front for lighting some sort of "that's not incense" flash-bomb), but we weren't really given anything concrete from what I remember (someone's gonna correct me big-time on this, feels like). It easily could've been just as much of a front for her business, her personal style maybe, half-assed/bullshit-Buddhism. Wouldn't be the first time religion was used solely for commercial reasons. The more likely scenario is that we wouldn't seen it explored, the degree to which she believes confirmed, had the series continued.

Minor quibble with the article that showed he didn't do all his homework before writing it--wasn't all the Chinese/swearing in Cantonese, which was criticized by many in-the-know viewers for being the unlikely form of Chinese that would win out as the most-commonly-spoken ? The article says Mandarin. It wasn't Mandarin.

Also, Zoe wasn't "Zoe Washburne" at in the scene he mentions (pilot, the war). Are we even sure whether she changed her last name for Wash's ?
I always wonder if people who don't have faith really mean it when they say that they would like to.

I doubt it catherine, I think most non-believers actually mean "Having faith seems easier to me because I struggle with a lot of questions that people of faith seem not to. And I want life to be easier". But in reality I doubt life is that much easier with religious faith, I think the problems/questions are just slightly different is all. If you're a thinking person you'll ask them, if you're not, you won't, no matter what your overarching belief system.

...I don't think the fact that Mal declines to deride Inara for those beliefs but takes many opportunities to poke Book for his Christianity somehow means Whedon respects Inara and/or her beliefs more than Book and/or his beliefs.

Absolutely Kris, it just means Mal does (or at least that he doesn't care about her beliefs in that way - Mal's angry at God, not Buddha). Mal != Joss as he's made clear several times (my impression is Joss thinks he and Mal might not even get on all that well).

I'm not disagreeing with you, but most religious people actually would. Most religious people think their belief is perfectly rational, and will give you very long and involved (and self-consistent) reasons for their belief.

Nope ern, though I suspect we've more in common than not, i'm with Kris here - rationality isn't "what's rational for you", it's not just "having reasons", it's also about those reasons being internally and (where applicable) externally consistent, being sound in other words. Just thinking your beliefs are rational doesn't mean they are (because we can all think irrational thoughts with ease). And FWIW, i've never met a theist with an entirely self-consistent set of reasons for believing though i've met plenty who admit (usually with a wry grin ;) that their reasons aren't entirely self-consistent.

"Plainly there doesn't, hence irrational." Of course, it's possible (likely, in my mind) that you're right. But it's possible we're wrong. Science can neither prove or disprove it. Neither can religion.

True but I wasn't talking about what can be proven or not (science can't ever prove anything anyway) or about being empirically right or wrong, I was talking about a logical fallacy since it's an argument from incredulity. There simply doesn't have to be more to it than this (note: whether there actually is more to it than this - i.e. materialism is wrong and theism is right - is irrelevant, it's still not possible to say there must be more to it. Why must there ? Because it feels better if there is ? Is everything that makes us feel better true by necessity ? Cos - *looks out at the world* - it really doesn't seem that way).

As for the Greeks: sure. But a good bit of the work of creating a real materialist science was *getting past* Aristotle.

Jeez, tell me about it ;). If only he'd been an easily dismissable idiot instead of a clever, insightful thinker with the odd daft idea (and if only more of other people's books had survived). Aristotle wasn't the only Greek thinker on [what we'd call] science though, just (arguably) the most influential.

I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, and his Baroque Trilogy. He does a good job of understanding the philosophical complexities of the times.

Yeah i'm enjoying it so far. The only issue is, it's hell on my to-be-read list (damn thing's growing even faster now ;) - never read the Principia for instance and now I want to. Along with finding out more about Hooke and Pepys and the reorganisation/creation of the Royal Navy and vagabonds and ... etc.
And FWIW, i've never met a theist with an entirely self-consistent set of reasons for believing though i've met plenty who admit (usually with a wry grin ;) that their reasons aren't entirely self-consistent.


Funny. I've never met a human being who had an entirely self-consistent belief system. I've always figured that's why philosophers have been employed for centuries. I'd also find someone who believes their beliefs to be entirely consistent probably a tad delusional, although I'm not particularly argumentative or interested enough to prove it (most of the time.)

Honestly, great article that steers far clear of reverence and seems pretty honest. I still wonder where this large anti-Firefly Christian contingent is, but oh well. It's not like I take weekly poll's on the subject.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-06-15 01:52 ]
still wonder where this large anti-Firefly Christian contingent is, but oh well. It's not like I take weekly poll's on the subject.

Yeah I was surprised by that assumption but figured the author isn't just making it up. I only know of a large-ish pro-Firefly Christian contingent, but my weekly polls are skewed I think.

(And OT but yay, The Baroque Cycle made it to the top of Saje's To-Read list. Will go and wait patiently at .org 'til you finish ;)).
Not finished the first one yet catherine so it'll be a while before I get through all three (particularly if I stop to read all the books the first one's made me want to read ;).

Funny. I've never met a human being who had an entirely self-consistent belief system. I've always figured that's why philosophers have been employed for centuries.

Really ? I always figured it's because some questions are ultimately unanswerable, not because all belief systems it's possible to hold are ultimately inconsistent (nice rhetoric though ;). As an example though, theologians have, for centuries, wrestled with the consistency of "all powerful + all loving + all knowing + the current state of the world (war, famine, natural disasters, bad things happening to good people etc.)" and yet that combination is a cornerstone of Christian belief as I understand it (assuming most Christians "believe" in the world about them, which doesn't seem unreasonable ;). Or how about "[the first three] + logic" ? Problems again (assuming most Christians "believe" things like A = A or "If A = B and B = C then A = C", again, not unreasonable I reckon). Pretty obvious stuff and yet most Christians (that i've met) don't seem to have a problem with it (or to even have thought about it in fact).

For the record azzers, here's my belief system:

1) the external world exists
2) it's consistent in its behaviour
3) we can know it with some accuracy by our senses

If you're ever argumentative or interested enough, feel free to have a go (i'd be genuinely interested).
but I don't get wishing that you believed it.

Interesting, catherine. I have felt this way for years. I've wished like crazy I could have the same faith others seem so sure of, so comforted by. But I've never had it and can't imagine ever having it. It's hard to be completely on the outside of a group like say, Christians in general, and just not get it. I've wished for some level of faith like that because as much as I disagree with what religion does to people, faith itself seems to do wonders for people. When you've never felt it, it's kinda lonely. Probably why I dig Joss as much as I do. I get him. He gets me.
But it's the comfort you want though right ? I.e. it doesn't need to be through religious faith, it's just that faith seems to comfort people.

Put it this way, if you genuinely could choose to have faith (with all the giving up of many of the elements that make you you that entails) would you WhoIsOmega? ? Do you want it more than you want to be you in other words, would you happily swap your "you-ness" for comfort ? Cos I think that'd be a pretty unusual position personally (and therefore interesting if the case). I'd speculate (and that's all it is) that most atheists feel like their truth is closer to the actual truth (whatever that means ;) and so giving it up would be a sort of retreat from or denial of reality, maybe even a kind of moral cowardice.
I guess I can understand, if all your friends are really into something (ie. Christianity) wishing you could be on the inside too, but that does seem different from wishing your brain was wired differently. And I don't think that faith = comfort / certainty at all. I guess that while I know some people are very much "comforted" by and sure of their faith, for others it's the puzzle of a lifetime, or simply provides something quite different than comfort and certainty I guess, and there are plenty of other ways to be comforted. Cookies, for example. And other things to be sure of. (Or, yanno, WSS).

Not finished the first one yet catherine so it'll be a while before I get through all three (particularly if I stop to read all the books the first one's made me want to read ;).

Finish them first and THEN stop to read all the books the first one's made you want to read! Oh fine, read what you want, grumble grumble ;).
Ain't free-will a bitch, that's probably how God feels as he watches us go off the rails (and thusly i've enabled you to experience Godliness catherine. You're welcome ;).

... and there are plenty of other ways to be comforted. Cookies, for example. And other things to be sure of.
(my emph.)

See, sooner or later, it always comes back to tea ;).
"...still wonder where this large anti-Firefly Christian contingent is, but oh well."

I've yet to meet a Christian who watched Firefly who didn't like it. Indeed, I passed it around to my (largely Evangelical Christian) circle when I worked in DC (at a conservative think-tank) and they all loved it. And I mean *loved* it. Despite the legal prostitution, etc. Same goes for Buffy, despite the lesbian main character. I think it's because Joss tends to let religion speak for itself, and not go the route of most TV shows, and make the Reverend the bad guy. Firefly did have "Safe," which was by far the most strident episode concerning religion (and one of the show's worst episodes), but none of the conservatives I talked to about it even cared. They tended to agree with the point of the episode. Which, at the time, was part of what convinced me that conservative Evangelicals are quite different from the reputation they've earned.

Religious beliefs are always very complicated, very individualized, and very resistant to the kinds of categories we want to place on them. Same goes for agnostics and atheists. Better, I think, to deal with people individually. To be honest, I think religious faith is something some people are wired for, and others aren't. It's easy to look at the other group and simply "not get it." Just remember that your "not getting" how people can be religious is an awful lot like their "not getting" how you can not be religious. Once you see that, it's easier to just let people do their thing.

As for Joss's comment about not "precluding" others' beliefs, I think it's not comment that can be taken seriously. He might believe it, but it's fundamentally intolerant, at least the way I read it. He's basically saying he can't tolerate people he disagrees with. As a throwaway comment, it works. As a serious approach to things? No. Every belief is restrictive of other beliefs. It's the nature of belief to be so. My perspective tends to be of the "absolute truth exists, but truth telling is relative" sort. Reminds me a bit of a passage in Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which was really a retelling of Plato's cave analogy. But that's pretty far afield.

[ edited by ern on 2010-06-15 17:14 ]
And I haven't read it yet so **spoiler** warning please, should you decide to enter that field ;).

Religious beliefs are always very complicated, very individualized, and very resistant to the kinds of categories we want to place on them. Same goes for agnostics and atheists. Better, I think, to deal with people individually.

True of course and certainly the nice approach. But if "Christian", "agnostic" and "atheist" actually exist as groups (and people that self-identify that way seem to think they do) then we can talk about their corresponding membership criteria. Is every Christian the same ? Of course not, no-one is an interchangeable part, that (IMO) should go without saying. But they have properties/beliefs in common or they wouldn't be Christians. Same with atheists and agnostics and NASCAR fans and Whedon fans and liberals and Democrats and Republicans and so on.

And it's only by talking about it (and initially lumping people together in crude categories) that the nuances are revealed.

As for Joss's comment about not "precluding" others' beliefs, I think it's not comment that can be taken seriously. He might believe it, but it's fundamentally intolerant, at least the way I read it. He's basically saying he can't tolerate people he disagrees with.

Forgive me if i'm being dense but I really don't see how this follows at all. Accepting that other people have the right to believe what they want (i.e. not precluding others' beliefs) surely isn't intolerant, in fact isn't it more or less the definition of tolerance ?

As to letting people do their thing, that's how I see it too. If folk leave me be and aren't hurting others then I leave them be, live and let live, do unto others etc. Despite how it might seem from reading my posts I don't actually wander the streets or stand outside churches barracking people of faith ;).

(though I do have a fairly broad definition of "hurting others" - editing textbooks to represent a particular religious viewpoint is "hurting others" IMO, as is teaching intelligent design in a science lesson or lobbying for the re-integration of church and state among other examples)
Saje, I will freely admit I am not as well read as most people in here on philosophy, but I would suggest that I am not attacking it with my comment. Nor am I slighting anyone else, simply expressing my cynicism of the ability of the human animal to stay rationally consistent throughout their lives.

Without inconsistency, there would be no argument. The argument (in the name of finding truth) has been going on for centuries which is what I'm referring to.

The belief system you are talking about is one that I hold as well. But I'd hesitate to call something that basic a complete belief system. Unless you're making the distinction between your belief system and "what I think about other stuff at the time."

I don't really make that distinction since the "other stuff" is invariably tied to your foundation. I hope that makes sense.

To put it another way, if I translated your beliefs to math, it might go something like this.
1) I believe numbers represent discrete quantities (an oversimplification and not technically true, but roll with it since we're not discussing number types here)
2) I believe numbers can be manipulated in universal ways.
3) Through manipulation I can prove if a quantity is equal or not

These are all true (except 1). But they are also not mathematical system. These things can be said by a doctorate as well as a child who knows nothing about the subject. They are simply required axioms.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-06-15 19:05 ]
I will freely admit I am not as well read as most people in here on philosophy

I'll bet I've got you beat there. My philosophy reading is basically... Saje's posts? Do they count?

As for Joss's comment about not "precluding" others' beliefs, I think it's not comment that can be taken seriously. He might believe it, but it's fundamentally intolerant, at least the way I read it. He's basically saying he can't tolerate people he disagrees with.

I'm not sure how you're getting that either. It's like the line "I'll tolerate anything except intolerance" (or, someone gave another example with hate above). It sounds like a contradiction but makes perfect sense. Like I don't care a bit if you want to pick your nose, I can respect a nose-picker, unless you insist that I have to pick my nose as well, and then I'll bitch about your crazy nose-picker ways.

Religious beliefs are always very complicated, very individualized, and very resistant to the kinds of categories we want to place on them. Same goes for agnostics and atheists. Better, I think, to deal with people individually.

Agree with this basically, and with the wired for faith-or-not thing too, though Saje's response to it makes sense to me as well. (Where is GVH anyway? Doesn't he want to get in on this?). I guess when we do start lumping people together, even if it's necessary for any discussion to take place, my brain starts sputtering but but but and then stalls. And then I need chocolate to restart it. Which is fine, really.
My philosophy reading is basically... Saje's posts? Do they count?


Not only do they count, but I'm the process of getting diploma certification for all members who read Saje's posts and can answer a short multiple-choice examination on the contents therein, which will be conservatively limited to, let's see: philosophy, theology, natural sciences, archaeology, medieval history, modern history, political science, linguistics, and popular culture (but, I had to veto the proposed course offering on Moffat: Genius and Savior, I'm afraid . . . ;-).

Intolerance towards the intolerant is permissible, in my view, when it comes to self-preservation (which, broadly read, should include cultural/political self-preservation); but not otherwise. I don't read Joss's quote to suggest anything more sinister than that.
Yeah, I've noticed these days that a lot of folks seem to be using "tolerance" interchangeably with "acceptance".

I tolerate a great many folks' views that I don't accept - I accept only their right to have 'em and express 'em. Acceptance is a whole 'nother animal that would seem to include buying into the position(s) in some way, and I often don't.

And I agree with several of you - Joss is basically stating the old "you're free to swing your fist until it punches me" understanding of freedom. It's mine, too.

BTW, I do think I get what people are saying when they say they would like to have faith - it's maybe a whole package deal that includes comfort and imagined certitude - and contained within that and equally important: a kind of group belonging comfort that wouldn't necessarily come with cookies or a warm blanket.

I've never felt it strongly, myself - but through reading I've imagined feeling it enough to feel it a bit, if you know what I mean.
But I'd hesitate to call something that basic a complete belief system.

Thatís a very high demand to make if you think about it. In the mathematical sense (since you brought that up) such a system must have the power to prove or disprove from its axioms every proposition we can dream up. That becomes impractical long before it runs afoul of being inconsistent (which we know it must thanks to GŲdel).
If I'm suggesting more than three axioms might be required to constitute a fully formed system, I don't see how that then also means that I require any system to be infallible or require the ability to prove and disprove anything.

Is there something else in my explanation you're referring to? I think we may be differing on how we're using the word "complete". I am not saying that a "complete" belief system means it covers everything. I am saying a "complete" belief system in this instance covers the extent of knowledge and thought of the individual.

That is, this is all I believe now at this point in time.

And that is why I use the math analogy. Because no one stops at those three rules. There is invariably more to it unless they do not care and/or never went to school.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-06-15 21:07 ]
A complete system must be able to prove or disprove any proposition that can be expressed in that system. Thatís the mathematical definition of completeness at least. And if the system both proves and disproves a proposition then it is inconsistent.

Perhaps itís not that helpful to use strict mathematics when talking about these things. I just thought it could to be mentioned. A personís belief system is usually much too messy to even talk about in terms of axioms. Still, to claim a consistent belief system is incomplete is meaningless just because it can be proven formally that such a thing cannot be. I donít think using a fuzzier definition of completeness overcomes this fundamental limit.

ETA: My reading comprehension is extra missing today. I see what you mean now (doh!) with your usage of complete as in capturing all the axioms of a personís belief system. Well, then Iíd have to say that Sajeís list of axioms should fulfil that requirement as far as I can see. A materialistic belief system shouldnít need many additional starting assumptions (before we begin figuring it out) though Iím sure a logician would argue with that a little.

[ edited by hence on 2010-06-15 22:22 ]
Not sure more's needed, if you basically include the whole of reality as one of your initial assumptions then what more do you need ? ;). Fair point though azzers, the assumptions I gave are deliberately stripped down to the bare essentials (partly) to make the point that materialism isn't ad hoc in the way religious belief is and partly just because the fewer axioms employed the better. Clearly I don't evaluate everything from first principles but I do (try to) evaluate everything from principles that follow from those first principles (just as much of maths follows from basic operations like addition and a single unique "object" e.g. the empty set - even, in a sense, Godel's incompleteness theorem).

These things can be said by a doctorate as well as a child who knows nothing about the subject. They are simply required axioms.

You say that like it's a bad thing azzers ;). As usual in these situations we land on the stickiness of definitions. A "belief system" might (IMO) be the entire collection of beliefs an individual has accrued OR it might be the basis for creating/evaluating beliefs in general. Those axioms are more the latter. Maybe rather than "belief system" it's more like those are the beliefs I hold to be true but can't prove and any other beliefs I hold either (eventually) follow from those axioms or have to be accepted as unprovable.

And let's look at the word 'axiom'. Good word, handy concept. One definition of which (as I know you know azzers) is

"a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident"

Now I submit that all of my "beliefs" actually are axioms by that definition (i.e. I think most Christians would accept them too, if not what then follows) - note, i'm not saying they're definitely, provably true (hence the "leap of faith"), just that they can reasonably be taken to be (in fact we already act as if they are in most circumstances). And (bigger claim) I also submit that no set of assumptions/properties/propositions defining God in a way a Christian would be happy to accept as describing the God they believe in actually are axioms in this sense (because their truth isn't self-evident, whether empirically or through internal inconsistency). "God exists" can't be taken to be true and even if it is, an accurate description of reality as we know it doesn't follow.

My philosophy reading is basically... Saje's posts? Do they count?

and

Not only do they count, but I'm the process of getting diploma certification for all members who read Saje's posts and can answer a short multiple-choice examination on the contents therein, which will be conservatively limited to, let's see: philosophy, theology, natural sciences, archaeology, medieval history, modern history, political science, linguistics, and popular culture (but, I had to veto the proposed course offering on Moffat: Genius and Savior, I'm afraid . . . ;-).

Hah, makes sense SNT, the answer's "Yes", course finished. Couldn't charge much for that ;). As to the rest, ta but Google is my friend (well, Google and compulsive buying - and sometimes even reading - of books). That and I have broad interests (i.e. "a complete lack of focus" ;). And a lot of the points I make have been kicking around for hundreds (or even thousands) of years anyway, "shoulders of giants" and all that (not so much standing on in my case, more stretching on tip-toe trying to reach while annoyingly pestering ;).
catherine, I doubt you'll read this but you said you never understood if people who don't have faith genuinly wish they did. Well I'm agnostic, and sometimes I do wish I believed in God, just because not really believing can be depressing. Part of me would love to be able to go through life never worrying about life after death, clearly believing that after I die I'll still be around somewhere, with my memories, in some shape or form. Because although I would never clearly in black and white say I know God doesn't exist, or I'm sure he/she/it doesn't, but I don't really think I do, and I have a big fear of death. Not an irrational crippling phobia that prevents me from doing dangerous things, but I'm afraid because the idea of nothingness, of thinking that time will go on forever and life will go on and not only will I not see or hear or feel anything, but I won't KNOW that, I'll just be gone and not be able to think, everything will be black, nothing and I won't be there to even see or expierence the black... That doesn't haunt me or anything, but my day would be made if I believed in heaven, haha. But then again I'm really (like, really) young and I might change my beliefs depending on if I see something I perceive as a miracle or.. I don't know. But I really don't think about death often, I'll probably regret how depressing I phrase things up there.

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