PZ plays the Numbers game

PZ (he only gets identified by his initials from now on until another PZ comes along) has written about a Salon interview with Ron “Book of” Numbers, evidently a former Seventh-Day Adventist (making him either a Sixth-Day or an Eighth-Day Adventist now, I guess) and the author of a new book about the history of creationism. In his post, PZ says something he’s said before and that many of us have said 1,001 times:


“Atheism is not a religion; it is an absence of gods, and of course the only way to maintain religious neutrality is to teach without the promotion of any gods at all. I don’t understand why some people find this so difficult to grasp.”
They find it hard to understand chiefly because strongly religious people have, by and large, been funnelled into harboring a world view that genuinely does not permit them to accept that some people really are atheists. They think in terms of athists being angry at god, or fighting against god, or taking a philosophical position solely to squabble with believers of a different stripe, or some such idea, but atheism to them is a religion because it is something they themselves do not and cannot believe in, and very the existence of which — to say nothing of its endorsement — really does, in their view, rely on faith. Tell them it’s the influence of those claiming to act loudly and destructively on behalf of gods that’s exasperating, not gods themselves, and they roll their eyes just as quickly as I do when someone new to creationism Web sites starts yammering about peppered-moth hoaxes or Cambrian explosions.
The thing is, to clear this misconception up, every U.S. Christian mystified by the concept of true godlessness really needs only look to an Islamic terrorist willing to die at a moment’s notice solely for theistic reasons. The Christian can conceive of neither the terrorist’s god not his commitment — but knows it is there. What any Christian observer feels at this point should give him or her observer a glimmer of insight as to what it is like to be an atheist. We just knock one more monster out from under the bed.
I’ve come to understand that explaining atheism to a committed theist is like trying to explain the stark qualitative difference between Mozart and the Beastie Boys to a deaf person. Their minds are closed to the very capacity to treat godlessness as a genuine article.
As an aside, most of the people PZ is talking about don’t want anything resembling religious equality anyway, though most of them are either deluded enough or cagey enough not to say as much out loud.

24 thoughts on “PZ plays the Numbers game”

  1. The Christian can conceive of neither the terrorist’s god not his commitment — but knows it is there.
    That’s a pretty bold statement. It’s really not that hard to conceive. In fact, in some ways it would be sort of comforting to see the world as simply as an Islamic terrorist does. Me good, you bad. God want boom. Go boom.
    An alternative to not being able to conceive of true godlessness might be that many religious people simply define religion as one’s explanation of the ultimate nature of reality. If we go by your explanation, then it should be impossible for Christians to conceive of Bhuddists.

  2. An analogy to thermodynamics:
    Religion is like heat. Atheism is a total lack of heat, that is, it’s 0 Kelvin. Clearly, they are not the same thing. Any scientist or engineer will tell you that there is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat. Saying that atheism is just another form of religion is like saying absolute zero is just another form of heat. To the unfamiliar, the concept of “cold” is perfectly sensible. They see a continuum of temperature from infinity to minus infinity, not a proper definition of what temperature really represents.

  3. Boo, I think I worded the part of my post you quoted poorly.
    What I meant is this: A believer may not be able to genuinely accept that people with no investment at all in the supernatural (i.e., atheists) in fact exist. But a Christian, while neither believing in the same god an Islamofascist does nor harboring his suicidal level of commitment to the whims of that god — can at least appreciate that the terrorist believes.
    I can understand what it is that a believer believes in, though I could never come to the same belief even under penalty of death. So in this respect I think I have the same basic view of Christianity (and all other sects) as a Christian does of any sect except Christianity. Hence, my remark about a glimpse of the atheist mindset.
    I don’t know if that changes anything.

  4. Jim said:

    Religion is like heat. Atheism is a total lack of heat, that is, it’s 0 Kelvin. Clearly, they are not the same thing. Any scientist or engineer will tell you that there is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat.

    Don’t get me started on this one Jim. I’ve actually had a very frustrating conversation with a relative before who claimed that “well maybe heat is just an absence of cold”.
    Even after pointing out the chemistry involved, she still acted like her ‘theory’ was as good as mine.

  5. What I meant is this: A believer may not be able to genuinely accept that people with no investment at all in the supernatural (i.e., atheists) in fact exist. But a Christian, while neither believing in the same god an Islamofascist does nor harboring his suicidal level of commitment to the whims of that god — can at least appreciate that the terrorist believes.
    I can understand what it is that a believer believes in, though I could never come to the same belief even under penalty of death. So in this respect I think I have the same basic view of Christianity (and all other sects) as a Christian does of any sect except Christianity. Hence, my remark about a glimpse of the atheist mindset.
    In answer to both paragraphs, speaking as a Christian, I would say it pretty much depends on the Christian. Some do hold to the “all athiests are really just mad at God” mindset, some don’t. It depends mostly on how one defines atheism and religion. There are many religions which have no real God concept to speak of, including Taoism and Therevada (sp?) Bhuddism and arguably neopaganism and Confucionism (If we define Confucionism as a religion, which some people do and some don’t). Also, there are and have always been Christians willing to be martyred for their faith, we just don’t generally believe that God wants us to take others with us, so it’s not necessarily about level of commitment.
    Christians have many different views of other religions. There’s the “they are all of the devil” crowd, which I’m going to guess is not the same as your view, while many other Christians would say that many religions contain varying degrees of truth. There are a lot of things Christianity, Judaism, and Islam agree about, and even Christianty and Hinduism, polytheism, etc., whereas the athiest has to believe it’s all equally bunk.
    Religion is like heat. Atheism is a total lack of heat, that is, it’s 0 Kelvin. Clearly, they are not the same thing. Any scientist or engineer will tell you that there is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat. Saying that atheism is just another form of religion is like saying absolute zero is just another form of heat.
    Alternatively, religion is like a temperature measurement. Absolute zero is just another temperature measurement.
    Religion is:
    a: Belief in God/gods
    b: belief in something “other” than the natural universe
    c: an explanation of the ultimate nature of reality
    Option a excludes Bhuddism, Taoism, Confucionism, and probably more I can’t think of right now. Option b excludes Mormonism, Zen Bhuddism, and possibly the Nation of Islam, although I don’t know enough about them to be sure. Option c includes atheism.

  6. Kevin:
    “Boo, I think I worded the part of my post you quoted poorly.” (he quoted it poorly? or you worded it poorly?)
    works better as:
    Boo, I think I worded poorly the part of my post that you quoted.
    Sorry, I guess I’ve been reading too much James J Kilpatrick.

  7. or
    Boo, poorly worded was the part of my post you quoted that
    Boo, that post poorly worded was, that quoted you did one midwinter’s eve
    Boo, avast, yon posting twas moste churlish, of words which did not convey richness, for thou didst quotest of mine poverty of expression, language moste foul
    Haiku:
    Boo, that part was bad
    and poorly worded as well
    I can do better

  8. Boo,
    My analogy doesn’t state that religion is like a measurement of temperature. I said HEAT. Absolute zero is the absence of heat. It is not some “other kind” of heat, or even “a very, very small quantity of heat”. There is a difference between ANY quantity of heat and NO heat (namely, heat). If you want to play that game, then I can say that I eat poison every day. It’s just that the quantity is zero. Those sorts of word games only serve to obfuscate.
    Also, I think many might argue with you that absolute zero isn’t “just another temperature measurement” from a slightly different perspective.

  9. My analogy doesn’t state that religion is like a measurement of temperature.
    I know, I thought it was a bad analogy. That’s why I proposed another one. Which analogy is better pretty much depends on how one wants to define religion.

  10. Turns out there are quite a few atheists who also have difficulty with the concept that atheism is lack of belief in God. They prefer to call themselves agnostics … as though that solves the problem.
    I guess atheism is such an evil thing that some people will avoid the word like the plague, even if they are atheists. Go figure.

  11. I’ve come to understand that explaining atheism to a committed theist is like trying to explain the stark qualitative difference between Mozart and the Beastie Boys to a deaf person. Their minds are closed to the very capacity to treat godlessness as a genuine article.

    I don’t think “committed” is quite the right word. I have had conversations with rather definite theists who nonetheless had a good grasp of reason and academic conventions, and with whom I could communicate. But then, being thinking people, they all already knew the very basics of what atheists believe.
    I have run across the sort of theist you appear to have in mind, and I’m not sure what to call them. Neither “fundamentalist” not “fanatic” quite fits the bill either, nor “trippy”, though what they say tends to be really, really bizzare.

  12. Larry Moran:

    I guess atheism is such an evil thing that some people will avoid the word like the plague, even if they are atheists.

    Not me. I would prefer not to be associated with the intolerant and yes, irrational, behaviour of some atheists. But I belive that God doesn’t exist, and thus atheist I am–as I use the word.
    However, not everyone uses the word to mean the same thing, and this may be part of the reason that some people avoid the word. For example, I don’t think the non-existance of God can be proved, and that probably disqualifies me as an atheist to some people. And unlike me, some people would include those who simply don’t have beliefs about God among us atheists. I don’t object to such a definition, but I don’t use it due to the possibility of mis-communication.
    And this is not to say that no beliefs about God can be disproven. Pathological cases such as omphalism (“Last Thursdayism”) notwithstanding, young earth creationism has been reasonably disproven. And the idea omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God is in serious trouble on grounds of coherency alone.

  13. A religion is more than just a belief in a god. A religion involves holy texts, rites of passage, and to varying degrees, moral edicts of right and wrong behavior, which distinguish one religion from another.
    Atheism has none of these, notwithstanding the inane anorexic warblings from the Blonde Reich. Atheists have beliefs, and morals, but those things don’t define atheism. You can have a communistic atheist or a capitalistic atheist, an atheist that believes in charity or one that doesn’t. You can even have an atheist that believes in gravity, and evolution, or one who doesn’t.
    There is no belief that defines an atheist, and that is why atheism is no more a religion than a-unicornism is.

  14. An atheist is defined as a person who doesn’t believe in the existence of god. No, not really, wrong. Lets change this definition to one that doesn’t portray an atheist in such a pejorative manner.(Must have been made up by a very small and narrow minded individual).
    Atheist[person]n. a person neither tempted, cajoled or intimidated into believing in the actuality of a non-existent entity.
    [person]n. a person who neither tempts, cajoles or intimidates someone into believing in the actuality of a non-existent entity.
    Thats much better.

  15. The original point of this thread seemed to be about communication between atheists and theists, which Stew’s definition would not help, as every theist would say it defines them as well. It may work for word games, but it wouldn’t be very useful.
    The first definition of religion that comes up on dictionary.com is:
    et of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
    Note that it says especially involving supernatural agency, but not exclusively. By this definition, atheism is a religion (or religions, to the extent that atheists could still state their beliefs regarding causation differently from one another). If you want to communicate with theists about atheism, you’ll need to keep in mind that some are holding the “you’re really just mad at God” mindset, and some aren’t.

  16. Boo,
    I gather that you didn’t like my analogy simply because it didn’t lead to the conclusion you wanted, and thus you offered a “better” one.
    Regarding dictionary definitions, I find that the American Heritage dictionary offers the following definition of religion:
    A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
    I can tell you with all honesty that I pursue the activities of running and drumming with both zeal and conscientious devotion, but I will never be able to get a tax-break from the IRS for either.
    I repeat, absolute zero is not a form of heat, atheism is not a religion. Even if we agree with something like “all religions explain the universe”, it does not logically follow that “all things that explain the universe are religions”.

  17. Moran: I guess atheism is such an evil thing that some people will avoid the word like the plague, even if they are atheists. Go figure.

    Apparently that includes RJ Eskow’s mother

    … I was raised by a non-religious person (my mother), although I also received religious training and spent time with religious relatives.

    Mom, for her part, gently corrected me when I described her as an “atheist.” She prefers “nonbeliever,” on the fair and simple premise that she just doesn’t buy what any religionists are selling. As a non-fundamentalist who doesn’t assume she can dictate for others, she fits that description perfectly.

  18. I can tell you with all honesty that I pursue the activities of running and drumming with both zeal and conscientious devotion, but I will never be able to get a tax-break from the IRS for either.

    One wonders what effect a tax break for running would have on obesity.

  19. I gather that you didn’t like my analogy simply because it didn’t lead to the conclusion you wanted, and thus you offered a “better” one.
    It’s better in terms of explaining why so many people consider atheism a religion, yes. See sentence #3 of my reply of 4:30. If you as an atheist don’t want to consider atheism a religion, then happy on ya. If you want to understand why atheism is so often considered a religion but only want to go with “theists can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t believe in God” then you’re going to be mistaken. I didn’t consider this a debate on who’s “right”, but an attempt to explain how some people think.

  20. I think the difficulty folks have is that they believe not believing in a God MUST necessitate an ideolgy or worldview that goes beyond a mere empirical claim. Sure, being an atheist might inform what I think is right and wrong in some respects (why would anyone think homosexuality or pre-marital sex, for example, was wrong unless they thought a God decreed it) but it doesn’t mean we throw out the idea of right and wrong. Just because I don’t believe what THEY say is right and wrong doesn’t mean I dont’ believe in right and wrong. My lack of a belief in God informs very few of my views. Theists humopr themselves to believe that theism informs their morality in deep and meaningful ways when in fact it bolsters only a few specific rules (that can have no other justification).

  21. “If you want to understand why atheism is so often considered a religion but only want to go with ‘theists can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t believe in God’ then you’re going to be mistaken.”
    I understand that there are theists who fully appreciate that some people — whether by misinterpretation of the world around us, essential spiritual neglect, or reasons not specified — are genuinely without a deity, just as there are atheists who insist that anyone who believes in a deity must be unintelligent; I think, however, that both of these positions are far more to the fringe than not.
    I’ve had numeorus conversations with Bible-Belters who are clearly convinced that people free of gods are resisting some sort of natural impulse. (Someone like David Heddle would describe precisely the opposite experience, as he was apparently not raised a Christian and found his god through a programmed search requiring the surmounting of natural obstacles to belief.) These people are superimposing their upbringing on others — if you’re indoctrinated to believe unconditionally in something when you’re too young to form your own opinions, as are many in the American South, then you’ll understandably be surprised when others don’t seem compelled to believe the same things. It would be completely unnatural, even impossible, for me to internalize the metaphysical ideas that millions of Americans hold, but I can rather Socratically appreciate that others were subject to different environments even if I can’t imagine exactly what the experience of growing up in one of them would have been like.

  22. You got me Boo, I should have taken my tongue from out of my cheek, before posting. You say the original intent of this thread was about communication between atheist and theist, I got some news for you my friend, the history of such communication is knee deep in non-believing, resister’s blood, and for the true believing xian, the good old days were certainly the best of times.
    Digging a little deeper into the definition of an atheist and its many connotations,(disbeliever, heathen, nihilist, blasphemer, immoral,sinful, evil, infidel)clearly illustrates the history of this word, who uses it and its true intent. What it implies I find derogatory and insulting at best. At worst it seems meant to be used to dehumanize for the sake of violent intents, as are many of the the other religious evocation I’ve listed. Why someone would call themselves an atheist is beyond me, it is as nonsensical as an African calling himself a nigger. This all only confirms the very thin line on which those who resist such nonsense walk when they raise their voices. Those who do raise it like Dawkins and Dennett and PZ, among many others take a very big risk, even to a point where I dare say, they may be in fact putting their lives at stake. Ourselves, well all we are doing here is shooting the breeze while they, these wonderfully audacious and inspiring men take all the risks.
    To mugwump, to quibble over semantics and definitions in the hope of finding some common ground is folly however, simply because their is nothing an atheist- shit I hate this word, it isn’t me- can hope to offer a convinced believer except their silence; in the near past, their neck in a noose. I say to you speak up, call them out and don’t be intimidated and especially don’t be ambivalent for the sake of unwarranted propriety because there are many marginal theists out there who are calling into question their own belief in god, but like most “atheists” they too are intimidated into silence.

  23. I understand that there are theists who fully appreciate that some people — whether by misinterpretation of the world around us, essential spiritual neglect, or reasons not specified — are genuinely without a deity, just as there are atheists who insist that anyone who believes in a deity must be unintelligent; I think, however, that both of these positions are far more to the fringe than not.
    Then either you need to get out beyond the Bible Belt or I hang out with a very unusual class of intelligent Christians.
    I got some news for you my friend, the history of such communication is knee deep in non-believing, resister’s blood, and for the true believing xian, the good old days were certainly the best of times.
    As a true believing xian, I promise I shall never let “I think I’m right and you’re wrong” proceed into “therefore I must beat you with this stick until you think like me.” Pretty much any group in a minority has a history of persecution, including even, yes, us xians (and it isn’t all history in China). Me, I’ve gotten s–t from xians for being gay and s–t from gays for being xian.

  24. Anyone who considers atheism a “religion” is simply putting the unfamiliar into comfortable terms. Sure, atheists might agree that “Any God You Can Name” is bogus, that so-called Holy Books are bunk, and that anyone who claims to speak to an imaginary deity is fooling themselves but, aside from that, there’s no infallible dogma, no rigid belief system, and no structure of worship to hold us together.
    Until we start electing Atheist Popes, nominating Atheist Saints (I vote George Carlin as our Patron Saint), and ordaining Atheist Priests, assume that atheism is what atheism implies; the complete lack of religion.

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