Operating On The Assumption
I think this may be a bit of a tangent, but it's something related which I've been giving consideration to recently.
As said the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: "For all anyone knows, nothing is. Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only what which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions. What do you assume?"
I think that many theists are not simply concluding that there are gods, but that they are actually operating on the assumption that there are.
On the one hand, this situation makes communication a bit more frustrating, because discussions with these theists will run aground on the fact that you're starting from entirely different premises and ending up with an apples-and-oranges situation.
On the other hand, I think there is less intellectual culpability involved in operating from theism as an axiom rather than a proposition: As long as the system which the theist builds up for themself based on that key assumption in conjunction with their other assumptions is self-consistent, they're behaving with as much integrity as I feel I can ask of someone.
Personally, I have more admiration for the theist who can start from any grounds, with or without the theistic assumption, and go on to build up a self-consistent and honest theistic belief, because I see that as requiring more thought and consideration to get to the same point, but I find both approaches to be justifiably tenable, even if not convincing or persuasive.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
To: Bryant Adams
Subject: Re: Is_Rational_Doubt_Weaker_Than_Emotion-Based_Doubt?_9326
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 2001 20:40:43-0000
As for the quip in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I am reminded of the allegedly true story of a former solipsist, a student, who, after having recovered from that viewpoint, watched in horror as one of the younger students began to take that philosophy as the basis for living. Fearing that the younger student would soon take his life (as our hero almost had), he enticed the younger fellow into the woods and pinned his neck to a tree with a pitchfork and left him there overnight. The authorities found out and prosecuted our hero for kidnapping and torture. If I remember the story correctly, he was able to prevail by explaining the situation as he saw it, and by apologizing that his hasty and admittedly crude move was, in his opinion, his best option for saving the young fellow from certain demise. (If I remember where I read this story, I'll tack that information on and send it your way.)
Regarding your statement that we are dealing with apples and oranges, I couldn't agree with you more. This goes not only for the theism versus atheism axis but also goes within the realms of theism -- one end thinking it's blasphemy to call oneself God (the more busybody elements within transcendent monotheism) and another thinking it tantamount to blasphemy not to recognize that one is God (a potential in certain pantheistic systems).
My current working definition of atheist revolves around the idea that we atheists have yet to be given a valid reason for assenting to any religious creed -- or the very idea of theism. This makes atheism the default condition of the human, with the creed added later. The atheist, in this case, simply hasn't added the creed.
Most theists, though, learn theism at a very young age -- young enough that they don't remember starting out as atheists. Such theists usually learn to parrot a claim "a God exists" and to assert to others that this is what they believe. But do such assertions describe what we traditionally think of as a belief?
Here's some food for thought: Theodore M. Drange, positing what he calls "the mumbo-jumbo theory of some religious language," suggests that this does not fit any definition of belief because such theists cannot describe for you the basis for their so-called faith. What they think is belief is nothing more than empty sounds organized to appear, to the listener, to be a statement of faith. While I suspect that most people do not ponder the meaning of their creeds, I do think most theists have at least a vague picture in their minds of what they're saying. Many have even learned to "parrot" (according to this model) extremely complex arguments to justify their claims.
I'm not sure how far to go with Drange's model. I bring it up only because your letter reminded me of his idea, which he described in an appendix of his book, Nonbelief and Evil. I certainly don't go as far as it appears in my June, 1999, column, "The Mumbo-Jumbo Theory," where I described it and, in a careless stroke of the keyboard, made it seem as if I dogmatically hold this opinion and apply it to all theists: I don't see it this way at all; this was just careless writing on my part, attempting to fit several ideas within a specific amount of space. I do think Drange's idea accounts, in part, for some of the rhetoric we hear in Parliament and on Capitol Hill (as does the likelihood that more than a few of these politicians are lying through their teeth). However, I think his idea is worthy of consideration.
[I will post your letter in the file containing the Forum question, and will post the letter with my response as a separate letter, with links back and forth. However, I am way behind, so this posting may not take place for a while. So, if you'd like to continue this dialogue and bounce a few ideas back and forth, feel free to do so. I always respond to my mail, though I don't always post the material as quickly as I'd like.]
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Why you choose not to kill is a philosophical question, not a statistical one.
I agree on that point. My explanation for why I don't kill certainly isn't because no other atheist kills (or at least is clever enough not to get caught). The matter of checking into the statistical information is so that, following my own explanation, I can ask if their reason for not killing is, in light of the evidence, supportably a better reason. I.e.: People who don't kill because they work out for themselves it is wrong aren't represented in prisons. Those who don't kill because they're told not to make up a substantial portion of prison populations.
Why they would ask could be simple curiosity, but an almost unseen and unspoken bigotry underlies their question.
I'd distinguish between the bigotry of willful ignorance and the bigotry of inherent ignorance. Someone with no understanding of electricity would be inherently ignorant of how (magical means aside) you could instantaneously speak to someone on the other side of the world, and if they were to ask "How can you do that without magic?", I do not find that form of bigotry offensive, and simply focus on the curiosity. In the case of someone who has grown up in an electrically powered culture and chooses to believe electricity is a nonsense word, those who don't ask, but state "You can't do that without magic", then I'm apt to start frowning.
In my particular case, they see I don't kill, they know I don't believe, and they don't have a background which would prepare them for easily grasping why those two aren't mutually exclusive, so they ask. Here I believe it's a matter of inherent, and not willful, ignorance, and so I do not feel justified in being bothered by the inherent bigotry.
I like to turn it around and throw it back at them: What does the Christian religion have that is not obtainable from other sources? Since you are an
Two sides of the same coin ... or the same side of two coins ... something like that. Part of what I'm trying to do is give a demonstration of something which they presume is particular to theism which, as it would turn out, is not explainable only by invocation of divinity.
Also no fair defining morality as loyalty (obedience) to God regardless of the good or bad one does apart from
In such situations, I ask what term they wish to describe one who behaves in a moral manner without reference to the cause for their moral behavior. This, however, has not come up as a problem, because although we haven't nailed down a strict definition of morality (or wrong or right or evil or yadda yadda...) I am not seeing the term be used in a sense applicable only to theists.
but would like to see this study done again -- with many more safeguards placed into it than a simple questionnaire sent to prisoners.
Among other things: What is your current religious viewpoint? How long have you held this view? What was your viewpoint at the time when you committed the act which sent you to prison? What views have you held at any point?
Hmm, that'd be another interesting one -- what proportion of prisoners have held only one religious positions? how many have held a few? how many could earn spectacular frequent flier miles between their beliefs?
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