Mythology and the suspension of (dis)belief

I just recently saw the movie Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio.  I thought it was good, overall.  There were a few times when I winced because the pseudo-scientific explanations for how the world of the movie operated hurt my brain.  But I put it aside; I allowed myself the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie on its own merits.  I allowed myself to be absorbed by the mythology of the film, in order to enjoy the narrative, characters, resolutions, etc.  And then I enjoyed the movie.

Then I started thinking about mythology.  I started to think how that suspension of disbelief, that acceptance of the mythology of the world I was watching, felt familiar to me.  And then it struck me while I was in the shower (of course; why do such thoughts always seem to hit me in the shower?).

See, I’ve thought before that worldviews; the set of assumptions, beliefs, and (hopefully tentative) conclusions which underlie our navigation of the world, are made up of mythologies.  Each of us have lenses (metaphorically speaking) with which we see the world; we often see very different worlds than those with different lenses.  Stepping into someone else’s worldview will result in lack of understanding, feeling out-of-place, or possibly offended.

Then it occurred to me that in order to step into someone else’s world, one would need to suspend their disbelief.  Further, they would have to first suspend their own belief, for a little while.  They would have to try and take off their lenses and try on the lenses of another, in order to understand the world; to accept the slightly different world which is presented to them.

It is much like going to the movies.

I remember when I was first fascinated by religion, I would enter into situations such as church discussion groups, lectures, etc and I would try and lift my cultural assumptions in order to try and understand how they saw the same event.  See, I studied anthropology as an undergrad, where we learned how to be good ethnologists.  In order to understand cultures different than our own, we had to be able to become open, observant, and to, well, suspend our own worldviews as much as we could.

And the better we became at being aware of our own worldview, the better ethnologists we could become, right?  The better we know what our own lenses do with our perceptions (our biases), the better we can identify how another bias might skew the theoretical objective reality that we are supposed to be sharing.  (This makes me want to comment about the problems that this would bring up for an inter-subjective reality, which I prefer to the idea of an objective reality…but I shall resist the tangent).

So, back to the worldviews of others….

For a time, I was able to see the beauty, the inspiration, the enticement of the worlds I would visit.  I could understand the draw of the love of Christ, understand the greatness of Allah, see the wisdom of the Buddha.  I was able to comprehend, if only superficially and perhaps only as a simulacrum, why people had faith; why they maintained religiosity.  Yes, my dear reader, I was once a faitheist, an accommodationist even, even while I had always been an atheist.

But I never accepted the worldview.  I never became part of it.  I watched it, with interest (and the appropriate disinterest at times) that accompanied my genuine desire to understand, but never accepted it as true.  I couldn’t accept it as true, even when I saw it as beautiful, profound, or insightful.

I was able to enjoy the show.

This leads me to wonder; how often do theists do this?

How often do theists try to see the world through another religion’s eyes? How often do they really adopt skeptical glasses?  I know Lee Strobel claims to do this, but I’m skeptical of this claim, for many reasons.

The Outsider Test for Faith deals with a related point, and I suggest that all theists consider this test for themselves.

But something has changed for me over the last several years.  My genuine desire to understand has not changed, so what has? I no longer can comprehend how a person can continue to wear the glasses of the mythology of religion–I’m thinking specifically of Christianity but not exclusively–with the world as I see it around me.  I do not claim that the world I see it is the TRUTH or that my worldview is superior (although it may be), but I have learned enough, been exposed to enough skepticism, and have thought about it enough to dismiss faith out-of-hand.

I no longer can respect faith.  I can understand why people are stuck there, but not how they can remain to be stuck there with all that the world has to offer in terms of information, contrasting mythologies, etc.

This will remain a point of reflection for some time, and perhaps it is time for another episode of an atheist in the pews.  (See part 2, as well).  Perhaps I can regain some of the appreciation of religion.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps that was an idealist’s dream that died with the cynicism that often accompanies growing up.  Perhaps m more recent feeling, that the supposed beauty of religion is really hidden de-humanizing emotional traps, will prevail.

Time shall tell….

A challenge for ‘skeptics’

So, in recent months the issue of skepticism and atheism has come up a few times.  It didn’t start here, but I’ll trace some of the narrative from there.  I replied with my own post here, which led to some conversation with people here in the Atlanta skeptical community, and the issue died down a little, at least in the blogosphere.

Then this post hit skepchick the other day.

Matt Dillahunty responded, again, and here we are.

The issue here seems simple.  I understand that skeptics believe that there are more pressing issues than this game of “nit-picking” and “semantics,” but that is not the point.

I also understand that there is a point in that we need to focus on common ground in order to build a community of people who want to help confront anti-science and combat charlatans.

But, within the skeptical community, isn’t skepticism the common ground? Isn’t the skeptical tool-set the basis for the community? Since when did not criticizing religious beliefs (specifically faith, IMO) become part of the common ground for so many in the community? I understand that what is meant here is to not cause divisions within the community, and this is important for SOME reasons, but should it trump skepticism itself?

Why is the issue of atheism so divisive in the skeptical community?

Because theists exist within the skeptical community, and they are not comfortable having their beliefs criticized.  It’s the exact same reason why atheists are still demonized, even by other atheists, within the larger cultural conversation.  Skepticism is having the same argument as the rest of us; affirmative atheists are dicks.

So? What if pro-psychics existed in that same community? What if they demanded that there views were beyond skepticism?  What if they whined and moaned about divisiveness? Sure, we would be allowed to criticize them, but when we criticize faith even a little we have to tone it down, use kid words and gloves, and certainly don’t challenge the label of ‘skeptic’ for anyone not being skeptical.

The essential question is whether the belief in any gods can stand up to skeptical scrutiny. The idea that it is outside the purview of skepticism is related to the issue, within scientific and atheist communities, of whether science and religion are overlapping or not (you know, Gould’s NOMA).

If science (the primary tool of a skeptic) cannot address religion, faith, etc, then perhaps a theist could get away with calling themselves a skeptic.  But what about the null-hypothesis? What about the idea, within skepticism, that without evidence for something, lack of belief is considered to be the rational position?  We don’t say that we have proved that psychic powers don’t exist, we point out the lack of evidence that it does.  Same with god.

But, further, what if science CAN address religion, faith, etc?  Well, I believe it can, despite what Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott have argued (and I like Massimo and Eugenie personally, so don’t say I’m being a dick to them, please).  I believe that the claims of religion are testable, scientifically.

True, if one defines God as being transcendent or somehow beyond empirical verification, then science cannot test this being (if that term is applicable here) directly.  But this ‘God’ is said to have effects, and those can be tested.  Further, the historical, philosophical, and sociological aspects of religion and faith can be tested (and have) to the lack of satisfaction for the hypothesis.

But I’m digressing.

The bottom line is whether the ‘skeptic’ theist is being consistent in believing in a god.  Is their belief justified after applying the tools of skepticism? And further, are they deserving of special exceptionism within the skeptical community out of a desire to not cause in-fighting? Would a skeptical community accept, into their community, someone who were working against the evils of religious groups but who accepted psychics as real with the same vigor?

I’ve seen theists proudly speaking at skeptical events (Laverne Knight-West at the Atlanta Skepticamp this year as an example), and they are often loudly applauded for their skepticism, incomplete as it may be.  In the case of the Skepticamp speaker, when she was challenged on whether her skepticism might contradict her faith, she simply rattled out the old canard that she has other things to worry about.

That’s. Not. The. Point.

I’m not asking all of the skeptics out there to worry about, do anything about, or even care about atheism.  Hell, if you don’t really care why are you arguing so hard against my criticism? I’m asking them if they were to apply skepticism to theism, even if just once for fun, would they conclude that theism is a good solid skeptical position?

Let’s stop talking about common grounds, divisiveness, etc in this issue, because that’s not the point.  The point is that many in the skeptical community are creating a rift between themselves and atheists who feel like skeptics are accommodating religion in inconsistent ways.  It is inconsistent because the merit of theism is no greater than that of psychics, homeopathy, or anti-vaccination.  The difference is that people’s religions are more emotionally tied to them, and so they don’t tend to let skeptical tools near those beliefs.

That’s a weakness of those particular skeptics, and the desire for common grounds and working together should not trump the unifying ground of these communities; skepticism.  If people run away from skepticism because their beliefs are challenged, perhaps they aren’t ready for skepticism except where it does not really challenge them.

It’s easy to apply skepticism to UFO’s, psychics, and anti-vax, especially if these may have been things accepted with little to no emotional attachment.  What is difficult is applying skepticism to things that really matter to us, deep down.  If you don’t want to apply skepticism there, then that is not a strength to be applauded, it is another, larger, hurdle, to overcome.

Point of View

I have thought many times, over the years, about points of view, or perspective even.   One of my favorite thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, has been called by many a ‘perspectivist,’ and I think that this is a fair description of his style.   Essentially, Nietzsche seems to be interested in shoving around our perspectives on issues so that we can see other points of view, usually with the goal to start to see the issue as from above, or a transcendent point of view.  He did like the metaphor of living upon a mountain, descending to try and show us what he has learned while living up above.

An arrogant metaphor, perhaps, but perhaps true nonetheless.

And perspective is a complex issue, especially when it comes to looking at issues from different frames.  In recent discussions with some rather conservative-minded people, it is clear that we simply see different things in different ways.  The ways to come to some understanding are difficult, and perhaps worthy (if possible).  There have been attempts to analyze such differences (here’s one by George Lakoff), and certainly the “culture wars” discussed over the last 10 years and more have left many niches for many other explanations for how differently we see the world.

But today I want to address something a bit simpler than that; I want to address a video that I watched a couple of days ago that struck me as odd.

It is this video:

Is this inspirational or cautionary?

Could this video be played, unedited, in front of a Christian congregation and then an atheist audience and be seen in very different ways?

I think so.

The creator of this video, The Thinking Atheist, may be aware of this duality, and may have created the video with that duality in mind.  It is an example of many things that many Christians and many atheists will look at and see very differently.  It is not unlike my reaction to hearing sermons, when I visit churches.  I’m generally appalled by what others find powerfully inspirational.  I find the basic theology of Christianity disgusting, inhuman, and am thus unable to see how others find it beautiful, let alone true.

(This is not to say that truth is never ugly).

That is, it is not only factually incorrect, from my point of view, it’s perverse!  Even if it were true; if the God of the Bible were real, I could not worship Him.  I could not praise a story that was so absurd, poisonous, and wretched.  I see it very differently, apparently, than Christians do.  But now not only do I not see the crucifixion as a sacrifice, but I see it as shockingly absurd.  It is clear that my perspective has shifted on this issue, and it has happened over the last few years.

Let me step back for a moment here, and catch my breath.  See, Christianity was not always perverse to me.  In fact, I used to find it sort of interesting, fascinating even.  The narrative of the sacrificial son and the redemption was never actually inspiring, but I saw it as at least artful.  What changed?

I’m not sure. This will have to remain a point for further thought, I think.

I would love to hear comments about how things such as this video could bee seen very differently by different people.

Carnival of the Godless

Well, I have not posted so much recently.  You know, life happens and stuff.  So, I decided that I would play host to a bunch of other people’s work to make up for it.  I will, as will not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, add a little commentary here and there.

Let’s start with the very first submission I received, from Arizona Atheist.  This blogger has recently underwent a back-an-forth with a non-atheist blogger concerning the topic of whether atheism and communism are linked.  It is clear that communism had more at it’s foundation than atheism, although atheism was an important factor in communist ideology.  The submitted post is apparently the last in the tit-for-tat, as not only has the interlocutor not responded, but the blog post that Arizona Atheist was posting in response to has disappeared.

(As a side-note, I too have had inter-blog conversations, such as this one and another one where the fellow blogger deleted the original post I criticized, so I feel your frustration Arizona Atheist)

The 360 Degree Skeptic is all around these days, it seems.  On of of his travels, he came upon one of those oh-so-entertaining end of days pamphlets.  360’s submission is a short deconstruction of one such pamphlet, noting the common generality and vagueness that infests such literature.  So, 360, who was first with the Sunday Sacrilege thing, you or PZ?

Now, I’ve never lived with Mormons.  And since I have spent most of my life in Philadelphia and now Atlanta, Mormons are not prominent in my world.  But when you do live with Mormons all around you (in other words, you live in Utah), you will tend to focus your godlessness on this particular theological backdrop.

Now, we’ve all heard the old quote which claims that if you “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” but perhaps ol’ Joe Smith was indeed onto something with making them wait for it until they’re eight, as Living With Mormons argues.  He ends this particular post with a morose rhetorical proposition which I have heard before, and which may illuminate the problem of valuing the afterlife over this life.  And while I know some believers have followed such advise in the past, I doubt that most believers recognize the devaluing of life that ideas such as heaven encompass.

Speaking of Mormons, apparently they throw parties!  And yet, Boho will not be attending this one, unfortunately.  I’ll add that I also prefer not to go to parties that don’t serve beer.

William Lane Graig is considered by many to be one of the best Christian apologists and debate interlocutors.  Craig is fond of the kalam cosmological argument, and it appears that ex-apologist might be fond of Craig…or maybe not; I’ll let you decide.  ex-apologist gives us a handy resource for looking at two of the major problems with Craig’s analysis.

I’ll also link, for those interested, another resource that I (I know, shameless…) have contributed to at  If you don’t know about it, it is maintained by those godless in Austin who have a wonderful TV show and podcast.

Atheist Revolution asks us to evaluate the role of patriotism in our efforts to support secularity in American government.  Should the atheist community, or at least the part of it that focuses on separation of church and state issues, try to create a “take back America” campaign like the religious right has?

I don’t know, but I will link a video of a lecture by Chris Eisgruber, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values.  His perspective on religion and American Constitutional law is quite different than than of those I hear from at, say, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, but not hostile to it either.  Fairness, is the question, says Eisgruber.

The Uncredible HallQ submits to us that believing in God in the face of Thor and Santa are not all that dissimilar.  He seems to advocate that we might need to maintain a more intimate relationship with believers to better understand apologetics, despite his inability to conceive how they believe.

Cubik’s Rube is frustrated, understandably.  I’m also tired of the old canard that atheists oppress Christians by simply making it known that we exist.  By using the recently de-faced billboard in North Carolina (the one which simply said “One Nation Indivisible”) as a launching pad, the frustrating claim of oppression is deconstructed as a screaming insecurity and persecution complex.

Yes, never am I more oppressive and offensive to believers then when I let people know I’m an atheist and that I exist.

OK, let’s take a minute to calm down after that rant, and see if maybe we can’t find some awareness.  Now, I became aware that my skeptical nature perked up in reading this post, but I’ll agree with the claim that

Awareness does not require you to believe, or to have faith, or to be strong, or diligent, or to be spiritual.

Let’s try it.

OK, fine.  But before you start thinking this is some woo, keep in mind that Buddhism, which seems to be what’s being presented to us here, can be seen as fundamentally atheistic, even if not always in line with the metaphysical naturalism that many atheists (such as me) espouse.

I don’t know what to say about this.  Granted, I’m no English major of any kind, and literature has not always been my thing (although I did write a science fiction novel).  But is this godless? I see shades of Postmodernism here, and methinks postmodernism sounds like someone suffering from a mild form of aphasia while stoned.  But godless? You decide.

Well, that was a fun carnival, and I hope you won some good prizes at the land the ‘cuffs on the Pope game we had back there.  Personally, I think that game was rigged, as it seems almost impossible to get those damned things to fit right.

n any case, I’ll simply wish you all well, and keep posting godless propaganda for our eventual atheistic utopia that will be serving beer.  And not that crap that people call beer (Miller Lite, anyone?), but real beer (ah, for a Rodenbach Grand Cru…).