What is a metaphor?

I think we could use an English class refresher here. Let’s look at our trusty old Merriam-Webster, shall we? Metaphor:

: a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar

: an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else

That is to say, if something is a metaphor, it’s a metaphor for something else. You don’t get to say “that’s just a metaphor” and somehow wave away all its implications. Metaphors still communicate meaning. They just don’t do so literally; they do it by analogy.

Let’s take the creation story of Genesis 1 as a first example. In response to what astrophysics. cosmology, and evolutionary biology have shown us about the history of the universe, the solar system, and the Earth itself, many Jews and Christians have decided that Genesis 1 is to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. They acknowledge that the order of “creation” was different (plants didn’t come before the sun, etc.), the time scale was different (not days but millions or billions of years), and organisms evolved over time into the biodiversity we see today (rather than God making everything “according to their kinds” all at once). We even know that humans weren’t made spontaneously “in [God’s] own image” but rather that we evolved over millions of years from an apelike ancestor. That seems to eliminate a lot of possible metaphor fodder. So then … what is the metaphor being expressed in Genesis 1? Remember, “metaphor” isn’t a simple synonym for “a totally different statement,” as in “The six days of creation are a metaphor for the first 13.7 billion years of the universe.” Unless each “day” is purported to be symbolic of some phase in cosmology/geology/evolution (which doesn’t line up, as I’ve already mentioned), this isn’t a metaphor, it’s just incorrect.

How about a second example? More liberal sects of Abrahamic religions dismiss the extreme punishments described in their scriptures as metaphorical, not meant to be taken literally today. Not only does this sweep under the rug the fact that these punishments were taken literally by believers in the past, it also ignores the message that these verses would still contain even if read as metaphor. When your deity commands you to execute people who are “guilty” of worshiping a different god, or working on the sabbath, or having been raped, or engaging in homosexual sex … even if we grant that the death penalty itself is not literal, the metaphor clearly expressed here is that these things are all terribly, terribly bad! There are plenty of other crimes described in scriptures that do not warrant the (metaphorical?) death penalty; the obvious implication is that those actions are less bad.

Finally, a third, easy example. When Jesus refers to himself as “the good shepherd” and his followers as “the sheep,” we can tell from context that he is obviously not saying that he literally makes his living as a shepherd or that his followers are literally wooly ungulates. He means that he provides guidance and care to his “flock,” and that his followers are obedient to him as well as dependent on him for safety. See? Metaphor!

There are all sorts of other fun discussions we can get into about how one knows whether a particular verse was meant to be read metaphorically or literally. (It certainly seems that believers typically invoke metaphor not because of careful textual considerations, but simply to avoid scripture that has inconveniently been proven false by science or become repugnant through social/moral progress.) But that all has to come later in the conversation. First, if you’re going to call something a metaphor, you need to be able to articulate what you are claiming it is a metaphor for. And you need to be prepared to discuss the implications of that message, just as you might have had to discuss the literal message of the original text.

Better Angels: From souls to lives

Cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerHere’s another interesting and relevant bit from Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. (Previous post here.) In Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution,” Pinker presents a section on “Superstitious Killing: Violence against Blasphemers, Heretics, and Apostates.” (This is in contrast to superstitious killing of the “Human Sacrifice, Witchcraft, and Blood Libel” variety, which he discusses in an earlier section.)

While there’s certainly plenty of this kind of violence going on around the world — the recent gruesome murders of several secular bloggers in Bangladesh come to mind, among many other tragic events that have made headlines in the past year or so — one has to admit that it used to be much more common than it is today. The big news items concerning these violent acts are typically the work of vigilantes and are broadly condemned. True, thirteen countries do still have the death penalty for those “convicted of atheism,” and other countries do have criminal punishments concerning blasphemy or other discrimination allowed by law. Nevertheless, how did we go from a world where the torture and/or murder of nonbelievers (or different-believers) was an unremarkable, possibly even praiseworthy part of life, to the modern world where fewer and fewer countries have laws against blasphemy at all?

A brief note before the blockquote: in this section Pinker is discussing Europe and “Western Civ” specifically, but the book does look at the world as a whole. At any rate, I’m writing in the US, so these paragraphs are pretty directly applicable to the intellectual tradition I’m living in.

What made Europeans finally decide that it was all right to let their dissenting compatriots risk eternal damnation and, by their bad example, lure others to that fate? Perhaps they were exhausted by the Wars of Religion, but it’s not clear why it took thirty years to exhaust them rather than ten or twenty. One gets a sense that people started to place a higher value on human life. Part of this newfound appreciation was an emotional change: a habit of identifying with the pains and pleasures of others. And another part was an intellectual and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives. The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.

The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body. The 17th century is called the Age of Reason, an age when writers began to insist that beliefs be justified by experience and logic. That undermines dogmas about souls and salvation, and it undermines the policy of forcing people to believe unbelievable things at the point of a word (or a Judas’s Cradle).

[Italics are original; bold is mine. Also, if you’re considering a Google search for “Judas’s Cradle” now, let me just tell you first that it’s a pretty gross medieval torture device.]

I think this passage is a great articulation of two things: first, the secular humanist answer to why we care about life and human welfare even though (truly: because) we don’t believe in any gods or afterlives; and second, why it was that people were able to stomach being so cruel to each other for so long. If you really do believe that people are facing a literal forever in either ultimate bliss or ultimate torment based on their religious beliefs during this life, it seems more cruel not to do everything you possibly can to convince/coerce them to have the “correct” beliefs. What’s a bit of torture now, compared to supernaturally bad torture imposed on you for an infinite amount of time? If there’s any chance that the bit of torture now (or the threat of capital punishment, etc.) makes the person recant their heretical ways, you’ve saved their soul from infinite punishment and exchanged it for infinite reward!

Pinker goes on to describe this new skeptical, scientific mindset and how it fostered a new attitude about blasphemy. He quotes “French scholar Sebastian Castellio [who] led the charge by calling attention to the absurdity of different people being unshakably certain of the truth of their mutually incompatible beliefs”:

Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? … In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.

When we started considering the possibility that we might be wrong — even about previously unquestioned (and unquestionable) things like the will of God and the afterlife — we started looking at things through the eyes of our neighbors, and even the eyes of our enemies. We may not all have the same concerns about our “immortal souls,” but we all do value the lives we’re living right now, here on earth. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the start of a sympathetic mindset toward people we disagree with — a big step on the road to peaceful coexistence.

Why care about accuracy in scripture?

There are many points of disconnect between how atheists talk about religion and how religious people think about their own beliefs. I’ve written about various ones several times before (just a few old posts, but there are plenty others). However, while I’ve discussed contradictions and errors in scripture as reasons why I don’t believe — here’s one specifically about Christianity — I think there’s a common misunderstanding out there about why/whether that should even matter in the first place. This is what I want to address today.

I’ve often heard different parts of scripture, especially the Bible, compared by believers to eyewitnesses testifying in a court case. One thing this does is cement the usually-false idea that the authors of the text were individual, actual eyewitnesses to the events they describe, rather than groups of people finally writing down pieces of already-existing legends decades (at least) after they supposedly happened. The other thing it does is dismiss as irrelevant any discrepancies between the accounts. After all, memories are imperfect. One witness might report that the getaway car was blue and another might say it was black, but they both testify that a robbery occurred; you might not be certain of the little details but you do have decent evidence of the basic event.

But the Bible (to stick with this example) isn’t like an eyewitness in a courtroom getting a few tiny details mixed up. Yes, there are contradictions in various versions of begats and there are relatively minor differences in the narratives of the resurrection. But combine this with all of the other contradictions, not just the easiest ones to dismiss as forgetfulness: the two very different creation stories that immediately follow each other, the two different versions of the Noah’s ark story mixed up together, the assertions that don’t make sense (with each other, or with history) about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, the prophecies which Jesus is said to fulfill which don’t match the prophecies actually given earlier in the text, the unfulfilled promises that anything prayed for in Jesus’ name will be granted, the conflicting information about whether faith alone is enough to save your soul… the list goes on and on. My objection isn’t just that any one specific detail is reported in conflicting or otherwise erroneous ways; it’s the overwhelming preponderance of these contradictions that undermines the trustworthiness of the Bible as a whole.

When you add it all up, the Bible starts to look less like a witness who got flustered and misspoke, and more like that flaky acquaintance you sometimes run into at parties who’s prone to lies and exaggerations. He’s late to things or doesn’t follow through on plans, but he always has an elaborate excuse about how everything coincidentally went wrong for him at the last minute in ways outside of his control. He has a girlfriend in Canada who’s really amazing and totally into him. He claims to personally know celebrities to one-up other people’s stories, and he seems to know a relevant celebrity for every conversation. The majority of what he says is plausible enough when considered in isolation, but his claims are so convenient and you’ve caught him in enough lies at this point that you don’t take what he says seriously anymore. And when he tells you a really unlikely story, you’re even less inclined to trust him.

The thing is, supernatural claims are by their very nature extremely unlikely. “Supernatural” refers to phenomena not caused by the natural world we can measure and study with our usual tools of observation. We don’t encounter many deities on a regular basis in our everyday lives, the way we encounter buses running behind schedule, unexpectedly bad traffic, or people in long-distance relationships. Our prior probabilities for miracles are incredibly low – in fact, that’s basically what it means when people say some event was “miraculous”: very rare to the point of being unexpected. So if you tell me that Jesus returned to life after his crucifixion and then ascended to heaven, and you point to the Bible as evidence for this …I look at all the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible and I take you about as seriously as if you had just told me that you know a guy who once had dinner with Steve Jobs, Steve Buscemi, and Steve Austin, and then you point to our flaky friend from the previous paragraph.

But let’s take it one level further. Without the Bible as an authoritative document supporting the various claims of Christianity and its founding narratives, there isn’t actually any reason left to suppose the existence of the Christian god in the first place. (It goes similarly for the Qur’an and the Muslim god, for the Torah and the Jewish god, etc.) Remove that scripture from play, and you completely remove the entire premise of the belief system. This is what I’m trying to get at when I start listing contradictions: not that I’m a nitpicking perfectionist, but rather that the purported evidence for religious belief is so unreliable that I can’t even follow it to step 1 of believing.

Better Angels: Religious hypocrisy

Cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerI’ve recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, via a recommendation from Adam Lee (and subsequent enthusiastic endorsement from my husband). In it, Pinker lays out the evidence that, although it might feel like the modern world is worse than ever, violence has been on the decline for centuries and we’re living in the most peaceful time in human history. It’s a rather long read but a worthy one — its length is because it’s so thorough. Filled with historical data examined from many angles, supplemented by explanations from evolutionary biology and neuroscience, it makes a very compelling case (though not without controversy).

At any rate, it is not my intention to review the book in detail here. In the four years since it was published, plenty of others have taken care of that. Rather, I want to highlight a few of Pinker’s elegantly-worded insights which I found particularly relevant to our usual topics.

Let’s start with this pair of disclaimers from Chapter 1. After recounting many of the atrocities in the Tanakh/Old Testament, Pinker writes:

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

And later in the chapter, after discussing the martyrs and torture customs of early Christianity:

Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t,  given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

[Italics are original.]

I’m often bewildered and frustrated by these apparent incongruities in religious beliefs. When I point out particularly appalling selections from scripture to religious folks, thinking that I’m making the case that the scripture is not a good source of ideal morality — or when I point out deeply egregious behavior in a religion’s past (or present), thinking I’m making the case that even these extremely devout believers were clearly not inspired by any benevolent deity — the discussion always goes nowhere. The religious person I’m talking to handwaves it away with “metaphor,” or “free will,” or “it was a different time” — or my favorite, “I’ll have to ask my [religious leader] about that and get back to you.” (They never do.) I can’t quite get them to make the connection between their religion’s tradition/history and the current beliefs they purport to hold.

But Pinker’s angle here makes it possible for me to rest a bit easier. Of course people don’t see a conflict between all that bad stuff and their religious beliefs: they’re in totally separate mental boxes! It must seem bizarre to them that I would bring one thing up, and then transition to the other as though some kind of logical relationship was involved. Additionally, and honestly, I do share Pinker’s gratitude for this. The compartmentalization of religion from everyday behavior has greatly improved the quality of life in modern societies. I would much rather live in a world where religious people ignored all the nasty bits of their faiths than in a world where they adhered to every jot and tittle (as it were).

Naturally, I would like it even more if believers could go that one next step, see the logical problems, and reject faith itself as an antiquated and unreliable means of truth-finding. But in the meantime, my religious friends, from the bottom of my heart … thank you for being hypocrites.

I’m back again! I missed you!

Yes, I’m actually coming back to blogging. I’m writing this in July but holding on to it until I have a couple weeks’ posts in the queue. Hopefully that buffer will allow me to keep up a consistent posting schedule.

In my last post, I was highlighting what had changed for the atheist movement between 2008 and 2013. So, now, what’s changed for me in the last year and a half? I’ve moved, started a new job … I think I’m even starting to get the hang of this “being an adult” thing.

Due to a variety of factors, I don’t come face-to-face with religion as often as I did a few years ago. That dulled the atheist-blogging itch for me for a while. But I’m also in a new place with fewer close friends (so far) to have deep conversations with, and it eventually felt like it was time to resurrect the blog and put some of my ideas out there again. I miss the community feel of being an active blogger, even one with a very tiny blog and a small number of commenters who disagree with me at least as often as not. :) I’ll still keep things mostly about religious belief/nonbelief and reflections on life as an atheist, with the customary side of science and evidence/reason-based inquiry into other topics including current events.

My plan is is to aim for posts on Mondays and Thursdays, with the occasional secular morality post on a Sunday when I have a good idea for one. I hope to see you around in the comments! Also, I’m on Twitter most days lately, so feel free to say hello there too.

Look how far we’ve come

This is a set of three posts I wrote back in September and October of 2008, for another blog I used to write at (which no longer exists). As 2013 draws to a close, I thought it would be neat to look back on where (in my view, at least) the atheist movement stood five years ago compared to where it stands today. I’m going to let these paragraphs speak for themselves, for the most part, but I do want to remind you of the Reason Rally, Sunday Assembly, Women in Secularism, and African Americans for Humanism. As bleak as things may look from time to time, frankly, I’m really proud of how far we’ve come.

Anyway, let’s hop in our time machine and go back to late 2008…

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I said in an earlier post that I planned to do a bit of brainstorming on what we as skeptical and/or atheist bloggers ought to be doing with our time, if we’re not rehashing the old skeptical and/or atheist classics. (Forgive me if I conflate atheism and skepticism a bit in this post. In my experience around the blogosphere, the two respective groups of bloggers overlap quite a lot, and their overall objectives are very closely aligned, so for all intents and purposes of this entry they are the same.) Here is what I’ve thought of since then.

My primary inclination is to suggest that we include a larger range of issues within the skeptical canon. Instead of just writing about alternative medicine or alien sightings, we can find some other aspects of life to be skeptical about as well. We can question claims made in advertising, or critique the methods in academic papers. We can point out when politicians promote blatantly false ideas. Anything with facts is worthy of a skeptic’s attention. If you’re writing a skeptical blog, rather than just being a skeptic while blogging, I understand an inclination to stick with the standard sorts of debunking. As for the rest of us, though, there are topics we can shift towards so as not to be quite as redundant.

Straight-up activism is certainly a good idea as well. If we assume, as seems to be the case, that most people reading skeptical or atheist blogs are themselves skeptics or atheists, this could be a very effective way of organizing. Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist has recently tapped into this on behalf of Kay Hagan, a candidate for North Carolina state senate who got attacked for planning to meet with an atheist organization. There are lots of ways that a skeptical or atheist viewpoint is relevant to politics, and if you want to create real change in society in the direction of that viewpoint, you should work to elect people you believe represent it and vote out of office those who are counterproductive. In addition to just blogging about John McCain’s comments about a link between vaccines and autism, we should be protesting about it at his speaking events. (Maybe use your blog to assemble protesters.) In addition to just writing about false advertising claims made for alternative medicine, call on your local district attorney to prosecute chiropractors and crystal healers and homeopaths in your area when they make unsubstantiated claims of healing. (Maybe use your blog to distribute a template letter to send to the DA’s office.) There’s plenty of work to be done.

Finally, there’s the question of unity as a group. There’s a lot of talk about the “atheist community” or the “skeptical movement” and what its goals are. It’s difficult to have a movement or a coherent set of group goals without some infrastructure. As much as I’m wary of the election of an atheist pope or some such central authority of a group based on thinking for yourself, I think these organizations have a place at least insofar as lobbying and publicity are concerned. Rather than have people seeing one dude here or there interviewed on the local news, or have a legislator receiving an occasional letter from individual constituents, we want to present a stronger message. A spokesperson on TV saying he represents so many millions of people looks a lot more compelling. Many groups of this sort already exist, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the National Center for Science Education, the Skeptics Society, and the Secular Coalition for America. (There are of course many others; this is just a sampling.) Joining and/or donating to these groups will make them more effective at publicizing skeptical and secular perspectives.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but not forever. I have a few other ideas still percolating, and I’ll post again about them soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think about these ideas — if they’re good, crazy, infeasible, irrelevant… whatever.

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Following up on my first list of ideas, here are some more thoughts I have on what skeptics, atheists, and skeptical and/or atheist bloggers can do in order to add something new and repeat ourselves less. If you’re here via the Skeptics’ Circle #95 link to the earlier list, welcome! (And if you haven’t read the current Skeptics’ Circle, you’re welcome here too, but you should go check it out!)

The issue of community seems like the elephant in the room, which is why I want to focus on it now. We talk about the skeptical movement or the atheist community — but what are those? I feel like a shared respect for critical thinking is not enough to fuel a social organization. For a group focused on faith, it makes a bit more sense to have, well, a congregation. There are holy words to be studied and dogmas to be memorized; there are inner doubts requiring the support (or pressure, depending on how you see it) of a peer group to assuage them. I have a hard time imagining an atheist group meeting — what do you talk about there?

However absurd, I think we ought to try to foster these communities, since one real benefit to being part of a religious group is the fellowship and friendship it offers. It’s good for that to be available without having to profess beliefs in the literal truth of fairy tales and magic. So, we need to have something for those groups to do. That’s one topic for blogging I’d like to see more about. If you’re part of one of these organizations, what do you do? Even if you’re not, what do you think would make a good meeting? Do you play Trivial Pursuit? Watch movies like The Core and pick them apart MST3K-style? Do you organize a lecture series? (Who do you invite?) Tell us what works and what doesn’t, or what would get you to show up versus what would get you to unsubscribe from the mailing list. On a related note, I also like how the Skepchick blog makes use of the opportunity to advertise meet-ups.

We also need to have some open dialogue about how to make these groups what we collectively want them to be. I’ve already seen a bit of writing about how to make skeptical groups more inclusive, and how (or, whether) to reach out to demographics that are underrepresented without reason in most skeptics’ organizations, but I think more people should get involved in the discussion. A few good examples, in my opinion, can be found in this pro and this contra opinion about recruiting women into skeptical organizations, as well as this post on bringing people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences into the fold. I’m sure that topics that are not specifically related to diversity, but are more generally about recruiting and publicity successes and failures, would be well-received too.

I’m planning on writing one more installment in this series, on how to be most effective at reaching out to non-skeptics and getting our message across. In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if you think I make sense or if you think I’m a lunatic.

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In editions #1 and #2 of this series, I explained some ways I think atheist and/or skeptical bloggers can make and keep themselves relevant and useful. This is my last intended installment (at least, in such a formal sense), and I intend to use it to talk about getting the word out and educating the public. After all, the one good thing about having so many near-identical blog posts about Bigfoot, or about intelligent design, or whatever else, is that when someone searches the internet for “Bigfoot” or “intelligent design” their likelihood of finding a skeptical site instead of a credulous one is increased. Marginally, of course. Messing with Google rankings is a slow and dismal process. The goal, though, is an important one: making sure the public has an opportunity (and a meaningful probability) of hearing a skeptical perspective.

Perhaps the way to get better search traffic is something more along the lines of linking the word Expelled to the site Expelled Exposed when writing about Ben Stein’s movie. True, the traffic goes somewhere else, not our blogs (one reason I suspect it might be tempting for every blogger to write their own posts on these topics) — but if a good explanation has already been written with expertise, we should make a practice of linking to it when relevant, rather than wasting time and energy reinventing the wheel. I could imagine a pretty slick sidebar add-on or widget with a headline like, “There’s no evidence for:” and a (scrolling?) list of links beneath it, including whichever things you wanted to debunk.

With all that time we save linking to preexisting well-written skeptical essays, I’m sure we can come up with lots of other worthwhile discussion about how to more effectively express the value of a scientific mindset and a respect for evidence. Remember, lots of people aren’t on the internet as often as we are, and most people aren’t changing their mind because they read one snarky blog. They’re forming their opinions about science and evidence out there in the real world, so we should talk about and work towards taking our advocacy there.

I read several interesting posts a couple weeks ago by Steven Novella about how to improve science education, science textbooks, and support for science teachers. It’s clear just from the comments there that not everyone agrees with his opinions (although, in very large part, I do) but at any rate, it’s surely a conversation we ought to be having. Skeptics can make a great contribution to science education, in some cases by being great teachers or involved parents, but also just as regular, not-directly-related citizens, going to speak at a school board meeting or writing letters to local lawmakers. The education doesn’t just happen in school buildings, of course. Maybe we should be going door-to-door. (I know I linked a comic there, but in all seriousness, I love that idea.) Maybe we should be passing out flyers on the sidewalk in front of the Creation Museum or the Discovery Institute. These educational toys are a great example of thinking outside of the box about this issue. Both the strategies we should to get our message out and the content of our message are worth some discussion on our blogs.

As usual, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this in the comments. More importantly though, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought if you have a blog of your own.

Apologetics and apologies

This is a post I wrote back on January 30, 2009, for another blog I used to write at (which no longer exists). Some of the references are a bit dated, but the ideas are as true as ever, and I thought the content would likely be interesting to NFQ readers.

I’ve always been into etymology and linguistics. I love knowing where words come from, and how all the little nuances in connotation are related to previous forms of the word or previous meanings. In second grade, during a unit about food groups and nutrition, the teacher asked if there were any questions, and I raised my hand and said: “Why is a tomato called a tomato?” The teacher looked puzzled, and said, “That’s an interesting question, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. I’m only looking for questions about the food pyramid.” I nodded seriously and thought I understood, but two seconds later my hand was up in the air again: “Why is a cucumber called a cucumber?”

I suppose it makes sense, then, that today I am fixated on the meaning of the word “apologetics,” in the religious context. Lately, apologist Lee Strobel has been answering readers’ questions over at Friendly Atheist (parts one, two, three) and Martin has been answering Lee’s questions for atheists at The Atheist Experience (parts one and two). A lot of the dialogue, while good and useful, seems kind of old-hat to me, and though I considered it I couldn’t get excited about answering Lee’s questions myself or about questioning/refuting his answers to atheists. I am hung up on people calling themselves “apologists,” though. What does that really mean?

The reason my mind is twisted around this question is because the word is clearly related to apologize, apologetic, and apology. In conventional usage, these mean: to say you’re sorry, how sorry you feel, and the statement of sorriness itself. Are all these Christians really sorry about their faith, sorry about how Christians treat non-Christians, sorry about all the bigotry and violence? Are they expressing regrets about their religion? No, in general they are not (or at least, that’s not their point). Usually they’re doing the exact opposite.

The word apology comes from the Greek apo- meaning “from, off, away from” and logos meaning “word, speech.” Apologos means “account” or “story,” while apologeisthai means “to speak in one’s defense” or simply “to give an account,” and apologia refers to the defense itself. The original sense of apologizing, it seems, was justifying and explaining oneself or one’s actions. The OED says that to be apologetic is to be vindicatory! It wasn’t until 1594 that apologizing was first recorded meaning something like we typically imagine today, and it didn’t enter common usage until the 18th century.

On the one hand, being apologetic means expressing regrets and admitting guilt. Simultaneously, though, it means defending one’s ideas or behavior in order to seek vindication. This difference is more than a dash of nuance. They’re actually opposite things.

It’s nice to know that my confusion was not completely unfounded, but I still feel intellectually uneasy about this. Do Christian apologists continue to call themselves that because it’s traditional, even though most people aren’t used to hearing the word “apology” in that sense? Do they think it makes them sound kinder and gentler? That was the picture it originally painted for me. I thought that apologetics would be the inclusive, interfaith outreach activities. Oh-ho, that is incorrect. I mean, I’m glad they don’t use a more confrontational-sounding vocabulary (I’m looking at you, Campus Crusade for Christ), but I do wonder if it isn’t a bit disingenuous.

(One last question: how did that happen to our language? My only guess is that the meanings do sort of overlap in the case of an apology in the style of William Carlos Williams… in other words, here is what I did wrong, but here is why I did it and why it seemed right at the time.)

Rooting for the team

This is a slightly modified version of a post I wrote back on November 1, 2009, for another blog I used to write at (which no longer exists). Some of the references are a bit dated, but the ideas are as true as ever, and I thought the content would likely be interesting to NFQ readers.

Are you registered with a particular political party because you agree with their platform? Or do you agree with their platform because you’re a member of that party?

Do you follow a particular religion because you agree with its teachings and its characterization of the world? Or do you agree with its teachings because you’re a follower of that religion?

Is your goal to find ideas that you agree with, or to make your team the winning team?

This post is inspired by several things I’ve noticed lately. Students wearing T-shirts that look like university sports fan gear but turn out to be promoting their religious student group. Pundits on TV talking about how to reform the Republican party’s image, or how to make the GOP more appealing to young people or to non-white people. The Catholic church trying to entice some Anglicans back into Catholicism. And of course, Democratic senators more willing to gut their health care plan in exchange for an extra vote or two than they are to advocate for and explain their original plan.

There’s nothing particularly logical about people’s allegiances to sports teams, and that’s okay. Maybe you root for a team because they represent your city, or a city you used to live in, or a city you wish you lived in. This is completely arbitrary, though at least it makes some intuitive sense. But plenty of people don’t root for their “home team,” opting instead to support the one with better stats and more success. Others like cheering for the underdog and deliberately pick a team with a history of failures. There are plenty of even more arbitrary reasons for picking your favorite team. I used to love the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies solely because I liked their logos the best. (I was about 9, and I liked teal and purple. What can I say?)

Arbitrariness is okay in choosing a sports team to root for, though, because they don’t matter. Sorry, Yankees and Phillies fans, but it’s pure entertainment, with no actual ramifications.  That’s why I think it’s so pernicious when people treat their other associations in life as though they were sports teams.

Political parties are alliances of people whose core values and ideas are similar enough that they feel they can cooperate to create the best policies for the country. There’s nothing magical about them. There’s no pledge you’re forced to take when you register as a member of one party that you have to support their platform forever and ever, even if you change your mind. The way it’s supposed to work is, you make up your mind about your political philosophy and then you try find a party you’re willing to ally yourself with. And perhaps you don’t find one. That’s okay too.

As for religion, it’s a bit more complicated. Obviously my perspective is that we should all be searching for truth, and we shouldn’t be afraid to abandon a belief system if we find it to be false. Also obviously, though, most religions teach that there is something “magical about them,” and that you have to believe things that seem like falsehoods or you are committing a grave sin. Still, if your religious beliefs mandate that you accept that pi is exactly 3 or that ancient people sailed from the Middle East to the Americas (twice!) or that… no, I don’t know how to sum this up in a single phrase…. Anyway, my point is that hopefully there’s some line at which most people would say, “This religion cannot be true, and I will leave it to go look for a true one now.” (…And perhaps you don’t find one. That’s okay too.) Plenty of people do go on personal religious quests, and convert to new religions sometimes multiple times. I’m sure I’m not alone in my assessment that this is an important question to answer for oneself.

The real goal—in both these cases—is to pin down the truth about the way the world works and the way it ought to work. It’s not about cheering as loudly as possible for whatever interpretation of things you happened to hear first; that won’t lead us to a better society in any sense. If your team has good ideas, those ideas should be all the promotion you need. If people aren’t interested in your ideas, don’t look only to marketing some kind of “team spirit.” Sure, that’s useful to get people’s attention at first, but what you really need are better ways of explaining your ideas. Or perhaps it’s the ideas themselves that need a makeover.

Case study: Kim Jong-Il

The North Korean dictatorship has a decades-long tradition of supernatural legends surrounding its leaders. Here are a few notable “facts” (according to the personality cult/government propaganda machine) about the previous ruler, Kim Jong-il. Note that all these things were recorded during Kim Jong-il’s life or immediately after his death, by people who had met him or at least could have met him. We have these stories about him in their original form, unchanged by later revision. They refer to real locations and other real people. Decide for yourself: are those good reasons to believe these claims about the man?

Miraculous birth

[According] to official North Korean accounts, he was born in a log cabin at his father’s guerrilla base on North Korea’s highest mountain, Mt Paektu, in February 1942. The event was reportedly marked by a double rainbow and a bright star in the sky. [BBC]

[North Korean] reports claim his birth were heralded by a swallow and caused winter to change to spring, a star to illuminate the sky and rainbows to spontaneously appear. [Herald Sun]

Other records indicate that Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia in 1941, not on Mount Paektu in the numerologically-convenient 1942. But being born on the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula, at a military camp where his father was fighting the Japanese, is a much more exciting story than being born in a small Soviet fishing village where his father was serving in the Red Army. This is to say nothing of the omens, miraculous weather-changing, and signs in the sky.

Incredible skills

The first time he bowled, Kim Jong-il scored a perfect 300, according to North Korean media. Similarly, in his first-ever round of golf, he had five hole-in one holes for 38-under par round. [Christian Science Monitor]

Note also that Kim’s seventeen bodyguards were witnesses to the game and all vouched for the truth of that golf score. Aren’t you convinced?

Supernatural death

The account of his death was just as mythic. His obituary in state media called him the “illustrious commander born of heaven,” and on Wednesday, KCNA said a Manchurian crane spotted in the city of Hamhung circled a statue of Kim Il Sung for hours before dropping its head and taking off toward Pyongyang. The crane is a traditional Korean symbol of longevity. [Christian Science Monitor]

Huge crowds turned out apparently to mourn the dictator’s death, despite the indifferent brutality of the regime. Must’ve been a pretty … incredible guy, huh?

Are we doomed?

The Apologetics 315 blog quotes William Lane Craig:

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.

A lot of religious people seem to think this must be what life as an atheist would be like: dreary, depressing, hopeless, and/or terrifying. Perhaps for them, with their lifetimes full of indoctrination that that’s what it should feel like, it would. But I don’t think it has to be that way.

For one thing, what are “man and the universe” doomed to if there aren’t any gods? One might well point out that, if (most versions of) the Christian god existed, the majority of humanity is doomed by God himself to be tortured in hell for an eternity. No Christian god, no eternal punishment — which is a big win. (Remember, according to several denominations’ interpretation, Revelation says only 144,000 people get saved on Judgment Day. Total. From all people who ever lived. So this would be a lot of folks getting spared infinite fire and brimstone.)

I guess what Craig is saying is, we’re doomed to die, and the universe is doomed to die too. Well, as far as we know, the universe doesn’t have feelings or even self-awareness, and we have no basis on which to presume what the universe’s state preferences might be if it could possibly have them, so I’m not concerned about the universe reaching thermodynamic equilibrium. But yes. People eventually die. Life stops, and then (as far as we know) you don’t experience anything anymore. I am not crushed by this realization. There’s no reason we should be disappointed to be denied immortality, any more than we should be disappointed to be denied the ability to turn invisible or to perform telekinesis.

Craig doesn’t seem to consider those other losses to be a crushing blow, because he hasn’t been steeped in a belief system that presumes them to be real. If you’ve been living your whole life in a dreamland where people can be immortal if only they believe hard enough (and clap their hands!), then the shock of reality could be pretty painful. This is certainly a challenge atheists face when discussing religion with theists. But lots of atheists used to be theists, and they got through this shockwave eventually. In time, one realizes that just because an idea feels sad doesn’t make it not true, and truth is the most important feature — I would say, the only important feature — when deciding whether or not to believe something.

After getting through that phase, though, one can imagine a godless universe from a different perspective. True, we see no “ultimate significance” to each human life in the way that a religious person, believing each person to be a tool of their god/s in some cosmic play or battle, would see it. But this doesn’t mean a life has no personal significance, or that there is nothing worthwhile to be done while one is alive. On the contrary, as an atheist I can’t just listen to some boilerplate lesson on the way to behave and then turn off my brain and follow robotically, so I grapple with these questions about the right way to live seriously and on a daily basis. I think this kind of reflection-guided life, compared to a religious life, is actually more fulfilling and more meaningful. All the more so when you factor in the reality that we will die someday, and we have to figure out what to do with our limited time here on earth.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t often feel like life is absurd. Certainly, I think that to say the experience of being a self-aware nugget of supernova ejecta is “absurd” is an understatement. But the absurdity doesn’t mean I’m “doomed.” It means I have an amazing opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of it, rather than do like William Lane Craig suggests he would in my place: just pout about some contradictory and/or terrifyingly repugnant fairy tales not actually being true.