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.

I can’t keep up

Baby Elephant in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Just a general note about some of the latest chaos in the atheist blogosphere:

I’m subscribed to a lot of atheist blogs, and I do read all of them. I haven’t been able to write much during the semester as I was adjusting to a new job and it turned out to take way more out of me than I anticipated. But I did read. I read as some came forward with stories they had been hiding out of fear, embarrassment, or shame; I read as some responded with sympathy and support and others responded with counter-accusations and insults; I was reading when names were being avoided and when (some) names were finally named. And it stressed me out, and then I would stop reading for a while. Then I would start reading again, like a moth drawn to a flame, or a rubbernecker to the sight of a car crash.

I don’t think I’m alone. It’s hard to stomach all the drama, especially given how much I do care about the atheist movement and want it to flourish. And frankly, I don’t know if I can keep up with who I’m supposed to like and who I’m supposed to dislike anymore. Over the last few months it felt like every time I turned around there was a new person I thought was friendly and cool who said something super-transphobic and refused to apologize when confronted, or a new person I thought was smart and interesting who turned out to be an enthusiastic apologist for another’s sexism and/or racism, or a new person I thought was an atheist hero who turned out to be a serial sexual harasser (or assaulter). I’m sure I didn’t catch every name that was named, and that I’ve forgotten some along the way. Not that there were an anomalously high amount, compared to what you might expect in any sizable chunk of humanity — just that in the back-and-forth posting and tweeting fray, I got kind of dizzy.

As a blogger myself I now feel kind of like that confused baby elephant trailing behind the stampede. All my friends got really upset and went somewhere, and I missed the fuss. What am I supposed to do now? Should I be unsubscribing from the “bad” blogs and Twitter feeds? Will people get the wrong idea about me and where I stand if I retweet something clever said by someone once at the epicenter of a scandal, or if I write a positive blog post about something (non-offensive and interesting) they wrote?

Well, in case it needs clarifying later: let it be known that I am confidently intolerant of intolerance (though there is nuance to this, of course), and that I believe everyone deserves basic human dignity and respect. I believe in working for social justice and I speak out against bigotry. My plan is basically to play this like being a fan of problematic media: I can like some things a person says while still acknowledging that that person has made some (possibly very serious) mistakes. RTs are not endorsements, etc. etc.

Readers: I’m only a baby elephant human being, so please be nice to me if I mess up or fail to be clear enough about this in the future. I would love to hear your perspectives on how you’re handling these atheist-movement growing pains, and I hope you’ll take me to task in the future if you think I deserve it.

Historicity “arguments”

I subscribe to this Christian apologetics blog, because I hate myself because I find it interesting to understand more about how Christians think about their faith, and because I don’t want my online reading to isolate me in a bubble of those who agree with me. Recently, they posted a link dump with a pointer to an article that promised to outline the arguments for the historicity of Jesus’s empty tomb. And you know me — I love arguments! If someone’s actually going to try to present evidence of a thing they want me to believe, I’m totally down.

So, what are all these great arguments?

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection: Well, fine. This is a side point that has nothing at all to do with whether a resurrection happened. There is one interesting bit I want to quote from this section, though:

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

While this isn’t a highlighted “argument,” it sounds like an argument to me, but it’s still a silly one. When exactly did the resurrection belief start? How public was that belief — were people shouting it in the streets or was it private? Did the establishment care at all, or were they indifferent to just another messianic cult? We need a lot more clarity before this line can be convincing. Otherwise, it sounds like something the birthers would say.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb: And what are these sources? The Bible books of Corinthians and Mark (or, some older narrative from which the book of Mark was adapted). Sorry, “someone wrote down a story in which it happened like this” doesn’t overcome the enormous weight of our prior knowledge that people don’t rise from the dead. There’s a smidgen of extra weight here because the authors could have been eyewitnesses, i.e., the texts were probably written by people who would have been alive when Jesus* was crucified. But plenty of novels are written today set in the recent past, and this obviously doesn’t mean everything in those novels is true or even likely to be true. Moreover, “multiple” sources? You just cited the Bible twice!

Lack of legendary embellishments: Yep, I would expect the story to get more elaborate over time, as more converts were won and more people’s identities centered around this story. This is not an argument for the truth of the original assertion, however. We would expect this outcome whether or not the original story was fact.

The eyewitness testimony of the women: The eyewitness testimony? The women? The so-called testimony is part of the Bible, which was not written by “the women,” and may just be made-up dialogue. The Bible doesn’t even have its story straight on how many women and which ones were there, let alone what that woman/those women reported seeing. I understand that the testimony of women wouldn’t have been highly valued in those times — but I’m also mindful of how someone looking back on our time from 2000 years in the future might interpret our society’s views of women and the value of women’s perspectives, and I’m not sure someone would sum us up much more favorably. Bottom line, I’m not convinced that the women-are-involved-zomg aspect of this story is more than a tiny tick-mark in the “possibly true” column. The scientist in me cringes at the thought of calling this evidence; it’s a suggestion at best.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb: There’s a reference here to “the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection” but neither this post nor the William Lane Craig article it links to give a specific citation I could follow. I suspect we’re just inferring the existence of some polemic because Matthew 28:11-15 sounds like it refutes some Jewish argument. In that case, we’re using a Bible story as evidence of an external source that, if it existed, would corroborate the story in the Bible. Like … seriously? And besides, given the number of times I’ve seen people “refute” strawman arguments that weren’t even being made, or build up an offhanded comment into some kind of major challenge from the opposition in order to build up their supporters’ enthusiasm, I’m not really feeling this as compelling evidence.

So … yeah. I know I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but … that was awfully disappointing. If anyone out there has actual arguments (beyond “the Bible says so” or non sequiturs) for the historical truth of just about any religious claim, let me know! I would even be open to a guest post here, so you can get the news out to my atheist subscribers.


* People were crucified in the Roman empire in that time in history, and there were also an abundance of messianic/doomsday cults among the Jews. I concede that the Jesus narrative may be “based on a true story” in the Hollywood sense, but I don’t mean to say that because some cult leader’s crucifixion might have been the starting point of Christianity that any and all statements about the life of Jesus are also true. [back]

What it’s like to be an atheist

renfairI don’t think many religious people understand what it’s like to be an atheist. They often conceive of religious belief as a quality that a person has, rather than a truth claim about reality. This is why, for example, even growing up as a nontheist UU I thought of atheism as just another kind of religious identification. (Some people are Christians, some people are Muslims, some people are atheists — just like some people are short and some people are tall, some people have dark skin and some people have pale skin, and so on.)

When you actually step out of the religious currents running through society and take a look around, you begin to realize that religions are, in fact, asserting that certain statements are true. It’s not like a hairstyle or a certain taste in music, or an immutable characteristic about a person — a religion is either true or it’s not. And it’s okay to criticize someone for believing as true things that are actually false, in a way that it would never be okay to criticize someone for having a particular hair color or for being right- or left-handed, or even for having a favorite food that’s different from yours. Being an atheist means noticing that difference, and refusing to blur the line any longer.

Once you’ve begun to see religion as a set of beliefs about reality, it starts to get pretty uncomfortable just existing in modern American society. I don’t mean to say this is debilitating or anything like that; most of the time, I get by just fine distracting myself and ignoring it. But every so often, walking down a neighborhood street and passing half a dozen churches, or finding Chick tracts littering a parking lot, or suddenly being inundated with advertising about a holiday commemorating a “virgin birth” that people actually think happened … well, life just seems surreal. Even if you have no specific objection to gathering with friends, talking about the big questions of life, and singing pretty songs. Even if you like the Christmas season. When you’re confronted with the stark truth that people actually believe all this weird stuff, as in actually think it to be the truth about the universe, it’s quite unsettling.

I used to go to a Renaissance Fair most summers, as a kid. I really liked it, and I even saved up to buy myself a simple costume. I still occasionally wear the pewter pendants I bought myself there. I remember one summer, at the Renaissance Fair with my mother, we ran into this guy — a fair employee — who looked like Mandy Patinkin when he played Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. I’m sure the period costume helped the look, but he had the hair and the mustache going on too. For whatever reason, my mom decided to approach him and tell him this observation. (I guess it was a compliment, or something she thought he’d find amusing.) Of course, as someone working for the Renaissance Fair, he couldn’t step out of character, so he was coy with us. “The princess bride? Is the queen’s daughter already betrothed?” My mom tried to say it was a movie, but only got more evasion. “Moving pictures, you say? I have not heard of one possessing such a device, even in the royal house!” For me, thirteen years old or thereabout, I was just embarrassed and trying to get my mom to leave the whole thing alone. Kind of funny in retrospect, I suppose.

But imagine — because that digression was not a random tangent — imagine that Ren Fair enthusiasts like me all talked like our friend Inigo, all the time. Imagine that we carried on our lives just like you in most ways, except that we refused to admit that it was any later than the 1500s, that we used modern technology but referred to it by archaic names or avoided acknowledging it at all. Imagine that, if pressed, we would insist that the government was a Tudor monarchy. Imagine if you couldn’t have a conversation about a movie or a basketball game with one of us, because we would keep on maintaining our stance that no such things existed. … Now, imagine that the majority of people in the country where you live, your friends and neighbors, your coworkers, just about everyone you encounter on a day-to-day basis is this disconnected from reality.

That’s exactly what it’s like being an atheist.

Sniffle, sniffle

Ugh, you guys, being sick is not cool. Being sick and not being able to just stay home from school and eat grapes while watching Sesame Street is even less cool. Work is really taking all the energy I have. See you soon, I promise.

Does this give you hope?

This is a post I wrote back on January 22, 2010, 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. Apologies for the “recycled content” … but it’s new to you, innit?

Alongside Twitter and Tumblr, we’ve also seen the proliferation of ultra-brief update sites like F My Life, Texts From Last Night, and My Life Is Average. They’re borderline-addictive to read, but a lot of the posts can be pretty depressing and/or depraved. I sometimes like to check out the sites It Made My Day and Gives Me Hope for more positive stories. IMMD makes me smile because the stories are so bizarre and funny, while GMH is more of the inspirational variety — so much so that it occasionally comes full circle around to sadness again. You know, kids with terminal cancer saying really sweet things to comfort their parents, formerly suicidal teens finding a reason to love life and finally stop cutting themselves, stories like this.

Lately GMH has been making me sad, but not quite for the usual reason. Here are a few recent, poignant examples of this depressing flavor of “inspirational.” All the bold and extra spacing is original, from the site.

Last Sunday, my dad was at a church service in Austin, TX. An obviously homeless man sat next to him in the pew.

During the offering, the man put $2 into the basket.

Selflessness GMH.

That’s right, we’re supposed to be hopeful about humanity because a man who really couldn’t afford it somehow scraped together some money to give to a church. Aren’t churches supposed to be helping the poor, not taking their money? I don’t know what it means to be “obviously homeless,” but I assume it means he appeared unwashed, with ragged or dirty clothes, and maybe seemed noticeably in need of medical or dental care. I’m pretty sure he could have put those couple dollars to better use at a laundromat, or Goodwill, or a grocery store. What’s the great thing the church is going to do with it — buy some new hymnals? Send some solar-powered audio Bibles to Haiti? Best case scenario, they put it towards a soup kitchen, a shelter, or other resources for the neediest in society. I think Jesus would want this man to keep his two dollars, this week and every week, at least until he is able to get his own life back on track. (Or for him to give away as much money to the church as possible, so God would make him rich. Either way.)

Today, the pastor of my church announced that his 19-year-old daughter was pregnant out of wed-lock.

As the pastor’s wife began to cry, a little boy ran up to her and hugged her saying, “It’s okay! Babies are the best thing in the world, no matter what.” GMH

I’m sorry, no. It does not give me hope to think that this 19-year-old girl — just getting started with adulthood and figuring out what life she wants for herself — is going to be putting her life on hold indefinitely to raise a child she is probably nowhere near ready to care for, even if she had a stable partner to help, which it sounds like she doesn’t. It does not give me hope to think of the child who will grow up around grandparents (and presumably also parent/s) who were sorrowful and ashamed when they anticipated the baby’s birth, rather than proud and eager to move forward into a new and exciting part of their lives. Without further details, I am also left to assume that this girl probably missed out on anything resembling comprehensive sex education, at home or at school, all in the name of purity and devoutness. I am left to assume that if she had been more informed about how babies are made and not made, this whole thing could have been avoided. Look, I like babies too. Babies are great. But at some point we have to admit that being pregnant is not an awesome development for every female person at every point in time. Pretending otherwise is just sad.

I recently rung up a young boy and his mother. When he saw me at the register, wearing a hijab, he grinned broadly at me. As they were walking away afterwards, he tugged on his mom’s sleeve and said,

“Did you see her, ma? She’s gorgeous! I bet that’s why she’s all covered up.”


This anecdote fails to give me hope for precisely the reason it seems to give hope to others: this little boy is exactly right. I wouldn’t stop a woman from wearing a hijab if she really wanted to; I appreciate the importance of cultural history and tradition in some people’s lives. For some, the hijab is basically just a form of traditional dress, so who cares about where it came from. But it is important to remember that the origins of the tradition are pretty suspicious from a gender equality standpoint. There is no clear commandment in the Koran that women must cover themselves in precisely this way. The commonly cited passages sound more like suggestions, and are not specific. An ultimately more revealing passage can be found in the hadiths: “O Allah’s Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.” Yes, by request rather than by divine order, these women (well, at least Muhammad’s wives) must be covered (in some way or other) because they are getting nonzero attention from men, and this ought to be stopped. That is the philosophy behind this tradition. So yes, it would seem that you are all covered up because you are too gorgeous to be seen by men around you. It’s nice that a little boy thought you looked pretty even though you were dressed differently than most of the people he saw in your store, but his comment is so emblematic of a larger problem that it doesn’t give me hope, it takes some of my hope away.

Before discussing a matter, study it well

In my post Sunrise, sunset, which I wrote back in March 2011, I discussed Jewish law pertaining to the definition of a day in the polar regions. My main point was that it’s strange indeed to imagine that an omniscient deity who created the entire universe would not have laid down clear laws which would continue to be applicable as the Jewish people began to live outside the Levant. This kind of oversight, I argued, strongly suggests that Jewish rules and traditions were not created by a god but rather created by an ancient tribe of people limited in their knowledge of the world.

Before launching into that argument I made a brief, almost parenthetical remark that

[the] task of interpreting ancient rules to modern circumstances is interesting and absurd in its own right. I will never cease to be amazed that Orthodox Jews consider it “work” to drive a car (or be driven) to synagogue and therefore walk several miles on foot instead, or that they really do consider electricity to “count” as fire.

Recently, commenter Daniel Nuriyev wrote,

This article shows the extent of your ignorance in the Jewish religion. Before discussing a matter, study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way. Imagine a person completely ignorant in physics ridiculing some unobvious laws of physics, such as Einstein’s concepts of time and space.
For example you say that you don’t understand how driving is work. If before writing this you had tried to find this out, you might have found out the following: the Jewish Law forbids 39 specific types of ‘melakha’. The word melakha may mean ‘craft’. One of the melakhoth is lighting fire. When you start a car, you ignite fire. A deeper question is why it is so important not to light fire in any form or way but this question is deeper and requires preparation. LInear Algebra cannot be explained without a few years of intensive math study.

(I haven’t edited the comment in any way, but copied it verbatim from what Daniel posted.)

It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I’m not nearly as ignorant of Jewish law as Daniel presumes. I am aware that various kinds of work are prohibited on the sabbath, because it is supposed to be a holy day of rest, the same way that God supposedly rested after spending six days creating the world. In clarifying what counts as non-resting activities, halachic teachings hold that these specific forms of “creation” or “craft” meet the definition, by analogy to what God was up to before resting. My comment was primarily in reference to the fact that this list itself is bizarre. I sympathize with the idea of designating a traditional rest day (or two!) for the community, but who needs to rest after, for example, erasing? The “craft” definition of work doesn’t match up with actual exertion; see: walking instead of driving. Also, turning a key which closes a circuit through a spark plug, igniting a pressurized gas inside a complex mechanical assembly, is very technically “lighting a fire” but looks nothing like the labor-intensive process of fire-starting several thousand years ago. This is all pedantry and seems to miss the point, even if you grant the theological premises.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the underlying idea in Daniel’s comment: that before I discuss a religious practice, I should “study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way.” Is this really the best way of examining beliefs that we don’t share?

Surely, you need to learn what you’re actually trying to talk about, before you talk about it. It’d be ridiculous for me to discuss Judaism and critique its key teachings without learning anything beyond the name of the religion. I should read some reputable sources, talk to some actual Jews about what they think and how they practice, and so on.

But it sounds more like Daniel’s saying I don’t have the right to criticize Judaism if I haven’t studied in a yeshiva, and a sufficiently orthodox one at that. (An interesting problem, because many Orthodox Jews wouldn’t permit a woman like me to study the Torah and Talmud in the same way that men do. Does that mean I can never criticize Judaism? Convenient.) It also seems strange to eliminate all other Jewish traditions besides the severest orthodoxy as not Jewish enough to be valuable here. I have a number of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish friends and extended family members who would be insulted by this insinuation.

Moreover, it’d be impossible for me to study Judaism “in the orthodox way” right now because I don’t believe it. The only way for me to meet Daniel’s standard of being sufficiently informed to criticize a religion is basically for me to first convert to that religion. I hope it’s clear on face why this is an unfair and unnecessary standard — but it is one held by many religious people, of a wide variety of theological stripes. Yet by presuming from the start that religious teachings are to be devoutly followed, we’re restricting the set of conceivable discussions. An outsider, informed by the facts but not extensively trained — or, one might say, indoctrinated — in orthodoxy, can offer much more objective insights. You need to be able to question, to think outside the box, in order to have a discussion that’s more than a regurgitation.

I suppose Daniel and I agree that before discussing a matter, one should study it well. We just disagree on what that good study should actually entail.

Defensive reactions

While reading an excerpt of David McAfee’s Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer over at Friendly Atheist (a loooong time ago), I came across this bit that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about:

When you tell someone — even if it is a family member or close friend — that you don’t believe in their God, a defensive reaction isn’t surprising. Oftentimes, you’re telling them that everything they’ve ever known, everything their parents and their childhood idols ever told them, is wrong.

McAfee goes on to give realistic, insightful advice about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it’s not in any way my intention to take issue with that. But I do think the fact that a defensive reaction is so expected does itself say something interesting about this whole religion issue.

Let’s consider, as we so often do, an analogy. Everyone I’ve ever known my whole life has always told me that when I drop something, it will fall down. I have always believed that gravity is real, and while my understanding of gravity has grown slightly more refined as I’ve gotten older (to incorporate special circumstances such as one’s apparent weightlessness while in orbit or in a zero-g aircraft, which I have been taught to interpret as the subject falling at the same rate as their environment), it has always been a fundamental part of my understanding of the world around me. I honestly don’t know how I would conceive of the physical world and its phenomena without gravity existing. Now let’s suppose someone comes to me and says, “NFQ, I have to tell you something: I don’t believe in gravity. I just don’t think it’s real.” How am I likely to react?

I might laugh, or if I were able to keep it together, stifle some laughter. I would certainly be surprised. I would also be sad that this person’s scientific literacy is so poor. But would I get defensive about it? I highly doubt that. What would I even be defensive about? Someone else’s ignorance, which doesn’t impugn me in the slightest? The idea hardly makes sense. Even if someone wanted to argue with me, to try to convince me to stop “believing in gravity,” I wouldn’t be offended — mostly just amused, and eventually bored.

When I think about religious beliefs, I tend to think of them as statements of fact about how reality works. Like gravity — you do this, then this will happen; or, this is a driving force underlying the shape of the universe as we experience it. If a religious person truly believes their own doctrines in that way, I don’t think they would be defensive about them. Someone else’s disbelief would simply seem bizarre and/or sad. Yet most people do become defensive when you challenge their religious beliefs, or even just state that you don’t happen to share those beliefs. It seems to me, then, that most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

I’m going to say that again, because it’s really strange: Most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

But … if a religious person doesn’t think their own religious doctrines are true statements, what on earth does it mean to be a believer?