Tag Archives: Atheism

An Allegory on Belief

An Allegory on Belief

I know that the allegory is an often disparaged form of argument, but for me it is almost essential. The allegory creates a visual picture in the mind of an often ethereal concept, and creates a connection that allows many of us to better recall the details of the argument itself. I’m all about visuals and connections, and allegories – good ones, mind you – are often helpful to me in understanding an intangible concept. As such, I often find myself creating allegories to strengthen my understandings, and this is one I thought of this morning that seemed worthy of sharing.

We all believe things, whether it is because we lack portions of knowledge (a common problem, since nobody knows everything!) or because we have a hope that would be supported by belief. Belief itself is not a problem. In fact, a belief that urges us towards better understanding or towards a positive attitude is probably a pretty good thing. What nudges belief into being a negative thing is when it is used in lieu of available knowledge, or when it is used to obscure available knowledge. Even then, it is only mildly harmful, in that it is belief held by an individual. Consequences of holding a belief in such circumstances are borne only by the person who holds them. What makes belief that replaces or represses knowledge harmful is when that belief (and the arguments for sustaining it despite contrary evidence) is spread to others. Knowledge unsought or misused can become more and more harmful the more it is spread. . .

I do many creative things, and find that the ever-expanding information about materials, uses, and techniques is sometimes even more enjoyable to discover than putting that information to use. However, as more is discovered, some older information is often found to be incorrect. This information, though, has usually been widely available and often used to teach beginners, which means that many people learned to do things poorly, which means that many people thought that they could never attain a good result, which led to many people thinking that they just couldn’t do something simple, which led to self-deprecation. “I tried, but I’m no good at it,” stops the conversation. Sometimes people will follow that statement with something more empowering; they might then talk about something in which they excel. Often it simply hangs in the air. The person who excels feels bad for reminding someone else of his or her failings. The person who has failed is reminded of her shortcomings. Any enlightenment is promptly snuffed out.
So what does this have to do with belief? Well, let me start with my allegory. (I know you were waiting with bated breath!)

I sew. I hunt for bargains. If I see something that appears to be a material I could use, and it’s a fabulous bargain, I might not worry too much about its makeup. After I get it home – and let’s assume it’s fabric for this story, although it could be nearly anything – I’ll wash it and dry it and see how it comes out. This way, I know that any chemicals that alter the appearance or hand or drape of the fabric have been taken out, and that any changes due to laundering have happened before I’ve put all the work into constructing an item. (Piece of knowledge – I know that there are chemicals used to make fabric easier to manufacture, or to make it more attractive on a sales floor. Piece of knowledge – certain fibers change during/after laundering, and even with the greatest care these changes can take place in subsequent launderings.) If I see these changes, I then need to put some more consideration into how I will use this piece.

When the laundering is done, the change the fabric has undergone might require me to treat the fabric differently. Let’s narrow it down to a single piece for this example – a shiny, stiff fabric in a lovely iridescent shade.

In the store, I see this piece, and it looks almost like a taffeta, although a bit lighter bodied. I may think it would be good for the skirt of a formal dress, and it’s 70% off and a unique color, so I buy it. There is no indication at the bargain fabric store of what it might really be, because the sale table is mixed remnants of all kinds. Once home, I pop it into the washer and dryer – formal or not, anything I make needs to be washable. The fabric comes out crazed with wrinkles, but incredibly soft and drapey. It bears little resemblance to the smooth, stiff piece I bought. (Piece of knowledge – even the stiffest shiny fabrics may come out like this, but only some can be restored to that state.) At this point, I need to decide if I’m going to find a way to work with it as is, or if I’m going to try to remove the wrinkles and/or restore some of the stiffness. If I’m being smart and thinking ahead, I’ll then take a small piece and do a burn test. The burned fabric will curl up or melt into little balls if it is an artificial fiber, but leave crumbled or flaky ash if it’s natural, a combination of these if it’s mixed. (Piece of knowledge – a low temperature iron is less likely to burn an artificial fiber, but won’t take out the wrinkles, while a high temperature iron might replace the wrinkles with a sheen on bumps like darts, folds, pleats, and seam allowances.) Before I ruin the whole piece trying to get the wrinkles out, I need to decide if the fabric can handle a temperature high enough to get the wrinkles out. If it can’t, I have the knowledge to re-imagine the fabric’s potential and use it for a different project. (Piece of knowledge – the fabric can be underlined to give it more body, or can be used in a manipulated form as it is in smaller areas than a full formal skirt. Piece of knowledge – I can also take advantage of the fabric’s properties and re-launder it in a manipulated form.)

This is an example of a set of beliefs that are challenged by knowledge, that change as more knowledge is gained, and that continue to offer hope as they changed. I believed that the fabric was shiny and stiff, and imagined it as one garment. When it came out of the dryer, I believed that I could iron out the wrinkles and imagined it as something else. When I did the burn test, and found that it was too delicate to withstand ironing, I was once again able to imagine a different purpose for it, based on my knowledge of sewing and fiber arts. My beliefs all started with a lack of knowledge (Will it come out of the wash like it went in? Will I be able to get it back to the way it was? What is this stuff made of, anyway?) and hope (imagining throughout the process all the wonderful things the fabric could become) that were changed as knowledge grew. Additionally, at no point did the beliefs cause any harm beyond increasing the amount of time and thought I had to put into using the fabric (or requiring me to go out shopping again if the project had to be done regardless and this fabric wouldn’t work for it!)

Now, how in the world could a belief in the properties of a fabric, or not knowing how a particular fabric needed to be treated or used be a harmful belief, you might ask. Well, consider if I were to love that fabric enough to open a store whose entire inventory consisted of shiny, stiff fabrics. Consider if I were to stock that store with fabrics of all different fiber contents, labeling none of them, and then advertise myself as a fabric store for fancy dress fabrics. I could even have regular fantastic sales events to draw people in. Even beginners would be tempted to try whipping up wedding dresses and prom gowns.

These beginners, though, are not going to know that some fabrics won’t withstand even the most delicate of cleanings, or behave differently from each other, or look just fine until they attempt to press the final garment. People with knowledge might bypass my store entirely, or ask for cut samples to test at home before buying, or decide the sale price makes something worth buying no matter what it turns out to be. No harm there. People who have some knowledge might decide to not clean the fabric at all, treat it very carefully, and understand that the garment might be worn only once. People with very little knowledge will know only that they have failed once again when they end up wasting time and money on an unwearable garment. Imagine, though, that the harm is even greater – the people whose knowledge is limited get no additional knowledge from me or my store, and end up believing that all shiny, stiff fabric is identical – and never try again. And moreso, they believe that their lack of success is due to personal failure, and not only learn no more but also anticipate failure so deeply that they do not try to learn any other creative art.

Belief, here, that a shiny, stiff fabric is simply that, and lack of knowledge about how to work with various types of fabric, has done a great deal of harm. People who believe that a particular type of sewing (or any sewing, indeed) is out of their realm question their abilities – might even cause others to question their own (I was thinking about making a dress, but when Mary told me all the troubles she had. . .). The sorely discouraged won’t even try flower arranging or scrapbooking, hurting not only themselves and their self-image, but the flourishing of businesses and artists in those endeavors that they’ve dismissed. Existing knowledge will not be passed along. New knowledge will be shared only by a persistent few. The set of beliefs that follow that first one, “I guess this is too hard for me;” “I’m really bad at sewing;” “I’m not creative at all;” “I suck at all that arts and crafts stuff;” “I mess up everything I do;” become more and more staunch defenders of the wall of enclosed knowledge. The beliefs do not encourage learning, do not inspire hope of anything attainable, and as they spread do so even more.

Most beliefs range between the mostly harmless, personal ones and the negative ones like those above that have consequences for only the people who have tested the waters themselves. If the beliefs are challenged and either are overridden by new knowledge or changed to accommodate new knowledge, it doesn’t mean that belief (and the hope and anticipation it might inspire) is wasteful or useless. The changed belief might even inspire better things because it compels believers to expand their horizons further.

There are people in the world who give belief far more weight than knowledge, though, and this is where the harm lies. They feel that belief must be taught to others, that any knowledge that challenges a particular belief must be denigrated or suppressed, that the belief must be held regardless of whether it eventually causes harm to individuals or weakens a society. They believe (!) that what they believe must be true because they and sometimes others believe it, and insist that as many people as possible be taught how to believe it (and how to resist learning about things that don’t outright support that belief.) Teaching a belief, teaching the unknowing how to avoid further knowledge, does worse than impede progress; it actually encourages regress.

I do not condemn belief. As I said in the beginning, belief can actually be a good thing – shoring up confidence and curiosity – or at the very least, unharmful. A people or group of people can still do great things under the banner of belief. What I condemn is the active presentation of belief as a means to stifle knowledge; I condemn the use of belief as a tool to control others; I condemn belief as a way to demean people into a particular way of behavior. I condemn belief as a substitute for knowledge.

My fabric store, FWIW, would convey not only my points of knowledge, but all the new information that would be gathered from staff and customers and media that built upon them. Each time knowledge supplanted a belief, new ones would be presented, challenged, and tested. The possibilities would never stop expanding, in part because the beliefs expanded side by side with new information, in part because the beliefs filled their need and encouraged people to keep trying and learning – new knowledge would encourage the kind of positive need a belief fulfilled until even more knowledge displaced it.

More Stuff I Forgot!

More Stuff I Forgot!

I had meant to blog this before, but it got lost in a bunch of other paperwork and junk. I came out one night after cleaning up the cat cages, and found this under my windshield. My first thought was that it was one of those annoying flyers for some “service” or another, and I got out to grab it and trash it, but then I saw what it really was:

fsm-note.jpg

Made my night.

Who the Hell Can Get Into Heaven?

Who the Hell Can Get Into Heaven?

Its pretty interesting to see how incredibly diverse and self-contradictory these suppositions can be among the various Christian sects. The Internet, of course, gives ideas that otherwise might be almost invisible a worldwide forum, and its a curious thing to see that they are all purportedly drawn from the same holy text.

Now, I had my moments of Christian religiosity during all these years, but it was always within the Congregationalist church. Heaven and Hell didnt get a lot of discussion, but it always seemed that there were a whole bunch of ways to get to the first and avoid going to the second. Heaven was a kind of vague concept, with the basic idea being that when you get there, its all good all the time. A real, honest-to-goodness eternal reward.

One of the things that got me thinking about this was a story I read once about a young man asking a wise man who gets to go to heaven? It started off with one person who was perfect and worthy, who would be miserable if his loved ones were suffering in hell, so they got to go, too, then how their misery at the suffering of their loved ones would also make heaven less perfect for him, so they got to go, too, until everyone was in heaven and nobody was in hell. It kind of made sense to me, and it seems to a lot of practicing Christians to be the same but for them, it presents a dilemma.

You see, just because someone whos guaranteed a spot in heaven loves you, you dont get a free pass. And people who are absolutely certain that heaven exists and life is an entrance exam are just as convinced that theres a hell, and anyone who doesnt follow their doctrine is going there no matter what. Obviously this could cause a problem with the eternal bliss thing, but some folks have come up with the answer:

How can we enjoy heaven with loved ones in hell?
God’s Word foretells that the Lord will wipe away all tears and sorrow for Believers –that all the things of the past, sinful world will be removed in some way. We infer from this that all memories that are painful –such as knowledge that we have family and friends who are suffering eternal damnation because of their rejection of Salvation through God’s son, JesusChrist, will be totally erased in the Heavenly dimension.A primary Scripture for this Truth is the following:
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: forthe former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)

There ya go. Youll just forget they ever existed. You wont notice the huge gaps in your memory of life on earth (which you need to remember, because youre called upon to give an accounting of it to god. . .) and you wont even know hell exists. Or will you?

That quote came from Rapture Ready, a site dedicated to the idea that a chosen few will be bodily assumed into heaven and the rest of us will be brutally hacked up and mangled by none other than Jesus Christ hisself, followed by an eternity in agony. They live for this they cant wait for nonbelievers to get their comeuppance, and pay for their sins. Ironically, a couple of weeks ago, Terry James of RR said, You unsaved folks who happen to be reading this article and think it is total nonsense, you are pure gold to this cause. Once you meet your unfortunate end, youll cry out 10 times louder from bowels of hell than a saved person who might be distracted by the glories of heaven. So. . .do the blessed souls truly enjoy listening to the screams? If they do, wouldnt they equally enjoy the screams of their loved ones? Or does the enjoyment of suffering enhance the delights of heaven only if the sufferers remain anonymous? They sound like the audience at a dogfight.

Well, that kind of chips away at the eternal bliss concept for me. If so much joy comes from the suffering of others, it doesnt sound all that appealing. But then, along comes another idea to make things even more confusing. You see, some groups hold proselytizing (oh, excuse me witnessing) above all else, and want to use hell as a threat not just to the unsaved, but to the folks who arent making their quotas. This video shows the reprehensible tactic of this particular belief group: Letter from Hell

Im assuming that if you go to heaven and feel this awful about some kid you hung out with not hearing your good news and therefore going to hell, imagine the absolute soul-crushing despair of knowing that EVERYONE YOU EVER MET and didnt witness to is burning in hell AND ITS ALL YOUR FAULT!!!! Can you imagine? Why in the world would you want to go to this place for all eternity? Im just thinking about all the times I was selling movie tickets, and the line was out the door how many thousands of people said two adults, please, paid, and left without telling me about Jesus? How many of them are going to be suffering because of that? Can you think of anything suckier than doing everything you can to get into heaven, only to find that its a neverending guilt trip?

Then again, you could always hook up with one of those sects that believes that you could do everything absolutely, perfectly right, and still miss the eternal bliss express. You dont even have to get as extreme as Westboro Baptist Church, with a god who really, really wants everyone to just die and go to hell and leave him alone, and makes you do all this stuff just to keep you out from underfoot. Theres a passage in the Bible that pretty specifically limits whos allowed in to heaven. The Jehovahs Witnesses are OK with this, accepting that only 144,000 souls will get in, and its a crap shoot whether theyll be one of them. However, theyre not reading the fine print: the book of Revelation states clearly that its 12,000 virgin men from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Id say that leaves pretty much most of us out, but thats sounding better and better the more I hear. It certainly solves the problem of feeling bad about your loved ones suffering in hell, since youll be there, too.

Of course, if I still believed in heaven, Id like to think that its the place that all good people go, regardless of their religion and/or level of devotion, and I think thats the version that many people who attended churches like the ones I did prefer that version, too. The problem is, though, that from that most liberal, love and forgiveness view of who gets to go there, all the way to the Im gonna point and laugh while you burn one, there are Biblical verses to support them. In fact, while some Christians object to the cafeteria style method of picking and choosing which verses to believe, its something even the fundamentalists and literalists have to do, because the book contradicts itself about this throughout.

So who does get to go to heaven? Youre not going to get one definitive answer from the Bible, no matter how you try. The people who are most certain about it are making it up as they go and a lot of them are not the type of person most of us would want to be with for eternity, either. After checking around and seeing some of the answers, I think the more important question is, Who would want to go to heaven?

Its good to not have to believe in this anymore. It saves a lot of time and worry. I wont be going, and it doesnt bother me a bit.

Atheist Morality

Atheist Morality

At one point, I had an idea to write a regularly-scheduled themed post. Say, once a week. I got as far as finishing one piece and jotting down ideas for several others. I was reminded of this when I typed the words “copy” and “paste” in the last post. . .if I wait until I have a series, or pressure myself to have a regular post output, none of these thoughts will ever see the light of day. So here’s the (ahem) first of what may or may not be a series, copy/pasted from my hidden MSWord files of doom. . .

Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality?

I honestly dont think that most people automatically assume that a person who doesnt worship regularly is a nihilist with no concept whatever of morality, but there are enough people on the web and in the media who do (and quite nastily, too) that it sometimes really ticks me off. Ive been meaning to write about this many, many times, but never quite put the whole thing together. This is probably going to be the first blog post you see here that actually was composed in Word, sat around fermenting for a while, and got edits and rewrites before release. Imagine that. Forethought from Mrs. Visceral herself.

Anyway, let me cogitate a bit. Its such an emotional topic that it gets very jumbled. Let me start with the basic question itself.

Atheists get their morality from the exact same places as everyone else. Family. Friends. School. TV, books, radio, and movies and the choices of and reactions to those by the people who influence our lives. By the time religion makes an actual impact on anyone, the foundation has already been laid, no matter what a fundamentalist theist would like us to believe.

Family first. From the moment were born, were watching the people around us, seeing what works to get our basic needs fulfilled, learning how important we are. Even before babies can discern features, they can recognize the people who hold them and talk to them and feed them. It takes most babies only a month to learn the power of a smile, which they learn in great part from the people who smile at them. The family teaches the child right away that if hes hungry, needs a diaper, wants some attention, etc., hell need to cry a little, cry until he gets sick and screaming, maybe laugh and make silly noises. Some children wont need to make any indications because their parents are attentive (sometimes overly so) and some will learn that its pointless because nothing will happen until the parent or caregiver is darned good and ready to feed or change or give attention. It seems simple, but it teaches us right from the beginning how much were cared for, and what we need to do to get what we want.

Once were starting to be able to influence the world around us through our mobility and language, the learning deepens. The older people around us adults, siblings, more mobile or verbal children begin teaching us every waking moment. We learn about objects. Some are ours, but we also are introduced to the idea of sharing. Some we are allowed to touch, some we are not. Things we can touch we might not be allowed to take apart or put in our mouths. We learn about people. We do something funny, and everyone laughs and pays attention to us, so we do it again and again, as long as it works. We hit, bite, or otherwise hurt someone, and we are taught in one way or another that its not acceptable. Were also working on learning how other people interact with each other through observation. The beginnings of understanding that we and the others are similar are taking hold, and in play we will imitate the real-life patterns we see around us. We may see Dad hitting Mom or Brother or Sister, and hit them ourselves, only to be hit by that person and reprimanded that hitting is not good. We begin to realize that things

are a lot more complicated than we thought! The big people might reward us for doing something they want us to do, and punish us for doing things they dont want us to do. The rewards and punishments might be the same all the time, they might be different, so we might learn that theres only one outcome, or we might learn that some things we do are better or worse than other things. We might also learn that we can get what we want by doing something specific. One child might find that all she has to do is throw herself on the floor and scream to get attention, so shell skip all the weeping and whimpering she used to do to warm up to that point and go straight to the tantrum. Another might find that a consequence is enough punishment breaking a toy means no more toy, taking too long at bedtime means no time for story. Yet another might find that the best course is to not get caught.

So before any moral lessons might be absorbed by religion, weve already learned how much or how little were valued, what actions are acceptable or not, and how to treat other people. Weve learned about manipulating our behavior to attain the results we desire.

Now come Friends and School. They both come into the picture fairly early on, and unlike attendance at a religious institution, theyre common to almost every single child, and contain a much more insistent and frequent lesson. What I mean is that each religious institution teaches a different set of lessons, while schools will try to have a more common discipline and behavior standard. School begins before the age that children have begun to feel empathy, and at the beginning edge of their ability to understand abstract concepts. Sunday School dives right into ideas with stories that are supposed to be morality tales, but public school introduces standards of behavior by coming right out and telling students what they can do, what is expected of them, and how to treat others the abstract concept of why comes later, and is easier to understand as it is applied to them personally rather than by example of a story that might or might not make sense. For the first time, were in the company of people weve never met, who arent family or family friends, who might be quite different from us, with whom we might or might not get along but have to treat respectfully anyway. Soon, these schoolmates will become friends, or not, and we will spend time with them outside of school as well as in it. We will be concerned with their opinions, their feelings toward us, our mutual enjoyment of each others company. Our opinions, interests, and behavior will be influenced by not only our contact with them, but our desire to please them and continue to be friends with them. Just as we learned at home and in the classroom, some behaviors are acceptable and some are not; and this classification may not be the same in each of these situations.

For example, lets take the child who learned to not get caught to avoid punishment at home. He might try to get away with the same thing at school, and have a teacher whos just overwhelmed or inattentive enough that he can often enough or under the right circumstances. This child is learning to refine his technique of getting what he wants while appearing to behave the way hes expected to. Another child, whose teacher creates a situation that makes this more difficult or impossible, might become resentful and overcompensate, or he might see the light and behave better for this teacher if the rewards appeal to him more than the hidden rewards hes had to get for himself so far. A parent might be an ally in one goal or another. Arguing with the teacher and supporting the child vociferously might give the child additional satisfaction of having gotten away with it. Paying no attention reinforces the idea that it doesnt matter, so it must be OK. Positive reinforcement at home for positive behavior at school might cause the child to abandon the sneaky behavior, if its the craving for attention is what had been driving it. Mix in the influence of friends to this, and the possibilities expand even further. Another child might also enjoy doing bad things and getting away with it, and the two of them will engage in this behavior together. A different friend might get angry with the child for this, whether because he opposes it or because it affects him directly, and the child may decide the friend is not important enough to change, or that the friend is valuable enough to do so. The child has learned a lesson regardless of whether hes listened to stories or parables, and regardless of promises of eternal reward or threats of eternal damnation. No matter what religion he may be exposed to, its abstract, intangible reasons for behavior have far less impact on him than the daily personal experience of cause and effect.

Now, I dont want to vilify the media or place too much importance on its influence, but it does come into play also, and not just the obvious way you might think. Its impact on our morality lies far more on how were taught to perceive it than in the medium itself. Again, from infancy, were watching how the people around us react. A child who is frequently held and read to or cuddled and sung to will associate reading and music with positive feelings. A child who is left alone in front of the TV will have a completely different feeling. The choices of what the child is exposed to are also important. After all, its the big people who pick out the books, music, TV shows, and movies. As adults, we may be able to expose ourselves to all kinds of negative ideas and images and not have them influence our behavior, but the young minds are observing and absorbing. The child who repeats words or movements from a music video that demeans women or glorifies violence wont learn whether those things are OK or not until an adult reacts. If Mom gives him a punishment for grabbing his little friends behind and grinding their hips together, hes learned that the things in the video are not necessarily things he should be emulating. If, on the other hand, he repeats the lyrics about shooting or beating or stealing, including profanity or not, and the adults laugh maybe even tell him to show it to other people, hes learning that its OK. If the adults choose to read to the child, and pick books that teach, whether its practical or moral lessons, the child learns that this knowledge garners a positive response from the parents. If the adults watch a movie with the child and are able to say, with knowledge, that this part is a good lesson, or this part is bad, allowing or prohibiting future viewings, it teaches the child critical thinking thats essential to both learning and morality. When an adult exposes a child to any medium, its a learning opportunity. If its provided without comment or its imitated and receives a positive reaction, the child is learning that what he has seen or heard is right and acceptable. If its provided and shared and talked about (even at 6 months, a child can understand far more language than youd think) then its a valuable lesson on both right and wrong.

The daily experience of living our lives and interacting with others forms our morality from the moment of birth. The foundations are laid and built upon by the results of our decisions, the consequences to our actions, the choices we make about what matters more to us. Are we willing to risk punishment to attain something we want? Do the needs and feelings of others mean enough to us to forgo our own wants? Is something that will take more time but last longer worth more than quick, fleeting gratification? Is an action or behavior thats unacceptable to the larger society OK because our smaller social circle deems it so? No matter what your religion teaches you, regardless of whether or not you believe or practice a religion, your morals come from being human and experiencing life as part of a number of different societies. The atheist gets his or her morality from the same places as everyone else, Agnostic, Christian, Hindu, Wiccan, Jewish, whatever you subscribe to. We are fine-tuning it every day were alive, with every experience we have, with every human being with whom we interact. Every person alive begins learning morality and continues to refine his or her sense of morality merely from living, and being alive is common to all of us no matter what or how we might believe.

So before you ask the question, or accuse an atheist of having no morals, consider where your own came from right from the beginning of your life. Can you say that your family, friends, school, interests and activities, and all the significant, formative moments in your life had no hand in shaping you at all? Can you dismiss all the human love youve received, all the rejection, all the interactions with others that you still remember clearly even though years and years have passed, as central to the way you think and act? Unless you can completely forget your entire life before you embraced your religion, and prove that you have had no defining, memorable experiences outside of your religious life, then youll need to stop yourself before you ask it.

The atheist got his morals from the very places that you did.