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This I Believe
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There’s agnosticism (“I don’t know”), and atheism (“I don’t believe”), but is there a special word for the aggressive and assertive disbelief in god? That’s what Penn Gillette has. From a neat-sounding NPR series where people articulate their beliefs; you can subscribe to a feed.

Update: Yow, there is a lot of blog-buzz about this piece. Track it on Technorati.

November 21, 2005 / Uncategorized

8 comments

This piece struck a nerve with a lot of folks, it seems. I definitely sat up and paid attention on my way to work this morning. So I wasn’t too surprised to see that it made MetaFilter and inspired an interesting discussion. (Was Jillette brave for taking this stand in this forum?)

I took the opportunity of the MeFi thread to link to my favorite atheistic statement of belief, from Julia Sweeney on This American Life.

I’m all for nerve striking and belief articulation and the like. This:

I don’t travel in circles where people say, “I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.” That’s just a long-winded religious way to say, “shut up,” or another two words that the FCC likes less.

I disagreed with. And in general, I thought the tone was a bit antagonistic. When I say why I believe in God–a wholely personal, subjective, belief which I cannot particularly justify or persuade, nor would I want to–I would not spend most of the time talking about what my beleif does not make me do, thereby implying that its opposite makes others do those things. But it’s a good start.

One of the conceptual (and practical) problems of atheism is that it’s virtually always defined and articulated negatively. Gilette seems to be trying to get around this problem.

“I believe there is no God” vs. “I do not believe in God” is one indication. There’s also his attempt to positively articulate the consequences and obligations of this belief: absence of extraworldly forgiveness => necessity of kindness and asking for worldly forgiveness, or the possibility that suffering is an accidental and contingent problem of history rather than a fact of the human condition.

All these are good things, and better than “I’m an atheist because I think religion is a waste of time.

All those people are fooled, and their moral positions and church histories show that their humanity is suspect too. I’m just going to think for myself, and I’ll never get fooled again.” But as Saheli shows, sometimes the logic of the argument, even as cleverly phrased as Gilette’s, falls back into an equivalent of that.

I don’t know why this is the case, but I suspect that for most of us, our default position, at least culturally, is an ontological belief in God’s existence and/or a professional faith in one of the major manifestations of religion. So when we talk about atheism, we tend to give conversion narratives — this is the junk I used to believe, then I had a series of experiences which led me to see with clear eyes — just like the early Christians did when describing their break with paganism or Judaism. At least in the West, the language of religious confession has been hard-wired into the way we think about ourselves as sojourning individuals in the world, especially but not only when we describe our experience with God. We can’t quite entirely get away.

Like Tim, I’m particularly pleased that Gillette was able to move beyond the abstractions and get to the concrete conseqences of belief and unbelief. Whether or not God exists is such a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around that too often discussion cannot be anything but circular: “I believe that God exists and that He made everything, and so I see evidence of him everywhere,” or “I don’t believe that God exists. The universe could exist without him, and so nothing in the universe could serve as evidence of his existence.”

I’m drawn in particular to Gillette’s opening observation.

Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

When we speak of god, we tend to use terms that have to be defined so broadly that they have little or no meaning. I have not the egotism to declare that God does not exist. I cannot, however, assert God’s existence in any way that distinguishes anything in the universe from the way it would be if god did not exist.

Is there love, hope, and charity in the world? Yes, and also cruelty, suffering and pain. Physics and religion both tell us that we are but a tiny part of the cosmos, and that there are forces beyond our understanding. I see nothing that demands a supernatural explanation, but I am told that the supernatural itself defies explanation.

Gillette’s point is wellm taken that we can (and must) live as moral beings, whether we face oblivion or judgement. (Actually, Gillette says we do better to simply disregard posthumous second chances, and this may well be so. God or not, the attempt to fathom the nature of eternal is hard-pressed to be anything but a waste of time.) We may not owe it to God to love our neighbor, but we certainly owe it to each other.

Don Parker says…

I’ll give another related thought to ponder: god (deliberately not capitalized because I believe there is no God) was created in the image of man. No person ever has seen what this god (or any god) looks like and I doubt that anyone has ever heard from a god in real aural terms. All who speak of a god, speak more of feelings than of words. Those who report on these feelings had by others, often use “god spoke to him/her” as a shorthand for the feelings rather than trying to explain the true expression of the one upon whom they report.

Since I believe that god is an invention of man to try to justify their need to not comprehend “chaos” in its true definition, then god had to be invented in some form easily understood by men (and women). The easiest way to describe god is to say “it looks just like we look” but that sounds egotistical. So instead, trying to be not egotistical, they say “god is egotistical and it made man look just like it looks.” Only that is not discriptive enough so let’s carry the egotism one step further and call this god a he or him. And then to make it sound not like a human invention, they capitalize the “H” to He and Him.

And, by the way, if I’m supposed to be made in the image of god, why do my nipples and penis look a whole lot more like those on my dog than on any photograph of god that ever has been shown to me. And, I ask, in that photo, what is the shape of god’s eye? What color its skin? What length its penis? How full its breasts? Whose image was the model for this god crated in the image of man?

No I believe there is no grand plan that calls for cancer, tornadoes, ship sinkings or even miscarrages. These are merely evidence of the happy coincidences of chaos at work. Death is death; its not god’s will.

Dave Brinnel says…

My favorite quote on the subject comes from the play, “Inherit the Wind”…

“God created man in his own image. Man, being a gentleman, then returned the favor.”

Throughout history, every culture has stared at the same stars; pondered the same unanswerable questions… then out of fear of the unknown, manufactured their own answers, in the form of gods. From Zeuss to Orion, Hermes to Jesus. Why must we make up answers to every question we encounter? That’s what salesmen at Best Buy do. It’s OK not to fill in every little circle on the test. You haven’t learned everything!

Life after death? What greed! Isn’t this one good enough? The odds of having it were quite against each of us. Rejoice! Must we believe that there is a more important existance… a more powerful love after death than what we feel during life? Are we so vain to assume that we, the most intelligent of the Earth’s species must also have a spot in eternity?

Here’s a very empowering belief: This is it. This is the life you get. Make the most of it because when it ends, you no longer exist. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You won’t be seeing your grandparents again. Your dead pets will not come running to greet you, and you won’t get to hear John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra perform together. I know that’s scary, but it’s useful information. Seize the day. Live and love while you’re here. And if I’m wrong? Then we’ll all get a nice little bonus when it’s over.

Big J says…

should atheist fear a life after death, after all the bible says if you dont accept god and christ, you spend an eternity in hell but thats only if its true. Its like either your arrogant in not believing in evolution or you are a souless man whoes doomed to eternal hellfire. WHAT THE HELL SHOULD I THINK?

Gurare says…

A very religious man goes out buying some groceries and takes the exact amount of money with him that he needs to get what he wants.

He takes a few hours and visites alot of stores before going back home.

On the way back from town the man realizes when feeling in his pockets that he still has money even though he bought everything he needed.

One of the stores must had made an error in counting and thus the man, (still beeing a very religious person who well knows that “thou shall not steal”) rushed back to all those stores to find out which shopkeeper made the mistake of giving money back.

It turned out to be the last shop and buying groceries took the entire afternoon instead of just a few hours but atleast the money was back with it’s rightfull owner. :).

This story really happened, it was the father of someone I know.

He told me it showed him what a religious and good person should be like in order to go to heaven.

I told him that the same had happened with me and my father on a holiday in a foreign country and that my father returned the money even though he didn’t have too and that he was an athe

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