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Your host, PM 'Papa' Carpenter


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December 07, 2018


Oh boy are we ever going to disagree about this one. I thought Sullivan’s piece began as drivel and didn’t get any better. In fact it just became pretentious nonsense. I could make the same argument he makes but use sports teams as that which gives meaning to life. There are no religion genes that distinguish us from animals. This is healing crystal grade hoo hah pulled from his fundament. We did not evolve to know anything. That is not how evolution works. Sully asserts science cannot answer questions that religion can but then admits that it can’t either. Science of course never pretended to have all the answers but it sure can tell you what is nonsense.

Sullivan has described in some detail the failings of religion so one has to ask how this religious drive came to evolve in all people everywhere. (Except of course where it doesn’t.) I would further observe that anyone who goes through their entire life contemplating their future death probably has a treatable disorder. That the vast majority of people don’t do any such thing is surely evident to everyone not so afflicted. That many people give not a second’s consideration of their mortality is enshrined annually and ironically in the Darwin Awards.

The only thing I learned from Sullivan’s piece was that he possesses a truly profound ignorance about science. That was something I suspected from his dalliance with eugenics. Sullivan just produced was probably the worse written case of pareidolia I have ever read.

Pareidolia I should add is something that did evolve in human beings precisely because it confers a survival advantage.

As an atheist I would quibble a bit with your total rejection of Sullivan's ideas here. It does seem that we are in the beginning of a post-Christian age, and I must admit that I feel some regret in seeing the powerful influence of Christian ideals disappearing. Were Shakespeare et al. not speaking out of that influence? Was there not in Christianity something that did encourage a reach for the Good among the mass of its adherents? Will there be no negative repercussions from the gradual loss of that ideal? Is the golden rule really a universal impulse?

What more do you need than the golden rule, rooted in empathy, that you should treat people as you would like to be treated? I was raised as a Catholic and evolved, after considerable thought, to atheism. I could have easily elected agnosticism and have no trouble at all respecting those who do or those who elect to follow any religion if that religion is guided by the Golden Rule. I personally did not stop because I could see little use for the type of god one is left with, omnipotent but uncaring or omnipotent and actually malevolent. Freed of Catholic dogma I am no longer required to believe as an article of faith that most of the human race, women, are intellectually and spiritually inferior to men. Nor have I felt the urge to commit mayhem and murder unconstrained by the fear of divine retribution.

I would say the most offensive thing about Sullivan’s screed is his assumption that his particular religion is the thread by which liberal democracy hangs. How convenient for him is that?

I didn't get any significant new insight from Sullivan's article either.

Isn't is possible that there is in fact no elusive "meaning" to life? --an unknowable something that eludes us but that we yearn to know? I believe that the more that science advances, the more we may come to understand about our humanity --about our motivations, our limitations, our possibilities.

Why not embrace the fervor of politics or of science instead of the fervor of religion? I don't see a problem with this. The more we embrace the potentially knowable, the more likely we will one day find answers that sustain us, and that satisfy us.

I'm agnostic. I mostly gave up thinking about ultimate meaning, existence of a higher being, etc. Instead I look to us mere mortals to make the most of our existence --the existence that might have no meaning whatsoever in the cosmic sense but that which we should nonetheless embrace and pursue with fervor -- to improve the human condition through science, politics, and whatever tools are at our disposal.

Unlike Sullivan, I don't look for explanations of our human failures in such as the loss or transference of Christian ideals. And Sullivan is just one more in a long line of historical hand-wringers who lament a former and better time when humans adhered to higher "ideals."
His explanations and lamentations seem like an unsatisfactory explanation and excuse to me. If anything we need increased political fervor --so that we begin getting things right, and that much sooner.

I read PM's post just as it went up. I assumed that within a few hours, there would be tens of comments here criticizing Sullivan's take and PMs reading of it.

I, like you, thought Sullivan's thought piece was turgid drivel ... one of the worst things I've read in a long time. Sullivan lost me in his very first sentences: "Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being." Um, no. Not even a little bit. Not even if you grant him his rather absurd definition of religion: "a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods)." In fact, I function perfectly well and seem to make it from one day to the next, even though I'm fully aware that there is no underlying Truth, no objective, solid, real, meaning in the universe. It's subjectivity, all the way down.

Then he immediately goes onto assert "Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion." This is some Orwellian-grade meaning-manipulation right here. Atheism is religion. Religion is atheism. Cats are dogs. What? Argument is easy if you get to define all the terms anyway you find convenient. The thing goes on and on, and it's all quite terrible.

So I was surprised that there wasn't more of a pile on. Just you. Thanks for the taking the time to set the record straight. I enjoyed your excellent response.

Yes, there is an answer to the meaning of life. 42, to be exact.

And that more or less encapsulates my own views on the subject. I also recognize PM’s criticisms of Sullivan’s piece. I just found nothing redeeming in Sullivan’s work. The term humble bragging seem to be just what Sullivan was aiming for. His yearning for higher meaning becomes a moral higher plane.

I read a piece at Vox not long ago by a vegan who wrote about the harsh mocking reception vegans often get despite, as she said, never having met a fellow Vegan who was in any way offensive. She speculated that anti-vegan sentiment originated in the self-knowledge of the inferior moral position in which non-vegan people who mocked vegans found themselves. I could not resist pointing out she was the obnoxious vegan she claimed she had never met. The only difference between the young lady, whose name escapes me, and Sullivan is that Sullivan knows he is being offensive.

Don’t know if you have delved into these debates before but we are right on the cusp of the God of the Gaps debate. I don’t claim a morally superior position by the by. I assert there isn’t a morally superior position.

I'm willing to call atheism a religion of sorts. It, like Christianity, is "facts" where there are no facts to be had.

But even as an agnostic, I have my catechism; my statement of belief.

"I'm here.
You're here.
The Universe is here.
That's really interesting.
Golden rule.

"Delved into" might not be the phrase I would use to describe how much I've researched this subject but like most, I've participated in the "does God exist?" debate many times. As for the God of the Gaps debate, which term I had to look up, I'd say this: Whether or not there was a "prime mover" who began and created it all, matters not. It seems quite irrelevant to me. What we possess, including all present scientific knowledge, and all of it to come, is what we need to work with. In other words, if a God exists, then he is working through us as, for example, the doctor who saves lives. It is up to us. Therefore, I believe in SAR's catechism below.

I’ve long appreciated this quote, and I say this as a religious person myself: “Religions are like penises. It’s fine if you have one. It’s even fine for you to be proud of it. But please don’t whip it out in public. And for the love of God, please don’t shove it down my child’s throat!”

Thank the gods I'm an atheist. It was a long process getting to this point in my life being raised Catholic but I got here. The more I tried to understand how a god could exist or try to understand religion the less sense any of it made. I don't consider atheism a religion at all but to those who insist on calling it that, I would say that it's the easiest religion in the world. You literally just have to do absolutely nothing.

Unfortunately, this is close to what many of Trumps’ supporters believe:

"Men like Madison and Jefferson were moved by the ideals of Christianity, and wanted the United States to reflect those values as a Christian nation," continued Mortensen, referring to the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison, considered by many historians to be an atheist, and Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment-era thinker who rejected the divinity of Christ and was in France at the time the document was written. "The words on the page speak for themselves."

To quote someone who I'm sure is a favorite of yours:

"When all tradition and inherited institutions and norms are abolished, there is only raw power to occupy the vacuum."---Russell Kirk

Can one really assume that the human race as a whole thinks as you do with regard to the Golden Rule and the avoidance of mayhem and murder?

People do like to have something to believe in to give meaning and purpose to their lives. My contention is that Sullivan is right. Every person that I know has a religion whether or not they recognise it as such and it's certainly not traditional adherence to a belief in God. It's the passion that drives them every day, sometimes political, environmental, concerns, financial, or just being obsessed with social media, trivia, accumulating stuff and keeping up with the Jones'.

Generally, it might be observed that life was kinder and less selfish when people were in thrall to religious belief. I believe that in the USA most people profess to believe in God whereas in Europe, most don't. And whereas your presidents have to present as believers, in Europe that same faith is a liability. We don't do religion. Ask Tony Blair.

L Reeves, it's very possible that there is no meaning to life apart from what we bring to it. Many people do embrace, with quite a degree of fervour, their politics and their science but we still have many questions that science can't come close to answering. There's no doubt in my mind that climate scientists, climate deniers, politicians, bankers, and celebrity followers on Instagram and Facebook (to mention just a few) have their own religion. They just don't call it that.

I was brought up Catholic as well as many of the readers here. Never believed in it, not really, but I know many who do. Funnily enough, as I get older my certainty that it's a whole load of rubbish designed to keep people in line and behaving, is becoming less clear. The doubts are setting in.

To those people who were not raised in religious families it's probably easier because you don't have to actively reject a load of dogma, or doctrine, depending how you see this stuff. There is guilt attached to saying no, that is not right, because the small element of doubt never goes away.

Lapsed Catholics are the worst for going overboard because they feel compelled to reject entirely and they tend to get very cross about it. Mainly because you can't erase it all. The latest incarnation of "Christianity" in the form of poor white people singing songs, chanting, and clapping is very new and different , not evolved to a stage where they accept others and limit their own proselytising strong arm tactics. Trump has tapped into them, their belief that they're better than others and most of all, their insecurity.

My best friend in the UK is an Anglican priest. She's the cleverest person that I know personally. She believes in God because she talks to him/her every day and he talks back. She feels his presence at all times. Many times we've had the conversation that I've tried and never heard a word back which is most unfair. She always laughs heartily. On my death bed I'm sure I'll still be giving it a go, praying to a God that i don't believe in, in the sure knowledge that others much cleverer than me have no doubt.

Yours is a thoughtful, level-headed opinion here, Mary.

One of your points is that "religion" can be defined in different ways, can take different forms. Agreed. I guess in those cases, I simply don't use the word religion though.

But I agree that on my death bed, who knows, I could be praying to something or someone? I won't rule it out. But I simply don't know and can't know, and so I call myself agnostic.

Most importantly, I think, is that people find things to care about, find ways to do good, find ways to be kind. And to whatever they wish to credit that or explain it as, is just fine with me.

Yes, L Reeves, but you're a good person and you find ways to do good. It's the bad ones we need to worry about who are without constraint now that eternal damnation is off the menu. I do believe that religion can work well for society because people believe in something transcendent, something that comes next and an accountability for the way you have lived your life. When nobody believes that any more, people like you continue to be good and people who are bad get worse because they're just out for themselves. Simplistic I know, but kind of true.

Someone once put this to me and it made me wonder. Compare your thoughts on living given the following opposite scenarios. One is that you believe in God and in an afterlife and so you live your life according to that belief, that eventuality. The other scenario is that when we die, nothing comes after that for us. Period. Ever again. Which of these scenarios makes you live your life to the fullest, to appreciate it the most? I find that the answer is not immediately obvious to me, and I think it might vary between people.
Would you appreciate and covet your life more or, perhaps, less? Would it matter to you even more how you spent your life or would it matter less?
Btw, to Mary --thank you for your kind words about me again. Boy, have I got you fooled, lol. Just kidding. I hope. :)

I've always considered that dichotomy. What is difficult to change is our personal faith or lack thereof. Honestly, I think that those who are lucky enough to genuinely believe in an afterlife are happier and live life to the full. Think of all those really good people that you know running around helping others and see how many of them are expecting their heavenly reward. The hapless Jehovah's Witness people who knock on my door and sometimes get short shrift because I'm not really in the mood to deal with them...they seem happy. They're doing God's work. I'm just trying to get through the day. I envy them their faith.

You're a good person, L. Reeves. It's obvious really. I'm not that easy to fool and you're not that good at fakery.

There was never anything but that. Raw power I mean, ever since the concept of government was invented. Today, we now know through climate science, that human sacrifices are an inefficient method of weather modification. We seldom link that cause and effect anymore. Today we are more likely to make strange connections between gay marriage and scocietal breakdown. And by we I mean the same sort of people who used to make the weather/human sacrifice connection.

Moralists like Kirk are usually full of shit. As I like to remind such, every priest who ever made a human sacrifice was doing it for all the most profoundly moral reasons. Morality as a concept is useless. If you really believe that Jews are a pernicious and evil influence it is morality that demands you do something about it. You can use morality to do just about anything. You can use it to oppose or support the death penalty.

Now Kirk is particularly full of shit because the conditions he describes in the quote never happen. We never collectively abandon all tradition and norms. They evolve. Evolving anything in the mind of such people is the same as abandoning everything. I prefer to rely on something much more fundamental as far as human psychology goes. That is the ability to imagine. If you can imagine you are Jew in Nazi Germany or a Black in Apartheid South Africa the effect is more telling than any moral argument. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a far more profound influence than any pulpit speech. Is this not why so many work so hard to dehumanize those they would destroy?

Seems to have all the neccessary elements doesn’t it? Fine by me too.

My mother used to do respite care for cancer patients who were terminally ill. One of her clients thought she was going to go to hell for not forgiving her ex-spouse who cheated on her when they were married. She believed in an afterlife, she merely didn’t look forward to it.

Most people are good. And religion doesn't stop those who are bad and maybe sometimes makes them worse --perhaps even gives them license --as in using their beliefs as an excuse to judge others or as in, hey, however poorly I've behaved, I just need ask God for forgiveness.

I agree with what Peter writes below about moralists and also about how traditions and norms evolve (eventually, and mercifully).

Yeah, most people in society are good, like to help others when they can, are non-judgmental, and are, basically, decent. And I believe that is our predominant human nature, with or without religion.

You're too sweet. Thank you again, Mary. :)

I think you're right when you say that it's difficult to change our personal faith or lack thereof. And I've often thought about that, too, that those who believe...well, they have wonderful, reassuring answers for what comes after death and it is possible for me to feel momentarily envious of that. And yet I can't emulate that.

What I question is whether most people running around helping others are doing it for their eternal reward and I also seriously question how happy they are, at least in comparison to those who help others and have no religion. The Jehovah's Witness folks --I really don't see happiness radiating from them at all. And I personally know a witness who seems more guilty and confused than happy but that is mere anecdotal evidence.

I guess I just know too many people who are without religion and are happy, motivated, and extremely interested and active in improving the lives of others. And then there is the reassuring minority percentage of voters who rally behind Trump and their religion in the guise of caring about our country. When and if they ever become the majority, I will admit that things are seriously out of whack, that we are all in imminent danger, and I will be trying to figure out where to live and what to do.

Good for your mother. That's a noble calling.

As for the poor woman who couldn't forgive, well, I suppose she would have held that stance with or without religion? That she believed in Hell made her fearful in death and that is sad.

Yep, by and large they are.

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