Aliens and the Atheist

Commenter JA continues to hold the notion that “low atheists” don’t exist in his continued (no true Scottsman) argument as a basis for the higher intelligence/education feature of the set of atheists compared to those who do believe in God. There is a problem with this position.

Consider an alien coming from a place/planet which has never considered the notion of divinity, spirit, gods or God. This notion, for our alien, is an (pardon) alien concept with which he struggles and only incompletely understands having now encountered earthlings. During his life prior to that meeting he had never ever spent an iota of mental activity thinking about or considing God (or the gods). He is, more than our earthly atheists, I contend a complete atheist. In the spectrum of belief between the Saint and the modern atheist he is even further away from the Saint than the 20th century self-professed atheist.

By contrast to the high atheist, who has a panoply of reasons why he has decided God doesn’t exist the low atheist is more akin to our alien. Just like our alien the low atheists actions, values and decisions are made in a universe in which God (or gods) do not consider. He spends just as little time thinking about the divine (much less praying) as our alien does. He is an atheist of the same mold as our alien.

By first approximation, one might view religious belief in a population as existing on some sort of bell curve. A population with low religious beliefs and attendance shifts the bell curve toward “nonbelief” and a population that is highly religious shifts it the other way. Atheists practically exist at a point on the non-belief side of the curve and a less religious population will (to first order) just be expected to have more atheists than one that is highly religious. Demographic studies that our JA note point out that many highly educated populations are often (in our culture) ones with low religous beliefs and therefore also have a higher percentage of atheists. However what he hasn’t noted is that populations which are very poorly educated also are characterized as having low religious beliefs …. and it would follow that these too have (functionally like our alien) a higher percentage of atheists.

The percentage of atheists in a population is not correlated directly with intelligence. It is however, a symptom of the spread in religious beliefs found in people and that the mean/mode (peak) of that population is not a universal human invariant but a culturally dependent variable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

76 comments

  1. Commenter JA continues to hold the notion that “low atheists” don’t exist

    I do not hold that and never did.

    However what he hasn’t noted is that populations which are very poorly educated also are characterized as having low religious beliefs

    This is simply false. You noted one study which showed low religious attendance, but it did not show low religious beliefs.

    There has been study after study showing that atheism is positively correlated with both education and IQ. You’re just grasping at straws.

  2. Boonton says:

    I’m unclear why your alien is a ‘complete atheist’ and on the spectrum of Sait -> Atheist you’d rank him more atheist than a ’20th century self-professed atheist’.

    Such an alien might, upon first having this concept of religious belief’ explained to him smack his head and say “that makes all the sense in the world, it just never occurred to my people that there was anything more than what we could physically see, taste, touch etc.”. Your 20th century self-professed atheist has more likely found the issue worth thinking about, sought out at least a few arguments about God and decided ‘naaa I don’t buy it’.

    I think there’s a clearer reason for your demographic studies. In the US atheism is a chosen faith. People who choose a particular faith are more likely to be intelligent and educated rather than simply accept whatever prepackaged faith your parents may provide for you. I bet we could confirm this with the following prediction. I’d bet that in the US Buddhism is associated as well with education and intelligence….esp. if you exclude Americans of Asian heritage from your survey.

    I bet that this relationship will disappear if you study a different population. I bet that the link between Buddhism and intelligence would disappear if you conducted your study in, say, vietnam or S. Korea. In fact, I’d bet you’d discover in those countries a reverse link with, say, Christianity being associated with higher education and intelligence.

    If you have below average intelligence, a rational survival strategy is to try to fit in. After all, since everyone else is, on average, more intelligent than you are you’re more likely to get the ‘right answers’ by copying theirs! Likewise if you’re above average intelligence what would be a sensible strategy? One would certainly be to place a low value on ‘fitting in’. After all ‘fitting in’ means copying people who aren’t as intelligent as you and are more likely to have ‘wrong answers’ on the test! But even more importantly, because you are very intelligent you should not only avoid trying to ‘fit in’, you should be extra skeptical of the answers provided to you by those who seek for you to ‘fit in’. Better to go out and study those answers that have been ignored or rejected by your stupid parents and peers, make sure there’s no better truth there (which, of course, you can tell because of your great intelligence!).

    Long story short, smart people in the US are more likely to be atheists because few people are born into atheist families in the US. I would suspect you’re more likely to find Buddhists, Wiccans, Scientologists etc. amoung our smart set. On the other hand, let 30% of the country be atheist for two or three generations and I’ll bet you the relationship vanishes.

  3. Boonton,

    While there is of course a relationship between the two, I think it’s important to make the distinction between religious beliefs and religious practice/affiliation. Your argument is interesting, although so far without evidence, but it does not address this issue.

    Even within a given religion, there is a clear relationship (apparent in the GSS data as well as in other surveys) between intelligence/education and being further along the fundamentalist/literalist -> interprative/traditional -> liberal -> borderline atheist spectrum. For example, comparing scores on a vocabulary test to questions like “Is the Bible literally the word of God” yields a much more negative correlation than to questions like “Is the Bible inspired by God” which in turn is more negative than “Does some sort of God exist?”

    Religious attendance/affiliation is different because it’s so much a social phenomenon. People go for their parents or kids or spouses or social groups or even business contacts. People go to feel connected. People go because they identify as religion X even if they don’t really agree with religion X’s claims. Note one of my favorite facts about religious observance vs. beliefs — that the majority of American Catholics are pro-choice. I don’t have data on the matter, but I’d wager that pro-choice Catholics are on average smarter and more educated than “pro-life” ones. And I’d wager huge that “Catholics” who attend services but are atheists or agnostics in terms of beliefs are much smarter and more educated on average than those who are pure theists.

    I also think you picked a skewed set of “faiths.” (I object to atheism being called a faith, but that’s a different conversation.) Buddhism and atheism are notoriously correlated with intelligence and education in the U.S. (and with Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity!) but your arguments seems to assume that all conversions are made for intellectual reasons. While American Buddhism and atheism are largely intellectual in spirit, many other religions are not. For example if you looked at people who become “Born Again” or convert to Mormonism or Islam (for non-African Americans, anyway — that’s almost a different religion with an intellectual story at least) I think you’d see the relationship disappear. Scientology is so unique I’m genuinely unsure about who joins. I have seen it claimed that intelligent, educated people are actually more likely to join cults, but I don’t know if that’s true.

  4. Boonton says:

    While American Buddhism and atheism are largely intellectual in spirit

    And I would argue this is so because most American atheists and Buddhists are converts. Converts, mostly, are above average in terms of intellectualism. Take Buddhism, though, if you look at places where Buddhism is ‘native’ you don’t see a highly ‘intellectualized’ religion. A lot of things you consider less intellectual you’ll see there. Highly literal readings of scriptures. Prayers to saints, deities etc. Even ‘casting spells’ and such. Many Americans seeking conversion to Buddhism also converted Buddhism itself….downplaying reincarnation, seeking out variants like Zen Buddhism that dispensed with a lot of the ‘local flavor’ and such.

    But here’s the thing, what happens when you get 2 or 3 generations raised in this tradition or atheist tradition? Will those kids still be highly intellectual or, well kind of average? Might not the highly intellectual types in that future world seek out what you would consider foolish faiths as they seem new, original, intellectual etc.?

  5. Boonton, I think we’re on the same page w/r/t Buddhism, but atheism is qualitatively different. It is not a faith, but a natural result of empiricism and open-mindedness. I know theists will revolt against such a claim, but I think it is true. Unless you make some kind of leap of FAITH, atheism is the inevitable conclusion of honest intellectual thought.

    So why would it be correlated with intelligence and education? Well, humans are not by nature rational, let alone empiricists. We are full of innate biases and our psychology seems primed to attribute agency where none exists. Until you learn and understand cosmology and evolution at at least a basic level, some sort of God is a natural conclusion.

    If we imagine third-generation atheists looking for something else, we can see that the reasons they are looking are not intellectual and that neither their intelligence nor education will much push them elsewhere (except inasmuch as education makes them even aware of alternatives, if that’s an issue.) So we wouldn’t expect to see a strong correlation.

  6. Mark says:

    JA & Boonton,
    This, and I’ll apologize in advance, will be a somewhat hasty remark. I think what is central here, and was missed in the above, which I should have made more clear (and will likely clear up the thrust of the post/point I’m making), is that JA and I seem to have a fundamental difference about what consitutes belief (or non-belief).

    JA, judging here by the thrust of his argument and he is welcome to correct me, is putting as central the declamatory statement of faith (or non-faith) as the central element that identifies the believer (or atheist). This how I would see atheist/deist/Christian/Muslim/whatever defined. It is not orthodox (or Orthodox) Christian doctrine to identify Christian belief that way, especially in the East.

    In ordinary circumstances my declamatory statement of faith, e.g., affirming the Nicene Creed, is not the thing which identifies me as Christian. It is my praxis. It is habit of prayer, attending liturgy, fasting, confession, and participation in the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. This is what defines me as a theist and in particular an Orthodox Christian. Likewise (for our alien) it is his lack of any consideration or concern for the divine and his utter unconcern for and the absence of that sort of participatin which defines him as an atheist. It is why, I claim that prior to encountering theistic culture on Earth he was more an atheist than the atheists of our culture (who at the very least might have cultural remnants (geisunteight or “bless you” after a sneeze might be saide by an atheist for examples)).

    This notion carries on to my quick description of the “normal curve” on the axis of belief to non-belief and the position that atheism instead of being sharp declamatory position is merely a region of that curve. At some point one’s participation on religious praxis and thought pattern is indectable. At that point one is an atheist, the declamatory decision to state “I am an atheist” is less relevant.

    You may have noticed I qualified the notion that declamatory statements are irrelevant. Under extreme duress continuing to hold to ones declamatory belief gives evidence to the truth of one’s declamatory belief statement. Martyrs are believers.

  7. Boonton says:

    JA

    Boonton, I think we’re on the same page w/r/t Buddhism, but atheism is qualitatively different. It is not a faith, but a natural result of empiricism and open-mindedness. I know theists will revolt against such a claim, but I think it is true. Unless you make some kind of leap of FAITH, atheism is the inevitable conclusion of honest intellectual thought.

    I think this is true of agnosticism but true agnosticism is quite rare. To honestly say one cannot know one way or another and leave it at that is very difficult for the human mind. The human mind always wants to ‘fill in the blanks’ or deny the blanks even exist. Most agnostics, IMO, are of the type “I’ll think about it later”.

    Atheism, in contrast does assert an answer. In that it shares a place with other faiths and beliefs. As such we should ask ourselves why one would believe in one particular answer. One, which I think Mark would label ‘high’, is that it appeals to the intellect. The ‘proofs’ seem logical, the reasoning sound, the rhetoric cleaver and witty (hello there Christopher Hitchens). But a person can also have a belief for a ‘low’ reason. Because ‘in people’ share it. Those who don’t share it seem funny and out of place. Voices of authority said it should be believed (hello there mid-level party leader from the USSR circa 1968 or so).

    Mark

    Perhaps your point is best summed up by Batman Begins

    ***
    Bruce Wayne: Can’t change the world on your own.
    Rachel Dawes: What choice do I have when you’re too busy swimming?
    Bruce Wayne: Rachel, all- all this, it- it’s not me, inside, I am, I am more.
    European supermodel: Come on, Bruce.
    European supermodel 2: We have some more hotels for you to buy.
    Rachel Dawes: Bruce, deep down you may still be that great kid you used to be, but it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you *do* that defines you.
    *****

    But while what you do may define you, the fact is there is still a connection to what your mind *does* and your belief. The alien sitting at home on Sunday because God never occurred to him is not, IMO, an atheist in the way that Christopher Hitchens, who may sit at home because he has considered and studied the question of God and determined he doesn’t believe in it. Or if you will you may say Hitchens is *doing* something that the alien isn’t. He sits at home in defiance of Christian tradition which is not the same as sitting at home because you had no idea there was such a thing as Church on Sunday.

  8. Mark,

    It’s annoying to have to learn how MARK defines a word for every conversation. The term “atheism” refers specifically to a belief or lack thereof, and not to practice at all. One can be an atheist who goes to church every week or an atheist who keeps kosher strictly. One cannot be an atheist who believes in the Nicene creed.

    Boonton,

    Atheism, in contrast does assert an answer.

    That is not necessarily the case. Simply not believing in God means that you are an atheist. As such, one can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic one. In general, there is a correlation between being smart/educated and not being convinced by the various claims or techniques that religions use to get you to believe in God. It’s analogous (nearly identical) to the idea that smarter and more educated people are less likely to be superstitious. Smart people disbelieve in astrology not because it’s unusual but because it makes no sense. Same thing with God.

  9. Mark says:

    JA,

    That was one of the more amusing responses to a reply. There are only two problems with it. First the re-definition I apply is the ordinary one, unlike yours which is unusual. This ordinary/unusual objetion is highlighted by the second point, which is that your example/objection is, oddly enough, exactly my point. You have to look at what a person does and his motivations not his statements and declarations to place him on the faith/non-faith axis.

  10. Are you saying that if you go to church every week but do not privately believe in God you are not an atheist? Or that if you never go to church but do believe you are one? I don’t follow your argument.

  11. Mark says:

    JA,
    I went to church for almost a decade every week but did not describe myself as Christian when my children were younger. I wouldn’t have described myself as an atheist because I viewed that position as further out on the non-belief/non-faith axis. But going to Church and repeating the Creed didn’t make me Christian. It was (or in the case) was my lack of belief, my lack of prayer, and so on that made me not-Christian.

    I’m saying making the statement “God/gods does/do not exist”does not make you an atheist. It’s your actions and beliefs, not your statements. Furthermore this is the (or at least) an ordinary definition of belief. How many hundreds of homilies per week are preached (and heard by every Christian) that teach “what you say” isn’t where the rubber meets the road. It’s what you do. It’s how your belief is put into practice.

    You had made the distinction that “low atheists” who don’t explicitly reject God’s existence aren’t “true”atheists. I claim they are. The statement is largely (except when affirmed under duress which I regard as an exception … Does a life long affirmed atheist remain so if he prays to God for deliverance in a fox-hole under during intense bombardment?)

  12. I’m saying making the statement “God/gods does/do not exist”does not make you an atheist. It’s your actions and beliefs, not your statements.

    It’s your beliefs, not your actions or statements. But keep rationalizing EVERYTHING. Sheesh.

  13. Mark says:

    JA,
    It’s not “your beliefs” when they are just unsupported statements. In Christian parlance, “Faith without works is dead.” You can say and rationalize to yourself that you believe (or not) but if it doesn’t translate into actions with movitations/intentions then that is meaningless.

    Your objection is confusing. “… not your actions or statements.” when I’ve been hammering that it’s not your statements that matter.

    Beliefs without consequences are just empty statements (full of noise signifying nothing as it were).

  14. It’s not “your beliefs” when they are just unsupported statements. In Christian parlance, “Faith without works is dead.” You can say and rationalize to yourself that you believe (or not) but if it doesn’t translate into actions with movitations/intentions then that is meaningless.

    Atheism is not a religion, Mark. It doesn’t matter if your beliefs translate into actions. If you don’t believe in any gods then you are by definition an atheist, period, end of story. You could be the pope himself and never let on to anybody your true lack of belief, but if you don’t believe in any gods, you are still an atheist.

    Your objection is confusing. “… not your actions or statements.” when I’ve been hammering that it’s not your statements that matter.

    We agree on the statements, we disagree on the actions.

    Beliefs without consequences are just empty statements (full of noise signifying nothing as it were).

    Empty and unimportant, maybe. But that’s irrelevant to the conversation. Atheism is a belief that there is no God or lack of belief that there is one, period. Look it up.

  15. Mark says:

    JA,

    Atheism is not a religion, Mark. It doesn’t matter if your beliefs translate into actions.

    And if your actions and intentions are indistinguishable from a theist then your statement that you are an atheist is meaningless.

    Actions + motivation/intentions. Duh.

  16. How is it “meaningless” if it MEANS that you don’t believe?

  17. Mark says:

    JA,
    Sorry, is hypocrisy a more accurate term?

    If you lose your faith and call yourself an atheist, but still have a regular prayer life in which your intention in those prayers is to connect with God … isn’t your declaration meaningless?

  18. That would just be incoherent. Obviously, it makes no sense to intend to connect with a God who you believe doesn’t exist (unless of course you are an atheist who is experimenting to see if you’re wrong about it.)

    There are several kinds of atheists who commonly engage in religious practice. Two major groups are:

    (1) Those who get something out of the practice despite the fact that they don’t believe in God. For example, they enjoy the religious community or they get something out of silent contemplation or ritual. There are lots of Buddhists, Reform/Reconstructionist/Humanist Jews, Quakers, UU members, etc. etc. in this category.

    (2) Those who are technically hypocrites, but may have good reasons. For example, closet atheists in strict religious families or communities who do not want to face the repercussions that would happen if they were open about their non-belief. I know (via blogging) many closet atheists who go on acting as Orthodox Jews because they fear they will lose their families and communities otherwise.

  19. Mark says:

    JA,
    Intent! Why don’t you see that. These “atheists” are worshiping with what blinkered intent?!

    If you’re actions and intent is unchanged on becoming an atheist then your statement/belief that you are an atheist is meaningless. Right?!

  20. Mark says:

    JA,
    So, hypocrite is the wrong word. Incoherent is preferred?

  21. If you’re actions and intent is unchanged on becoming an atheist then your statement/belief that you are an atheist is meaningless. Right?!

    I really don’t understand what you’re getting at. What do you mean by “meaningless?”

    I think you’re being confused by your religion and all the obfuscation that happens around belief and the concept of “faith” in religions that have to dodge and weave because their core tenets are so obviously untrue.

    I’m having trouble even following your thought process. There’s no point system in atheism. There is no such thing as “atheist works.”

    When you used to go to church before identifying as a Christian, did you believe that any gods existed? If so, you were a theist. If not, an atheist. It’s really quite simple. Why is this so confusing?

  22. Mark says:

    JA,
    Your term on

    What do you mean by “meaningless?”

    is perhaps, incoherent.

    I think you’re being confused by your religion and all the obfuscation that happens around belief and the concept of “faith” in religions that have to dodge and weave because their core tenets are so obviously untrue.

    Huh? Wtf? I’m not bobbing and weaving. I’m using a standard definition of belief, i.e., things that you believe must translate into action and intent otherwise they are, uhm, incoherent or beliefs which you think you have but really do not.

    There’s no point system in atheism. There is no such thing as “atheist works.”

    Again, this makes absolutely no sense. What makes you think I am suggesting there is a “point system” in atheism. I’ve never heard of a point system in any context associated with belief/non-belief at all. What are you talking about. Is this bleedover from some other conversation you’re having with someone else. Because that response has no connection at all with anything I’ve said.

    When you used to go to church before identifying as a Christian, did you believe that any gods existed?

    I was more akin to the alien noted above. The question wasn’t asked or considered. It had no relevance.

  23. I’m using a standard definition of belief, i.e., things that you believe must translate into action and intent otherwise they are, uhm, incoherent or beliefs which you think you have but really do not.

    I do not agree that that definition is either standard or useful. It seems to deliberately blur the lines between belief and action.

    I mean if belief must include action, then what would you call… um, a belief? You know, something your brain assesses as true, whether you act on it or not.

  24. Mark says:

    JA,
    According to your recent terminology, it’s incoherent. Faith (belief) without works is dead. It’s meaningless, a pretense, a sham, or how about a conveniently held personal fiction?

    If I earnestly believe I’m a liberal. What would that mean? How would you, an outsider, consider assessing whether my assertion might be true?

  25. According to your recent terminology, it’s incoherent.

    Believing and not believing at the same time is incoherent. Believing and not acting on it is coherent.

    Faith (belief) without works is dead. It’s meaningless, a pretense, a sham, or how about a conveniently held personal fiction?

    I thought “faith without works is dead” meant that your faith is worthless if you don’t do good with it. You seem to be arguing that you don’t have faith if you don’t do works. Is that correct?

    If I earnestly believe I’m a liberal. What would that mean? How would you, an outsider, consider assessing whether my assertion might be true?

    “Liberal” is a much messier label than “atheist.” Atheism is really about one thing, while “liberal” mashes together a million social issues with a million economic issues and has shifted through the years in several directions at once.

    Let’s say you are six but earnestly do not believe in Santa Clause. However, you act as if you do believe in Santa Clause because you don’t want to spoil others’ fun or because you’re afraid you won’t get presents from your parents if you don’t come clean. Would you argue that you really do believe in Santa?

  26. Mark says:

    JA,

    Let’s say you are six but earnestly do not believe in Santa Clause. However, you act as if you do believe in Santa Clause because you don’t want to spoil others’ fun or because you’re afraid you won’t get presents from your parents if you don’t come clean. Would you argue that you really do believe in Santa?

    You seem to have missed the every single time in this conversation I’ve written “actions” I’ve paired it with intentions, i.e., motivations. Do you figure the two kids intentions are the same? If so, why?

    I thought “faith without works is dead” meant that your faith is worthless if you don’t do good with it. You seem to be arguing that you don’t have faith if you don’t do works. Is that correct?

    That argument, as noted earlier, is continually from hundreds of pulpits every Sunday.

    Believing and not acting on it is coherent.

    No. Belief without consequence is meaningless.

  27. You sound really brainwashed here. I don’t know where to go with this.

  28. Mark says:

    JA,
    Huh? What exactly would be the end of this brainwashing? What would be the point in “brainwashing” me with the notion that atheism is a point on a curve on a belief axis and not a creedal declaration? Can you offer a motive?

  29. It reduces the importance of the question “Is it true?”

  30. Boonton says:

    Just two thoughts to toss into the mix here:

    First, I’ve always assumed atheists had a positive belief that God(s) does not exist while agnostics remain neutral on the question.

    Second, to what extent are ancient religious texts concerned with ‘belief’? While I’m by no means very keen on the Bible, to what extent does, say, the Old Testament talk about believing in Gods of any sort? My impression is that it is mostly concerned with action. Is one paying homage to a foreign diety or not? Is one worshipping God properly or not? Is it possible that more ancient people would see our current obsession with ‘what do I believe?’ as a type of arrogance?

  31. 1) Atheism comes in at least two flavors. “Strong” atheism is the positive belief that there is no God. “Weak” atheism is simply a lack of belief in God.

    2) Ancient religious texts (at least the ones I know) take God’s (or the gods’) existence for granted, so it doesn’t really come up. (Although, it’s worth considering what exactly the first commandment is commanding. Is it just worship me, not the others, regardless of whether you believe I exist, or does worship me assume that you believe I exist?) Major denominations today like Orthodox Judaism or the faith-without-works-is-dead groups in Christianity will tell you that actions are more important than beliefs, although other Christian groups seem to believe that faith is the most important thing and that without it, it doesn’t matter how good your works are, you’re going to hell.

    None of that is relevant to this conversation, because we’re just talking about what the word “atheism” means, and religious people don’t get to define atheists by their works. The word is clearly about beliefs, not works. Religious practice and religious beliefs are separate categories even if many religions find the former more important than the latter. Just because Mark doesn’t care about internal beliefs (probably because the ones he is supposed to believe are ludicrous) doesn’t mean they don’t exist or are “meaningless.”

  32. Mark says:

    JA,

    Just because Mark doesn’t care about internal beliefs …

    Are you being intentionally dense? Your true internal beliefs are those which are backed up by actions and their motivations. The question of “is it true” is paramount, as you are pushing the notion that false beliefs, fictions you hold as true but don’t actually believe, are significant.

    You’ll let me know sometimes how this sentence parses into anything resembling something which makes sense, “Is it just worship me, not the others, regardless of whether you believe I exist.”

  33. The question of “is it true” is paramount, as you are pushing the notion that false beliefs, fictions you hold as true but don’t actually believe, are significant.

    What the heck does “hold as true but don’t actually believe” mean and why do you think that’s what I’m talking about? I’m talking about things we hold as true and do actually believe.

  34. Mark says:

    JA,

    I’m talking about things we hold as true and do actually believe.

    And so am I. You’ve noted before about one’s real vs one’s stated reasons for things (I forget the term you used, something like “cosmetic arguments” as opposed to those which are substantial, i.e., your real reasons). So clearly you understand that what you say you believe and hold true can be different from those things which you actually do believe. My contention is that the things you “actually believe” are those which have consequences in your actions/intentions.

    Atheism comes in at least two flavors. “Strong” atheism is the positive belief that there is no God. “Weak” atheism is simply a lack of belief in God.

    And by that statement the alien noted above is a “weak” atheist. I contend he is a stronger atheist than any terrestrial one. He doesn’t have a “positive belief” there is no God, he has no conceptual framework on which to hang the notion of the divine at all. He cannot deny that which he cannot conceive.

  35. Boonton says:

    Are you being intentionally dense? Your true internal beliefs are those which are backed up by actions and their motivations. The question of “is it true” is paramount, as you are pushing the notion that false beliefs, fictions you hold as true but don’t actually believe, are significant.

    But this does not mean actions = beliefs. Again the alien sitting at home on Sunday because he has never heard of church is not the same as Christopher Hitchens sitting at home on Sunday because he rejects church outright. To the outside observer who is not allowed to ask either about their motivation, both their actions will appear the same. Which hints that belief itself is a type of action.

    You’ll let me know sometimes how this sentence parses into anything resembling something which makes sense, “Is it just worship me, not the others, regardless of whether you believe I exist.”

    What is worship though? Is it paying a Priest and standing quietly as he chants some rites? It’s not too implausible to believe that was what many ancients considered worship and when, say, the Roman state, required a citizen to worship some dead Emperorer as a god, that’s what it expected. It didn’t care much about what you actually believed.

    And by that statement the alien noted above is a “weak” atheist. I contend he is a stronger atheist than any terrestrial one. He doesn’t have a “positive belief” there is no God, he has no conceptual framework on which to hang the notion of the divine at all. He cannot deny that which he cannot conceive.

    Why cannot he conceive it? It sounds like it just never occurred to him. If, though, you were able to have a conversation with him, it sounds like you could give him a pretty good picture of what you’re talking about. It’s not quite something that he is unable to conceive in the say that a resident of flatland may find the implications of 3-d space nearly inconceivable.

    But we go back to my question here, what does it matter what we believe and why? To an ancient Israeli, JA ‘playing’ as a faithful Orthodox Jew might have been perfectly acceptable. After all he was upholding the community’s values by following through with the proper words and actions. The rabbi of 2000 years ago might have simply shrugged and said “What does it mater what JA believes in the back of his head? In less than thirty years he will probably be dead but by memorizing all these prayers, observing all these rules and so on the fact is five hundred years from now we, the community, will be doing this exact same thing!”

  36. Mark,

    My contention is that the things you “actually believe” are those which have consequences in your actions/intentions.

    If that is all you’re claiming, then I agree with you, at least mostly. There are always exceptions. However, it seemed like you were going farther than that, to say that if you engage in any kind of religious practice you cannot be an atheist. This is demonstrably false, as there exist many real-life counterexamples.

    And by that statement the alien noted above is a “weak” atheist. I contend he is a stronger atheist than any terrestrial one. He doesn’t have a “positive belief” there is no God, he has no conceptual framework on which to hang the notion of the divine at all. He cannot deny that which he cannot conceive.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that he is a “stronger” atheist than any terrestrial one.

    Boonton,

    But we go back to my question here, what does it matter what we believe and why?

    It matters because it has consequences far beyond religious practice. Even if I were a closet atheist who was outwardly indistinguishable from an Orthodox Jew, my worldview would necessarily be different from a believing OJ. It’s hard to track down every time and place that one’s worldview would make a difference, but they must be nearly ubiquitous. From the tiniest difference in tone of voice during conversations with religious people to the way I vote for politicians to the major end-of-life decisions I make (DNR or not, organ donor or not) to whom I marry to what books I read for fun. So many differences, but Mark would (I think) consider me not a real atheist, if I were outwardly an OJ.

    Again, I know people in that position, so this is not hypothetical. Another major difference is that they might have a blog and a secret identity online where they voice their true beliefs. 🙂

  37. Boonton says:

    You seem to have a great faith that your internal beliefs are of great importance to the world at large, but do they really? As you pointed out many Orthodox Jews do, in fact, have a totally cynical view of the whole affair. Your faith seems to be that you are unable to ‘go through the motions’ in a way that would be convincing to the rest of the world at large. But maybe you’re just a bad actor relative to many other people?

    Action and belief seem to have a fuzzy boundary here. You are an atheist and do not act like an Orthodox Jew. You assert there are plenty of Orthodox Jews who are atheists but choose to act like Orthodox Jews…and do so in a way that’s good enough to fool the typical person. If we allow ourselves to consider the possibility that what we think we believe is a lot less important than our egos would allow, we may say that those OJ’s who are really atheists do, for a diverse array of reasons consider the actions of being an OJ worthwhile do perform despite a lack of belief. In a sense they have faith that its very important to act like an OJ. Maybe they may say whats important is not making waves with their family, not losing their jobs, losing friends etc. but if belief isn’t very important then the reasons an OJ thinks he’s an OJ isn’t very important either.

  38. You seem to have a great faith that your internal beliefs are of great importance to the world at large, but do they really?

    Obviously since the rest of the world does not have direct access to my internal beliefs, the importance (if any) is to be found in the external ramifications of those beliefs. I listed several potential ramifications in my previous comment, and I think that they are important.

    Your faith seems to be that you are unable to ‘go through the motions’ in a way that would be convincing to the rest of the world at large. But maybe you’re just a bad actor relative to many other people?

    I don’t have “faith”, but I would say that my temperament is such that I was unwilling (I wouldn’t say unable) to go through the motions for long. I don’t see how that makes me a bad actor, though. WTF?

    we may say that those OJ’s who are really atheists do, for a diverse array of reasons consider the actions of being an OJ worthwhile do perform despite a lack of belief.

    I think that is true for a minority of atheist/OJs. A majority of them are just scared of losing their families and communities. This is from my informal anecdotal data, of course.

  39. Boonton says:

    I don’t have “faith”, but I would say that my temperament is such that I was unwilling (I wouldn’t say unable) to go through the motions for long. I don’t see how that makes me a bad actor, though. WTF?

    well let’s follow this carefully. Mark is saying actions matter more than words (or internal words aka beliefs). OK. You’re saying your beliefs matter because they make your actions. OK. But then isn’t that just going back to actions again? You’re an atheist because you act like one. But you say that beliefs do matter because even if you were just going thru the motions of being an Orthodox Jew, your lack of belief would produce very subtle actions that would undercut your attempt to ‘play along’. OK so you’re a bad actor, again back to actions seem to matter here more than beliefs.

    Might it be, though, that the process may work in reverse? Your actions can cause beliefs. If you spent years ‘playing along’ might that not at some point shape your beliefs?

    Consider a woman, for example, who swears she is unhappy in her marriage. For years she ponders having an affair. She becomes an articulate defender of ‘open marriage’ to all her friends. She makes her desire to be unfaithful an open joke with many people. One day, though, an opportunity presents itself. To her surprise she finds she cannot go through with it. What then was more ‘real’? Her beliefs about unfaithfulness or her actions?

  40. Mark was not only saying that actions matter more than beliefs. He was saying the beliefs DO NOT EXIST if the actions don’t match them.

    I see what you mean by “bad actor” but I’m not sure why you’re so hung up on what “matters” as if nothing is worth anything unless it somehow changes the world. Is having a more accurate understanding of the world completely worthless??

    Might it be, though, that the process may work in reverse? Your actions can cause beliefs. If you spent years ‘playing along’ might that not at some point shape your beliefs?

    Undoubtedly, and Orthodox Judaism pushes that idea explicitly. There’s a saying that basically translates to “That which is done not for the right reasons will eventually be done for the right reasons.” However, certain beliefs, and I think “strong”) atheism could be one of them, by rejecting not just the details but the entire worldview, may be outside such influence. If you honestly believe there is no God, years of rituals are probably not going to change your mind. If you believe there is a God, but aren’t that interested, then yes, the rituals might get to you.

    Your example of the unhappy wife is bad because it confuses two kinds of “belief.” Her “belief” is more of a moral stance. Atheism is a factual stance. A better example might be a lifelong atheist who has a deathbed conversion (reports of which are vastly overstated in my opinion, based on several examples I’ve read about like Darwin which were outright fabrications by religious people.) In that case you might wonder if the atheism was more “real” than the deathbed conversion or whether it’s vice-versa. But that just gets into a whole different discussion of what makes a belief “real” and how our emotions like fear can make us change our beliefs.

  41. Boonton says:

    I think what I’m getting at is that there may be a measure of uncertainity about one’s own beliefs. How do we know we believe something? Because we say it? But we say lots of things. Because we think it? But if you pay close attention your ‘thoughts’ can often be very flimsy. To use unfaithfulness….you may strongly believe that it would be wrong for you to cheat on your spouse, but in a dream you may cheat on your spouse. Isn’t that ‘you’ thinking it? If it is where is that belief against cheating? You can excuse yourself by saying its only a dream, but then seem to be veering towards Mark’s territory where the actions determine ‘true beliefs’.

  42. Mark says:

    JA,
    I didn’t say the “don’t exist”, I said they weren’t your true beliefs. Kind of like your cosmetic vs real argument thing. If you say you are an atheist but your actions+intentions don’t match that then your statement directly parallels your cosmetic argument idea (and whether that follows your notion that these are things we should do away with is a different matter).

    You seem to be of the notion that since we external observers can only discern actions you want to dismiss intentions. Yet, oddly enough, our US jurisprudence routinely assigns differential penalties based on not just actions but intentions. Apparently then, intentions can be discerned.

    As an aside, you’ve dropped the alien thread. Is that because it is troubling? A strong atheist who doesn’t positively reject the notion of God it seems to me would counter your notion of what constitutes atheism. That is the inability to imagine the divine seems a stronger form of atheism then rejection of its validity.

    How about the other sort of “deathbed” statement, i.e., the non-conversion. For example the Christian martyr, accepting death before renouncing his faith. Or the reverse, a atheist martyr willing to take death (or social stigma/isolation) instead of affirming that which he does not believe. I had indicated that sort of statement was the kind you don’t ignore, because it is backed up with consequence.

  43. Boonton:

    I think what I’m getting at is that there may be a measure of uncertainity about one’s own beliefs.

    I agree about that. All beliefs have a nonzero amount of uncertainty.

    Mark,

    I didn’t say the “don’t exist”, I said they weren’t your true beliefs. Kind of like your cosmetic vs real argument thing.

    Okay, I get what you’re saying now.

    As an aside, you’ve dropped the alien thread. Is that because it is troubling?

    I don’t think I’d ever picked that thread up in the first place.

    A strong atheist who doesn’t positively reject the notion of God it seems to me would counter your notion of what constitutes atheism. That is the inability to imagine the divine seems a stronger form of atheism then rejection of its validity.

    I mean I guess you could say that in a way, but it seems like a pretty contrived example.

    How about the other sort of “deathbed” statement, i.e., the non-conversion. For example the Christian martyr, accepting death before renouncing his faith. Or the reverse, a atheist martyr willing to take death (or social stigma/isolation) instead of affirming that which he does not believe. I had indicated that sort of statement was the kind you don’t ignore, because it is backed up with consequence.

    Sure, it makes it easier for other people to see. I always found the urge to martyrdom found in the monotheistic religions kind of creepy, though, to be honest.

    In general, I think something I disagree with Christians about strongly is that it’s better to hold a belief strongly. Either it’s true or it isn’t — the fact that you fantasize about proving how strongly you believe makes it seem to me like you’re overcompensating or something. The fact that your beliefs are so tied together with your emotions makes me less likely to think you are right than more likely.

    Like imagine asking a teenaged boy if he’s straight. (Why you would do this, I’m not sure, but let’s go with it.) If he shrugs and says “Yeah,” then okay, sure. But if he says “I would die to show how straight I am!” or even “I would die rather than kiss a guy” that would seem pretty suspicious, no?

  44. Also, “I would die for God” is a little too close to “I would kill for God” for my tastes.

  45. Mark says:

    JA,
    The alien-as-atheist was contrived to demonstrate that the low atheists, which you had attempted to make a strong distinction between “strong” atheism and the atheism of the uneducated not-self-introspective/self-examined person is just as strong as yours. The variant on your end of the faith axis in that sector of society is much like the alien. He (like the alien) never thinks of God (or gods) at all. It is off the horizon of his mindscape so to speak. His actions and intentions never once take God into account. He is just as much a strong atheist as you. That was the point of the alien digression.

    Die for is close to kill for? You have obviously spent zero time with actual fervent Christians. Those pot luck ladies doing luncheons for funerals are soooooo scary. Seriously you need to get to know some of these people you so strongly despise before you actually go to the length to despise them.

    The left wing distaste for “strong” beliefs translating to action is evidence for example in the non-translation into action of your AGW related to carbon consumption and the continued failure of your that 30% (50%) of the populations which can’t be bothered to drive 10 mph lower than the speed limit to gain 20-25% in fuel efficiency. That belief isn’t worth 15 minutes of your time. Lack of action+intention means you don’t it’s a cosmetic not real belief.

  46. Boonton says:

    I think its more interesting to explore the question of whether ‘belief’ itself is really all that important to religion? Again the impression I get of the OT is that there really isn’t much said about what you should ‘believe’ but a lot is said about whatyou should do. Likewise to me it doesn’t seem to say anywhere that free will exists or doesn’t exist for humans…yet this seems to get a lot of airplay for modern Christians.

    Maybe then our obsession about belief (and free will v determinism) is a more modern obsession rather than a key feature of religion. Many Christians seem to speak of believing as if its an almost magical thing that by itself creates God…..do you, though, really care whether or not an ant ‘believes’ you exist? The emphasis on the importance of belief seems to me like it can veer pretty quickly into self worship as if things are called into existence (or not) because you choose to believe in them.

  47. The alien-as-atheist was contrived to demonstrate that the low atheists, which you had attempted to make a strong distinction between “strong” atheism and the atheism of the uneducated not-self-introspective/self-examined person is just as strong as yours

    The only reason I was making the distinction was to point out that people who “just happen to be atheists” aren’t necessarily more smart/educated than the average person, while people who think about it and become atheists for “high” reasons are. It’s not that they are less atheist (again, no point system.)

    Die for is close to kill for? You have obviously spent zero time with actual fervent Christians. Those pot luck ladies doing luncheons for funerals are soooooo scary. Seriously you need to get to know some of these people you so strongly despise before you actually go to the length to despise them.

    Oh please. I don’t despise Christians. Do you despise atheists? And it isn’t those potluck ladies I’m worried about — they aren’t the ones who fantasize about being martyred, they’re in it for the community, not to prove how much faith they have.

    The left wing distaste for “strong” beliefs translating to action is evidence for example in the non-translation into action of your AGW related to carbon consumption

    I think there is a kernel of truth here. Sadly, the Christian Right is motivated in a way that the left is not. Religion is damn effective at motivation, I’ve never said otherwise. There’s a reason it’s been wildly successful throughout human history, and it ain’t because it’s true.

    Lack of action+intention means you don’t it’s a cosmetic not real belief.

    That’s stupid. It’s like saying that smokers don’t really believe smoking is bad for you, since they keep smoking. They believe it, there are just other factors involved. Some of it is denial, but deep down, they “really” know the truth.

  48. Mark says:

    JA,

    (again, no point system.)

    Huh? No religion I know has a point system. That keeps coming up. Why?

    The only reason I was making the distinction was to point out that people who “just happen to be atheists” aren’t necessarily more smart/educated than the average person, while people who think about it and become atheists for “high” reasons are.

    And I was pointing out that was irrelevant. The “high” reasons you state are declarative and thus too confused with cosmetic beliefs.

    Also, “I would die for God” is a little too close to “I would kill for God” for my tastes.

    I took that as a correlation of strong faith with a willingness to kill (for the faith). And it isn’t those potluck ladies I’m worried about … they are the exact parallel in our culture to the Eastern bloc grandmothers who secretly baptized their grandchildren because the rest of the family feared prison and reprisal to much. So, if it isn’t the stronger/strongest in faith that you offer would die for their faith … who the heck are you talking about? If you think this is something that worries you, there must be some concrete examples.

    That’s stupid. It’s like saying that smokers don’t really believe smoking is bad for you, since they keep smoking.

    You think driving fast and not regularly inflating your tires is a chemical addiction?

  49. Huh? No religion I know has a point system. That keeps coming up. Why?

    I’m just trying to explain that I don’t think you can be a “better” or “worse” atheist. You’re an atheist if you don’t believe, period.

    And I was pointing out that was irrelevant. The “high” reasons you state are declarative and thus too confused with cosmetic beliefs.

    You’re confusing perception with reality. Just because other people can’t tell if your beliefs are real or cosmetic doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.

    I took that as a correlation of strong faith with a willingness to kill (for the faith).

    For some values of “faith,” yes. I was talking specifically about the kind of faith that makes people go around trying to prove how much faith they have, not about the quiet, loving kind that potluck ladies have.

    So, if it isn’t the stronger/strongest in faith that you offer would die for their faith … who the heck are you talking about? If you think this is something that worries you, there must be some concrete examples.

    Islamic terrorists are the most obvious example, but Christian history is filled with them too. Also, the American military is weirdly wrapped up with Christianity. I had a marine tell me (and a roomful of people — he didn’t even know to be embarrassed about his bigotry) that Buffalo is “going downhill” and as evidence he pointed out that there are mosques and other “non-Christian” houses of worship sprouting up everywhere. Now I don’t think he’s literally out to kill people for (just) not being Christian, but it ain’t a coincidence he signed up to go fight some Muslims, either. There’s a connection there.

  50. Boonton says:

    The only reason I was making the distinction was to point out that people who “just happen to be atheists” aren’t necessarily more smart/educated than the average person, while people who think about it and become atheists for “high” reasons are. It’s not that they are less atheist (again, no point system.)

    I think we are getting bogged down in ‘high’ versus ‘low’. Both of you seem to swap the two. Mark considers the alien ‘high’ because his actions are so infused with atheism. JA considers him low because he has never given the matter of God any serious thought hence his lack of belief is not based on any effort of reasoning.

    Consider Superman versus a hard working athelete. In one sense Superman is great because he can do such stunning things that far exceed what the greatest Olympians can do. But in another sense the atheletes are great because they work so hard to achieve what they can do while Superman was just born that way.