In Your Heart, You Know It's Flat

No sooner have I finished my second reply to that power-saver guy who took an entertaining religious tack in his dispute with me, than this shows up:

Hey Dan. I enjoyed reading some of the material on your website. You've definitely got some serious knowledge and understanding (not that you needed me to tell you that). But the reason I'm writing you is that it became clear to me that you reject the concept that God created the universe and yourself. As much as you know and can effectively explain to others who are wondering, you can not logically explain away the fact that you know deep down that you were created by God. And I am prepared for you to write me off as a religious psycho (though I myself hate religion) but I wanted to let you know that I prayed for you tonight that you would come to know your Creator who loves you and sent His Son, Jesus, to give you life. This email did not just happen by chance, just like you did not happen by chance. God is drawing you to Himself and I pray that you would accept His invitation.

"That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" Romans 10:9, 10


You know, I actually do kind of wish that I did "know deep down that I was created by God". It'd make me quite a lot happier, I think. It'd certainly beat the hell out of the terrifying contemplation of the unimportance of all human endeavours when compared with the overall scale of the universe, and the glum certainty that no matter what any human does, and no matter what brilliant tricks any human may manage to pull, in the blink of a geological eye we will all be cold and forgotten dust.

(I think this sort of thing is at the core of your classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror stories. A story that's just about one guy sitting in a chair contemplating his mortality and unimportance probably wouldn't be serialised in sci-fi magazines, though, so you have to add tentacles, asymmetric brain-swapping elder races, all-powerful entities with no mind at all, people who aren't people, and a whole lot of hilarious adjectives.)

The philosophical argument has been advanced that if a God-as-described-in-the-Abrahamic-Scriptures did exist, everybody even slightly sane would believe in him. The fact that there are many apparently reasonable people who do not believe in God may, therefore, be a valid argument for God's nonexistence - it's called the "argument from nonbelief".

(There's probably a nice tidy philosophical name for the argument Stewart presents, that there actually aren't any real unbelievers,
atheists don't actually exist
, and everybody's secretly religious even if they deny it. Does anybody know what that's called?)

But in any case, even if some mysterious suppressed kernel of religious belief survives in my black atheistic heart, why on earth would you assume that the God-of-the-Christians is the only entity that could have inspired it?

(This is the flipside of the there-are-no-real-atheists argument. It can be argued that in fact everybody is an atheist, because everybody disbelieves countless gods, most of whom they've never even heard of. By this measure, the only difference between "real" atheists and religious people is that atheists disbelieve slightly more gods.)

I don't think there's actually much point to asking somebody presenting Stewart's argument why they assume that my alleged tiny ember of religious belief is in the Abrahamic god. I already know what the answer's likely to be. Faith, right? You just know, and you don't need a reason.

If you ask me, just knowing without a reason is defective thinking, which can severely weaken any attempt to think critically about any subject at all. Most religious people seem to be able to compartmentalise their faith away from their everyday life, so if they're crossing the road or buying a house or choosing a movie to see, they don't just kneel down and close their eyes until the Lord tells them what to do. But critical thinking is something you have to learn to do, and learning to be unthinkingly faithful pulls your mind in exactly the opposite direction. It can get to the point where you actually seriously argue that you can arrive at faith via the scientific method, because Jesus said that if you do God's will you will be convinced that it, um, is God's will, which sure sounds like solid scientific proof to me!

(The minor problem that the world is full of people all doing contradictory things while convinced that they have the full support of one or more gods does not appear to injure this argument.)

Many religions say faith is laudable in and of itself, and actively encourage adherents to believe all sorts of weird things. Thinking critically is hard enough as it is; thinking critically about religious topics is almost impossible, unless you're willing to devote years to your education and then, quite possibly, end up sounding not unlike an atheist anyway.

So I can't really blame people for taking the blind-faith route. It combines simplicity with laudability! How often in life does one get the chance to be commended for being lazy?

Around this point, the religious person often says that everybody has faith, it's a perfectly good reason to believe things, don't you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow and that all of the intersection traffic lights won't turn green at once. And yes, of course you do, but that faith is based on long experience; religious faith, in contrast, is defined by its lack of evidentiary support. You just have to believe that you'll get that million dollars when you leave town.

Clearly, Stewart believes I should embrace some sort of Christianity - while, um, hating religion, by which I presume he means organised religion - but what if the one I choose isn't the right religion? Christianity isn't even the world's majority religion; in total, Christianity is more popular than any other religion, but it's still only got 33% of the religious market (rather less than 33% of the world's population, since many people have no religion). And of course Christianity, like Islam, is itself broken down into various sects which usually insist that members of the People's Front of Judea are all going to Hell, and you'd better join the Judean People's Front if you know what's good for you. It's all very well to reject organised religion and come to your own understanding of the scriptures, but there will still be many other incompatible interpretations, all with believers every bit as sincere as you.

Perhaps I should go with the oldest religion that's still at all popular. That might be Judaism, though of course the Judaism of 1000 BC probably didn't bear much resemblance to any Jewish sect today.

Or perhaps I should tour countries where everybody's very religious, take notes, and see who's got the best argument. Algeria's 99% Muslim, Armenia's 99% Christian, Bhutan's 97% Buddhist, half of Madagascar's population retain their slightly peculiar traditional ancestor-worshipping beliefs, and about 70% of Albanians profess no religion at all!

In all of those places, I can tell you now that the strongest determinant of anybody's faith will be the faith, or lack thereof, of their parents. Adolescent rebellion doesn't actually usually make a lot of difference to that. Which, again, is a bit of a funny thing to see; if there's one faith that you can just start believing and then, hey presto, its truth becomes apparent, you'd think the global religion market would have settled more solidly on that faith by now.

At this stage in the discussion, the theist will usually sally forth with the warm-and-friendly big-house everyone's-welcome ecumenical argument, saying "there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God". I really cannot accept that, though, since the statements and requirements of many of the world's religions are very clearly incompatible with each other, and people seem to get quite upset about it.

Saying that all, or even many, religions are philosophically compatible is like saying that all codes of football are compatible. OK, sure, a soccer player can pick up the ball, run like hell while dodging the bemused opposition and then dive over the goal-line for a righteous touchdown, but I think you'll find that his team's score will not then rise by six points.

So here I am, back in the quandary of which religion to settle upon, with my immortal soul - if I have one - hanging in the balance.

Should I eat bits of my god, start a Crusade, shoot abortionists, or die heroically in battle? Should I pray five times a day, three times a day, or on Sundays, or on Saturdays?

I think the best course of action is to continue to eschew all religious observance, because I think that'll give me - in a sort of permutation of Pascal's Wager - the best chance of getting into heaven or a better spot on the reincarnation wheel or whatever. Because if there's a god up there, and it's fair, it ought not to cast me into a lake of fire unless I directly choose the wrong religion. If I'm just completely confused by all of the options, each and every one encrusted with bizarre counterfactual and/or solipsistic dogma, and so avoid them all and just try to live a good life, then a fair god should let me into paradise.

And if God isn't fair - as, objectively speaking, unfortunately seems to be the case - then we're all screwed anyway. In that case, I might as well not waste any time praying.

55 Responses to “In Your Heart, You Know It's Flat”

  1. unusedusername Says:

    Ive always found atheism to be a bit like smoking (Im guilty of both) in that perfect strangers seem compelled to tell you all about the damnation your bringing down on yourself.

  2. jaems Says:

    Am I the only one who got served a full complement of Scientology ads along with this article? Aaaaaawesome....

  3. Ice8205 Says:

    As with much of your articles, you are preaching to the choir. (Nice religious allegory there.) The net segregates itself, much like general society, into like communities. Like any of the fuel saver believers would read Dan on any regular basis.

    However, I personally tend to avoid antagonizing the religious community of believers. They tend to get more violent...

  4. ratkins Says:

    @unusedusername Ah no. You're missing something fundamental here. We non-smokers don't really give a flying fuck about the damage you're doing to yourself.

    But if you're walking down the street in front of me smoking and blowing it in my face, if you're flicking your butts on the pavement, if you're waving a lit cigarette around in the mosh at an outdoor music festival, if you're in a beer garden at a pub and holding your cigarette as far as possible away from your friends and therefore right under the nose of mine...


    Cheers, Robert (incidentally an athiest, and sorry for the derail Dan).

  5. Itsacon Says:

    I always find the argument `all religions worship the same god in the end' a bit offensive to the more interesting religions in mankind's history: the Norse Pantheon (discovered America!), or the Roman/Greek collection of gods (invented democracy), to name but a few.

    Both understood that the best way to please your gods was to sacrifice large amounts of good food and alcohol to them.
    And the best way to do that was of course to eat and drink it. (I know, I'm generalizing a bit).

    But anyway, of all religions, I'm most convinced by reverse-creationists. I think it highly likely that if gods exist, humans created them.

    Recommended reading on that note: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. (sponsor Dan link!)

  6. unusedusername Says:

    I guess thats another parallel between the two. A couple of lines admitting Im a smoker and someone wants to stab me in the face. Kind of the same reaction you get from mentioning atheism within earshot of the more rabid religious types.

    btw I do almost none of those things. I smoke and walk in the street but cmon, how hard is it to avoid a puff of smoke?

  7. methuseus Says:

    It's very hard to avoid a puff of smoke. It permeates the air. I merely think it's rude to smoke around other people, just as it's rude to go out to dinner if you have a hacking cough. In both cases, even though what you are expelling doesn't cause me real harm in the small quantities that I inhale, I still find it disgusting. But I am not a supporter of banning cigarettes. If you want to indulge, that's your problem / solution / whatever.

    I have tried both sides of the fence, atheist and believer. I find I'm generally more focused in my life as a believer than an atheist. This doesn't mean I believe everything a religion says. And that's why discussion of it is good. I definitely respect people like Dan who don't have faith in a specific religion. He may believe "God" in whatever form does, or may exist, but it seems that's not important. He may not even believe that any God exists, but I will still read his writings.

  8. RichVR Says:

    @ratkins Really? Seriously, really?

  9. evilspoons Says:

    Those of us severely sensitive or allergic to cigarette smoke will tell you how very hard it is to avoid a puff of smoke.

    I, too, see parallels between religion and smoking. Both are bad habits that are nothing but an addiction that saps away at an otherwise healthy person and cause harm to the general public, even indirectly.

    Like religion, smoking should be practiced in private where it doesn't hurt anyone else - your kids included.

  10. tantryl Says:

    A fine read, and I've been successfully converted to the Church of Hank's Ass.

    I'm going to get a million dollars, and Hank's going to beat all of you up for your insolence.

    And I eagerly await the next power-saver reply.

  11. videopia Says:

    I don't define myself by what I don't believe in. I mean, I have zero existential angst over not believing in Big Foot or the Tooth Fairy. Besides, I'm saved anyhow:

    $30. Eternal salvation guaranteed or TRIPLE your money back.

  12. Changes Says:

    The part that makes me want to rip religious people's hair off is when they know I'm an atheist, and start telling me that I've chosen the easy path, that being religious is hard and that's why I am not.
    Then I tell them that there is not one night in which I don't scare myself to death thinking of what it must mean to be dead, what with it being completely impossible for us humans to come to terms with the concept of the inexistence of one's self. That what I fear isn't death itself, but what comes right before it - the deep, mind-shattering, insanely frightening knowledge that in short order you will cease existing; that all that you know and are, all your thoughts, will become absolutely nothing, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it. The irrational hope that there might be an afterlife, followed by the thought that even if there is one an eternal existence would eventually cause anyone to go absolutely insane from boredom, and WISH they could end it (relevant link: "The last answer, by Isaac Asimov). And if it isn't eternal, well, then we're back to square one.

    Then I tell them that if there was one tiny shred of evidence that would prove to me that, by going to church every weekend, I could reasonably hope that whatever happens after I pass away will be in the hands of an all-benevolent, omnipotent entity, then hell yeah - I'd go to church, I'd pray every day, I'd fast for a month, I'd do all those things they do that right now seem so very, very fruitless and empty.

    At this point I receive mixed results. Some take pity on me, poor atheistic lost soul forever accompanied by incredibly scary thoughts of death. Some completely miss the point and say "well, this sounds to me like a good reason to believe". Some say that I'm just making up excuses.
    Not one religious person has, so far, been able to satisfactorily answer the question "how can you possibly see an eternal existence that DOESN'T drive you to absolute madness?".
    I mean, yeah, three dozen hot girls waiting just for you sounds like a nice deal, but how long before you get bored of boning hot chicks?

  13. Daniel Rutter Says:

    My version of this, reserved for use on people who do not appear to have spent one minute thinking about whether Christmas-Card Christianity is entirely sensible, is "Heaven is how God will show you what it's like to be Him".

    God can do anything, you see, except die.

    He's quite efficient, though. It's Heaven early on, then after a few googolplexes of years the exact same place is definitely Hell.

  14. Ziggyinc Says:

    I'm with Dan on this one. I also have another point, if all of the people who chase you around for being a non believer get into heaven, I'm not really sure I want to go there anyway. It seems most of the interesting people might go to the other place and I have found that my surroundings don't matter near as much as the company I keep when I am there.

  15. reyalp Says:

    Man, I had somehow missed finding hanks ass all these years. Thanks Dan :)

    Another thing that gets me with evangelicals is the same ones who have no qualms about going door to door (or emailing random strangers) promoting their belief would be quite offended if you went around promoting your own beliefs. They even dream up imaginary agendas to get angry at.

  16. Joseph Says:

    "Not one religious person has, so far, been able to satisfactorily answer the question "how can you possibly see an eternal existence that DOESN'T drive you to absolute madness?"."

    Well I'm not religious at all, but I do love pondering the unanswerable. After some thought, I have this:

    The universe would have to be an entertainment device. Take some time from your busy schedule of floating in the void to live a life (or a million) where you don't remember what life really is. Way before you've done everything there is to do everywhere, Big Crunch/Big Bang (saying the universe is cyclic) and you wait for life to evolve somewhere and begin the next round.

    The obvious extension is that the whole thing is purpose-built, and we are our own gods, trippy.

    Of course I don't believe any of that, being somewhat sane. But I think it just might work as a rough answer to the question.

  17. phrantic Says:

    @ jaems: Scientology ads, Christian Dating Services, Prophesy-of-Doom websites... Maybe Dan really writes these atheistic epistles to draw in non-believers, then inundate them with extreme dogma, in the hope we'll leave at some sort of middle ground.

    It's that pesky kernel of faith in him.

  18. pompomtom Says:

    I mean, yeah, three dozen hot girls waiting just for you sounds like a nice deal, but how long before you get bored of boning hot chicks?

    ...and this is why my religion will promise FOUR dozen hot chicks. Problem solved, right?

  19. cuvy Says:

    I have faith in the scientific method.

  20. stewbets Says:

    Well, it’s that psychopath Stewart again. I’ve come to demonstrate violence toward those who have falsely slandered me. OK, that was a joke. I am glad to have provided something provocative enough to encourage such criticism. I am not offended nor am I angered by your responses. In fact, the first thing I told my wife after reading Dan’s article was the compassion and pity that I feel toward all who cannot see God. And before I am convicted as a self-absorbed, egotistical belittler, I would like to share that my compassion and pity are not the result of me thinking I am better than any of you (because I am not). Rather, I have been found by God and He has revealed Himself and His love to me. I love logic as much as the next guy. It is logic that leads me to conclude that every building has a builder and every painting an artist. It is logic that also leads me to conclude that this magnificent planet is not just one insanely fortunate accident, but the direct work of God. I love science! I love truth! I love fact! And I am painfully aware of the fact that there are many, many religious people who love to embrace blind faith and fairy tales and anything else that makes them feel warm and fuzzy. I am also aware that there are some pretty ignorant atheists out there as well (and many others who truly are extremely bright). We can all admit that, right? I will not paint every atheist into the same corner and I only hope that you will not do the same with all religious folk (although I still maintain that religion is extremely destructive and wrong). I must firmly believe that truth is absolute, that all paths do not lead to the same destination, whether that be Heaven or New York City. I stumbled across this website because I like the way you guys think about science and such. I would like to think that would make me like you guys, at least to some extent. So, if you guys like logic and I also happen to like logic, could it be possible that there are some who embrace the idea of God and yet base their lives on logic. I don’t know if this makes sense to any of you, but I desperately don’t want you to miss out on God’s grace simply because you were turned off by all the posers who disgrace the name of God on a regular basis. And while I don’t want to beat anyone over the head with the Bible, it is living and active and as such I will quote from it. This is what Jesus had to say concerning the subject of why so many refuse to see God as He is:

    “10The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"
    11He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables:
    "Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
    " 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
    15For this people's heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
    and turn, and I would heal them. 16But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” –Matthew 13:10-16

    That’s something to ponder. Could that be a description of you? God has made His presence clear by His creation. Each of you have heard about Jesus. Yet you do not see Him as He is. I am a wretched sinner. I really am! But God is good and has promised eternal life to all who will admit their sinfulness and humbly submit their lives to Him. This eternal life is not based on my ability to faithfully pray or fast or give or preach to others (like it may seem I’m doing now), but on the finished work of Jesus and His death and resurrection.

    “8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast.” –Ephesians 2:8, 9

  21. dr_w00t Says:

    Before you started quoting scripture you really did sound like a fairly reasonable person. But dude... resurrection? How is that scientific? How is that less crazy than alien abduciton or voodoo?

    I'm not a wretched sinner - I live a DAMN honest life of principles and duty. The only thing I've ever done wrong by any sane moral compass was occaisinally tease a kid in high school (which I now very much regret, and whom is now a top bloke).

    Mate, you're clearly mixing and matching science and fantasy, but good on you for not being rude about it. There are no two ways about it - Faith and Logic are diametrically opposed, binary opposites. One is belief derived from reason, the other is belief in the absence of reason.

    I cannot discount the existence of some intangible unknown greater universal power, just as I cannot discount the chance that I will be spontaneously transmogrified into a 14" black rubber dildo.

    As silly as it is to speculate, I can't imagine that if there was some god-like universal power, it would regard religious humans any differently from those without evolutionary vestigial superstition.

  22. reyalp Says:

    Did you watch the video Dan linked ? Or indeed, actually read his post ?

    Aside from the appeal to Paley, can you distinguish your reasoning from the followers of Hank ? If so, how ?

    BTW, planets are pretty smegging common. Even though we can't spot earth sized ones quite yet all indications are that, once again, we don't have a special place in the universe. It's a bit of a trend.

  23. corinoco Says:

    A story that’s just about one guy sitting in a chair contemplating his mortality and unimportance probably wouldn’t be serialised in sci-fi magazines

    Ah, that would be 'Nebula Maker' by Olaf Stapledon. Quite a good read, if a little bit woo-woo. And the guy was sitting on a hill, not in a chair.

  24. Gopher Says:

    I have faith in the scientific method.

    I prefer to say one can have trust in scientific method as opposed to faith.
    While the words are similar, faith implies belief without logical proof or evidence, whereas science you can trust because it is backed by evidence and continually self checked and reassessed.

  25. Orolo Says:

    Stewart is almost tolerable. At least he has some measure of humility about him. To say that he dislikes organised religion, likes logic and science, while still believing himself to be a person of faith - that I can almost respect. But quoting 2000 year old scripture as if it's the final word in the argument, that I can't handle at all.
    As Dan has shown, we've developed a lot of better ideas about faith in the years since Christ was nailed to a tree than in the years before him, but unfortunately the Christians with their frozen philosophy can't accept anything that isn't in their book.
    As Dan didn't quote from the bible in his reasoned argument, to Stewart it's simply pure gibberish.

  26. corinoco Says:

    And while I don’t want to beat anyone over the head with the Bible, it is living and active and as such I will quote from it.

    O rly? Cool! Then so will I - here are some of my faves:

    1Cor11:6 - For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

    Sorry women, burquas for you all, or go bald. It makes God angry. Or is that bit wrong? Or perhaps doesn't apply now?

    1Tim2:12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

    Darn, looks like this God-bloke really has it in for women. Looks like most of my school teachers and uni lecturers should be kept at home in the kitchen! Wearing a burqua. Or is this bit wrong too? Or does not NOT apply? Where, precisely, is the bit in the so-called bible, that tells you which bits do, or don't apply? Hmmm?

    Mat19:23-24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God

    So you give all your money to charity? Right? No, your own bank account doesn't count.

    Stewbets, I hope you follow the above quotes to the letter, because James says:

    Jam2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

    Well, golly-gosh, you have the to everything the bible says! That should keep you busy. Have fun! I think Matthew says you have to obey all the Old-testament laws too, somewhere around Chap5 I think. 5:15? maybe?

    Oh, you also mentioned something called God's grace I think; is this the same God that allegedly destroyed two cities with what appeared to be an asteroid strike because the people were bad? All the people? Right down to new-borns apparently. Nice God, that one.

    The same God that Created the Earth, right, and planted all those dinosaur bones to confuse people? What does God do in it's spare time? Set up model railways sets with wobbly bridges and crash trains? Tie firecrackers to cat's tails? Sems to me to be exactly the same behaviour; making this so-called God a bit of a juevenille delinquent mass-murdereer, really. Have you counted the deaths in the bible? "Satan" = 10. "God" - 2,391,421 (approx). Nice. Grace? Blow it out Hank's ass.

    I think Robert Anton Wilson said it best: "The monotheistic idea implies a cruel and grumpy old electric donut surrounding Earth and ever threatening it. "

  27. Red October Says:

    To paraphrase an old proverb, "Arguing with the vehemently religious is like mud-wresting with a pig. Eventually you come to realize the pig likes it." The people who quote scripture and insist blindly their god exists and that we must all be fools to not be able to see him in his obviousness enjoy doing this to us. They don't care that their argument is rubbish and will just hold it up again and again. Faith of this sort is a fault. For years we were taught that the atom was the smallest component of matter, full stop. Somewhere along the line, I'm honestly not sure where, someone got the bright idea to hit one really hard with another one and see what happened. Voìla -it broke apart into other, smaller things, which turned out to obey completely different rules than everything else in the world!

    On the subject of the anti-smoking people, I seriously wish they would shut up. I don't understand this preoccupation people have with minding the business of others, I choose to smoke, what of it? My girlfriend was at a sort of outdoor festival (keyword: Outdoor) and was smoking a cigarette. A huge fat woman (clearly an arbiter of sound personal choices) admonished her by doing the "Fake dainty cough" a few times, progressively louder until my GF had enough and yelled "WHAT?", only to be further admonished by this hideous land-beast about how the smoke bothered her and how so-and-so she knew had died of cancer, etc, and all the usual shite. I kid you not, 15 minutes later, the same huge fat woman was seen taking a HUGE BONG RIP. Guess the smoke didn't bother her that much, eh? (For those unfamilliar, the smoke of marihuana is around four times as rough on the respiratory tract as that of tobacco.)

  28. magetoo Says:

    stewbets seems all right to me, he certainly doesn't come off as anything but honest in his intentions. (And if you really believe in the lakes of fire, etc, for all non-belivers, you'd have to be pretty evil not to want to save them. At least the ones that seem all right.)

    But the problem is that even if you have a perfectly honest discussion about this, it always comes down to "I just know it's true (in my heart)." Evidence is just window dressing. And us wretched poor unsaved souls, we just don't have that "I just know" bit. The evidence isn't all that great either, so why should the stories of any one religion, major or minor, be more convincing than the others?

    And there are a lot of other religions out there. People honestly believe in the "other ones" too. So how can you ever be sure you picked the right one? You can't. And in some important respects they are mutually exclusive. This is why talk about "accepting Jesus" doesn't make sense. It sounds like a regurgitated line, not something you come to by really thinking hard about things.

  29. AdamW Says:

    ratkins: well, would you agree it should be legal for me to stab all drivers in the face? I mean, I don't drive (I don't smoke, either, BTW), and exhaust fumes don't smell very nice. They probably do me a lot more harm than other people's cigarette smoke ever will, too.

    I've always found it a bit odd that people will get incredibly worked up over smoking but don't seem to care at all about the myriad other sources of air pollution with which they're surrounded all the time...

  30. corinoco Says:

    Quite how I got from here to TvTropes I don't know, but it just ate the afternoon.

  31. Gary Says:

    It seems to me that god has always been the convenient answer when mankind can't explain some natural phenomenon. I think Dawkins coined the phrase 'god of the gaps', where god is evoked to explain those ever decreasing areas that science can't currently explain. As stewbets says 'every building has a builder and every painting an artist. It is logic that also leads me to conclude that this magnificent planet is not just one insanely fortunate accident....' But this does not give an answer, but merely poses another – who created god? Any entity capable of creating the known universe must be quite something, and hence by this logic must surely have been created itself.

  32. OrgAdam Says:

    It's refreshing to see that a bare minimum of slander was bandied about.

    My respects to you Stewart for the admirable way in which you put forward your arguments.

    I believe that I can simply be a good, honest person who doesn't need to take sides or convert the heathens. I can pay my taxes, donate to charity and generally keep out of trouble.

    Once my time is up, IF there is a God, then I'll be judged on my actions and not my opinions. In the meantime, I'll re-read my copy of The God Delusion with a wry smile.

    Would a God punish me for that?

  33. ratkins Says:

    @RichVR Yes, really. I am an athiest.

    @unusedusername, @methuseus is right, it's actually very hard to avoid a gobfull of smoke from someone walking just ahead of you on a crowded footpath, or the miasma eminating from the masses huddled around building doorways as you walk past. Smokers typically don't notice it because their senses of smell and taste are shot.

    @red october That's just the thing, if it was your business I wouldn't mind it one jot, but when you do it in public and it literally gets up my nose, it really figuratively gets up my nose.

    The Scandanavians have a really simple solution to the whole problem: snus. The jury's still out on whether you're just substituting lip cancer for lung cancer, but it certainly doesn't bother anyone around you.

    @AdamW In a thread about faulty reasoning, you're not doing very well. In any case, I'm not as worried about the health effects of second-hand smoke as I am irritated by the smell of it, both at the point of emission and all over my clothes and hair when I get home.

    (Ah, an old-fashioned flamewar. By gor, it's been a while. Feel free to nuke these bits if it's getting old, Dan).

  34. ercanj Says:

    I can never understand why people try to justify faith using logic. Wouldn't a working, logical argument for any belief remove the requirement for faith? Likewise I don't understand why people try to argue logically against faith.

    But the main reason for this post is that I can see in a lot of comments a disregard for the detachment from time that can be offered by eternity and God's detachment from time. Can't an all powerful creator type guy stand outside of time. If God's plan was for us to exist couldn't he choose to make that happen via the big bang, eons of universal expansion, dinosaurs and whatnot just as easily as deciding to flick it all into existence. If time means nothing to Him couldn't both methods of creation feel pretty much the same to the creator. And if we are to join Him in heaven couldn't it be that we also step outside of time and boredom isn't really an issue. I mean, if we are going to contemplate a place outside of the universe then let's not tie it to the rules of the universe, no matter how many virgins it contains.

  35. Red October Says:

    Ratkins, the problem with telling people they can't smoke in public is that in doing so you tacitly approve of telling a whole lot of people they can't do a whole lot of other things in public. Can they wear cologne? Can they eat stinky food? Can they even open an Indian restraunt, for that matter? (Or indeed, any restraunt? I understand western cooking smells as rancid to them as theirs does to westerners, and an Indian man is a man just the same, with equal say to object) Can they fart? Can they drive a car, or a diesel truck? Shall we let the whackos who believe that the radiation from cell phones causes cancer tell us we can't talk on our mobile phone near them? Can I mandate a person with a cold stay inside, lest I too become sick? Where does this end? Can I decide that I don't like to look at ugly people and force them all to keep from the street? If you want to be in a society with people, you have to accept that some of them will do things that you will not like, and that may affect you in a negative way, but that these things are a part of life, just as you cannot go through life without causing harm, as some vegans would try to convince themselves they can, you cannot go through life without comming to some harm yourself. The world is cruel and nasty. May as well enjoy a smoke while you're here.

  36. Orolo Says:

    @ercani What you're describing there makes you a deist. As far as Stewart is concerned, he'd lump you in with us atheists. He wants us all to accept Jesus as our personal saviour, when most of us are much more comfortable with the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    But it's a valid point that you make. Faith and reason are mutually exclusive, and discussing religion with Stewart is like mud-wresting Red October's favourite pig. And neither the pig nor Stewart is likely to be persuaded from their belief.
    Borrowing Tim Minchin for a moment:

    If perchance I have offended
    Think but this and all is mended:
    We’d as well be 10 minutes back in time,
    For all the chance you’ll change your mind.

  37. magetoo Says:

    Speaking of religion, it's a true miracle that this is the first time I see Tim Minchin mentioned here.

  38. eofpi Says:

    I think Babylon 5 put it best: "I used to think that it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe."

  39. Bern Says:

    @Red October: you think Indian food smells awful? I feel sorry for you. And I don't even *like* curry! :-)

    My objection to smoking isn't so much that it's a health hazard - since smoking has been pretty much banned in all public & commercial buildings, it's not as big a health issue for non-smokers - but rather, that many smokers really don't give a flying fuck about how offensive it is to non-smokers when they blow out a lung-full of rancid-smelling smoke, or drop ash & butts all over the place. The collection of cigarette butts in the garden outside the building my office is located in is pretty phenomenal. Makes for a really nice look when clients visit, too...

    WRT to the harm - well, do you have private health insurance? If so, smoke away, and remember many folks don't like the smell, so please be considerate when you do.

    If you rely on the public health system - that's my tax money you're gonna be burning up when you're dying of lung cancer, bucko, so quit already! :-P

    Back on-topic - a few friends & I used to spend our high-school lunch hours debating the questions of reality, religion, and so on. We went by the greek definition of "Universe" as "the one all" (i.e. infinite in every respect), not the modern scientific definition as "the local bubble of space-time". What we concluded, at the age of thirteen, was that the universe *was* God.

    Contains all knowledge? Check.
    Infinitely powerful & wise? Check.
    (well, by definition, any infinite universe contains an infinite amount of power and knowledge)

    But, you know, that doesn't mean the universe as a whole gives a toss about what happens to you, personally. Infinity is big.

    Unlike some, though, I don't have a problem with that, or with the idea that in a geological blink of an eye we'll all be dust. We're part of the universe, and always will be. The religious guys actually kinda had it right, when they said "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". We may not have an eternal existence as a conscious entity, but we're not going anywhere.

    I expect that, in a few billion years, some small part of me (maybe even most) will be still here as the sun runs low on hydrogen in its core and either fades away or expands and vaporises the planet. I also expect that part of what makes me will be there somewhere when the universe fades into heat death or collapses into a big crunch (or, quite likely, does both - another thing about an infinite universe is that *everything* happens, somewhere, somewhen. And doesn't happen, at the same time. It's inherently paradoxical, while at the same time making perfect sense. :-)

    I don't know why, but I find that rather comforting.

  40. Stoneshop Says:

    Having faith in the sun coming up tomorrow morning? I'd rather call that an expectation. I'm quite convinced that a) physical phenomena don't suddenly, abruptly change without some external cause, which, combined with b) the earth's rotation (the root cause of the sun's apparent rising) being a physical phenomenon, gives me c) that my location on this globe will move out of the earth's shadow once more, and in fact quite a number of times after that as well, once every 24 hours (give or take the occasional leap second).

  41. rho Says:

    Ive always found atheism to be a bit like smoking (Im guilty of both) in that perfect strangers seem compelled to tell you all about the damnation your bringing down on yourself.

    Eh. Atheists seem to be equally eager to damn believers for being world-class suckers. I don't think either side corners the market on being dicks.

    I've always looked at religion as a subway ride. A few folks get off at the first stop--"the subway sucks, I'm taking a cab"--most people dribble out somewhere in the middle--"this stop is close to where I live"--and a few ride it all the way to the end--"let's see where this fucker goes". So long as the folks who stay on the train don't make judgements on those who get off early, and so long as those who get off the train don't imagine those that stayed on board are riding the Fool's Express we should all get along okay.

  42. Changes Says:

    Joseph: ah, but how long before you get bored of living different life after different life? Or to put it more broadly, how long before you get bored of being entertained, whichever entertainment you choose to spend your eternity on?
    The only way your idea would work if you completely forgot things after a while, and so kept being entertained indefinitely. That would work at keeping at bay insanity from boredom, but I'm pretty sure forever forgetting everything would seriously impact anyone's identity.

    The only good afterlife I can think of is one where you live indefinitely for as long as you wish. In the meantime you mature, and your mind evolves. When you come to the point when you are able to accept the idea of your own inexistence, or when you get so very, very bored that an end becomes more desirable, then you figuratively flick a switch and forever turn yourself off. This way you avoid the fear of death, while also knowing that you're not doomed to eternal insanity. There, that's an afterlife I'd be reasonably happy with.
    Most religions don't seem to like my idea of an afterlife, though, what with their funny ideas about suicide.

    ercanj: you make a good point; however, since we are irreversibly tied to the concept of time, and as such utterly incapable of even imagining an existence without time - providing such a thing is even possible, or definable - we can only discuss about what we know. And yeah, we could also choose not to discuss the matter at all due to lack of data, but then we'd have to keep to ourselves all the fear about death and afterlife and all that. On the other hand, talking about this stuff with smart people (read: those that don't go apeshit and start screaming HELL WILL HAVE YOUR SOUL whenever you mention atheism) has a soothing effect on us poor mortals, so we tend to do that.

    Bern: that the universe contains all knowledge and power, we agree on. However, it escapes me how exactly you define the universe as "wise". "Wisdom" does not equal "presence of knowledge".
    "We may not have an eternal existence as a conscious entity, but we're not going anywhere." That's not of much consolation though. The whole problem of death and afterlife and all that is consciousness - the materials that make our bodies are irrelevant if our minds aren't around to reason and think.

    By the way, here's another question that has always baffled me, and to which no religious person has so far given me a satisfactory answer: why do religious people grieve? According to what most religions preach, good people who die a) go to a place that's a heck of a lot better than the one they're coming from, b) will forever be taken care of by a benevolent, all-powerful entity, and c) will eventually meet their loved ones in heaven once those ascend as well.
    Accordingly, the only acceptable motive for grievance is that either you or your loved one are evil, and thus will end up in hell instead, forever suffering and never meeting the other one.
    But if both you and them aren't evil, then there's no conceivable reason for so much pain. Ok, I can understand shedding some tears because you won't be seeing them for quite a long while (unless you're hit by a bus tomorrow, that is), but hey, there's a whole eternity waiting for you when you do pass away, so it's a mere question of time.
    The only answer I've managed to come up with so far is that, despite all the mental conditioning done by parents, ministers and church&society as a whole, the subconscious part of most believers' minds is still tied to reality and cannot, despite their best efforts, ignore the complete and utter lack of evidence. It therefore works against the mind from the inside, instilling the same doubts about death and afterlife that us atheists have.

    And now, about smoking:

    Red October: if I don't know you, it matters not a whit to me if you smoke a few cigarettes, or a million, or if you give yourself cancer and die in agony - so long as you don't smoke under my nose and you don't use my money to try keeping yourself alive after your lungs have started eating themselves - and I'll certainly not go all anti-smoke with random people in the street. The problems come when people you care about start poisoning themselves. I used to have a good friend who was quite a heavy smoker, and it pained me whenever she lit up, because I was thinking of the consequences that could have for her. This, I think, you can understand. And however hard I try, I cannot put myself in her shoes, or indeed in those of anyone else who have people who love them, yet decide to keep high the chance of catching cancer. If their own death doesn't scare them, doesn't it matter to them that they might end up causing unending amounts of grief to loved ones, and all for a stupid habit that doesn't even have the decency of making you filthy rich in exchange for the health risks?
    (In case you're wondering, the reason she is no longer my friend has nothing to do with her health.)

    Personally I've just decided to avoid becoming friends with smokers if I can avoid it at all. It's too damn frustrating, and it has the potential to cause way too much suffering.

    Also, in response to this: "The world is cruel and nasty. May as well enjoy a smoke while you're here." Wouldn't it be smarter to say, "The world is cruel and nasty, why increase the already disturbingly high chance of an untimely departure with an unhealthy habit"?

    AdamW: smoke works me up more than transportation-caused aerial nastiness because the latter is sadly necessary (for the time being at least, and discounting unrealistic ideas about massively adopting electric vehicles now) and is widespread enough that we all get used to it, while the former is entirely caused by human stupidity, and it can cause considerable discomfort to non-smokers.

    And sorry for the tl;dr effect, y'all; I'm aware that this post rivals some of Dan's own in terms of quantity of text. Do feel free to ignore it if just looking at it causes you to lapse into a coma.

  43. RichVR Says:

    @ ratkins no I wasn't questioning your atheism. I was questioning whether you comment about stabbing smokers in the face was a crude joke or real internet nerd rage. It just seems like a stupid thing to say. And since there is no way that I can truly know what you intended, I was wondering if you were just an immature moron or an actual psycho.

    Pick one please.

  44. Erik T Says:

    @ coronico:

    You forgot my favorite.
    A man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off may never join the assembly of the LORD. Deuteronomy 23:1

    This is why I always, always wear a cup.

  45. speedweasel Says:


    I think ratkins was making a joke along these lines; least I hope he was.

  46. curlyg Says:

    Changes: "AdamW: smoke works me up more than transportation-caused aerial nastiness because the latter is sadly necessary (for the time being at least, and discounting unrealistic ideas about massively adopting electric vehicles now) and is widespread enough that we all get used to it, while the former is entirely caused by human stupidity, and it can cause considerable discomfort to non-smoker"

    This is an impressive piece of self-justification. Basically you're saying that this anti-social behaviour of yours, that's OK because you've deemed it to be necessary to sustain your current lifestyle choices. This other anti-social behaviour of someone else's is terrible and wrong and offensive because you don't shared that particular choice. All your nonsense about forcing people to use electric cars is utterly irrelevant to the discussion, and I suspect you know it.

    ratkins: frankly a violent, hysterical nutcase who's as close to the edge as you seem to be probably shouldn't be anywhere out in public without an escort, so I'd guess second hand smoke probably won't actually be that much of an issue for you.

  47. Red October Says:

    I actually like Curry. I just find that *some* Indian food can smell pretty nasty. I do not depend on public health insurance and honestly do not believe that to do so is right or moral. I would not avail myself of it if it were available to me. Being part of a civilized society, in my mind, not only means putting up with smokers and stinky food and Mr.-way-too-much-cologne but also not making your fellow citizens bear the burdens of your personal choices that are rightly yours. You want to smoke four packs a day? Fine. Not how much I go through, but please don't bitch out the nice people at British American Tobacco when your lungs turn into coal tar, or try to tax MY smokes to hell and back to pay for your own excess.

    I choose not to worry myself into oblivion over the choices of my loved ones unless they are so monumentally unsound that I might see results within a week or two. My girlfriend smokes, as does my father. My girlfriend also does not wear her safety belt in the car, and my father will not consult with physicians. They are adults. Those are their choices. Should either of them take up crack cocaine, I might have something to say, but until such a point I will respect the wishes of my fellow man to destroy himself however he chooses, and I still respect his will and decision to do it even through such a method as hard drugs. Indeed, you can look at smoking as shortening of life, but it is foremost a pleasure, just as riding a motorbike or driving a fast car (should I stop driving my Corvette? It's old and has no airbags, and I might get into an accident and die!) and if we avoid all pleasure in a futile attempt to stave off inevitable death, then what have we done? Lengthened our term by a few years, but at what cost? I'd rather live twenty years of joy than fifty of misery.

    Miraculously back on topic; I face these realities free from the chains of a "god" whose followers would tell me how to live my life. This is the only life I've got, and I'm going to enjoy it, rather than gamble my time and though on the appeasement of a hypothetical, unlikely supreme being who, in spite of his supposed all-powerfulness, desperately needs my devotion and worship to somehow justify his own existance, and thanks his followers with famine, blight, disease, death, suffering, epidemic, strife, conflict and hatred.

  48. dr_w00t Says:

    How interesting that a thread on superstitious beliefs, namely christianity, has devolved into people arguing about whether it's OK to impose lifestyle choices on other people.

    I think this - this thread here and now - is just the way it's supposed to be: one group arguing for their inconsiderate freedoms, and another group whinging about it.

    At least smokers aren't brazen enough to justify it using spirits/gods/wizards/etc.

  49. cr Says:

    Yow, Dan, way to go! I read this post when it was shiny new and now, when I get back, it has 48 comments, many of which are on topic! Well, it's taken me several full evenings to follow Dan's links, which led to other links, which led ... yadda yadda. Truly Dan is an Evil Person robbing me of my time with his addictive linking. Surely the Great Firewall must ban him as a threat to public sanity. Oh, but wait, here's a cool site I ran across - - see how addictive this sort of thing is? :)

    I found it weird that Stewart claims to 'hate religion' even while he's pushing - umm, something that looks suspiciously like religion to me. And I know whereof I speak, when I was a kid I got sent to Sunday School. It was Methodist or something, they took the Bible literally. I recall I was mildly indignant (though I cautiously kept that to myself) that anyone should expect me to believe this incredible stuff, while simultaneously feeling vaguely guilty that I didn't believe it, because I was obviously supposed to. I still remember the huge feeling of relief when I worked out that if it (and by extension, God) was nonsense then it didn't *matter* if I believed it, which let me off the hook.

    I also find it futile that these people attempt to prove the Bible to unbelievers by quoting - the Bible. Can't they see the logical fallacy in that? Apparently not. I think the Catholics had it right when they decided the Bible was far too wacked-out and R16, not to mention self-contradictory, to be let loose on the unwashed masses. And I do hate that patronising idea of the Jesus-peddlers that 'deep down, I must know there's a God' - they know _nothing_ of what's going on in my mind. Which is probably just as well, sometimes .

  50. ratkins Says:

    @RichVR Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

    @Red October While I appreciate that thread of reasoning (and don't worry, I enjoy a hell of a lot of things I'm sure many people find objectionable), your right to do whatever the hell you like ends where it begins to impinge on my right to not participate. In general I agree with you, we just disagree about where the line is.

    Interesting you bring up the idea of forcing people with colds to stay home, as people with swine flu have been quarantined. The difference between this and mobile-phones-cause-cancer whackos compelling people around them to turn their phones off is that swine flu (and cigarette smoke!) has been proven (by science!) to be harmful to humans, while mobile phone radiation has not.

    Does that get us back on topic?

  51. magetoo Says:

    has been proven (by science!)

    xkcd, you say? Now I just have have to link to Dresden Codak:
    Secular Heaven

  52. Joseph Says:


    You're right, it probably would be necessary to forget a lot. That actually raises a very interesting question. Would forgetting large portions of the past affect your identity any more "there" than it does "here"? I don't remember every detail of my life, and that fact probably helps shape my mind.

    It could even stave off boredom. I liken this to reading a book. If you finish reading it and immediately start from the beginning again it won't seem as good, but if you wait some time and forget details, it can be almost like reading it for the first time.

    On another note, your idea of a good afterlife is by far the best I've ever heard.

  53. Red October Says:

    Indeed it can be said that cigarette smoke is dangerous. Just *how* dangerous is open for debate. Certainly there is a margin of danger for the smoker, but that can vary widely not just by how many you smoke, but HOW you smoke them! Notice also nobody ever tells you the "healthiest" way to smoke, so even I'm at a loss for exactly what to do (although I suspect the amount you inhale and how deeply, etc, is the sticking place). But is it dangerous to passers-by? In the open air? No. Even to people in closed spaces, not much. There was a study of British barmaids, where they wore a recording device that studied how much smoke they were exposed to over their shift, and found it to be the equivilent of smoking some fraction of one cigarette. Smoking isn't the only personal choice that could endanger others; a motorcycle driver is 15 times more likely to have an accident that a car driver -and that accident could very well include another vehicle, or a pedestrian. The question is simply where the line is drawn. Even as a smoker I'd object to someone actively blowing clouds in my face for no good reason; since they may very well be smoking some weird ass brand from the bottom of the counter at the supermarket (Here in the States there is a "brand" that comes in a plain white packet that just says "Cigarettes". That's it. Just "Cigarettes". They're rather like smoking your shoes, with a smell to match.) But if I'm on the street, or in a public house, club, or the like, I shall accept that people smoke and that I may catch a faceful of some off-brand shit when I wasn't expecting it, and that's no more fun than it is to be surprised by cheap spirits when you expected spring water. You can smoke in the street, just as you can upturn a bucket, mount it, and preach there too. I cannot reconcile, however, that I must pay a tax on my personal life-choice while the preacher is freed from one through his.

  54. RichVR Says:

    @ratkins Yes I have. My first wife was a brown belt in Aikido. We had much fun sparring together. But now that we are no longer married I have stopped beating her.

    My previous questions still stands. What kind of moron are you?

  55. Ben K Says:

    aww looks like i missed all the fun, so heres my 2 cents worth of petrol for the fire
    a) someone please define what a religion is (probably harder than you think, especially if you don't want to be classified as religous)
    b) define of faith
    c) you probably defined faith as "believing in things that don't exist", - so define trust (in the bible faith=trust)

    d) define hypocrisy - and then see if anyone of these posts by atheists are guilty of doing exactly what they claim (and hate about) religious people.

    let the flames begin

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