More from: Religion

Gods and Platypuses: The Ignostic Non-Beliefer.

Someone asked me about my “religious status” on Facebook, and I thought it would make a good blog post.

I’ve written on my blog a few time about how I used to be a Christian and now I’m a non-Christian. Not being Christian was on step along the journey, but once I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in any kind of god, I wasn’t sure what word I could use to describe myself. After this bothering me for a few years, I googled about, and worked out I was probably some kind of secular humanist.

However, when people brought up my lack of belief in god, there seemed to be only two options: atheist or agnostic. I had a hard time accepting either of these designations.

Atheist?

First, “atheist” defines someone by their lack of belief in God or in a god or in gods in general. This privileges the idea of gods above other elements of supernatural claims, as nobody calls themselves a-fairyists or a-dragonists.

Secondly, it privileges the belief in the supernatural claim to be the defining aspect in someone’s life. Theist or atheist? “Well,” I think, “before I answer, may I first tell you my story rather than putting myself into one of those two camps?” I guess that’s why secular humanism is more appealing to me, as the name tells us that the human being and human endeavor is more important than the supernatural.

And that’s why I’m going to tell you a bit of my story.

Agnostic?

So now to my main problem with calling myself either an atheist or agnostic. Over the years I’ve believed in many different versions of God. For example:

  • Hardcore belief in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as expected of a fundamentalist Christian.
  • I believe in God and all that, but did he really create the world in 6 days?
  • God is some kind of powerful spirit, a force for love and for good.
  • Jesus wasn’t really God, just a wisdom teacher.
  • I have spiritual experiences, and the Bible is still meaningful.
  • Actually many things in the Bible are quite disturbing, but there’s still something to it.
  • Ah shit, this is all made up by humans to explain what goes on in humans’ brains, isn’t it?

It’s all relative, right? Luke at the start of my journey would class Luke at every other point as a non-theist. From the second point to the second last point I could be called agnostic by the Lukes at any other point. Only when I reached that last point could I really call myself an atheist.

So when someone asked me if I believed in God, I wondered at what point they were in this spectrum. What did they really mean? Did they mean the modern fundamentalist ideas? Did they mean wishy-washy spiritualist stuff? Were they on a spectrum of belief in a non-Abrahamic god?

I never knew. I’d get into a debate with someone, and they’d challenge me to tell them why they were wrong about God (and I did this when a Christian too), but after a few minutes they’d say something like “No, I don’t believe God answers prayers, he’s more like an all-pervading spirit that imbues the wider destiny of the universe.” I thought I’d been talking to a theist, and they were actually a pantheist or deist.

And after me saying “I’m an atheist” the other person might describe a kind of God that fits my science-fiction-loving brain’s image of an benevolent alien super-being. Do I believe in that kind of god? Well, I guess then I’m an agnostic. I’d not call it a god though. What does God need with a starship?

After a few years of these miscommunications, when anyone wanted to know if I was an atheist or agnostic, I’d ask them to define god first, and then I’d answer.

Ignostic!

And then I found out, I don’t remember exactly when or where, that this had a name! It’s called Ignosticism. And the definition is pretty much what I’ve outlined above. Ignosticism is the stance that the notion of god shouldn’t be elevated to any kind of important position, instead treating the word as exactly that: a word. A very imprecise word at that!

For example, you ask if I have a car, and I say no, and then you say “You can have my car!” and give me a Lego model. Gee, thanks.

Then you clarify, “Do you have a real car?” I would say no. But what if you really meant “Do you have a personal vehicle with four wheels and an engine?” I could say “Yes.” Because I own a van.

So I let the person define the object of belief, and only then do I answer.

Belief?

There is one final step to this, so I’ll stretch the car analogy a bit more:

“Do you have a real car?”

“You mean a personal vehicle with four wheels and an engine? Like a van?”

“Yes.”

“Well…”

In fact I don’t have a van. But I kind of do. I used to have a van, and technically I still partly own it, even if my ex-girlfriend now uses it in another country. So does that mean I have a van or not?

“Do have a real car?”

Okay, my current girlfriend has a car, so if I need to get somewhere with a big bag, I can ask her to drive me. Also, when we visited England last month, we rented a car, so if you asked me a month ago, I could say that I did have a car, but now I don’t.

As you can see, the word “have” is now just as troublesome as the word “car”!

And in the question “Do you believe in God?” the word “believe” is as troublesome to me as the word “have”. What the fuck does belief even mean? That I know something is true, despite not being sure? That I think something is true, despite not being sure? That I think that I know something is true, despite not being sure? Or that I’m sure something is true, despite not thinking it through?

I believe lots of things, but now I like to think that belief or non-belief is only a stance on a proposition that hasn’t been closely examined. Once I’ve closely examined an idea, I’ll tell you that I think it is probably true, or that it is probably not true, or if I’m not so sure, I’ll give an estimate on how likely it is to be true.

Claim: “God, as depicted in Genesis, is real.”

My judgment: False.

Claim: “Some kind of energy being currently unexplained by science exists somewhere in the universe.”

My judgment: Maybe. It’s a big universe.

Claim: “The platypus is an endangered species.”

My judgment: I believe so.

You see, I really have no idea about the conservation status of the platypus, but off the top of my head, I guess it might be endangered. That’s what I call a belief.

A belief can be a meaningful basis for action. For example, I’ll stop someone killing a platypus with a stick! If later I discover platypuses are, in fact, vermin that need culling… well, that’s cool. I wasn’t really invested in the idea.

Claim: “In the event of an earthquake, run out into the street!”

My judgment: I believe so. I’ve not really looked into it. I’ll check the answer when I move to an earthquake zone.

For many people the question “Do you believe in God?” is just that important, so they don’t really care about the definition of God in the mind of the questioner, nor do they plan use that belief to make important decisions. In that case, belief or non-belief is a totally fine position.

For someone like me, who was brought up as a Christian, God was super important to me! His existence, and the nature of his existence, had a real impact on the decisions I made in life. How could I merely believe or not believe in the existence of God? I needed to look more closely at the whole concept.

Now I hold various important concepts as impossible, possible, improbable, probable, and all kind of degrees in between. For concepts unimportant to me, belief or non-belief is just fine.

Got a conclusion?

When it comes down to important matters, I’m simply not a beliefer. I’m a non-beliefer.

An ignostic non-beliefer.


I love to read comments and feedback about my blog posts. Please email me, I reply to every message: luke@juggler.net


Elite Skeptics, Elitist Skeptics, and me.

A bunch of nerds at TAM London 2010.

Many people get a lot of attention on the internet for saying or writing things like “Atheist and skeptics are just the same as religious people!”

They go on to say things like “Skeptics like to take down the beliefs of others, but they never question their own beliefs.”

Near the end of the rant, you’ll probably find accusations of elitism and arrogance.

Personally I think there is a confusion between the labels of “elite skeptics” and “elitist skeptics”. There is some overlap between the groups, but from my own anecdotal evidence, not very much.

I have no problem with people who are not skeptical about every one of their beliefs. My problem is with those people who aren’t skeptical of the reasons they THINK they are skeptical.

It’s a tricky concept, but maybe I can explain.

Not everyone can be skeptical of everything. There are loads of areas where I don’t think skeptically at all. This is the only way to get through my day, otherwise I’d never get anything done. I’d spend all the time investigating every tiny detail of every tiny truth claim, and never be able to have an awesome, albeit slightly random, life.

Who can really be that skeptical? Not us everyday people. And yet “skeptics” come under fire for NOT examining every single thing. And because we believe some things without question, and challenge a certain set of beliefs of others, we are called arrogant and elitist.

For that attention to detail we rely on elite skeptics. These can be professional scientists, or they can be trusted journalists or public figures who communicate the current state of scientific thought.

When Ben Goldacre says “Homeopathy is bullshit” I don’t rush out to do my own tests on diluted water. I just take his word on it. There is a virtuous circle of trust among scientists and science writers that allows them to reach a consensus on certain topics.

Yay for the elite skeptics!

My problem is with elitist skeptics, and I have a good working definition of the term.

First, let me state that I have no problems with any single belief or stance on any issue an elitist skeptic might talk about, or browbeat others about. The chances are they are 100% correct on the matter when held against the standards of modern science.

My only problem is the reason that they THINK they are skeptics, and are therefore scientifically right. The reason they believe they skeptics is their own intelligence.

Which leads to them believing everyone who believes something scientifically incorrect is stupid, or at least less intelligence than they are.

THIS is elitist skepticism, in my opinion.

I experienced it many, many times at the TAM London conferences in 2009 and 2010. More so in 2010. There would be a statement from the stage about how stupid religious people are, or how people are stupid for not knowing this scientific fact, and the audience would erupt in applause and cheering. It made me feel very uncomfortable. Same with my brother and sister-in-law, who attended one and two of the events respectfully.

The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that fact that you are a skeptic has nothing to do with your own intelligence. Instead it has everything to do with circumstances of your birth, your upbringing, and the society in which you live.

If this wasn’t the case, we could look at the most incredible minds throughout history, and they’d all be atheists and skeptics.

How about Isaac Newton? Oops. Was totally into alchemy and all kinds of batshit crazy stuff, as well as being a Christian. Same with every other intelligent person up until the Enlightenment.

Also, atheists have no problem saying “If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably believe in Allah, if you were born in Texas you’d probably believe in Jesus.” Which is totally true. This isn’t a statement about the mental capacity of any religious person, just the admission that people are shaped by their surroundings.

So why do skeptics think they are any different?

I was brought up in a hardcore Christian home, and I’m now an atheist and a skeptic. Is it my intelligence that took me down that path? I’d say no, just a great many incidences and coincidences along the way. My Christian upbringing probably contributed more to me being a skeptic now than other people’s secular upbringing, to the point where they’ve thought as much about the existence of god as the efficacy of Homeopathy. As in, not at all.

I have an identical twin brother who also attended TAM London in 2009 and 2010. He was also brought up in a Christian home, of course, and is now probably more hardcore atheist than I am. Did we reach the same beliefs because we are both as intelligent as each other? Well, no. It could be said that I’m objectively more intelligent than he is, as measured by grades at school. But even our grades at school had more to do with our only very slightly different life experiences up until age 16.

We took different paths to our skeptical mindset, at different paces, but in each case it took a repeated exposure to the skeptical mindset of others, each time totally outside of our control. After a time, by applying skeptical tools we’d picked up to our own beliefs, we came to the same kinds of conclusions. This had nothing to do with our intelligence levels, and way more to do with the fact that skepticism itself works. We didn’t invent it, we only slowly, and by accident, learnt it.

So what next?

Thinking other people are stupid because they are religious or not skeptical is totally misguided. It becomes worrying when these elitist skeptics think they should also be elite skeptics, or worse yet, elite members of society in general.

You may be CORRECT about the topics of which you are skeptical, but that doesn’t mean the “stupid” people should be sneered at and then ignored. They should, instead or at least, be educated.

As a final argument, I’d like to bring up the parallels between elitist skeptics and Randian thinkers on economics.

“I got to where I am today, financially, due to my own skills, intelligence, and hard work! I am the 53%! Pull yourself up by your boot straps!”

The common rebuttal is something on the lines of “Really? You didn’t rely on your parents? Your schooling? The circumstances of your birth? Your parents’ economic standing? Your gender? The colour of your skin? Your reliance on the wider society to provide the safe environment in which you can flourish?”

Soon the claims that someone, anyone, got to their current financial position due to their own abilities falls flat. It involves long chains of coincidence, circumstances outside of the person’s control, and the actions of other people. All these things combine to bring any single person to any point in their life. There is no fate, there is no destiny, there is no god in the machine. If you are a hardcore skeptic, you won’t believe in true free will, only in the illusion of free will. You are only the culmination of matter and energy playing itself out in the universe.

Really.

“I’m a skeptic, and have all the right answers, due to my own skills, intelligence, and hard work! I have the same religious beliefs as all these Nobel Prize winning scientists! If you weren’t so stupid, you’d be just like me!”

My rebuttal is exactly the same as before. “Really? You didn’t rely on your parents? Your schooling? The circumstances of your birth? Your parents’ economic standing? Your gender? The colour of your skin? Your reliance on the wider society to provide the safe environment in which you can flourish?”

Yes, even skin gender and colour. How many black women at TAM London in 2010? Maybe there was one, but she was hidden among the sea of caucasian men. Then again, only middle-to-upper-class people could afford the money and time to attend TAM, and we all know that white men, aged 25-40, only reach that position through their own intelligence and hard work. Ho hum.

To conclude: Some people DO rely solely on their outstanding mental capacity to independently formulate the principles of science and skeptical thought. Good on them. But these people are few and far between. I’m not asking you to defend the ancient philosophers’ intelligence compared to the general population. It’s obvious they had the chops to rise above the rest, and have influenced world history since their times.

No, I’m asking you to defend your OWN intelligence compared to the general population. Is knowing the truth about some subjects, and knowing a method of thought to reach true conclusions on other subjects, reason enough to sneer at everyone else?

I think not.


Nigel Green vs Jesus (comment conversation)

Here on my blog I shared a podcast I recorded with Rym and Scott of the Geeknights podcast. In it we talk about the Jesus Myth Hypothesis, which looks at the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible, and questions whether it is based on a real, historical figure.

I got an interesting comment from a listener, which you can read in full here.

I emailed Endre a response, but I thought I’d share it here too…

Hi Endre,

Thanks for listening to my rambling podcasts. The Geeknights one was especially jumbled because I hadn’t actually planned to go into any specific details, and instead we just had a conversation.

“I recently listened to your Geeknights podcast about the historicity of the bible. It is a bit jumbled, and a great deal of it I don’t have any issue with, but I think I would recommend you to reconsider your position on the historicity of Jesus (as a historical person, not a magical saviour that can turn water into wine).”

I think I made it quite clear in the podcast that I’m not convinced either way about the historicity of Jesus. If pushed, I would say he probably didn’t exist, but it’s always a question of probabilities, right? And my main point that is even if the very first story of Jesus, however far back you can take it, was based on a real person, there is no evidence at all that all anything we know about the “character” of Jesus could apply to him at all. The things he said? To me it looks like collections of sayings from the various sects and philosophies of the first century. The things he did? Well, either he did miraculous things, or he did nothing. And if miracles don’t exist, he was nothing but a faker or magician. Or, more likely, the stories told about other characters were applied to him.

So at the root of all the made up stories (which isn’t a pejorative accusation, by the way) what do we have? Some guy, who probably didn’t do anything credited to Jesus, and probably didn’t say anything credited to Jesus. What is the point of even valuing him at that point?

Also, you say:

“My main problem with this issue is that if the stringency and hyper-critical evaluation of sources in examining the historicity of Jesus was to be applied broadly to ancient history, we would pretty much wipe it out as a field of study – our sources on a lot of the ancient world are extremely sparse.”

Here I completely disagree, but in a subtle two-fold way.

First, I think that every claim and story and character should be looked at in a hyper-critical way. And, if it seems there isn’t enough evidence to support their existence without any doubt, what should we do? We should doubt. Doubt is good. Especially with sparse sources. Some characters are more probable more truly historic (Socrates) and some are less probable (Hercules). As a quick side note, I see Jesus much more in the vein of Hercules than Socrates.

And I have good reason to doubt EVERY source, and EVERY claim. You know why? Every time a newspaper reporter has written about me, they have made three or four major mistakes. And every time I ever read any newspaper story about a subject or incident I know a lot about, I see loads of mistakes. So everything I read in the media is through a lens of doubt, because just because I don’t know enough to know WHAT the reporter is getting wrong, I know they are getting SOMETHING wrong.

Also, back in 2001 I created a character on a newgroup called rec.juggling. I think it took just 12 posts under the name of Nigel J. Green, and he was one of the most famous and controversial characters in the online juggling community. At the British Juggling Convention in the spring of 2001, I had Nigel Green write that he would be there, but only during the day as he was staying with a friend in Cardiff (the city where the convention was held). During and after the convention, I heard many people talking about him, and some said they saw someone that was probably him.

Even after I exposed the entire hoax, Nigel Green kept popping up in other situations. And now, 10 years later, in every show I do I talk about “My first juggling teacher when I was a young boy, who was much better than me at juggling at the time, called Nigel Green.” That means every year thousands of people hear about Nigel Green, and they have no reason to presume I’m lying. Why should they? I use the name Nigel Green because the real name of my first juggling teacher was Daniel Cock, and I don’t want to say Cock on stage.

Second, I don’t think holding every element of ancient history to critical evaluation would wipe it out as a field of study. In fact, I think the opposite. Or at least, I think that tracing the ideas and elements and memes of the stories about the characters is just as important and interesting as the historical figures themselves.

As I hinted before, the true Jesus, if he really existed, was probably way more boring than the Jesus we know and understand today. But what I find so fascinating about history is how we’ve come to have the Jesus we know today.

Because the conflicting reports in the gospels doesn’t mean we know less about Jesus, it instead means we know more about the different religions and sects and philosophies and movements of the first and second century. Just using the gospels we can track different formulations of divinity, and see the modes of thought as they developed. Each of the Gospels comments on the others, either directly or by talking about the kind of people who would later compile other gospels.

So we give up Jesus, but we gain people like Polykarp, Simon Magus, James the Just, John the Baptist, Marcione, and so many others. It’s the same with the old testament writings too. We give up pretty much everything before about 700 BC, but we gain new understanding about the true people and religions that developed in Canaan in that time.

And it’s the same with Nigel Green. We give up some guy who bullied other jugglers online, and we gain a new understanding about the story of online and real-life juggling subcultures.

I’m not going to read your sources, as I’ve no intention of delving into online discussion forums. I already know all the problems with the Christ Myth Hypothesis. I have problems with it myself. But I have problems with the wholesale acceptance of him as “probably historical” and then letting that frame any debate from then on. I want people to be honest about this. I don’t have a dog in the fight, you know. I’ve not written books about the subject arguing either way, nor am I religious, nor do I have anything against people with religious beliefs.

I hope you don’t mind such a response to your blog comment! Thanks for letting me clarify my position.


GeekNights special: The Historicity of the Bible with Luke Burrage

I was a guest on the GeekNights podcast again. We recorded this back in September, so I can’t remember exactly what we covered, but apparently I speak very quickly.

“Tonight on GeekNights, we end the year with a discussion we shared with the incorrigible Luke Burrage on the historical legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the Christian Bible. Of particular interest is the Documentary Hypothesis and a solid book on the subject (The Bible with Sources Revealed).”


Guest appearance on the GeekNights podcast.

GeekNights

While I was in New York, I joined Rym and Scott from the GeekNights podcatst. We chatted for a long time about various topics. We started with the fun topic of Spiritual Experiences from an Atheist Perspective which I also wrote about on my blog earlier this year.

This also puts an extra tick on an already fulfilled Goal and Plan for 2010 (see 4.2).