Wednesday, September 19, 2007

God has a horrible plan for your life

My last 10-15 years as a Christian were increasingly liberal (I would probably have been best described as universalist Christian agnostic), and even in my more evangelical days, I was never big on the idea of damnation, hellfire and brimstone, preferring the seemingly more benevolent idea of Hell as separation from god for those who would rather not be with god anyway.

But, on my recent travels across the northern midwest US, I had a couple of encounters that reminded me of the enormity of the horrors that fundagelicals believe are in store for those who live without Jesus (not to mention the glee with which many of them consider and recount said horrors).

My first encounter was with a religious radio station that I came across while searching for a weather report. The news got progressively more Christian-slanted as we listened. Alas, it was not followed by any weather forecasts, but next came a sermon, titled: "God has a Horrible Plan for your Life". In spite of myself, I decided to listen for a bit. OK, so God has a horrible plan for my life, *UNLESS* I have decided to devote myself to God, so I can be saved and then God will plan good things for me. BUT, how do I know if I have, in fact, been saved? Well, of course, I am not saved by anything that I do, but by my faith, but I only know if I really am properly faithful by checking what I do against various proclamations in the bible. OK, been there, done that. I apparently don't have the right kind of faith, so I guess I get the horrible plan - time to turn off the radio and go off in search of a laundromat in town anyway.


So there we were at the laundromat in L'Anse, Michigan. And on the bulletin board at the front was the second encounter - a large poster inviting one and all to "A Dramatized Real Life Presentation You'll Never Forget": Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames". This appears to be a production syndicated to local churches, which is designed to put the fear of eternal damnation into the audience by dramatizing cases of individuals getting sent to hell because their names were not "written in the book of life". (For an example, see http://www.mze.com/heavensgates/video.html, though I recommend extreme caution for anyone with casein allergies.)

All of which makes me think about cognitive dissonance, which we recently discussed at our local godless book club meeting. Surely the idea of a loving God sending people to hell must be one of the prime sources of cognitive dissonance for Christians (right up there with the existence of so many non-Christian religions, or even not-the-right-kind-of-Christian religions). But apparently, a little (or even a lot of) cognitive dissonance doesn't dissuade anyone from anything. On the contrary, from what I have been reading, a *little* cognitive dissonance can actually encourage people to more firmly internalize ideas and principles. Hmm - maybe if we rationalists find a way to be a bit less rational, it would make rationalism more believable?!

29 comments:

Sombfaa said...

My impression of atheist blogs, including this one, is that there is a tendency to post "stupid (or nasty or both)theist stories". I'm a Christian and I can't imagine myself wanting to post stories featuring stupid/nasty/otherwise negative atheists. I get that, from your perspective, theists are wrong. But why do you seem to care so much about what theists do or think? I think that atheists are wrong but I'm not constantly on the look out for evidence to prove it.

AJ Milne said...

Doubletake. Reading your title, I was assuming the 'horrible plan' was something along the lines of: 'ye shall be consigned to swear ye believe outrageous, absurd, contradictory things, yea, even to declaim the same unto thine family and closest intimates, yea, even to swear at the cost of any tattered remnants of your self-respect that ye believe such absurdities as: the violent torture and death of a human/deity hybrid is a necessary and important component of existence, clearly necessary and perfectly sensible because hairless apes have committed such dreadful atrocities as eating shellfish and wearing (or failing to wear, depending on one's sex) headgear to on Sundays... Verily, ye shall be consigned to declaim said absurd beliefs loudly and frequently and monotonously, occasionally supported by predictably and drearily arranged musical accompaniments heavy on major keys and bombastic cadences... Furthermore, if ye draw the short straw, and get promoted to our special Raving Street Preacher shortlist, ye shall be further consigned to wear a sandwich board and trudge sidewalks endlessly, declaring enthusiastically to all and sundry that the world will soon end (due, presumably, to aforementioned atrocities involving shellfish, amongst other crimes)... by which time ye yourself will, in fact, actually be looking forward to the same...'

My mistake. But in retrospect, a properly mediaeval hell complete with Faustian demons with horns 'n tails, gleefully employing fire 'n brimstone and a sharpened farmers' fork for an eternity of torture doesn't sound so bad.

Anyway. It was a pleasure meeting both of you Monday. Hope to make it out to a few more such events.

Theo Bromine said...

My impression of atheist blogs, including this one, is that there is a tendency to post "stupid (or nasty or both)theist stories". I'm a Christian and I can't imagine myself wanting to post stories featuring stupid/nasty/otherwise negative atheists.

I consider critical thinking and logical analysis to be immensely important. Not only do I feel this way now, I felt this way before I was a Christian, and while I was a Christian.

Eamon and I are atheists (not sure about Kizhe). On this blog, we don't just attack Christians - we are equally hard on other religions, excessively devoted sports fans, various sorts of paranormal woo. I think I would have found both the "God has a horrible plan" and the "Heaven's Gates" production quite worthy of criticism even when I was a Christian.

I think that atheists are wrong but I'm not constantly on the look out for evidence to prove it.

I have to ask: If you do not have evidence to prove atheists are wrong, why are you not an atheist? Why are you not looking for this evidence?

[By the way, I do agree with the comment you made a couple of weeks ago objecting to the use of the term Brights for atheists. (I would have responded earlier, but I have been on vacation.) I would never claim that atheists are necessarily smarter than theists, and actually pretty much everyone else in the local group feels that same way.]

bPer said...

Theo said "I do agree with the comment you made a couple of weeks ago objecting to the use of the term Brights for atheists"

That's one of the reasons I really object to the Brights movement - it's too-easy fodder for dismissive criticism.

I'd really like an opportunity to meet you, EK and AJ, but I can't bring myself to associate with Brights, even though I know you only use that term to make it easy for people to find you.

Eamon Knight said...

bPer comments: ....I can't bring myself to associate with Brights....

Well, if people feel that strongly about it, I'll change the wording of the link. Personally, I was never crazy about the "Bright" label myself (I self-identify as some combination of atheist/skeptic/rationalist/humanist), but we don't run the local meetup page.

The meetings are fun, which is what counts to me. And come to think of it, I don't recall anyone ever using the term "Bright" during a meeting.

Eamon Knight said...

AJ comments: Reading your title, I was assuming the 'horrible plan'....

Actually, I think the "horrible plan" title (remember, it was the radio preacher who originated that) was a deliberate spoof on "God Has a Wonderful Plan For Your Life", the title of a well-known gospel tract.

AJ Milne said...

I did get that, Eamon.

And bper, I would absolutely never use the term 'bright' in self-reference, either. With all respect to whomever named the Meetup group that way, I quite dislike the term, too. I get they were shooting for something positive, but it just sounds too... I dunno.. artificial. And self-congratulatory. And it was a minor thing for me to get over, showing up with that title on the group.

Because: me, I'm an atheist. Only thing I dislike about that term is that it's even necessary to say, in this day and age; I'd like to think it should be the default assumption--find it almost insulting anyone would assume otherwise. But apart from that minor irritation, it's a badge I wear with pride. Give me that, or unbelieving dog, infidel, hey, all those are fine. Freethinker is okay, too, I guess. Smells kinda Victorian, but in a good sort of way.

Or reality addict. That's good. Or child of the enlightenment, which sounds a bit flowery, but gets the gist, I guess.

Anyway, all I'm saying is: don't let it hold you back. I'm thinking it could probably be changed, if it comes to that.

AJ Milne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AJ Milne said...

Eh? Coulda sworn I just clicked once.

Anyway. Feel free to delete one, please, anyone, thanks.

AJ Milne said...

Oh. And I see it is being changed.

Well. Never mind, then.

Sombfaa said...

Theo says,"I consider critical thinking and logical analysis to be immensely important. Not only do I feel this way now, I felt this way before I was a Christian, and while I was a Christian."

I think they are important too. However, in my case, thinking this does not lead me to attack those who are not very good at these things. I find it unfortunate that many people (including some atheists, btw) do not have a good grasp of critical thinking and logical analysis. How would it improve the situation for me to attack them?

Theo also writes, "I have to ask: If you do not have evidence to prove atheists are wrong, why are you not an atheist? Why are you not looking for this evidence?"

Because I don't believe that such evidence exists. I understand faith as a decision to adopt a set of beliefs and a way of living in the absence of clear evidence one way or another. As I understand it, faith would not be possible if there were clear evidence.

As far as the question of the existence of God is concerned, rather than evidence, I see a set of observations about the world that seems to me entirely open to interpretation. Let me give an analogy:

I love my husband. This is what I experience. While it is possible to claim that what we call "love" is a matter of genetic and social programming or elctrochemical impulses, I reject an explanatory framework that negates the validity of my experiences. It seems to me too much like soplipsism.

Is there a way to prove that love is real or to prove that scientific reductionism is the correct view? I do not think so. It is not a question of evidence for one and not for the other. It is the same evidence, interpretted differently, for both.

I experience the existence of God. While some people may wish to attribute this to misfiring axons, delusions or whatever,I prefer a framework in which I can trust my own experiences.

Sombfaa said...

aj milne says, "Because: me, I'm an atheist. Only thing I dislike about that term is that it's even necessary to say, in this day and age; I'd like to think it should be the default assumption--find it almost insulting anyone would assume otherwise."

Let's apply some critical thinking and logical analysis to this statement. In my part of the world, a large majority of people claim to be theists. Why should it be my default assumption that people ascribe to minority position?

It is unlikely that I would make an assumption one way or the other on this question, but, if for some reason I needed to, I would go with the more statistically probable option. I think that is logical, not "almost insulting".

AJ Milne said...

Why should it be my default assumption that people ascribe to minority position?

Oh great critical thinker, this is a false dichotomy. I did not ask that anyone assume I'm an atheist. I asked that they not assume I share their archaic superstitions.

Reasonably, in the context in which I live, you may actually assume neither. It's much safer, actually. And, vastly more sensible, really, oh mighty and rigourous logician, in a world in which a substantial majority (some ten percent, give or take, in North America, at last count)...

But it's a typical and revealing error, actually, on the part of an arrogant and unthinking majority, that the minority may safely be disregarded entirely. Which is exactly what you're doing, if you simply assume without confirmation anyone you meet belongs to the former.

AJ Milne said...

('in a world in which a substantial majority (some ten percent, give or take, in North America, at last count)...' should of course read:

'in a world in which a substantial minority (some ten percent, give or take, in North America, at last count) do not share those beliefs'.)

Apologies. Always proofread. &c.

AJ Milne said...

Oh great critical thinker, this is a false dichotomy. I did not ask that anyone assume I'm an atheist. I asked that they not assume I share their archaic superstitions.

Oh. Wait. Yes I did, didn't I?

Ah well. Obviously 'I should like to think that would be the default assumption' is a reflection of wishful thinking, not demographics.

I still mock you (he said, embarrasedly abandoning the previously really bad response). But for entirely different reasons.

Sombfaa said...

ajmiline says "I still mock you (he said, embarrasedly abandoning the previously really bad response). But for entirely different reasons."

And what reasons are those?

AJ Milne said...

And what reasons are those?

Somfaa, as should be quite obvious from the whole of the post to which you initially responded, I know very well that it is not the default assumption that I do not believe in any god (recall that what I dislike about the term atheist is that it's 'even necessary to say, in this day and age'), and, yes, that I know perfectly well why it is not. Clearly, what I resent is that this is so. Your initial response, given that context, is nearly entirely incoherent (which, incidentally, is why my response to the same was so confused).

So yes, representing such a bizarre response as you presented as an example of 'critical thinking' or 'logical analysis' richly deserves mockery.

AJ Milne said...

... But in fairness, maybe this is rather new territory to you. So, to expand upon that initial point a little:

As I wrote above, the only thing I dislike about the term 'atheist' is that it's even necessary.

Put another way: if there were no theists (or they were sufficiently rare), the term atheist would be an archaism at best. A little like saying, in the 21st century, 'I'm not a geocentrist'... To which, of course, most sane people would merely say: well, of course you're not.

Put still another way: the very term 'atheist' is a tacit acknowledgement of something I personally find really irritating. It's not a description of what I am, but a regrettably necessary declaration of what I'm not--and necessary only because so many others are otherwise.

I don't have to say I don't believe in the tooth fairy. That's generally taken as a given, if you're much over, say, four years old. I don't have to say I don't believe in Santa Clause. Same deal. Don't have to waste much time in online fora pointing out to anyone those are sensible conclusions, either. But the bizarre circumstances of our world nonetheless make it necessary that I say 'I'm an atheist'.

So it creates this peculiar contradiction. You do wind up making it a bit of a point of pride... but at bottom, it's still says, from the mere fact that anyone has to say it: no that's not the way of the world. There is much silliness out there, and great, lovely, I personally escaped this particular irrationality--but sadly, an awful lot of folks haven't, and so the term still has currency, necessity, meaning.

So no, in that sense, I don't like the term at all. In fact, I wish the term had no meaning, merely because it were unnecessary. But yes, I know very well that isn't so.

I should add: no, I'm not this way about a lot of other things I happen to believe. On matters of economics, I don't wish there were simply no one who felt differently about, say, the relative value of money supply versus low inflation, a lot of other things. I get that there are intellectually defensible positions I happen to oppose. But the various theisms, I really find they're on another level altogether. So utterly bizarre, so patently risible, yet so prevalent. Some days, I find myself thinking: I have to be dreaming the whole thing. And then I realize: no, I'm awake. This is how people are, this is what they get up to. This is my world.

Sombfaa said...

aj milne says, "Your initial response, given that context, is nearly entirely incoherent (which, incidentally, is why my response to the same was so confused)."

Due to my lack of mind-reading abilities, I was forced to respond to what you actually wrote. I can see that was confusing for you, although I can't quite understand how it is my fault that you did not know what you wrote or why I "richly deserve mockery".

Anyhow, this illustrates my initial point about a tendency among atheist to express their lack of belief in a deity in attacks on theists.

AJ Milne said...

Umm... yeah.

Sombfaa, you're a real case.

You interpret what I wrote in a wilfully bizarre way, purely in an attempt to malign it as 'illogical', and then whine about being 'attacked' when I point out how ludicrously incoherent this made your response?

Well, awww. Cue tiniest violin.

Sombfaa said...

Theo Bromine wrote, "I consider critical thinking and logical analysis to be immensely important." And also wrote, "On this blog, we don't just attack Christians - we are equally hard on other religions, excessively devoted sports fans, various sorts of paranormal woo."

I have been curious as to whether Theo Bromine also holds atheists to similar standards of critical thinking and logical analysis. Thus I pointed out the illogic of aj milne's comments. Apparently, I misunderstood these and s/he was merely expressing wishful thinking rather than making a statement that could be taken at face value. Even so, I see an inconsistency between person liking the idea of being called a "reality addict" while resenting and being irritated by the reality that a large majority of people in North America are theists.

I would like to know if Theo Bromine thinks that aj milne's comments in this thread have been rational and, if not, whether aj milne ought to be subject to criticism and attack for making irrational comments. (If Theo Bromine thinks the comments were rational, I would appreciate an explanation of their logic, since it is beyond my ability to follow it.)

AJ Milne said...

I see an inconsistency between person liking the idea of being called a "reality addict" while resenting and being irritated by the reality that a large majority of people in North America are theists.

Wow. You're just a million leagues past merely shameless, aren't you?

Of course a reality addict is irritated by the fact that a majority of people in North America call themselves theists. As I've explained: I find there subscribing to such a belief a bizarrely irrational position. One in which that majority has clearly disconnected themselves from reality.

But I think you're just trying to play a standard is/ought switch, aren't you? Consciously, or no? Well, let's see:

Yes, let's see. Would it also be irrational to wish that people did not also follow horoscopes, if the majority do? If the majority were giving their life savings to con men posing as faith healers, would it be irrational to wish that this weren't so...

Hey, for that matter, if the majority happened to like beating themselves in the head with wooden sticks on a regular basis, would it be irrational to wish that they stopped?

Sombfaa, again: your attempting to smear such a position as 'illogical' makes absolutely no sense. For your own sake, I really have to hope you're just being deliberately obtuse about this. 'Cos if you're not, you really need help.

Sombfaa said...

The phrase "reality addict" conveys to me the idea that this is a person who makes a point of recognizing and accepting reality. I would not expect a "reality addict" to express himself or herself heatedly and emotionally about those aspects of reality of which s/he disapproves. Nor do I expect people who are rational to consistently make heated and emotional comments. For that matter, I associate rationality with the avoidance of personal attacks since such rarely seem reasonable to me.

Theo Bromine said...

Wow, I go out for an evening and find out a flamewar has broken out on my blog!

quoth Sombfaa: I would like to know if Theo Bromine thinks that aj milne's comments in this thread have been rational and, if not, whether aj milne ought to be subject to criticism and attack for making irrational comments. (If Theo Bromine thinks the comments were rational, I would appreciate an explanation of their logic, since it is beyond my ability to follow it.)


It looks like Sombfaa and aj are rather talking past each other.

As I interpret it, I would agree with aj in using the term "default assumption" for atheism in the philosophical sense - it should be the null hypothesis, with the burden of proof on those who assert the existence of god(s).

On the other hand, it looks like Sombfaa is interpreting "default assumption" in more of a social sense - i.e. it is reasonable to expect that in most cases, a person one encounters at random is likely to be a theist.

I think that aj's logical assertions have been rational. Aj (and others here) have also made statements of likes and dislikes. These are non-rational, and not subject to analysis on their merits with respect to critical thinking. One can acknowledge the "is" of majority theism while continuing to logically assert its incorrectness. I see no lack of critical thinking in this position.

Theo Bromine said...

The phrase "reality addict" conveys to me the idea that this is a person who makes a point of recognizing and accepting reality.

I think a "reality addict" is bound to acknowlege reality, and accept as fact those things that exist, but is under no obligation to refrain from either complaining or trying to effect change.

Sombfaa said...

Theo Bromine says,"As I interpret it, I would agree with aj in using the term "default assumption" for atheism in the philosophical sense - it should be the null hypothesis, with the burden of proof on those who assert the existence of god(s)."

Could you explain further how you derive such a meaning from the statement "Because: me, I'm an atheist. Only thing I dislike about that term is that it's even necessary to say, in this day and age; I'd like to think it should be the default assumption--find it almost insulting anyone would assume otherwise." It seems fairly clear that aj is talking about assumptions about who is an atheist rather than atheism itself. Even his subsequent explanations didn't suggest otherwise.

Theo Bromine says, "I think that aj's logical assertions have been rational. Aj (and others here) have also made statements of likes and dislikes. These are non-rational, and not subject to analysis on their merits with respect to critical thinking."

Would you say that aj's claims that I deliberately misinterpretted his comments should be classified with logical assertions or with statements of likes and dislikes?

Eamon Knight said...

In my Usenet days, I deliberately avoided getting involved in other people's spats. However, being the blog owner does give one a certain moderatorial privilege. So, further to what Theo said:

AJ: I'd like to think [atheism] should be the default assumption--find it almost insulting anyone would assume otherwise.

With respect, I do genuinely find this statement ambiguous, ie. as to whether you mean the social/statistical or
philosophical/rational sense (though it has since been clarified). So Sombfaa's misinterpretation is not unreasonable. However:

Sombfaa: Let's apply some critical thinking and logical analysis to this statement.

Unfortunately, rather than clarifying the issue, is simply condescending. It has the effect of escalating an innocent misunderstanding into an insult.

And it all goes downhill from there....

Queensbury Rules, people ;-).

Sombfaa has raised other issues which I would like to respond to, but which I think deserve a full blog post or three.

Sombfaa said...

I had written, "Let's apply some critical thinking and logical analysis to this statement."

about which Aemon Knight comments, "Unfortunately, rather than clarifying the issue, is simply condescending. It has the effect of escalating an innocent misunderstanding into an insult."

I apologize for coming across as condescending and insulting. That was not my intent. I genuinely believed that aj had made an illogical statement and wanted to draw attention to it in order to discover if there were a double standard here for illogic from theists and atheists. I did not give sufficient consideration to how this might make aj feel. If I think of his comments in terms of a response to feeling insulted, they no longer seem so excessively heated.

AJ Milne said...

My apologies I couldn't get back to this sooner. Busy day yesterday. Anyway:

Thanks for the gracious apology, Sambfaa; I did start out a little insulted, but honestly, I did have some fun too, so really, no harm done. My apologies in return if I came across as excessively heavy-handed.

I too have some further comments I might make (on the subjects of passion and reason, in particular), but it's gonna have to wait a bit, now, anyway. I really have spent enough time on this for now.