The Dishonesty of Defining Atheism as Lack of Belief in God

This is the script from a recent video of mine with the above title. It should be pretty readable, or you could just watch it.

Today we’re going to revisit the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in God, specifically to look at why it’s so controversial. As you may recall, Antony Flew first proposed changing the definition of atheism to lack of belief, from its traditional definition of “one who denies God,” in his 1976 essay, The Presumption of Atheism. By the way, you can see the traditional definition in the word’s etymology: atheos-ism, atheos meaning without God, and the -ism suffix denoting a belief system. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in changing a definition – all definitions are just an agreement that a given symbol (in this case a word) should be used to point to a particular referent. That is, any word can mean anything we all agree it does. And if a person is willing to define their terms, they can define any word to mean anything they want, so long as they stick to their own definition within the essay or book or whatever where they defined the term. Words cannot be defined correctly or incorrectly. But they can be defined usefully or uselessly. And more to the point here, they can be defined in good faith—cleary, to aid mutual understanding—or in bad faith—cleverly, in order to disguise a rhetorical trick.

And that second one is the why atheism-as-lack-of-belief is so controversial. If atheism merely denoted a psychological state—which might in fact be common between the atheist and a dead rat—no one would much care. Unless, I suppose, one wanted to date the atheist or keep the rat as a pet. But merely lacking a belief isn’t what lack-of-belief atheists actually mean. They only talk about lacking a belief to distract from the positive assertion they’ve learned to say quickly and quietly: that in default of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, one should assume atheism in the old sense. That is, until one has been convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists, one should assume that God does not exist. I’ll discuss how reasonable this is in a minute—spoiler alert: it’s not—but I’d first like to note the subtle move of people who have more or less explicitly adopted a controversial definition of atheism in order to cover for explicitly begging the question. I suspect that this is more accidental than intentional—somewhat evolutionary, where one lack-of-belief atheist did it and it worked and caught on by imitation—but it’s a highly effective rhetorical trick. Put all your effort into defending something not very important and people will ignore your real weakness. By the way, the phrase “beg the question” means that you’re assuming the answer to the question. It comes from the idea of asking that the question be given to you as settled without having to argue for it. But it’s not just assuming your conclusion, it’s asking for other people to assume your conclusion too, hence the “begging”. (“Asking for the initial point” would have been a better, if less colorful, translation of the latin “petitio principii”, itself a translation of the greek “τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς αἰτεῖν”. Pointing out how it’s not valid to do this goes back at least to Aristotle).

So, how reasonable is this assumption? The best argument I’ve ever heard for it is that in ordinary life we always assume things don’t exist until we have evidence for them. This is, properly speaking, something only idiots do. For example: oh look, here’s a hole in the ground. I’m going to assume it’s empty. It might be empty, of course, but in ordinary life only candidates for the Darwin Awards assume that. And in fact, taken to its logical conclusion, this default assumption would destroy all exploration. The only possible reason to try to find something is because you think it might be there. If you should act like planets in other solar systems don’t exist unless someone has already given you evidence for them, you wouldn’t point telescopes at them to see if they’re there. That’s not acting like they don’t exist; that’s acting like maybe they exist. In fact, scientific discovery is entirely predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t discount things until you’ve ruled them out. It’s also the entire reason you should control your experiments. You can’t just assume that other variables besides the one you’re studying had no effect on the outcome of your experiment unless somebody proves it to you, you’re supposed to assume that other variables do affect the outcome until you’ve proven that they don’t. This principle is literally backwards from good science.

Now, examples drawn from science will probably be lost on lack-of-belief atheists, who are in general impressively ignorant of how science actually works. But many of them probably own clothes. To buy clothes, one must first find clothes which fit. Until one gets to the clothing store, one doesn’t have evidence that they have clothes there, or that if they have clothes, that the clothes they have will fit. Properly speaking, one doesn’t even have evidence that the clothes that they sell there will have holes so the relevant parts of your body can stick out, like neck holes or leg holes. For all you know, they might lack holes of any kind, being just spheres of cloth. Do any of these atheists assume that the clothes at the clothing store lack holes? Because if they did, they’d stay home, since there’s no point in going to a store with clothes that can’t be worn.

Now, if one is trying to be clever, one could posit an atheist who goes to the store out of sheer boredom to see whether they have clothes or hippogriffs or whether the law of gravity even applies inside of the store. But they don’t, and we all know that they don’t. They reason from things that they know to infer other knowledge, then ignore their stupid principle and go buy clothes.

Now, if you were to point this out to a lack-of-belief atheist, their response would be some form of Special Pleading. Special Pleading is just the technical name for asking for different evidentiary standards for two things which aren’t different. You should have different evidentiary standards for the existence of a swan and for a law of mathematics, because those are two very different things. Sense experience is good evidence for a swan, but isn’t evidence at all for a law of mathematics, which must hold in all possible worlds. Special pleading is where you say that sense experience suffices for white swans but not for black swans. Or that one witness is enough to testify to the existence of a white swan, but three witnesses are required for a black swan. That’s the sort of thing special pleading is.

And this is what you will find immediately with lack-of-belief atheists. Their terminology varies, of course, but they will claim that God is in a special category which requires the default assumption of non-existence, unlike most of life. In my experience they won’t give any reason for why God is in this special category, presumably because there is none. But I think I know why they do it.

The special category of things they believe God is in is, roughly, the category of controversial ideas. Lack-of-belief atheists—all the ones I’ve met, at least—are remarkably unable to consider ideas they don’t believe. This is a mark, I think, of limited intellect, and people of limited intellect are remarkably screwed over by the modern world. Unable to evaluate the mess of competing ideas that our modern pluralistic environment presents to everyone, they could get by, by relying on a mentor: someone older and wiser who can tell them the correct answer until through experience they’ve learned how to navigate the world themselves. And please note that I don’t mean this in any way disparagingly. To be of limited intellect is like being short or weak or (like me) unable to tolerate capsaicin in food. It’s a limitation, but we’re all finite beings defined, to some degree, by our limits. God loves us all, and everyone’s limits are an opportunity for others to give to them. The strong can carry things for the weak, the tall can fetch things off of high shelves for the short, and people who can stand capsaicin can test the food and tell me if it’s safe. Limits are simply a part of the interdependence of creation. But the modern world with its mandatory state education and the commonality of working outside the home mean that children growing up have few—and commonly no—opportunities for mentors. Their teacher changes every year and their parents are tired from work when they are around. What are they to do when confronted with controversial ideas they’re unequipped to decide for themselves?

I strongly suspect that lack-of-belief atheism is one result. I’m not sure yet what other manifestations this situation has—given the incredible similarities between lack-of-belief atheism and Christian fundamentalism I strongly suspect that Christian fundamentalism is another result of this, but I haven’t looked into it yet.
This also suggests that the problem is not merely intellectual. That is, lack-of-belief atheists are probably not merely the victims of a bad idea. Having been deprived of the sort of stable role-models they should have had growing up, and not being able to find substitutes in great literature or make their way on their own through inspiration and native ability, they probably have also grown with what we might by analogy call a deformity in the organ of trust. They don’t know who to trust, or how to properly trust. Some will imprint on the wrong sort of thing—I think that this is what produces science-worshippers who know very little about science—but some of them simply become very mistrustful of everyone and everything.

Now, I don’t mean this as the only explanation of atheism, of course. For example, there are those who have so imprinted on the pleasure from a disordered activity that they can only see it as the one truly good thing in their life and so its incompatibility with God leads them to conclude God must not exist. There are the atheists Saint Thomas identified in the Summa Theologiae: those who disbelieve because of suffering and those who disbelieve because they think God is superfluous. But all these, I think, tend not to be lack-of-belief atheists and I’m only here talking about lack-of-belief atheists.

So finally the question becomes, what to do about lack-of-belief atheists? That is, how do we help them? I think that arguing with them is unlikely to bear much fruit, since most of what they say isn’t what they mean, and what they do mean is largely unanswerable. “I don’t know who to trust,” or, “I won’t trust anyone or anything,” can only be answered by a very long time of being trustworthy, probably for multiple decades. What I suspect is likely to be a catastrophic failure is any attempt to be “welcoming” or accommodating or inclusive. What lack-of-belief atheists are looking for—and possibly think they found already in the wrong place—is someone trustworthy who knows what they’re talking about. A person who is accommodating or inclusive is someone who thinks that group bonds matter more than what they claim is true, which means they don’t really believe it. The problem with “welcoming” is the scare quotes. There’s nothing wrong with being genuinely welcoming, since anyone genuinely welcoming is quite ready to let someone leave if he doesn’t want to stay. When you add the scare quotes you’re talking about people who are faking an emotional bond which doesn’t exist yet in order to try to manipulate someone into staying. Lack-of-belief atheists don’t need emotional manipulation, because no one needs emotional manipulation. What they need are people who are uncompromisingly honest and independent. The lack-of-belief atheist is looking for someone to depend on, not someone who will depend on them.

The good news is the same as the bad news: the best way to do this is to be a saint.

Imposter Syndrome Produces Many Fake Rules

Imposter Syndrome, which I’m using loose and not using to its clinical definition, is the feeling that a person is not actually competent at a job which they are manifestly competent at. I think that for many people it stems from being overly impressed with other people, putting those others on a pedestal, and not realizing that everybody everywhere is just “winging it”. That is, doing their best without full knowledge of what they should be doing. That is in fact the human condition—we are finite creatures and must live life by trust—but some people seem unable to accept that and have the conviction that other people must know what they’re doing. Only God knows what he’s doing; he’s the only one who accomplishes all things according to the intentions of his will. But for those who can’t accept that, they must turn others—often kicking and screaming—into God-substitutes and pretend that these people really know what they’re doing. (It’s part of the reason people turn so quickly and viciously on their idols—they view imperfect as treason, since they’ve elevated their idols to the status of God.)

Another coping mechanism which the sufferers of imposter syndrome have is to try to turn life into something they’re actually good at in this sense that no human being can be good at it. Thus they come up with a myriad of byzantine and difficult but achievable rules, then need to have everything in life go according to those rules in order to “feel in control”. These rules tend to cluster around anything with an inherently high degree of flexibility, such as around social interaction, writing fiction, etc. “When you visit someone, you must bring a food item” is really more of a ritual, being such a common rule, but it’s a way of showing that one cares and is not merely mooching. Especially in the modern world where food is absurdly available there’s little benefit to it, and so far as I know it was never the custom among rich people, but it gives something to do such that if one has done it, one did a good a good job and is not open to criticism. This is such a rule which caught on (and I’m forced to use a rule which is not particular to an individual in order that it might be generally recognizable), but they abound. Some people must always check the stove before leaving the house, some people must always hand-write thank-you notes, or send thank-you notes on paper rather than by email. An alternative way of thinking of these things is as ad-hoc superstitions.

Intellect vs Imagination

Eve considers the imagination and distunguishes between the imaginable and the conceivable.

Last Eden

Intellect and Imagination are two of the primary powers of the human mind. They are very distinct in their operations, yet human beings have a tendency to confuse the two.  Most human beings, Plato observed, have great difficulty in rising above the level of sensuous thought, that it, thought which makes use of imagery—for Plato, a philosopher who was also a great poet—it was a matter of course to enlist the imagination in the service of the intellect, giving us so wondrous images as the famous Cave described by Socrates in the Republic.

The Greeks had a conception of two distinct powers of mind that we call “imagination” in English: the εἰκασία and the φαντασία, the “image-ination” proper and the “fantasy.” English poets briefly attempted to distinguish the imagination from “the fancy,” but it never caught on.  Generally speaking, the εἰκασία deals with veridical images, images that are related to…

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Satanic Banality

Here is the script of the most recent video I posted. Or if you’d prefer, you can go watch it on youtube.

Some time ago, I made a video talking about the strange symbolism in the music video of Ke$ha’s song, Die Young. Here are all of the symbols she used:
The curious thing about them all is that despite the fact that the video is supposed to have a satanic theme, the symbols Ke$ha used are all actually Christian symbols. Here’s what I concluded in that video:

Ultimately what I think I find so frustrating about this video is that it’s use of symbolism is, essentially, magical thinking. Symbols have power, because they communicate something. A symbol stands in for something greater than itself, which is why it has more power than random scribbles. Using symbols without reference to what they mean is trying to use get power without invoking their function – it’s trying to steal their power.

But on further consideration, I’ve realized that this is actually quite fitting. Yes, this was rather incompetent satanism, but that is really the most consistent satanism possible. Diligence is a virtue; if she put a lot of work into her satanism—if she really tried to do a good job—that would undermine the entire point. Skillful Satanism is actually something of a contradiction in terms.

And this is something C.S. Lewis complained about in literature. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, talking about artistic representations of the angelic and diabolic, he said: “The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognized as symbols. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite, and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much too Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell. The humorous, civilised, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.”

There’s nothing all that particular to Satanism in these complaints, though. It’s really the same as a mistake that we tend to make about all evil. I think that the origin of this mistake is, roughly, the intuition that if a person is trading their soul for something, there must be something quite valuable which tempted them to do it. Consider the scene in A Man For All Seasons where Richard Rich has just perjured himself to produce false evidence that will get Sir Thomas More executed for treason:

More: There is one question I would like to ask the witness. That’s a chain of office you’re wearing. May I see it? The red dragon. What’s this?

Cromwell: Sir Richard is appointed Attorney General for Wales.

More: For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?

(If you haven’t seen A Man for All Seasons, please do. It is an excellent movie.)

Why would somebody do something evil if it doesn’t benefit them? The answer to this question is straightforward, but we need a few concepts in order to be able to give the simple explanation. The first is the the Greek concept of hamartia. It comes from the verb hamartenein, which was, for example, what an archer did when he didn’t hit his target. It means, roughly, to miss. Hamartia thus means an error, or a mistake, or by the time you get to the early Christian church, sin. The key insight is that evil is not something positive, but something negative.

I think that people go wrong here by not taking nihilism seriously enough. We think of a world working in perfect harmony and unity as the default, and of evil as a deviation from that. But in fact the default is nothing. There need not be anything at all. No matter, no energy, no space or time or physics. Just pure nothing, is the default. And yet, there is something. I don’t even care at the moment whether you attribute that creation to God or to a “quantum fluctuation”—well, I care a little bit because the latter is still assuming that some sort of contingent laws of physics exist, but whatever. The point is that anything whatever that exists—in our contingent world—is more than had to exist. Whether you think of it as a gift or as something that fell off of some cosmic truck that was driving by, from our perspective it is all a positive addition to the nothingness which is logically prior to it.

When you look at it this way, you can see that good is not a maintenance of the status quo, but an addition to it. But of course good is not merely anything at all existing. This is why a table is better than a pile of splinters, and why in the ordinary course of events using an axe to turn a table into a pile of splinters is wrong. It is bringing the world closer to the default of nothing. Good is not just any existence, but existence ordered according to a rational relationship. By a rational ordering, small things can become something more than themselves. Put together in the right shape, splinters can be beautiful and hold things up off the ground. That is, they can be a table.

Incidentally, this is why hyper-reductionists have such an easy time seeing through everything. Because every good thing is a rational relationship of lesser things, it is always possible to deny that the relationship is real. You can look at a table and see no more than a pile of splinters. Why a reductionist is proud of seeing less than everyone else is a subject for another day, but if you look at anything you know to be good, you will see this. It is itself made up of a rational relationship of parts that form more than they would in some other relationship. Further, all good things themselves fit in a rational relationship with other good things. Anywhere you look, whether chickens or statues or vaccines or video games; all good things have this property. And all evil—murder, arson, terrorism, or just lying—all have the property that they destroy rational relationships between things. They destroy the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is also the case that there is no other possibility for what constitutes good and evil. I don’t have time to go into details, but if you examine any attempt to define good and evil which is not convertible into this definition, it invariably consists of taking one sort of rational relationship and calling that the only good. Good is doing your duty, or good is the family, or good is the state or good is pleasure. Every such thing, if you really spend some time looking into it and seeing what its proponents actually mean by their words and actions—they are all taking some rational relationships and elevating them above all other rational relationships. They are taking a part and treating it as the whole.

And this is why sin is analogous to an archer missing what he was shooting at. We all aim for doing the good, but it’s very rare that we actually hit our target. Sometimes our aim is off because we twitch—that is, we can’t hold steady—but very often it’s because we mistake what we’re looking at. We think it’s closer or further, or that we’re looking at one part when we’re looking at another. We go wrong not because we think, “oh man would it be great to shoot this deer in the log under it!” but because we thought we were looking at its chest. We weren’t, as proved by where our arrow struck. Or we can go wrong by being mistaken about where we’re aiming, thinking that because we’re looking at something, that’s where we are pointing our arrow. Know thyself is often quoted by unpractical people, but it’s actually intensely practical advice.

The drug addled, sex-crazed rock star doesn’t think she’s using Christian imagery when she’s trying to be Satanic. She has not traded looking like a buffoon for some amazing benefit we can’t see. In her mind, she doesn’t look like a buffoon. She thinks she looks awesome; that anyone sensible would cower in awe of her satanic majesty. She has missed her target, and hasn’t yet gone to see where her arrow has actually struck. There’s a reason why pop musicians rarely last a decade; once they realize what they’re doing, they stop doing it; once they stop believing in it, they can’t sell the illusion anymore. And then their popularity fades, because it was not them, but the illusion they were selling, which was so popular.

Satanic Majesty is always an illusion, which is why you can only ever encounter it in art. Art contrives to convey experience; to show you what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. But Satanic Majesty always looks banal from the outside; it’s only from the inside that it looks spectacular. This is part of why pride is the deadliest of the sins: if you wrap yourself up inside yourself, you can fool yourself forever without anything to check your downward, inward progress. And this is why music videos feature so many reaction shots. It’s also why movies and TV and virtually everything fictive, features so many reaction shots. The thing itself rarely looks very impressive, but people’s reactions are limited only by their imagination and acting skills. It’s why in Power Rangers series, after they lower the camera to the monster’s feet, the next shot is always the power rangers looking up. Our age has been called the age of many things, but it is the age of nothing so much as it is the age of the reaction shot. TV news shows the reactions of people on the street, but it never shows you the considered opinions of people on something that happened ten years ago. Collectively, we don’t like reality; you can tell a tree by its fruit, which is why we prefer to look at seedlings.

It’s everywhere in entertainment—in which category news most certainly belongs— but it can be found throughout life, too. We endlessly discuss people’s reactions, but we rarely discuss things and ideas. And if we look at ourselves, when we are tempted, we can see the same thing. We do not consider our temptations in themselves, but only how they will make us feel. I mean when we’re experiencing them, not when we’re regretting having given into them afterwards. In the actual moment of giving in, our attention is never on the reality of what we’re about to do; we’re concentrating on how happy it will make us. That’s why one of the techniques for avoiding temptation is to face up to what we’re actually doing. Of course sometimes we can’t avoid facing up to what we’re actually doing; in addiction it’s called hitting rock bottom. But when one is young and healthy, it’s very rare that reality makes us face up to what we’re doing. On TV they always pick pretty people who smile for the camera, and it’s so hard to believe that anything can be wrong when pretty people are happy. On Facebook people post pictures of when things are going well, and the very fact that it’s rude to tell people about how bad your day was means that we don’t often face up to the reality of what is going on in life. A person has to be very unhappy indeed before they won’t smile for the camera.

Which is a pity, because so many people use reactions to tell whether the thing being reacted to is good or bad. Since people will put their best foot forward, this doesn’t work; to know right from wrong we must investigate the things themselves. And in fact in our world whether an action is defended on its own or by the reactions to it is actually a good heuristic for figuring out whether it is moral or immoral—if you can say something good about the action itself, it is probably moral. If it is only defended by people’s reactions to it, it is probably immoral. That’s only a heuristic, of course; people dance because it’s fun, and dancing is legitimate. But dancing is also beautiful, at least when it’s done well. There’s very little you can say about heroin except that it’s fun.

That’s all for now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Prayer to an Unchanging God

If you aren’t familiar with the properties of God, perhaps the strangest, to us, is that God is unchanging. It follows necessarily from the fact that God is simple, that is, he is not composed of separable parts that are capable of existing independently. That follows from the fact that God is necessary, unlike us, who are contingent. Since God is necessary, he cannot be composed of things which are not necessarily together. And since God is necessary, he cannot change, because change means some part coming into being or ceasing to be. Since God is necessary (and has no contingent parts), there is no part of him which is capable of not existing. So far, OK, but how, then, does prayer work if God doesn’t change. What does prayer do?

It’s easy enough if you only consider our side of prayer, that is, how prayer changes us. But that’s not all prayer does. Prayer can change the world. We can pray for good things to happen, and God can answer our prayers with good things, if often (having to take everyone’s good into account) in ways so complex we don’t understand them until much later if at all. Or we can get immediate answers to our prayers, as in the case of miracles. How can that possibly work if God is unchangeable?

I think that it will be easier to give the answer if we first look at the fact that we creatures are able to interact with each other. C.S. Lewis mentioned, addressing the question, “since God knows what’s best, how can it make sense to ask him for anything?” He pointed out that the same problem applies to umbrellas. Surely God knows whether we should be wet, so why give him our opinion on the subject by opening our umbrella?

The answer to that question is that God has given it to us to take part in designing creation. This is part of a general plan of delegation which God seems to have. For a great many things, instead of doing things directly God gives it to us to do his work for him. He could feed the hungry man himself, but he gives it to us to be his feeding of the hungry man by us giving the hungry man food. You can see this in the analogy of the parent who gives his child a present to give to someone else; the parent could have given the present directly but the parent is incorporating the child into the parent’s act of generosity. Unsurprisingly, God does a far more complete job of it than human parents do. This is part of why people can ignore God; they see only the action of the people incorporated into God’s generosity and ignore the rest.

When God gives us these things by way of delegation, what happens is that we end up acting sort of like a lens to the sunlight. From our perspective, we don’t change the sun, but we do change how the sunlight affects earthly objects. By holding our hands up we make a shadow, but holding up a lens we concentrate the light on a place, with a prism we break the light into distinct pieces and make a rainbow. Real life is vastly more complex than just lensing the sun, but it works as a metaphor to show us how you can change the effect of the sun without changing the sun itself.

Prayer is the same basic thing, except we can’t directly observe it. By prayer we interact with God such that we change not God, but how his unchanging love for creation is expressed in creation itself. Prayer is like holding up a magnifying glass in front of the sun, shaping where the light goes without doing anything to the sun.

Atheist Fundamentalists

Over on my youtube channel, I posted a video called Atheist Fundamentalists. Here is the script I wrote for it. It was meant to be read aloud (I wrote it for how I speak), but if you bear that in mind I believe it’s quite readable. The video has some illustrative graphics, but they’re not critical. Or you can just go to my youtube channel and watch the video. 🙂

Today we’re going to talk about Fundamentalist Atheists. At the end of my video about the rhetoric of defining atheism as a lack of belief in God, I said that many lack-of-belief atheists seem just like fundamentalists. I got a request for clarification on that point, which I’m going to do a whole video about because it’s an interesting—and fairly large—subject.

To explain what an atheist fundamentalist is, we must first ask the question, what is a Christian Fundamentalist? In theory they are people who stick to the “fundamentals” of Christianity, but to other Christians, and especially to Christians with a valid apostolic succession (mostly the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), they don’t seem to know much about Christianity and are obsessed with things that aren’t at all fundamental.

They are probably best known for their supposedly literal interpretation of the bible and their young-earth creationism, but I think that these are red herrings. Epiphenomena, more properly. The bible is not in fact an idol that they worship, or more properly it literally is an idol which they worship exactly in the way that ancient pagans used to worship their idols. There has arisen a very strange idea that the primary relationship of ancient peoples to their gods was roughly the same as that of a bad scientist to his pet theory. That’s quite wrong. In fact it is doubtful whether explaining the actions of the physical world had anything at all to do with how ancient people related to their gods. The Romans are a particularly good example of this, because they had such a large number of gods. They had gods of everything. They had gods of doorways and of beds, of hearths and of wine. No one needed an explanation of these natural phenomena because they weren’t natural phenomena. There was a good chance that the Romans knew, personally, who built the particular ones they used. They did not have a god of wine because they didn’t know where wine came from.

The primary relationship which pagans had with their gods was one of control. The gods offered a way to control the natural world. You made sacrifices so things would turn out the way you wanted. The pagan gods needed these sacrifices, or at least they really wanted them, and so human beings had a bargaining chip with nature. But even more than this, since the gods were capricious and often didn’t do what you asked, it offered a way to organize society, and this part actually worked. Everyone took part in the public ceremonies, and the games, and the plays. By being dedicated to something more than the people, the people could work together and become great. The Romans did not worship the emperor as a god because they thought the emperor explained the rain or the wind or the rocks. They worshipped him because every Roman citizen worshipping the emperor made them one people.

And if you look at Christian fundamentalists, you’ll see something very similar. They insist that the bible is the literal word of God, but they don’t seem to mean by that, that it’s true. They don’t even seem to read very much of it. Something that happened to me a few years ago is aboth an amusing story and illustrates the point quite well. A fundamentalist I ran into was explaining his theory that the second creation story in the book of genesis is really just the first story told backwards—he didn’t explain in what sense this is a literal interpretation—and when he was done, instead of addressing this weird idea, I pointed out that if you’re going to take everything in the bible literally, then you have to conclude that God repented. His response was, “where does it say that?”

For those of you who’ve never read the book of Genesis, it says that in chapter seven. It’s right before the flood, before God called Noah, it says that God repented of having made man, for man’s works were evil from morning till night.

And it’s trivially easy to come up with other examples that fundamentalists don’t take literally. When Jesus said, of the eucharist, “this is my body,” of course for some reason the literal meaning of those words aren’t the literal meaning of those words. When Jesus said that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you will have no life in you, that’s purely symbolic… in some sort of literal sense. Examples abound; former fundamentalists are very fond of citing Leviticus, I believe.

And at this point a question which comes up, fairly frequently, from Atheists, I’ve found, is, “how do you know which parts not to take literally?” I even had one fellow ask for a list of non-literal passages, and he never really understood when I tried to explain that no such list exists because only a fundamentalist could ever think it useful. I tried to explain that orthodox Christians read the bible to learn, so whether a given book or passage is to be taken literally is something that would come up in commentary on that passage. A list of non-literal passages would be about as useful as a list of special effects in movies which defy physics. What would you do with that list? Go watch only those scenes? Would you keep this list handy when watching a movie to check every time you see a special effect?

Anyway, the answer to the question of how do we know what to not interpret literally is, first and foremost, the living interpretive tradition of how we are supposed to interpret the scriptures. This predates the apostles, of course. The Jews had a living interpretive tradition of what we now call the old testament, which was taken up by the Apostles since they were all Jews. But for simplicity’s sake I’m going to stick with just the new testament. In the four gospels, we see clear accounts that Jesus selected a group of men who he asked to follow him, which they did. Literally. They left their trades and ordinary lives and spent pretty much the next three years going with Jesus everywhere he went. He talked with them, all the time, and taught them things which he didn’t teach more generally. If you think of the apostles as being in an apprenticeship program, you won’t go too far off. And these apostles went on to become the first bishops, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And all bishops since have been successors to one of the apostles. They are men who were trained, formed, and selected by their predecessors to carry on the living tradition of the apostles. And this was how the church was organized: around the apostles, and later around their successors. Because these are the people who studied, in depth, what the faith means. The ending to the gospel of John summarizes it very succinctly: “There were many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to hold all the books which would have to be written.”

It is also the case that we have no record of Jesus having ever written anything down. That’s not quite true, as there is one story which mentions he was writing in the sand when people spoke to him, but there’s no mention of what he was writing.  Jesus didn’t write the bible, he founded the Church. The Church wrote the bible. And it also passed on how to understand it.

And if you don’t understand why it is that Jesus would train the apostles rather than write the gospels, ask anyone who has studied martial arts how effective it would be to learn martial arts from a manual, with no teacher. There’s a reason why basic training in the military is not a study-at-home course.

Now, all of this is rejected by fundamentalists, who literally pretend that you can learn everything you need to know about how to live well by reading the bible on your own with no context, or training. With nobody around who has any idea of how any of this is supposed to work in practice. Or what the people who wrote it, actually meant by the words they wrote down. In a letter to some monks who were arguing about free will versus grace, Saint Augustine, who was a bishop, mentioned a useful interpretive strategy: if your interpretation contradicts most of the bible or makes it really, really stupid, this is a bad interpretation. The particular case he was talking about was the denial of free will: because denying free will means that every time God said anything to man, this was pointless and stupid. Since God is not an idiot who engages in completely futile actions, determinism is, therefore, bad theology. But if you actually talk to fundamentalists, you’ll find they violate this common sense principle all the time. They will take a passage, or a verse, or a quarter of a verse, and will with rocklike certainty conclude they know exactly what it means and that this meaning does not need to be reconciled with any other verses, not even with the rest of the sentence from which they drew it.

This is not the action of somebody who believes that the bible contains truth. And this is just one example, if you spend any time with fundamentalists you will rapidly conclude they don’t want people to think that the bible is true. At least, not in the literal sense of those words. What they want is for everyone to worship the bible. It is true that part of that worship is to say that the bible is literally true, but like with sacrifices to the emperor, the point is for everyone to do it, not to believe it.

Having finally said what a Christian fundamentalist is, we can now look at what an atheist fundamentalist is. They are people who do the exact same thing, but with a different idol. The idol is often science, but it can also be political theories like Objectivism, Marxism, Feminism, Environmentalism, and so on. Of course there isn’t just one science book, or one objectivist book, or one marxist book, etc, so they can’t worship just one book. On the other hand, the bible is properly a small library of books, so in that sense Christian fundamentalists don’t worship just one book either.

And just as Christian fundamentalists don’t seem all that interested in what Christianity actually is, atheist fundamentalists are often shockingly ignorant of real science. And I don’t just mean science’s sins, like the flaws in the peer review system, the problem with publish-or-perish, the infrequency of trying to reproduce results, and so on. Nor do I mean science’s self imposed limitation to what is measurable and quantifiable. No, I mean that they’re often quite ignorant of science’s virtues, like interesting experimental results or what scientific theories actually are. It’s quite perplexing until you realize that they’re not interested in science as something true, but in science as an idol that everyone can worship to unify society. And you can see the same elsewhere, with environmentalists who know nothing about the environment but recycle religiously, or marxists who know next to nothing about actual marxism but always vote for democrats and have a Che Guevara poster on their wall.

And it is not uncommon for an atheist fundamentalist to have a few favorite scientific “facts” which mirror the favorite bible verses of the Christian fundamentalist. “Atoms are made of mostly empty space”, though that’s actually an outdated model of the atom. “Nothing happens in Quantum Mechanics until an observer looks at it”, but observer doesn’t actually mean a person in quantum mechanics. Evolution means that animals get smarter and faster and stronger over time—survival of the fittest—though the theory of evolution actually refers only to the change in allele frequency in a population over time, and as in blind cave fish, might mean animals get weaker or smaller or dumber if the environment favors that.

And perhaps the most notable characteristic of fundamentalists, whether christian or atheist, is their fierce tribalism. Being primarily concerned with group unity, they (rightly) view outsiders as a threat to the group. This leads them to be insular, but it  also leads them to be hostile to outsiders. Christian fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is damned and will burn in hell; atheist fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is irrational and should be locked up in lunatic asylums. Richard Dawkins has said that teaching one’s children religion should be considered child abuse.

It is not really surprising that those who value people over truth should not have much truth, but they very often have little in the way of people, either. Fundamentalists are notorious for driving people away. Truth is a jealous God; if you love truth more than people you may well end up with both, but if you love people more than truth, you will usually end up with neither.