Bonus article by Steven Pinker: Science is Not Your Enemy.

Discussion (69)¬

  1. Hobbes says:

    That is a real hoot! My irony meter went off scale again. 😀

  2. Necessary Evil says:

    I am re-assured by my simplistic materialistic faith in the non-existence of supernatural forces. Should an event occur that knocked that faith, I’d probably be spooked to death – the idea of there being a god or whatever is just too scary. I don’t like scary mysteries designed to prey on my imagination and to allow spooky people to have power over me.

  3. Undeluded says:

    And they claim to KNOW! I have quite a long list of terms that I always request theists to define at the beginning of a discussion. Some of these terms are: knowledge, reality, truth. I’ve also recently added: falsehood, illusion and delusion. It’s quite easy to debate with them using their own definitions…

  4. steeve says:

    Quantum theories are quite mysterious enough for me, thank you

  5. K P Spong says:

    Any argument for religion, when examined, eventually peters down to “it’s magic”. Usually it doesn’t even require a particularly thorough examination.

  6. MarkyWarky says:

    Undeluded, I like your list 🙂

    I think for too long we (the sceptical), have let theists get away with the idea that there’s something bigger than materialism can explain. It’s almost as if we’ve accepted “you can’t prove there isn’t” as valid.

    I think we now need to stop simply arguing that there is no evidence FOR gods, and start arguing the evidence AGAINST them. We need to get them to describe their model of a world with god (not an easy task I know), and then show them that what we actually see around us doesn’t fit that model.

    I’ve often thought that there might indeed be/have once been a god/gods/creator/force/magic behind the natural processes we see; we simply don’t know. What I’m absolutely sure of, based on hard evidence, is that if there is/was, he/she/it is/was nothing like the description the religious give of him/her/it.

    So for example, if one day someone proves that life requires an intelligent designer (even though I’d suggest our understanding is moving in the opposite direction), the religious would jump on that as proof that their god, in all his amazing detail, was real, whereas I’d conclude that all we now knew was that a creator was required, about whom we know nothing at all, yet.

  7. JohnM says:

    The traditional approach boils down to what we should all tell the religious when they spout their nonsense – “Show me the evidence or STFU”. Your idea would involve engaging them in debate, which you must surely know is a fool’s errand;-)

  8. MarkyWarky says:

    @JohnM, yes I know, but it’s all pointless anyway. The stock answer to your challenge is “It’s all around you; you must be blind/burying your head not to see it.”. They just can’t get their heads around the idea that seeing something wonderful is evidence that there are things to find out, nothing more.

    Then you get the ones who proceed to give you the evidence – biblical revelation, personal experience, the very existence of religion, religiosity, not to mention pseudo-science – and you’re into a debate anyway!

    Asking for evidence is great, except that we (sceptics and fruit cakes), can’t agree on what constitutes evidence.

  9. Peter says:

    Shirley, if said creator decloaks one day it’ll cease to be a mystery and just another aspect of nature.

    Also, I like Peter Bogdassian’s take, “faith is claiming to know what you can’t know” (or words to that effect)

  10. Author, this one rocks. Your ability to cut to the simplistic core of the matter continues to amaze me. Also, Pinker is always great reading but I love it when somebody slaps him down, as was done hard in “Sex at Dawn” and recently by PZ talking about evo-psych. That’s my kind of conflict.

  11. Nassar Ben Houdja says:

    Science how clever and smart
    Occasionally upsets the proverbial apple cart
    With profound pontifications
    And intellectual gyrations
    Utters many a factual fart

  12. Stafford Gordon says:

    It’s so simple that even I get it, only I think it’s frustrating rather than funny because it won’t make a jot or tittle of difference to a believer; if they are of a mentality which needs to “believe” they’ll simply continue doing so regardless; probably adding for good measure that the cartoon is disrespectful and, therefore cannot be funny.

  13. maggs says:

    I’d rather talk about the weather, the effect of man on the environment or the state of health of various members of the religious persons family than bother with engaging in a discussion about imaginary existences that don’t form part of my internal landscape. Of course if that proves impossible without them trying to bring their internal landscape into the conversation, then I’d suddenly remember an urgent appointment and go elsewhere.

  14. Undeluded says:

    You’re not helping by running away from the issue. That’s tantamount to letting someone else do the work for you. A prime example is the very existence of this site – Author, in his own inimitable (and, let me add, ingenious) way, is bringing our atheistic views to light. Other examples are the Youtube debates, books and lectures (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennet, et al). And we examples in other languages as well (even in Arabic!). We all need to participate in urging people to think for themselves, even educating them to do so (all right, I’ll settle for just ‘to think,’ period). I try to do my bit – hence my ‘definition list.’

    The worst ‘sin’ of all time is naming a man-written book as ‘holy!’ And the worst crime of all time is brainwashing children to believe this sin! When these are eradicated I truly believe we shall have a better world (and we can discuss what THAT means elsewhere).

    BTW – my ‘definition list’ also EXCLUDES a number of terms: holy, sacred and blasphemy, to name a few.

    Your style is improving (slightly). But this time I didn’t get whose side you’re on… or maybe I just missed your point.

  15. Unruly Simian says:

    @Undeluded – I do not think that Nassar has ever had a point, either in wit or script. Nor has he had a “side” but is merely fodder for this blog.

  16. Myrhinne says:

    This one made me realise that often it is science that recognises the mystery by admitting ignorance while religion will have a prescribed answer. I look forward to mentioning it sometime.

  17. fenchurch says:

    Doesn’t knowing how something actually works increase one’s appreciation and wonder for said thing?

    I find film cameras amazing, as well as being able to break voice and data signals down, transport them, then reassemble in a cohesive format again someplace else.

    It’s the “goddunnit/mysterious ways” said with a shrug that papers over the incredible complexity of how truly stuff works.

    (Recommended to all: date a scientist if you can’t be one yourself!)

  18. bear47 says:

    I’m with Fenchurch on this one.
    Finding out how a thing/device/etc. works can be a real eye opener. How radio works as an example, or, yes, a camera. I enjoy taking photos and listening to music. How we are able to use devices, radio and cameras to do this is amazing. That some very clever human beings figured this out just so we can all enjoy them is a remarkable achievement for humanity. No god(s) needed at all, in any way, shape, or form. In fact, religions even have called such inventions “tools of the devil”. Now THAT is insanity to my way of thinking.
    IF there were a real “Loving, caring, kind” god or gods, why would such a “benevolent” critter allow us to invent nasty crap like atomic bombs to kill more of us in larger numbers than ever before? Nope, for me there are NO gods at all, and likely never were.
    Just my (not so very) humble 2 cents worth.

  19. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    fenchurch says:
    August 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm
    Doesn’t knowing how something actually works increase one’s appreciation and wonder for said thing?

    Or, in the case of religion, increase ones contempt for it:
    Take churches, for example. Many people will swear that being in church fills them with a feeling of God, and the thing is, they really do get inexplicable physical sensations such as feeling that the body is ‘humming’ or vibrating, hairs on the neck standing up,etc. as well as more psychological symptoms, described in such glowing terms as ‘I felt filled with love’ or ‘my head was swimming’ and so on. And it’s not just believers; I too have sat through some services and felt strange sensations at certain points, and always wondered what caused it.
    I found out one possible cause in a book called Quirkology by Professor Richard Wiseman. He was doing experiments into the effects on the human body of infrasound; frequencies too low for human ears to detect, and whether it may help explain why certain places gain reputations for being haunted (and it did!): he even tried to reproduce the ‘brown note’, but couldn’t manage to replcate the effect the South Park kids achieved. Anyway, as part of his preparations he looked at church organs; many of those in the larger churches and cathedrals have some absolutely massive pipes that produce no discernible sound, just infrasound, and of course infrasound does have some strange effects on the body, since it is essentially produced – as far as we are concerned – as a rather high-energy wave of vibrating air. The effects can include shivering; butterflies in the stomach; anxiousness; headaches; shortness of breath; tension, and much besides (at certain frequencies it can get very unpleasant indeed). He asked one pipe maker why the churches wanted pipes that played notes that nobody could actually hear and got the very honest reply “Well, they can be viewed as either a very expensive way of creating a small draught, or a cost-effective way of helping the congregation find God”.
    The crafty buggers!

  20. HaggisForBrains says:

    Thanks AoS, you’ve inspired me to dig out my copy of Quirkology and read it again.

  21. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    A pleasure, HFB, I’m doing exactly that myself.
    I dug it out initially because I saw a CSI episode recently where an extractor fan in a basement was responsible for the ‘eerie’ feeling of a supposedly haunted building where murders of children had taken place, and I thought that the plot sounded familiar. Now I see where they got it, as Wiseman reports on a researcher who had exactly that experience (albeit minus the murder and in a lab).
    It’s fascinating stuff indeed, and I’d recommend the book to anybody interested in the science and psychology of everyday life. Astrology gets a damned good going over, as does the efficacy of prayer; it teaches how to really spot a lie, and digs into subliminal advertising (it doesn’t work), suggestibility, seances and superstitions, lucky people and how to make your own luck, how we come to decisions, how our names can influence our careers (a psychologist called Wiseman couldn’t miss that out, could he?) and so much more.
    It even includes the most succinct explanation of relativity that I’ve seen by way of a quote from Einstein himself – “Sit with a beautiful woman for an hour and it seems like a minute, sit on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour – that’s relativity.” – and contains in a chapter on finding the world’s funniest joke, my favourite Sherlock Holmes gag, the one with the tent and the stars.

    I had an amusing incident this morning whilst walking the dog, but Mrs o’Sagan is waiting to go shopping so I’ll relate it later.

  22. Dan says:

    Let us not forget that we can’t ultimately explain anything.

    We can explain things in terms of other things and (reductionism) many things in terms of a smaller set of things and often smaller things.

    But if we get down to smallest things such a quarks or strings or up to one big thing such as monotheistic God we still haven’t explained those things or ultimately explained anything.
    God (even infinite and eternal) is not an explanation for why God rather than not God.

  23. MarkyWarky says:

    True Dan, but we can explain things “in all practical senses”, whereas “goddidit” doesn’t even do that.

  24. Dan says:

    Goddidit is cannot be differentiated from the null hypothesis.
    It makes no testable prediction and should not even be considered an explanation.

  25. Undeluded says:

    @Dan – who is doing the explaining, and to whom? Remember, there are two camps out there: the theists, who need no explanations because they ‘know’ they have all the answers (and no progress), and the rationalists who explain things to each other (and a lot of progress). There is a small group sitting on the fence between these two camps – not sure of which way to turn. They are our targets – and the theists targets as well! This is where the battle is waged, these are the people who need the explanations. They are prepared to listen to reason and be persuaded by evidence. At present I think the flow is mainly from religion to non-religion. This kind of ‘osmosis’ will (it is to be hoped) eventually also raise the numbers of supporters for laws abolishing the brainwashing of children into believing in myths and fairy-tales. This will be the true measure of governmental sanity. And also (I almost said ‘god-willing’) some day we’ll overcome the ‘politically correct’ syndrome where certain groups are irrationally privileged purely for their beliefs, to the extent that country laws are bent in their favor.

  26. LostJohn says:

    Undeluded @ August 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm says: “my ‘definition list’ also EXCLUDES a number of terms: holy, sacred and blasphemy, to name a few.”

    That is sad. It is also quite wrong. Sorry, but it is. There are things which are sacred. Cats, girls, girls old enough to be considered women and the magnificence that is The Rings.
    There is blasphemy. Hurting women. Making a girl cry. Doing *anything* to The Rings. These are blasphemous.
    Holy is entirely in the eye of the beholder but I would suggest possibly the union that is marriage could qualify. Maybe. Under certain definitions of “holy” and totally ignoring any connection to of connotation of supernatural spooky big daddies in the clouds or their alate robots.
    Cats are sacred because they are. Girls, women and ladies are sacred because if *anything* is they *must* *be* and because they are the light and joy and warmth and laughter of this poor world. The Rings are sacred because they are irreplaceable and indescribably lovely. Tampering with The Rings (those loose chunks of ice and dust falling around Saturn in pretty patterns) is the nearest thing to a “sin” I could accept as needing the word.
    Harming cats, making a woman cry, these are not sins, they are abominations in the eyes of all Real Men.
    There is a fourth sacred object but it is neither alive nor falling freely around Saturn and it is entirely the product of Man. It is books. Books, the Library that houses them, Librarians and Teachers that use them. The Library is magical, an infinite universe of wonder and power. Librarians and teachers are the essence of the continuity of Civilisation. Books are the collected Mind of Mankind and even the very least of them should be preserved forever. It is not an exaggeration to insist that burning books, destroying our very minds and souls, is a kind of genocide.
    I recognise that some may not agree with so extreme a stance. There are those who would disagree with the other things I would hold as sacred, too. I would be quite willing to raze churches to the ground to build schools, libraries and halls of healing, but there are things I hold “sacred”.

    And, on the subject of “holy artefacts”, we have this Usenet quote: “Whenever you see one of those crosses with the little Jesus doll on it, does it ever occur to you that it’s a good thing Vlad the Impaler wasn’t involved in killing that sucker? Picture a heavenly-looking nun waving a little Jesus with a pointy stick up its bum…”

  27. Dan says:


    Who is doing the explaining? The reductionists in the cartoon.
    I just wanted to avoid the obvious fallacy that science has an ultimate explanation and religion doesn’t.
    Neither have an ultimate explanation and there seems no prospect of one.

    The theists may not feel they need an explanation but they’re evidently wrong to think they have one.
    Though I have seen them make that mistake frequently.

  28. Undeluded says:

    @LostJohn – Oh, my – I seem to have hit a nerve. My apologies for not making myself clearer. You are, of course, entitled to have YOUR definitions of sacred, holy, blasphemy, etc. However, my ‘definition list’ is NOT in order to provide factual or emotional examples of what a word means. It is a part of my tool kit when having a discussion with a theist. HIS definition is what counts, and that’s what I use in any subsequent exchange of ideas. By EXCLUDING certain words I meant that I would not use them in such a discussion no matter HOW they were defined. If I were to debate YOU – highly unlikely, as we seem to share views – I would probably admire your moral and artistic approach to the words you mentioned, though personally I would go in other directions.

    In principle I would probably just use different words – I wouldn’t call Mozart ‘divine’ but ‘sublime.’ I see no reason to see cats (or anything else) as sacred – and street cats are more of a nuisance! Your reasoning for calling ANYTHING sacred (you homed in on women) is because they **must** be – for me this fails, just as a theist’s argument for the existence of god is that it there is no possible alternative. I highly admire women – you could even say I ‘worship’ them (the dictionary allows a non-religious meaning for the word, and I hope no one suspects me of giving them burnt offerings, except in my kitchen. If it bothers anyone, I’ll use ‘ardent devotion’). Words such as blasphemy, sacrosanct, etc., are used almost exclusively in religious connotations. They have no practical usage for me in a debate, as I shall point out that the theist uses them as part of his own
    circular logic, without bringing evidence into the picture.

    @Dan – “…obvious fallacy that science has an ultimate explanation and religion doesn’t.” Please allow me to paraphrase: “science does not have an ultimate explanation YET, and might NEVER have one, but it is getting closer all the time – and religion doesn’t and will NEVER HAVE!” This is not a fallacy! And no, the explanation in the cartoon is provided by J&M (“goddidit”) as a direct answer to Barmaid’s request for an explanation. Amazing! I’m adding ‘explanation’ to my ‘definition list!’

  29. wokmaster says:

    I don’t post many comments on this forum; this is one of the few forums where I am content to sit back and read without participating. Two points:

    Undeluded, you have a message that just hits home for me. Please continue sharing your thoughts and taking the fight to the theists. You are an inspiration to me.

    LostJohn – that was a beautifully articulated comment. Your humor is sublime, and although I would personally disagree with your beliefs about cats (I personally find dogs to be far more “sacred” than cats) your example of the numinous (“The Rings”) was thought-provoking and awesome.

  30. JohnM says:

    I agree with @Undeluded. Cats may be pleasant enough creatures as house pets, but dogs are preferable in that they can be “taught” stuff. Cats with careless owners who allow them to maraud everywhere , street cats, countryside feral cats, etc. are a menace to everything else, including well-looked-after house cats.
    I wouldn’t eat one, though, even the bastard ones that dig up my seed-beds.

  31. LostJohn says:

    fenchurch @ August 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm says:

    “Doesn’t knowing how something actually works increase one’s appreciation and wonder for said thing?”
    “(Recommended to all: date a scientist if you can’t be one yourself!)”

    Yes, dear lady, things that are understood *are* more magical and more wonderful. Knowing the quantum, atomic, molecular, cellular and physiological make-up of cats only *adds* to how funny, cute and lovely such beings can be. And that a bunch of baryons shelled by leptons can produce a beautiful and wise lady with a wicked sense of humour is *amazing*.
    The wonder of a rainbow is only enhanced by knowing how the colours are painted onto the skies of our world.
    I truly pity those small-souled, close-minded religidiots who refuse to learn the magnificence of mathematics and physics and who miss so much beauty and wonder and mystery.
    And you are correct, lady Fenchurch, dating and marrying a scientist is a profoundly marvellous experience. It is even more so when you, too, are a scientist of sorts and can understand her. I was privileged to live with a lady who understood and loved the reality of this cosmos in all its intricate complexity.
    She even loved cats.

    Workmaster and Undeluded: thank you.

    Undeluded: no nerve touched, sorry if that was implied. I just have an odd sense of the numinous, the magical and the sacred. I would have said “life” is sacred but I can’t really hold to that as I eat meat. I regret the harm this diet causes but I’m hypocritical enough to regret it very little. “Sacred” does not mean “supernatural” or “divine” nor does it have any connection to theisms or superstition or worship of any kind (though cats have never forgotten that humans once considered them to be gods), it just means “special”. Very, very special. So special that harming it, or defacing it as in the case of The Rings, is very, very bad. And, Undeluded, like yourself, I would deny that “blasphemy”, “sacred” or “holy” had any meaning were I debating with a religidiot, which is not something I do if I can possibly avoid it. I would deprive these terms of referents *because* the theists use them in a specialised vocabulary that only applies in terms of theism. They use them from inside their event horizon and the meanings that attach only make sense inside. It is not worth the trouble to disabuse them of the notion that their specialised meanings *have* meaning, indeed it is not *possible* to do this as their use of these words is critical to their understanding of what their “faith” *is*.
    Deny them their “sacred” and you automatically deny their theism.
    So I have a secular, human-scale use for the word. It works for me. It’s not a “faith” or a “creed” or even a “belief” it’s just a handy way of jestingly saying I like cats. And women.
    Though The Rings (and the capitals indicate *which* rings) *are* sacred and messing with them is not to be borne. There is plenty of ice elsewhere, there is no need to destroy such beauty.

    @JohnM : dogs are extraordinary creatures. Man-made derivatives of wolves, they are the only beings who love humans with their whole soul. If you are blessed to be the “master” human of a dog you have her devotion and love without condition or reservation for life, even if you don’t deserve it. Someone once said that the entire profession of psychotherapy is less effective that a puppy trying to lick your face.
    But cats are often funnier. Lolcats, watch the videos of cats and printers.

  32. hotrats says:

    A footnote to last year’s debate over the contribution of CS Lewis to literature and theology, from the acid pen of Brigid Brophy:
    ‘The Silver Chair’, C.S. Lewis –
    You cannot fake the ambiguous morality of myths by simply whispering your own prejudices behind your hand.
    (‘Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without ‘, 1967)

  33. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    A cracking conversation, folks.

    LostJohn, I agree in principal with your idea of re-claiming words from religion it has after all claimed so many words for itself and has a virtual monopoly on some of the better superlatives (with apologies for the borderline tautology), but I feel there are certain words that are just too closely associated with religion to be able to use them outside of that context. ‘Holy’ and ;miracle’ are two such words, so synomynous with religion that their use outside of that context can serve no other purpose than to legitimise their use within the same. I just wish Einstein had thought along these lines rather than referencing ‘God’ so often. It mattered not that his ‘God’ was no more than a synonym for natural processes, a Nobel winning,world-changing, atheist physicist invoking God legitimised religious ‘God’, which is why the faithful still like to use the ‘Einstein believed’ ca(na)rd.

    If you are blessed to be the “master” human of a dog you have her devotion and love without condition or reservation for life, even if you don’t deserve it

    I wish somebdy had told my hound that! He’s certainly intelligent as dogs go, but that has just helped to make him the most wilfully disobedient dog I’ve ever known. He’s part Border collie, part Jack Russell, part corgi, and 100% terrierist.
    Which brings me to the incident during our walk the other morning. Briefly, we were on the heathland bordering the oak woods and the dog was wandering from bush to bush checking and leaving wee-mails. As he approached one bush he suddenly froze to the spot before switching to the typical Border collie ‘stalk’ position, making his way slowly to the bush. As he got closer to it he started a low – quite impressively low coming from a mutt that only stands 9 inches at the shoulder – threatening growl. I thought he might have caught the scent of a fox or rabbit hiding in the bush and was just about to call him back (on the off-chance that he would want to do as he was told at that particular moment) when he launched himself straight at it, only for the bush to seemingly up-root itself and start running away from the dog, screaming like a frightened human. Almost immediately a second bush about 50 yards away also stood up and in a very human voice yelled “Cadet Marsh, stop fucking around and get back into position”.
    We’d just interrupted the local Army Cadets’ camouflage training session, but at the same time taught a few cadets that human eyes may be easily fooled, but a dog’s nose can ‘see’ through their flora overcoats, and that when a dog smells something out of the ordinary, like a bush that has a human scent, it will investigate.

    A complete aside: I haven’t done this for a while, but I’ve got another of those random questions for you all to have a stab at. As always, the first correct answer wins a virtual prize of their choice (no cash alternative offered unless also virtual, etc. etc.).
    What is the connection between eunochs of Imperial China and The Lord of the Rings Gollum?

    And finally; Happy Birthday, Schrodinger. If you’re going out to celebrate, don’t forget to feed the cat before you leave.

  34. Undeluded says:

    @AofS – nice story.

    But back to word usage. There are many social/professional/cultural circles/fora that have terms rarely heard outside themselves. Examples: trihydroxyestrin, head voice, cubism, oedipal (you know what I mean – let’s not quibble over my perhaps poor choice of words). On the other hand, there are those words that ALSO originated inside these circles but have leaked out into everyday speech. Examples: DNA, ballistic, light-year, prima donna. These often have different interpretations than what they meant originally, but you understand them correctly in the context they are used. Then, there are those bombastic words that are thrown around by people (who should know better) without ANY regard not only to what they really mean, but also how they are interpreted by the recipient. Examples: genocide, racism, holocaust, democracy (again, let’s not argue about my choice of examples – I’m just hoping you get my gist).

    Where does the word “god” fit in? In the last group above. It is probably one of the most widely interpreted word in our language (and probably many others as as well). Moreover, you need to distinguish between “god” and “a god,” usage of “OMG,” and countless other cases of adoption of the term for convenience’s sake (among others).

    Is “god” in my ‘definition list?’ Absolutely not! EXCLUDED! Anything with so many connotations – in fact, you can make up your own weird definition and quite legitimately so – cannot be a basis for discussion. Those deep in the theist camp cannot be impressed by logic and/or reason anyway, so they are not targeted for understanding or even for debate. Therefore, THEIR definitions are meaningless to me. However, as I pointed out earlier, there is an ever-expanding population of deliberators still wondering whether rationality is the way to go. Those are the ones that atheists such as ourselves need to win over to our camp and strengthen our position. We already have an impressive arsenal to back us up, provided by
    Dawkins, Hitchens, and other rational thinkers. And my humble contribution is an attempt to enhance, even by a tiny bit, the stock of ‘ammunition’ at our disposal – requesting those in debate to define certain terms a priori (the ‘definition list’) and then use those definitions to drive MY point home. (BTW – I have had some success with this).

    Quandary: could a theist draw a similar ‘definition list’ for me to define? Would it only have terms that my list excludes (as I suspect)? If not, could he use my definitions against me? I doubt it, but it’s a tantalizing question.

  35. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    Undeluded, I do like your idea of getting the religionistas to define certain words and terms prior to engaging in debate / discussion with them as they do have their own (usually unthinking) definitions of words such as ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘knowledge’, etc., so just by asking them to define what they mean by those words can cause them to think for themselves for once, as well as allow the sceptic to use those definitions to counter their theistic arguments. I have to say, though, that excluding words such as ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘holy’ etc. from debates with theists ought to make for a pretty short discussion; it’s akin to debating football without being allowed to use the words ‘football’, ‘striker’, ‘winger’, etc.
    What I was referring to in my last post was LostJohn’s idea of re-claiming words with definite religious connotations – even if those words were coined by or for religion. It is possible, I believe, to take the mystery from a word but retain the ‘magic’ or inherent importance of it. ‘Sacred’ is a good example; I see no reason why I shouldn’t think something to be sacred to me except that the word carries so much religious baggage, but what other word that comes without that baggage can describe something being so important to me? So, as LostJohn suggests, let’s requisition these words for non-theistic, more personal usage, the exception being those words that have such a deeply entrenched religious meaning that, like Einsteins use of ‘God’, will always seem to legitimise religion.

  36. AoS,
    I think even the word god legitimizes the god concept. So when people are respectful of my beliefs then I legitimize and respect their beliefs by using their word god. But in other situations I refer to their invisible sky faerie. Many of us here see the notion of god as silly. I can say the word god to my wife and imply the connotation that I am talking about something silly or someone silly. I can’t use that word and get a religious person to infer what I am implying, but invisible sky faerie sure does the trick. On a scale from one to ten where one is , “I totally respect your belief” and ten is, “I laugh at your ridiculously stupid belief”, God is one and invisible sky faerie is ten. “God concept” is about three. Can you think of something that is closer to five/ six? A little more condescending than god-concept but a little less in your face than invisible sky faerie? I could use a word or phrase like that.

  37. MarkyWarky says:

    @FKS, imaginary friend? Would that be a 5 or 6?

    Trouble is, terms like those tend to entrench the already entrenched, working against you if a sensible debate is your goal. That said, I think maybe that’s an impossible thing to hope for.

  38. IanB says:

    AoS “What is the connection between eunochs of Imperial China and The Lord of the Rings Gollum?”

    They’ve both lost their precious?

  39. Dalai Llama says:

    @FKS – Super-Being? Mega-Entity? The Transmortal Judginator? The Benevolent Dictator of the Universe? The Superlative Patriarch? The Eternal Autocrat? The Overlord of Reality? The Transcendental Love Fascist? You just need a little imagination…

    More seriously, in writing, refusing to capitalise ‘god’ kicks it up a point or two, as does use of inverted commas. Pluralising also works quite well in general – compare “I don’t believe in God” with “I don’t believe in ‘gods'”. Maybe a term like ‘archdeity’, a little bit distanced from standardised theological discourse?

  40. JohnM says:

    @ fks
    I doubt you will find that deity-neutral identifier you so long for. On this planet, I doubt anybody alive inhabits ‘teh middle ground’, where such a word/phrase might be useful. Religious apologists are never neutral IMO, positioned around either 7 or 3.

  41. JohnM says:

    As AoS brought up the famous cat of E. Schroedinger, I think it time I floated what, at present, is only a thought experiment – like ES’s moggie.

    Schroedinger’s Koran, unlike the cat, requires identical two boxes for its execution. A legally-owned-but-authentic Koran in classical Arabic is placed in one box and an equal weight of blank, bound paper in the other, all done out-of-sight by an anonymous third-party.
    A well-known Southern Baptist preacher is now invited to select one of the boxes, and immolate it. The second box is removed intact to a secret location, one never to be revealed.
    The preacher is now placed before a Sharia court. The court is told the circumstances – also that he has previously talked of the notion to burn a Koran, though he is clearly insane by definition (S.Bap). Can they correctly convict and execute him for blasphemy?

  42. MarkyWarky says:

    @JohnM, I think you’ve destroyed that little thought experiment with the word “correctly”. That allows us a single, positive answer; “no they can’t”, with no paradox, because there is no such thing as a “correct” conviction for blasphemy, any more than there’s a correct conviction for dissing goblins.

    On the other hand, take the word out and again the answer is non-paradoxical; “yes they can”, because they’ll do whatever they want anyway.

    Maybe I’m missing the point?

  43. JohnM says:

    @ MW “…there is no such thing as a “correct” conviction for blasphemy…”
    The reason I specified a Sharia court is that there is indeed a correct conviction for blasphemy possible under this legal system.

  44. Undeluded says:

    @AoS – just to sharpen my point: there are two types of ‘religionistas’ (did you coin that? Love it) – the entrenched and the borderline camp. I really don’t care a whit how the former defines its entire philosophical vocabulary. There is no bridging the gap. I do not debate with them, and my definition list is not intended for use against them. Their ‘football’ is a book written by a divine hand, so the words ‘football,’ ‘striker,’ mean whatever they like them to mean. Their side always ‘deserves’ to win – when they do, it is their ‘reward’ for being ‘righteous,’ and when they don’t it is a punishment for having gone astray. (I’m abandoning all these sarcasm quote marks. I am hereby declaring that when I refer to religious qualities I’m always sarcastic. I’ll let you know when I’m not). NEVER do they lose because the other side was better! REAL football is based on a set of man-made rules – so if you debate this issue with anyone, make sure that both of you agree it’s the same thing. If you don’t, you can expect misunderstanding – and with football that means trouble. That is what we face with the entrenched camp concerning religion.

    Please, everyone – our non-religious usage of words and terms (the ENTIRE English language vocabulary and all other languages as well) is 100% legitimate. We need no excuses for requisitioning, reclaiming or ‘allowing’ any word in our vocabulary. We understand each other, largely owing to being properly educated and taught to think for ourselves. Saying “damn you” never raises the image of biblical hell and eternal agony. So we can go ahead using god, holy, sacred, etc., by all means. Just be careful when you find yourself in a religious discussion. When I exclude words from my definition list, I do not exclude them from everyday speech – only from usage on very special occasions where I’m in confrontation with religious arguments.

    It’s when we are challenged by the religionistas (or challenge them) that vocabulary needs to be carefully considered. Again – I am NOT discussing debates with the entrenched. That’s a total waste of time and effort. But the borderline camp is flexible and reason/logic sometimes works with them. I could effectively debate with a follower. My purpose is to show her that any statement she makes that evokes god could be rephrased (correctly) without using god. Thus I hope to get her to accept to exclude god from the debate.

    @Floridakitesurfer – for me, the sure fire way to LOSE these debates is to call my opponent’s views silly or ridiculous. They may very well be just that (which is a certainty in the case of the non-debatable entrenched), but the very fact that she is a borderline case deserves my respect – because by listening to me she is also respecting me!

  45. LostJohn says:

    JohnM: yes, they can. ‘Cos the big fairy in the sky told them to. Nothing else is needed.
    Even without the compelling argument that big beardy daddy in the clouds told them to burn him, the infidel blasphemer infidelically blasphemed by *intending* or *trying* or simply *being willing* to blasphemously harm the One True Book. Whether he did or not was irrelevant.
    And even without *that* definitive and compelling evidence of his guilt, he took a Quran and *hid* it. Thus it isn’t available for people to worship. So he is attacking the very foundation of the One True Truth.
    Bringing the totally unharmed Quran into the “court” and waving it around under the very noses of the “judges” would make no difference to the outcome. Evidence does not matter. “Truth” matters and he truly believed he was blaspheming, so he was. Case closed, life closed.

    I am somewhat appalled that I can think like that. I should be utterly *incapable* of thinking like that no matter how brilliant and clever I happen to be. It should not be within my mental event horizon to be able to see the “logic” of the religidiots.
    “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” Nietzsche. But if you stop and stare into the abyss of “faith” is it not possible that “faith” will reach out and take you for its own? If we understand them, are we not in danger of becoming them?
    (And, yes, I do know “infidilecally” isn’t a real word, I just thought it was funnier than “impious”).

  46. LostJohn says:

    LostJohn @ August 12, 2013 at 9:41 pm says: both “infidilecally” and “infidelically” aren’t true words, and I *can* spell*, I just can’t type very well. Nor, apparently, proof-read.
    If anyone’s interested, the Really Real One True Book is, of course, “Norton’s Star Atlas”. It is a thing of beauty to be treasured.

  47. MarkyWarky says:

    @JM, no, it isn’t :). A legitimate, or legal conviction is possible, but a correct one isn’t. It is simply not correct to convict anyone of disrespecting an imaginary being.

    So legal yes, even correct in the eyes of the prevailing law maybe, but correct, no.

  48. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    Marky, there are just too many sub-clauses for ‘correct’, so really JohnM’s initial question shaould have specified which particular correctness we were to be judging the verdict on. Are we judging the legal-, moral-, ethical-, religious-, cultural-, or even political correctness of the verdict?

    JohnM, I don’t know where I got ‘religionista’ from, it’s just a word I’ve used for years.
    Don’t be too concerned about how easily you got into the fundamentalist mindset; the steady drip-drip of horror and nonsense that religion emits has taught us how these people think, it’s why think that way that’s the mystery.

    IanB, you’re right……almost, but the eunochs never actually lost their precious. ‘Precious’ was the name given to the severed genitalia, which were preserved and stored in jars, which were then kept safe by their owners, eventually to be buried with them so they wouldn’t go to the next life incomplete.
    But yes, ‘precious’ was the connection. Virtual prize on the virtual way.

    That’s me back off outside for the Perseid meteor shower; I’ve seen a handfull so far tonight, but it’s supposedly hitting its peak around now.

  49. Greg Esres says:

    Spelled “SteVen” Pinker.

  50. MarkyWarky says:

    @AoS, yes, that’s kind of what I was getting at. Left unqualified, the word “correctly” suggests “right”, and no, they cannot be right to convict, or even to prosecute.

    Blasphemy is showing disrespect to, or insulting, a (specific) deity. Given that such deity does not exist, it cannot be insulted, and so no “correct” conviction is possible. I regard that as a fact (admittedly not one that everyone recognises), not an opinion.

    Blasphemy is NOT defined as insulting believers, which someone could be “correctly” convicted of.

    Semantics I know, but to me it matters because saying that a conviction for blasphemy is “correct” legitimises it IMHO. I don’t even think it’s correct in the sense that they have the authority to do it; they have the power to do it, but I don’t recognise their authority any more than I recognise the authority of the bishops in our parliament here.

  51. HaggisForBrains says:

    Undeluded – how do we recognise the “borderline camp”? Is it perhaps by their subtle but stylish use of colour, cleverly accessorised?

    Author – it’s a joke, not intended to be in any way homophobic :-).

  52. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    Author, for some reason everything from the word Bonus (below the title) to the bottom of the page has been ‘struck’ through, bt only on this page, the other cartoons aren’t affected. Is my ancient computer telling me it’s time to get a new one, or is there a problem on the page itself?
    Is anybody else seeing this?

    HFB, you really didn’t need to qualify that; just as it’s possible to be good without gods, it’s possible to be camp without being gay, so don’t worry, nobody’s going to crucify you for that clever little gag. 😉

  53. Author says:

    Thanks, AoS. I slipped up when I was correcting the spelling of Steven (thanks, Greg).

  54. Undeluded says:

    @HFB – I realize that sarcasm is unavoidable in this type of blog. Well put. However, the question is legitimate. The answer is: I don’t know. If one of the borderliners was the initiator of the quest to resolve her doubts, she could easily turn to the nearest church, synagogue or mosque and have a discussion with the resident spiritual leader. If she wanted to view the other side of the coin, however, it may prove to be more difficult. Write to Richard Dawkins? Call The Atheist Experience? Subscribe (and write) to JesusAndMo? She should realize she needs guidance and, if she is approached correctly (I think MarkyWarky has the correct definition of ‘correctly’), could be persuaded.

    Bottom line – IMHO all theists are candidates for being borderliners. I can begin a conversation with any of them, and usually I can identify a borderliner quite early. The most obvious filter I have is if my protagonist gets angry or emotional. Scratch that one. Then I notice whether my arguments are countered reasonably, and how my counter-arguments to her arguments are handled. And of course, how she copes with my definition list…

  55. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    No problem, Author; I thought it was just me that does silly things with html; I recently tried to ‘blockquote’ a small paragraph into a comment on Ophelia’s Butterflies and Wheels and somehow pasted in the entire, 200+ previous comments! Fortunately, Ophelia is a good egg and deleted the post without even hinting at my foolishness.

  56. HaggisForBrains says:

    IanB – in other news today, the pope is a catholic ;-).

  57. HaggisForBrains says:

    Undeluded – not sarcasm at all, just a silly pun ( I can’t stop myself sometimes). I did appreciate your comments, and agree with them.

  58. HaggisForBrains says:

    BTW, have you folks seen this yet: http://www.burkaavenger.com/. Whilst I disapprove of the burka, I can only approve of it in the context of a masked avenger, bringing education to muslim girls, and using the burka to hide her true identity, rather like batman.

  59. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    HFB, I’ll join you in that contextual approval. D’ya think if I dressed in a nun’s habit I could get away with giving lessons on evolution in the local RCC school?

  60. JohnM says:

    @HfB … in other news today, the pope is a catholic 😉 .

    And he shits in the woods, too, by all accounts.

  61. LostJohn says:

    JohnM August 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm said:

    “@HfB … in other news today, the pope is a catholic 😉 .

    And he shits in the woods, too, by all accounts. ”

    Only when bare.

    Acolyte of Sagan August 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm asks:

    “HFB, I’ll join you in that contextual approval. D’ya think if I dressed in a nun’s habit I could get away with giving lessons on evolution in the local RCC school?”

    Probably not, though were you to dress up as a priest, biology lessons could be allowable.

    A spoiler that came to me when I first read “Batman” as a child [yes, I was once smaller, but I’m not sure “child” ever applied, I was born cynical, tired and old] : a man dressed as a bat wanders around beating up the bad guys. For a few days they take it while the Supreme Council of Bad Guys contemplates a suitable response to this new phenomenon. Then there magically appear *dozens* of men dressed as bats; some shoot up hospitals, some rob liquor stores, some give drugs away outside schools, some use grenade launchers in heavy traffic and a couple just stand on ledges and pee on the crowd while screaming their superhero code-name. Some have more colourful costumes, and girly-bumps and call themselves “Bat-GIRL” but they all create chaos.
    The crime-fighting man dressed as a bat (thank you http://xkcd.com/1004/) sits in his cave weeping for lost dreams and retires. *His* batman, Alfred, sighs in relief.
    This absorption tactic might not work for that alien bully Kal-El, but it would for many of the lesser figures. I wondered why no one tried it.
    I also wondered where the man dressed as a bat and the big alien bully went pee-pee. I mean, can you imagine a man dressed as a bat in a public convenience? Or a super-stream blowing holes in porcelain?
    I was strange even when young.
    Sometime this year, somewhere which could have been London, a bunch of bin-bag clad men in boots raided a jeweller’s. My only surprise was that it had taken the criminal fraternity so long to discover this ruse. Seventy-odd years of comic books pointing the way and a milliard Muslims showing how clever a disguise it is and so few have tried it.
    Is this because it never occurs to any of them? Or is there a dramatic licence reason why they don’t do it, like there is in “Batman”?
    Or have I just given the bad guys ideas?
    Oh, dear. Now we’re in trouble…

  62. John The Geologist says:

    Interesting thread – most of which I agree with.

    I disagree vehemently with the canine adoration.

    I agree strongly with the feline adoration (hardly surprising as I have ten cats).

    If dogs are so clever why is it not possible to train them to shit in a litter tray, something the dimmest cat manages with no problems.

    If dogs are so clever then how on earth did they allow themselves to be selectively bred down from a big majestic top of the food chain grey wolf to a little yappy powder puff thing that fits in some airheads handbag.

    If I was a big wolf and some bloke said “right, we are going to turn you into a scabby little bulldog that cannot eat or breathe properly and cannot give birth naturally” I would have ripped his throat out and eaten him.

    40,000 years of canine de-evolution whereas my Maine Coons are a perfect example of adaptive radiation.

  63. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    If I was a big wolf and some bloke said “right, we are going to turn you into a scabby little bulldog that cannot eat or breathe properly and cannot give birth naturally” I would have ripped his throat out and eaten him.

    And I had no idea that wolves spoke human 😉

  64. John The Geologist says:


    They do not speak human (the wolf was not talking) but the poor little inbred descendants of the mighty wolf certainly understand it.

    As is evidenced by all the doggists who think that little Poochy understands them and knows whet they are saying/thinking.

    And also by that twat running around Richmond Park shouting “Fenton” at some mongrel trying to recapture forty millennia of degradation by chasing the deer.

  65. JohnM says:

    @ JtG
    Although the lineage of modern breeds of dogs is pretty hazy, I have my doubts that they are just genotypes formed of recombinant chromosomes from the timber wolf. Just as all modern cats are certainly not recombinant forms of F. lybica

    There are genotypes in both modern cats and dogs that natural selection would dispense with pretty quickly, though.

  66. two cents' worth says:

    Undeluded, as you noted, “there is an ever-expanding population of deliberators still wondering whether rationality is the way to go. Those are the ones that atheists such as ourselves need to win over to our camp and strengthen our position. We already have an impressive arsenal to back us up, provided by Dawkins, Hitchens, and other rational thinkers.” I think this is necessary, but not always sufficient. It may win their minds, but we will be more persuasive if we can also win their hearts.

    Many Christian sects of long standing are losing followers to Pentecostalism. Some say that this is because it is a religion based on emotion, not doctrine. In addition to explaining our reasoning, I think we should demonstrate that (as Fenchurch wrote) knowing how something actually works increases one’s sense of wonder and appreciation.

    Many human beings feel the urge to become part of something bigger than themselves. Let’s show them that, instead of religion, they can take part in science, art, and civilization. They can help reduce suffering. They can contribute towards spreading and increasing human knowledge, and they can benefit from it in the here and now. We can introduce them to other people who are doing these things, so they feel not only an intellectual connection to something bigger than themselves, but a human connection, too. They can enrich their own lives, and the lives of others, not because a deity told them to do so, but simply because it helps them feel good.

    And if the deliberators want a church to hang out in, they can check out the Unitarian Universalists, who value reason, and welcome everyone from atheists to Zoroastrians 😉 .

  67. two cents' worth says:

    HaggisForBrains, many thanks for the link to the Burka Avenger cartoon! I love how she literally throws the book at the bad guys. You made the comparison to Batman, but I think a Burka is a smarter costume, given the circumstances. Did you ever see the episode of the Batman show from the mid-1960’s, where Batman and Robin are using a rope to climb up the outside of a building because they’re trying to be inconspicuous? It’s easy for the Burka Avenger to be inconspicuous if she wants, because a burka is nothing special where she lives. Her black burka reminded me of a ninja’s suit, or Zorro’s mask. It also brought to mind the dictum of Edna Mode (from the move The Incredibles): “No capes!” 😉 In any case, as my sibs and I would say to our mom when she would criticize what we were watching: it’s only a cartoon 🙂 !

  68. two cents' worth says:

    Acolyte of Sagan, does RCC mean Roman Catholic Church? I don’t want to disappoint you, but I think you wouldn’t need to dress in a nun’s habit to teach evolution at a Roman Catholic school. For one thing, many nuns these days do not wear habits. For another, my mother sent me to a Roman Catholic school for 10 years, and I was taught evolution there. A priest also came to talk about his research on galaxies (he had a Ph.D. in astronomy)–and this was decades before the Roman Catholic Church granted its official pardon to Galileo. If you feel called to be a missionary spreading the good news of the theory of evolution, maybe if you dressed up as a televangelist, you could infiltrate a fundamentalist Christian school and teach evolution there 😉 .

    Actually, as far as I know, only fundamentalist Christians make a big deal of teaching creationism in schools–either alone, or to counterbalance lessons on the theory of evolution. What other religious groups denounce the theory of evolution? Are Muslims like Christians in that some sects tolerate or even promote the teaching of sciences such as astronomy, geology, and biology, while other sects denounce it?


NOTE: This comments section is provided as a friendly place for readers of J&M to talk, to exchange jokes and ideas, to engage in profound philosophical discussion, and to ridicule the sincerely held beliefs of millions. As such, comments of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature will not be tolerated.

If you are posting for the first time, or you change your username and/or email, your comment will be held in moderation until approval. When your first comment is approved, subsequent comments will be published automatically.