More thoughts about Atheism, Agnosticism, and Neo-Paganism

February 28, 2009 at 10:42 am | Posted in math, religion | 4 Comments

I discovered something about Atheism today. I thought Atheists believed that there is no god, that gods do not exist. Apparently that is not the case. Several sources agree — 1, 2, 3. (These are the top results of googling “define atheism.” I was lazy. Sue me.)

It seems that Atheism is not the belief that there is no god, but simply lack of belief in a god, usually for lack of evidence. I thought that was Agnosticism, but I was wrong there, too. The root of the word “Agnosticism” is “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” Agnosticism is the either the state of not knowing that gods do or do not exist (weak agnosticism), or the view that the state of existence of a god or gods cannot be known (strong agnosticism). Agnosticism is about a lack of knowledge, or the lack of an ability to have knowledge, about the existence of gods. Atheism is about a lack of belief in the existence of gods. (I know some will object to the connotation of the language, “lack of belief.” I am not implying that Atheists or Agnostics are “lacking” in that interpretation.)

I have therefore come to the conclusion that I am Agnostic, but not an Atheist. I believe in the existence of God, Goddess, a Divine being or beings, life giving creative force(s) of the universe, Tao, … whatever you want to call it. But I do not claim to have knowledge that it exists. If I had knowledge of its existence, I wouldn’t need to believe in it. That’s part of the point.

It is just like in Mathematics. Everything that is known in Mathematics is proved from prior knowledge, which is founded on more basic knowledge about numbers, functions, sets, and so on, until finally you get down to the bottom, the first principles, the axioms of set theory. These cannot be proven in terms of prior knowledge, because there is nothing else that comes before them. These are non-provable statements; they are the axioms of set theory upon which all Mathematics is built. (See disclaimer (*) below.)

An axiom is a statement which is assumed to be true, it is not and cannot be proven. Why do we assume these axioms? Either because we feel we have to in order to do Mathematics, or because we believe them!

Similarly, there are assumptions I make that form the basis of how I imagine the universe to be, my cosmology, if you will, and how I interact with the universe and everything in it. One of my assumptions is the existence of something that is, for lack of a better term, divine.

(Side note: this something is not supernatural, but completely natural. After all, I see the word “nature” as essentially referring to the nature of existence, and if something exists, how can it be “supernatural,” or, “beyond nature?” The divine force(s) I believe in are part of the universe, not apart from it. They are not exempt from the rules of existence that govern the rest of us; in some sense they are the rules.

Systems of belief that a god or gods are so intimately connected with nature are generally called Pagan or, to distinguish them from pre-Christian religious practices, Neo-Pagan. So I am apparently an Agnostic Neo-Pagan. Cool.)

These things, I believe. But I do not claim to have knowledge of them. If we humans learn more about the universe that is in direct conflict with some of my beliefs, then I will review those learnings, and I will review my beliefs, and eventually I will perhaps come to some new cosmology.

So, Atheists, I’m sorry about misunderstanding and misrepresenting your views in my blog entry of a couple of weeks ago. My statements about intolerance still stand, though.

(*) Disclaimer: Don’t quite Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem at me. I know the foundations aren’t quite as clean as I described, and yet I still do Mathematics. Just like I don’t know that gods exist, yet I still can have an active and productive relationship with them. I am not so troubled the lack of a tidy rational explanation for everything that I cannot live in the world and do what I do. I believe that at some point you just have to make your choices and act as best you can without having analyzed every last detail.

Thinking toward religious and non-religious tolerance.

February 15, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Posted in religion | 5 Comments

I was directed to an atheist’s blog recently. His posts Things Christians Should Know Before Talking to an Atheist and its follow-up More Things Christians Should Know About Atheists, But Don’t were amusing in a sense, but I found them ultimately disappointing. Here are two of them.

* Suppose someone knocked on your door some Saturday afternoon ans said, “May I introduce you to the “Church of the Holy Leprechaun”? He died for your sins while searching for a pot of gold” Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? You would think that person had mental issues, wouldn’t you? Could you seriously believe in a religion that reeks of lies, based upon more lies?

* The fact that we are Atheists does not make us immoral and are no more susceptible to go off on a killing spree than religious folks. If it takes your religious doctrine to keep you from murdering your brother, then you are a worthless being anyway.

I don’t know if the blogger, Mark Pogue, wrote these lists himself or if he copied them from somewhere, but they are obviously responding to statements that have been made by evangelical Christians or religious zealots against “non-believers.” I have heard such statements by people who believe that their religion is the one true religion and that they must spread the word of their God and convert everyone possible to their religion, or else shame them, run them out of town, get them fired from their jobs (especially if they are teachers), etc. Mark and the folks who comment on his blog (you need to be a member of the blogging community Atheist Nexus to respond to comments) seem to me to have quite an anti-Christian sentiment. If their main experience with Christians has been attempts at conversion and fire-and-brimstone preachings that, from their perspective, are full of illogical arguments and circular reasoning made by hypocritical people, I suppose I can hardly blame them.

Believe in a deity or believe there is no deity, it makes no difference to me. As long as you live life trying to act responsibly, be a good neighbor, and treat others with mutual respect and kindness, I don’t care what you believe in. But when these Atheists respond to attacks from Christians with insults and attacks on Christian beliefs, it is not helping the problem, it is exacerbating it.

Christians attacking Atheist beliefs and morality is not justification for Atheists attacking Christian beliefs and morality. Those acts are both wrong. To those who respond to attacks on your belief in this way, congratulations, you have sunk to their level. I don’t care if they attacked your beliefs first. By making these attacks you have left behind whatever “higher ground” you thought reason gave you. Intolerance and disrespect for the religious or non-religious beliefs of others is wrong, no matter if it is in the name of a god or of reason.

I have nothing specifically against Atheists or Christians or Pagans or any such group. None of these groups is the enemy, intolerance is.

There are some people, perhaps like the prosthelytizers these Atheists have encountered, whose ears and minds are closed, who are caught in negative patterns of behavior, and who refuse to try to coexist with people who are different from them. These are people you should not give any energy to. As the saying goes, “Do not argue with an idiot. They bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

But there are good people of all beliefs who are in the middle, who know what is good about their belief and don’t know so much about others. Perhaps they have heard negative propaganda about other beliefs. Their first experience with someone of your belief might be with you. Would you have their first direct experience with someone of your belief be an insulting and angry attack on their belief? Is that likely to reduce people’s negative views about people with your beliefs, or increase them?

These people will start to accept and deal respectfully with people of your belief once they have met some people of that belief that are kind, treat others with respect, and are generally positive. Whether you intend to be or not, sometimes you are an ambassador for people who share your belief, your nationality, your ethnicity, where you come from, etc. People’s opinions about those groups will be colored by their interactions with you to some extent. If my first experience with an Atheist was this blog post, I would think Atheists were smug, self-righteous, and unaccepting of people who don’t believe as they do, which ironically sounds like how they see Christians.

The question is not who is right. Or who is better. The question is, will your words and actions add energy toward an adversarial relationship, or toward a peaceful relationship. Do you want to win a fight with people over beliefs, or do you want people to not fight at all over beliefs? That is the real choice.

In my opinion, if someone is spouting their beliefs (perhaps like me in this blog entry) and you don’t agree with them, either ignore them or talk civilly about it with them. (I usually opt for ignoring them, but that’s your call.) If they refuse to talk civilly or if they are clearly not interested in an exchange of ideas, of both listening and being listened to, then definitely ignore them. If they attack you verbally, then either ignore them or defend yourself without attacking others who share those beliefs. Then sensible people of all beliefs who are reading or listening will recognize that. If your words are mean-spirited and disrespectful, people will recognize the hypocrisy, too.

On the other hand, if someone actually directs a substantive attack on you based on your beliefs (or for any reason), one that would actually damage you or your family or some tangible aspect of your life, then by all means fight. Fight and defend yourself and your family with everything you’ve got. But it’s not their beliefs that you should be fighting, it’s the intolerance. Because if you wind up fighting against their belief, you will end up spreading the same intolerance that was directed against you in the first place.

Fight the intolerance.

Uncle Joe

March 26, 2008 at 7:20 am | Posted in books, religion | 10 Comments

I’ve been doing a bit of pleasure reading this spring break, and I came across this piece of wisdom from Uncle Joe.

“[In] mythology — if you have a mythology in which the metaphor for the mystery is the father, you are going to have a different set of signals from what you would have if the metaphor for the wisdom and mystery of the world were the mother. And they are two perfectly good metaphors. Neither one is a fact. These are metaphors. It is as though the universe were my father. It is as though the universe were my mother. Jesus says, ‘No one gets to the father but by me.’ The father that he was talking about was the biblical father. It might be that you can get to the father only by way of Jesus. On the other hand, suppose you are going by way of the mother. There you might prefer Kali, and the hymns to the goddess, and so forth. That is simply another way to get to the mystery of your life. You must understand that each religion is a kind of software that has its own set of signals and will work.”

— Joseph Campbell, The Power Of Myth

Math + religion = Trouble

January 29, 2008 at 9:21 am | Posted in math, religion | 6 Comments

That’s the title of this article on Mathematics and the existence of God.

One fact quoted in the article is that only 14.6 percent of mathematicians believe in a supreme being. Yet another minority that I’m a part of. Hooray for me.

The article seems to have been spurred by a recent book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, by John Allen Paulos. Supposedly (I haven’t read the book) Paulos refutes the classical arguments for the existence of God in this book.

Well, that’s fine with me. I believe in God/dess not because of logical arguments. My reasons are entirely subjective, and so are both irrefutable and non-transferable. His debunking of logical arguments in favor of God’s existence, in my opinion, does nothing to support non-believers, nor is it a threat to believers. In fact, he himself concedes that there is “no way to conclusively disprove the existence of God.”

This makes perfect sense to me, since the heart of one’s relationship to God is not founded on reason and logic. It should not conflict with reason and logic, but that’s not where it comes from.

I also like the attitude Paulos takes with his book. Quoting from the article:

Even as Paulos works to refute the classical arguments for God’s existence, he does something too few of his mindset do: Chide non-believers for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“It’s repellent for atheists or agnostics,” he admonishes, “to personally and aggressively question others’ faith or pejoratively label it as benighted flapdoodle or something worse. Those who do are rightfully seen as arrogant and overbearing.”


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