Tag: god

The Lost Art of Suspending Disbelief

By Craig Axford | Canada

Imagine you’ve just watched Star Wars or a Harry Potter movie with a friend. As you throw your empty popcorn bucket into the trash and head for the exit, your friend asks you if you believe the movie is true.

Perhaps book clubs are more your cup of tea. After reading the Da Vinci Code, which everyone in your group agrees was a real page-turner, your club discovers in its midst someone who thought they were reading a scholarly historical work and insists the code really exists.

To be fair, someone having the opposite reaction would be just as far off base, even if perhaps not as obviously so at first glance. If, instead of insisting the movie was a documentary of some sort your companion had concluded the movie was false, citing as proof the fact that faster than light travel is impossible or that the artificial gravity enabling everyone to walk about the decks of the starship at 1G seems implausible, we might find ourselves conceding that they are technically correct yet still reasonably conclude that they had missed the story’s point.

We find such literal true or false dichotomies ridiculous when it comes to the arts. Even the sciences, properly understood, deal in probabilities rather than absolute certainty. Yet we have no difficulty making such absolute claims about our religious myths. These stories, we insist, must either be true or false.

. . .

This situation is largely the fault of those insisting their religion is factually true. In taking this position they often push even those with nuanced views on the subject into the opposite corner. When we insist it’s all or nothing, we can’t blame the opposition when we find the door to communication and compromise closed.

Having consistently had that door shut in their face, doubters and disbelievers are increasingly resorting to mockery and derision. It’s an understandable stance to take when you’re talking about people who insist dinosaurs walked the earth with humans and two of every living thing can actually fit on a boat. In addition, after the centuries worth of both physical and emotional abuse that has been heaped upon doubters (as well as believers) constitutionally protected freedom of expression is a hard opportunity to pass up when it becomes available.

All that said, fundamentally what we’re dealing with here are stories, and the purpose of a good story isn’t to convince us of its historical or scientific accuracy. Its function is to draw us in and cause us to lose ourselves for a while as we experience its telling. A good story ideally leads us to suspend disbelief, which is a very different thing from either belief or disbelief.

Suspending disbelief is the act of setting the choice between truth and falsehood aside. In this state of mind, we are not evaluating what we are reading, hearing, or seeing to determine its compatibility with reality as such. We are not engaged in analytical thinking or looking to poke holes in the tale any more than we are unconditionally accepting it as factual. In a state of suspended disbelief, all such considerations disappear from consciousness while we “become lost” in the pages of a good book or “take a journey ” with Frodo and Sam across Middle Earth from our seats in the theater.

It’s usually understood going into these experiences that we are leaving reality behind for a while. Sometimes storytellers will even explicitly invite us to suspend disbelief before the story has even begun. Such signals to drop our guard, if done right, are readily followed. However, had George Lucus opened his first Star Wars movie with the words “Recently, in a solar system near us” instead of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” the implicit invitation to believe in even just the possibility of what was to follow would likely have ruined the whole story.

. . .

A society’s most powerful myths — the ones that ultimately shape and come to define its culture — are only superficially about the characters and events depicted in them. These are merely the vehicles for conveying deeper lessons. But anyone who has attended a religious service recently knows very well that the question ‘what did you get out of the story?’ rarely if ever comes up. Even in our very secular age doubt, or even a willing suspension of disbelief, is still largely unwelcome at Friday, Saturday, or Sunday services.

Consider for a moment the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht’s description of the story of Job, a story with which even those raised in non-religious Western households are at least vaguely familiar. Was there really a man named Job? Does God really exist and did He really make a bet with Satan that facilitated Job’s suffering? From Hecht’s perspective, those kinds of questions are at best secondary:

There is something grand about a story that tries to reconcile human beings to loss, to letting go of the things that the universe has allowed us to amass and keep for a while — including the idea that after we lose everything, there is a good chance we’ll get it all back someday. Could the Job author have been satisfied with this as a parable of divine justice? It is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous. The Job story is a story of doubt. God’s list brings Job back into the fold, but the fight has transformed the fold. With Job, that paradigm of a just God was carried to an extreme that immediately identified the problem with the idea: the world is not just. If justice exists, the Book of Job concludes, it does so in a way inconceivable to humanity. Job asked deep questions and they have lingered for millennia. ~ Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History

Job is a proxy for everyone who has experienced a deep and powerful loss. Whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, unaffiliated but “spiritual”, or a regular churchgoer, the problem of suffering remains central to the human experience. Whether an individual that went by the name of Job and lived in a particular time and place ever actually existed is so far beyond the point that one must conclude that anybody who insists upon it is, like a person fixated on the reality of Lucas’ far away galaxy, seriously out of touch with reality.

Wrestling with the issues raised by the story of Job, and others like it from a variety of traditions, requires a willingness to avoid making the literal truth or falsehood of the story the place where we take our stand. That leaves suspending disbelief as the only way we can get to the heart of the matter. Suspending disbelief allows us to maintain a healthy skepticism without allowing it to interfere with our experience of the story. We aren’t accepting the story on blind faith, but we aren’t dwelling on its lack of historic or scientific veracity either. We can acknowledge factual problems if circumstances demand it, then quickly find our way back to the message without lingering for too long with the irrelevancies.

There is a morality play going on here, not a history lesson. Whether intentionally or not, when a believer insists that we have a debate about whether dinosaurs actually walked the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve or Jesus really did walk on water, they are making the story the end instead of the means. That is something our myths were never intended to be.

. . .

In all fairness, the development of writing shares much of the blame for our literalism. For most of human history, we lacked any means of confirming whether or not the stories being told around the campfire were the same from one telling to the next, let alone from one generation to another. There were no audio or video recordings available to make sure a storyteller was adhering to the original version, let alone anyone around to take notes.

Since memory was all people had to go on — an unreliable record-keeper under the best of circumstances — the best anyone concerned with fidelity could hope for was that any major changes made to the sacred tribal myths would be noticed by those who had heard them before. However, even assuming people wanted to catch them, minor additions and subtractions were impossible to consistently detect. This combination of small but intentional creative changes and unintentional memory lapses built up like mutations over time. Some went over like lead balloons with their audience and were quickly dropped while others were powerful and popular enough to become long-term features.

Storytelling, like evolution, is a process. In oral cultures, this was intuitively understood. The meaning and knowledge embedded within the story rather than the words themselves tended to take precedence. Comparing a modern society that has the ability to not only write, but also create a real-time audio and visual record of its existence down to the minutest detail, to an oral culture for whom stories are not merely a source of identity but a matter of survival is more like comparing apples to coconuts than it is apples to oranges.

Writing provided a mechanism for ensuring consistency unlike anything humanity had encountered before and it transformed how we approach both our myths and our physical environment in ways we never could have anticipated in advance. Of course, stories were still alterable, but as long as the original text or something very close to it survived new versions could be compared to the old and even subtle differences could be readily detected.

At that point, our sacred stories began to both literally and figuratively be seen as chiseled in stone and many of our traditions ceased to be living. Increasingly, the goal was to preserve them through a kind of textual mummification. It was in this context that the written word was sanctified and the story it recorded came to be seen as historical.

. . .

“Symbols are only the vehicle of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference,” Joseph Campbell wrote in his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. “No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding.” Campbell concludes by reminding us that “Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.”

We should take mythology seriously, but not too seriously. A decent level of respect rather than a reverential posture is what’s called for. Modern technology enables us to compare notes and police each other for consistency, but in the context of storytelling, there’s no opportunity for either fun or learning in that. The same technology also gives us an opportunity to play with our myths: to find humor and fresh interpretations that reveal themselves best through the use of contemporary language and references.

Consider Jonathan Goldstein’s reinterpretation of the story of Adam, Eve, and our loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden. Such a retelling is only possible when the storyteller sees the text as living rather than dead. It’s both humorous and evocative without demanding either belief or disbelief. It would be difficult for a listener to come away from Goldstein’s reimagining of the opening chapters of Genesis with a desire to storm the next local school board meeting demanding Intelligent Design be given equal time with evolution. Likewise, anyone insisting the story isn’t true after hearing Goldstein’s version would also be missing the mark by quite a wide margin.

The Abrahamic traditions, in particular, have consistently doubled down on belief, generally insisting that any who would darken the doorway of their institutions be willing to profess their faith in the word as it is written. Failure to do so often means ostracism, excommunication, or far worse.

But these religions don’t have many chips left to play. Nor has the modern world dealt the literalists in their midst a particularly strong hand. The best play at this point is to fold and acknowledge humanity’s myths are now, as they have always been, a means of fostering meaning and spreading wisdom rather than a mechanism for describing the physical universe or communicating historical events to future generations.

In the closing pages of Myths To Live By, Joseph Campbell said it best. As is so often the case when it comes to mythology, he deserves the final word:

The difficulty faced today by Christian thinkers in this regard follows from their doctrine of the Nazarene as the unique historical incarnation of God; and in Judaism, likewise, there is the no less troublesome doctrine of a universal God whose eye is on but one Chosen People of all in his created world. The fruit of such ethnocentric historicism is poor spiritual fare today; and the increasing difficulties of our clergies in attracting gourmets to their banquets should be evidence enough to make them realize that there must be something no longer palatable about the dishes they are serving. These were good enough for our fathers, in the tight little worlds of knowledge of their days, when each little civilization was a thing more or less to itself. But consider that picture of the planet Earth that was taken from the surface of the moon!


Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

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The Founding Fathers were Right to be Deists

By Jack Parkos | United States

The Age Of Enlightenment brought many new ideas to the world, including liberty, science, and skepticism towards monarchs. People may not know how much deism helped move these ideas. In fact most people don’t know what deism is. Some people may be deists and not know it.

To understand deism, it is important to recognize to other religious beliefs: atheism and theism. Atheists, of course, believe that there is no God, while theists disagree. Theists also believe in religious texts and ceremonies.

So what do deists believe? Deists believe that a supreme power created the universe but does not interfere with it. A deist would reject revelation, organized religion, and the supernatural. Deists often refer to “god” as “The Creator” as the belief is that The Creator did create the world, but does not seek to be worshiped as a god. The Creator created not only the universe, but the laws of physics, natural law, and the ability to reason.

Since deists have no book stating what they must believe, they must use reason to come to conclusion. Some deists believe in a more scientific creator, while others say The Creator is more spiritual. Deists also are divided on the afterlife. Some have slightly different views from others, but all agree on the principle of a Creator and no divine intervention. Some famous deists include Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, John Locke, and many other enlightenment thinkers. Many deists start out as Christians who reject the churches ideas but still believe in a creator of the universe.

You may be asking how deists come to this belief. What makes a Christian reject religion but still believe in the creator?  Let us start with the argument for an existence of a creator. Remember this creator is not the God of the Bible. Let us start with the universe itself, very complex, full of coincidences. In fact, the current state of the universe itself is highly statistically unlikely.

It’s nearly impossible for life to exist, given all of the factors required. The universe could not just pop into existence (the Big Bang). Rather, some higher power created it. Then, we look at how complex everything is. For example there are many laws of nature. The First Law of Thermodynamics states energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but transformed, from one form to another. This is a complicated law, stating that energy cannot be naturally created, but obviously energy exists. Thus, a paradox forms. Energy had to come from somewhere. We must also look at the idea of the Big Bang, science has explanation as to what was before the big bang nor a good reason how/why it happened. To point it simply, there are too many coincidences to believe in that the universe just happened.

Then, we look into biology and genetics. DNA is very complex and truly amazing. We all know that DNA is made of four nucleobases: A,T,G, and C. In just one cell there are 3 billion letters, all arranged perfectly to create each individual species. It is like the coding of a computer, and computers always have someone create a program. So what does this all point to?

A deist would use the reasoning that the complexity of DNA could not just be coincidence, much like how a computer program can’t just happen. How do those four chemicals arranged in billions of different ways create an individual living organism? The deist reasoning is that the Creator doesn’t pick out each chemical and arrange for each individual species but rather DNA and the way it works was a creation of his. DNA is simply to complex to not be a creation. Life is no coincidence.

Now we will look at the deist argument for a non intervening god. They will agree with theists that the world was created (though we may disagree on how), but then, the similarities end. Theists now state God has been watching over and intervening in the world, while deists believe nature has been governing us. Now, we must ask which is a more logical belief.

The most common intervention the theist will believe in is a religious text. But, there are so many different religious texts all claiming to be right, none having major evidence over the other. Why does one book (say the Bible, for example,) have more logic than the Quran? Both claim that theirs is the true word of god, yet neither have direct empirical evidence of that being the case. What makes a book the word of God? What makes claims of the Bible more rational than Greek Mythology? The idea of something being the “Word of God” was used to rule over people, (this is where it starts to tie into libertarianism, which I will analyze more in part 2) forcing people to follow rules and rule leaders because “God said so”.

The “Word of God” is not a book, as the Creator could not put his words in a way we could comprehend in a book. The word of God is rather, nature. Above we discussed the complexity of DNA. Think of how beautiful and amazing nature is. How perfect it is. This is the word of God, not claims from a Prophet. We all can observe nature, we all don’t get revelation. Which makes more logical sense?

Let us now look at other ways theists claim God intervenes. Miracles. Theists believe God may help the world through supernatural acts. Some claim God cures sickness, saves people in disasters, and even helps teams win in sports. But let us look at third world countries, people who pray the most and get the least amount of miracles. How does an all-powerful and intervening God allow such suffering to occur?

The theist, when asked, says the same scapegoat that they cannot understand the will of God. But that same person also claims that they can determine the word of God based off a two thousand year old book. That is blasphemy! An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow evil to exist. Christians often respond to this with the fact that evil exists only because we have free will. Yet, God floods the Earth in their sacred text, robbing them of free will. The deist is the true believer of free will. There is no higher being controlling us. We are 100% free within the laws of nature.


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No, Jesus Was Not a Socialist

By Ian Brzeski | United States

On countless occasions, I have either seen or heard that Jesus is a socialist. I see it through memes, I hear it through others. It’s complete and utter nonsense.

Let’s spot the differences in these two cases. In the first scenario, let’s say that you are walking down the street and a man comes up to you asking for money. He says that he runs a charity to help out the poor, and you decide to donate because you feel that it would be beneficial towards his cause. In the second scenario, you decide not to give the man any money at all. The man is upset at this and decides to pull out a gun, forcing you to donate to meet the threshold he needs to raise. In both of these scenarios, the man got the desired money and was able to help the poor.

The differences are clear. In the first scenario, you voluntarily gave up your money whereas, in the second, the man coerced you to. Objectively, the way the man acted in the second scenario is immoral, even though he gave the money to the poor.

Now, why is it different when the government takes your money through taxation? The government sets up programs for the poor, asks you for money to help fund the programs, and if you don’t give them your money, they throw you in a rotting cell for the rest of your life. That sounds eerily similar to the second scenario that I presented. The government uses a form of coercion in the same way that the man coerced you. Andrew Lepore writes a fantastic article which really delves into why just because you or somebody else benefits from taxation doesn’t mean that it’s morally justifiable in any way whatsoever.

Now let’s get to why Jesus is not a socialist. First of all, Jesus preaches about helping your neighbor and caring for the sick and the poor. He tells you to spread the Good News. It seems to some that socialists preach the same, but this is simply not true. Jesus never said that you can force somebody else to live by your values.

You should hope that people want to give back to their community or to the poor out of the goodness of their heart. You have every right to tell somebody that they should give to the poor, and to spread Jesus’ message. However, there’s a reason that Jesus never says that it’s okay to force somebody to live by His message. If somebody is going to hoard all their money, then they are well in their right to do so. You cannot, in good moral standing, throw somebody in prison on the premise that they are a subjectively bad person. The only just reason to do so is if they infringe on someone else’s rights. Not giving money to somebody else is not an infringement of their rights.

I urge people to not be that guy. I urge people to live by Jesus’ message even if they don’t believe in his divinity. The majority of people in this world are good. There are plenty of people who will give back to their communities; many celebrities already do. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, loves giving money to people who need it. Whether those people directly need it or are raising awareness for a cause, she will provide. There are plenty of other examples of celebrities giving back to their communities. There are millions of everyday normal people who give money and time to charities and other organizations and may even be incentivized to give more if the government didn’t already steal their money.

Socialism requires the government to use a coercive force to redistribute the wealth among everybody even if the majority of the people did nothing to deserve that money. It is completely immoral as it lines up with the second scenario I presented to an even bigger extreme. When Jesus tells somebody to go out and take care of the sick and the poor, he is saying for you to go out and voluntarily do it, and not to have a governing body force people to do it. If anything, Jesus is way more of a voluntaryist than a socialist, as the latter requires force which he opposed.


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Faith and Love: Rand’s Critical Error

By Kaihua Zhou | United States

Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism, extolled the virtues of the free market and individual liberty. Conservatives such as Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz are on record as admirers of her literature. To liberals, Rand personifies their anxieties: unbridled selfishness oppressing the weak. In reality, Rand’s vision, while extraordinary in its scope, possesses its limitations.  Perhaps the greatest limitation is its conception of faith and love.

In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Rand posits the following:

I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible. Namely, a morality not based on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason…

I’m challenging the moral code of altruism. The precept that man’s moral duty is to live for others. That man must sacrifice himself to others.

Such sentiments fell dramatically outside mainstream thought in 1959, and they remain so today. It is for this precise cause that Rand remains so controversial.

Rand’s view has a degree of merit. If taken to an extreme, selflessness can father oppression. One need only recall their terrors of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia to see the consequences of collectivism. When states determine that their citizens live only for the sake of advancing their cause, tragedies occur.

However, Rand’s counter-proposal can lead to its own pitfalls. To quote again from the 1959 interview,

You don’t love everybody indiscriminately. You love only those who deserve it.

Instead of altruism, Objectivists hold that one must love conditionally.  This begs the question: who deserves love? Does a captured enemy combatant “deserve” it? Do individuals struggling with substance abuse “deserve” love? What about unrepentant criminals? Within society, there is a spectrum of moral qualities.  Consequently, individuals vary in their ability to contribute to society.  It is fair to say not all are equally worthy of love, but even so, all possess human dignity and are entitled to certain liberties. With that dignity comes moral obligation, and a degree of unconditional love. Such is the faith-based morality that Rand deplores.

In a strictly Judeo-Christian context, the Holy Bible records multiple examples of this. In both the Old and New Testaments, moral failures are repeatedly condemned. David referred to Goliath as an “uncircumcised Philistine”  (1 Samuel 17:26) and Christ had no qualms challenging the corrupt, referring to Harold as a “fox” ( Luke 13:32).  These are powerful examples of recognizing evil. Even so, the testaments also proclaim imago dei, an equality among God’s children. Thus, they all deserve a degree of love. Malachi 2:10 states that ” Have we not all one father? have not one God created us?”.  Similarly, Christ commanded his disciples to forgive their trespassers and to love one another ( Matthew 6:14-15, John 15:19). Thus a faith-based morality can recognize faults in character, while maintaining that there are universal moral obligations.

To be absolutely clear, this is not equivalent to blind naiveté. A prosecutor, for example, can recognize the villainy of a crime lord, while respecting a defendant’s rights. Nor does the idea require collectivism. Citizens can fulfill their moral duty without being forced by the state to do so. Rand was right to praise the freedoms of individuals. Where she erred was failing to see the subtleties of love and faith.


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Patriotism and the State are not your God

By Austin Anderholt | United States

In American politics, the right loves to poke fun at the left. What seems to be their favorite way to do this is poke fun at how liberals base all of their politics on “feelings”. The right loves to call the left “triggered snowflakes” and other assorted names.

This rhetoric stems from the fact that the American right sees itself as the messiah of hard facts and logic, uncaring of your “feelings”. This is extremely ironic, seeing as the American right is the most emotional, childish piece of American politics.

Right wingers love to bow down to their government, calling it “patriotism”. They chant slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” and “Support our troops.” When thibking about it rationally, it becomes extremely silly to imagine that people cherish so dearly the very police that infringe on their basic rights. It seems so crazy that people would let the government steal more of their paycheck to fund the killings of more innocent children through wars. It becomes even sillier to imagine that people think that action is “supporting our troops”. However, the right doesn’t look at the government through a lens of logic and reasoning. The right looks at the government through a lense of emotion, more specifically, fear.

If you take a look at how Americans view patriotism, you get a sense that the government is some sort of Orwellian god. For example, the government teaches American schoolchildren as young as five to put their hands on their heart and pledge themselves to the state every morning. We also look at our flag as something that can never touch the ground. Americans get offended when someone desecrates it. It’s an idol.

When you ask Americans why they voluntarily pledge themselves to the state, or worship a government that hurts them through stealing their money and infringing their rights, they give very vague answers.

“Because people died for America!”

Oh really. People died for the swastika and the hammer and sickle. Just because people that I’ve never met decided to risk their life for their opinion doesn’t mean I should worship said opinion.

“America means freedom!”

Really? The government that infringes on my rights, steals from my money, and indoctrinates the masses into hailing it represents freedom?

From these vague responses on such a big issue, we can conclude that something else is the reason that Americans are so overly patriotic and worship the state so much:

Group pressure and fear.

Every dictator knew that in order to make a individuals submit, you must make the group submit. This is why Hitler’s rallies were so powerful. When everyone else is hailing Hitler in unison, it’s human nature to feel like you’re making the incorrect choice by not hailing Hitler.

This is why the pledge works so well. Everyone stands up and recites that they pledge themselves to the state in unison. You feel like an outcast if you’re not also there pledging the state. Soon it becomes a competition. We all want to prove to everyone that we love our state more than the next guy. This is why everyone just says “I love America! God bless America!” So much. Do they have any idea of why they’re saying that? No! It just seems so romantic to love something unconditionally no matter what, especially when state education has glorified it.

This is why we love our military so much. The thought of saying “Sure people in the military have been killed, but people have died for many reasons, and I don’t have to agree with their cause just because they died for it.” Sounds scary. Humans want to be a part of a group. They don’t want to be labeled a “traitor” to the all righteous state that everyone is apart of.

This is what makes the American right so emotional. The state is their god. They are afraid to think or speak against it. They are afraid of not being apart of the masses, and they are afraid that they will be an outcast if they don’t hail Hitler like everyone else does. Remember, be a rebel. Don’t jump off a cliff just because everyone else is yelling at you to do it. The state is not your god.

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