Religious debates

Here is a selection of my contributions to topic 229 ("Are there any Christians out there?", a.k.a. "Religious Wars"). Most of them respond to contributions by others, content of the notes being replied to is generally easy enough to deduce.

If you feel like leaving a comment, please feel free to do so!

Topic 229, note 181 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 14-APR-1993 15:59
-< Humanists of the world unite! >-

To quote:

I have much greater fear of and sympathy for those that do not have a religious basis for their morals. If solely held in line by society and laws, why should they not commit crimes or other injustices that benefits them individually, if they can "get away with it"?

This is the example of what bothers me most about religions in general. Believers appear unable to grasp that moral and ethical behaviour does not require a higher – superhuman – authority (or even a threat of eternal punishment). The awkward fact is that from the practical point of view, believers are not any more moral or ethical then atheists. Both categories are equally capable of producing monsters and "saints".

This strikes me as the position of a toddler, who believes that it is impossible to walk upright without clutching at furniture and is trying to figure out how others are managing to disguise their supports.

Let me be quite plain – I cannot imagine any more powerful source of love, tolerance, mutual respect, morals, ethics etc, than the profound realisation that in the final count WE ONLY HAVE EACH OTHER. There is no higher authority which will justify or condemn our trespasses. There is no "devil", other than the personification of our own darkness.

Yes, many atheists ignore this insight, just like many Christians happily go on sinning. We are all "creatures of light and darkness" and it is only right for us to aspire to "light", while only to often falling into "darkness". Atheists may fool themselves that "it doesn't matter anyway". Christians may equally fool themselves that "their sins will be forgiven in the end". Tell me, what is the difference? What is the difference, other than an atheist accepts full responsibility for his light and darkness, without having to rely on the crutches of supernatural revelations, approval from on high or even a fear of punishment after death?

Flame off.

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Topic 229, note 222 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 15-APR-1993 12:26
-< I know tomorrow I'll regret opening my big mouth, but... >-


Duke you are the new messiah.. I'll follow you to the end of ... well the end of Greenford Road anyway...

Yes, well, that's why I try to avoid presenting atheism as a Big Idea, unless irritated into it. Big Ideas are dangerous. My consolation is that, relatively speaking, Greenford Road is not all that long, so you can now take that tongue out of your cheek.


... you must admit in your heart that God (the one around before all the schisms in religion/denomination etc) gave his people a set of Laws, that at some point the people abandoned the spirit of the Law and began to make The Law more important than God and God, like our Father, got upset and decided to punish his wayward children. (same thing happened in Eden). The Jews had sacrificed lambs to make amends to God for years. Jesus became the new Lamb. His passing into the next life is likened to entering the holy chamber of the temple. It was THIS sacrifice that bought our salvation.

There you go again... Why should I admit anything of the sort? What salvation? For that matter, salvation from WHAT?

Yes, of course it would be comforting to believe something of the sort, just as it used to be comforting to believe in Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and parental omnipotence (as an aside, I don't remember any wars started or waged in the name of the Tooth Fairy).

(Crank up the purple prose generator...)

Let's be quite explicit – not believing in religions can also be a deeply moving, profound and life enhancing experience. To quote somebody with a better command of words then me: "Imagine there's no Heaven,... No Hell below us, Above us only sky." Though this was no news to me when Lennon wrote it, those lines still move me deeply whenever I hear them.

(Purple prose generator full on...)

Goddess, trust yourself. Rejecting religious certainties does not make one wicked, immoral or evil. Trust yourself to make moral and even ethical choices without the divine guidance, without a Holy Scripture to set down the "good" options for you. Yes, one fails – again and again and again, believers and atheists alike. Yes, some atheists interpret this freedom from the watchful eye which may (or may not) judge one at the end of the days and may (or may not) decide on essentially unknowable criteria whether one is "saved" or "damned", as a licence to do anything. This no more proves the "evil" of atheism than religious wars and persecution prove the "evil" of religion.

Trust yourself to stand on your own moral feet. It is worth it, believe me! :-) And if there is a God after all, and if He is going to punish us for doing so – well, I renounce such a God, for, behold, His children have outgrown Him. If on the other hand there is a God after all, and he approves of His children finding their own feet, like all good parents do – then, why, I will have a nice surprise in store.

(Purple prose generator blows a fuse... ah well...)

Facts. No, do not suspend your God-given talents (did you say that tongue-in-cheek??) and never stop questioning.

No I didn't. Most contributors to this discussion seem to see the whole issue in the black and white yes/no terms. I am very comfortable in a middle position (by no means an anemic compromise). Yes, I take religion in general and Christianity in particular very seriously, as reflecting deep truths about ourselves. Whether these truths have an apriori psychological validity in the strict Jungian sense of archetypes, or have been themselves shaped in the historical process in which Christianity has played a major role – I do not know. It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation. None of this, however, even tempts me to take these "truths" literally, as objectively given from outside the complexities of human psychology. Quite contrarywise.

I confess to be puzzled by your attitude to facts. Yes, it goes without saying (and had been discussed at length in these notes before) that one cannot verify every fact or factlet. To follow your example, though, if your kids came to you saying "by the way, we met this guy on the way from school and He says that if only you believe in all he told us, you won't have to pay any taxes anymore" (taxes and death being two of the three proverbial certainties of life) – you would not demand a proof before budgeting money saved on not paying taxes for other purposes??? The more important the fact, the more it needs verifying... but not please when we come to the biggest alleged fact of them all? Baffled.

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Topic 229, note 251 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 15-APR-1993 17:45
-< You have been warned! >-
...and the Duke spoke the word of John (Lennon) and all the network were gob-smacked...

Dear Progster,

Next time we actually meet, I suggest you run real fast. (And it's "spake", not "spoke", if you please!)

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Topic 229, note 344 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 20-APR-1993 09:25
-< A replacement for .343 >-

Goddess, you failed to spot that I was simply offering a parallel outsider's view to the "Buddhism looks allright, but it smacks of the occult" point of view expressed in these notes. My parody at least offered more substance, I think. There's no point to blame the mirror if one doesn't like the reflection it offers. Not that my remarks were directed at you personally anyway.

Let me tell you a true (and very recent) story, instead of the note I've got rid of.

The vicar in my friends' parish is a twice born, with a small but dedicated circle of like-minded followers. A few months ago he decided that they needed a "religious centre" and an office. The parish has three churches, at least one of them with an associated building suitable for an office, but churches would not do – they do not express the community spirit, apparently – and the potential office space would not do either. The Holy Spirit apparently indicated to the vicar that the putative office was in a building possessed by the Devil. So far so good.

Vicar's co-believers looked around and identified a disused shop with a flat above, which would do splendidly for their purposes. A member of the congregation happens to be an architect (once born), who undertook to do the necessary preparatory work. After a couple of weeks, he reported back to say that (a) the conversion would cost a lot of money (£50,000 absolute minimum, more likely rather a lot more) and (b) they were unlikely to get a planning permission for the conversion anyway, because it would entail converting existing residential space into an office space.

The twice-born circle gathered, prayed, some danced, some spoke in tongues and came to the consensus that the Holy Spirit said all these difficulties would be resolved. One of them then consulted his contacts in the local council and reported back that the Spirit was absolutely correct – the council was not going to object to the conversion and the planning permission was forthcoming. The only remaining problem was the funds. At this point, the vicar was offered Direct Divine Guidance. On a specific day he was to spend the whole day on the premises in question and receive pledges which, on that day, would amount to more than the required amount. After more praying etc, this was accepted as the true word of God.

So an application was submitted to the council and on the appointed day the vicar went and sat. It takes no great genius to deduce the ending of this tale. The pledges received amounted to 15,000 instead of the promised £50,000+ and within a few days the council wrote back, saying, in essence "You must be joking!". After which my horrified friends (who'd reported the proceedings throughout with an increasing sense of incredulity) were treated to the hilarious and undignified spectacle of the twice-born getting up in the parish meeting and calling each other names – in plain English, rather than in tongues, one might add.

If all of the above weren't bad enough, as a parallel but separate strand of God's instructions, the vicar was trying to shut down one of the three parish churches – the most traditional one, of course. He was most put out that the parishioners packed the meeting called to approve the decision (on the grounds of not enough funding for the structural repairs), threw out the proposal and within a couple of months collected the sum required for the repairs – guess how much? - £50,000+, of course!

I am sure I don't need to spell out the lesson I draw from this sorry saga. As I said once before in this topic, the one lesson one can draw from history is the almost infinite capacity we humans have for fooling ourselves. Do I hear the mutters of "what makes YOU so sure of yourself then?"? The answer is simple, I am not. I express even my deepest beliefs on the subject with a great deal of caution – e.g. "I cannot imagine" a better foundation to morals and ethics than humanist atheism, not "there isn't". I only become a rabid proselytising humanist when provoked into it by statements of absolute religious truths. People who believe that they know The Truth scare the hell out of me, however well intentioned and otherwise reasonable and civilised they may be.

If we could all admit to our basic uncertainty in the area of metaphysics, this discussion could, as far as I am concerned, come to the optimal resolution. This is not to say that I would drop my (un-)beliefs or would expect others to drop theirs. That is not the issue, as I hope I had made previously clear.

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Topic 229, note 693 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 30-APR-1993 10:01
-< Classifications >-


A laudable effort, but this approach has been tried many times (experts on history of religion should be able to come up with details – I fear my self-education in these areas was chaotic :-) and aimed at self education, so I very rarely remember my sources and have to rely on others in this respect). It has never been successful, essentially because what sounds like a reasonable argument to one disputant, need not sound at all reasonable to another. We do not operate by rules of formal logic (and couldn't do so if we tried).

As far as I can see, the contributors to this conference fall into four major categories:

  1. Those who think religion is a bad joke.
  2. Those who are not religious themselves but accept that others may see life differently.
  3. Those who do believe in some religion or another but are not dogmatic about it.
  4. Those believers who are dogmatic about it.

Each pair of adjacent groups appear to have no great trouble in living in relative peace, even if it boils down to a mutual (tacit?) agreement not to tread on each-other's sore toes. The two groups at the extreme positions have nothing to say to each other. The remaining two pairings (1-3 and 2-4) appear to have sufficient common ground for a dispute but insufficient common ground to an agreement – each side tends to view the other as a curious entomological specimen ("Ooooo... Look at the number of legs it's got!" – unkind and exaggerated, I know, but I liked the image, OK?).

The debate has been, so far, dominated by groups 2 and 4 – non dogmatic believers acting mainly as observers (with one or three honorary exceptions). It is that group I would be most interested in understanding. Not because of any unrealised desire to hear the word of God after all (sorry, Duchess), but because of my interest in the workings of human mind (with no prejudice to the beliefs that mind encompasses) plus a feeling – however idealistically naive it may be – that such mutual understanding would in itself be a good thing.

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& Topic 229, note 739 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 4-MAY-1993 12:39
-< Compassion >-

Dry One: .661

so far ive seen some excellent questions and even some silly comments [guilty of this myself] but one thing that does stand out is that many of the alternatives that have been mentioned correct me if i am wrong have been selfish,in the respect that people have only been concerned about fulfilling their own needs\desires what about others.How do other people fit in to your alternatives ? so far nowhere.........

You couldn't have followed this conference very well to make such an assertion. Still, here goes...

  1. All major religion incorporate one way or another the concept of love and unselfishness – as something decreed by God(s).
  2. Non-religions (humanism and any others I am unaware of) derive the same lesson from the deep realisation that in the final count we only have each other – i.e. as a spontaneous insight rather than a divine prescription.

I would go further and look at the whole question of compassion. You may find some of the below offensive, but please believe that it is not my intention to offend – merely to enlighten.

Christian compassion, seen from outside, has a curiously unsatisfactory tang to it. It cannot be reasonably separated from the belief in the eternal blessed life afterwards and hence inevitably takes on the character of something provisional – something you have to do in this life, which is only a finite and not a very pleasant period preceding infinite and eternal bliss. This is in tune with the feeling, which I've always found incredible, that there is no need for the blessed to feel – let alone display – any compassion for the souls eternally damned in Hell. (Believer actually exhorts us not to mind the lake of fire and look on the positive side!).

Contrast this with Buddhism (which some Christian around here dismissed as "silly"). One of the Buddhas actually refused the highest bliss of Nirvana because the rest of humanity could not share it with him. He resides in this world instead and offers his compassion to everybody whatever their beliefs or unbeliefs – even to the souls burning in hell (Buddhas are not gods, so cannot abolish hell). In popular belief, he takes cool drinks to burning sinners.

Now, I've never heard of a Christian refusing the eternal bliss of Heaven out of compassion for the damned – have you?

Contrast all of the above with compassion offered by an atheist. An atheist believes that there will be no reward for his compassion in some heaven and that there is no life after – hence he gives freely out of his limited store of time, which is all he has. Why should he? Because in the final count WE ONLY HAVE EACH OTHER. Compassion, love, justice etc ONLY EXIST IN SO FAR AS WE GENERATE THEM.

Does this answer your question?

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Topic 229, note 842 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 12-MAY-1993 11:01
-< Let me have a go... >-

OK, let me try. I was reserving this for a reply to Pardon, but...

Why should an atheist bother to "give" instead of just selfishly "taking"?

I bet you this is the question the Neanderthal man asked when offered to trade his nice stone club for a fetching fur garment (OK, it might have been Homo Erectus, I don't care!): "Uh uh, uh-uh-uh uh? Uh!" Which roughly translates as "You are clearly stronger than I am, otherwise you would not have dared to show me your fur, knowing that I can simply club you with my club and take the fur anyway. That being so, what is stopping you taking my club from me and not giving me the fur as you promise to do? Go away!"

Nevertheless trade eventually flourished, because it was found to be to general human advantage. This advantage is not invalidated by the fact that a lot of cheats (sharks, insider traders, thieves, handlers of stolen goods, police etc...) flourish in its shadows.

Ditto for ethics. Unless we do generate compassion, love, justice etc, there won't be any, in which case we shall all suffer. Consequently it is worth doing so anyway, even if there is nothing to stop some people not playing ball.

This is a general pattern of all human activities. When mankind is faced with a lack of something, it sets about (often in a long historical process) in making more of that something, rather than just going around and clubbing each other.

I cannot see why ethics should be any different, once one realises that ethical standards are not "god given".

Does that answer the question?

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Topic 229, note 880 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 14-MAY-1993 09:42
-< Discerning... >-

I don't have Tove's wonderfully dry ironic style, so I'll be blunter. The Isaiah argument has demonstrated very nicely a previous point of mine, which got airily dismissed by believers.

  1. The Bible is The Truth – literally.
  2. Except where it contradicts one's interpretation if it.
  3. If that happens, one simply searches for a version which allows this contradiction to be dismissed – fortunately there is a sufficient variety of versions to accommodate almost any such regrettable accident.

Perhaps in religion one could also profitably use the distinction we've arrived at in Pushing Water Uphill (after all, believers keep saying how important discrimination is [or should it be discernment in P.C.-speak?]):

It is essential to differentiate between

a) What we know.
b) Our interpretations of what we know.
c) Our speculations based on what we know and how we interpret it.

To my mind, the prominent believer voices on this topic fail to discriminate between (a) and (b).

So, what do we know?

It is an undeniable fact that people to have religious experiences – at all times, in all places, in all cultures. For a believer it is also an undeniable fact that s/he has had such an experience, if s/he is so graced. We also know that all religions have venerated holy scriptures. I submit that this is the sum total of our firm knowledge.

We interpret the above facts. Believers in any particular religion interpret them, needless to say, within the context of that religion. For myself I interpret them as manifestations of deep structures of human psyche. These are interpretations which are subject, to occasional dramatic shifts – be it on a large scale when new religions are born or on a small scale as manifested in conversions to/from any such interpretative views.

Finally there are speculations – is it or is it not legit for tables to fly? Do angels have free will? Is contacting the spirits of the dead OK or not? (I confess I found the horror of the twice born with regard to their more spiritually inclined brethren quite amusing in that their incredulity and sadness echo mine with respect to them).

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Topic 229, note 1011 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 19-MAY-1993 17:49
-< Humanism >-

As you should have noticed, I have never claimed for humanism any status other than that of a system of beliefs. In fact, I went out of my way to make this clear – if you don't believe me, I'll hunt the note references for you. The difference between your belief and mine is that I do not claim to be in the possession of an ultimate TRUTH – again specifically stated at least once. This does not mean I won't argue to defend my beliefs, but I am content to acknowledge that other people have their own and are – apparently – none the worse for it. No lakes of fire for unbelievers, that's the difference between us. Which is why I have no great argument with Goddess, Green Bean, Jacket etc...

I am very careful to differentiate between what I know (e.g. established scientific theories, which can be proved independent of one's beliefs) from my world-view, which of necessity cannot be rigorously proved. (Chuck keeps trying to obfuscate this essential distinction, but I won't let him! :-).


Humanism is a broad "church" with many schisms. It is unfortunate that I have no other self-professed humanists around here to argue with (closet ones don't count, Name!) – or you'd really see fur fly (in the best of tastes, naturally). For myself, I define it as "ethically informed atheism", in all its multiple shades and colours – variety being the spice of life.

There are no humanist "sacred texts" (shudder!) – the general attitude is well described by Basho: "Do not try to follow the footsteps of the master, rather seek that which he sought" (whoever one's master happens to be). So I cannot refer you to an equivalent of the Bible. So, just some pointers:

As noted before, humanism is very close (though not identical) to Zen. The best source here is probably Alan Watts "The Way of Zen". You may also find his "The Supreme Identity" of interest – it attempts to demonstrate a congruence between the basic ideas of Christianity with those of Buddhism (you listening Chuck? A real syncretic attempt!). Watts started off as a CoE clergyman, so he was well placed for such explorations.

The roots of humanism are, of course in the 18th century Enlightenment. Authors like Russeau and Voltaire are not exactly humanists in my terms, but do say a lot which is relevant.

Then there is humanist Christianity, which Name has been referring to (Don Cuppitt (spelling?)) apparently is the leading exponent, according to Name. I don't hold with this school for a variety of reasons.

Then we have psychological humanism as originated by Abraham Maslow. Practically any writing by him gives the flavour. I used to be much impressed by this strand of humanism, but no more.

Not to be forgotten, Jungian and post-Jungian psychology – James Hillman in particular. Try "Re-Visioning Psychology" for coming closest to what I have come to believe (you'll discover I am a polytheist at heart!). Mind you, you won't understand Hillman unless you know enough Jung to be comfortable with archetypes. (Jung himself wasn't really a kosher humanist; he seemed to have difficulties with placing archetypes firmly where they belong – in human psyche).

If I had to classify myself (which is difficult – all humanists seem to find their own way to their own understanding, in the spirit of the Zen quote above), I'd position myself somewhere very near Hillman, with a heavy dose of Zen thrown in. Humanism is a large "space" and no coordinate system has been devised yet! :-)

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Topic 229, note 1090 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 24-MAY-1993 16:28
-< The long "eagerly awaited" reply >-

Chuck, you seem to have this chronic habit of lumping together things which need to be kept apart. Hence my question re your involvement with science, because differentiating analysis is scientifically at least as important as analogical synthesis. One does not have to be a scientist to work here – no offence intended!

I "flamed" you about your drawing parallels between science and religion, and for reasons unknown you assumed that I was aligning my "humanism" on the side of "science". I can only speculate whether this reflects a desire on your part to have your beliefs scientifically validated. I have no such ambition – science cannot pronounce on matters of metaphysics. I am content with humanism being described as a "faith", for the simple reason that it is fundamentally unprovable. Read through some back notes if you don't believe me, but you are hammering on an open door.

The reason I "flamed" was exactly as stated. No need to seek hidden motives: I object very strongly to your misleading parallels between science and religion. You are quite right, that a strong show of emotion means that the subject is important to me. You could have saved yourself a lot of typing if you'd just asked why it was important.

(1) If this untruth of science being simply a sort of religion gains ground (and it is being pushed hard enough from a variety of quarters) then the danger is that it will increasingly get practised as one. Unfortunately, science is uniquely placed to have its miracles reproduced to worshippers on demand. Potential consequences have been sufficiently well explored in a variety of S.F. books and stories - they are deeply unappealing. I don't want to see wars waged in the name of science. Too fanciful a danger? Fine, laugh at me – just don't forget cargo cults and the fact that fewer and fewer people understand how the technology around us actually works.

(2) If science is really just a matter of interpretation, then political (and religious!) pressures will ensure that it is variously interpreted. I actually lived through the ensuing scientific nightmare of Socialist Science (the right kind) as opposed to Bourgeois Science (the wrong kind). Quite apart from the actual damage done (including human suffering), you would not like it. Whole disciplines got crippled (genetics, computer science [cybernetics!], quantum mechanics...) due to being contrary to the right scientific spirit. Can't happen here? I wish I were so certain – particularly in view of the mutters about the need for "Islamic science" from a certain Nobel laureate!

As you see, in addition to disagreeing with your assertion, I have strong reasons to be appalled by it. You may disagree with my reasons, but that's a different story.

Related though separate, is your inability/unwillingness to grasp the distinction between ethical expectations appropriate for a religion (which makes the claim of being the source of ethics) and those appropriate for science, which makes no such claim. In such a case, please consider the discrepancy in the effects of a Mr A.Nonymous groping a female colleague and Judge Thomas being accused of doing the same? Which just goes to show that ethics is not "applied morality" - your memory of that discussion seems wobbly. Ethics deals with the fractal boundary between good and evil, where there are no right or wrong choices – only better and worse ones. Morality is all about black and white vision of the world. It arbitrarily partitions the fractal area by drawing a straight line down the middle and in doing so perpetuates yet another kind of confusion.

Finally, a counter-question: Why does it matter to you so much to deny that religious differences have, had and are having at least a contributory effect in a variety of conflicts around the globe?

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Topic 229, note 1902 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 27-AUG-1993 16:57
-< A bagful of answers >-

Ah, sensible questions (well, some of them, but I'll come to that).

To Atheists: What will I lose out on by living a Christian life even if God doesn't exist?

Difficult one to answer that – not because the answer is difficult, but because it is difficult to give the answer without sounding pompous and or patronising. Still, nobody can accuse me of being ever deterred by such considerations.

As somebody has already observed (Ozone?), it largely depends on what brand of Christianity you follow. If it is one of the literalist, fundamentalist types, you gain immensely in your breadth of vision - rationally, emotionally, ethically. The riches of all myths will be a part of your cultural heritage (in this respect I find many Christians - and practically all fundamentalists – living in an astonishingly impoverished imaginal world). You will no longer have to shoe-horn your thoughts, deeds and attitudes to fit a specific (though fairly cryptic) ancient text. You will be free to make your own choices based on your own conscience, instead of on codified prescriptions. Yes, this means freedom to do evil – but that is the meaning of freedom, else it has no meaning. You will be also free to reject evil as an act of free and unconstrained choice – not because of the carrot of Heaven or the stick of Hell. Tell me, is that not a worthier objective to live as well as you can manage of your own free choice, not because some omnipotent Father will get very upset if you don't do so?

Now, at the very other extreme of Christian belief, you would make no such gains. The kind of Christians I have the highest respect for are indeed indistinguishable from a moral atheist, except for their belief in God. And yet... Should a child ask you "what would I gain by not believing in Santa Claus", what would you reply? Strictly speaking, nothing. But the true answer is – maturity. Just like any child growing up has to cut the psychological umbilical cord binding him to the parental archetypes, so mankind must, in the end, abandon the idea of the all powerful Father keeping an eye on the world. Even should He exist, surely that must be His own wish, just as is the case with every normal parent.

To people of other faith: What do you see as the major advantage of your faith over Christian based religions.

Suggest you read the Buddhist topic and if you have any questions after that, ask Sensei.

To Christians: How can you guarantee turning to Christ will assure my place with our father in Heaven and save me from the depths of hell?

Doubtless you now understand why I think this is not a good question. This is the question of a child asking "can you guarantee that if I behave myself I won't be punished and will have nice presents for my birthday?". An adult knows that there may be occasions when he has to make a choice and to accept the punishment, if his conscience demands it.

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Topic 229, note 1902 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 27-AUG-1993 16:57
-< A bagful of answers >-

Ah, but Goddess, this came up several times before in this topic and I twice made a point which none of the Christians cared to pick up. Creation of the choice necessarily presupposes failure. If free will were created and all free-willed beings chose that which we are told God intended them to chose, free will would have been a sham, a con-trick. It only has meaning if some fail to make the "right" choice. For failing to do so, they are punished (according to some – Papa, for example). And yet that failure and hence punishment is implicit in the very fact of free will, which is not of human making. (I'll really have to scan in that dialogue between a mortal and God, with the mortal complaining to God about free wil – all sides of this debate could learn from it [yes, myself included!]).

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Topic 229, note 1984 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 2-SEP-1993 14:25
-< A brief philosophical lecture >-

A lot of you (not just believers) seem to have got hopelessly entangled by Keel in "reality" (or even "Reality"). Looks to me like there isn't enough philosophy taught nowadays!

  1. I find it hard to credit that there is more than one "reality". We do live in the same objective world. Yes, it is a hypothesis, but it is simplest and the most obvious one, supported by what observations we can perform.
  2. Humans have indeed always tried to improve their understanding of this one reality. For this reasons they invented various religions, philosophies, magics and other systematic attempts at comprehension. Science, which developed out of these attempts, has so far turned out to be the only reliable tool, which achieves objective results without blaming "lack of faith" if things don't work out.
  3. We are not, however, restricted in our minds to considering only that which is real. I can happily imagine a variety of fabulous beasts, but this does not make them "real" (though my imagining is a part of the "reality"). Ditto ancient Greeks' belief in centaurs, cyclops, harpies etc, did not make these chimerae real. I.e. human minds can indulge in metaphysical speculations.
  4. It is, therefore, important to keep in mind the distinction between verifiable reality, subjective experiences and metaphysical beliefs as three very separate categories. Verifiable reality is truly and manifestly shared by all. Subjective experiences are objectively real to the "experiencer" and may have close parallels among experiences of others, but this does not turn them into "objective" reality. Metaphysical beliefs are not objectively real in any sense whatever. This does not mean that subjective perceptions or metaphysical beliefs cannot be proved correct, but by the very proof they cease to be what they were and result instead in objective verifiable reality. (Though things may not be so clear cut; e.g. Einstein's metaphysical conviction that natural laws must be expressible in a co-variant form, resulted in the highly successful formal theory, but the metaphysical conviction is not proven thereby).

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Topic 229, note 2003 of 4003 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" 2-SEP-1993 20:59
-< The small matter of choice >-
I don't agree with your cynical stance that in allowing us to choose, we presuppose failure. Granted, with some of you it increases the odds (;-} ) but I like to have enough hope and faith in humanity to think that ultimately we make the right choices.

Cynical stance? Who is trying to provoke whom? I am sorry if you see a simple statement of fact as mere cynicism. If you offer a choice and rig the circumstances so that nobody dreams of taking one of the two alternatives – you've cheated, because then you really offered no choice at all. To offer a choice means to expect that some will choose one way and some the other. That is what free will and freedom of choice mean. To deny this is to align oneself with the really cynical Marxist view that "freedom is understood necessity", which allows dictators worldwide to claim that their subjects are totally free – "you can have any colour you like, as long as it is black" (and if you choose any other, you'll get executed in the morning). And – surprise! - 99.99% choose the right colour, but I honour the remaining 0.01% who insist on their true right to choose.

Now, tell me, what's the difference between that and "love me freely my children, or burn in hell eternally" as Smurf maintains? (No, not my image – his and Keel's). Smurf is quite open about it – one had the chance, one knew the penalty, the punishment is therefore only just. I seem to remember that's how Victorians justified their ostracism of single mothers!

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Topic 229, note 2045 of 4003 – "Yrth" 3-SEP-1993 23:37
-< Dunno, really – do you? >-


In order to turn to Christianity, do you have to be intellectually convinced ? Do you have to understand it all ?

If I may borrow Sensei's favourite reply, the answer is both yes and no. To give either is to mislead. Hence let me answer a somewhat different question: Under what conditions would I accept a radical change in my metaphysical stance? Damned if I know, but let me make a stab at it anyway. It seems to me that there are three distinct conditions, though you might (or might not) find it difficult to differentiate the first two. They are, in order (which may surprise you):

  1. It would have to be manifestly better than the previous one in making "sense" of the world.
  2. It would have to feel emotionally "right".
  3. It would have to have intellectual "integrity" in the sense that within its own context it could withstand critical analysis without revealing (again in order):
    • Dogmatic statements about physical reality.
    • Inarguable internal inconsistencies.
    • Unwarranted metaphysical assumptions.

(What, proof? Whatever made you think I would want a "proof"? We are talking metaphysics here!)

For me personally, Christianity fails on all three counts. Zen comes closest to satisfying all three. (In fact it beats humanism on (2), ties on (3) but just fails to clear the initial hurdle of (1)).

To be honest, the above criteria are purely theoretical. That is not how I came by my current convictions, but then at the time I wasn't shaped by my current convictions. Still, it is quite possible that if I do change my mind, it'll happen quite contrary to these criteria – or not; who knows?

Now your turn. Under what conditions would YOU accept a radical change in your metaphysical stance?

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Topic 229, note 2183 of 4003 – "Yrth" 9-SEP-1993 17:41
-< Chuck, you shouldn't have reminded me of that note! >-

I am as ever disinclined to speak for others, but mine was one of the dominant non-christian contributions, so let's see – and please quote specifics if you disagree with any of the following: (a) I deny the charge of intolerance; I have stated ad infinitum that I accept everybody's right to believe whatever they like to believe – even though I sometime marvel at the more outlandish notions. (b) I repeatedly proposed the compromise on the lines of "let's accept that our beliefs are valid for each one of us, atheists and humanists included" – there were conspicuously no takers among believers. (c) I didn't push my humanism down any throats but (d) when challenged, I outlined my own metaphysical beliefs (and stressed that I did not presume to give them the status of facts) as clearly and coherently as I could manage.

Did any of it get taken seriously by believers? Did it just! We got as far as Keel simply refusing to believe I was being serious. As for Smurf: "When the time arrives that Christians will again be persecuted, I wonder how many of you will be at the fore front of the mobs screaming for our heads." Sorry, but in the light of my beliefs I find this statement deeply offensive.

I think what you are really complaining about is the fact that believers' statements of fact are being challenged. It is one thing to say "I believe X" – that's your right. But if you say "X is a fact" you should be able to substantiate it, and not just by saying "it's got to be a fact – the Bible says so!".

Let's put it quite simply. Believers in Christian cultures got used to getting away with stating "facts" ex their religious cathedra and it is thought "bad form" in the UK and the US to point out to them that "facts" should be factually provable. Well, sorry. This is nothing to do with believers or otherwise, but when I hear anybody make unsubstantiated statements of FACT, I like them to justify themselves. I can keep my mouth shut for a while (as I did in this topic, as you'll see if you look at the beginnings), but not indefinitely.

I.e. the end of squabbles is in the believers' hands. Stop claiming as facts things that are not, to the best of your knowledge, factually provable and stop claiming that other people's beliefs are necessarily wrong – neither of which should impinge of the quality or reality of your actual belief. I am sure that all sensible non-believers would be prepared to submit to the same discipline – I have done my best to do so throughout.

Bet you this will get rejected by believers, though!

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Topic 229, note 2425 of 4003 – "Yrth" 20-SEP-1993 12:05
-< Atheism != Nihilism >-
It is true that believers have a pretty tough time imagining a benefit of atheistic belief. After all, if there are no pearly gates to aim for and no firey pit to avoid you are only playing for counters right?

Wrong! To my mind this is the crucial shift in perspective between naive atheistic nihilism and atheistic humanism. You are playing for everything. To stick with your analogy, there is no "real money" to play for. The counters are the money.

So what is the positive aspect of the atheist stance? Well one thing which stems from it is the implication that you are responsible for yourself and your actions and for the moral code you adhere to. [...] There is a corollary of this belief that is just as important to examine: [...] You are the ultimate judge of your own moral worth. Now, this is quite a nice thought. [...] it gives the atheist the comforting thought that whatever happens to him in the world there is a sense in which he is morally beyond it all and is untouchable.

Nice thought? OK, if you reckon. It's false, though. Your corollary is, I am sorry to say a complete non-sequitur. Yes, atheism makes me fully responsible for my actions – there are no angels or devils to guide or misguide me. But you fail to ask yourself – responsible to whom? Or to be more precise, you presuppose the answer to be the nihilistic "to myself only!". But it does not actually follow, does it? Atheists have a choice to make here and the choice I see as the only reasonable one is to accept that I am responsible to my fellow human beings (which is where the humanist label comes in).

Please note that you misquote me and I think the misquotation reflects your failure to grasp this point. It is not that "we have only ourselves" – what I keep saying is "we only have each other"! I find a whole gulf of meaning between these two statements.

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Topic 229, note 2479 of 4003 – "Yrth (a.k.a. Duke)" 22-SEP-1993 10:40
-< Let's shed some history on the subject >-


I wondered whether your literature might have lacunae in that area.

No, I am not referring to 18th century scholarship – whatever made you think so? I specifically said Renaissance and last time I checked, it still occurred a good few centuries before the 18th. Have you been mucking up with the time-stream again? :-)

May I draw to your attention a noted early Renaissance (1st half of 15th century) scholar by name of Lorenzo Valla, as an example? He applied techniques of critical analysis developed by humanist (i.e. secular) scholars for studying classical texts, to the Bible. The result was a detailed set of notes showing that manifestations of ecclesiastical power (particularly that associated with papacy and monasticism) had little or none foundation in the New Testament. Was he excommunicated, burned as a heretic and otherwise persecuted? Was he just! His research was done under papal patronage! Was his research kept secret? Not a chance. Reformation thinkers like Erasmus were much influenced by Valla's analysis.

Your picture of the Church educating the masses has a definite Rousseau-esque appeal. It's a lovely scene – a group of villagers, after a hard day in the fields, get together at night to discuss the finer points of the meaning of the names of God by comparing the Good Book with extant Greek manuscripts brought to the village by Byzanthyne refugees. Cecil B. DeMille would have loved it! But where's your appetite for placing things in the right historical context?

1. Manuscript copying was a fiendishly slow and expensive business. The printing press got invented at about 1425, perfected at about 1450 and didn't actually start spreading until about 1475. Its introduction was actively resisted by secular scholars, worried that the result would be an uncontrollable flood of copies of classical manuscripts corrupted in manual copying. Without printing, there was no way scholarship could be made available to the masses (quite apart from other factors). Once printing arrived, it didn't take much time. Luther's 95 Articles hit the fan at 1517 (?) by which time the Reformation was firmly on the agenda. Given the lack of modern high speed mass communications, this is hardly consistent with the story of a successful conspiracy by the Church. (Though I would be the last to deny that there were bungled conspiracies galore.)

2. The economics of that age simply would not have survived an attempt to educate the masses. You seem to be assuming that ordinary people had as much spare time on their hands as modern common folk do. That is patently false. To assume that the church could run mass education without a total disruption of the economic infrastructure is very naive.

3. Within the limits imposed by real life, the Church did educate ordinary people. Otherwise, how do you account for so many prominent figures of Renaissance having very lowly origins?

You deplore papal concerns about the common man misinterpreting the Bible, but the only way you can do so, is to impute unstated motives behind these concerns. Hardly a valid method of historical analysis.

Finally, you seem to be at a loss to explain the Orthodox experience, where translating the Bible into the common language had consequences far removed from what they ought to have been by your lights.

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Topic 229, note 3153 of 4003 – "Yrth (a.k.a. Duke)" 11-OCT-1993 10:31
-< Must have been looking on wrong shelves! >-
I had no luck down the bookshop on Esme Weatherwax books could you give me a publishers name and a ISBN number ?

WHAT???? Go to any bookshop (even W.H.Smith!), go to the S.F./fantasy shelf and feast your eyes on any number of Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett! I am sure you don't need the details, but just to show willingness, "Guards, Guards!" ISBN is 0 552 13462 7 – they are all Corgi Books.

Thanks, to Wart for reminding me. Add "Reaper Man" to the list. Death as a great humanist takes some adjusting to, but here are some quotes.




This is Death speaking to Azrael, but the message is universal. To make sure the reader does not miss it, Death restates it very unambiguously in the closing pages to one undead wizard, this time addressing it to humanity.

Yes, Death is my great favourite – but Esme is a hero, which Death cannot be.

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Mike Arnautov (10 November 2022)