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Isn't "Happy holidays" a form of suicide bombing too?

A recent letter to the editor of the Boulder Daily Camera explains an atheist perspective on "Merry Christmas":

Every time you wish us a Merry Christmas, you are persecuting us for our beliefs...Every time you wish us a Merry Christmas you are claiming that you have rights that we do not have. You are declaring that through your belief in a deity, you are better than us. Every time you say, "Merry Christmas" to a non-Christian, you might as well be suicide-bombing them or nailing them to a cross, placing a crown of thorns on their heads and sticking a spear in their sides.
Several follow-up letters to the Daily Camera, including one from an atheist (here, here, here, and here) contend that wishing someone "Merry Christmas" is not the same as murdering them by suicide bombing.

However, if we assume for the sake of argument that "Merry Christmas" is identical to "Now you will die, infidels," another part of the letter struck me as illogical. The letter concluded, "Happy Holidays!"

For the ultra-sensitive atheist, it is hard to see why "Happy Holidays" is an improvement over "Merry Christmas." "Holidays" is, after all, very obviously derivative of "Holy days." A scrupulously p.c. person who wishes someone "Happy holidays" might be taking care to be inclusive in case the person does not celebrate Christmas, but does celebrate Hanukkah, Eid, Yule, or Diwali. Well and good, but my own observation is that the non-Christian people who tend to pitch a fit because someone said "Merry Christmas" to them are not Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, but instead are a minority of atheists who are on the look-out for reasons to be offended. To this group, the phrase "Happy holidays," should not, logically, be any less offensive than "Merry Christmas." The latter refers to a single religious celebration, while the former aggregrates a variety of religious celebrations. Indeed, the latter phrase should be even more offensive, since it reminds the readily-offended atheist of his separation not only from Christians, but also from the larger community of religious believers.

It is true that "Happy holidays" also includes Kwanzaa, which is not religious, but is founded on Afro-centrism and Marxism. (And which is celebrated by non-racist, non-Marxist African-Americans, just as some non-Christian Americans celebrate the Irving Berlin, Santa Claus Christmas.)

But what good does this do for the eagerly-offended atheist who is not African-American? "Happy holidays" refers, at most, to Kwanzaa (which is irrelevant to non-African-Americans) and to a collection of religious holidays (the very mention of which may be highly offensive to ultra-offendable athiests).

Therefore, it is my recommendation that you use the phrase "Happy holidays" if and only if you are speaking to an ultra-sensitive African-American atheist. If you speaking to a non-African-American ultra-sensitive atheist, "Happy holidays" may be an even worse form of suicide bombing than "Merry Christmas." For this group, simply say "Happy Days," thereby avoiding the incendiary word "holidays." For everyone else, you can wish them a "Merry Christmas", "Happy Hanukkah", "Cool Yule", or whatever else you want, with virtually no risk that the recipient of your glad tidings will consider you the equivalent of a suicide bomber.

Vernunft (mail) (www):
You didn't go far enough. By "Christmas" people mean merely "the day on which the birth of Christ is celebrated." There's no normative implication to that. But "holidays" does not merely describe what some people mean by the days, but also declares them to be "holy". "Christmas" need not include religious significance (one could mark the birth of Christ as a historical event), but "holidays" is deeply religious in connotation.

So, Happy Holidays!
12.29.2008 4:00am
cirby (mail):
"Happy" is also a slap in the face of us miserable bastards.
12.29.2008 4:40am
Tracy W (mail):
Well I'm am atheist and I celebrate Christmas and I wish people a Merry Christmas willy-nilly. I don't see any reason why only Christians should get to be merry on 25 December. I believe in the right of every single human being to get together with friends and family, put on silly hats, and read bad cracker jokes to each other.
12.29.2008 5:49am
Jaldhar:
Happy days? As an Anti-Fonzite (reformed) I am highly offended Prof. Bernstein would say such a thing. By Saints Laverne and Shirley I rebuke thee!

Actually this Hindu doesn't care how you greet me as long as you do it with love and joy in your heart. Happy Everything to everyone everywhere!
12.29.2008 6:16am
Law Shucks (mail) (www):
Happy Holidays would also include Festivus, another non-religious holiday, no?

Let the Airing of Grievances begin!
12.29.2008 7:19am
rbj:
How about "Season's Greetings"? Which, of course, could be used for any time of year. Spring is coming? Season's Greetings! And it might be more appropriate to welcome springtime than a continuation of the dark and cold winter.

And from this non-religious person,
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
12.29.2008 8:10am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Yeah, whose business is it that I'm supposed to be happy, huh?
What if my normal, default state is gloom? You got any right to upset me? Self-righteous, interfering amateur pshrink.
That would be like putting lithium in my coffee without telling me. Illegal as hell, too.
12.29.2008 8:24am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):

Yeah, whose business is it that I'm supposed to be happy, huh?


This is why I just wish people "Morning". Of course, I do that at 7 pm as well.

Also, I think 'holiday' has been used to mean non-religious vacations for quite a long time in English. All those Victorian Brits going on holiday to wherever it is that Victorian Brits went on holiday.
12.29.2008 8:43am
Lombardo diaz (mail):
You can't reason with a postmodernist. Getting you to try is the essence of the look at me game they play.
12.29.2008 8:51am
lonetown (mail):
What's to discuss?

It's called Sophistry!
12.29.2008 8:51am
speedwell (mail):
Folks, I sincerely doubt that that LTTE was actually written by an atheist in all seriousness. I am an atheist and I know lots of other atheists and even the most fanatical anti-Christian among us would consider that letter "over the top." I think it's one of two things: either an atheist trying to parody Christian complaints about "Happy Holidays" by turning such a complaint around, or else a non-atheist getting sore and trying to pass off a lame screed as an atheist complaint. It just doesn't ring true, folks.
12.29.2008 8:58am
speedwell (mail):
Clarification: First off, an atheist would never use the word "beliefs" for atheism. Atheism is not a belief, it is the lack of belief (in gods). We have to deal with this moronic misapprehension all the time in our chatrooms, and in forums, and in personal conversations, so much that it would be practically impossible for an atheist to consciously use the word in the way that the letter-writer uses it. Sorry, but I must call bullshit on this one.
12.29.2008 9:01am
DiverDan (mail):
Can I offend nearly everyone with a jolly "Happy Saturnalia!" ? I'm looking for the most efficient way, and I don't want anyone to feel left out in their thin-skinned indignation.
12.29.2008 9:08am
Matt P (mail):
It is interesting that those who claim to be most interested in keeping diversity are also those insuring that no one ever has to come in contact with it.
12.29.2008 9:08am
DiverDan (mail):
Speedwell, I beg to differ, but I think that atheism must be classified as a "belief" -- specifically, the belief that no deity exists (since there can be no indisputable proof of such a hypothesis). I think the closest one can come to a complete lack of belief is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not a deity exists. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of god.
12.29.2008 9:15am
Sarcastro (www):
Speedwell, I beg to differ, but I think that science must be classified as a "belief" -- specifically, the belief that reality obeys laws (since there can be no indisputable proof of such a hypothesis).

Also global warming is totally a religion. Abortion too. And government. And liberalism.

America is a very religious country.
12.29.2008 9:23am
Sean M.:
Why in the world did the newspaper run the original letter?
12.29.2008 9:23am
Houston Lawyer:
No one wished me "Happy Holidays" this year. I did get quite a few "Merry Christmas" greetings from store clerks and others who did not know me personally, which I happily returned. I wonder if this varies by region.
12.29.2008 9:27am
lucia (mail) (www):
SeanM--
I think newspapers run letter to entertain the readers. :)

Happy period between Christmas and New Years.
12.29.2008 9:27am
shawn-non-anonymous:
I do not worship any god or follow any religion either. Nor do I frequent atheist chat rooms or social events. I was not aware that there was any controversy over using the term "belief" to describe atheism. Perhaps the person who wrote that letter is similar? I guess that would make me "atheist" with a small "a", yes?

Regardless, have a happy new year. :-)
12.29.2008 9:28am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Houston.
Last year, I was unfortunately required to spend a substantial amount of time in a department store several days before Christmas. I discovered that the repertoire of secular Christmas songs is pretty thin and clerking in a store which can only do the secular side must be difficult.
This year, on the west side of Michigan, I was again in a department store, helping shop, when I heard sacred Christmas music. Much better. More variety and less Brenda Lee.
12.29.2008 9:31am
Yankev (mail):

As an Anti-Fonzite
Please tell me you did not lose money to some illegal Fonzi scheme.
12.29.2008 9:34am
Skyler (mail) (www):
I'm with speedwell. This letter is so over the top absurd that I doubt its authenticity. If it is authentic, it is certainly not typical of any atheist I know, including myself. I'm a fairly ardent atheist and I wouldn't dream of skipping Christmas holidays. Christmas is one of the greatest celebrations of secularism and prosperity we have in the US. What atheist would object to that? Silly stories about angels and mangers aren't even believed by a lot of serious christian theologians, why should atheists get upset about them?
12.29.2008 9:36am
matttroke:
Are we still on this topic? Christmas is sooooo last week.
12.29.2008 9:38am
David Schwartz (mail):
The natural followup to "words can be as bad as bullets" is "it's reasonable to respond to words with bullets". It is amazing that people who can walk upright can actually confuse a gun with an argument.
12.29.2008 9:38am
A.C.:
If I know which holiday another person celebrates at this time of year, I wish them a happy/merry one of those.

If not, I usually go with "Merry Christmas," which is a public holiday when most people get time off. Whether they choose to spend that time doing anything overtly religious is up to them. (I suspect that even most nominal Christians don't.)

If they correct me, I'm happy to change to what they prefer. It's not about imposing anything, but rather about going with the statistical odds regarding behavior on December 25.

Anyone who gets all jerky about this, whether militantly pro-Christmas or militantly anti-, ends up on the list of people I don't wish a happy anything to. They're probably incapable of enjoying themselves.
12.29.2008 9:41am
whit:

Every time you say, "Merry Christmas" to a non-Christian, you might as well be suicide-bombing them or nailing them to a cross, placing a crown of thorns on their heads and sticking a spear in their sides.



ridiculous histrionics aside (suicide bombing them?)... this guy really thinks he speaks for all non-christians?

lol



Clarification: First off, an atheist would never use the word "beliefs" for atheism. Atheism is not a belief, it is the lack of belief (in gods). We have to deal with this moronic misapprehension all the time in our chatrooms, and in forums, and in personal conversations, so much that it would be practically impossible for an atheist to consciously use the word in the way that the letter-writer uses it. Sorry, but I must call bullshit on this one.



keerist. how many times must we have this stupid argument? fwiw, imo strong atheism is a belief system, weak atheism isn't.

people who make your argument usually fail to make that distinction.

but we already wasted massive bandwith on this several times before.

...

couldn't let it go though :)
12.29.2008 9:47am
Gabriel McCall (mail):
1) There are non-religious winter holidays other than Kwanzaa. Festivus springs to mind. Atheists can also use the solstices and/or equinoxes as convenient reminders to occasionally and regularly celebrate life, without needing to imbue any supernatural significance in the dates.

2) Holiday is indeed a contraction of "holy day"; however, the word 'holy' is not incompatible with atheism. 'Holy' comes from the same Germanic roots as 'health', and basically means "something which must be attended to" with no specifically religious significance.
12.29.2008 10:08am
Redlands (mail):
Build a bridge and get over it.
12.29.2008 10:18am
Ken Arromdee:
Holiday is indeed a contraction of "holy day"; however, the word 'holy' is not incompatible with atheism. 'Holy' comes from the same Germanic roots as 'health', and basically means "something which must be attended to" with no specifically religious significance.

Touche.

Of course, the real answer is that while "holiday" may be etymologically related to religion, in modern English it no longer means anything religious. It would, on the other hand, be hard to argue that "Christmas" is a secular word with no religious meaning.
12.29.2008 10:27am
JosephSlater (mail):
Speedwell is right on the merits, but Yankev wins the thread.
12.29.2008 10:34am
Jaldhar:
Doh! I just realized that in my earlier comment I was offended by the wrong David. Sorry Mr. Kopel.

Gabriel McCall said:


[Holy] basically means "something which must be attended to" with no specifically religious significance.


In most ancient cultures everything had religious significance.
12.29.2008 10:36am
Bad (mail) (www):
"For the ultra-sensitive atheist, it is hard to see why "Happy Holidays" is an improvement over "Merry Christmas." "Holidays" is, after all, very obviously derivative of "Holy days."

The way there that words and phrases are defined by their popular usage, not their history. Lots of words we use today don't mean things that they logically should given their history. Perhaps you need to read that little intro in most dictionaries more closely.

Ironically, this is basically the same lesson that the nutty letter writer needs to learn. Words and phrases are defined by common usage, not elaborate leaps of logic that turns a perhaps culturally inaccurate well wishing into a threat of violence.
12.29.2008 10:42am
Bad (mail) (www):
"DiverDan (mail): Speedwell, I beg to differ, but I think that atheism must be classified as a "belief" -- specifically, the belief that no deity exists (since there can be no indisputable proof of such a hypothesis). I think the closest one can come to a complete lack of belief is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not a deity exists. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of god."

This is a common idea about atheism, but one that rarely makes any sense in practice. Logically, not believing in something is not equivalent to believing that it does not exist, nor is it equivalent to uncertainty. (B~X and ~BX are not logically equivalent) Belief and knowledge are two different things.

You and many people really seem to mangle your use of definitions across the board when it comes to this issue. It's true that agnosticism, in the original and strong sense, entails an (irrational, imho) belief that certain things are unknowable (though I always wonder: how can one possibly know that something is unknowable?). But the way most people use the term today, and indeed the usage YOU used, entails simply not claiming knowledge: not knowing. You can't use a term one way, and then in the same argument flip around and apply the principles of a different, more stringent definition to the people you just characterized. That's known as the fallacy of equivocation.

Atheists (or, non-believers if that makes things easier) are often treated to this dizzying confusion. It goes something like this:

1: Do you believe in God?
2: No.
1: So you're an atheist then.
2: Okay, if that's what atheist means to you.
1: So how can you prove God doesn't exist? You can't, and you're just incredibly arrogant.
2: I didn't say that God didn't exist. I said I don't believe THAT God exists. You're the one who defined me as an atheist based solely on me not being a believer. And yet now you want to change
1: Uh.... so then you're an agnostic, right?
2: I don't claim to know that God does or doesn't exist, certainly. But for me, that's precisely the reason why it makes no sense for my to believe that God exists (or to assert that no God exists). If you want to use both those terms in the way you _originally_ used them, then you can call me both an agnostic and an atheist.

Belief is a positive, active affirmation of some idea. NOT believing is, however, not a form of belief. No more than not having an apple in your hand is a TYPE of having an apple in your hand.

And I would argue that science's commitment to certain basic axioms (which are, not coincidentally, the very axioms that are necessary for anyone to accept to relate to the physical world in any consistent way at all) aren't meant to be taken on faith. No one has to "believe" them. You accept them for the sake of being able to do science, and make use of the apparently successful fruits of that. I can't "prove" that cause and effect are real. And I don't have to. We can all agree for the sake of argument, and the sake of making sense of the world around us in the only way we seem to be able to collectively agree to, that causes have effects, and then see what this principle gives us. At no point do we have to insist that causes "really" have effects, or close down alternative philosophical inquiry (if any is really even possible) into that question.
12.29.2008 10:56am
Zubon (www):
I can understand skepticism about whether the letter in question is genuine, but can any major newspaper go a day without a letter to the editor that looks like a ridiculously over-the-top extremist caricature? Can you create a parody of a position so extreme that I cannot find a sincere, even more deranged version?
12.29.2008 10:57am
whit:
bad, you are failing to make the distinction between strong atheists and weak atheists.

plenty of both exist.

plenty atheists DO claim that goes does NOT exist.

many others claim they do not believe in god.

those are very different things.

so don't conflate them.

the act of NOT believing is not the same thing as believing/claiming knowledge that X does not exist.

your post fails to recognize this critical distinction

that has been discussed here many times before.
12.29.2008 10:59am
Awesome-O:
Houston Lawyer wrote:

No one wished me "Happy Holidays" this year. I did get quite a few "Merry Christmas" greetings from store clerks and others who did not know me personally, which I happily returned. I wonder if this varies by region.

I've noticed this too, and I'm not anywhere near Texas. According to Reason, "Kwanzaa" is on the wane. So now we have three observations, and I'm calling it a national trend: Christmas is back.

I actually think that Obama may have something to do with this, the Kwanzaa part anyway. I don't think the election of a person with east African ancestry is much of a big deal, but African-Americans certainly do. I'm guessing that Obama's election makes African-Americans feel more fully "American," and thus in less need of a quasi-separatist pseudo-holiday.

And maybe we're not fighting over Christmas because, well, Obama's election signals that we're all not interested in fighting anymore. Obama was inevitable from the Iowa caucuses forward. The GOP put up token resistance. Conservatives got tired of defending a Republican president whom Mark Steyn accurately described as "Tony Blair with a ranch." The DailyKos folks are lunatics, but they've worn me down. After eight years I don't have the energy to defend the ersatz conservatives who make up most of the GOP these days. It's been exhausting going to cocktail parties, alumni dinners, comedy clubs, plays, business seminars, and chemistry lectures and having to brace for the inevitable Bush-bash. I'm done fighting for now. I imagine that my fellow conservatives feel the same way.

For those on the left, well, it has to be nice to stop being constantly riled up and indignant. All America's twentysomethings have known for their adult lives is Bush hatred. I don't know what the left is going to do when they don't have Bush to blame for every setback in their lives, but I'm guessing that the perpetually pissed are going to enjoy getting to relax a bit.

So you might think that I would capitulate and say "happy holidays," just as I have capitulated on Obama. Instead, my attitude is "I'm saying 'Merry Christmas,' and I'm not going to fight with you if you flip out, which you're probably not going to do because you don't want to fight, either."

Merry Christmas (War is Over)
12.29.2008 11:00am
Thales (mail) (www):
Count me as an atheist who "loves me some Christmas."
12.29.2008 11:02am
Sarcastro (www):
Is the War on Christmas World War V then?
12.29.2008 11:06am
Bad (mail) (www):
"bad, you are failing to make the distinction between strong atheists and weak atheists."

Not at all. People that believe no gods exist are a subset of people that don't believe in gods.

"plenty atheists DO claim that goes does NOT exist."

See above.

"the act of NOT believing is not the same thing as believing/claiming knowledge that X does not exist."

Exactly as I said. Except that not believing isn't an "act" of any sort. Is not going to London a type of travel? What airline do you book a ticket on to not go to London?
12.29.2008 11:06am
bkleinman (mail) (www):
Sure, 'holidays' may stem from 'holy days'. And 'good bye' may stem 'god be with you'. French may stem from Latin. Humans may stem from chimps. Most of us stem from our parents. But one is not necessarily what one stems from.

Merry Christmas is a religious greeting, or to those who respect Christians it should be. 'Happy Easter' does not mean 'have a nice spring'. 'May your fast be meaningful' is not a greeting one gives to all people in the Fall. "Happy Thanksgiving" does not mean 'have a nice fourth Thursday in November'. These are all greeting that refer to particular celebrations.

I'm a little disappointed that a blog with such a focus on the use and meaning of words would so devalue them by turning something meaningful into something banal and generic.

Or perhaps the Volokhs are part of the war on Christmas?
12.29.2008 11:07am
whit:
<blockquote>
Exactly as I said. Except that not believing isn't an "act" of any sort
</blockquote>

i agree with that. i was pointing out the critical distinction.
12.29.2008 11:14am
Mark E.Butler (mail):
Why stop with "Happy Holidays"?

Since "goodbye" is derived from "God be with you", it seems that we can nail those suckers even more securely to those crosses by simply telling them goodbye.
12.29.2008 11:15am
Awesome-O:
Since "goodbye" is derived from "God be with you", it seems that we can nail those suckers even more securely to those crosses by simply telling them goodbye.

If saying "Merry Christmas" to one atheist is crucifixion, than publishing a map with the place names "St. Augustine," "Corpus Christi," and "San Jose" is genocide.
12.29.2008 11:18am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I don't pitch a fit, but I do experience a slow burn over the equivalencing and sleight of hand ("It's a secular holiday so you must celebrate or acknowledge it; now let's put the Christ back in Christmas").

But here I am not getting paid because the company that bought the company to which my employer sends me has an end-of-year plant shutdown, with three somewhat spoiled kids who are off school after a month of school-sponsored build-up, and I am a little touchy. It's gotten to the point that when clerks order me to "have a good day" I politely say "Thank you, but I'm afraid I have other plans." (Not original.)
12.29.2008 11:28am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Awesome.
The perpetually pissed are going to be driven nuts by having nothing to be pissed about.
They cannot relax. Being pissed is their raison d'etre. It is their public self-presentation as the Right Sort.
They will find something.
12.29.2008 11:29am
David Schwartz (mail):
Exactly as I said. Except that not believing isn't an "act" of any sort. Is not going to London a type of travel? What airline do you book a ticket on to not go to London?
It is really not useful to say that a newborn baby is an atheist because he lacks belief in any god or gods. I think it is sensible to limit the use of the term "atheism" to those who have heard religious proposals and consciously opted not to believe in them.

Saying that atheism isn't an act of any sort is like saying that a newborn baby doesn't think George Bush should have invaded Iraq. While it's technically true, it's pointless sophistry.

The vast majority of adult atheists have made a considered rejection of a wide array of religious beliefs. (Of course, their reasons for rejection can vary from believing that they are demonstrably false to finding the evidence insufficient to finding them incomprehensible and so on.)
12.29.2008 11:32am
Elliot123 (mail):
"You are declaring that through your belief in a deity, you are better than us."

OK. So what?
12.29.2008 11:43am
CJColucci:
Most atheists I know both:

(a) lack a belief in the existence of gods AND

(b) believe it to be far more likely than not that no gods exist

If there is a difference between the two mental states, it is paper-thin and not worth fighting about. The only reason anyone bothers with this is that believers in the existence of some god or other seem to think that describing atheism as a "belief" does useful work. It does not, and the energy spent distinguishing between non-belief in the existence of X and belief in the likely non-existence of X would be better spent on explaining why it does not.
12.29.2008 11:44am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
On the other hand, I was under the impression that agnosticism is much more than "I don't know" or "I don't know and I don't care" but a positive belief that the existence and nature of G-d or god or gods is unknowable, beyond that which it is possible for people to know.

But there is a common usage that CJColucci's (a) is called agnosticism and (b) (or at least the stronger forms of it) are called atheism.

And if I tell you that my software is platform-agnostic all I'm telling you is that it doesn't "know" or need to "know" if it's running on Windows or MAC or Unix to run correctly.
12.29.2008 11:54am
Tracy W (mail):
bkleinman
Merry Christmas is a religious greeting, or to those who respect Christians it should be.


Well I don't respect Christians for being Christians. (I can think of many individual Christians I respect on various grounds, but I can't think of any matter on which I respect all Christians or even just all Christians I know). And I am non-religious, and I greet people around Christmas time with "Merry Christmas", intending it in a secular manner. So "Merry Christmas" isn't a religious greeting in any universal sense.
12.29.2008 11:59am
Gabriel McCall (mail):
David Chesler:

People who like to wangle about such things distinguish strong and weak forms of both agnosticism and atheism.

Strong Atheist: No god exists.
Weak Atheism: I lack belief in a god.

Strong Agnosticism: It is not possible to answer the god question.
Weak Agnosticism: I don't have an answer to the god question.

Weak atheism is compatible with either strong or weak agnosticism. Strong atheism is not.
12.29.2008 12:02pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"It is really not useful to say that a newborn baby is an atheist because he lacks belief in any god or gods."

I'm not much interested in babies, but at least without the usual bizarre context people place onto the idea it's perfectly useful and descriptive. The reason people have a problem with is that they are used to trying to nonsensically score points by appealing to the innocence and purity of babies. Which is silly. Babies are ignorant of lots of things, including abstract beliefs. Being ignorant is not a laudable quality. No one should be proud that babies are non-believers anymore than illiterate people should be proud to count babies amongst their numbers.

The reason babies are an excellent starting point is that it illustrates what it takes to not believe something: it takes nothing at all. Educated adults that are non-believers can perfectly reasonably track a line right from their ignorance as babies to their lack of finding any reason to adopt god beliefs once they became capable of believing things.

"I think it is sensible to limit the use of the term "atheism" to those who have heard religious proposals and consciously opted not to believe in them."

Certainly, but that's arbitrary for seeming political purposes rather than descriptive. And it still implies something sort of backwards: that it necessarily takes effort to NOT believe something, as if beliefs somehow require no effort or affirmation, but not believing something does. Lots of people have heard religious proposals and have simply remained where they were: informed but still unconvinced by them to jump to the belief being advocated.

"Saying that atheism isn't an act of any sort is like saying that a newborn baby doesn't think George Bush should have invaded Iraq. While it's technically true, it's pointless sophistry."

Again, not at all: it simply illustrates something about the nature of belief and non-belief that you don't seem like: that belief is not a default state, and non-belief is. I'm never quite sure why this idea is so threatening to believers. If a belief is true, then the fact that it requires additional effort to affirm it makes that effort laudable. It's an achievement.

"The vast majority of adult atheists have made a considered rejection of a wide array of religious beliefs. (Of course, their reasons for rejection can vary from believing that they are demonstrably false to finding the evidence insufficient to finding them incomprehensible and so on.)"

Indeed: but consideration of an idea is simply not the same thing as any idea being so compelling that it demands consideration or constant decided effort to believe it.

If I run up to you on the street and tell you that I have a full size giraffe in my pocket, you might well consider the possibility and decide that you have no reason to believe me. But this basically leaves you in the same state you began in: you don't walk around thinking that I have giraffes in my pocket. That's how you were before I suggested such a thing, and that's how you remain. You might also think I was a bit silly, but that's an idea about me, not about the idea of giraffes in pockets.
12.29.2008 12:02pm
D.R.M.:
DiverDan —

The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in leprechauns is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not leprechauns exist. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of leprechauns.

The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in the Tooth Fairy is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not the Tooth Fairy exists. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of the Tooth Fairy.

The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in unicorns is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not unicorns exist. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of unicorns.

The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in Santa Claus is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not Santa Claus exists. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of Santa Claus.

The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in vampires is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not vampires exist. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of vampires.
12.29.2008 12:03pm
Bad (mail) (www):
It's also worth pointing out the seemingly missing distinction between arguments for something (e.g. the ontological argument) and the conclusion (god exists). Being informed about the former, unconvinced by it, and thus not jumping to the conclusion is not the same thing as it requiring any effort at all to not believe in the conclusion of the argument itself. In fact, one could be convinced that the ontological argument is completely invalid but still think god exists.
12.29.2008 12:05pm
WASP:
"The vast majority of adult atheists have made a considered rejection of a wide array of religious beliefs."

What is the basis for this statement? I expect the vast majority never had faith or just fell out of some vaugue faith, without much thought.
12.29.2008 12:08pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"D.R.M.: The closest one can come to a complete lack of belief in leprechauns is agnosticism - uncertainty as to whether or not leprechauns exist. But even agnosticism reflects a belief as to the limits of human knowledge, specifically the belief that man is incapable of knowledge regarding the existence, nature, or will of leprechauns."

You seem to be another person who's juggling definitions inconsistently to try and rule out perfectly reasonable positions.

I don't have to believe anything one way or the other about leprechauns to simply not factor the idea of their existence (or whatever implications their non-existence would have on how I already live, i.e. none) into my belief set.

And you can't first define agnosticism as mere uncertainty and then spin around and claim that it requires one to hard line believe anything at all about the theoretical limits of human knowledge. People are perfectly capable of simply polling their own thoughts, realizing that they lack knowledge/belief of such things, and reporting this. At most, that requires only the belief that they are good judges of what they themselves know and don't know. Which, honestly, is sort of axiomatic is you want to even talk about what it means to know or believe anything in the first place.

I don't understand why people would wish to confuse these issues, unless its to force them into thinking that they must hold some hard-line position (i.e. your only alternative to hard line atheism or agnosticism is to believe in my God!).
12.29.2008 12:11pm
Lior:
In fact, for a long time the absolutely correct greeting has been "Happy Festive Season".
12.29.2008 12:14pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
I think D.R.M.'s point- and it's a valid one- is that weak atheists who are unwilling to state definitively that God does not exist are intellectually inconsistent if they are willing to definitively state that vampires or fairies do not exist.
12.29.2008 12:18pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Bad, the problem is that it's a religious belief that atheists must be believers in something. There's no convincing these type of people who insist that it takes faith to not have faith.

Weak, strong, whatever. Atheism is a lack of belief. It is not a belief in a system of not believing. It's a really perverse logic that takes all kinds of mental twisting to say that not believing is a belief.
12.29.2008 12:19pm
WASP:
Skyler - it also seems to assume that it is an important question for the non-beliver, when it is likely it is not important or even interesting to many of them, at all.
12.29.2008 12:26pm
whit:

Weak, strong, whatever. Atheism is a lack of belief


no, it's not. WEAK is.

strong is NOT a lack of belief. saying god does NOT exist is more than a LACK of belief.

i have a lack of belief in bigfoot. i do not claim it does not exist. honestly, i have no idea. i concede it's possible, so i don't claim it DOESN'T exist.

there is a significant difference despite your claims between a LACK of belief and a belief that X does not exist.

fwiw, i also have a lack of belief as to whether either of my cats is currently in my bedroom (i'm not there right now).

it is another thing entirely to say my cats are NOT in my bedroom.

this is elementary logic/reasoning. it's not complicated. it only becomes obscured when your agenda overrides your logic mode (tm).

this is really not difficult, and if you have trouble understanding it substitute something simple for "god" and you will understand it. i used my cats.
12.29.2008 12:28pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
This whole debate is silly, but there are some valid points of view..... If you wish an observant Jew "Merry Christmas" and he doesn't feel he can reply in kind without violating his religion, is this a problem? It certainly can create awkwardness, but then there are ways out.

However, the idea that Merry Christmas is ALWAYS some form of religious outreach is laughable, just as the idea that the Christmas Tree would be a form of pagan outreach would be equally laughable. Few people take these things that seriously unless they are insecure about their beliefs. "War on Christmas" folks and "No Merry Christmas" folks probably have more in common with eachother than with the rest of the population.....
12.29.2008 12:32pm
WASP:
'saying god does NOT exist is more than a LACK of belief.'

Unless, it's meant to convey a lack of belief.
12.29.2008 12:35pm
gasman (mail):
What gives most atheists a bad name are the few whack jobs who gotta be in-your-face atheists.
I'm an atheist, yet find nothing offensive about being wished well, even if it isn't the exactly my particular kind of well. Like most reasonable humans, when I get a tie that I don't like (which is basically all ties) I respond warmly and with gratitude because the giver (hopefully) meant well by it.
I wish people a merry christmas, or whatever greeting that I think they will appreciate most. It is just common courtesy.
In fact, I am so non PC (no happy holidays for me), that few have any inkling that I am an atheist.
Just because I think theists are slightly nutty for their beliefs, doesn't mean that I have to rub their noses in it. And I'll thank them for not observing my nuttiness.
12.29.2008 12:40pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Gabriel, this is true only if you think agnosticism changes a binary value (x exists / x does not exist) into a pure ternary value (x exists / x might exist / x does not exist).
It is consistent to say "I believe [ie it is likely that] God exists but I do not believe [ie it is highly unlikely] you have a full-sized giraffe in your pocket, I do not believe there are fairies, I believe it will be warm next August (so I can put my winter coat in storage), and given past performance it might rain on August 20 with a probability of about 20% (so I can plan my vacation, but it's worth bringing things inside and not leaving them outside for the entire week I'm gone, but I won't get a freeze-alarm in case my furnace breaks)."
12.29.2008 12:40pm
whit:

me:'saying god does NOT exist is more than a LACK of belief.'

ein: Unless, it's meant to convey a lack of belief.



fine, but whatever it's "meant" to convey ignores the actual text.

my blue sneaker is not in the hallway =/= i have no belief whether my blue sneaker is in the hallway
12.29.2008 12:46pm
WASP:
God is generally defined as being unprovable (eg. miracles have no scientific explanation). Moreover, existance is generally understood to have physical presence. So saying 'god does not exist' does not ignore the general meaning of text.
12.29.2008 12:57pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"Gabriel McCall (mail): I think D.R.M.'s point- and it's a valid one- is that weak atheists who are unwilling to state definitively that God does not exist are intellectually inconsistent if they are willing to definitively state that vampires or fairies do not exist."

Well, I'm not, so that's not really a problem. But I try to be careful with my metaphysics. Some people are more colloquial. And a lot of atheists really are quite sloppy in how they approach these things, no question.

And there's usually some confused ambiguity on all sides in these cases, wherein when people say that they don't think X exists, they mean "I don't think there is any reason to believe it does." We see the same problem with people calling things facts. Do they really mean facts, period, the hard line sense, or do they mean "fact" in the empirical sense, which is to say "what the best evidence so far seems to support, pending further evidence."

Of course, there is something of a difference between conventional characters from mythology and an abstract notion like God. God as a concept also has the virtue (or the demerit) of being so vague and diversely conceptualized that it could almost literally be any sort of thing at all conceptually: a million different definitions many of them simply untestable by any means we have.

Conventional vampires, on the other hand, don't really have that virtue (/demerit): there's a finite world for them to exist in and be found in, and their existence would have a number of very concrete and trackable implications.
12.29.2008 1:15pm
Texasfox82:
I really don't care about being PC, if someone feels offended because I've wished them a merry Christmas, then they can get bent. I don't feel guilty for being a Christian; politically correct is just another term for guilt anyways (at least in cases like this one).
12.29.2008 1:18pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
David Chesler:

this is true only if you think agnosticism changes a binary value (x exists / x does not exist) into a pure ternary value (x exists / x might exist / x does not exist).
It is consistent to say "I believe [ie it is likely that] God exists but I do not believe [ie it is highly unlikely] you have a full-sized giraffe in your pocket, I do not believe there are fairies, I believe it will be warm next August (so I can put my winter coat in storage), and given past performance it might rain on August 20 with a probability of about 20% (so I can plan my vacation, but it's worth bringing things inside and not leaving them outside for the entire week I'm gone, but I won't get a freeze-alarm in case my furnace breaks)."


David, it's perfectly consistent to state all of those things in terms of "I believe this" or "I do not believe that." The point that you're overlooking is that "I do not believe that" is not at all the same statement as "that is definitely false."

Agnosticism does not introduce a third level of existence, but it does introduce a second dimension of inquiry. Whether or not one knows the answer to a question is an entirely separate matter from what the answer to that question actually is. Metaphysics and epistemology are two different fields.

The stance that there definitely is no god- and some people do so maintain- is not identical to the stance of lacking belief (or even that there can be no valid reason to believe) that there is a god.
12.29.2008 1:53pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Bad: If I say, "Jack does not believe George Bush has done a good job of running the country", doesn't that mean (not in its literal meaning, but as any rational person would understand it) that he has considered and rejected that belief? The fact is, atheists consciously reject the religious beliefs they are exposed to.

It is pointless sophistry to argue that atheism is a complete absence of belief. It's just as bad for atheists to try to score meaningless debating points by arguing that atheism is purely the absence of belief as it is for theists to try to score meaningless debating points by arguing that atheists too must have faith. The fact is, both sides are wrong if they take those positions.

Atheism is, fundamentally, the considered rejection of religious belief. If you read a book on atheism, it will not be a book on how to lack belief in god. It will be a book on why you should reject all religious beliefs.
12.29.2008 2:15pm
A.C.:
I've found atheism to be extremely specific in what it rejects. I've never encountered an American atheist who makes an effort to reject African animist religion, or even Islam. Those are sort of rejected by default, in the sense of not even being considered viable places to start.

Usually, American atheists are rejecting some form of Judaism or Christianity. If I ever became an atheist, I would be a very Catholic one and would not have a lot of difficulty sorting out my approach to Diwali. However, atheists in other parts of the world may be rejecting very different concepts of religion, some of which might even be considered atheistic themselves in the western context.

This kind of rejection is a non-belief, I think, not an alternative belief. However, some atheists do promote active belief systems, for example that all things can be explained in material terms, or that ethics should be defined in terms of humanistic philosophy. Marxism is, famously, an atheistic belief system. So I don't think we can get very far by trying to put all atheists into a single category.
12.29.2008 2:35pm
matttroke:
Without speaking for all agnostics, I'd like to thank the christians for giving my employer a reason to give me 2 days off from work, and giving the stores I shop in a reason to offer me discounts. It would all be worth it if not for: (1) this incessant garbage about the war on christmas vs. people who are offended by whatever--you're all a bunch of whining cry-babies; and (2) the absolutely awful christmas music that gets piped into every office, elevator and store throughout December--it makes me want to puncture my eardrums.
12.29.2008 2:43pm
matttroke:
A.C. -- I'm agnostic, and not an atheist, in the sense that I try not to believe in things that aren't falsifiable. That is, I'm an empiricist. If one were to prove to me in a rational testable way that there's a god and it will torture me for eternity if I don't pray to it, then I'll believe in it. But that hasn't happened. The idea that atheism (which may be very well be premised on something other than what my agnosticism is based on) revolves around not believing in Christianity or Judaism is a fairly self-involved way of viewing the religious choices of others. I think many atheists would say that they could not care less about Christianity or Judaism. They just don't believe in the supernatural.
12.29.2008 2:47pm
A.C.:
matttroke - Okay, so you're one of the ones with an alternative system of whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Call it a philosophical outlook if you don't like the term "belief." That's fine.

But there's certainly enough of the other running around. Some of them are friends of mine, and always good for a few rounds of light sparring when the beer is being served. I disagree with them and they disagree with me, but I think we all enjoy the argument.

It's the killjoys on all sides that get my goat. Most responsible belief systems, religious and secular, encourage their adherents to at least remain alert to the possibility that they haven't grasped the whole story yet.
12.29.2008 2:59pm
Fub:
Tracy W wrote at 12.29.2008 5:49am:
I believe in the right of every single human being to get together with friends and family, put on silly hats, and read bad cracker jokes to each other.
I am a bad cracker, you insensitive clod!
12.29.2008 3:02pm
ErinCart (mail):
Well, at least no one can claim religious displeasure in the saying of Happy New Years!
12.29.2008 3:03pm
Mhoram:
Lack of belief in god/ess/es/s does not constitute a religion (belief system) any more than a lack of belief in UFOs constitutes a space program.

So called "strong atheism" is a logical fallacy - it is well known that it is impossible to prove a negative. Since it is impossible to prove that Yeshua does not exist, it is silly to categorically claim that Yeshua does not exist.

However, that does not make one an agnostic. Any reasonable atheist will tell you that he would be willing to acknowledge the existence of Shiva if concrete evidence could be shown. And even most religionists are willing, when pressed, to admit that they don't actually know to a mathematical certainty that their favorite deity actually exists - they just believe it.

Agnosticism is nothing more than a cosmic punt. It is the dodge of someone who is unwilling to examine themselves sufficiently to determine if they believe or do not believe in Odin.

In my case, I lack belief in all gods and goddesses that human minds have managed to dream up over the millenia. To the commenters above who disbelieve in my lack of belief, I say this: Do you believe in Quetzecoatl? Are you willing to state that you know, to a mathematical certainty, that Quetzecoatl does not exist? Or do you simply find the existence of Quetzecoatl so incredibly unlikely that you are willing to say that you don't believe in it, and go on about your daily life as if Quetzecoatl does not exist?

If you are in fact willing to state that you know, to a mathematical certainty, that Quetzecoatl does not exist, do you believe in Dr. Heisenberg?

(None of this applies to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He is real and we have all been touched by His Noodly Appendage)
12.29.2008 3:27pm
Lymis (mail):
"If you wish an observant Jew "Merry Christmas" and he doesn't feel he can reply in kind without violating his religion, is this a problem? It certainly can create awkwardness, but then there are ways out."

Why should it violate his religion to reply in kind? Surely this hypothetical person doesn't try to pretend that Christmas doesn't exist, whether he personally celebrates it or not. And unless he has some reason to believe that saying "Merry Christmas" means "I hope you are happy for taking Jesus Christ (who by the way IS Lord and Savior) into your heart as Lord and Savior, and only coincidentally enjoy your eggnog", there shouldn't be any reason not to respond with "Back atcha, buddy." Besides, "in kind" also includes "Happy Holidays", and is only slightly reduced by "Thank you so very much. How kind of you. Have a nice day!"

Where are all these people offended by "Merry Christmas?" I've never met one. I have met people claiming to be offended by anything OTHER than Merry Christmas as an anti-Christian attack. To them, I generally respond, "Oh, sorry, then, I take it back."
12.29.2008 3:41pm
David Schwartz (mail):
So called "strong atheism" is a logical fallacy - it is well known that it is impossible to prove a negative. Since it is impossible to prove that Yeshua does not exist, it is silly to categorically claim that Yeshua does not exist.
Nonsense. First, you can prove any number of negatives. For example, I can prove their does not exist a largest prime number.

Many atheists, myself included, claim that they can disprove the existence of Yeshua much the same way one proves there is no largest prime number. (Show that the concept leads to a contradiction.)
12.29.2008 3:51pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Any reasonable atheist will tell you that he would be willing to acknowledge the existence of Shiva if concrete evidence could be shown.
Also nonsense, in fact, meaningless. You cannot validly use a word to mean different things at different times in the same sentence. Your atheist would probably assert that he or she has no idea what you mean by "Shiva" and so he can neither acknowledge nor reject its existence. If you later explain to him what you mean by Shiva, such that he now means something else by it, nothing he says can contradict his earlier statement, since "Shiva" now means something else.

It's just like I can say "electrons exist" and not have to worry that at some point in the future the word "electron" might mean "invisible elf". Either a word means something when it is used or it doesn't. If it does, the statement always means what the word meant then. If it means nothing, the statement never means anything.
12.29.2008 4:08pm
matttroke:
Mhoram -- You wrote: "Agnosticism is nothing more than a cosmic punt. It is the dodge of someone who is unwilling to examine themselves sufficiently to determine if they believe or do not believe in Odin."

Let me assure you then, I have examined myself sufficiently to determine that if I were to pronounce either a belief in a god or a disbelief in any god I would consider myself guilty of intellectual dishonesty. I won't judge you on your disbeliefs, and I hope you'd do me the same courtesy.

Maybe you're just quibbling with the term agnosticism, but it doesn't sound that way. It sounds like you think everyone should pick sides, and that doesn't seem to me to be a very productive way to run a belief system.

Its comforting that you admit of a little doubt. The history of science is one of constant revision. I don't believe in Quetzelcoatl, or Mr. Heisenberg, or William of Ockham (except to the extent that Mr. Heisenberg and Mr. Ockham existed, as did, probably, teradactyl type creatures, while certainly not at the same time as the Aztecs). I do however "believe" that Ockham's Razor is a good approach to understanding the world while admitting doubt as to whether you've got the correct understanding. And I'm not smart enough to know one way or another whether the system of quantum mechanics is correct or not, but because of peer review and the scientific method, I'm confident that others way smarter than me have concluded that it is useful for interpreting the world on a subatomic level. I also don't believe in Newton, but I do believe that the theory of gravity best describes what happens when i fall down the stairs.

Just because I won't arbitrarily decide to believe in something or nothing doesn't mean I've "punted" anything. My philosophical system is to question.
12.29.2008 4:25pm
CJColucci:
I think this exhausts the possibilities of what one can "believe" about gods:

I. The concept of god is meaningless, and, therefore, the question of whether god exists cannot be either true or false.
II. The concept of god is meaningful and:
A. It is impossible to know whether god exists:
1. in the same way that you can't know whether unicorns exist or whether we are something other than brains in vats or whether the sun will comew up tomorrow
2. in some way peculiar to the notion of god
B. It is possible to know whether god exists:
1. and I know god exists
2. and I know god does not exist
3. and I don't know whether god exists or not
(a) but somebody else does
(i) and he says god does exist
(ii) and he says god doesn't exist
(b) and neither does anyone else
III. God cannot exist (is logically impossible)
IV. God must necessarily exist (is logically necessary)
V. God can exist, but doesn't have to
1. And he does
2. And he doesn't
3. But on the whole the evidence:
(a) proves that he does
(b) suggests that he does
(c) proves that he does not
(d) suggests that he doesn't
(e) is equally balanced
(f) is too weak either way to justify an opinion
VI. I just don't have a thought about the subject one way or the other

Unless you accept II.B.1, II.B.3.(a).(i), IV, V.1, or V.3.(a) or (b), you are not a theist. Anything else and you are either a strong atheist, a weak atheist, a strong agnostic, or a weak agnostic. But those distinctions don't matter to anyone outside the club, and when the outsiders claim that you, too, necessarily "believe" something, the distinctions don't answer their claim.
12.29.2008 4:35pm
David Schwartz (mail):
CJC: You missed the most common form of strong atheism: the concept of god is self-contradictory and therefore nothing can both be a god and exist.
12.29.2008 4:51pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Actually, I think that's covered by your III.
12.29.2008 4:51pm
D Palmer (mail):
Bad,

If you believe in a god, just not the Judeo-Christian God, then you're not an atheist, you're a pagan.

Most of the exchange you describe could be avoided if instead of the passive aggressive: "Okay, if that's what atheist means to you." response you told them: "No, I just don't believe in the God of the Bible/Torah/Koran".

And for those arguing that atheism is not a Belief (capital B), I would argue that that is sometimes true. Most atheists I know (I consider myself a Deist) don't raise their belief in non-belief to the level of a religion, but a few, like Illinois based Atheist pain-in-the-ass Rob Sherman, have.
12.29.2008 4:54pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Russell hd a great example of strong agnosticism, which is essentially atheism. He said he didn't believe there was a small teapot in orbit between Mars and Jupiter because he had absolutely no reason to believe it. He couldn't prove it wasn't whizzing about the sun, but stll didn't believe it.

So, how many here believe in that orbiting teapot?
12.29.2008 6:16pm
Hoosier:
Every time you say, "Merry Christmas" to a non-Christian, you might as well be suicide-bombing them or nailing them to a cross, placing a crown of thorns on their heads and sticking a spear in their sides.

So why the hell ain't they all dead yet?
12.29.2008 6:31pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Somebody really ought to stab that dude in the side with a spear and say "well, at least I'm not wishing you 'Merry Christmas'!"
12.29.2008 6:41pm
Yankev (mail):

Why should it violate his religion to reply in kind?


It is generally a futile and arrogant undertaking for someone who does not subscribe to a given religion to argue with one who does or what the religion does or should permit. As one who does subscribe to the Jewish religion, I can tell you that it would violate the Jewish religion for me to do so, whether or not you think it should or understand why it does, and whether or not you find the logic of the prohibition persuasive.
12.29.2008 8:30pm
Yankev (mail):
Typo bug is in full force. My post should have read "to argue with one who does over what the religion does or should permit"
12.29.2008 8:32pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Kim Scarborough:

Somebody really ought to stab that dude in the side with a spear and say "well, at least I'm not wishing you 'Merry Christmas'!"

And give him to Odin
himself to himself
On that tree which none can tell from what root it rises.
Deal him no bread, nor horn of mead.
Let him look down.
to take up the Runes,
roaring take them up
Then fall back again....

Thanks for the image :-)
12.29.2008 8:55pm
Hoosier:
Elliot123
Russell hd a great example of strong agnosticism, which is essentially atheism. He said he didn't believe there was a small teapot in orbit between Mars and Jupiter because he had absolutely no reason to believe it. He couldn't prove it wasn't whizzing about the sun, but stll didn't believe it.

So, how many here believe in that orbiting teapot?


Russell is smuggling his presumptions about likelihood into the example. In that sense, it's like Hume's argument against miracles.

Russell has already decided that the existence of God is absurd, and thus comes up with an absurd example. A theist operates under different presumptions. He could reply that he cannot prove that Russell's teapot is used to make tea. "So how many of you believe in tea from Russell's teapot?"
12.30.2008 2:27am
David Schwartz (mail):
Russell hd a great example of strong agnosticism, which is essentially atheism. He said he didn't believe there was a small teapot in orbit between Mars and Jupiter because he had absolutely no reason to believe it. He couldn't prove it wasn't whizzing about the sun, but stll didn't believe it.
This is weak atheism. The main defect in his analogy is that (I suspect) nobody ever proposed or seriously argued for the existence of such a teapot. Presumably, he has heard earnest argument to support the existence of various gods and has rejected them all. The meaning of "had absolutely no reason to believe it" is very different in the two cases.

Now if someone spent an hour arguing for various reasons he should believe in the teapot, the analogy would be close to perfect.
12.30.2008 3:34am
David Schwartz (mail):
A theist operates under different presumptions. He could reply that he cannot prove that Russell's teapot is used to make tea. He could reply that he cannot prove that Russell's teapot is used to make tea. "So how many of you believe in tea from Russell's teapot?"
Sure, if he suddenly want to use the word 'prove' in a completely non-standard sense. 'Proof' does not necessarily lead to certainty. The subset of things I am certain about is smaller than the subset of things I can prove.

The response to this would be; my belief in both the teapot in orbit and tea from Russell's teapot are precisely calibrated to match the evidence I have for both of them. That is, I believe each one to the extent the available evidence justifies such a belief.

If I actually had no reason to think Russell even had a tea pot, it would be a mistake to believe in tea from it. Similarly, it's a mistake to believe in the orbiting tea pot absent credible evidence.
12.30.2008 3:37am
Tracy W (mail):
Yankev:
It is generally a futile and arrogant undertaking for someone who does not subscribe to a given religion to argue with one who does or what the religion does or should permit. As one who does subscribe to the Jewish religion, I can tell you that it would violate the Jewish religion for me to do so, whether or not you think it should or understand why it does, and whether or not you find the logic of the prohibition persuasive.


It may be futile, and arrogant, but that doesn't mean it's *wrong* to do so. Everything's up for discussion. As far as I can tell, it's futile to debate free-will versus determinism, but I think we all have a right to do so.

Anyway, what's the logic that it violates religion to reply "Merry Christmas" in return? I don't generally find it a futile undertaking to merely try to understand the logic behind various religious prohobitions, instead I find it interesting and informative. While I maintain my right to try to argue about someone about what their religion does or should permit, I'm not going to exercise it in this case. I'm just curious as to what the religious objection is. Do you object to merriment on religious grounds and believe that all of us should spend 25 December seeking out higher, more spiritual forms of joy?
12.30.2008 4:51am
David Schwartz (mail):
Yankev:
It is generally a futile and arrogant undertaking for someone who does not subscribe to a given religion to argue with one who does or what the religion does or should permit.
So when someone says, "My religion means that I should kill Jewish babies so they don't reject Christ and go to Hell for all eternity -- it is worth my soul to save dozens of other souls", the correct response is, "Far be it from me to be arrogant or engage in a futile attempt to argue about what your religion does or should permit or require".

Honestly, these are the stakes. The crux of your argument is that a person should do whatever they believe their religion justifies and they have no obligation to their fellow men to justify their actions. Faith is one of the greatest evils men face.
12.30.2008 5:03am
A.C.:
I'm curious. In what sense would it violate the Jewish religion to say "Merry Christmas" to someone who does, in fact, celebrate Christmas? I have no problem with saying "Happy Hannukah" to someone who celebrates that holiday. (I'm also extremely fond of latkes.)
12.30.2008 9:36am
David Schwartz (mail):
AC: I don't think anyone was talking about that. The article is clear that it's talking about saying "Merry Christmas" to people who are not Christians. Presumably, the offense would be that you are assuming they are Christian, which strikes me as kind of bizarre.

If someone said "Merry Christmas" to you and you said "why do you assume I'm Christian", a rational response would be, "I am not. I'm simply wishing you a pleasant holiday season using the term that is common for that wish. It's just like you can say 'god bless you' to an atheist, and if he's rationale he will hear "I noticed that you sneezed, and I am politely acknowledging that as is our (senseless and largely automatic, unthinking) custom".
12.30.2008 9:59am
A.C.:
I was responding to the Yankev, "reply in kind" part of the discussion. Should have been clearer.

I do agree that the politest thing to do with people you actually know is to use the greeting that suits THEIR religious affiliation, whether or not it matches yours. With people you don't know, context matters. For an institutional greeting to thousands of people, it's probably best to be neutral and stick to "Happy Holidays." But if you run into someone you don't know well at the mall in mid-December, "Merry Christmas" isn't generally meant as an offense. Someone who wanted to deflect it would be within his rights to say (nicely) "And a Happy Hannukah to you."

Doing the little social dance needed to sort this stuff out is better than having to obsess beforehand about who is Jewish, who is Christian, and who is neither. For most of the year, you don't need that information about the other people who work in your building or live two blocks over. And it would be intrusive to go around keeping tabs.
12.30.2008 10:11am
Yankev (mail):
To A.C. and Tracy W. , explaining why the Jewish religion prohibits a Jew from wishing someone Merry Chr*stmas requires more time, space, and real time interchange than the any internet forum can provide. It also risks offending sincere Christians. It is a topic better suited for private one on one real time discussion. Beyond that, I will say only that Orthodox sources are fairly unanimous on the issue to the best of my knowledge, and that the prohibition stems from the fact that Jews are not permitted to encourage anyone -- non-Jews included -- to worship that which is not G-d.
12.30.2008 11:18am
David Schwartz (mail):
By the way, I never met an atheist who didn't understand social niceties, and I've met literally thousands of atheists. Whoever wrote this letter to the editor is probably not actually an atheist although I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and figure that there are enough atheists that there might be a few completely insane ones.

Speedwell may have it. His intent may be to collect the responses showing how ridiculous he's being and then flip that around to people who complain about things like "Happy Holidays". If so, a letter to the editor is a particularly inappropriate vehicle since he has no way to follow up.
12.30.2008 11:21am
Bad (mail) (www):
"David Schwartz (mail): Bad: If I say, "Jack does not believe George Bush has done a good job of running the country", doesn't that mean (not in its literal meaning, but as any rational person would understand it) that he has considered and rejected that belief?"

It's ambiguous, precisely because its literal meaning is not always taken the same way, depending on what emphasis you place.

"The fact is, atheists consciously reject the religious beliefs they are exposed to."

They consciously reject BELIEVING in those beliefs, yes. But this is not an act of belief.

"It is pointless sophistry to argue that atheism is a complete absence of belief."

It's the absence of GOD belief. If you want to argue that something is pointless sophistry, then you need to show that it has no actual content or meaning. But you've not only failed to do that, I've shown you that it's perfectly informative time and time again now.

"It's just as bad for atheists to try to score meaningless debating points by arguing that atheism is purely the absence of belief as it is for theists to try to score meaningless debating points by arguing that atheists too must have faith."

The former is accurate, the latter is dishonest. So no, I don't see them as "just as" anything.

"Atheism is, fundamentally, the considered rejection of religious belief."

The fact that I've never heard of a claim that I must believe in ghosts, then hear of the claim, but find no compelling reason in that claim, and so continue not to believe in them, does not alter me or my status in any significant way. You keep repeating this "considered rejection" line as if the mere hearing of an idea magically made that idea so compelling on its own that suddenly the burden of proof is on anyone who didn't believe it to constantly strain against belief.

Poppycock.

"If you read a book on atheism, it will not be a book on how to lack belief in god. It will be a book on why you should reject all religious beliefs."

If you were to actually read said book, you'd note that what it spends it's time doing is rejecting arguments FOR belief in God. And if you were to pick up a book on logic, you might see very early on that the validity of arguments and the soundness of conclusions are two separate things.
12.30.2008 11:22am
Yankev (mail):

So when someone says, "My religion means that I should kill Jewish babies so they don't reject Christ and go to Hell for all eternity -- it is worth my soul to save dozens of other souls", the correct response is, "Far be it from me to be arrogant or engage in a futile attempt to argue about what your religion does or should permit or require".
But his religion may very well teach that (some I think do), so how do I argue to him that it does not? I may conclude (or for that matter argue) that his religion is mistaken, stupid, wrongheaded or evil. I may conclude -- or tell him -- that he may believe as he wishes but that I will resist to the death his right to practice. But how do I conclude whether he has correctly interpreted his religion, or that I know more about his religion than he does?

To take another example, if a Nazi tells you that his beliefs require the extermination of all Jews, or a Marxist tells you that his beliefs require seizing all means of production, I can tell him his beliefs stink and why I think so, but I'd be pretty stupid to tell him (unless I'm doing it as a subterfuge) that Nazism or Marxism doesn't teach what he thinks it does.
12.30.2008 11:27am
Bad (mail) (www):
"D Palmer (mail):If you believe in a god, just not the Judeo-Christian God, then you're not an atheist, you're a pagan."

I never said that I believe in "a" God, so permit me to not know what the heck you are talking about here.

"Most of the exchange you describe could be avoided if instead of the passive aggressive: "Okay, if that's what atheist means to you." response you told them: "No, I just don't believe in the God of the Bible/Torah/Koran"."

But that wouldn't make any sense. The speaker in this case doesn't believe in any gods at all, that was the point. The reason he said "if that's what it means to you" is not to be passive aggressive, but rather to accept for the sake of argument the way in which the first person appears to be defining the word.

Believe me, atheists are no strangers to the many inconsistent ways in which people use the word atheist: oftentimes, as I illustrate, switching the word's meaning mid-argument! Myself, I don't particularly mind all that much if you call me a non-theist. But I do think there is a problem with trying to creatively define "atheist" in whatever way makes things most confusing and atheists look bad is a crummy thing to do. Definitions are supposed to make things mutually clearer, not confound them.

"And for those arguing that atheism is not a Belief (capital B), I would argue that that is sometimes true. Most atheists I know (I consider myself a Deist) don't raise their belief in non-belief to the level of a religion, but a few, like Illinois based Atheist pain-in-the-ass Rob Sherman, have."

Whether or not someone is decidedly anti-religious, and whether or not they ponder the fact of their atheism or not has very little to do with whether or not their not believing in God is itself a belief or a religion. A religion is not the same thing as "a strongly held position on some matter" or else most human beings would have like 20 different religions all at once.
12.30.2008 11:29am
ray_g:
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: the movement to banish Christmas in the USA is not pushed by atheists but by the political correctness crowd whose motivation is to oppose anything associated with "Dead White European Males". As an atheist I'm tired of being associated with those folks.

When I was younger, "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings" was a convienient shorthand for "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year". Now they have become equivocations, and I despise them. The fallacy of the whole PC thing is the idea that if you give something a different name you will change the thing, condition or whatever. A cripple by any other name still has more difficulty walking around than most people.

In a civil, diverse, secular (by which I mean there are no state mandated official religion, not that religion does not exist), the easy and IMO proper response for a non-Christian to "Merry Christmas" is something like "Thank you" or "Same to you". Even if I don't share the belief I can appreciate and acknowledge the sentiment. That's just basic politeness.
12.30.2008 12:51pm
ray_g:
I find the whole "atheism is just another belief" tiresome, because in my experience it is a deceptive tactic used by theists to side step real issues. I refuse to play that game.

I agree with the person who said that agnosticism is a cosmic punt. I would actually go farther, and say that in modern times it an act of intellectual cowardice. (In the past it was a way to avoid being burnt at the stake.) The people I know that call themselves agnostics are really atheists, they just don't like the bad connotations that the theists and the media have unfairly attached to the word "atheist". I dare say that most agnostics are like that.

All my life I've encountered the tendency of believers to try to redefine atheism. They will ask "do you believe in X?". I will say no. They respond with "What about Y". And so on. Interestingly, I get this more from the non-traditional (e.g. New Age) types than, say, Christians. To save time, I've been tempted to put the following on a business card:

"I call myself an atheist because I do not believe in Christ, Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, Cthulhu, Gaia, the Goddess, universal consciousness or The Force." Or anything like them. Is that clear enough for you?"
12.30.2008 1:12pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"I agree with the person who said that agnosticism is a cosmic punt."

I mostly disagree. It can be used that way, but it's descriptive enough: it's just that people slide over the distinction. Agnosticism concerns knowledge. If you say that you don't know if something is true, that's fair enough. But there's still the question of whether you believe it or not, which is a binary state: there is no real "I don't know" because in that case the IDK applies to you not knowing the contents of your own thoughts.

This is why I like non-believer/non-theist as a term a little more than atheist. But the word atheist, confusing as it is, seems here to stay as well, so we might as well clarify the issues around it as well.
12.30.2008 1:51pm
A.C.:
Yankev --

Okay, I see the point. I've never known any confusion to arise when dealing with Orthodox Jews, though. The mix-ups only happen when the first person to speak doesn't know the other person's religious affiliation, and therefore has no idea where to begin.

Name and appearance don't always indicate what religion a person is. I've been mistaken for Jewish any number of times based on my looks and background, but my family has been (Mediterranean) Catholic for as long as anyone has been keeping records. (This is more of an issue for me at Passover than in December.) The same happens often enough in reverse, and of course there's no particular background or ethnic marker for atheists.

So the question becomes, how do you untangle the mistakes with a minimum of fuss?
12.30.2008 2:48pm
Yankev (mail):

In a civil, diverse, secular (by which I mean there are no state mandated official religion, not that religion does not exist), the easy and IMO proper response for a non-Christian to "Merry Christmas" is something like "Thank you" or "Same to you". Even if I don't share the belief I can appreciate and acknowledge the sentiment.
After wasting far too much of my life (and other peoples') with other responses, I have found "thank you" to work quite well as a response.
12.30.2008 4:44pm
Yankev (mail):

So the question becomes, how do you untangle the mistakes with a minimum of fuss?
Unless there's some compelling reason to do otherwise, I respond "thank you" to Merry C**mass, "thanks, same to you" to Happy holidays, and have yet to be wished Season's Greetings other than in writing. Or you can respond "thank you" to just about anything.

There is seldom reason to go beyond that. On those rare occassions where there is, I may explain that being Jewish, my family and I do not celebrate that day, or that we celebrate Chanukah.

What's really fun is when someone wishes you Happy Chanukah days or weeks after Chanukah is over, which in some years may be as early as the first week in December. That usually gets them a sincere thank you, perhaps coupled with coupled with "You do know that Chanukah ended X (days)(weeks) ago?"

Some years back, a lawyer I was working on a deal with inquired about my plans for Chr*mass. Chanukah had already ended, and when I told him that my holidays were over and I did not celebrate any more holidays until March (which is when Purim fell that next year), he remarked in somber tones "I find that very sad." I won't tell you how I found HIS remark, but I had a lot of trouble warming up to him for a few months.
12.30.2008 4:55pm
NickM (mail) (www):

Exactly as I said. Except that not believing isn't an "act" of any sort. Is not going to London a type of travel? What airline do you book a ticket on to not go to London?


I don't know, but they'll probably be getting a TARP bailout. Fewer people are booking tickets for nontravel this year than last.

Nick
12.30.2008 5:30pm
CJColucci:
Exactly as I said. Except that not believing isn't an "act" of any sort. Is not going to London a type of travel? What airline do you book a ticket on to not go to London?

I don't know, but they'll probably be getting a TARP bailout. Fewer people are booking tickets for nontravel this year than last.

Nick


There's a recent Onion story on the airlines' plans to assess various fees on people who don't fly.
12.30.2008 5:40pm
Tracy W (mail):
Yankev - thanks for explaining this. You are welcome to wish me a Merry Christmas by your religion, as I don't workship anything, and even if I believed that a deity existed I still see no reason to worship it, and instead interpret a Merry Christmas as being merry on and around 25 December.
More generally, is a wish for a Merry Christmas anything to do with encouraging worship? Merriment is not normally a word I associate with worship, instead I tend to think of worship being associated with deeper feelings. People talk about the ecstacy of Christianity, or the agony of bearing your soul before God, or deep inner peace, not merriment.

On the topic of arguing about religion, well people within a religion argue about what their religion teaches all the time (in every religion I know about), so why shouldn't someone outside that religion? The arguments are based on interpretations of the religion's holy books, or the life of the central figure (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc), or in some cases on the interaction between those holy books and what nature indicates. When someone is arguing that their beliefs come from mystical experiences, then you can present evidence that mystical experiences aren't that reliable. Of course, for any particular debate, a person may not be qualified because they lack say the relevant knowledge of language, for example I am not qualified to enter into debates about the meaning of the Bible in Hebrew and Aramic, but then many Christains are also not qualified for that type of debate. And if I was an expert on Hebrew and Aramic from the relevant time periods, why would my lack of religious views disqualify me from debating what the Bible actually meant?

I have argued with Communists about what Communism means, using the Communist Manifesto to argue that yes, Stalinist Russia was Communist. I suspect I didn't change their minds, but they didn't manage to make a reply. And I don't think it's stupid outright for a non-Communist to say "well, this is what the Communist Manifesto says Communism is about, and these features appear in country X at time y, so country X was communist." (Of course, I might be wrong about a feature actually existing in country X, or I might have stupidly misread the Communist Manifesto, but similar possibities exist for any debate).
12.31.2008 5:23am
David Schwartz (mail):
Yankev: When you're dealing with people who hold dangerous, irrational beliefs, you use whatever tool best gets the job done. If convincing them that their religion/belief is wrong is effective, you use that. If convincing them that their religion/belief is being misunderstood by them is effective, you use that.

You said, "It is generally a futile and arrogant undertaking for someone who does not subscribe to a given religion to argue with one who does or what the religion does or should permit."

Your follow-up defense doesn't defend your claim that it's arrogant. It also doesn't defend the claim that it's futile. In fact, it's more likely to be effective than trying to convert them.

Your defense simply says that when doing so, you might be incorrect. I don't think that's true. Is there a "correct" view of Orthodox Judaism? Is there a "correct" view of how one should lead one's life according to Jesus?

In your example, one is clearly incorrect. Naziism does in fact include the extermination of all Jews. But if you could convince a Nazi not to exterminate Jews by convincing him that Naziism doesn't require that, that would be great -- certainly not arrogant.

Of course, if it didn't work, it would be futile. But how can you know that ex ante?
12.31.2008 5:26pm

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