About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

This I believe, with a twist

National Public Radio has been running a show called "This I believe," which features prominent figures in the American cultural landscape, as well as average Joes and Janes, telling the rest of us what they believe. Sometimes the segment is insightful, sometimes rather sappy, or even irritating. A cardinal rule for submission is that the belief has to be positive, that is, one can't say what they don't believe.

Superficially, that would seem to cut off atheists, until you give Penn Jillette an opportunity! Penn is the taller, talkative, guy of the Penn & Teller magic duo, two performers with the mission not only to entertain, but also to educate the public about pseudoscience and flim-flammery. Penn is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, has lectured at MIT and Oxford, and is the executive producer of that strange documentary about comedy, The Aristocrats.

Penn entitled his piece "There is no God," a rather negative statement to be sure, and turned it into one of the most eloquent and touching affirmations of the courage and beauty of non believing in the supernatural. I don't really need to add any commentary of my own, just go to the NPR site, sit back and listen. Then meditate about how lack of belief can be a positive and precious thing.


  1. A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of the Penn Jillette broadcast on NPR as I was driving to work. As soon as I got to the office I logged in and went to the NPR web site to read the full transcript. I might have phrased a few things slightly differently but overall I was very impressed.
    Ever since I heard the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ atheist I have considered myself a STRONG atheist. I will admit the exceedingly remote possibility that the Earth and all creatures therein were fashioned by a “creator” or that we are nothing more than a dream. My stance is that the God of the Hebrew scriptures and all of the other gods of religions around the world are mythical, non-existent, imaginary and contrived. Even if there were a creator (or dreamer) there is absolutely no reason to give this being (or beings) the appellation of “god”. Possibly I have crafted my own narrow definition of what constitutes a god. I am saying that there is no being who watches our every move, controls (or interferes in) our lives, wants us to worship or adore him, punishes us, makes statues weep, listens to our prayers, cares about rituals and rites, rewards us for following some (unknown) set of rules, or any of those other attributes that are normally associated with gods. The evidence of the world around us proves that there is no such being.
    "If there really was a God, pigeons would enjoy eating cigarette butts." - - Martin Willett

  2. I never liked describing myself as atheist, because in a sense you are defining yourself (in that moment) by something that you are not. I prefer the more positive affirmations and see no reason why atheists cannot express the things that they do believe in -- at least in the colloquial sense, since we skeptics never really "believe" anything :)

    I enjoy Penn and Teller and can tell they have drunk from the same well of rationalist, freethinking knowledge as most of us. He generally does a good job in the irreverent, but entertaining and generally spot on Showtime series "Bullshit".

    I thought his NPR essay was good, but I think maybe since we intuitively know what he means (because we have all read Sagan, Dawkins, Russell, etc.) that perhaps we attach more power and beauty to his essay than is really there. I wonder how his essay would be received by the believing community.

    I also went on to read many more of the related essays that NPR's website had linked to. I see the non-believers are still in the minority -- no surprise. Sometimes I am surprised that otherwise intelligent and eloquent people can believe. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about that.

    As I said before: I want to be for something, not against something. I have to remind myself that it is OK for people to believe in God (whatever form their particular form may take) so long as they do so in a forgiving way, in a way that doesn't cause them to want to change my views or public policy. In a way that doesn't not cause them pain (by guilt, etc) or their family members pain by way of not accepting differences in worldviews. I gather that for most of these people, their God beliefs are pretty liberal and non-traditional, so it is probably OK for them. I suppose a mild delusion that they are able to think around when necessary is nothing for me to get worked up about.

    Aside from Penn's, there were a couple of elegant essays from other non-believers as well. There was an essay, Ruth Kamps called "Living Life with 'Grace and Elegant Treeness'" where she describes losing her traditional beliefs -- she concludes:
    There are those who want to give my life more importance than the tree, but I don't believe them. They think there is a special place for me somewhere for eternity, but I don't believe them. I believe my tree and all other living things believe and feel in their particular living ways. I want to work on being as good a human as I am able, just as my tree does her job with grace and elegant treeness.

    And an essay by J. Frank Dobie, called "Whatever Makes Me Feel Big" where he "believes" in an unknowable and impersonal power, but:

    "...I believe in questionings, doubtings, searchings, skepticism, and I discredit credulity or blind faith. The progress of man is based on disbelief of the commonly accepted. The noblest minds and natures of human history have thought and sung, lived and died, trying to budge the status quo towards a larger and fuller status. "

    he also notes:

    No hymn lifts my heart higher than the morning call of the bobwhite or the long fluting cry of sandhill cranes out of the sky at dusk. I have never smelled incense in a church as refining to the spirit as a spring breeze laden with aroma from a field of bluebonnets.

    Now, time to get back to work....

  3. I believe "man creates gods in his own image". Women probably helped in the design too! ;-)

    Thanks for the tip on the other essays, Alan. I hadn't seen any other "more secular" one there.


  4. I missed the original airing of the Penn Jillette essay, but learned of it from my wife who printed a hard copy of it for me to discuss over dinner that evening. I agree with Massimo that this was "one of the most eloquent and touching affirmations of the courage and beauty of non believing in the supernatural" that I have heard.

    I find that I define myself in many ways depending on the immediate circumstances. I have no problem describing myself as an atheist when the circumstances require an affirmation of my non-belief. This in no way implies that I do not have a positive outlook on life or hinders me in expressing the things that I do believe in.

  5. I can't find this anywhere on the internet anymore, but I had it in a very old email. It is a story told by recording artist an athiest Stanley Kramer. Sorry for the length, but I wanted to share (slightly abridged):

    When I was 12 years old, I was told by my mother, as my father sat by, that although we never went to temple, I would have to be bar-mitzvah'd.

    She told me that not a single member of her family would ever speak to her again unless her only son was bar-matvah'd. My father grunted. It wasn't until years later that I discovered the true depth of his contempt for not only judaism and religion in general, but in particular his contempt for everyone in his family "in utter thrall to ancient superstition", as he later put it.

    My first real encounter with my father's lack of belief came not long after I began Hebrew lessons in preparation for my bar-mitvah. .... As with most so-called "reform" Judaism, boys are taught to speak or sing in Hebrew but are rarely taught the meaning of the words they were singing. No one EVER offered ANY form of translation. ....one Saturday afternoon, I came home with a look of accomplishment on my face, proud to show my father what I had "learnt". I sang what I had learned that day - a short section of the Torah. I sang it well.

    "That sounds lovely, son", he said sarcastically.

    "What do you mean?"...I knew his tone and what it meant. After all, he was my father and I was his son.

    "Well, son, let me ask you something. Do you know the meaning of any of those words you just sang?"

    "NO, Dad. They didn't even mention it. They just want me to sing it correctly and not mispronounce any of the words."

    "Well then, you should be very proud of yourself. They've turned you into an excellent parrot."

    I stood there stunned as he turned his back on me and left the room muttering..."You should be VERY proud. My son. The parrot."

    If there was one cell in my body that COULD have been jewish, it was wiped out like syphillis that very day, courtesy of the words of a father who loved me enough to say what he knew I needed to hear.
    In 1984 my father died. Two weeks before the end, he wrote a poem. He'd never written one before. I read it at his bedside in the hospital. It spoke of a river through which all life flowed before emptying into the sea and becoming one with the universe. Interpreted benignly, this could be seen as bioligical prose. Interpreted more acutely, it could easily seem the pains of a mind forced to face his own mortality, and even question it.

    "Dad, this is beautiful."

    "Is it? It's got some bullshit in it, son."

    "So does most poetry, Dad."

    "Son? Will I ever see you again, after I'm dead? Do you think I'll be watching you, at least, as you have kids, as you raise them, as you get old? What do you really think, son?"

    "I think what YOU really think, Dad."

    "I don't know what I think. I'm going to die. I'm not sure anymore. Are you sure?"

    "I'm sure, Dad. You're dying, but you will live on in my memory and in my life and in my children, and in Mom. We won't meet again, but we are together forever."

    "Good son. That's my boy. Now go into my wallet in my coat pocket hanging in the closet, and take out the $10 bill that's there. I want you to go and buy your mother flowers for me. I can't recall the last time I bought her flowers. Do that for me, son."

    My atheism is rocklike. Nothing touches it.

    Life is random. One wrong turn, one more or one less microbe, and we humans might never have appeared at all.

    There is no creator.

    There is only the love of a father and a daughter, the lifelong quest to escape the strangling inner loneliness we all suffer, and the march of nature.

  6. I wonder how his essay would be received by the believing community.

    I can answer that for you. The answer is: poorly.

    I frequent an Oak Ridge Boys message board, where I, as an atheist, are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority on that overwhelmingly Christian and conservative board. This essay was posted and caused quite a stir. If you'd like to see how they reacted, you can see it here:

  7. I can answer that for you. The answer is: poorly.

    Of course I'm not surprised. I have said on this forum before that outright and in your face godlessness will put believers on the defensive right away.

    I have found a more effective technique is to acknowledge that some kind of supreme being may exist and then proceed to examine the reasons why it is highly unlikely that such a theoretical being is the popular conception of the biblical God.

    Again, I believe that a purely atheistic society has little value over a rational secular society in which all dogmatic religious ideology has vanished.
    Liberal theistic beliefs (and obviously pantheistic and deistic views) can co-exist with such a society as long as the adherent acknowledges that their faith is exactly that and defers to reason and empirical evidence in cases where reason and evidence can be applied.

    Obviously to achieve such a society it is important to evangelize the existential awe and wonder that many people feel once free of their dogmatic religious beliefs. I just believe its more effective when done subtly. In other words, speaking strategically, believers would be more inclined to read and ponder essays such as Penn's if the godless aspect was subdued and the humanism and existential wonder aspect amplified.

  8. Well I read the comments regarding Penn's essay on the Oak Ridge Boys link posted by Matt a few comments above.

    Everyone one should read it because as frustrating as it might be it gives some idea of the uselessness of Penn's essay in garnering any ears amongst the believers.

    The most annoying comments were those that tended to suggest that the Bible was the end all be all. So it reinforces my belief that the secular community should first address dogma and revelation. The rest will eventually (though slowly) follow.

    P.S. - Matt, if your member number is k115810, then I thought your comment was very well put. Though I do think some beliefs are lunacy, I very much agree that telling someone their views are lunacy is usually counter productive.

  9. Alan, thanks for the nice comment. Yes, I'm k115810 on that board. Spending time on that board has been an eye-opener for me in regards to communicating with people that have very different beliefs than your own.

    Often, evidence and reason are not effective enough. Rather, a quiet, calm, self-assured persistence seems more important. First, let them see that you're not insane. ;-) THEN, stay honest and truthful.

  10. Matt - evidence and reason are not always enough because there are things that can not, at this point, be explained by either.

    Just as atheists don't like to have religious "dogma" offered as proof for an argument, Christians will resent an attempt to off-handedly dismiss their beliefs.

    It is important to note that there are many perfectly tenable arguments for God's existence, and there have been many brilliant minds over the years who have come to accept them.

    And it is equally important for Christians such as myself to understand that being atheist does not mean you are "anti-God" or against religion - just that you have come to a different understanding of the genesis, nature and disposition of our universe.

    In the final analysis, one view will prove correct. Even as a Christian, I do not pretend to KNOW which one it will be, though I know which I BELIEVE it will be.

    In the meanwhile, there is no reason why the tone of the debate ought not be kept civil, and result in better understanding on both sides of the fence.



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