Religion 101 Final Exam

By Mark Trodden | April 26, 2007 9:27 am

As we approach the final exam season, and my thoughts turn to grading the hopefully logically thought-out musings of my students, here’s a little test for your enjoyment, courtesy of ebonmusings. I’ll just provide you with a teaser:

3) You are a product tester and frequently bring your work home. Yesterday, while dressed in a flame resistant suit (up to 3,000 degrees) and carrying the latest model fire extinguisher, you discover your neighbor’s house is on fire. As the flames quickly spread, you stand and watch your neighbor’s new baby burn to death. Which of the following best describes your behavior?

A. All-powerful
B. All-knowing
C. All-loving
D. Mysterious

(Thanks Ms. Chris!)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Religion
  • Ian B Gibson

    B. Knowing that the baby would likely grow up in an America that is fast turning into a superstitious, paranoid and ignorant theocracy, I reasoned that the poor thing was better off being put out of its misery early on.

  • http://www.byupoliticalreview.com Emir of Funk

    While I appreciate the humor of this “exam,” I find it sad that someone who is obviously so witty could also be so misinformed about religion. At least I hope she is just misinformed, because if the exam’s author actually understands religion and made a conscious choice to misrepresent it as awfully as she did in her exam questions she would be dishonest and absurd instead of witty.

  • thm

    Well, I’m an atheist and all, but I actually find the image of a baby burning to death disturbing to the point of overwhelming all the cleverness of this question.

  • Astro

    Even as an agnostic I observe that the post achieved that perfect balance of being both narrow and shallow.

  • archgoon

    Emir of Funk:

    There is considerable atheistic sentiment on this blog. If you wish to communicate your position, you might want to explain what’s wrong with the exam. The attitude “This person is wrong, so I don’t need to explain why.” is basically the same problem that I have with question 11.

    I really dislike question 11.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I just added the extra categorization “Humor” for those who need a little extra help.

  • rash

    Seriously, what’s with all the atheism stuff on this webpage? Atleast once in a while throw in something pro-theistic or so, it’s getting quite boring and one sided. I always find the science content here to be better balanced.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    What do you mean by balanced? It is all pro-science. Same thing with the atheism – the common theme is rationalism.

  • David B.

    Rash:

    I’ve never found pro-religion arguments to be balanced. They usually run along the lines of “god will punish you if you don’t do …”.

    Not to mention that this is a blog, where the authors are expressing their personal points of view. This is not a newspaper that is forced to be “fair”.

  • http://rongou.blogspot.com Rong

    Seriously, what’s with all the science stuff on this web page? At least once in a while throw in something pro-witchcraft or so, it’s getting quite boring and one sided. I always find the atheism content here to be better balanced.

  • rash

    Mark: There have been several posts on this webpage that has brought up points of views for a scientific idea, and views against that idea. This is something that I feel adds to the quality of this (for science, excellent) webpage.

    However all posts regarding atheism on this page can be summarised as such “theists/thism are/is loony, here is a joke that shows this”. I don’t mind such posts, I enjoy reading different points of views, such posts are good for several things after all. But at this stage is just gotten to the point of “oh great, yet another atheism post, and this time with burning babies… wtf”.

    Also, you might want to take a look into the field of Cognitive Science regarding rationality, it’s pretty much been falsified, humans are not rational, this goes for both atheists and theists.

    David B: This sounds extremely weird, you must have come across some very strange discussion on the topic, try looking into some theological course literature or so. Perhaps you are interested in biology? Why not have a post on this web page that discusses weather evolution has selected for or against theism (just to throw out an idea of the top of my head)?

    Off course the authors can write what they very well want to, I am however writing this under the thought that they might be interested in what one of their readers think.

  • Mike

    Don’t you get it? The humor in the question is that it parodies the views of “fundamentalists” who have about as nuanced a view of religion as a kumquat. It certainly did not strike me as a parody of religion.

  • Rien

    Also, you might want to take a look into the field of Cognitive Science regarding rationality, it’s pretty much been falsified, humans are not rational, this goes for both atheists and theists.

    Well isn’t that sweet. No point in trying to be rational, then, cause of course we can’t make an effort. Bring on the witchcraft and religion.

  • rash

    Mike: The question (3) is a parody of the theodicean problem, this is a problem shared by all monotheists, fundamentalist or not.

    So I don’t understand how you think it parodies only fundamentalists.

  • David B.

    Rash: just to clarify, I wrote religion, not theology or the philosophical discussions around religion or the existence of god, nor the sociological reasons why people might organize in a society by forming religious institutions. I meant the “logical” reasons why one should join any religion that are completely independent of peer pressure, having religion imposed on you by your parents, priests, etc.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    rash – the comparison with the science posts just doesn’t hold. It is my view that religion is nonsense and I’m going to write about it – sometimes in depth and other times in parody. I see no reason to write about theism and providing any kind of balance on that topic is not my concern.

    As for rationalism – I mean that science and a rational view of the universe are basically the same (this is why Rong’s pro-Science vs. witchcraft compared to atheist vs. theist comment is on point). Cog, Sci. has nothing to add to this, although it may very well have fascinating things to say as to why humans behave the way they do and believe the nonsense they often do.

    As for theological arguments – I don’t think they have anything to say about the existence of fantastic supernatural beings, for which there is zero evidence.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    rash: I’m sure if the bloggers here actually were “pro-theist,” then they would write that way.

  • George Musser

    The exam question is bitter but I think deserves some kind of response from believers. The problem of evil is one of the oldest in theology, and anyone who believes in God must eventually confront it. When I went through this confrontation many years ago, I came out an atheist. Others have retained their beliefs, but I never could grasp why. Perhaps Emir or another person here could explain.

    George

  • rash

    mollishka: I tend to have the positive view on humans that they can write about things that they don’t believe in or even strongly disagreeable with in a thoughtful way. Personally I write very often as a devils advocate on forums just for fun and to get better at argumentative discussions :)

  • thm

    Also, you might want to take a look into the field of Cognitive Science regarding rationality, it’s pretty much been falsified, humans are not rational, this goes for both atheists and theists.

    But what about for Cognitive Scientists? Was the work that falsifies rationality done by rational people? Can it be?

  • spyder

    A = Judeo/Christian/Islam
    B = Hinduism
    C = Buddhism
    D = american indian pantheism

    What??? Oh, that isn’t correct?? What was the question? Damn it all to hell; there is just too much standardized testing going on right now.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I have mixed feelings about these kinds of jokes. On the one hand, I do understand that many religious beliefs are quite sophisticated, and include nuanced stances toward the problem of evil and its cousins. Ultimately I think it’s all wrong, and the simplest resolution to the problem (“God does not exist”) is easily preferable to any of the theistic maneuvers, but I know that smart people disagree.

    On the other hand, I also understand that the vast majority of religious beliefs aren’t like that. Their theology doesn’t extend much beyond a conviction that God will help out their favorite football team if they pray hard enough. In the face of people like that exerting so much influence on world events, what can you do other than laugh?

  • rash

    thm: One could very well argue that the conclusions drawn by those scientists is irrational :)
    A rigours Scientific Methodology is off course not irrational, but on could very well claim that the conclusions drawn from the result of such methodology is.

  • Martin Bebow

    Let’s assume that an all-loving God puts out this fire and every other fire that could cause death or pain. What kind of a world would that be? Would anyone like to live in it? If any pain or death is possible then a baby’s death or pain is possible. So there is a mystery to a baby’s death that only God can solve. Babies die with or without God. I can believe in a God that allows a baby to die but also has some recompense for that baby. The alternative is to not believe in God. It’s the old choice. Take your pick.

  • deserttrail

    I didn’t look at the real “test,” but I wanted to give my answer to the sample question: B, C, and D.

    A: not enough info to support this conclusion
    B: being all knowning, you know that the baby will become the next “hitler”
    C: being all loving, you do not want to subject humanity to his torment
    D: those who are not all knowing (everyone else) will question your actions so it will be mysterious — to them

    I understand that this is a joke, but it’s a lower standard than I expect here ;-)

    Disclaimer: I’m agnostic – the existence of a supernatural being cannot be tested by science.

  • terrence

    Just had to respond to that, as I am the original author of the exam. From a recent posting on the site where the exam was first posted:

    “The idea of help available but arbitrarily withheld is much more frustrating and depressing than the idea of help not available at all.”

    If that doesn’t sink in, I suggest one do a google search to find and read an article called “Why We Believe in a Designer” by E.T. Babibski.

  • Sam Gralla

    I’m actually confused. Which biblical story is the example question a reference too?

  • Geoff

    I’m not sure this is a behavioral question so much as it is a cooking question. I’ve consulted Swift for a BBQ recipe and could find nothing for charred baby, but I’m sure they taste just fine for starving third world folk who are praying and wondering where their next meal is going to come from.

  • Eugene

    Honestly, I don’t see the humour in these jokes except in a clubbing baby seals kinda of way. I.e. yes there are some very obvious inconsistencies in the idea of an all-loving, all-mighty Godhead, but ok.

    (on the other hand, how Christianity got itself into this conundrum is fascinating and I wish somebody will make a nice easily digestable blog-post on).

  • http://muristan.net NathanL

    It is my view that religion is nonsense and I’m going to write about it.

    I don’t think they have anything to say about the existence of fantastic supernatural beings, for which there is zero evidence.

    PZ Myers ruined a perfectly good blog with his monomania. Please don’t ruin Cosmic Variance.

    Their theology doesn’t extend much beyond a conviction that God will help out their favorite football team if they pray hard enough.

    This is just as bad.

  • Nate

    Rash: Humans are not rational much like they’re not wearing clothing. That is to say, it is not inherent in being human to be wearing clothing, or to be rational, but both clothing and rationality exist, and at times humans partake of both. Now, it may be that your average human is running around in their birthday suit, but that really isn’t at issue. The point is that some humans have decided they want to wear clothing, so they’re going to. And they’re going to point out when someone else is not wearing clothing, no matter how big an emperor they are.

  • Godfrey

    Have a look at the lives of, say, George Muller, Corrie ten Boom, Jackie Pullinger and John Wesley.

  • rash

    Nate: I think you should make a distinction between weather an idea is logically coherent and weather a person believes in a logically coherent system because it is logically coherent. Off course someone can do that, but generally that is not what happens (this applies to both atheists and theists). Statements such as “I believe or don’t believe in this because of this logic” is mostly just plain false. People generally believe in what they believe because their built in heuristic (non-logical and irrational) model of the world gives that solution as the most probable. And this is irrational, no matter if the stated rational for why that person believes what they believe is in itself rational.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Eugene (29), here is my stab at that blog post.

  • creepy

    The essence of such a blog, would not bear on the account of how/what beliefs were like, but would grow from the social need for such beliefs…

    Have you ever wondered why humans are gifted with the ability to shape and reshape beliefs…

    I think that once the need for a belief is understood from an individuals perspective, then a leap can be formed at understanding the beliefs shaped within a social organization-why/how they arise.

    Social organization has only changed dramatically in the past 100 years. While our memories are still young, it is a worthwhile excercise to go backwards, rather than forwards in the analysis. It seams that today people are much less rational and smart in organizing their lives than the first human civilization. My point being that the outbreak in malaria in Africa is not the animal’s fault but people’s fault. While once living in smaller groups now most south africans, as a particular example, reside in large conglomerates.

    In a similar fashion, would you insist on believing that humans as a species have become smarter?

  • http://www.occc.edu/thurston Tad

    Hi all,

    I understand and faintly chuckle at the original post, but there was some call for a theological response. One obvious one is that too often we present situations like the one in the joke and put ourselves in the solutions — “what would a loving *person* do in that situation? Shouldn’t God be like that?” The irrationality of a belief in an omniscient deity usually (rightly) follows. But to muddy the waters, we know from our own pasts that there were certain evils we’ve all committed that we might be tempted to correct if we could. From a perspective that benefits from the fullness of time, however, we might recognize that there arose opportunities from evils; ambition and new insights from the struggles. While I wouldn’t hesitate to save a baby from a fire in the present, I can recognize that present evils may have ultimately good outcomes in the future. Some versions of modern theology posit a deity that is not only omniscient in space, but (necessarily, from a physics perspective also) in time. An appreciation for the fullness of time may render God a little less callous in the present.

  • Eugene

    Wow, Sean you are right that all the cool ideas have already been posted here on CV! Thanks for the heads-up!

  • Nate

    Rash: The argument you make is like saying that because my face and hands aren’t covered, I’m not wearing clothes. I’m not saying that humans can ever be objectively rational or right; I’m saying that rationality does exist, and being more or less rational is possible. Using your verbiage; my heuristic may be wrong – in fact, most certainly is – but it is also modifiable. One can learn rationality, like one can learn anything. But it’s entirely fallacious to say that because no human being starts out with a strong rational ability that humans and rationality are mutually exclusive.

    For that matter, remember that no idea exists outside a context. People build contexts through experience. Their ideas hold for their experiences, naturally. This is why people who are well traveled, well educated and have been exposed to a lot of different viewpoints tend to not be extremists, and tend towards being moderate, reasonable people. Those ideas that persist through time are the ones that can be reliably applied to the broadest range of contexts. Such as ‘Thou shalt not kill’. It’s a keeper; it’ll almost never steer you wrong. You’re suggesting that that idea is irrational, because no logic bounding it can transcend the context of living in a human society. To which I say; a thing that is rational in a context is rational.

  • rash

    Nate: I don’t understand your post very well, sorry (non-native english speaker).

    However I do not believe that I have made any statements regarding ideas being rational or not. I am writing about justification for why someone believes something. That which we call being able to give a rational reason for why someone believes something or does something.

    In your example with “Thou shalt not kill”, one would need to argue based on what the reason is that someone chooses that this is a good idea to adhere too, right now the thought in itself is nether rational or non-rational, it just is. For example, a window just is, it is nether rational nor non-rational. But the reason for why someone chooses to open a window could be rational or irrational.

  • http://www.huperborea.blogspot.com/ Robert O’Brien

    Same thing with the atheism – the common theme is rationalism.

    Pull the other leg.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    #30, NathanL: Hear, hear!

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    The test, by the way, was no more funny than this:

    Clifford left cosmicvariance and started his own blog asymptotia.
    This was because he was beaten up by:

    A. Sean
    B. Mark
    C. Risa
    D. JoAnne

    I mean to say that by making a particular type of question legitimate, one can make anyone look stupid or nasty.

  • Yajnavalkya

    First off, I know this is a blog and the authors can write about whatever they bloody well fancy. However, it strikes me that at a certain level there isn’t too much of a difference between bible thumping fundamentalists and outspoken arrogant atheists. I mean there are real logical points and paradoxes, and sure, it’s easy enough to riddle it with holes, but it also makes you look like an a******, when you keep harping on a weird topic. It’s just like telling a kid there’s no Santa Claus, (and yes, I fully mean to use this analogy). Sure, you’re enlightening someone about the rational point, but you’re also just being mean.

    There is a time to debate about atheism, when your congressman, starts donating taxpayer’s money to churches, or banning the teaching of evolution. But what’s wrong with a someone believing in something? This kind of material simply degrades CV to something that resembles atheism evangelists.

    I wish religious zealots and atheists, would just stop proselytysing so much.

  • Mark Srednicki

    I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention the following dialogue,

    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904.html

    which I found fascinating. The participants are Sam Harris, http://www.samharris.org, atheist author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”, and Andrew Sullivan, http://www.andrewsullivan.com, a conservative, gay, HIV+ positive blogger who was a strong supporter of Bush and the Iraq invasion, but became an early convert to the opposition, endorsed Kerry in the last election, and is now a staunch critic of Bush & Co. This is relevant, because it demonstrates that Sullivan is someone who is capable of changing his mind when presented with a rational argument.

    What I take away from their discussion is that making the rational case for atheism is a not an optimal strategy, since it (1) is not likely to turn up many converts and (2) can easily annoy people who might otherwise be sympathetic to (if not in agreement with) the atheist worldview.

    What atheists need now is a serious makeover of their public image, which is currently rather dismal. “Jokes” like the one that started this discussion are counterproductive in this regard.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Mark. I don’t agree – it is not my responsibility to pursue the “optimal strategy”.

  • http://thechocolatefish.blogspot.com/ Yvette

    “The telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional heat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.” —Kurt Vonnegut

    I could try adding something else, but I probably can’t top that…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    In general, I think it is interesting how much a simple joke, posted as humor about a fantastical belief set, can provoke so much hostility. I think it feeds of the false idea that religion is a set of ridiculous ideas that is somehow different from any other set of silly ideas that people hold. I don’t think that religion should be protected from ridicule just because many people subscribe to this particular idea.

    One doesn’t need to subscribe to this, of course, but none of the comments above are in any way going to change my mind about this.

    Some posts here are going to be thought-out comments on religion (e.g. here, and here) and others are passing jokes or simple pokes at it. But please let’s not pretend that it is just outrageous to make fun of religion.

    By the way, it is fine to engage in the discussion above, and sometimes interesting comments emerge, but just in case you are someone who has had enough and doesn’t like this attitude, there are several options open. One is not to read this blog. The second is to block my posts. The third is to ignore all posts on religion.

  • http://www.huperborea.blogspot.com/ Robert O’Brien

    I think it feeds of [sic] the false idea that religion is a set of ridiculous ideas…

    Thou sayest.

  • guiseppe

    Don’t forget-

    people believing in God without any proof = lunatics who deserve to be reviled and scorned

    people believing in string theory without any proof = rational scientists who are advancing human knowledge

  • Michael D

    Spot on Mark.

    I took a “Does God Exist?” philosophy subject a few years back and found it a waste of time as we attempted to find ‘rational’ arguments for or against the notion of a “God” (defined the in the typical way.)
    And I don’t think anyone would have had their faith (whichever way it leans) troubled by the arguments put forward on both sides.

    I what I find much more interesting (which others here have also expressed interest in) is how it is that humanity/society *started* to believe and worship and how it is that we *still* do despite the numerous “house burning down” examples we see on a daily basis around the world. Which is no place for (natural) science and should be left to the humanities, philosophy and perhaps cognitive science if you feel the need.

    As to the “balance” in a blog – well that reminds me of a college entrance advisor who said that “we don’t want every student to be well balanced – otherwise we just end up with a bland average school. we want diversity and variety of skills and opinions. the best violinst and the best football player. the right wing and the left wing. the atheist and theist.”

    So too in society/media whatever – if reduce everyone to muttering balanced opinions I fear only a bland world will result. debates such as those that occur on this blog are precisely because we dont’ all just hold some middle ground view.

    m

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    When I was a senior in high school, the local city newspaper ran a series where they interviewed a panel of seniors from different schools each week on various topics. When it was my school’s turn to be featured, I was chosen to be on the panel. We met in a local pizza parlor and the reporter announced that the topic that week was religion. My first thought was ought-oh, I’m in trouble! Even worse, one of my fellow classmates/panel members was a minister’s son. I couldn’t just be silent, so I spoke my mind, and was quoted in the newspaper as saying ‘organized religion is just a money making machine.’ I did have wittier comments, but I did say this and that’s what they quoted.

    That was a long time ago and to this day I am still amazed at the aftermath. My family literally received boxloads of hatemail. Some were actual deaththreats, some had hand-drawn pictures of the devil, others wanted to save my poor soul. It was kinda scary for awhile.

    My senior science teacher said I had learned a lesson. I can still hear the tone in his voice when he said, ‘what you said is probably true, but it’s not the kind of thing you say in public.’ At that point, I realized I had indeed learned a lesson: the right to free speech in this country does not include speaking out against religion.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hey JoAnne – you don’t happen to have any of those hand-drawn pictures of the devil going spare do you?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Nope, I’ve used them all up by now. ;)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Michael:

    what I find much more interesting (which others here have also expressed interest in) is how it is that humanity/society *started* to believe and worship and how it is that we *still* do despite the numerous “house burning down” examples we see on a daily basis around the world.

    I discuss this on my blog, see here

    I ask a slightly different question that i.m.o. makes more sense. Even if you had an explanation of why our brain is susceptable to religion in terms of psychological or neurological terms, you still could ask why in this vast universe in which there can be many advanced civilizations, you ended up being born on backward Earth.

    Assuming that the particular brain physiology that makes our brain suceptible to religion is not a necessary condition to generate your consciousness, there could be an anthropic reason as I explain on my blog.

  • terrence

    THIS IS FOR NAJJAVALJYA: ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY??!?!?!?!? WHAT’S WRONG WITH SOMEONE BELIEVING IN SOMETHING?!?!?!?!?

    ASK MOHAMMED ATTA

  • graviton383

    Guys, I’m frankly tired of all this discussion of religion, pro or con, on this website which is supposedly about SCIENCE. Religion is not rational and you can all talk until you are blue in the face confronting it and will do no good…stop wasting your time. Of course there are many aspects of human life which are not rational…

  • NathanL

    Saying “it’s my blog, and you don’t have to read it” is a decent defense for moderating comments; it’s a terrible defense of mean-spirited humor. One would expect better of a public intellectual.

    But please let’s not pretend that it is just outrageous to make fun of religion.

    It’s not outrageous to discuss issues like religion. ‘Humor’ that’s laden with decidedly non-humorous subtext (not to mention the implied approval of a puerile statement of the problem of evil) is, well, graceless and crass.

    As a staunch weak atheist myself, I see the need for people like you and PZ to shift the discourse such that rational atheists with a more realistic bent are brought into the middle of the bell curve, much like the absence of conservative efforts to distance themselves from outrageous wingnuts makes garden-variety Bush-lite more acceptable to hoi polloi. But I really dislike adopting the other side’s methods for this particular battle.

  • KB

    I think the test accurately highlights the fact that mankind can not begin to understand the will of God, but is very quick to pretend they do.

    Maybe the test should have highlighted all the good work done by specifically atheist organizations in the wake of the Katrina hurricane or the tsunamis. That would have gone a lot further in showing how loving a group of atheists can be.

  • Pseudonym

    JoAnne: I’m not going to defend the morons who took the time to write hatemail to your family, but I would like to point out one thing. It’s not just religion.

    If you’d spoken out against the paranoia about pedophilia, you’d get hate mail. If you’d spoken out about how the (finanical and emotional) investment in terrorism is unwarranted given the body count (compared to, say, tobacco or automobiles), you’d get hate mail. If you’d spoken out against the excesses of the War on Drugs, you’d get hate mail. Hell, if you’d claimed to be a member of the ACLU, you’d probably get hate mail.

    If you’d spoken out against Bush Administration, you might not get hate mail, but you’d probably be on a no-fly list by now. And FSM help you if you ever speak out in an American political forum in favour of gun control.

    But it’s all about religion, right?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    graviton383 – FYI, as has been pointed out on many threads, to many people, from our “about” page: “… Our day (and night) jobs notwithstanding, the blog is about whatever we find interesting — science, to be sure, but also arts, politics, culture, technology, academia, and miscellaneous trivia.”

  • graviton383

    Mark: I guess then you guys get even less sleep than I do if you can spend so much time worrying about religion. I think this time integrates to more than that on `arts, politics, culture, technology, academia, and miscellaneous trivia’ combined.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    “It’s not just religion.”

    Maybe not — mostly, it’s about fearing what is different so much that one must utterly destroy the different thing/person to protect the status quo. But I’d side with Joanne and say that there’s still something deemed “sacrosanct” about religious belief in this country, and those who question it or indulge in satire at its expense invariably have hell to pay.

    Which is not to say “all Christians are like that.” They’re not. Some have asked the tough questions and stared down their doubts and emerged with their faith unscathed. Don’t ask me how — I’m an agnostic. However, I am not by nature a “god-basher,” and yet I didn’t have a problem with Mark’s post. I don’t think it was meant to be laugh-out-loud funny; it’s satire, of the sledgehammer (as opposed to sharp scalpel) variety. Sure, the trope (viewing an accepted theology through an ironic outsider’s lens) has been done before, but I personally find it helpful to be reminded now and then how much one’s perspective colors perception… even with a sledgehammer. No one ever said staring down the tough questions wouldn’t hurt.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    As to how much time we spend worrying about religion — fortunately, the data are readily available.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Just beat me to that link Sean! graviton383, I expect neither of us gets anything like enough sleep.

  • Pseudonym

    Jennifer: Sure, I don’t dispute that this piece wasn’t satirical, though I didn’t find it especially funny.This may sound like a Courtier’s Response, which would be odd coming from someone like me, but I find it a bit pathetic to present this as if it’s new and insightful, and that none of this has occurred to any of the generations of smart theologians who have looked into the Problem of Evil or any of those “tough questions”.But hell, if it helps make even one person move from a fundamentalist religion even to a slightly more liberal version, then it wasn’t a waste of time.

    I’d side with Joanne and say that there’s still something deemed “sacrosanct” about religious belief in this country, and those who question it or indulge in satire at its expense invariably have hell to pay.

    I can only repeat what I said: It’s not just religion.

  • F.

    I want to agree fully with Yajnavalkya, but would express it in a stronger way.

    There is something disgusting and fundamentalistic about using an
    awfull image like a burning baby in a ‘parody’ or a piece of ‘humour’ ,
    whether it is about religion or not.

  • http://sargeist.blogspot.com Sargeist

    I’ve had a quick flick through the comments, and it did seem to me that a lot of respondents had had some kind of humour bypass. The question above and the entire set of questions from which it was taken are very funny and are particularly good satire (in my view, of course).

    Why can’t people see that their religion is just an opinion, and that we are entitled to abuse and ridicule their opinions as much as we like? We’re not singling out individuals, we are merely drawing attention to those enormous swathes of religious thought that make absolutely not one minutest particle of any sense.

    And what’s with this stupid idea that we have to respect other people’s opinions anyway? Come on you god-botherers, show me *why* I am wrong. Don’t just appeal to your book (for god so loved the world…. excuse me while I eat my own arse) or your lack of imagination (woo, the world is so amazing, it surely must have been built by some amazing person! wow! etc) or copy things from CS Lewis (my pain helps me to appreciate life *vomit*), provide some actual proper evidence that will convince people. Don’t you ever, *ever* think it’s a bit odd that religions are so often passed from parent to child? And isn’t it funny how they’re arranged on pretty obvious racial and geographic grounds? Doesn’t this at all strike you as being a result of brainwashing?

    God, god makes me sick.

  • Dingus McNasty

    This is not a free speech issue.

    You exercised your right to free speech, and those that did not agree with your exercised theirs.

    The State did not censor you, apply prior restraint, or penalize you for your speech. Your rights were not violated, and your conclusion that there is no free speech when it comes to religion evidences a misunderstanding of the nature of the First Amendment.

    Should those that did not agree with you not be allowed to do so? Isn’t that what the marketplace of ideas is about?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Is this directed at me Dingus? If so, you seem to have associated comments to me that you shouldn’t have.

  • http://sargeist.blogspot.com Sargeist

    ‘S funny, cos I thought Dingus was commenting at me. And, cos I was in full rant mode, I carefully checked what I said to make sure I wasn’t claiming that people should not be permitted to say what they want.

    I don’t think I did that. Maybe I just came across badly. I’ve got a bit of a limp and a waddle now, what from having my arse prolapsing all the time from reading bullshit from goddists and being afflicted by plagues and leprosy etc.

  • NathanL

    You came across very badly indeed, Sargeist.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance JoAnne

    I think Dingus is referring to my comment above. Dingus, indeed, I exercised my free speech, and the folks who sent me and my family hand drawings of scary looking devils were exercising theirs. However, the folks that sent me and my family death threats crossed a threshold and engaged in criminal activity. (They cost the taxpayers some money as well, as my hometown police force took some extra rounds by our house for awhile.) It is my understanding that the First Amendment does not grant the right to threaten to kill somebody.

  • Nate

    In college I was taught that most religion breaks down into six parts:
    1) Ritual
    2) Myth
    3) Doctrine
    4) Ethics
    5) Community
    6) Experience

    That is, these are aspects under the aegis of ‘religion’ that motivate people to partake. People like habitual behavior and the sense of belonging it brings; hence ritual. Myths help us frame the way we solve problems. Doctrine lets us apply a rubric to politic and social decisions that occur – it keeps everyone on the same page. Ethics limits the impulsive and chaotic behavior of a society. Community lets people meet and form bonds with one another. And the experiential quality of most religion has the same allure that any involving experience does; for instance, take your favorite hobby – you like *doing* it.

    But in these things atheists vary wildly. They don’t have a set doctrine; no institutions have a pulpit from which they make group decisions. Individuals are taught to think freely. Atheists don’t really identify with each other. No rituals exist and myths are actively eschewed. Experiences are garnered through other activities and perhaps most importantly, ethics come from an examined standpoint; no code is provided.

    Are atheists just like religious fanatics? No, they’re not. They’re strongly disliked because they cut against the traditional social order; mythologies and rituals and doctrines which any society has and adheres to in small or large, as glue to help keep it together. Atheists are like that kid in school who wore white after labor day; there is no reason not to, save that you’re not going to blend in.

    Atheism does directly challenge theism. But how much of the reaction is that the theists are being persecuted by those wicked atheists, and how much of it is knowing that if they’re wrong, it means they’re propagating a huge lie? Who likes to be snookered, after all? It’s not that religion is wrong; none of the above areas are bad things to have. It’s that they’re being founded in a nonsensical set of beliefs that are never going to, as a static thing, mesh well with a dynamic world.

    Are myths bad? No, all stories are good – they grant perspective. Is ritual bad? Certainly not – well, unless you’re sacrificing virgins. What about community? No one is going to argue that. Ethics? Same thing. And you are of course free to have what experiences you choose. But I will be the first to say that if you’re basing your doctrines on the glue that binds these areas together, you’re making a mistake. Own religion for what is, but not for what it’s not.

  • creepy

    I would like to point out that the author of this particular blog entry has excercised his power of veto, much as the beloved leader of our country will soon. And thus has chosen to eliminate comments, which do nothing but express the reader’s freedom of speech while also contradicting and criticizing Mark’s arrogance and narrow-mindedness.

    Maybe with a little insightfulness, and touch to life, Mark would anticipate rather than outcry at comments such as this.

    Truthfully disappointing. An intellectual could go awry. Which only comes to show that the term is only as relative as the person it is attached to. And when it comes to life, Mark is as ignorant as an unborn child.And clueless about the meaning and existence of such. And how would you have it otherwise? From a man who has never had experienced that fundamental human experience which cannot be limited by stupid physics equations.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Oh to be captured so perfectly.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    P.S., try to play nice creepy. I’ll leave your little rant up, but let that be it for the personal attacks.

  • http://CapitalistImperialistPig.blogspot.com CapitalistImperialistPig

    Mark is obviously a bright guy, and I’m not religious, so why did I find this post upsetting.

    There is a mean spiritedness at work I think. Mocking people for their religious beliefs is fundamentally akin to mocking them for their race, sexual orientation, or appearance. I find them all repellent.

    Of course it is your blog Mark, so whatever.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Absolute nonsense CIP. One does not choose one’s race, sexual orientation or appearance.

  • http://CapitalistImperialistPig.blogspot.com CapitalistImperialistPig

    Mark,

    Most people don’t choose their religion either. Religion is at best slightly more a matter of personal choice than sexual orientation. Or do you think it’s just a coincidence that most people have the same religion as their parents and ethnic group?

    And why would that excuse mean-spirited mocking anyway?

    CIP

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    But people do reach the age of reason.

  • http://www.jessemazer.com Jesse M.

    Is it mean-spirited to mock the beliefs of creationists? (which is different from mocking creationists themselves–but note that the quiz only mocked the beliefs of religious people, not the people themselves) Most of them were probably brought up with such beliefs too. How about mocking political beliefs you strongly disagree with? Again, strongly influenced by one’s social environment growing up.

  • Brian

    The OP presents a false “tetralemma,” if I may coin a phrase. The fact that you do not understand something does not imply that it is “mysterious.” We know that people die, sometimes painfully. Anyone who has really explored the depths of his or her own being knows that there is a seemingly infinite amount of love and bliss inside. Feeling it is a lot of fun.

  • Pseudonym

    Jesse M:

    Is it mean-spirited to mock the beliefs of creationists?

    If you mean Egnor, Behe and Dembski, then no. They’re smart people who have no excuse.

    If you mean the average poor sod who has only heard the one (false) story third hand from their local clergycritter but might be receptive to science if they understood it, then yes, I do think it’s mean-spirited. It’s not their fault that they’ve been fed a pack of falsehoods and half-truths.

  • cynic

    The sad thing about militant atheists of the scientific persuasion is their self satisfaction and intellectual arrogance – these God bothering f***ers just ar’n't as clever (because they believe in God) as we are, so let’s take the piss – a feature all too much in evidence in the anti-God posts that crop up on this blog from time to time. I can’t say that I believe in a man in the sky, or the innate goodness of mankind or indeed its capacity for self-redemption through political correctness. That notwithstanding I do find the bollox to Jesus stuff you post here repetitive and rather tiresome. Maybe I should stay away if I don’t wish to be entertained by your exquisite conceits; maybe I did, happened to drop by again, and found that things had not got any better in my absence. For God’s sake – and your own – do try to find something more worthwhile to do with your time Mark.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ll give your suggestion the attention it deserves cynic – I promise.

  • http://www.jessemazer.com Jesse M.

    If you mean Egnor, Behe and Dembski, then no. They’re smart people who have no excuse.

    If you mean the average poor sod who has only heard the one (false) story third hand from their local clergycritter but might be receptive to science if they understood it, then yes, I do think it’s mean-spirited. It’s not their fault that they’ve been fed a pack of falsehoods and half-truths.

    Again, I stress that I am talking about mocking the beliefs of creationists/intelligent design advocates (‘flood geology’, ‘irreducible complexity’, etc.)–the “falsehoods and half-truths” you describe–not the people themselves. Do you think the anti-evolutionary beliefs of the “average poor sod” you describe are significantly different from the anti-evolutionary beliefs of the more well-educated people who promote these ideas?

  • Pseudonym

    Do you think the anti-evolutionary beliefs of the “average poor sod” you describe are significantly different from the anti-evolutionary beliefs of the more well-educated people who promote these ideas?

    I do take your point, in the sense that the average poor sod (APS from now on) and Behe/Dembski/whoever say much the same thing.

    But in a sense, there’s a different quality. Dembski/Behe/etc went to a lot of trouble to work out their nonsense in some detail, or at least something that sounds like detail.

    The APS’ “beliefs” are not carefully thought-out. Most don’t understand what they’re saying, and almost none understand the implications.

  • schizoid man

    The thing you miss so obviously is that if one is to ‘blame’ religion for the child burning, they are missing the point of religion. Any normal spiritual person – and atheists are those as well, they just don’t know it – can argue the point, quite successfully that the reason you are a product tester and the reason you were equipped that day for entering a burning house *was* to enter the burning house of your neighbor and save the child. God, spirituality, the quantum field, whatever you may call it, can’t do it alone. Just like electrons spinning, you have to get off your rump to work right.

  • Brian

    “God…can’t do it alone.”

    He created the entire Universe alone, but can’t save the baby alone? He sounds like my friend who “can’t” get a job. It sounds as if he could if he really wanted to.

    Maybe I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Brian, maybe God created the universe in a high entropy state the universe will be in in the far future and is actively working to create more order, causing the entropy to decrease.

    This means that the subjective time we experience is opposite to the “real” time. To see God’s work, we must thus replace t by -t. What you see then is that dead people come to back to life, The invasion of Iraq is being undone, the Twin Towers reassemble themsleves etc. etc. :)

  • Mark Srednicki

    Pseudonym wrote, “The APS’ “beliefs” are not carefully thought-out. Most don’t understand what they’re saying, and almost none understand the implications.”

    To a physicist, “APS” means “American Physical Society”.

    I think I probably still agree with the quote, though.

  • Luke Lea

    An agnostic comments:

    God — the Hebraic idea of God, that is — is a moral idea, not a scientific one. It has had enormous historical influence in the birth of the Western liberal idea — human equality, “liberty and justice for all” etc — and has inspired millions of ordinary people over the centuries to do the things, and accept the things (like servitude and exploitation) which made the modern world possible, by erecting its material foundations. (We have freedom today instead of servitude because we have machines to do the work for us. If you trace back the history of those machines, they were originally dug up out of the earth by our ancestors, starting with their bare hands; and ditto for the surplus food that fed the scientists, so they could sit and think up and invent the technologies embodied in machines, etc..) And even today, for millions of plain, ordinary people, their religious faith in a moral God gives them the emotional support they need to get through life. This is what real scientists, grown-ups with a good liberal education and some knowledge of history, should think about when they hear the word “God.” Not those crazy tv preachers and misguided ID’ers etc.

    Now that we’ve all got it easy (or most of us anyway) we don’t need God anymore. But it wasn’t always like this — thanks to God (ironically).

    As for those who have had religion rammed down their throats, I sympathize. But how would you feel if you had atheism rammed down your throat? About the same I suspect.

  • Brian

    Count Iblis,
    What about all those little babies getting sucked back into the womb? That’s creepy.

  • Brian

    Oh, wait! Do I detect a trace of condescension in the phrase “average poor sod?”

  • Pseudonym

    Brian: Possibly condescension. Definitely pity.

  • http://sargeist.blogspot.com Sargeist

    For a change, I’d like to not be deliberately offensive, and I want to make a comment about having “atheism rammed down your throat”.

    I’ve been thinking lately about my atheism – as in: Where did it come from? What was the germ of it, and why am I now so rabidly opposed to religion in all its forms?

    I am not sure yet of the answer, or what I think is the answer, but I’ll maybe get around to writing a blog posting about it at some point. Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that I did go to church regularly until I was about 13, but I don’t know if I ever actually believed all the stuff I was being told. Thinking about it now, I find it hard to put myself back into the mindset of that child I was and to try to remember what I thought about it all. Really, of course, what I am most likely doing is thinking about how I would think about it if the mind I have now was transplanted back into the child I was then.

    My feeling, though, is that I kind of just went along with it all because that was easier. And no one ever asked me if I believed any of it, or not. So, maybe it didn’t do me any harm. I am quite surprised these days when I come across the odd person here and there who hasn’t ever come across the stories of the Old and New Testaments. They’re interesting stories to know about, if only because – as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins have pointed out – they are interspersed through much of Western literature.

    But, they’re only stories after all. And people can make fun of them and criticise them and do whatever they want to them if they like. It doesn’t bother me (of course), but it *shouldn’t* bother me. We atheists who like to make fun of religion often do it to try to get some kind of reaction from theists. I want to know *why* people think it is so important that their stories and opinions are given buckets of respect. I want to see how far I can push someone’s claims of basing their views on *reason* before they fall back on “well, that’s why they call it faith” (as they most often do). I want to get people angry so that they lose their composure and come clean about what they actually believe. And, when I’m speaking to adults, I think that is entirely reasonable.

    However, when speaking to children, well that’s slightly different. Would I tell my niece (who goes to church, though I am not sure why – I think she just got told she was going) who is very young, that there is no god? Hmm, not sure. I haven’t done yet, even when looking at the Bible story colouring book that she brought back from Sunday school. I’ve fallen back on the “well, some people think that…” attitude. They’re only opinions, after all, but I don’t want her to feel that her Uncle’s opinion on a non-verifiable idea is better than anyone else’s.

    However, if she starts saying something about Adam and Eve, or Noah and his Flood or other things that can be pretty much definitely discarded these days. That would be a different matter, and would require a, can I say it?, more *dogmatic* approach.

    Maybe I am inconsistent. I fear that I may be. I loathe religion utterly, but it could, just maybe, turn out to be correct. So when speaking to my young niece I have to play it safe, basically like a good scientist.

    So why do I get so angry and assertive with adults about this? Basically because they are less likely to simply take my word for it. I want people to come to their senses, but not *just* because I say so.

  • Brian

    “Brian: Possibly condescension. Definitely pity.”

    But what really fulfills people? What fulfills (or, theoretically, would fulfill) you? I am fulfilled by certain feelings that I have.

  • Nate

    I’m really tired of people claiming Atheism is ‘rammed down their throats’. There are not T.V. channels with men constantly shouting “God is dead!” There are, however, such channels claiming you need to be saved in the name of Jesus. Atheism is *not* evangelized; and therein I think you can find a real distinction between religion and science.

    Science does not concern itself with things that cannot be observed. People who are heavily invested in religion think this means science is out to disprove god. In reality, the scientific community (the part doing science, rather than politics) is out to see how the world works, and does not concern itself with god.

    I grew up in a non-religious household. Sure, I wondered if there was a god, but I never was in a position where people telling me there was no divine force in the world would have caused me life-ending despair: so I cannot fathom the claim that someone ‘needs’ god to get beyond certain emotional tribulations. It leads me to wonder if people who are raised in a religious environment simply assume that the irrational belief in god is something they need in order not to be rejected. And if that’s the case – well, is there a worse reason to believe in something than the fear of rejection? Let’s try that out; “I believe I am in love with this man, despite the fact he beats me and/or cheats on me, because otherwise he will reject me.” No, that seems to be a bad choice. How about this, “I go thousands of dollars into debt otherwise I won’t be able to afford the car that will let me fit into my community and will become a social outcast.” Nope, I’m afraid that’s a bad choice, too.

    If you have a faith in God other than fear social rejection, more power to you. I suspect, though, that such faith and the need to justify it are mutually exclusive. I also think the vast majority of religious followers are simply trying to fit in; humans are hugely social creatures.

    Also, I don’t think God works going backwards in time. That would mean he wants us to devolve into nothingness – which would mean, since he created Man in His Image, that he created a creature seeking an end, suggesting he’s trying to commit suicide – something he’s definitely been recorded as being against.

  • Dingus McNasty

    “I think Dingus is referring to my comment above. Dingus, indeed, I exercised my free speech, and the folks who sent me and my family hand drawings of scary looking devils were exercising theirs. However, the folks that sent me and my family death threats crossed a threshold and engaged in criminal activity. (They cost the taxpayers some money as well, as my hometown police force took some extra rounds by our house for awhile.) It is my understanding that the First Amendment does not grant the right to threaten to kill somebody.”

    Of course not! Threats are not protected speech.

    But let’s not get all bent out of shape over “free speech” issues that aren’t really free speech issues. This is an often misunderstood area of the law – just trying to clarify things a bit.

  • JimV

    I liked this post, not so much for the joke, as for all the comments it provoked. I especially liked #73.

  • http://www.savory.de/blog.htm Stu Savory

    Mostof the fundamentalist Xians I know insist we/they obey all the instructions Jesus gave (WWJD?) – this includes Luke 19:27 :-(

  • Godfrey

    Luke 19.27 – hardly, it obviously refers to the day of judgment.

  • Mark Srednicki

    Andrew Sullivan’s final post in his dialog with atheist Sam Harris has just appeared at

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/05/peace_now.html

    Well worth reading for those who believe that religious points of view are not worthy of any respect.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve always thought Andrew Sullivan a pretty nice guy, and one who I do not find a threat to civilization. His writing on this subject is full of the kind of sentiments that strengthen this feeling. However, I must say that his comments on religion strike me either as an appeal not to force the ignorant to choose between reason and fantasy (which I agree may be a reasonable political stance, but doesn’t make imaginary people or things any more real), or as an irrational argument that reason and belief in Jesus Christ are reconcilable. I see no reason to take this step. This doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s a lovely guy – he reminds me of many many close friends – but I do think he is wrong and takes an intellectually indefensible position.

    On the topic of respect, I would say that I respect the way he conducts himself as a human being (and this is by far the most important thing), but don’t respect his views on religion, although, of course, I tolerate them and support his right to hold them and speak out about them.

  • windy

    Martin Bebow wrote:

    Let’s assume that an all-loving God puts out this fire and every other fire that could cause death or pain. What kind of a world would that be? Would anyone like to live in it?

    I imagine that would be rather like living in a town with a really good fire department. What a nightmare!

    Are you saying that you would prefer to live in a town where a few people burn to death each year, just so that you can feel a bit of a thrill? What kind of a sicko are you?

  • Spiros

    “Man without god is like a fish without a bike”

  • terrence

    Windy, I LOVE that fire department comment!!! That was the point of question 8 on the original exam (which I wrote, harumph)

  • Godfrey

    OK, on the subject of fire departments, one more exam question:

    An arsonist has set fire to a building. At great sacrifice the fire department has got a ladder up to the window of the room where you are trapped. Do you

    a) scream abuse at the firefighters, accusing them of starting the fire?

    b) deny the existence of the fire?

    c) say, “Oh good, a ladder! I’m safe!” and stay where you are?

    d) decide to go down the ladder at some time more convenient to you?

    e) quickly and gratefully go down the ladder?

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nigel

    The failure of ‘God’ to intervene positively in human affairs doesn’t discredit the idea of some creation event at time zero: until quantum gravity solves the problem of a singularity at time zero, you simply can’t prove what caused the universe. It may not solve the question even then.

    The key thing about ‘God’ is its vague definition: by one estimate, ‘God’ means not a single model but a landscape encompassing around 10^500 different models. Which means it’s just not a falsifiable scientific concept. Such a large landscape of possibilities makes ‘God’ theology sufficiently vague that one of them is likely to be a close ad hoc representation to some features of the universe, by chance, and we can learn nothing that way. Similarly, the earth-centred-universe of Ptolemy had a landscape of epicycles large enough that one model was quite a good ad hoc fit to what we now know is really a solar system.

    People don’t believe in ‘God’ from scientific evidence because there are no incontrovertible observations of divine intervention in human affairs. They believe either because they like to believe supernatural tales, or they believe because they join a groupthink syndicate of organized religion where they go to weekly celebrations with bread and wine, or because they think that mysteries should be worshipped rather than scientifically resolved. Some religious people are genuine, and join a religion to do social work like teaching, but overall I believe that the majority of string theorists are just in it for the mutual appreciation society, the bread and wine, power and glory.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    nigel – do me a favor and try, just once, not to cram your ranting about string theory into threads that have nothing to do with it.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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