Yes, In Fact, You Do Have to Live Like a Refugee


As a man of my word*, for the last several weeks I have been, in all social situations where inquiries were made about my religious beliefs, identifying myself as a Theological Noncognitivist rather than an Atheist.  I talk a good game about science, and since the suggestion that the Noncognitivist stance would be a more effective rhetorical weapon against the problem of religious dogma is a scientific proposition — in the sense that it can be tested — I was honor bound to test it. 

    *(see Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 2)

My hypothesis going in was optimistic.  I thought that Theo-Noncog would function as a defensive offense, a sort of spiritual judo that used Theism’s own momentum against it, rather than wasting energy striking back with force of its own.  I thought that instead of this:

Theist:  Do you believe in God?

Atheist:  No.

Theist:  Well, I do.  Let’s both start websites and fight.

Atheist:  Heartily agreed.

…I would end up with this:

Theist:  Do you believe in God?

Theo-Noncog:  What do you mean by “God?”

Theist:  Um, you know, God.

Theo-Noncog:  People have lots of different ideas about God.  Which one do you mean?

Theist:  The normal one.  The one that most people think.

Theo-Noncog:  I haven’t met most people.  What is it that most people think?  Is that the same as what you think?

Theist:  I guess not.

Theo-Noncog:  Then why is that the one you asked me about?

Theist:  Well, do you believe in something that anyone calls God?

Theo-Noncog:  Like I said, I haven’t met everybody.  But I would imagine that I must believe in something that somebody would call God.  I believe a lot of things, and there are a lot of people.

Theist:  Do you believe in anything that you call God?

Theo-Noncog:  What does it matter what I call it?  I could be wrong.  You were asking me whether I believe in what you call God, so just tell me what that is and I’ll answer you.

Theist:  …* 

So, that was going to be my new tactic:  keep asking your opponent to define God, and eventually he just explodes like the computer on Star Trek when you ask it to define Love.  I was excited, because I thought this was going to be a much more fun way of fucking with people, because it would not only go on way longer, but end with opponents not only realizing that I think they’re stupid, but that they themselves even think they’re stupid.  I envisioned Theological Noncognitivists as antireligious Special Ops, beautiful and terrible as the sea.

The first thing I learned was that, surprisingly, religion doesn’t actually come up that much when I don’t bring it up myself.  The one time it did come up, the discussion went like this:

Some Guy:  So, are you an Atheist?

Me:  No actually, I’m a Theological Noncognitivist.

Some Guy:  What’s that mean?

Me:  It means that, regarding propositions of God’s existence, I regard the term “God” as defined insufficiently either to accept or reject the proposition.

Some Guy:  Oh, okay.  Do you need another beer?

Me:  Huh?  Uh… Yeah, sure, I guess.  Fuck.

And that’s where the experiment is now:  I found the ultimate weapon, and nobody wants to fight, which is incredibly frustrating.  It is like I suddenly developed X-ray vision and then the next day gangsters stopped kidnapping people and tying them to chairs on the other sides of brick walls.  I guess I could move to Alabama, but I've only been in my current apartment for three months and there is no way I am carrying all those books back down the stairs again.

So, thus far it remains inconclusive whether Theological Noncognitivism is a more effective position than Atheism.  At this point all I know is that it is a more boring one. 

Since no Theists appeared interested in letting me test how my new position affected them, I decided to test how it affected me.  A few weeks ago, I somehow ended up in a swanky party in someone’s room high up in a Midtown hotel.  Not wanting to betray the fact that I am not used to that sort of thing, I did what I always do at parties:  decide without speaking to anyone that everybody there thinks I’m a loser, then go sit in a corner and wait for someone to come fight with me about religion.  Once again, no-one did.  There was, however, smack in the middle of my view out the window, a tiny mission with a big-ass cross on top, taunting me about the fact that no-one was fighting with me about it. 

Since Theological Noncognitivism doesn’t mandate that I get mad about or be “against” the sight of a cross, I was free to let my mind go blank and, as a thought experiment, try to imagine what someone who does believe in (the Christian, or another version if you sub out the cross) God would feel in that situation.  (Technically, atheism does not mandate that I get mad either, since the term denotes only the absence of belief in God, but in practice a clear majority of the atheists I have known indeed feel an imperative to respond to such stimuli with anger, or at least scorn/derision, so the dictionary definition of atheism is nullified by de facto atheism in its contemporary manifestation.)  

The first thing that occurred to me about the cross was that it is the central symbol of a global organization of people who assert things that are plainly factually false and who annoy me.  This was something I already knew.  The second thing that occurred to me about it was that people used to nail you to those things, which must have hurt a lot.  This was also something I already knew.  The third thing that occurred to me was that I wish people would stop making pictures of Jesus where he has blue eyes and light hair, which he obviously didn’t, and that the really messed-up thing is how sometimes when you are in a house or business owned by people of color, they have a picture of Jesus that is way whiter than any picture of Jesus you have ever seen in any white people’s house, and this makes you feel really weird, but obviously it is not your place to say anything.  This was almost certainly irrelevant.

Anyway, even though Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead (or have blue eyes), he was still a philosopher who advocated peace and died in one of the shittiest ways imaginable.  For some reason, concentrating on this fact alone made me feel less nervous about being at the party.  I would not say it “comforted” me (because it is kind of fundamentally not comforting, but rather fucked-up and scary), but it did make it seem like my problems are not a big deal.  So regardless of whether Jesus was any more divine than Muhammad, Gandhi, or the guy who played Arvid on Head of the Class, reflecting on a symbol of his legacy made me care less about whether the other people at the party thought I was cool.

Granted, this newfound inner peace resulted in my just sitting in a corner staring out the window the whole time, rather than eventually trying to talk to anyone, so maybe it’s not a good idea to reflect on this sort of thing too much if making friends is one of your long-term goals — but still, it was nice not to worry about the social scene for once.

Obviously, it is immaterial whether the sight of a cross effects this, or a crescent moon, or a yin-yang.  But if I am conceding that this feeling is a good thing — and remember that the feeling itself is distinct from religious faith, because I have no religious faith, yet was still able to experience the feeling — then it would be unreasonable for me to oppose religion unless there are other things that can produce the same effect equally well (I say religion rather than spirituality because I am logically compelled to admit that only organized religion, and not individual spirituality, can produce nontextual symbols capable of being planted in a vast metropolitan area and read the same way by everyone).

So are there?  Well, I certainly feel as if there should be.  But that doesn’t make it so.  Logically, I feel as if I should get the same feeling from staring at, say, a bust of Shakespeare (I say staring at a bust of Shakespeare rather than reading his works because remember I was not actually reading scripture, only staring at a religious symbol).  But I don’t.  I feel something that is also powerful, and profound, and positive, and humbling — but not the same.

Certainly, if the issue is simply contemplating the example of a human being who preached peace and was done to death, then Martin Luther King should do equally well as an object of meditation.  The narrative is identical except for the minor detail that being shot sucks less than being crucified.  And obviously, the degree of gruesomeness of the death should not be an issue.  Or should it?  Physical pain, after all, does get people’s attention.

But I don’t think that’s it.  More likely, it is simply that we have a much more concrete idea of who Martin Luther King was:  we have video and audio recordings of him, we can see his actual face and hear his actual voice, we have his exact words regarding many specific events.  Contemplating him is sort of like looking inside yourself, but also sort of like writing a paper for Social Studies class.  It feels very possible to be wrong.

Jesus is psychologically advantageous because he is largely a cipher, just as the essentially empty term “King Arthur” functions more effectively as an absolute symbol of noble leadership than the much more specific term “John F. Kennedy.”  In this wise, the Christians who tirelessly seek evidence for their faith should be careful what they wish for:  hard facts about Jesus might turn out to be the worst thing to happen to Christianity since Debby Boone.

In this sense, what makes Jesus (or whomever) effective is also what makes him dangerous: people can imbue him with whatever sensibilities they personally require for inner peace, but by this same token, also feel entitled to carte blanche regarding assertions about what he loves, hates, or “would do.”  Certainly, the opinions of any historical figure are open for debate, even when they were enumerated in writing to as exact a degree as were those of, say, James Madison.  But the debating in such cases is limited to scholars.  No-one claims to “know in his heart” what the Constitution says without having read it, at least not outside of Montana.

There is, lastly and perhaps most importantly, the fact that we are raised in a society that tells us from birth that “thinking about Jesus” equals “good person.”  Those who subscribe to religions besides Christianity at least have their own equally emotionally satisfying communities acting as bulwarks against this.  All we nonbelievers have is the encyclopedia and the sneaking suspicion that we are just being dicks.  It is quite likely then, that meditation upon the historical Jesus doesn’t calm you down because of anything intrinsically perfect about his narrative, but rather because you are finally doing something that nine out of every ten people you have ever met have told you is what you are supposed to do.  If you are rendered an addict to something and live in a constant state of withdrawal, then finally getting a dose of it will make you feel better even if it is the worst thing in the world for you. 

But all this is largely immaterial, since I am not talking about adopting a religious faith, but only declining to react negatively to religious symbols.  I said that my new reaction was more positive than my old one, but by positive I meant only beneficial, and not necessarily to say that that any new emotion was necessarily present.  In fact, my best attempts at characterizing the reaction figure it not as a presence, but an absence — to be precise, as the absence of anger.  The ability to react to a symbol of Christianity simply as nothing — as a meaningless string of code that has no effect on the program — is a huge positive for me, because it saves me the stress of reacting with rage.

At this point, she can definitely handle the boiler room.
In other Shocking Transformation news,
Claire Danes looks like this now.

But this was only a symbol, and a religious symbol that just sits there is easier to ignore than a religious person who is actually doing something.  Since adopting Theological Noncognitivism, I have had only one encounter with someone who was doing something actively religious:  a young blonde woman who stepped onto the F Train at about two in the morning with an acoustic guitar and started singing a song she wrote about God.

Now, as much as I like young blonde women with guitars, in the past I would have been so angry that her song was about God that I could get nothing else out of the experience.  But that night it made me happy.  I wasn’t happy because it was about God, of course — only because it was a bright and catchy song.  I just didn’t let the fact that it was about God get in the way.  This young woman seemed to be extraordinarily happy, and I was glad that she was so happy.  She also seemed strongly to have spent a goodly number of her short years on this planet consuming copious amounts of any number of controlled substances, many of which I am sure I have never even heard of.  Irrespective of this, however, I was as firmly convinced that she bore no ill-will and intended no harm towards any other human being as I have ever been convinced of this with respect to anyone.  I could be wrong of course, and she might hate homosexuals, say, or even Jews.  But I very strongly doubt it.  I believe I can tell the difference between a real smile and those fake smiles that members of the Christian Right have permanently soldered onto their faces to belie the bigotry that fuels them.  And while this young woman’s gaily painted guitar was badly in need of tuning, her smile was a real one.  I put a dollar in her wicker sack, and didn’t even get mad when she said “Bless you.”

Okay, I got a little mad, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Please understand that my goal here certainly isn’t to convince myself of the plausibility of souls, or of knowledge attained through revelation, or even to become actively “tolerant” per se of religion.  My goal is to become unaffected by religion.  This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still be made angry by, and actively oppose, people who want to teach creationism in science class, picket gay funerals, or refuse to take their critically ill children to the damn doctor.  But the best evidence demands the conclusion that these things are not religion itself, but psychoses that find it expedient to align with religion, just as Stalinism was a psychosis that found it expedient to align with — but was not caused by — Atheism.  It is irrefutable that the singing girl on the train was devoutly religious, and yet I have no good reason to believe that she disputes biology, takes a hard line on homosexuality, or opposes medicine.  As I have said, I could be wrong, but I do not think so.

Make no mistake, it is — based on logic — entirely reasonable of humanists to suspect that all Christians wish to abolish the teaching of evolution.  After all, we know that our protestations that biological explanations of human origins need not be at odds with a Christian confession are merely a stalling tactic on our parts.  As others have pointed out, evolution does in fact wholly nullify Christianity, as follows:

1) Being a Christian means, at a bare minimum, that you think Jesus was the Son of God and         died to “save” humanity.
What he was supposedly saving us from was us all going to Hell because of original sin.
3) There is supposedly original sin because Adam ate the forbidden apple.
4) No Adam, no Jesus.
5) Evolution = no Adam. 

This is why, when the Catholic Church ruled that it was okay to believe in evolution, they were so careful to specify that it was still mandatory to conceptualize the “first” human as “Adam.”  This compromise is, of course, held together with duct tape and dental floss.  Not only is the idea of a “first human” within an evolutionary framework risible, but on top of it there were no apples in Africa 2.5 million years ago.  And besides, who tempted him with it — Tarzan?

So this would be very damn near proof that all Christians oppose evolution — if it were the case that they gave a shit about applying logic to the emotions they associate with meditating on the concept of Christ.

But I’m pretty sure they don’t because, after all, Christianity is falsified equally well by Christianity, and has been since long before anyone proposed anything resembling a theory of human evolution:  as even more others have pointed out, if God is all-powerful, why would he need to turn himself into a human and allow himself to be killed in order to give himself permission to reverse a ruling that he made up himself in the first place?  Does God just have OCD, or what?  The literal Christian narrative makes even less sense on its own terms than it does in the light of science.

The answer is that, religion being a nexus of emotional states, those who attempt to freeze these shifting emotional plates in syllogistic form wind up mired in inconsistencies.  But this is news to no-one literate.  The question now before the best minds of our species is that of whether these inconsistencies should unforgivingly be hammered smooth like those in the account of a criminal on the stand, or smiled at as more among the beautiful failings that make us sensible of what we are, like those of the woman who cannot choose between poets and soldiers, or the man who knows not whether he prefers the enchantress or the girl next door.   

I cannot explain in rational terms why I like the music I like.  This is not a failing on my part, because what music one likes is not a rational decision.  And yet no-one has ever argued that East and West Coast rappers shooting one another was the direct and inevitable consequence of humanity’s irrational propensity for listening to music.

I have friends who believe in astrology.  I have friends who believe in auras and past lives.  I have friends who believe that LSD makes you a better person.  I have friends who believe that hypnotism can cure cancer.  All of these beliefs are irrational.  They are just not referred to as “religion.”  And this seems rather arbitrary.

I am not the first to have noticed this, of course:  many in online Atheistdom have sought to extend the definition of Atheism to signify not only an absence of belief in God, but an absence of belief in all unjustifiable falsehoods, astrology and the Loch Ness Monster included.  We can continue along these lines until we end up deciding that Atheists are not allowed to drink because alcohol engenders false beliefs regarding one’s own fistfighting abilities and the sexual attractiveness of others — at which point we will have become effectively identical to an extremely conservative religion — or we can just say fuck the whole thing.    

Remember, I am not saying that nothing should be done about religion because religion is “good,” or even “harmless.”  I am saying that nothing can be done about religion, because “religion” cannot be defined accurately enough to count as a thing about which a conversation re what to do about it can be conducted.

Some things that can be defined, on the other hand, include:  religiously inspired terrorism; private or governmental discrimination based on religion; religious animus against gays, women, or nonbelievers; laws based solely on the authority of scripture; school curricula based on the authority of scripture; parents withholding medical treatment of minors based on their interpretation of scripture; religion conducted for profit; religious proscription of birth control and reproductive rights; religious condemnation of the sex drive itself; the hollow theatricality of the premium placed in the American democracy on professions of religious faith…  Those are all specific, definable things, and I am against every last one of them.

But as for religion itself, I am more and more coming around to the viewpoint that the term is meaningless, that there is actually no such thing as “religion itself,” that the correct answer to the question of, for example, whether Islam is “really” a “religion of peace” is not yes or no but rather to point out that the question makes no sense, because it is like asking whether pointillism is a painting style of animal liberation or ragtime is a musical genre of balloon fetishism.  Any mode of expression can be used to express anything if someone feels like it, with the exception that the accordion cannot possibly be used to express uncontrollable sexual ardor.

I believe that this outlook is the most accurate possible, and feel both rationally and ethically justified about putting it into practice in my own life.  Sadly, I also expect my new positions on these matters to have the unfortunate side effect of rendering my life’s work pointless.  I expect to get notable amounts of hate mail from people who once enjoyed my work, and I expect the readership of The 1585 to decrease drastically, possibly to levels that will render it pointless to continue.  Attempts to discuss these misgivings with close friends have gone something like this:

Me:  This sucks.  Everyone is going to stop reading my website now.

My Friends:  Maybe you will just find a new audience.

Me:  A new audience of who, people who don’t give a shit one way or the other?  Why would people who don’t give a shit one way or the other bother to seek out essays on the subject?

My Friends:  Because the essays are filled with obscure comic-book references?

Me:  Okay, I will press on.  After all, that is what Solovar, the wise leader of Gorilla City, would do.

In all honesty, I have perhaps always been at odds with what you all expected of me:  privately, I have always considered my Christmas essay from December of 2007 to be far and away the finest thing I have written for this site, but it has received less praise and prompted less dissemination than any other of my works on the subject of religion, presumably because it was an attempt at something other than a stream of invective.  I plan of course to write in future, as I have done before now, any number of essays that have nothing to do with religion, but I expect that these too will be rendered ineffectual, as I have now lost the trust of all you who would have been inspired by them.  I am, once again, very sorry that I have let this happen, and am open to your advice if you have advice to give me on how 1585 should approach the question of religion.  Or a decent explanation of why Superman went to the trouble of designing a Mirage Ray to cloak the giant arrow-shaped key to the Fortress of Solitude so that no-one could find the Fortress by following it, rather than simply pointing the key in a different direction, or just not shaping it like an arrow in the first place, or for that matter why he even needed the giant door to have a giant lock in it, since even if there were no lock no-one else would be strong enough to open the door anyway, or if he’s going to go ahead and put a lock in it why the door even has to be giant since Superman himself is normal sized, or why he doesn’t just put the door on the ceiling since he can fly, or for that matter swim under the Arctic ice shelf and come up through the floor, or why, if he is so worried about it, he even needs a door at all since he could just smash a hole in the wall and then seal it up behind him every time he wanted to get in, or melt one with his heat vision, or quite possibly just cause a door to temporarily open by vibrating the wall at super speed, since the whole thing is made of crystals, which now that I think about it would make it fairly easy for anybody who felt like it to break into with a fucking hammer, regardless of whether there is a door at all, of any size, locked or unlocked. 

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