Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Vaclav Havel and the Religious Attitude
April 23, 2012


(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Replying to my first post on the subject, friend of the blog Dara Lind suggested to me that Vaclav Havel’s political ideas were a good match for what I argued the modern left lacks. His essay “Politics and Conscience” certainly includes some concepts that are very close to what I called worship and the religious attitude. It’s hard to talk about things like “worship” divorced from a specific theological or metaphysical context, but Havel does a good job of grounding them in personal experience. To whit:

As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it. Still that “soiling of the heavens” offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished. To be sure, my revulsion was largely aesthetic; I knew nothing then of the noxious emissions which would one day devastate our forests, exterminate game, and endanger the health of people.


To me, personally, the smokestack soiling the heavens is not just a regrettable lapse of a technology that failed to include “the ecological factor” in its calculation, one which can be easily corrected with the appropriate filter. To me it is more, the symbol of an age which seeks to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and its norms and to make it into a merely private concern, a matter of subjective preference and private feeling, of the illusions, prejudices, and whims of a “mere” individual. It is a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experienceincluding the experience of mystery and of the absoluteand displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery, free of the “whims” of subjectivity and, as such, impersonal and inhuman. It is the absolute of so-called objectivity: the objective, rational cognition of the scientific model of the world.

What he’s arguing here has a certain family resemblance to the concept of worship, but his argument is also very much rooted in its time, the last days of the Soviet Empire. For our purposes, what’s even more interesting is how this translates into a political theory:

I favor “antipolitical politics,” that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and setving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in dailv life. Still, I know no better alternative.

I’m not a huge fan of the “anti-political” construction, which seems a little misleading. But this is surely on the right track, grounded as it is in a moral sense that we have allowed, sadly, to atrophy.

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The Religious Attitude
April 21, 2012

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake. (more…)

March 20, 2012

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Ajl at Jacobin Magazine circulates an open letter from the US Palestinian Community Network asking Palestinian solidarity activists to disavow the anti-Semitic ideas of one Gilad Atzmon. I was struck by this passage, describing Atzmon’s offenses [emphasis mine]:

Atzmon’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with “Jewishness”. He claims that all Jewish politics is “tribal,” and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.

That’s exactly right and tracks with my experience on Birthright. The message of every Birthright representative I encountered in Israel (and quite a few Israelis who weren’t Birthright representatives) was that Israel was my home, whether I knew it or not, and that I basically had no choice in the matter. But what really drove home the basic proposition of Birthright Zionism — the Judaism is Zionism and vice versa — was an afternoon spent at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where our tour guide explained to us how Theodore Herzl become the first modern Zionist.

Herzl had originally been a journalist, and it was in that capacity that he covered the century-old French Jew-burning we know as the Dreyfus Affair. Watching Dreyfus be wrongfully convicted simply for being a Jew, our tour guide explained, was what taught Herzl that “the experiment in being both French and Jewish was over.”

That’s a pretty remarkable statement if taken to its logical conclusion. If the experiment of being French and Jewish is over, what does that say for the experiment of being American and Jewish? English and Jewish? Brazilian and Jewish? Are these all doomed to failure, or are they already pretty much over as well?

Forget “dual loyalty.” If I’m not really an American — if I’m just a Jew pretending to be an American — then why have any loyalty to the United States at all? What the tour guide seemed to be advocating was not dual loyalty but singular loyalty to the Jewish nation and the state of Israel.

I almost hesitate to relate that anecdote, because it so easily plays into some of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes alive today. I have no doubt that Atzmon, for example, would take it as confirmation of his analysis. But that’s the point: right-wing Zionist attempts to define Jewish authenticity are the curious flipside of modern anti-Semitism. Not only does it give support to those who would equate Judaism with support for militarism and oppression — it also creates a class of Jews who can be despised for their “inauthenticity,” both by conservative Zionist Jews and and their Christian philo-Semitic allies. (Oh hai, Glenn Beck.)

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Scratching the Surface
March 13, 2012

English: Leeds Student Radio Web page article ...

Image via Wikipedia

Critic Aengus Woods gets at what’s so dissatisfying with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

De Botton fluently identifies how religion traditionally addressed social needs before offering his own secular proposal for meeting them anew. For example, religion has traditionally provided a sense of community that can override divisions of class or income. We might therefore regain this sense of togetherness through rituals that mimic, say, the Eucharistic service. De Botton suggests a restaurant where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich.” And Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” thereby reminding us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”

The problem with this approach is not simply that the solutions are trite or feel crassly commercial. The problem is that it is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted? If they are common-sense values, we will soon find a plethora of competing commonsensical values. We should remember how quickly Socrates’ ideal republic begins to look like a totalitarian state.

To put it another way: Religious rituals signify something, and figuring out what they signify — or how to translate the relationship between the signifier and the signified into something compatible with your own experiences — isn’t as easy as de Botton makes it out to be. A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists).

The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre. In doing so, de Botton would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct “spirituality,” the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity. These things are bad enough on their own, but — as Woods hints — terrible things can happen when they crash headlong into the inscrutability of life as actually lived.

If de Botton is truly intent on constructing a religion for atheists, he would be wise to start building from the foundation instead of the lobby. That would mean developing, yes, a theology. It would require seriously engaging with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists. Kierkegaard and Buber aren’t a bad place to start. If there’s not something in their metaphysics and phenomenology that doesn’t resonate with you on a deep level, then why pillage the rituals they use to reaffirm their faith in these things?

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I've written a lot on this blog about theology and philosophy of religion from the perspective of a self-identified and resolute atheist, so for the sake of clarification I should probably note that the label "atheist" no longer reflects my philosophical commitments as accurately as it once did. If that sounds equivocal and wishy-washy, that's because it's not an easy position to condense into a pithy label. Probably the pithiest way to summarize it would be to say that I like Mordecai Kaplan's reconstructionist theology, and especially this Wittgensteinian interpretation of Reconstructionist Judaism, but I'm dismayed by Kaplan's Zionist nationalism. Martin Buber's I and Thou has also been extremely helpful in clarifying certain things, which is ironic, because very few people would accuse Buber of clarity. Or me, I suppose.]

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What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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Back in the Diaspora
February 6, 2012

Tel Aviv

At around 6 AM this morning my plane touched down at JFK, and I resumed life in the real world. It will take some time before my thoughts are organized enough — and I’ve caught up on sleep enough — to make sense of the ten days I spent Birthrighting through Israel, but I thought I’d jot down some preliminary thoughts and assure you all that I hadn’t gone native.

For the last couple of weeks before I took off for the Holy Land, my mantra was: “Even if it’s terrible, it’s gonna be awesome.” Turns out I was being uncharacteristically prescient. The last ten days have been both sababa (Hebrew for awesome) and very much a balagan (loosely translated: a total clusterfuck). Never before I have felt so exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, dispirited, connected, and alone in such a compressed span of time. You might say it was a rich experience. Certainly an educational one.

Which is not to say that it was educational in the way I believe Birthright’s administration intended it to be. I have no interest in moving to Israel, nor in financially supporting the Israeli state, nor in becoming a mouthpiece for the Likkud Party. I stand by my pre-Birthright conviction that my Jewish heritage gives me no right or claim on the land of Israel, and that I would reject such a claim were it offered to me. My sentiments regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which are — surprise! — significantly to the left of Birthright’s) remain more or less what they were, though I’ve managed to add just a little bit more nuance.

So my relationship with Israel remains more or less unchanged. But the personal relationships I formed in that week and a half have affected me deeply, and my relationship to Judaism writ large has altered in ways I’m still trying to parse. That’s not to say I’ve found God — far from it. But I may have found a suitable (which is to say, humanistic and godless) entry point back into the Jewish philosophy and theology I abandoned nearly a decade ago.

The tricky part is untangling all these separate threads — the personal, political, and (for lack of a better word) spiritual — and weaving something coherent out of them. Once I can do that, I’ll have a lot — a lot – more to write, either here or elsewhere, about what a Birthright trip can do to your brain. Or mostly my brain, I suppose.

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Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

Image by juan tan kwon via Flickr

Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”

De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.

De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:

I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”

I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.

De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”

If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.

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Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.



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