#AnonymousBuddhist attempts to convince me of the merits of church-going!

The following is the start of my response to this guy telling me that church-going is good. For weeks, then months, and now years, I’d always intended to go back and finish my response. I never did. But as I clear out things that I’d always meant to get to for Atheist Asshole, here’s an incomplete bit that is among them. If it seems like it just drops off mid-thought, that’s only because it does.

I’ve known Anonymous Buddhist his whole life. He’s smart, well educated, and often enjoys antagonizing me with arguments. Some of them are good. Some are not. This is one of the latter. His text is in bold. Mine’s in italics.

Hi AB,

Sorry for the delay. Following is my response.

> Hi Anton,
> I have just been reading your blog; it is great! So here is my effort > to persuade you, not to believe in God, but to go to church. (For a > lot of people church-going leads to belief.)

Thanks for the compliment. I appreciate that. Your stated premise, though, confuses me. If your goal is not to persuade me of God’s existence, but rather of church-attendance being good, and then you parenthetically reveal that church attendance often leads to a belief in God, how are you, then, not making a round-about argument for God’s existence?

> A fundamental part of the functioning of the human mind is the > creation of narratives. Narratives and indeed metaphors are a > necessary part of productive human thought and cannot be avoided. (For > example, we were all taught something about electrons going around > neutrons in a circle. It is not true, but it is easy to imagine, which > solutions to sets of differential equations are not.)

I agree, especially in your assessment of simple models being used to demonstrate complex or abstract ideas. I’ll have to take your word for it on differential equations, though, as I’m ignorant of them.

> When people create narratives they do this in reaction to the > narratives to which they are exposed. Religions provide sets of > narratives which allow people to narrativize their own lives in ways > which are often satisfying to them.

I get where you’re going, but I already can’t stand the fact that you’ve used the “verb” “narrativize.” 🙂

> Alternative narratives are of
> course possible, available, at times preferable, but create a > narrative one must.

We need narratives. Got it.

> It is the case that not all human knowledge can be or is produced > through randomized verifiable experiments; knowledge of archeology, > literature, historical linguistics, or macro-economics comes to mind.

And serious disagreement comes to my mind. I’m not sure what you mean by “randomized” verifiable experiments, so I’m not sure how to comment on that specifically. If you’d care to elaborate, I’d be happy to comment further. As for the underlying premise, that not all human knowledge can be gained through objectively verifiable, testable, reproducible evidence, I would tend to agree, though I’d also say such an assertion entirely depends on what types of human knowledge we’re discussing. And thus, my disagreement. Archaeology most certainly can be explored through objectively verifiable evidence. Perhaps its related field of anthropology is limited as much of human behavior isn’t objectively verifiable, but whether a culture C left behind pottery P is a yes or no answer. C either did or it didn’t. Why C left behind P can even be explained to a good degree. Why C left P, but without funerary inscriptions where as culture D on their pottery Q didn’t, that’s harder to figure out.

Literature is more agreeable. I’d almost argue that literature is entirely subjective and so can’t be meaningfully discussed through objectively verifiable evidence. But even as I write that, I’m not convinced, for, in countless cases in human literature, certain features, say the metaphor, can be discussed through evidence. Who uses metaphor? To what extent? What is it’s role in the greater narrative? Is it skillfully used? All of these questions and more can and have been answered through objective verifiable evidence. Homer either uses metaphor or he doesn’t. (He does.) Shakespeare either uses it skillfully (effectively) or he doesn’t. (He does.) It’s not a completely random, subjective question or answer. Of course the ways and to-what-degrees I think may be impossible to simply answer, but it remains that a discussion, even a meaningful one, is possible through objectively verifiable evidence.

The only reasons I’d agree with you on historical linguistics are 1. the lack of written evidence and 2. the lack of oral evidence. We don’t have documented evidence of every last thought humans have ever expressed. We also can’t possibly know every last nuance that every last word ever carried in every last culture that ever existed. But these two drawbacks apply or at one time did apply to every science ever discovered. At one point, black holes were only theorized. Now we know they’re there. And yet you’re not making that argument for physics, are you?

Macro-economics I’m less qualified to discuss, though I’d make the same case as I have above. Yes, not every aspect can effectively be discussed with objectively verifiable evidence, but then nations spend money and that can be tracked and studied like any other statistic.

> And in any event all induction suffers from well known epistemological > problems which Hume articulated well.

From what I’ve understood of Hume, he seems to argue an ultimately Matrix-like solipsism. We can observe cause and effect, but even those events suffer from their inherent, and necessarily limited, semantic definitions that we’ve placed on them. Their very nature is an assumption which is, ironically, that which their existence has strived to avoid, assumption. The problem I have with this is that it has no practical value. Certainly, we may be living in an
undetectable, robot-generated reality in which machines are sucking the energy out of our brains and it’s a terrible, grey existence and if we only knew this truth, we’d be able to fight against it and break free. But as Cypher points out, (I paraphrase) “I know that this steak I’m tasting ins’t real, but it tastes real.” Exactly. Sure, we could break free from the evil robots, but since there’s no way of detecting them or verifying their existence, and since our current, so-called oppressed position as their feeders is indiscernible from any other position, the whole matter is moot. Sure, we may be suffering as our brains are being sucked, but we obviously don’t seem to care and there’s no means of comparison, so what’s your (impersonal “you”) point?

Does this mean that we should never strive for better if we can’t possibly conceive of it? Not necessarily, but if we have no possibility of “better” in our entire existence, nor of even the concept of it, then I have to wonder what any struggle would be worth.

> As a result, the scientific
> method itself is nothing more than a set of narratives by which > humans, a feeble type of mammal, use to tell stories about themselves > and their place in the world.

Prove it. Yours is a reliance on a false comparison between a narrative we tell ourselves to derive comfort and a narrative that we call a narrative because, it’s a thing? I mean, sure, inasmuch as we have to label things things in order to have any meaningful discussion about them, Hume’s right. And in that labeling, we inevitably get caught up in some sort of semantic arbitration, but come on, AB, you have to admit that there is an inherent spectrum in here. To assert that a god broke his own head open and found a goddess, fully formed and functional, burst out of his broken head is a wholly different thing than to assert that if I drop a ball one time or a thousand times, it will always fall to the ground.

And you know that.

> The scientific method yields excellent
> bridges, airplanes, and bombs. Religion never promised bridges, > airplanes, or bombs.

No, it promises eternal life, forgiveness of sin, enlightenment, nirvana, eternal punishment, etc. Am I not to criticize religion because it makes absolute claims about reality without one shred of evidence, one reason at all to believe any of those claims, but because it never promised a physical contraption like a bridge, all of the bullshit it does prescribe is now acceptable?

And I’m now realizing, what does any of this have to do with why I should attend church?

> Now, with these thoughts as background, I would propose that if > religion provides narrative tropes which allow people to be more .. > you choose the adjective, happy, docile, fulfilled, productive, > law-biding … they should do so. Indeed, they should latch on to > those narrative tropes which will best help them achieve … whatever.

I agree and I don’t. I’ll tell you how I agree first because it’s much shorter. I once met a man on-line who claimed, with presumed sincerity, that if it weren’t for his fear of Yahweh and Yahweh’s wrath, he the man would have killed dozens of people by now, in cold blood, with no remorse.


If it’s true that his fear of Yahweh is truly the only thing that has stopped him from committing such heinous atrocities, then I say strap that man onto a pew and don’t let him move.

But this simply isn’t true. The man in question and most everyone else I’d ague, doesn’t not kill because he’s afraid of Yahweh. He doesn’t kill because he doesn’t want to and there’s really nothing for him to gain.

But this brings up a bigger question which is I think your point and which I have another problem with. It seems what you’re arguing is that if church attendance A leads people to good behavior B, then isn’t A–>B = good G? Well, sure, I suppose inasmuch as I described above in my example of binding internet guy to a pew, but variable A can and is replaced by just about anything, for many of which you wouldn’t make the same argument.

Take alcohol, for example. I’ve heard tell of at least one man whose ex-wife claims was nicer when he was drunk. Let’s do the math. A (beer) –> B (nice) = G. I guess. I mean, maintaining a minimal level of inebriation costs money, brain cells, time out of the day, but other than that, if this ex-husband was still able to function in society, I suppose I have no real reservations about it.

And yet you’re not making a case for people being perpetually (if minimally) inebriated.

But let’s be realistic about this. As much as A–>B may = G, there are real, practical consequences to any number of As. Let’s stick with beer. This ex-husband staying inebriated increases his health risks and puts those around him at risk, not least of which while the ex-husband is on the road. Those are two right off the top of my head. So, sure, the tropes that create narratives for this guy might be all fine and dandy, but at what cost?

It’s true that religions may not all always have such immediate repercussions, but the immediacy or physicality of a repercussion is hardly relevant. It takes but a casual glance at any legitimate news source in the last few weeks to discover any number of negative repercussions as consequences either directly or indirectly of these precious tropes of yours. Sure, the old lady may feel comfort lighting a devotional candle to the Virgin and dropping a little penny in the donation box (though why an organization that claims to speak for Almighty God would need any money of any amount ever has never made any sense to me), but if the church in which she does that uses her penny (along with others) to pay their attorneys to avoid a jail sentence for their child-molesting parish priest, then to what end does this old lady’s narrative matter?

Not a whit.

> You add to this that a good Eucharist is a superb Gesamtkunstwerk, > with music, incense, colored light, fancy outfits, an hour or so and > totally free of charge. Now add that the churchgoing tend
> statistically to be healthier than their atheist colleagues (one can > easily imagine the psychosomatic reasons) and that church is also a > good place to meet potential sexual partners. There is clearly no > better way to spend a Sunday morning than in church! I find this > argument totally convincing, although not convincing enough to get up > early on Sundays, except rarely.
> Finally, I anticipate the counterargument that religion is harmful; it > is. Some narratives are harmful (fascism, communism) and almost any > narrative strategy can be co-opted to be harmful. But this is a point > against certain religions or certain ways of being religious, not a > criticism of religion (or alternative ideologies/narrative strategies) > per se.
> (You can put this on your blog with your answer if you want, but don’t > use my name please. I am sensitive about what Google picks up) >
> Happy news years!
> AB

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