Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Atheism and Religion’ Category

In Defense of Moral Investigation

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 31, 2012

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

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Posted in Atheism and Religion, Ethics, Rationality, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why Mythology?

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 8, 2011

One night, a long time ago, three cavemen, Ug, Boggle, and Carl, we`re watching the clear skies. Ug wondered,

“Where do the stars come from?”

“A wise old caveman told me a story one time,” Boggle said. “A thousand years ago, before the sun had been born, the world was dark and the people could not see. So Mother Earth birthed a sun and sent him across the sky to shine bright. The day was bright and the people were happy. But each evening the sun begins to grow tired, and lies down behind the mountains to sleep. One night, the people went to Mother Firefly to ask her for help. So she sent her children to the sky to try to light up the night. Thousands and thousands of children she sent, but they could not bring light to the night. But noble fireflies they were: they stayed in the sky, and each night they try with all their might to shine light onto the world.”

And Ug believed Boggle’s story.

Carl was not satisfied. “But how could the fireflies get into the sky?” he said. “Why do they not flicker as other fireflies do?”

“These fireflies know that it is their duty to brighten the night sky,” Boggle responded. “They do not flicker, but instead they shine their light at all times in order to bring more light to the world.”

“But your story still does not make sense,” objected Carl. “I will tell you what I think happened.”

“Tell me, Carl, what do you think happened?”

“Thousands of thousands of thousands of years ago, a great cosmic explosion scattered matter across the universe. Most of the matter formed into great clumps. At the center of these clumps was an enormous amount of pressure, forcing the matter to become a mighty fire. This happened many times in many places across the universe. All these great fires shine light across vast distances and appear to us, because they are so very far away, as tiny points of light in the sky.”

Ug thought about this for a minute. “What? You’re crazy. You can’t put a bunch of dirt together and start a fire. And besides, the universe isn’t nearly that big. I like Boggle’s story better.”

And that’s why mythology is the way it is.

In my opinion, the idea that the universe is almost fourteen billion years old and forty-six billion light years across, and contains billions of galaxies that each have billions of stars—massive spheres of gas that emit unimaginable quantities of energy—is far more amazing than the conception of stars as fireflies. But if the truth is so much more amazing than the fantasy, why does the fantasy win out?

The fact that the reality is so amazing ends up working against it. People do not want to be amazed. Amazement is on the border of incomprehension, and people have a natural tendency to want to understand things. We would rather something be mundane than incomprehensible.

The cavemen in this story have difficulty conceiving of the vastness of the universe, but they have no problem thinking about fireflies. They know what fireflies are, and they can imagine scattering them across the sky. Fireflies are much easier to understand than giant balls of fire in space that are set off when gravity forces hydrogen nuclei to fuse and convert matter into energy.

Examples of the believable fantasy taking precedence over the extraordinary truth can be seen across cultures and religions. The Greeks had Helios pulling the sun across the sky in a chariot, much more relatable than a spherical planet rotating at a thousand miles per hour while hurtling through space at even greater speeds; modern young-earth creationists explain geographical formations in terms of Noah’s flood, instead of the complicated truth that myriad events (including earthquakes, volcanoes, and even simple water flow) make small changes to the earth’s surface over billions of years.

Of course, I was not there when the Greeks were thinking up their mythology, so I do not know why it is what it is. However, I find this to be a very plausible explanation; and if we do prefer familiarity to profundity, that says something important about how the mind works.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Society | 3 Comments »

Why a Non-Stamp Collecting Club Makes Sense

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 28, 2010

It has been said (usually by atheists) that it doesn’t make sense to categorize atheists by their non-religiousness. Then an example is given: “You wouldn’t describe someone as a non-stamp collector.”

Let’s ignore the fact that atheists frequently categorize themselves — even the same people who say it doesn’t make sense to do so. Let’s consider the example of not collecting stamps.

In fact, it can make sense to have a group of people who aren’t something (e.g. religious) or don’t do something (e.g. collect stamps). For example, what about non-meat eaters? It certainly makes sense to describe someone as a non-meat eater, because most people do eat meat so to not do so is an interesting trait. It’s the same with atheism: most people are religious, so to describe someone as non-religious actually tells you something about him.

Describing someone as a non-stamp collector doesn’t make sense, because most people don’t collect stamps. But what if 90% of everyone in the world collected stamps? In that case, being a non-stamp collector would actually be interesting. In such a world, it would make sense to have a club for people who don’t collect stamps.

Posted in Atheism and Religion | 5 Comments »

Faith and Imagination

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, a deeply religious boy who embarks on a lifechanging spiritual journey.

Before I get to my thesis, I must point out that Martel has a poor definition of “atheist.” He assumes that atheists are faith-based or somehow irrational (I say irrational, he says “imaginative”), but agnostics are not. Atheism is not remotely faith-based. Nonbelief in God is a completely reasonable viewpoint, just as nonbelief is unicorns is a completely reasonable viewpoint. Why does Martel imply that atheists would have a sudden conversion on their deathbed? Are they, unlike agnostics, for some reason prone to blaming God for unexplained phenomena such as the white light Martel describes? That certainly doesn’t make any sense. It seems like all the people who blame God for unexplained phenomena are already theists. Neither an atheist nor an agnostic would so easily fall prey to the “God of the Gaps” fallacy as to see an unexplained white light and jump to the conclusion that it must be a divine intervention.

Yann Martel, or at least the character in his novel, does not seem to have a very high opinion of agnostics. He describes their rationality as “dry, yeastless factuality” and says that they “to the very end . . . miss the better story.” But to see the truth is not to miss the better story. The real world is quite an amazing place. I personally would be much more fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of near death than by some strange supernatural white lights projected by God. Science tells just as good a story as religion, if not better. Those who are unable to see the beauty in the world are not lacking in imagination; they simply need to open their eyes.

As you may be able to tell, I am a big supporter of science, but that doesn’t mean I see anything wrong with imagination. I love reading stories (and writing about them). But there’s quite a difference difference between a story and a religion. When you read a story like Life of Pi or The Grapes of Wrath, you’re reading it in the proper context. You know that it’s not real. And that’s the problem with religion. Imagination by itself is just fine, and usually, more imagination is better than less; problems only start to arise when imagination gets in the way of the truth.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s important to distinguish fantasy from reality. When people are unable to tell the difference, they’re usually considered insane and put into mental institutions. It would seem that Martel is advocating insanity. He is not simply saying that we should exercise our imaginations — which of course is true — but that we should believe in our fantasies, and not to do so is to “miss the better story.” An atheist or agnostic could be lying on his deathbed and look at the white light and think, “imagine that that is God’s love shining down on me. What a wonderful story. It’s not true of course, but it makes for a great story.” That would be perfectly reasonable, but that is not what Martel is saying we should do. Martel, through Pi, tells us to lie to ourselves for the sake of a story.

Since Life of Pi is a novel Martel does not make any direct arguments, but gets his points across through Pi, his main character. Pi is deeply religious, but not in the conventional sense. He follows three religions simultaneously (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) because he can see the advantages in each of them. People follow religion for many different reasons, but his reasons are particularly intriguing. He devoutly follows three religions because he loves the stories told by each of them.

How did Pi come to follow three faiths? Well, he was born a Hindu, and when he crossed paths with Christianity he was unimpressed — at first.

This Son . . . who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him — what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. The Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god — and in a hot place, at that — with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son? (p. 70; ch. 17)

Despite his objections Pi finds Jesus’ story irresistible, and incorporates Christianity into his now-expanding list of religions. He doesn’t follow Christianity for any of the usual reasons: he wasn’t born into it, and he wasn’t attracted by the people or the principles or the philosophy. In the end, what really got him hooked was the story.

The story of Christianity is a very good one. But it is unacceptable for a story to get in the way of the truth. There is nothing “dry [and] yeastless” about reality; I would describe it as rich and diverse — or, if I were in a comedic mood, I’d call it wet and yeastful. Either way, it’s a great place to be. No matter what reality actually is, though, it’s important to stay grounded. Living in the clouds is a quick road to insanity. Realistically, most people with overactive imaginations could not be called insane; but substituting imagination for reality is nonetheless rarely a good idea. I hate to play this card, but I will anyway because it’s actually true this time: Hitler substituted imagination for reality by criminalizing the Jews. Dominant majorities often pretend that oppressed minorities are not really human, such as was done by millions of American slaveowners. If these people were in touch with reality, they would have been unable to justify their inhumane actions; it was only through creating fantasies that they were able to continue living at the expense of others.It’s not necessarily their fault: many white slaveowners were not malicious, they were just taught that blacks aren’t real people, and never had a reason to stop living in their convenient but inhumane fantasy.

Besides these injustices, living in fantasy is just less productive than staying realistic. Scientific progress does not come by living in the clouds. Imagination is an important ingredient in discovery, but there can be no discovery without a connection to reality. Even philosophy, which may seem to deal with the ethereal, cannot live off of fantasy alone. Instead of investigating the nature of life and death, as Martel’s agnostic does, he would rather that we simply insert God, thus bringing a halt to all further thought on the matter.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but not when it gets in the way of reality. Yann Martel would have us discard the real world in favor of what he deems more interesting. I can hardly think of worse advice to give, considering all the injustices that have been caused by overactive fantasies taking the place of reality. Truth is far more important than “the better story.”


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | Leave a Comment »

Faith and Hope

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 8, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In the novel, Pi becomes stranded on a boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, and he tells the story of how it happened.

A common motif in Life of Pi is the importance of faith and belief. Pi is born a Hindu, and by the age of 16 he is practicing Christianity and Islam as well. He does not understand why people are only allowed to follow one faith, and this even gets him into a little trouble near the beginning of the novel. Although (or perhaps because) his take on religion is a bit unconventional, it plays a very important role in his life.

While on the lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi devoutly prays three times a day. These prayers give him hope and serve as a conduit through which his miseries can flow. He shares traumatic events with God, and never forgets them. Although he had been a lifelong vegetarian, his options on the lifeboat are limited and he is forced into piscivorism. The first fish he ever eats is given a special place in his prayers, and never once forgotten (p. 231; ch. 61).

Pi is under the impression that he could not have survived without his faith. Perhaps this is so, but it could only be so due to the relative weakness of Pi’s character.

It is true that Pi endured great hardships and great suffering, and many people may not have been able to bear as much. His character is not weak by that measure. But the key word in his weakness is “relative.” He was relatively weak because he could not maintain himself without God. I suppose it may be more appropriate to say that he is imperfect, that he is only human. Whatever you call Pi’s limits of character, the picture painted in which God is the only way for Pi to get through great suffering is a distorted and inaccurate one.

Pi goes through harsh struggles and deep despair. On the front lines against his despair is Richard Parker, the 450-pound Bengal tiger. But God is not far behind. God is an important player, but he is not the reason why Pi made it through. Pi’s source of survival, his weapon against despair, is hope. When Pi prays, he finds hope; and with hope comes a reason to keep on living. Despair’s worst enemy is not God, nor is it a tiger: it is hope.

In a situation such as Pi’s, as hopeless as it is, one ought to take all the hope that one can get. Belief in a higher power is just as good a source of hope as any. But the premise that this hope can only come from faith — that there are no atheists in foxholes — is simply false.

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, it could be said that there are no atheists on lifeboats. It would be an equally incorrect statement. In a time of despair, there are many possible sources of hope. Religion happens to be a particularly powerful one. Imagine that, although you are floating on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, God is watching over you. He has helped you to survive this far, and He will continue to do so. He loves you and will always love you. He is omnipresent, so He will never leave your side. If that’s not a hope-inspiring thought, I don’t know what is.

Even so, there are even greater sources of hope. The foremost source would be companionship. Pi had with him a tiger, and even that limited relationship was enough to keep him going. Another human being, who you can make strong bonds with, would be an even better friend. We people thrive on companionship, and cannot last long without it.

Pi’s primary sources of hope were faith and companionship; what others were there? These two were by far the most prominent. But there is another, secular source of hope, which was masked by Pi’s faith but would be apparent in an atheist. Pi survived for many days before he began to truly despair, and he attributed this survival to a miracle. God had been with him. If Pi had been a nonbeliever, he would have been no less amazed by his survival. He would have attributed it to his own shrewdness, his own ability to think in the face of mortal peril. He made it that far, and he could make it farther. His reliance on his own skill would have been just as powerful as reliance on miracles. And in fact, much of Pi’s success can be attributed to his skill. He attributed it to miracles, but Pi was the one who learned to catch fish, Pi was the one who knew how to train Richard Parker. The skill was there, and he would not have survived without it.

The test of will Pi goes through is difficult; I do not doubt that. Maybe because Pi’s life so revolved around religion it would have been impossible for him to make it through without his faith. Such faith is very important to some. But it is not a necessity. There are atheists in foxholes, and there are atheists on lifeboats.


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | 2 Comments »

Dumb Quote by Supposedly Smart Person

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 14, 2009

If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of society without government?
~ Peter Saint-André

Let me answer that question with a question: If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of peaches without apples?

(Both questions used the same logic.)

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Philosophy, Rationality | 1 Comment »

It seems that atheists are neither liberal nor conservative.

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 29, 2009

This study asked groups of liberals and conservatives what they fear the world would be like without God. According to the study:
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Posted in Atheism and Religion, Politics | Leave a Comment »

“I hired Nietzsche to kill you.”

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 14, 2009

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Humor | Leave a Comment »

The Bible thumpers just got pwned.

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 8, 2009

Click here and take the poll.

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To Whom Am I Ultimately Grateful?

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 24, 2009

I was just reading this blog post, which asked me an interesting question.

We often reference and feel the succor that God offers us in times of grief and pain, but I can honestly say that I’m as grateful for my belief in God when I’m experiencing extreme joy as when crippled by pain. And I mean really grateful, because if I didn’t have a God to whom I could send up my gratitude that is so far beyond my ability to comprehend or grasp, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with the intensity of that emotion. It feels like I would just explode.

When I’m that grateful, I tell people about it. But I like your strategy here. If I’m alone with no one to express my gratitude to, I can create an imaginary friend and then tell him about how grateful I am. Sounds great! But unlike this fellow, I realize that my friend is only imaginary.

Posted in Atheism and Religion | 4 Comments »

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