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The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels


June 1999, Vol. 4, No. 6
The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels

In this issue:

"Either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful. All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox." --Albert Camus


the wire
Eric Roode wires you into news affecting freethinkers everywhere. Get wired.

What's New on the Secular Web?

  • Sally Morem has written a review of Stewart Elliott Guthrie's Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion entitled "Peering at Faces in the Clouds".

Campaign 2000

Upcoming Events

  • Lecture and Panel: "Parapsychology: Status and Future Prospects," July 16, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK, Victor Stenger, Christopher French, Caroline Watt, Stanley Jeffers, Richard Wiseman, and others. E-mail Wayne Spencer for details.
  • Convention: Freedom From Religion Foundation, July 30-31, San Francisco, CA, USA. E-mail Dan Barker or call +1 (608) 256-8900 for more information.


Book of the Month

ImageStar Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

By Terry Brooks

Written by noted New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks, the novel Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace tells the story of the beginning of the entire Star Wars drama. Hail the new mythos! The book is being released with four different covers. This edition features an image of Natalie Portman as the teenage Queen Amidala.


Web Scan

Helping you to sip from the information firehose

Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. This month, Richard Tomlinson has been fighting an online battle against his former employer. Big yawn, sure, except that Tomlinson's former employer was British Secret Intelligence Service and the British government alleges that Tomlinson posted line the names of 116 secret agents. Also, the Universal Life Church attempts to shut down its evil twin the Universal Life and Death Church and mathew takes a look at Amazon.com's removal, and reshelving, of Jon Atack's book "A Piece of Blue Sky", subtitled "Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed". Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan?


Governor Refuses to Sign Prayer Day Proclamation

Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura refused to sign a statewide proclamation declaring Thursday, May 6 a day of prayer. The religious right group Focus on the Family had pushed hard to make May 6 a National Day of Prayer nationwide. "I believe in the separation of church and state," the Associated Press quoted Ventura as saying. He added, "we all have our own religious beliefs. There are people out there who are atheists, who don't believe at all."

Letters of support and appreciation may be faxed or mailed to:

Governor Jesse Ventura
130 State Capitol
75 Constitution Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55155
Fax: (651)296-2089


Theism vs. Agnosticism: The Geivett-Draper Debate

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Internet Infidels sponsored an oral debate on the existence of God between R. Douglas Geivett, Professor of Philosophy in the Talbot Department of Philosophy, Biola University, and Paul Draper, Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University. The debate took place on April 27, 1999 before a crowd of approximately 150 people at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and was moderated by Wes Morriston, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Interesting Mix. (left to right) Doug Geivett,
Wes Morriston, Jeff Lowder, and Paul Draper

Geivett's Opening Statement

Geivett argued that there are only three possible positions with respect to the existence of God: theism, atheism, or agnosticism. He argued that seven lines of evidence justify theism over agnosticism (and atheism):

1. The origin of the universe. Our universe began to exist in the finite but distant past.

2. Fine-tuning. The values of the fundamental physical constants of our universe appear fine-tuned for intelligent life.

3. Human dignity. There are moral obligations. We reward praiseworthy character. We commiserate with those who suffer. We applaud moral heros. These facts are more likely on theism than on naturalism.

4. Moral experience. There are objective moral facts. These facts are either natural or nonnatural. However, these facts cannot be natural; therefore, they must be nonnatural. A supreme moral lawgiver is the best explanation for these facts.

5. Human freedom, culture, and meaning. Freedom is a fundamental condition of the meaningfulness of human life. Cultural artifacts like the music of Bach and Beethoven, Rodin's sculpture, and the architecture of Westminster Abbey speak of a spiritual aspect of our selves. Naturalists are unable to explain cognitive success.

6. Nature of evil. Evil is a departure from the way things ought to be. This indicates a design plan, which implies a Designer.

7. Resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is supported by three historical facts: the empty tomb, the post-Resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith.

Draper's Opening Statement

Draper stated that the evidence for and against the existence of God is ambiguous. While he thinks that there is evidence for theism, he also thinks that there is evidence for atheism. Thus, Draper is neither a theist nor an atheist. Therefore, Draper feels that Geivett's case for theism suffers from two flaws. First, he argued that Geivett underestimates the strength of the evidence against God. And second, he argued that Geivett overestimates the strength of the evidence for God.

Draper argued that there are six facts about the world which are more likely if naturalism is true than if theism is true:

1. Evolution. Complex living things are the gradually modified descendants of relatively simple living things.

2. Physical Minds. Consciousness and personality are highly dependent on the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening.

3. Pain and Pleasure. Pain and pleasure are systematically connected to reproductive success.

4. Tragedy. There is an abundance of tragedies in the world, tragedies which at least seem utterly pointless.

5. Victims of tragedies do not feel God's comforting presence.

6. Religious confusion. God has not clearly revealed the religious path he expects theists to take.

Finally, Draper argued that Geivett overestimates the strength of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. According to Draper, the alleged resurrection of Jesus is not evidence for theism, for (i) the only evidence for the Resurrection was written by Christians who were trying to gain new converts; (ii) given a historical empty tomb, we would expect claims that Jesus had been seen alive again after his death (regardless of whether the resurrection really happened); and (iii) appealing to the resurrection as evidence for theism is circular. Given the extremely low prior probability of the resurrection, Geivett would have to first show that God exists before he could show that Jesus was resurrected.

The Rebuttals

Rather than attempt to give a point-by-point summary of the rebuttals, here I will only attempt to summarize some of the main issues in the rebuttals. Several arguments on both sides were relatively ignored in the rebuttals; those arguments that were discussed in the rebuttals included fine-tuning; human dignity; moral experience; human freedom, culture, and meaning; evolution; physical minds; and pain and pleasure.

Is the apparent "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants of our universe evidence for theism? Draper is willing to grant that fine-tuning provides some evidence for theism--he thinks the fine-tuning argument is the strongest in the theist's arsenal--but he thinks that theists (including Geivett) overestimate the strength of this evidence. Draper pointed out that according to Ockham's razor we should prefer a naturalistic explanation over a theistic explanation; Geivett maintained that naturalistic explanations like the world ensemble hypothesis are purely speculative.

Draper did not, however, agree with Geivett's claim that human dignity; moral experience; and human freedom, culture, and meaning provide evidence for favoring theism over naturalism. Draper argued that God is not necessary to explain these facts because naturalistic explanations of the development of morality are actually more plausible than theistic explanations. Geivett, on the other hand, stated that naturalism cannot explain why there are moral beings or why moral truths are obligatory.

Concerning evolution, Geivett never denied the truth of evolution until the question and answer period. Instead, Geivett argued that the truth of evolution would actually be evidence for theism because only theism can explain both cognitive success in science and the order in the universe which biological evolution presupposes. Draper, on the other hand, maintained that naturalism can explain cognitive success and evolution really is less probable on theism than on naturalism.

Turning to the argument from physical minds, Geivett granted that there is a correlation between mental states and brain states. However, he argued that correlation doesn't prove dependence and there is no reason to believe that mental states are dependent on physical states. Draper insisted that there was no mental substance, which he argued was more likely on naturalism than on theism.

Finally, as for pain and pleasure, Geivett again argued that evil is a departure from a design plan; therefore, the biological role of pain and pleasure is actually evidence for theism. Moreover, since Draper's argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure presupposes evolutionary theory, pain and pleasure is evidence for theism since evolution is evidence for theism. The debate on this argument centered upon whether Geivett's response was a non sequitur.

Should Atheists Be Uncomfortable with a Theism-vs.-Agnosticism Debate?

According to Draper, atheists should feel slightly uncomfortable about the Geivett-Draper Debate since atheism was not represented in this debate. (I think I heard Geivett make this point also.) True, atheism was not represented in this debate. But does it follow that this should make atheists feel uncomfortable? I'm not so sure about that. Although Draper is an agnostic, he is not the sort of agnostic who says that it is impossible to have any evidence relevant to the existence of God. Nor is Draper the sort of agnostic who says that there is no evidence relevant to the existence of God. Rather, Draper seems to be what Ted Drange calls a 'data-vs.-data' agnostic. Draper holds that there is good evidence for atheism (and, more broadly, naturalism), but he also feels that there is good evidence for theism.

So why doesn't a theism-vs.-agnosticism debate bother an atheist like myself? First, I am what William Rowe calls a 'friendly atheist.' As a friendly atheist, I believe that some theists may be rationally justified in believing that the theistic God exists (even though I think theism is false). Second, I know that the audience was receptive to Draper's presentation of the evidence for atheism because Draper is an agnostic. In fact, given atheism's stigma, I think audience members are more receptive to the evidence for atheism when it is presented by an agnostic than when it is presented by an atheist. Third, Draper's cumulative, evidential case for naturalism is more comprehensive than that presented by atheists. Whereas atheists have employed the arguments from physical minds, evil, nonbelief, and confusion in defense of atheism, to my knowledge Draper is the only person who uses evolution and the biological role of pain and pleasure as evidence for naturalism. (Draper also thinks that the meager moral fruits of theism is evidence for naturalism, but he did not use that argument in his debate with Geivett.) Thus, I think friendly atheists--and 'indifferent' atheists, for that matter--will find much to appreciate in the Geivett-Draper Debate.


In sponsoring this debate, Internet Infidels had two goals. First, we wanted to have a friendly debate on theism vs. naturalism. Geivett and Draper are friends with one another and therefore the debate could almost be described as a friendly dialogue between two people who disagree. Second, we wanted to cover new ground. While both Geivett's and Draper's presentations had some traditional arguments, they also had some fairly original arguments. I was very pleased that the arguments from human dignity, moral experience, human freedom, evolution, physical minds, and pain and pleasure were emphasized in the debate. The debate was a true joy to watch, and I learned from both Geivett's and Draper's presentations. I think I speak for everyone who attended the debate when I say that the event was truly a positive, enriching experience. I sincerely hope that there are many more debates like this.


Eternity TractFeature

Where Are You Going to Spend Eternity?

Kim Walker

On the street outside a train station in Sydney, I was handed a pamphlet by a nondescript woman. I knew immediately what sort of pamphlet it was, because when I held out my hand to take it, she said, "God bless you." And sure enough, the title in nice, big, friendly, blue letters said: "Where are you going to spend eternity?"

Now, I suppose you are sitting there waiting for the punch line. What amusing thing did I do with this pamphlet, in full view of the nondescript woman? Actually, I put it in my pocket and walked away, because this is not that kind of story. Do you really think I would, for example, screw it up and eat it in front of her?

For the record, I always take religious pamphlets. I live under the delusion that some day someone will come up with a really inventive way to proselytize their religion -- something that would truly challenge us as free thinkers and get our minds working.

The entire pamphlet was set out as a series of questions, liberally sprinkled with Bible quotations. As you might have guessed, there was nothing new in it at all. Still, it got me thinking about the sort of questions religious people like to ask us. Just what sort of questions are these anyway? And why does no answer, no matter how well put, make the journey through their skulls and into their brains?

Personally, I suspect it has something to do with the huge gulf between rational thought and religious faith, which is emotional and irrational. We freethinkers love rational thought. It sets us free from the unpleasantness of superstition and religious guilt. It makes us better, more capable people. But every rational argument falls flat in a discussion with religious people. "Yes, we know it doesn't make sense," they seem to say. "What's your point?" Clearly, if we are going to get through to these people, we must examine the emotional content of their questions, and address the emotional issues as well as science and logic. (Note: we do not have to throw out rationality when we examine emotional issues.)

With this in mind, let's take another look at these hackneyed old questions, but this time, let's look more closely at their emotional content, and answer them in kind. Immediately we see that there is more to these questions than a simple inquiry into our well-being. Could it be there is something else going on here? Are these really meaningful questions, or are they something else entirely?

Where are you going to spend eternity?

Eternity is a long time. It is impossible to convey the concept through an analogy, because infinity refuses to be drawn. So let us, instead, consider a finite example. Imagine that you gathered up the phone books from every large city in the world: New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Jarkarta, Bombay, Johannesburg, Athens, Cairo, São Paolo, Montréal, Moscow, Milan, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Amsterdam, and others. There maybe a billion names there, maybe more. You might be able to fit all these phone books in your home, if you removed most of the furniture. Now imagine sitting down and engraving every phone number into blocks of granite with a blunt chisel and a broken hammer.

How much of this could you stand? How many decades could you sit there, engaged in this laborious, boring, meaningless, task? Now consider something else. How many times can you do something you enjoy before you get sick of it? Five times? Six times? How about a dozen times? You might sit up till two in the morning doing something you enjoy, but could you do it for hours at a time, every day for 10 or 20 years? If you did, would you still enjoy it as enthusiastically, or would it seem more like work?

Now try projecting this eternally into the future. Assuming you have infinite resources as well as an infinite life-span, how long would it take you to do everything there is to do? Maybe you would be able to fill in a thousand years, or maybe up to five thousand if you are really inventive. But in geological terms, five thousand years is not long -- if you lived from the start of one ice age, through the thaw, and on to the beginning of the next ice age, it would take twenty times as long. What happens when you have done all there is to do twenty times over? What about a hundred times? What about a thousand times? What about a million?

My feeling is that for a few hundred years eternity would be fun. After a few thousand it would start to seem a little old. After a few million it would be mind-numbingly tedious. After a few billion we would all be insane. After a few trillion...

One millennium you would find yourself sitting down to do the task I described at the beginning. And to make it a bit more challenging, you would include not just one set of phone books from one group of cities, but every phone book that was ever printed. Just maybe that boring, senseless, task would be the highlight of the billennium for you. You would weep as you finished it, because it would mean having to find something else to do. And this would only be a minute proportion of an exponentially larger block of time, which itself is only part of the infinitely recurring series of time divisions that comprise eternity.

Maybe this is not the vision of eternity foreseen by those who would have us consider eternal life. In fact, it is quite difficult to know what they expect from it. Much of the literature in this tradition offers the prize of eternal life to anyone who faithfully follows the instructions, but says very little about what one is expected to do to pass the millennia. In fact, speculation of this sort tends to upset people who sincerely believe they will live forever. It is somehow blasphemous to make plans for the afterlife. It agitates the believers. And it is in this state of agitation that they ask the next, related question.

Don't you care that you're going to be punished for eternity?

In a word, no.

So this does not seem like a frivolous remark, allow me to elaborate. There is a tradition of dichotomy at work in the midst of society. The tradition is so strong that some people cannot help but split the world into diametrically opposed forces. Consider remarks like "either you are for us or against us," or "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". There are even dichotomies in nursery rhymes: "Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean..."

When we are asked questions like the one above, we could be forgiven for wondering whether eternal punishment was really part of the original message. Certainly the questioner cannot adequately explain how or why this punishment will be carried out, or how pain is meant to register on dissociated avatars, whose pain receptors lie rotting with their bodies back on earth. In fact, the whole thing seems suspiciously like a simplistic dichotomy -- the opposite of the eternal paradise offered to those who obey. Is "eternal punishment" not a fabrication of very human minds, making assumptions based on dichotomies? And why would people make something like this up?

It quickly becomes obvious to an observant person that there are very few diametric opposites in the natural world (perhaps none at all). Even the much discussed differences between males and females are less significant overall than the differences between individuals, or indeed, the similarities we share as human beings. Are we really expected to believe, on the word of people admittedly ignorant of the material world, that the entire nature of reality will suddenly change to conform to a dichotomous notion they probably invented themselves? To me, this does not seem likely.

More revealing by far, are the circumstances under which this question about eternal punishment is asked. It is seldom a polite enquiry made by someone concerned for our well-being. Usually it is an angry outburst, spoken out of frustration, or offered to us contemptuously. And when we look at the idea of eternal punishment in this light, the real meaning behind it becomes clear, does it not? It is a threat. Nothing more.

People who ask such questions are not inquiring politely into our well-being, they are threatening us. This is their message: "If you believe what we believe, our deity will give you a reward so magnificent that the world cannot contain it all. If you don't, we'll kick the shit out of you."

These people like to imagine unspecified beings torturing us, but they do not for a moment consider that this will be their lot. Eternal torture is reserved exclusively for their enemies. Surely this suggests it is all wishful thinking -- albeit rather pathological wishful thinking. I find it appalling that a group of people in our society encourage pathological thinking, which might very well lead to pathological behavior. So to this question we can only give this answer: we do not worry what will happen to us after death, but we do worry about you, and the depraved and disgusting things you might do to us in life.

All such discussions about eternity are simply diversions from the real topic--death. So let us turn to face it, and to look upon its countenance. Unlike our eternity-seeking friends, we have the courage to see it for what it is.

When we look at the real world, and observe it through the tools of science, we see that nothing is eternal. Physics tells us that all the structures of the universe, including us, are the result of all the energy in the universe moving from a high potential state to a low potential state. Indeed, it seems that the complexity we see around us is a natural side effect of this decay. The rules surrounding the process are succinct: (1) no energy is created or destroyed; (2) overall, energy moves from a higher potential to a lower potential, and not the other way around; (3) there is no such thing as the perfect conversion of energy from one form to another, inevitably a percentage of the energy is lost (usually as waste heat).

The world around us that we can observe unfailingly follows these rules. No generator ever produces more energy than is needed to run it. Nothing ever appears or disappears out of thin air. It is true that life on earth has developed complexity, but this is because it harnesses a small fraction of that energy radiated from the sun -- most of which is wasted. When the sun runs down, so too will the potential for life on earth. We can even see these processes of entropy at work on our bodies. When we are young, our eyesight and hearing are acute, and our joints work without complaint. When we grow older, our eyesight and hearing start to fade, and our bones creak and grind.

There is no reason whatsoever for assuming that human beings are an exception to the laws of thermodynamics. There are no known exceptions of any description. So there is no "life-energy" that materializes out of nothing when we are conceived. There is no "life energy" that can exist eternally without being continuously degraded to lower forms of energy. In short, we die.

I think, deep down, everyone suspects this. Funerals are always sad occasions, even for those who loudly proclaim the deceased has gone to a better (or worse) place.

So here is my answer to the first two questions we have considered. I will not be spending eternity anywhere. I will live out the rest of my life, then I will die. When I die, my thoughts, my memories, and my emotions will die along with me. I do not find this a dispiriting or frightening concept.

Indeed, I see no reason at all to interpret these facts pessimistically (apart from marketing reasons, which we will explore under the next question). Yes, it is true that human beings are utterly insignificant on the cosmic scale, but I don't personally live at the cosmic scale. Personally, I conduct my life day by day at the human level. At the human level, I and everyone else in my society are fairly well off. The industrialized civilization I live in frees me from the necessity of hunting and gathering my own food, and it provides me with largely effective medicines for my ailments. I have access to clean water and uncontaminated food. Many people are not so fortunate, so who am I to complain?

There are other reasons why I am content. There are some who would complain about the shortness of human life. What on earth are they talking about? Human beings are the longest lived species of mammals. We are the only species of any description with life far beyond our reproductive capacity.

Okay, so we die. But we do go on, in a rather poetic way that is perfectly satisfying to those who understand it. Our works will survive us, just like the pyramids of Egypt survived the culture that produced them, and went on to inspire future generations. Our family down to our great-grandchildren will remember us, and the genes we pass to them will survive indefinitely. Our constituent atoms--the very stuff we are made from--will survive to the last days of the universe. Some of the atoms in our bodies probably belonged to someone else once. When we die, our atoms are dispersed back into the environment, and no doubt someone or something will take them up again in the future. (This is called the carbon cycle.) So we really are eternal, without having to lift a single finger to be "saved", and without having to fill in those boring millennia. Is this not a better kind of immortality? How ridiculously small-minded do those questions about eternity seem compared to this capacity for genetic and social ancestry?

If you look at the two questions again you may notice some curious things about them. The first point is that both questions make some fairly breathtaking assumptions about the nature of reality. If you don't share these assumptions, it is virtually impossible to answer the question succinctly. You are forced to explain and defend yourself at length, as I have above. The second point is that they are not real questions at all. They are never asked in a tone of genuine inquiry, and the questioners seldom seem interested in obtaining a reply. You might also notice a somewhat belligerent tone, and a lopsided construction that makes you appear foolish or pig-headed if you give the wrong answer. These are all traits shared by the next question.

Are you saved?

There is a well-known scene from a well-known film, where brave Sir Knight finds himself held prisoner in a castle full of amorous young women. Naturally, his two companions come to rescue him.

"We've come to rescue you from peril," they say.

"But I'm not in any peril," says Sir Knight.

"Oh you are. You're in terrible peril." And so, they drag him reluctantly away.

Is it possible that being saved is sometimes a disappointment? And why does all this seem dreadfully familiar to us, twenty-five years after the film was made? [1] There are any number of groups out there in the community determined to save us from perils we would otherwise know nothing about. Walk down a busy street in any city, and you will quickly become familiar with them.

"Here! Buy some of this insurance and it will save you from peril."

"Hey! Over here! Did you know your invisible inner-avatar (that incidentally breaks all the laws of thermodynamics) is in peril? Join our religion and we will save it for you."

"But I'm not in any peril," you say.

"Oh you are. You're in terrible peril. It's far too perilous to just leave you alone to get on with your life."

Sometimes I feel like a side of beef thrown to a pack of starving dogs. Every crackpot religion and questionable business concern is fighting for a piece of me. I'm sure many others have this same feeling. Maybe you do too. These days I am very wary of complete strangers who offer to improve my life for me. I find myself thinking: "What do you know about my life? And given that you know nothing about me, why should you care?" And, of course, they don't care. That is perfectly obvious. All they want is to sell me something.

Hard-selling marketers are one of the greatest nuisances of the modern age. This is not to say that the promotion of a product or a cause is a bad thing; it is only the tactics that I question. Hard-sell tactics are not only annoying, but inefficient. They only ever work when the initial approach catches someone off guard, so that the victim does not immediately recognize the hard sell for what it is. Most such techniques are based on a misconception about psychology.

The offending material is Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". [2] This is the theory that all human needs are part of a progressive hierarchical structure, which is (from lowest to highest):

(1) physiological needs

(2) safety needs

(3) belonging needs

(4) esteem needs

(5) self actualisation

The idea is that lower order needs must be satisfied before higher order needs can be addressed. This is fairly straight forward. It makes sense that people who don't know where their next meal is coming from don't care much about their status in "polite" society.

But marketers tend to misinterpret the hierarchy as a list of possible "angles". That is, they ask themselves, "In what way can I make my product appealing to the sucker I'm about to rip off?" and they choose one point from the hierarchy. Usually they settle on safety needs, because it's a low order need, but not so low that the suckers can't afford to pay for the product. In doing so, they sometimes miss a crucial point. The only people to whom the safety need is valid are people who feel genuinely unsafe. And even then, the product is only appealing if it addresses a perceived danger.

So the marketer, finding that the safety angle misses more often than it hits, attempts to generate a bit of fear in the suckers. "Buy this product," they say. "If you don't you'll get the shit kicked out of you." (Did you have a sense of deja vu just then? Isn't this remarkably similar to the message that lies behind the two questions we've already looked at?) Of course, this does not work either.

Fear is emotive. It cannot be generated, for example, by a complete stranger selling security systems, who knocks on the door and says: "Hi. Aren't you concerned about the level of crime in this area?" This sales representative probably won't succeed, even if the occupant is genuinely concerned about the level of crime. There is a sound, psychological reason for this, based on the theory of cognitive dissonance. [3]

Before the sales representative knocks on the door, the occupant--let's call him George--is watching a video of his favorite film (maybe it's the film we mentioned before; you know, the one with all the peril in it). When the sales representative, Joyce, knocks on the door she interrupts him. He has to get up, switch off the video, and answer the door. Already Joyce has made a bad start, because now George is slightly annoyed.

Immediately after he opens the door, Joyce starts her sales spiel. "Hi," she says, "Are you concerned about the level of crime in this area." Actually George is concerned, and the last thing he wants is to be reminded about it in the middle of his favorite film. It's also pretty obvious that Joyce is a sales representative; when normal people knock at the door, they usually say what they want up front. George takes an instant dislike to Joyce. Sales representatives always start at something of a disadvantage, and Joyce has compounded this by spoiling George's good mood.

Now George faces a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, he dislikes Joyce; on the other hand, Joyce is there to sell him something that he really wants. This dilemma is an example of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. To George, this situation doesn't feel right. When he hates someone, he would like to be able to hate everything this person stands for as well. Clearly, something has to give.

During the course of the conversation, George will undergo an attitude change. Instinctively, he will move towards an attitude that eliminates the cognitive dissonance. Realistically, there are three possibilities in this situation: (1) George will come to feel that an alarm system is not what he really needs; (2) he will change his mind about Joyce and feel she is not so bad after all; (3) he will get rid of Joyce and do his best to forget she ever existed. All of these will eliminate the cognitive dissonance, but not all are equally beneficial for George.

The first is not really much of an option, because he knows deep down that an alarm system would make his home safer. But the second possibility has very little appeal. He knows that Joyce wants nothing more than the sale. He also knows he might get a better security system if he shops around a bit. So, for George, the third option is the best. He says to himself, "Yes, I need an alarm, but I refuse on principle to buy anything from door to door sales-representatives."

George now has a brand new attitude. He will probably use it on the next door to door sales-representative he meets, and the more he commits himself to his new attitude, the stronger it will become. He may even fine tune it to include other forms of hard-sell: like tele-marketing and fake surveys. Even when the marketers try to disguise the hard-sell as something else, trapping George into a commitment he might otherwise have avoided, he may simply turn around and quit, because to him, it is now a matter of principle.

From this particular example, we can make a generalization. When we think about all the situations in which we must deal with hard-sell marketing, most often the third option provides the best outcome for us. We can hardly go wrong by simply getting rid of the sales representative. Even when we actually want the product, we are better off shopping around for the right thing at the right price. The first option comes a very distant second. We might rightly ask the question: "Is something really worth buying when it has to be sold like this?" After all, if a product is worth having, surely it would sell itself with much less effort.

The worst possible outcome for the person on the receiving end of the sales spiel comes from the second option. If you just stand there and agree with everything the nice person says, and sign everything they want you to, suddenly you will find yourself locked in to a hefty commitment. Often people in this situation find they are paying extortionate prices for inferior products. Curiously, the second option is the outcome that most favors the sales representative. Is it any wonder that hard-sell tactics are inefficient, when the best outcomes for both sides are diametrically opposed?

You might be wondering what all this has to do with the sort of people who would ask whether you are saved. Actually it is entirely relevant, because the question that opened this section was nothing more and nothing less than a pure piece of hard-sell marketing.

"Are you saved?" they say, a look of polite inquiry on their faces. We already know the rest of what they will say. If we agree to let them save us, we will go to a fabulous place where we will be marvelously rewarded (or is that a marvelous place where we will be fabulously rewarded? It's hard to tell after a while). If we disagree they will kick the shit out of us. Tell me, is this not the sound of, oh, maybe a dozen brain cells perusing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and fixing upon "safety needs" as the focus of their marketing campaign? It sure seems that way to me.

When we are brave enough to disagree, and argue that, in fact, nobody is going to kick the shit out of us, doesn't the resulting argument sound like that scene from that film?

"You're in peril."

"No we're not."

"Yes you are. You're in terrible peril."

And what is it they expect of us? How exactly do we get saved? What they want us to do is let the sales representatives for their movement run our lives. We should nod, and smile, and sign the contracts obediently. And soon enough we would be committed to buying an over-priced, inferior product. In short, we should accept option two.

How could we possibly think of this as anything other than a heavy-handed marketing campaign? It makes no sense at all unless we think of it in marketing terms. And, as we have seen, the best outcome for the victim of hard-sell is option three. At the first opportunity we get rid of the sales representative. In our defense, we say that on principle alone, we refuse to buy any product from a hard-sell marketer.

Well what do you believe in, if you don't believe in X?

There is a whole series of remarks like this. Another one you might hear is, "I don't care if it makes no sense, I will go on believing in X anyway." This is probably closer to the point.

Again, the people who ask this question are not really interested in your answer. Usually it means they are astonished. Someone within their movement has shown them a set of hard-sell marketing methods, and assured them that the unbelievers would fall vanquished at their feet. The fact that we do not concede a single point, and that indeed we have a well practiced answer for every one of their "irresistible" questions, puzzles them greatly. At such moments, they will fall back on the one principle that underlies everything they do--belief.

For our questioners, this will be the end of the conversation. They will refuse to discuss the matter further. But we need not stop here in this discussion. We can cast a critical eye on belief itself.

The first thing we must realize in any critical look at the meaning of words and ideas, is that words are not absolute. The meanings of words change over time, and every special interest group attempts to redefine words to its own advantage. All cults do this routinely. When we hear the language of a cult, uncontaminated by cult indoctrination, it sounds nonsensical because the cult leaders have redefined the meanings of words.

So we should stick to plain no-nonsense English, right? Well, no. Think about it. When we look at the history of the English language, we see that at every key point of its development, the same special interest group is there, using its overwhelming social and political influence to advance its own interests. Can you guess what group this is? It is not scientists; modern English preceded modern science. It is not the English monarchy.

If you look at the definition of the word "belief," we see that it is a close synonym for the word "faith". But it is also the word we use to indicate confidence in something we consider likely, but not absolutely certain. We can demonstrate these subtle differences with a few simple sentences. Compare: "I am a believer." with, "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning." or even, "I believe the train leaves at ten minutes to two." I put it to you that these two uses of the word belief are not accidentally abutted. In fact, there was a time in our past when the over-zealous attempted to infuse even the most secular words and phrases with religious significance. And to this day, apologists attempt to exploit these parasitic religious associations that remain tenaciously attached to many English words.

In the minds of religious people, the two quite distinct meanings of the word belief become confounded. In their minds, they see no difference between belief in god and beliefs drawn from experience and probability. So they make statements like, "everyone has to believe in something." The implication is that, if you can believe the sun will rise in the morning, then it is only a short step from there to belief in a personal god. In reality, the two different uses of this word are very far apart. And because language is such a fundamental part of thought, few people question the way we use words.

So to make things absolutely clear, let us apply the Bunsen burner and separate this compound into its constituent elements. On the one hand, we have religious faith, which places everything in the hands of a supernatural being. On the other hand, we have likelihood, which is a pragmatic assessment of probabilities. Atheists can say: "From my own experiences and from my understanding of science, I judge the existence of a personal god unlikely." This is not at all the same thing as admitting a religious faith in science; the two statements are entirely dissimilar.

Now that we have firmly separated faith from likelihood, we can answer the question. We have no religious faith, and nor is any such faith crucial for the existence of human beings. In our lives, we survive perfectly well by judging things according to probabilities. Our acceptance of likelihood is not just religious faith by another name, because we are not obliged to take anything as absolute. If we happen to be wrong in any particular, so what? We have always acknowledged the possibility, so we have never murdered or brainwashed anyone for our cause.

Do you theists want to know something else about atheism? The world makes much more sense this way around. Religious prophesying and revelation never did get much of anything right, and all of that unacknowledged failure resting on your shoulders makes your churches gloomy and oppressive places. As theists, you must accept that just about everything is mysterious, but we atheists can ask questions. And if the answers we get are unsatisfactory, we can go looking for better answers. So yes indeed, we are happy, and we are happy, not through ignorance, but through freedom and knowledge.

But I'm wasting my effort here. There are very few theists left reading this. Most of them scuttled away when we demolished their allegedly unanswerable questions, muttering something about damnation. At this moment they are probably soothing their doubts with a copy of whatever holy book or poor translation thereof is fashionable this century. Of course, we atheists already know how fresh the world seems and how pleasant life is compared to the aggressive ignorance of small-minded fundamentalists.

[send feedback]Conclusion

What can we say in conclusion to all of this? There is a set of questions that theists ask, especially when they are proselytizing. But they are always the same questions, and no one of them is really a question at all. We know this because they are not really interested in the answers, and because they structure the questions so that a contrary answer is extremely unpalatable. What they are actually engaged in is a marketing exercise. They are hard-selling for the lord.

But the hard-sell is a risky strategy that will fail most of the time. What do they hope to gain from it? Are they trying to intimidate the public? Are they deliberately creating conflict to serve some political agenda? Do they want to put their members through a baptism of fire, that alienates them from the secular world? Who knows.

The important thing is that freethinkers like us can answer all of their questions, even the ones about belief itself. We can justify our position on logical, humanitarian, and even emotional grounds. Furthermore, we know deep down in our bones, that where the theists are strangers upon this earth, we are its natives. We know it, we understand it, and we love it for what it is. And there is no greater reward than to live a good life in the arms of our mother earth, where we have always belonged.


[1] What? You don't know what film this is from? Shame on you! It's from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. EMI/Python (Monty) Pictures/Micheal White (Mark Forstater). 1975.

[2] Maslow, A. H. A theory of human motivation. Psychol. Rev, 1943, 50, 370-396.

[3] Festinger, L. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson. 1957.


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