Sunday, November 27, 2005

No Easy Answers

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. --H. L. Mencken
Good questions outrank easy answers. --Paul Samuelson


I was having a conversation with a friend recently and we were discussing why so many Americans possess so many simplistic religious beliefs. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that people just want easy answers. I think it's understandable -- life can be bewildering and overwhelming in the best of circumstances -- but it's leading to a very ignorant populace, which rejects, almost 200 years after Darwin, evolution.

Atheism and the more sophisticated theologies are hard.

When a dear friend dies, the simple theist can believe that his friend's in Heaven, surrounded by angels and loved ones. The skeptic must reconcile himself to the sad reality that his friend is just gone.

When the simple theist wonders how we got here, he can be satisfied with "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground." The skeptic must find an introductory text on evolution. If he really wants to understand, he can spend his whole life studying genetics, biology, and paleontology, and still, at the end, not fully know.

When the simple theist has a moral dilemma, she may simply consult her rabbi, or open the Good Book. The skeptic must agonize, pondering ramifications and trade-offs, never knowing if her choice was "correct."

The simple theist believes that he and all of us are here for a very specific purpose. The skeptic must create his own meaning, or accept that perhaps there is none.

It takes courage to look past the easy (and wrong) answers and accept life's inherent complexity and unknowableness. I think the road less traveled is well worth the difficulty, however. The simple theist's world is small and simplistic, while the skeptic's is majestic and full of wonderful avenues of exploration. There is much we will never know, but we skeptics get to spend our lives learning all we can.

27 comments:

Stacey said...

I love being a skeptic. It is the only way for me.

dbackdad said...

JA said, "There is much we will never know, but we skeptics get to spend our lives learning all we can."

Amen, brother.

Welcome back JA.

CyberKitten said...

I don't think that religion offers easy answers to complex questions per se. But it does offer ready made ones, often with the proviso of accepting the answer given without a great deal of thought.

Atheism actually IMO is the 'simpler' solution - it's just that you need to understand it more...

Religion - because of its inherent contradictions is unecessarily complex (but only if you don't accept things at face value). Ask too many questions & the contradictions start collapsing in on themselves..

Oh... and welcome back.....

asher said...

The skeptic has it easy: whatever anyone believes, you think it's wrong. Why is there a world? Hey, it just happened. Why do people die? Hey, they just die. Why are there problems in the world? Hey, it's the way people are.

And this you're claiming is more complex than a person dealing with faith in a world that is evil and full of hatred? Where was God in the Holocust? Why does God allow earthquakes and hurricanes to devastate people's lives? And most important...how can anyone think Al Franken is funny?

CyberKitten said...

Skepticism is certainly more sensible than blanket acceptence. It's just the initial reaction to any statement:

"Really? Lets see your evidence..."

Oh, and BTW - The World didn't 'just happen' - I thought that was the Biblical explanation anyway: ..and God said: "Let their be a planet called Earth" - followed by a fully formed planet appearing in a puff of smoke.... Tough NOT to be skeptical about something like that don't you think?

Jewish Atheist said...

And this you're claiming is more complex than a person dealing with faith in a world that is evil and full of hatred? Where was God in the Holocust? Why does God allow earthquakes and hurricanes to devastate people's lives?

I'm not claiming it's more complex, I'm claiming it's harder emotionally. The questions you raise don't generally trouble the simple theist (as opposed to the sophisticated theist.) They believe that the holocaust and natural disasters are due either to people's sinful behavior or to being part of God's mysterious plan.

And most important...how can anyone think Al Franken is funny?

Now that is a good question.

Sadie Lou said...

Atheism and the more sophisticated theologies are hard.

I think Christianity is hard, too. I don't mean to say that your statement about being a skeptic isn't true, I'm sure it's difficult but Christianity isn't always easy. Sure, I know what my purpose in life is and I know where I'm going when I die.
I don't know God's plan for my life and I'm constantly confused by God's plan for other people's lives.
Sometimes people ask me questions that rattle around in my mind and threaten to shake my faith--all and all I'm thankful for the path I'm on but i wouldn't say it's simple or easy if someone asked me.

Laura said...

It's also because people are afraid of change and re-evaluating their deeply held beliefs. The simpler you make it, the less you have to alter your explanations to new evidence. Science and other spiritual paths are always incorporating new evidence and re-evaluating conclusions. To some people, this is evidence of inconsistency and/or incorrectness. To others (like me) it's more realistic to adapt your beliefs to new evidence and new experiences than vice-versa.

But to change takes courage and deep reflection... and we're too busy checking out the latest discounts at Wal-Mart.

R10B said...

Harder does not mean more valid. Many simple things can be made complex by disregarding the wisdom of others and available knowledge (internal and external).

Kid A is trying to get into his school locker without knowing the lock's combination. Hard.

Kid B spins hers left, right, left and pulls it open because she read the combination off the paper that came with the lock and memorized it. Easy.

Now if Kid A eventually figured out a method of discovering the combination to, not only his lock, but everybody else's without relying on those pieces of paper he would indeed be worthy of respect. But even then he would only know what the other kids knew all along.

I could bore you with a list of "Kid A's" who run intellectual rings around you and your friend -- and me even more so -- who have "discovered the combination" that is simple theism.

Jewish Atheist said...

Harder does not mean more valid.

I never said it did. I'm just trying to understand why people seem to choose simplistic forms of religion, for example literalist interpretations of the Bible. The same reasoning explains why so many people are fooled by all the fake "diet pills" and spam email scams. They just want easy answers.

JDHURF said...

Jewish Atheist,
It is so gratifying for me to read your posts, for I share very similar beliefs with you. I completely agree with this post, although there are also several other causes for individuals to accept the “easy” answer to life’s difficult mysteries. I would agree that the reason you put forth is most certainly one of the more widespread reasons.
It is perfectly understandable that when a loved one dies the individual copping with the lose may find comfort in the supernatural; “he/she is in heaven looking down upon us with love”, “he/she is in a better place now, it’s okay”, it is understandable for one to hold these views, however the fact that these views are comforting hardly shows the truth or worth of such views. I have lost an uncle to cancer, a close friend to alcohol, and a friend was just recently killed by a train; I know in my essence that these loved ones are forever gone and that they have not supernaturally risen above into a supernatural spiritual world. I cherish the love and time shared between us, I cherish the memories and the impact that their lives had upon mine, this is all I need to comfort me; they were fantastic people that lived life to the fullest and their life was worth every minute spent. Religion, to me, is misguided in this sense; life is for living here and now not for preparing to enter a spiritual world in an after-life. When one faces the end of their life I sincerely hope that they don’t feel that they blew it, that they could’ve done more, that they should’ve done more, live life now! As far as atheism being hard I disagree, rejecting the notion of the inconceivable is far too easy. Also a belief, view, or fact is hardly proven by the inherent difficulty it poses, for being an orthodox jew is hard you must make many sacrifices and follow a meticulous guideline in the mitzvoh, however, this obviously doesn’t prove the mitzvoh true. Some fundamental truths in life are simple, some are hard, and many are in between the two; life is a mélange.
Asher you are yet again wrong. – “The skeptic has it easy: whatever anyone believes, you think it's wrong.” – This is not what being a skeptic is all about and I find it hard to believe you really think that. The skeptic doesn’t automatically disbelieve anything (by definition) they are leery, we want evidence and solid support in order to accept the claim or proposal. What you claim or propose may very well end up being true, however, we will pose skepticism until evidence is shown. I believe it would be far easier to just accept a claim rather than show skepticism and then make the long tedious efforts attempting to either prove or disprove the claim. – “Where was God in the Holocust? Why does God allow earthquakes and hurricanes to devastate people's lives?” – Very good questions indeed, the sort of questions you hear from a skeptic themselves. These questions are answered very easily for me, there is no supernatural entitiy or god.
R10B is quoted as saying: “Harder does not mean more valid.” – I certainly agree with you on this point as I stated above. – “I could bore you with a list of "Kid A's" who run intellectual rings around you and your friend -- and me even more so -- who have "discovered the combination" that is simple theism.” – How arrogant and condensending, well if you can “run rings” around our friend the Jewish Atheist by all means do so. This sounds like mere tauniting to me though, for a threat seems all to shallow when it is followed by not a shred of abutment, these are hollow words my friend, hollow indeed. Let me add that transient metaphors are the worst sort of abutment known to man, if this is your “running rings” then you aren’t running my friend you are hobbling.
Keep up the good work Jewish Atheist, you are posing interesting and thoughtful posts which deserve far better responses than some of the ones I have read.

Sadie Lou said...

JA--
The New Testiment talks about gaining strength through persecution and trials. It's not a matter of IF a Christian will suffer persecution for their faith but when. The bible talks about people who are not grounded in their faith being easily led away from it. Nothing about these Scriptures about trials, tribulation or persecution, sounds easy. In fact--It's almost insulting to say that Christianity is simple. In parts of the world other than here in the states, Christians are severely persecuted to the point of death. N. Korea and Africa being examples of this.
Where are Atheists put to death for their beliefs nowadays?

R10B said...

jdhurf, sorry if I was unclear. I don't want to get a bad rep here. I did not mean that I could run rings around JA and friend. Quite the opposite. Rather, that my list of "Kid A's" are arguably intellectually superior to JA and friend and far superior to me. It was a self-deprecating not an other-deprecating statement.

As far as abutment, I could abut up one side and down the other if I chose to (Newton, Pascal...). I'm just pitching in and hopefully moving the thread along while trying to respect the communal aspect of this blog. Maybe someone else will do my abutting for me. If not I may jump back in, or not.

BTW: I have the greatest respect for JA. I'm sure the other simple theists that post here feel the same. It'll be a cold day when he learns something from me.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie Lou,

First, I'm not saying that simple theists have easier lives. On the contrary -- many are poor and undereducated, with all the problems that go along with those circumstances. What's "easy" are their answers. If they're persecuted, it's because the Bible said they would be, not because of some centuries-old ethnic feud or a dispute over land. You see the same thing with greater rates of superstition in people with difficult circumstances and scarce education. People turn to astrologers, good luck charms, and prayer when they don't have the wherewithal (or, sometimes, the possibility) to help themselves.

Second, I'm not talking about Christianity as a whole. I'm talking about simple theism. It includes most Biblical literalists, but also Muslim fundamentalists and Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist extremists. It does not include Christians like C.S. Lewis, Bishop Spong, or Martin Luther King, Jr.


r10b,

I understood what you meant. Thanks for the kind words.

JDHURF said...

r10b,
I reread your post; sorry about the confusion it was my fault. I don't know how I misread it the first time. What exactly is your point though? That there are intellectuals out there that choose simple and easy theism? Maybe that was your point. Though when people choose simple theism for the simplicity it is not always because the individual lacks intelligence there are many great minds involved with "simple theism", it may be for emotional reasons, or it may even be for the fact that they were brought up in such a rigidly theistic atmosphere that they were heavily indoctrinated and haven't been able to shake it off. Whatever the case I apologize again for the misunderstanding it was my fault.

Sadie Lou,
You say that in your Christian belief Christians will be persecuted for their beliefs regardless, it will just happen. You also ask where atheists are put to death for their beliefs nowadays. While I don’t understand how being put to death for you beliefs illustrates the worth or value of the beliefs I will acknowledge this question. Atheists will be, and are put to death in Saudi Arabia as well as Christians too. Islamofascism is vehemently opposed to secularism, atheism, and any faith outside of Islam. Atheists are also discriminated against in the United States itself, there are a few state laws that don’t recognize atheists as citizens in that they may not be considered for court appearances as witnesses, while these laws aren’t followed they exist and could very easily be brought back into action. George H. W. Bush himself is quoted as saying: “I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Again I don’t feel that this discrimination proves anything beyond the human urge to oppress.

R10B said...

I'm not talking about Christianity as a whole. I'm talking about simple theism.

JA: Your initial post made no such distinction, and I'm still not sure what you mean. Those un-simple or smart theists (STs) like Lewis, Spong, and MLK held to most if not all of the beliefs you attributed to the simple or dumb theists (DTs). But if you feel you must sharpen that definition for my sake, don't; for then you will have taken all those with notable intellects and set them aside then point to the remaining set of chowderheads and say, "See, I'm better than them." What will you have proved?

jdhurf: No problem. JA seemed to be saying, according to my brutish paraphrase, that theists (he hadn't at that point mentioned his ST/DT distinction) did not put any thought into their beliefs settling for what was the easiest intellectually or the most comforting emotionally*. My point was that there are, of course (hence I would not bore by listing), many highly intellectual (and emotionally sturdy) people who were/are theists. But that point carries no weight with you since you say, "...it may be for emotional reasons, or it may even be for the fact..."
Maybe I'm misunderstanding you but it sounds to me like you're saying that DTs are just stupid ("lacks intelligence") and STs (Lewis, et al) are just emotionally or developmentally deficient. That point carries no weight with me.

* I wish I could say something about this now but my editor has gone to bed. Before leaving he wanted me to tell you how much he appreciates your company.

Jack's Shack said...

I consider myself a skeptic who also believes in G-d. Life is full of contradictions and I cannot explain all of them nor can I always be assuaged by saying that it is part of G-d's plan.

It is not a simplistic way of looking at things, or should I say having faith doesn't necessarily imply simplicity. Sometimes it just means that you believe that there is an answer that you are not able to explain.

I can't tell you how nuclear fission works, but I can tell you that it does.

Jewish Atheist said...

R10B,

Your initial post made no such distinction, and I'm still not sure what you mean.

Perhaps I should have spelled it out more, but I specifically referred to "simplistic religious beliefs" on the one side and "atheism and the more sophisticated theologies" on the other.

Those un-simple or smart theists (STs) like Lewis, Spong, and MLK held to most if not all of the beliefs you attributed to the simple or dumb theists (DTs).

First, I never said "smart" or "dumb." Please don't put words in my mouth. (Keyboard?) I meant "simple" as opposed to "complex." Second, being a "simple" theist isn't just about what beliefs you hold, it's about the way you hold them. An example of a "simple" theist is an American who believes that the Earth is 6000 years old, doesn't understand the first thing about evolution, and moreover, doesn't care.

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to entertain the theory of evolution, and wrote about the pagan origins of the Genesis story. ("I have therefore no difficulty accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical." -- from Reflections on the Psalms.)

for then you will have taken all those with notable intellects and set them aside then point to the remaining set of chowderheads and say, "See, I'm better than them." What will you have proved?

I'm not trying to prove that I'm better than anyone. I'm trying to understand how, in the 21st century, simplistic theologies can still be so popular in America. Examples of simplistic theologies include young-earth creationism and the belief that the Bible has no contradictions.

Jack's Shack:

"Life is full of contradictions and I cannot explain all of them nor can I always be assuaged by saying that it is part of G-d's plan."

That sounds like a more sophisticated theism than what I was talking about. Just recognizing that there are contradictions raises you out of the simple theist's level.

Hayim said...

Don't tell me you've never encountered a theist that you would consider sophisticated.

Don't tell me you've never encountered a non-theist whose views are naive in the extreme.

As far as I can see, most people around me are not going for "easy" or "difficult" answers. They try as hard as they can to forget that they have questions to begin with.

Random said...

JDHurf,

I was wondering if anybody would mention Saudi Arabia in response to Sadie Lou. It's not really correct however - the "crime" they're being killed for there is not that of embracing atheism but that of abandoning Islam. Exactly the same thing would have happened if they'd have converted to Christianity or Buddhism or any other religion. Granted, this is small consolation to the victims but it's important to be exact in these things - Sadie is almost certainly right, there are few if any places in the world were atheists are being killed simply for being atheists.

As for the state laws, even if they do exist and are still on the books (cite, please?) are you seriously claiming that any attempt to invoke them would not get shot down in flames on First Amendment grounds?

As for your Bush quote, that is, to put it at it's mildest, of dubious veracity. As someone on the discussion board at Snopes' Urban Legend site put it:

"That was allegedly from a brief exchange in 1987 between Mr. Bush and Robert Sherman, a reporter for American Atheist Press. Mr. Sherman was the only one who heard this and it's never been confirmed that it ever happened. So I don't trust it. Sherman has an agenda, American Atheists tend towards "Fundie Atheism," and no one has ever confirmed the quotation."

Jewish Atheist said...

Were you addressing me, Hayim? Of course I know sophisticated theists and naive non-theists.

As far as I can see, most people around me are not going for "easy" or "difficult" answers. They try as hard as they can to forget that they have questions to begin with.

Good point.

Laura said...

Wow... step away for a moment and the discussion explodes without you...

There's actually a concept in Psychology called the Locus of Control. Generally people are classified as having either an External or Internal locus of control. What this means is their perceptions of why things happen to them are either because of something they did (internal) or because of fate/god/luck (external). The "simple theists" as they've been termed, tend to be External - why did something happen... because God wanted it that way. It makes it easier to cope with difficult situations because you have no control. It takes away the personal responsibility and the sense of agency and puts some external force as the driver. SOmething bad happens - God wanted it that way - not my fault. Something good happens - God wanted it that way - my prayers must have worked...

Sadie Lou said...

Sadie Lou,
You say that in your Christian belief Christians will be persecuted for their beliefs regardless, it will just happen. You also ask where atheists are put to death for their beliefs nowadays. While I don’t understand how being put to death for you beliefs illustrates the worth or value of the beliefs I will acknowledge this question. Atheists will be, and are put to death in Saudi Arabia as well as Christians too. Islamofascism is vehemently opposed to secularism, atheism, and any faith outside of Islam. Atheists are also discriminated against in the United States itself, there are a few state laws that don’t recognize atheists as citizens in that they may not be considered for court appearances as witnesses, while these laws aren’t followed they exist and could very easily be brought back into action. George H. W. Bush himself is quoted as saying: “I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Again I don’t feel that this discrimination proves anything beyond the human urge to oppress.


I wasn't making a case for the value or worth of my belief but a case for it not being simplistic or less complex.
It becomes very complex the moment trials or persecution enter in to the picture.
Right now I'm reading a trilogy of Christian fiction and the main characters are faced with death, torture and whatever else because they refuse to denounce God.
That's pretty complicated.
To deny oneself the basic human reaction of self preservation for something such as faith isn't simplistic by any stretch of the imagination.

R10B said...

Second, being a "simple" theist isn't just about what beliefs you hold, it's about the way you hold them.

Oh, no! It's algebra all over again. It doesn't matter if you have the right answer, you must be able to explain it!

1 Peter 3:15 backs up this idea.

Yet my question is: How much evidence must a person present before you (generic, not specific "you") would acknowledge that they hold their beliefs properly and are not small and simplistic? Is there a belief-complexity standard out there I should know about? Or is it a relativistic personal standard therefore we must each decide for ourselves who is small and simplistic?

I hope that does not sound snippy. If necessary, please re-read in un-snippy tones.

Jewish Atheist said...

Is there a belief-complexity standard out there I should know about? Or is it a relativistic personal standard therefore we must each decide for ourselves who is small and simplistic?

Obviously there's no specific line. "Simple" theism isn't a technical term. I'm speaking of people who believe in a 6-day creation or that Katrina was a punishment for the sins of New Orleans.

JDHURF said...

Random,

You asked for citations with regards to laws discriminating against atheists so I will include the few that I have dug up:
1)Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution (engagingly titled "No Atheist shall hold a civil office"): "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."
2)Article XIX, Sec. 1, of the Arkansas constitution is even more exclusionary: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court."
3)Article 37 of Maryland's constitution provides that "no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God" (emphasis added).
These are the few that I dug up in response to your post, surely there are more (hopefully not).
-“are you seriously claiming that any attempt to invoke them would not get shot down in flames on First Amendment grounds?”
I fear you read my post in haste for I touch on this very subject. - “while these laws aren’t followed they exist and could very easily be brought back into action.”
My point being what Tom Flynn says: “while these clauses may be unenforceable today, they may not always remain so. While they survive they are like cast-off weapons - weapons a future, more pious America might choose to recommission.”

JDHURF said...

Random,

I would also like add some comments on the other topics you mentioned. You say that people are not being killed for embracing atheism rather they are being killed for abandoning Islam. You say the same thing would’ve happened if they had converted to Christianity or Buddhism I had already made that same point. I said that atheists are being killed as well as Christians. Yes, you are correct they are being killed for abandoning Islam, this is the direct cause. Why are they abandoning Islam? Some are converting to Christianity or other religions, while others are abandoning faith altogether and becoming atheists. They are leaving Islam in order to decide for themselves what they believe and for some it’s atheism, so yes they’re being killed for leaving Islam directly, but indirectly it’s because they’re atheists, for if they had choose to not believe in a godless world they may not have ever abandoned Islam (not that I think people have the ability to choose to not believe something that they tend to gravitate towards).
As for the Bush quote, I had found that on a (I thought) reliable site; I am not emotionally attached to that and would like to detract that quote from my post.

r10b,

I think you do misunderstand what I was saying, although I was most likely too vague. There are many reasons why intellectuals as well as laymen choose simple or difficult theism; the three reasons I indicated where: intellectually easy, emotionally satisfying, and the lack of ability to absolve the heavily indoctrinated and conditioned belief systems that they were exposed to and influenced by in their most impressionable years. You assert, wrongly, that the claim you make about there being highly intellectual people as well as emotionally sturdy people being theists holds no water with me. This absolutely does hold weight with me; I actually believe this to be one of the defining factors to understanding causes for supernatural beliefs. As I said in my first post there are many reasons why an individual would choose to subscribe to simple or difficult theism, and I only mentioned three reasons (the most common). I honestly believe that one of the major reasons isn’t a lack of intelligence, or even being emotionally unstable, rather being subjected to the heavy influence and indoctrination by ones parents, elders, and respected fellows at a young and impressionable age. I dare not claim that there aren’t intelligent and emotionally strong individuals that continue to believe in the supernatural or theism, of coarse there are.