Home / Robert Farley / Theology



I’m an atheist, and this isn’t really what I hear when I listen to people debate theology.  Indeed, I quite enjoy theological debates when they’re held at a level that I can understand.  The process of working forward from premises to find unusual or surprising implications is altogether enjoyable to watch, and most certainly to participate in (though I’ll grant that the Chris Matthews show is an unlikely place to find such a conversation).  I’ve found this to be true even when I reject the basic premises.  I’m also not certain that intelligent people debating theological principles are always lying about their claims of belief.

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  • Jamelle

    I’m not an atheist, I studied a lot of theology in school, I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m lying when I make theological arguments. Nor do I feel like I’m lying when I offer thanks, take Communion, etc.

  • The process of working forward from premises to find unusual or surprising implications is altogether enjoyable to watch, and most certainly to participate in.

    It’s like reading a science fiction novel. Some of those have had a pernicious influence too.

    • You mean there is an alternative to working from implications back to premises?

  • booferama

    Debating “what if there’s no hell” on the Chris Matthews show is like debating “what if there’s no hell” in, well, hell.

    • Captain Splendid

      Chris Matthews certainly qualifies as ‘other people’.

  • Joe

    I find the paraphrase there is troubling since it appears unable to even try to stand in the shoes of those who don’t think this stuff is “baseless religious bullshit” and reason things out by standing in their shoes. I also find that less interesting myself. But, worse, it is the road of not being able to have common ground. The other side is just full of shit.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein

      Chris Matthews and his guests aren’t really arguing about whether there’s a hell or not.

      Andrew Sullivan asserts that there’s no such thing because a truly orthodox interpretation of Christianity doesn’t include a literal hell.

      Joe Klein thinks it’s kind of weird that he was invited to discuss the implications of the possible non-existence of a place his religion never posited in the first place.

      The Washington Post correspondent says that she thinks it would be too bad if there were no hell, or if people stopped believing in hell, because people need the threat of rewards and punishments to act righteously.

      These are not serious theological arguments.

      • +7 Huzzahs

      • Holden Pattern

        And to the extent the Post writer’s position is a theological argument, it posits (1) a God who’s an immeasurably evil psychopath, or (2) humans who are all complete sociopaths.

        • wengler

          She lives in DC and covers politicians. I’d have some sympathy if I didn’t think she was the same.

        • Anderson

          Voltaire remarked that anyone who had the management of a few hundred peasants would find himself quickly resorting to the notions of heaven and hell.

        • timb

          Where is the evidence that either of suppositions is wrong?

          Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Epicurus.

          • joeyess


      • Anderson

        They are more serious than Beyerstein appears to credit. Depending on one’s definition of “hell,” the New Testament is a bit vague, particularly on the issue of *eternal* torment, which is the aspect of hell most troubling to pinkos like Sullivan and myself. Origen, who was a pretty serious guy, did not think even the devil would be punished forever, and indeed thought that all would be saved.

        Klein simply points out that Judaism traditionally has no “hell” or indeed much of an afterlife at all.

        The Post reporter’s argument was serious enough for Immanuel Kant.

        I don’t know Beyerstein’s background in theology, but I think she is a little hasty to declare arguments “serious” or not.

        • Anderson


          Though a theological minority in historical and contemporary Christianity, some holding mostly Protestant views (such as George MacDonald, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, William Barclay, Keith DeRose and Thomas Talbott) believe that after serving their sentence in Gehenna, all souls are reconciled to God and admitted to heaven, or ways are found at the time of death of drawing all souls to repentance so that no “hellish” suffering is experienced.

          If Barth ain’t “serious,” who is?

        • Origen, who was a pretty serious guy, did not think even the devil would be punished forever, and indeed thought that all would be saved.

          Except his testicles.

          • Anderson

            Cue Gibbon’s classic footnote:

            As it was his general practice to allegorize scripture, it seems unfortunate that, in this instance only, he should have adopted the literal sense.

            Interpretation’s a bitch, man.

        • Hogan

          As an argument about whether hell exists, Sullivan’s is circular (“it doesn’t exist because orthodox Christianity as I understand it says it doesn’t exist”), Klein’s answer is “Who cares?” (the correct answer, I think, but not a serious argument), and the Post reporter’s is an assertion of will (“I want hell to exist because the idea of it helps keep people below me in the social hierarachy in their place, therefore it exists”). That last may be a serious argument about technologies of social control, but not about whether hell exists.

          • Anderson

            Well yes, if you define any argument based on religious beliefs/tenets as not serious, then you will not find many serious theological arguments.

            • Hogan

              Two of the three don’t address the question at all, and one addresses them using undefined terms in a way that amounts to circularity. I think someone actually using religious beliefs/tenets to answer the question asked could do a lot better.

              Which is just to say that discussion of religious issues on a Chris Matthews show rises to about the same standard as discussion of political issues on a Chris Matthews show. I don’t consider it a fair test of religious discussion as such.

      • Joe

        The word “assert” implies to me a negative judgment of his argument, but putting that aside, I’m not sure why AS’ statements are not “serious.”

        I don’t know why Klein discussing his religion is not serious either.

        Finally, I don’t understand why stating pragmatic reasons for belief is not serious, when that always was an important argument for religion in the first place.

        They also weren’t just saying it all is b.s. The commentary thought that and was unable to even consider the other side. This is not a serious approach.

      • timb

        I was unaware there were ANY serious theological arguments

        • joeyess

          ha ha ha ha………… as was I.

        • kth

          There aren’t, because the basis for the first principles is, without exception, preposterous.

          • hv

            Anything follows from a contradiction.

  • The basic problem is why does there have to be a heaven or a hell for people to behave well?

    • N W Barcus

      …because neither seems to be necessary for people to behave like tribalist schmucks.

    • Captain Splendid

      No, the problem, As Carlin put it so well, is: Why is your bullshit so special? If we’re going to have heaven and hell, then why can’t we have unicorns and werewolves?

      • Anderson

        Cap, you can have all the unicorns and werewolves you want.

        I’m seeing an afterlife where the Blessed get to ride magical unicorns, and the Cursed sit through eternal showings of the Twilight films.

        But surely no god could be so cruel.

    • wengler

      For the same reason that we have to burn witches.

  • ploeg

    If somebody discusses their sincere beliefs about the godhead, at the very least it gives you insight into what that person values and how that person thinks, so such a discussion can be very interesting indeed. Then you have theological discussions that stay in the realm of what each person should believe rather than what each person does believe. Those sorts of discussions are typically what you get when you watch TV, and those sorts of discussions are paradoxically the ones that aren’t worth watching.

    And then you have Monty Python….

    • Mr. Trend

      And here, I was certain what you were linking to was this

      • ploeg

        Well, there wasn’t that much discussion in that clip. (Then again, there wasn’t that much discussion in mine either.)

    • timb

      If somebody discusses their sincere beliefs about the godhead, at the very least it gives you insight into what that person values and how that person thinks,

      I’m not sure how you measure sincerity, but as veteran of many a church service from many a fundamentalist, I would submit that when “someone discusses their beliefs with you,” you are learning less about what they believe and more about what they think you believe and value, especially when as the question of value starts to enter the realm of, well, money.

  • N W Barcus

    Like any religious viewpoint there are varieties of atheists (and agnostics, though I seem to be one of the few who maintain those are two different theories). Some atheists seem to be nearly indistinguishable from Xian or Taliban-style authoritarian fundamentalists, just a couple of variables changed in sign from positive to negative (or vice versa).

    • DocAmazing

      Not too many clinics or schools burned by atheists. I’ve been physically threatened by Christians for expressing my atheism; I’ve never seen a Christian threatened by an atheist, but perhaps you’ll set me straight.

      • Captain Splendid

        Agreed. But by definition, atheists are just as dogmatic as any fundie.

        Hence agnosticism: No person or group seems to have all the answers. Mind you, that science chap is certainly well ahead of the pack. Best keep an eye on that fellow.

        • hv

          But by definition, atheists are just as dogmatic as any fundie.

          Not by my definition. Nor Wiki’s. Citation please.

          • Captain Splendid

            Thanks for the link. I believe the second sentence has got me covered.

            My anecdotal experience is that an overwhelming majority of self-described atheists fall into this category.

            And they’re just as wrong as any God-botherer.

            • Anonymous

              I wouldn’t say they’re just as wrong, nor would I say they’re just as dangerous (although some display some classic authoritarian-fundamentalist traits, but rarely act on them).

              They are definitely just as annoying, though.

            • hv

              So embarrassing that you didn’t read a bit further. Your exact proposition is covered in much further detail.

              In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be exclusively irreligious or unspiritual.[11] However, atheism also figures in certain religious and spiritual belief systems, such as Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Jainism and some forms of Buddhism do not advocate belief in gods,[12] whereas Hinduism holds atheism to be valid, but difficult to follow spiritually.

              Also, this is kind of awkward to have to explain, but when multiple definitions are offered — some of which confirm what you say and some of which don’t — you do realize that doesn’t add up to “by definition” atheists are dogmatic. Actually, the definition is pretty flexible on the dogmatism. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

              That’s like saying “by definition, banks are something that are on the sides of rivers.”

              My anecdotal experience is that an overwhelming majority of self-described atheists fall into this category.

              Perhaps you find atheists very annoying and dogmatic because they are reluctant to swallow your claims, that they are by definition dogmatic, uncritically. Your anecdata is tainted by genuine bias, as well as the more traditional bias.

              I hesitate to ask where this episode will be pigeon-holed.

            • timb

              How could they be “wrong” if they say God doesn’t exist and he does not?

              What irritates you, I submit, is “proselytizing” atheists. They annoy me to. if your belief in magic sky fairies makes you happy and doesn’t screw with other people, then I say whatever anesthetizes your existential pain on this brief ride we have is good for you.

              Of course, I use baseball, politics, and history to anesthetize myself, but I’m not dogmatic about it

          • STH

            I suspect that the definition of atheism that Captain Splendid is using is something like denying that a god exists. This, however, is not atheism; atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god. If you tell me that there is an advanced society of purple bear-gods living on the moon–it must be true! my holy book says so!–but present no evidence for this factual claim, I, an atheist, will not believe in their existence. That is not the same as denying they exist and it makes no sense to say that I’m being dogmatic or fundamentalist or anything else.

        • Holden Pattern

          Shrugging in response to a complete lack of evidence of things unseen is hardly dogmatism.

          One also notes that one of the reasons the monotheist God-concept is so persistent and “atheism” is such a radical position is that the monotheist God-concept has been abstracted into unknowability. How many Christians are willing to say “Sure, I believe in Odin and Vishnu.” But the monotheist God is all and everything, without limits. In other words, unlike smaller gods, completely impossible to delimit or demarcate or even understand, so hey, it might exist, and saying there’s no evidence is dogmatic!

          • djw

            I think this captures why, historically, monotheistic religions tend to be a better fit with science/reason/modernity/etc than polytheistic ones (not claiming tensions and contradictions don’t persist of course).

            • brandon

              Eh… that’s pretty hard to draw from the evidence, isn’t it? – since polytheism had been supplanted in most major Eurasian civilizations long long before science & reason etc. came on the scene in a major way – unless it was polytheism holding the Incas back? I don’t see how you could pick that out as a tipping point compared to all the other factors.

            • ajay

              I think this captures why, historically, monotheistic religions tend to be a better fit with science/reason/modernity/etc

              The ancient Greeks, with their pantheon of gods, were of course famously hostile to science and reason.

              • chris

                Didn’t they execute one of their famous reasoners for blasphemy? That seems to indicate that reason and religion were in some tension even then.

              • SeanH

                They also admitted a foreign god into their pantheon – Bendis – for financial reasons (Bendis was a Thracian god, and Thrace was a valuable trading partner with whom Athens needed a good relationship). A delightful marriage of faith and reason!

      • hv

        When one doesn’t expect a reward in the afterlife, a stint in prison looms much larger in the calculations.

        Certainly, many fewer suicide bombers, right? Can’t atheists at least get that much? Acting rationally also has a socializing effect.

        • Robert Farley

          During the Cold War, the argument was that Russia and China were particularly threatening because they were atheist, and didn’t fear divine retribution for their actions. Thus, they might be willing to push the button and nuke everyone.

          The funny bits are:

          1. Atheists can’t win.
          2. The same arguments are made about Iran because they’re super-religious

          However, I also think it’s reasonable to point out that plenty o’ folks have done horrible, brutal, and even suicidal things not because of religion, but rather for purely secular doctrines (nationalism, communism, etc.). I don’t think that atheists are any less susceptible to such doctrines than believers.

          • Paul Campos

            The world’s leading suicide bombers are (or at least were) the Tamil Tigers, which is a purely secular group.

            • DrDick

              As they actually invented the practice, they had plenty of practice until the Sri Lankan army decided genocide was an acceptable tactic.

          • wengler

            I think it’s unhelpful to discriminate against certain orthodoxies because they don’t read as religion. Soviet Communism was as much a belief system as Christianity. They both propose an orthodox way of thinking that is infallible and unassailable.

            In fact I would argue the most powerful religion in this country these days is capitalism or a belief in the “market”. Americans usually have incorporated it into the two other predominant belief systems, the civic religion of Americanism and usually some form of Christianism, but the latter has waned somewhat in the modern world.

            And hopefully the belief in the market gods are waning as well as it has assaulted the rights and privileges of being an American.

            • Anonymous

              Do you really think it’s helpful to collapse all difference between ideology and religion? They’res overlap in their social function and structure, but the daylight between exists and remains relevant in important ways, it seems to me.

            • M. Showperson

              That’s not nearly as clever as you think it is. Using the vocabulary of religion to describe an ideology (like capitalism) and its adherents can be helpful on a shallow level, but the project falls apart when you, like, consider the structures and so of given ideology since they ain’t so isomorphic.

              • I’m not so sure you are correct there– certainly in Catholic thinking avarice is a sin precisely because the desire to accumulate wealth supplants the deity– money, in other words, becomes a god. It is not merely glib to suggest that capitalism is the civic religion of the United States– in the view of at least one religion it is true.

              • wengler

                I assert no cleverness. I simply applied what I know about enforced orthodoxies.

                The Soviet state was engaged in the revolutionary reconstruction of traditional holidays and reproduction of traditional rituals within a Soviet context.

                I applied the term ‘religion’ because it is the only term I can think of for a specifically ‘belief’-based system. One that doesn’t rely on objective results to perpetuate itself.

          • hv

            I feel like the goalposts just moved a little. Let me rephrase things… At the very least, we can all agree that there are very few suicide bombers who are bombing to further the cause of atheism. If it’s such a brutal world, the more people we can get attached to causes that don’t inspire bombing, that’s positive, right?

            I don’t think that atheists are any less susceptible to such doctrines than believers.

            I believe that some paths to atheism are very resistant to such doctrines. Let’s role play a little — I’ll be Karl Marx (or Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, Carl Sagan, etc) and you be the leaders of the Tamil Tigers and you try to recruit me.

            However, I have no real evidence to support my claim. Color me dogmatic, I guess. And a splitter!

          • However, I also think it’s reasonable to point out that plenty o’ folks have done horrible, brutal, and even suicidal things not because of religion, but rather for purely secular doctrines (nationalism, communism, etc.). I don’t think that atheists are any less susceptible to such doctrines than believers.

            Non-belief is not a shield against stupidity, agreed; however, there have beeb vanishingly few Atheists whose idiocies have been in the name of Atheism. With no dogma there is no justification for them.

            • Anonymous

              if you think stupidity is the central problem here, you’re not paying attention. Lenin? Cromwell? Not stupid people.

              • And once more… Intelligence itself is no shield against stupidity when humans are involved. And I think you’ll find that whatever atrocities may or may not be attributable to Lenin, they were done in the name of Marxism, not Atheism.

                And Cromwell? Are we talking about Oliver Cromwell the enthusiastic Christian?

            • John

              I’m not so sure. What about all those priests murdered in the Spanish Civil War? The leadership of the various left-wing parties all condemned such murders, but for much of the rank and file, killing priests was the main thing that excited them about the prospect of left-wing revolution. Pretty much any time you have a far left revolution based on Marxist or other atheist principles, it seems pretty clear that anti-religious enthusiasm becomes a really big part of the appeal.

              (And I don’t think this is a right wing or reactionary claim at all – I’m more or less taking it verbatim from Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, and Hobsbawm is basically a straight-ahead Marxist.)

              • DocAmazing

                I suspect that those anarchists who murdered priests had suffered through a hell of a lot of Catholicism, and killing priests seemed less like a revolutionary act and more like revenge. Having spent some time in the bosom of the Holy Mother Church, I can understand the motivation.

              • hv

                Are you suggesting that IF some Hindu priests or Buddhist gurus had been visiting Spain at the time, they would’ve been targets to the exact same degree as the Catholic priests who had been the contact point of centuries of oppression?

                (Also, please note the glaring flaw(s) in the chain of reasoning that leads from marxists=atheistic to the rank and file were atheists.)

                I’m with DocAmazing, this wasn’t a problem atheists had with priests qua priests. This is a problem the oppressed had with their former oppressors.

      • rea

        There are, however, some historical examples–Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Revolutionary France, etc.

        • joeyess

          Can I tell you how fatuous this argument is? Should I list the atrocities committed in the name of the “one true god” that will dwarf your pathetic attempt to link a very select and tiny group of psychopaths and sociopaths to atheism?

          I don’t think you want to go there.

          • hv

            Especially if we adjust for relative populations across time.

      • justaguy

        “I’ve never seen a Christian threatened by an atheist, but perhaps you’ll set me straight.”
        Beijing police beat and jailed members of an underground Christian church for the past two Sundays in a row because they were praying in public.

        • Holden Pattern

          Yes, that’s clearly related to mere atheism. It has nothing to do with the social controls that totalitarian governments (of all kinds) impose.

          • justaguy

            So, you don’t think that the Chinese state has demonstrated a hostility towards religious activity since 1949? Or do you acknowledge that hostility but think it has nothing to do with their explicit ideological hostility towards religion?

            • Holden Pattern

              The Chinese state is overtly hostile to ANY alternate belief system that threatens the Chinese state. Doesn’t matter what it is.

              There’s a case to be made that religious people (Christians in particular) are willing to be martyrs, so they taunt the Chinese state, and are duly persecuted. And of course, the US media likes a good “Christians-persecuted” story.

              None of that should be taken as an endorsement of the actions of the Chinese state. I have no use for any totalitarian state.

        • Not really what the person meant, but nice el try.

        • LoriK

          Yes, but that really has nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with politics and government control. The issue is a repressive regime, not atheism.

          • Robert Farley

            Just to fast forward this to its painfully obvious conclusion, there have been repressive states actively hostile to both religious belief and to organized religion, the former mostly for ideological reasons and the latter because of the desire to stamp out alternatives to state power. And there have been repressive states friendly to specific religious beliefs that have made active efforts to co-opt the structures of organized religion etc. etc. etc. etc.

            • wengler

              The most interesting case of attempted co-opting of religion that I’ve come across is the Soviet state’s attempt to co-opt Islam in its Central Asian Republics in the 1980s.

              Well worth the research for anyone interested in the subject.

              • See also the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche.

              • Robert Farley

                Yes; some very interesting stuff here. Somebody who did a tour of the Central Asian Republics brought back pictures of Soviet state buildings that were a downright fascinating combination of Islamic and Soviet architectural styles…

          • justaguy

            There is no generic totalitarianism. There are some totalitarian states that promote some religions and not others (e.g. Iran) , some that discourage all religion (e.g. China) and presumably some that are indifferent towards religion.

            When the Taliban ban Christian missionaries in areas under their control is that unrelated to their understanding of Islam? If it is related to their understanding of Islam, how would the Chinese state’s ban on missionaries be unrelated to their atheism?

            The comment I replied to suggested that atheism wasn’t a source of violence against religious believers. That is demonstrably false. if he meant that most atheists are never violent towards believes, I’m sure that’s true. But I’m guessing that most religious folk aren’t violent towards people that disagree with them either.

            • Holden Pattern

              Is your position that “atheism” independent of the totalitarian nature of the Chinese state is somehow responsible for the persecution of Christians?

              Wow. I’m not going to get into this discussion, because it’s going to devolve into “STALIN WUZ AN ATHEIST! HITLER WUZ A CHRISTIAN.” But wow.

              • Robert Farley


                That’s rather obviously not his position. Not all totalitarian states are hostile to all religious belief/organization. Some are. Even some that are ideologically hostile to religion are fairly tolerant in practice. Some that are ideologically hostile to religion are quite intolerant in practice.

              • Robert Farley

                But then I guess I opened the door to ridiculously stupid comment thread on atheism the billionth, when all I really wanted to point out was that atheists vary on the view of religious people and religious debates.

              • justaguy

                Not at all. But Christian violence against non-believers can also be contextualized within a larger social and political context. See, for example, Bethany Moreton’s work on the relationship between homophobia among some Christians and the decline of the middle class in America (Short version – as men are less able to get good jobs, and rely in more ‘feminized’ service industry gigs their role as a masculine provider for their family is threatened. They respond by projecting this threat onto the gays, viewing them as assaulting the family from the outside.)

                Sure, the Chinese state is totalitarian – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t tolerate competing ideologies, social institutions or spaces outside of direct control of the state. Belief in the free market once would get you beaten to death, but now is officially promoted by the state. Qigong practice was promoted by the state starting in the 1950s up until the point where it was viewed as a threat (1999) – leading to a crackdown and then a loosening of control. On some days walking through a shopping mall is no different than walking through a mall in New York, and other days it gets you followed by undercover cops. Underground churches are tolerated in most places in China, but not so much in Beijing. The state – from the highest levels of the politburo to the cop on the corner – makes choices about what views it finds threatening and what views it doesn’t. To suggest that ideology plays no part in those choices is absurd.

              • Holden Pattern

                @justaguy: But that ideology that you’re describing isn’t “atheism”. It’s a particular version of a one-party state which has strong views about people challenging its power. Try to start a non-party-endorsed union or writing a purely secular novel that criticizes authority, or being openly gay — they don’t much like those things either.

                It seems to me that your own examples undermines your earlier statements. The Chinese don’t like Christians who openly defy the power of the party, but are willing to tolerate non-threatening activities in the hinterlands. Well, that’s shocking, and the difference in how the same groups are treated differently over time seems to militate against the idea that there’s some kind of doctrinal atheism ruthlessly enforced by the party as a matter of central belief. Was the crushing of the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square also based on some particular ideological quirk of Chinese Communism? Or was it just authoritarianism deciding that an example had to be made?

                I also tend to think that there’s a qualitative difference in the “atheist” authoritarianisms and the “theist” authoritarianism.

                The Taliban (or, for a better example, the clerics ruling Iran) can always say (and usually do), “because [our interpretation of] God wants it”. And then you’re arguing religious doctrine about whether or not their God wants whatever it is.

                On the other hand, anti-religious policies are a consequence of certain kinds of authoritarian states, not a cause of it. “There is no God, therefore we must have a one-party state that doesn’t allow competing power centers!” Wha?

                Or you can take the position that the main difference between religious authoritarianism and violence vs. anti-religious authoritarianism and violence is that while both perpetrators are just rationalizing the raw exercise of power, the religious authoritarians just have a better ability to deceive themselves about what they’re doing, and proudly pin it on divinity.

            • ajay

              There are some totalitarian states that promote some religions and not others (e.g. Iran) , some that discourage all religion (e.g. China) and presumably some that are indifferent towards religion.

              But this just isn’t true. There is, for example, a Chinese Catholic church that is actually endorsed and even funded by the Chinese government – the CPCA. There are similar groups for Protestants and Muslims. The CCP discourages foreign-controlled or foreign-influenced religion very strongly, but it’s simply wrong to say that it’s hostile to religion per se.

        • wengler

          This isn’t a good example because Christianity has a long history in China connected with imperialism.

          The repression of Christianity in China has much more to with traditionalism than anything else.

          • justaguy

            Just to clarify – I was going to post a link to an article about the protest (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/world/asia/10china.html), but my google searches for it were blocked by the Great Firewall. So I left out the relevant details that they weren’t simply protesting the state, but were protesting a campaign of police pressure against them that began before they did anything in public. The Church in question was being harassed by the police for years and only started praying in public in protest of being evicted from their meeting space due to police pressure on their landlord.

            They have actually applied for official recognition by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 2006, which would mean being subjected to state supervision and regulation. Their application was rejected and they have been told that they should meet in private homes in small groups, rather than in a large public group. So you have a group of people protesting in favor of more state control, and the police telling them to be nice, and make themselves less visible to surveillance and control. For anyone with a passing familiarity with Chinese bureaucracy this, of course, makes perfect sense – but it is hard to reduce it to simply being the inevitable logic of a totalitarian state. People in Beijing gather in private and public groups to do any number of things – poetry readings, tour groups, speed dating, punk rock shows, etc. What gets framed as political or apolitical is ideological and can’t be reduced to some inherent logic of totalitarianism.

        • timb

          And you know they were atheists how? Seems to me, they beat them for political reasons and not religious ones.

      • j_h_r

        Not too many clinics or schools burned by atheists.


        Not exactly BURNED, mind you…

        or alternatively, see the well-documented Soviet and PRC assaults on religion

        • or alternatively, see the well-documented Soviet and PRC assaults on religion

          See above discussion re Chinese suppression of particular religious ideologies – they’re suppressed as a threat to political power, not because of their beliefs per se. Similarly, the situation in Mexico described by Greene was a reaction against feudalistic social structures rather than religion per se.

        • hv

          Your own link says it was a fight against the church due to feudalism. I’m confused what this says about religion. Are you saying that if the church had peacefully relinquished the reins of power, that the “atheists” involved would still have gotten violent?

          Color me skeptical.

    • wengler

      I’ve always considered myself as a non-theist. Atheism proposes there is no god when the concept of God doesn’t figure into my belief system at all. Agnosticism is sort of a catch-all category that isn’t satisfactory to me.

      In the end I guess this just makes me an empiricist. I do try to make educated guesses though. Unlike religious orthodoxy, however, I don’t pretend it is fact with no evidence.

    • joeyess

      No no no no no………….. you don’t get to compare atheism as being akin to a religion. Do you know why? Because we have no gods, myths, legends, unicorns, christbrides, men in dresses, dogma, transubstantiation using silly crackers, no fantastical stories of raising the dead as zombies thru the miracle of talking to imaginary friends, no prayer huts, no prayer mats, to compass telling us to face a certain direction to get better reception to deities. Calling or equating Atheism to a religion is like calling baldness a hair color. And you most certainly don’t get to say that atheists are “indistingguisable from Xtian or Taliban style authoritarian fundamentalists. You will never, never see this headline: “Radical Atheist Group Blows Up Federal Building”, So stop with that damn nonsense, right now.

      • hv

        But is zero a number?

  • Teacherboy

    I have to say, as an atheist myself, this is pretty much what I hear. A bit less snark, but pretty much the same. For those non atheists out there, listening to people talk about whether there is a hell or not is like listening to two people argue about which are prettier, unicorns or fairies. It’s fine for a few moments, until you realize that they are both arguing about things that don’t and never will exist, and then it’s just stupid, and you find better things to do with your day.

    • wengler

      Yeah and in the specifics it is really hard to even conceptualize.

      How can someone even pretend to know what ‘eternal torment’ is? Nothing in this world is eternal.

  • Aaron Baker

    Theology is a guilty pleasure of mine– especially Christological disputes. Without believing any of it, I love the ingenuity and intricacy of the arguments.

    • wengler

      One word: Theodicy.

      • Hogan

        I highly recommend Stephen Dobyns’s novel The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, in which we learn that professional wrestling matches are scripted to reflect underground debates over the origin of evil conducted by representatives of the major Christian and para-Christian (e.g., Gnostic) tendencies.

    • There was little of either ingenuity or intricacy on display in the clip, however. I’d suggest one other word from wengler: Theidiocy.

      And as long as I’m coining playful neologisms, I like to call myself an apatheist. Maybe there’s a god or gods, maybe there isn’t or aren’t – I don’t care. No matter what it won’t change the way I live my life.

      • mark f

        And as long as I’m coining playful neologisms, I like to call myself an apatheist.

        Meh. I called myself that for a while, but then I heard Bill Maher say it and I wanted to kill myself. And then he made that stupid movie and proved himself a liar.

      • timb

        Ironically, this seems true of anyone and everyone who has lived, save for a few hours a week genuflecting to a cultural tradition

      • hv

        I like anti-theist. I am actively opposed to all forms of theism. Part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Frankly, I don’t see a difference between theology and fan-fiction. Trying to reconcile bits of the bible against each other dosen’t sound any different than fans of a TV series arguing over the gaps left in by the writers, or trying to reconcile their favorite spinoffs with the main chronology.

    Sure, the arguments might be interesting and there might be some small practical value to it there the arguments stretch into the political realities of the rest of the world, but since they’re based on a fictional premise to begin with, it’s hard to take it too seriously.

    • Teacherboy

      Holy crap, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I was trying to say. I’m totally stealing that analogy.

    • …waiting for the Abraham-Isaac slashfic to start showing up…

  • Murc

    I think one of the big problems here is that a lot of so-called theological or religious debates are actually about DOCTRINE. That Chris Mathews thing was a farce, and Amanda was absolutely right to mock it as such, but I’m not sure it was a farce for the reasons she thinks it is.

    ‘Is there a Hell and what form does it take?’ is a stupid question to begin with. It’s about doctrine, not principles or meaning, and it is the sort of question posed by fundamentalists or evangelicals in an attempt to make you conform to their checklist.

    Fred Clark is my go-to guy for when it comes to discussing faith in a meaningful way. So much of what passes for religious or theological ‘debate’ or ‘discussion’ these days fails on a very fundamental level because its basic premises and questions are wrong or misguided to begin with.

    • Scott Adams’ sock puppet

      Seconded. Theodicy and Dostoevsky-type ruminations on the implications of the existence of God and Christ can be fascinating for people who like abstract reasoning. Arguing over whether meat on Fridays is a sin . . . not so much.

    • Joe

      Doctrine can get tedious but the overall discussion boils down to general questions. I don’t agree that it isn’t about principles or meaning. Doctrine doesn’t arise from the ether.

      As to those who think this is all b.s., religion also tends to be a means to make the abstract concrete. Heaven and hell can very well be symbolic, like all myths can be.

      Some can’t handle that, needing to be more concrete. So, right/wrong becomes heaven/hell. Rituals are set in place. etc. We can just call this “b.s.” or examine the deeper foundations.

  • Christopher

    These nested replies are giving me hives.

    Is your position that “atheism” independent of the totalitarian nature of the Chinese state is somehow responsible for the persecution of Christians?

    I’ve had this exact same debate with Christians; they say the inquisition doesn’t count because it’s very hard to find support for a torture regime in the bible, and, anyway, the whole process was meant to achieve political ends, not religious ones.

    On that note, since nobody else will defend them, Aztec human sacrifice was clearly political, not religious. Their favorite victims were high ranking POWs, who were sacrificed in front of foreign dignitaries. Clearly, the whole thing had nothing to do with the beautiful Aztec religion, and was a perversion introduced by an expanding empire.

    Somehow, no matter who you are, the other side’s zealous assholes are motivated to do evil purely by their twisted ideology, while your side’s zealous assholes have clearly been corrupted and are just using your ideology as a cover for their real motives.

    • Matthew Franklin

      The Inquisition, if I’m remembering correctly, was not actually allowed to use torture for the first hundred years of its existence, until some arsehole Pope decided that might be a fun idea. Also, Inquisitorial legal systems are still used in many European countries (sans the torture, natch).

      That said, I think the point you raise is a good one. There is no fundamental difference between the kind of violence perpetrated by states and that perpetrated by religions; indeed, one could argue that American nationalism is very much a religion – the doctrine of American exceptionalism certainly provides valid grounds for comparison with regard to the kinds of violence it condones / sanctions / justifies.

  • Bart

    Note the absence of any participation by goddy hisself in this discussion or that on the Mathews show.

    • mark f

      Note, too, that God can’t make a square with five sides. Whoa: Mind. Blown.

      I agree with Rob that as an atheist I often find good theological discussions to be worthwhile. I also agree with the Anonymous upthread who said most atheists are annoying.

      • Furious Jorge

        most atheists people are annoying.


  • BruceK

    Where on the scale of religions would someone find the attitude of “damfino, I’m just worried about this world and the next few generations who are going to have to live in it?”

    Gotta say, though, the idea that someone can be brought up outside religion but still having a strong moral code is alien to a lot of people. So is uncertainty about religion in general.

    (Example: I got conscripted into the Greek army, and when my bunkmate asked me to explain my philosophy, talking about the obviousness of how there absolutely had to be a God, I answered: “Maybe there’s no God. Maybe there is a God. For all we know, there could be a million gods.”

    “Yes, but there’d have to be one in charge over all the others, no?”)

    Oh, and there were the people who probably thought they were doing me a favor by coercing me to join the Greek Orthodox church (under color of military authority, mind).

    If you’ve got to lie your way into a church, I figure, aren’t you doomed to burn anyway?

    • STH

      This is one of the big problems with Pascal’s Wager; what deity worthy of the name is going to be fooled by a show of fake belief?

      I was driving to the grocery store the other day and a woman followed me into the parking lot and parked next to me. She had apparently seen my bumper stickers (an atheist fish and a sticker that says “Only sheep need a shepherd”) and proceeded to give me her “personal testimony” about Christianity, including Pascal’s Wager (gee, thanks, I’ve never heard that one before–I told her she needs to read something other than the Bible).

      I’m getting so, so tired of the whole “those obnoxious, rude atheists!” trope, and its traveling buddies, the “atheism is a religion!” and “atheists are fundamentalists!” When I start following people in my car so that I can harangue them in parking lots, then you can call me a fundamentalist, okay (even if it’s a meaningless accusation)? And don’t even start with me about my bumper stickers being rude, when the fucking Pope stands up and tells the whole world that atheists are to blame for Hitler. Christians can talk any old trash they want to about atheists, but we open our mouths and the pearl-clutching goes on for miles.

  • Emma

    Where on the scale of religions would someone find the attitude of “damfino, I’m just worried about this world and the next few generations who are going to have to live in it?”

    I think Episcopalians have this one nailed!

  • joeyess

    What theology debates can’t you understand? What’s so difficult to follow? The debates include no empirical evidence of any kind, they largely depend on subjective assertions and rely on iron-age nonsense.

    Why even bother to engage? It’s a futile effort to even entertain these childhood fantasies and they should be treated as such. With the wave of a hand and ceding the playground to adolescent minds that are more concerned with their everlasting souls than the task before them: Making the world a better place for sentient human beings to live in.

    In other words: People who discuss these issues are either horribly bored or they’re so heavenly bound, they’re no earthly good.

  • joeyess

    Also, too, these theological debates represent nothing more than a pissing contest in which the many participants discuss which worship hut is more pristine in it’s belief, what rituals are worthy of one’s adherence and the ultimate question; Which faction is the least likely to fleece the flock the least.

    In short, snake-oil and balderdash.

  • joeyess

    Here’s my theological argument, posited more than 2000 years ago:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

    Epicurus (c. 341 – c. 270 BC)

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  • Uncle Kvetch

    I consider myself an agnostic (or, alternatively, “violently lapsed Catholic”), but the thought of having to listen to Chris Matthews, Andrew Sullivan, and Joe Klein discussing anything does make me reconsider my dismissal of the notion of hell.

    • hv

      Atheists admit the possibility of hell on earth.

  • Dr.BDH

    Hell is watching Andrew Sullivan and Joel Klein talk with Chris Matthews about anything. Three thoroughly discredited assholes who should be shunned by everyone, theist and atheist alike.

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