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The existence or non-existence of a god, and whether or not it matters

edited January 2007 in Flamewars
I've been thinking (a dangerous prospect, to be sure) while reading the current religion flamewar. One of the biggest raging questions since the dawn of human thinking has been "Is there a god?" Man different answers have been formulated over the years, and in trying to figure out which one I like, I realized something.

When asked that question, there are a handful of typical responses. The hard-line atheist says, "Definitely not." The hard-line theist will say, "Definitely yes." More middle-of-the-road atheists and agnostics withhold judgement. Hard agnostics say "We can't know."

I say: it doesn't matter.

To summarize my conjecture: The existence or non-existence of a particular deity/divinity/what have you does not affect the teachings of the religion attached to said supernatural power(s).

This means that the teachings of a religion still exist whether or not the deity in question does, and that their validity or lack thereof, and their applicability or lack thereof, does not in any way depend on the existence or non-existence of their alleged deity. Essentially, I'm calling out the atheism-agnosticism-theism debate and saying that, in all respects, the argument is pointless because the answer doesn't matter.

Consider this: we can accept that a religion is, at its core, a collection of philosophy that attempts to guide us in how we conduct our lives. Any religion is essentially a set of guidelines that attempts to help people in a given culture or cultural setting, if I may, attempt to peacefully coexist. Religions are a particular sort of philosophy concerned with morality and other difficult questions that prevent some people from getting along easily.

Those collections of philosophies bear consideration in any sort of discussion about societal conduct in any fashion; in essence, in any discussion about "the way things should be," the core teachings of religions almost always have something to say, and when taken as the philosophy, they can be useful tools for discussion.

Since almost every religion, however, involves some amount of teachings that tell you to go against what you want to do sometimes, it takes coercion to get many people to follow in line, and this is most likely from whence the concept of deities arose. Ancient priests sought to use their religions as ways to exercise control over the populace, as any religion involves behavior control. Creating superstition and the concept of an all-powerful being (or beings) helped to strike fear and awe into early believers, so that they would be inclined to listen to what the priests had to say.

As we've grown, I think we've outgrown the need for the mysticism and superstition associated with religion, much as one outgrows the idea of Santa Claus as one gets older. If we remove all the divine crap from the teachings of religions, we're left with philosophies on how to conduct ourselves based on the need to peacefully cohabitate. Being that humans are social animals, the need to have a stable social setting is evident, and as we've grown more interconnected and interdependent as a species, I contend that this fact has become more evident to more people. Therefore, we no longer need the mystical crap to show people the validity of a particular teaching about social conduct; instead, we can consider the teachings on their own, free of the mystical crap.

The way I see it, a deity is akin to a corporate mascot; it serves to iconify the religion and to have something that people can point to easily. However, much like a company mascot, it doesn't actually affect the product or service itself; Linux would still be Linux with or without Tux. The entire debate about the existence, or lack thereof, of any god or gods is totally pointless, because answering the question will not affect how we consider the fundamental teachings of any religion. If a deity exists, that doesn't excuse malicious teachings; if a deity doesn't exist, that doesn't mean that we can't still get usage out of the philosophies that form the foundation of the religion.

So, discuss. Again, to reiterate: The existence or non-existence of a particular deity/divinity/what have you does not affect the teachings of the religion attached to said supernatural power(s). Or, in other words, gods do not affect religions in any way.


  • I'd just like to point out, and make sure you realize, that by saying that the discussion is pointless, you yourself are taking the agnostic point of view.

    I think that you are half right. I agree that discussions like this tend to drill themselves into oblivion without gaining any ground. But remember that if we do not discuss and argue and speculate, then we are not questioning enough.

    Even though many get pwned in the process, I feel that these flamewar discussions are essential to the progression of one's ultimate level of wiseness.
  • I would consider it to be more of a dismissive or apathetic view, rather than one of strict agnosticism. I am, after all, dismissing the importance of the question altogether.

    The real problem is that the debate is never tied up over which system of beliefs we should use, but rather the god in which we should place our faith. The notion of divinity ties a lot of other mysticism into it, including an afterlife and such; providing consequences such as eternal damnation tends to make the adherents of a belief system particularly defensive about their faith, because failure to do so results in dire consequences. I'm saying that if we cut out that crap, we can actually have a meaningful discussion.
  • I have felt, for a long time, the following things:

    1) Religion is a crutch for the weak of mind. - This is not to say that theists are weak but that religion is often used as a crutch in an argument. By using the default position of "God makes it that way" rather than "I don't know why" you use religion as a crutch to avoid thinking a problem through.

    Rym - Hey Scott, why is your leg broken?
    Scott - The Great Wala Wala Goomba has decided my leg should be broken for the way I treated that sales clerk yesterday.
    Rym - That's funny, I thought you tripped and fell down the stairs!
    Scott - Begone you heathen!

    2) Belief in a 'higher' power and judgment day can be used to control the masses - Aside from laws written by man, "murder will get you ten years to life" what can you use to keep people in line? How do you control a huge population? Well, how about an all-knowing invisible deity who sees all and can punish you even after you die! Sounds kind of like Santa Clause but for grown ups!

    Scott - Rym, how could you do that! You'll go to hell for sure for doing that with two woman at once!
    Rym - That's funny, 'cause for the last two hours, I sure felt like I was in heaven!

    We have also seen (recently) how that can be twisted by telling your followers that if they strap bombs onto themselves and kill civilians they can get to heaven on the express train. The one with the open bar staffed by girls from Hooters.

    3) The core teachings of religion, "be good, treat others as you want to be treated, don't be an ass," are good teachings to live by. Giving charitably just because you think you should is a bit twisted if you ignore what the charity does with your money. Just because you intend to do good by giving money is not good enough, you should be judging your own level of goodness on results rather then plain intent.

    Scott - I just gave a million space dollars to this feed the hungry campaign.
    Rym - ORLY? How much of that money went to feeding people and how much went into the pockets of those running the campaign?
    Scott - It doesn't matter, I gave a MILLION space dollars!!!???!!!

    *Later, Scott sees the light*

    Rym - Hey Scott, what are you doing?
    Scott - I'm teaching this homeless guy some computer skills in my spare time and he is cleaning the apartment in exchange.
    Rym - Why would you do that?
    Scott - Because, by helping him get back into the workforce I'm making him more productive for society.
    Rym - But, why are you making him wash the floors?
    Scott - Well, if I just gave him the help or some money he would not have earned it and would therefore not have any respect or value in what I am teaching him.
  • RymRym
    edited January 2007
    if a deity doesn't exist, that doesn't mean that we can't still get usage out of the philosophies that form the foundation of the religion.
    Except that those ideas exist independent of their religious links. Being good to people and whatnot have nothing to do at all with religion. Philosophy exists independent of religion.

    Dawkins makes a very distinct point of calling religion religion and philosophy philosophy. Religion is by definition mystical, supernatural, and irrational. It is anathema to logic and reason. It serves no useful purpose. I think it's intellectually irresponsible to allow a "religion" to stand merely because some number of its tenants are similar to good, non-religious ideas.

    Einstein used the word "god" many times, but he very purposefully used it in a non-religous, purely philosophical way. You're trying to do the same with "religion." Even today, there are people who use Einstein's words as "proof" that even scientists believe in their sky men. Make your (valid) points, but don't use words like "religion" and "god" when talking about perfectly natural, non-supernatural ideas: you otherwise only serve to muddy the waters and lend false credence to those who don't have the capacity to understand what you are saying.

    If someone is good to people, so be it. If they say they are because they're afraid of a vengeful sky man, they're delusional. If someone gives to charity because he wants to help others, that's great. If he gives because some religious idea compels him to, while the good was still done, we've weakened the intellectual framework of our society

    If the philosophy is good and the belief is bad, then why on Earth would you bother to keep the system? The individual beliefs stand secularly on their own. Drawing the "religion" back into it only dilutes and confuses the issue.
    I say: it doesn't matter.
    Here's why the debate matters: there are still people out there who believe in these things. You can ascribe whatever noble, rational ideas you want to religion, but the fact remains that most adherents are not as rational or realistic as you. They ACTUALLY BELIEVE these things. They don't see religion as a philosophical framework or collection of ideals: they see it as a truth.

    Allowing such irrational ideas to stand uncontested only encourages irrational thought. An intelligent person can not but challenge an unfounded extraordinary claim. To do less is to do a disservice to the world.
    Post edited by Rym on
  • I say: it doesn't matter.
    I submit the millions upon millions of people who have lost their lives in the past because they figured whether or not there was a god did not matter or decided they have a different view of the whole situation.

    Actually, this is one of the reasons I like Unitarians so much. A good half of them views religious teachings EXACTLY as you want them to philosophically. They go through all the religions of the world and cherry pick all the "good or useful" philosophy from them while throwing out the garbage of them. (Keeping the "do on to others as they would do on to you" but throwing out the anti-gay, anti-women, anti-child attitude of the bible per say, or the kill the heathens aspect of Islam or the crazy crazy rules of the Jewish religion) This way they keep the social aspect of a church with all its ritual and gleam all the good aspects of all religions of the earth without taking the crap from it. While they have tolerance for the crazy new age stuff like crystals and such they also tolerant dissention and new idea (almost to a fault). So Whaleshark, for a Unitarian it really actually does not matter whether there is a god or not.

    However, that does not stop the rest of the world from making that issue a life or death one. Until people stop blowing each other up over a question or holding a population under the rules of a restrictive religion because of a god, when this question should be discussed at a dinner party friendly like this question will dominate the human races future.
  • Have you ever run afoul of the Unitarian KKK? The burn question marks in your lawn.
  • Even if there were a god this whole time, the fact is that our universe is the way it is. So in that sense it doesn't matter.

    In terms of philosophies and such, it very much does matter. It is true that some religions out there have some good things to offer. You know what? Sesame Street has good things to offer too. That doesn't mean I should believe in the Snuffleupagus just because he says to share my toys. Believing in some mystical or spiritual backing behind worthwhile philosophies creates this effect which carries over slightly to extremely harmful philosophies.

    Let's look at Yoga for a slight example. Yoga is a worthwhile physical exercise, we're pretty sure about that. Meditation and other related practices can be relaxing and good for you. Some practitioners of Yoga believe the powers of Yoga are supernatural. Therefore, they end up also performing lots of useless practices that have no positive effect. They also are unable to hone their exercises for maximum athletic benefit because the theory behind those exercises is spiritual and not real. There's no reason you can't approach something like Yoga from a perfectly scientific standpoint and take the good without the bad. Approaching it from a spiritual standpoint will cost more of your time and produce fewer rewards.

    I think the examples in the major religions are obvious. In Judaism you get good philosophies like not killing people, doing good deeds, emphasizing education, etc. Why bother also attaching pointless rules about observing Shabbat and not eating bacon? There is no reason, unless you actually believe in Yaweh. If you really believe in the god, then you will accept everything that follows from that belief, the good and the bad. In that deal you will break even at best.

    Religion is to philosophy as Dell computers are to building your own box. With religion you get the whole thing, and you don't get to choose the parts. It costs too much. Customer service is imaginary. You get some good bits in there, but mostly it sucks. If you build it yourself you get the right price. You get just the good parts you need without the bad, and nobody puts any software on there you don't need. With Dell people don't need to think about their computers, they just get one and they don't learn or grow in their computer knowledge. With religion, people don't think about the philosophy, they just get one and don't think about what they're actually believing. Without religion people would be forced to actually think about philosophy, why they do things, etc. That would make for a much better world than one in which everyone were like Ned Flanders.
  • I have often wondered about the pork restriction. Was there some societal reason for that? Were pigs poisonous years and years and years ago? Did the beef lobby pay off some scribes into putting that line in there?
  • I have often wondered about the pork restriction. Was there some societal reason for that? Were pigs poisonous years and years and years ago? Did the beef lobby pay off some scribes into putting that line in there?
    I'll try to answer this as best I can, but remember. I'm a layperson atheist Jew. I'm not going to give you as correct an answer as a rabbi.

    In Judaism, most of the laws are taken from a set of books called the Talmud. The Talmud is sort of a commentary on the Torah (old testament) by a bunch of ancient rabbis. They comment on each part of the old testament and interpret it into the Jewish law. I have one volume of the Talmud someone bought for me as a gift. I think its in my parent's house somewhere. It is published in a very high quality fashion. I tried to read it once, but only read a page or two. This is vaugely the type of thing I remember reading there.
    If a child strikes his father, he shall be stoned. If a child kills his father, he should be smothered. What to do in the case when a child strikes his father to death? He should be smothered for reasons X, Y and Z.
    The Talmud is where the Torah is interpreted into Jewish law, but where did those laws really come from in the first place? In those ancient times, people were basically barbarians. There were a few wise men around who knew what was best for the people who were basically animals. They came up with rules for better living and used the idea of deities to scare the barbarians into following those rules.

    In Judaism at least, the rules fall into three categories. The first category are rules of social justice. Jews are all about social justice. You remember wise King Solomon suggesting the baby be cut in half and such? Jews love that action.

    The second category of rules are those like the pork rule. Back in those ancient times pigs were unclean beasts. Wise men noticed that eating pork often made people ill. They couldn't get people to stop eating the tasty tasty bacon, so they had to scare them into it. I remember reading a whole chapter in the old testament containing specific instructions about what to do with lepers. Keep them isolated in a room for X days and if they are unclean, etc. Some of these rules are good ideas, modern technology has made most of them silly.

    The third category of rule are purely symbolic. Look at Channukah, you light eight candles to remember the eight nights the oil supposedly lasted for. You eat matzah and do a seder on Pesach to symbolize what supposedly went down in Egypt with moses freeing the enslaved Hebrews. Wearing Yarmulkes is also a symbol to keep god on your mind. Not drinking milk while eating cow is symbolic of remembering not to add insult to injury. "Thou shalt not cook a calf in its mother's milk," is the relevant line IIRC.

    Many rules of Judaism make sense, or at least they made sense at some point in time. However, that does not excuse Judaism. It is just as crazy as every other religion. It especially does not excuse those Jews who still follow these ancient and outdated laws despite their obsolescence.

    I just want to add that I enjoy Jewish culture and tradition a great deal even though I do not believe any of the religious bits. Just want to make it clear that I am not hypocritical in this department. Most atheists tend to completely separate themselves from anything religious. I see nothing wrong with enjoying religious art, music, rituals, etc. as long as you recognize them for what they are.
  • Ahhh... the pork thing did have a basis in truth!
  • Actually, the jewish pork prohibition is a little more complicated. Nonetheless, it appears to have important societal roots.
  • edited August 2007
    I do not believe in the Christian god or anything of that sort, but of a being or someone in a higher dimension that created us(as in the universe). Of course if someone could prove that wrong, or convince that couldn't be true, I'll believe you.
    Post edited by Mr. Eric on
  • I do not believe in the Christian god or anything of that sort, but of a being or someone in a higher dimension that created us(as in the universe). Of course if someone could prove that wrong, or convince that couldn't be true, I'll believe you.
    How is that any different from believing in the Christian god? The burden of proof is on the person making the claim.
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