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Dan Dennett sez: Find Yerself a “god”!

July 13th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 21 Comments

I wrote about Dan Dennet’s TED talk on memes before. Right now, I want to talk about a 25 second section out of it, between 5:00 and 5:25:

I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards is that people ask us what the meaning of life is. You have to have a bumper sticker, you have to have a statement, so this is mine:

The secret of happiness:
Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.

He points out that this is The subordination of genetic interests to other interests. No other species does anything like this. Fine, yes, that we know of… but Dennett said that!

What Dennett’s bumper sticker wisdom is advocating here, as the secret to happiness, in “New Testament Terms”: find yourself a god.

In interaction between theist and atheist, this use of theistic language is a great source of strife. Theists sometimes points out that atheists also have a god, and the atheists argue. The reason? Atheists go by the definition of “god” that is “a metaphysical personal sky-daddy that performs miracles”, while the “theological-psychology theory” of god-worship is not that. For a scriptural example, the New Testament talks about the worship of mammon. Says Wikipedia:

Webster defines ‘mammon’ as: 1) the false god of riches and avarice. 2) riches regarded as an object of worship and greedy pursuit; wealth as an evil, more or less personified.[1] Winston defines it to mean: 1) wealth, worldly gain; 2) greed for riches; cupidity.[2] Oxford defines: god of wealth, regarded as evil or immoral; ‘those who worship mammon’ = greedy people who value money too highly.[3]

Mammon is considered a “false god” by Christians, by which they mean mammon is not worth worshipping, that materialism is a degenerate way to live. A non-Christian money-loving capitalist might disagree, believing mammon is worth worshipping. Irrespective of whether mammon is worth worshipping or not, mammon is a “god” in the sense of “meaning/purpose assigner“. This is the concept of “a god” that I’m running with.

Consider another of these greater ideals: humanism. The humanist — committed to the “more important” idea of humanism — would, in “ancient-lingo”, be worshipping a god of reason and empathy/compassion towards his fellow humans (love your neighbour), irrespective of his metaphysical convictions.

With regards to Matthew 22:36-39 then:

36″Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[b] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'[c] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Compare that to a humanist that is committed to humanism, an idea more important than himself, with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind, with an integral part of that idea being to love his neighbour as himself. So yes, a humanist has a “god”, when cast into the terminology of that “theological-psychology theory”.

More: the “god” that Pullman (a secular humanist) advocates, is apparently a god of “inquiry, curiosity, maturity, compassion, determination, loyalty, opposing tyranny and evil”. (Hat tip to Timothy Mills for that list — I wrote about it in my post about the Golden Compass.)

Most humans have a “god”: most humans seek a purpose, seek meaning in life, except maybe committed nihilists. And atheists? Well, there are different kinds. You do get nihilistic atheists, but they are really not very common. (I wonder how many nihilists reached nihilism by “deconverting” from a supernaturalist worldview, in comparison to how many naturalists end up at nihilism? The ratio would determine whether supernaturalism might not have to bear much of the blame.) Most atheists are not nihilists. They do have a “god”, that “god” is just not personified and named, and is not an interventionist god.

Comments, thoughts, objections?

Categories: Worldviews
Tags: · · · ·

21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 gerhard // Jul 15, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    *sigh* i think you dont underunderestamate atheists distain for the theistic language while loving to poke and prod them with it.

    tho i am sure i am not understanding this post:P

    I just feel that you’re defining god in such a way that it can be applied to anything.. it reminds me of an argument that hitler was a dawinist/evolutionist who was using selection(breeding) to produce a super human (nazi version of uebermench).

    while i can see how they got there , (by focusing on shared features) ,they still lost the plot because selection is opposite of natural selection.

    i guess you can define god as whatever you want it to be, but please just leave this atheist == theists out of it, most of what u go on about i very much closer to Spinoza’s god than scolarly monotheistic bubbletrash and i think its morally obtuse of you to compare oranges to apples as if they were apples :P

    what is the point of this? why do you need atheists to have a god? i understand that them having a god excuses you having a god but why the need to reduce all and any forms of meaning to god? Isnt that exactly what gives atheists the distain for ‘religiosity’ that all meaning is derrived from and reduced to god?

  • 2 gerhard // Jul 15, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    *sigh* i think you dont underunderestamate atheists distain for the theistic language while loving to poke and prod them with it.

    that was meant to be ‘…underestimate… but love to …. ‘

  • 3 Hugo // Jul 15, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    OK, do you think I should chase away all the atheists then? That they don’t get offended by my words? I am writing for theists. If you do not want to understand what I’m on about, then you are free to leave and stop reading. Clearly my attempts to explain my language use is of no interest to you.

    why do you need atheists to have a god?

    I don’t. I’m just pointing out that, in the sense of having meaning and morality and purpose in life, they do have a god. If that is what is meant by god.

    but please just leave this atheist == theists out of it

    Why? Atheists are some of the most “godly” people in the world. Can you not understand what I mean by this? If you cannot, gerhard, please just leave. You’ve been around for long enough, that if you are unable to understand what I’m up to and what I’m doing, there’s no point for you to hang around any more, unless you love irritating the hell out of me by complaining that I irritate the hell out of atheists.

    In the paraphrased words of my favourite pastor, “when you look at intentions and motivation, the line between theist and atheist fades”. That is the point.

    Please, can someone other than gerhard, tell me whether they understand what I’m on about, and whether they have an issue with what I’m on about, or not? As in, if you like what I’m on about, even if you would never use this language yourself, even if you dislike the language… if you understand what I’m doing and are glad that I’m doing it, please say so.

    It is very unfortunate that I get rubbed the wrong way by gerhard — a different person saying the same thing will go down much better. Sorry gerhard, I’ll try to get over this reaction, but it is the reaction that has been conditioned into me by our prior interactions.

  • 4 Hugo // Jul 15, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    Dear Hugo, Please bear in mind that many atheists have an utter disdain for theistic language, due to repeated interaction with theists in the past. As such, be careful with your usage of it. If used in the way you define in this post, yes sure, I agree it does kinda make sense, but the context is very important.

    Here is my gripe: many theists use “but you also have a god” as an excuse for them to have theirs. Much of our atheistic fights with theists revolves around this. If you are going to embrace this idea, and insist that atheists do have a god, what do you then propose to do about them using this as an excuse for them to have theirs?

    Signed,
    A thoughtful and caring, fictitious atheist…
    if only there were more atheists like this on my blog. *sigh*


    Dear fictional atheist, I understand your concern, thanks for sharing it. I will try to point out the context and meaning whenever I refer to this idea. I realise the dangers of taking this idea out of context, but this idea is already rampant amongst the fundie theists. As such, I’ve long ago decided not to stress about quote mining like that, and rather embrace the idea.

    I don’t expect of you to do the same, you are free to fight by whatever way you want. You are free to fight head-on-head, to engage in fist-fights, and battle these ingrained ideas. However, if you think my idea of understanding where the theist’s ideas come from is a good one, and would like to take a more nuanced approach to the battle, my suggestion is as follows: If a theist approaches with the argument that you also have a god, a one-liner response could be “ok fine, but it isn’t a supernatural one” or “ok fine, but it doesn’t break the laws of physics”.

    If you would like to go into a deeper discussion, you could discuss what they mean by “having a god”, try to understand, and then you have a perfect opportunity to proselytise your world-view, pointing out what you base your morality on, and how you view science and why and how this “god” of yours is different from the theist’s. You get to explain why you think the “god” label is not valid or useful for your god. How’s that?

    I can understand that if your mission is to “eradicate and destroy” all religion and theistic language, that you might prefer a direct confrontation. You might think it worthwhile to argue that all “gods” must be rejected. But then I’m going to call you a fundamentalist. Can you not rather present your world-view in a less offensive way? “Subversive”? Point out common ground, build on that, and then point out the differences and insist that they’re not that important? If your mission is to reduce superstition and supernaturalism and increase “reason”, I wager this would be much more effective, sketching out how they can keep their morality (and call it “god” if they want to use that label for “the source of meaning/morality” in life), while also accepting evolution?

    Please let me know what you think of this suggestion.

    Signed,
    Hugo


    I became rather verbose in my answer. But why can’t atheists be more like that fictitious atheist? Gerhard, why do you have to attack me personally? By which I mean something like this:

    why do you need atheists to have a god?

    Did you mean “why do theists need atheists to have a god?” Or did you really mean me? Can you understand that you are still jumping to conclusions, in a way that is bad for communication?

    Or do you experience my posts as being offensive and/or attacking? My latest posts, that is. I know full well my old posts induced more vehement reactions, because that was somewhat intentional. And misguided. I was somewhat hoping to engage some thoughtful atheists. I must also remind myself: not all atheists are smart, they’re also just human, with the same human traits as the religious fundies. ;)

  • 5 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 15, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Please, can someone other than gerhard, tell me whether they understand what I’m on about, and whether they have an issue with what I’m on about, or not?

    I think I understand it. Where I have an issue with something on a blog, I tend to air it. One of the advantages of the internet is that these kinds of discussions exist – you don’t have to be as unchallenging and tactful as you do face-to-face.

    At this point, when you start redefining God, I mostly just read. You are already fully aware that IMO theists don’t mean what you mean by the term. And I am fully aware that you have a different opinion. From what I understand of your goals, I would like to support them, not oppose them, so I bite my tongue to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, I have a temper. Sigh.

    For whatever that’s worth.

  • 6 Hugo // Jul 15, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Thanks Ben.

    Next post then, should touch on that “what people mean” thing: “The God of Faith the God of Philosophy”…

  • 7 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 16, 2008 at 10:46 am

    We’ve had this discussion before. Although I don’t agree with your usage of the word god when other words are better suited, I think I understand your reasoning.

    So these days when you use the word god, I mostly find I agree with you when I use your definition. It takes a bit more “translation”, but I think it is a worthwhile exercise.

  • 8 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 16, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Forgot to mention, I saw the Dan Dennett talk for the first time a few days ago, and enjoyed it very much. I think I will be using the ant-fluke analogy in future discussions…

  • 9 gerhard // Jul 16, 2008 at 11:59 am

    But why can’t atheists be more like that fictitious atheist? Gerhard, why do you have to attack me personally? By which I mean something like this:

    why do you need atheists to have a god?

    Did you mean “why do theists need atheists to have a god?” Or did you really mean me? Can you understand that you are still jumping to conclusions, in a way that is bad for communication?

    I meant both you and theists :P i used ‘you’ because its a reacurring theme here.(poking and prodding)

    It’s not ‘jumping to conclusion’ to point out and question the obvious, you need the similarity between the two for the common ground. YOU NEED atheists to have A GOD by whatever definition you can manage a similarity.
    How do you not see that and how does that make this become a personal type of offence?(i must be one of those really stupid people) In the end , the argument you are trying to create , in my opinion , is as shaky as the ‘hitler was a darwinist’ argument. So does that really help create ‘common’ ground? no. (again, this is a opinion and you need to learn to deal people having them even if they are very different to what you imagine..)

    now, to make easier for me to understand, explain how creating a common ground based on god helps when the matter in contention is exactly that.. god?

    or don’t waste your time on me :P

  • 10 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    /me concedes a number of implied points, and apologises. About the actual content:

    I do not need atheists to “have a god”. This recurring theme is not born out of a “need” in that sense. What I did do, was look at in what sense could atheists be considered to “have a god”. The difference is significant, is it unclear what I mean in this paragraph?

    For the rest, this recurring theme is one written/thought in “theistic language”, i.e. it is mostly addressed towards the theists. It is mostly an attempt to have them understand the atheistic perspective. The continued “poking and prodding” at atheists is then largely an attempt to find a way of expressing the ideas I want to express, in theistic language, speaking to theists, that atheists would find satisfactory.

    Take Kenneth’s input here:

    Although I don’t agree with your usage of the word god when other words are better suited, I think I understand your reasoning. So these days when you use the word god, I mostly find I agree with you when I use your definition.

    That is sweet. We know where we disagree, and he points out that I’ve explained it, and its context, and its definition, in a way that could get Kenneth to a place that he mostly agrees.

    Thus: mission accomplished.

    Keeping in mind “I don’t agree with your usage of the word”, of course.

    explain how creating a common ground based on god helps when the matter in contention is exactly that.. god?

    I’m basically creating common ground, or sketching out the common ground rather, around the word “god”, as by understanding the common ground, and thinking about the common ground, from both sides, it becomes easier to understand what exactly the differences are.

    A big gripe of atheists is that theists think “having no god” means “having no source of morality or meaning”. The atheists equate “no god” with “nihilism”. Now clearly you would disagree with this. But there are different angles to explaining why it is wrong. [Edit: why those theists are wrong, why we disagree with this.] One is to continue hammering at the same thing, “not having god doesn’t make my life meaningless or immoral”, the other is to try a different angle, and focus on the commonality. That is what I’m up to in posts like these then. Says the atheist to the theist:

    OK, so your idea of ‘no god’ is living meaningless or immoral. If we go by that definition then, if we take ‘having a god’ as meaning I have a source of meaning or morality, then okay, I do have a god. I do have something by which I direct my life, and I have something by which I find it worthwhile to live. […continues sketching out the common ground, then:…] That said, the properties of this ‘god’ of mine, is such that I don’t think it worthwhile to call it ‘god’ by any traditional definition, because it has nothing to do with the supernatural.

    Except, of course, if you consider the human subjective experience “supernatural”, which is another of my favourite redefinitions. It just makes sense of what people claim: the experience of “love” is something subjective, the objective reality would be dopamine or whatever. The subjective experience is something “beyond natural”, something “apart from the natural”. But let me not bite off another hard-to-chew argument here. ;)

    Gerhard, does this help explain it? I hope it does, to some degree at least?

  • 11 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    To all who think I’m redefining “god”…

    Considering the Bible as source and ancient culture as context, please explain to me how you define “god” in a way that “mammon” is an example of a “god”? (A definition of god in the sense that a “false god” is a kind of god…)

  • 12 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 16, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Hmmm…

    A god appropriated and demonised from a more ancient religious tradition?

    In a lot of cases, new religions have stolen aspects of more ancient belief systems, the most obvious example being the Roman gods. But Christianity has more than its fair share of such incidents…

    So something like Mammon would have been the perfectly ordinary god of harvests, or virgins, or somesuch in a pre-Christian era, which was then adopted and equated with certain aspects of the Christian mythos, such as Satan, or the seven deadly sins, or suchlike.

    So, I think Mammon is as much a god as any other. No less than Zeus, or Kali, or any of the other usual supernatural suspects. Or Yahweh. The general dictionary definition of god applies.

  • 13 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    You think Mammon had a more literal interpretation then than it does now? Hmm…

    I go with Mammon as this: “a metaphoric personification for the materialist spirit of the nineteenth century.” See the Wikipedia page on Mammon for more context, if interested.

    I believe most people these days see Mammon as a personification of greed. A personification of an idea, rather than a particular entity. But still refer to mammon as a “false god”. And I could also see Thor in the same way then, a personification of thunder.

    According to Bible scholars, Satan, in Job, at the time of writing, was not the Satan of today. I mentioned this in “Abusing the Story of Job”. But I suppose that isn’t too relevant either. Many of the more progressive Christian denominations considers Satan a personification of evil, rather than an entity that actually exists. A personified “god” then, is typically a personification, with a number of progressives full-well aware of that. Personification helps “relating” to a concept, as we as humans know about “relating” with other humans.

    I’m also a subscriber to the idea that Karen Armstrong expresses as such (this comes from an old version of her Wikipedia page):

    Central to her reading of history is the notion that premodern cultures possessed two complementary and indispensable ways of thinking, speaking and knowing: mythos and logos. Mythos was concerned with meaning; it “provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal”.[1] Logos, on the other hand, dealt with practical matters. It forged ahead, elaborating on old insights, mastering the environment, and creating fresh and new things. Armstrong argues that modern Western society has lost the sense of mythos and enshrined logos as its foundation. Mythical narratives and the rituals and meanings attached to them have ceded authority to that which is rational, pragmatic and scientific – but which does not assuage human pain or sorrow, and cannot answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. However, far from embarking on a wholesale rejection of the modern emphasis in favour of the old balance, the author contends, religious fundamentalists unwittingly turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalism is a child of modernity, and fundamentalists are fundamentally modern.

    1: Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine, 2000. p. xv

    That is my take on all of this. My understanding of the contemporary definition of “God” is a “logos-based” understanding, whereas I believe I’m going with an older “mythos-based” understanding. And I know I may be wrong, but this is how I see it.

    All in all, this comment is a little bit of an attempt to explain how I came to my views, in an attempt to justify them, in an attempt to be (personally) understood. But that doesn’t really matter, I realise it doesn’t really matter if everyone were to think I’m completely off my rocker, or making things up as I go. I’m not: I have my reasons for my conclusions, even if I find it hard to explain — however, if everyone understands that I have different conclusions and somewhat different understandings of certain words, then even though it remains “unsoothing” to me as a person, it is adequate for practical purposes and for the future of this blog.

  • 14 miller // Jul 17, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    I, for one, don’t really mind the language. In fact, when I dropped by, what really hooked me about this blog was the “label-agnostic” post. People get so caught up with specific words, when they should be thinking about the meanings of those words.

  • 15 gerhard // Jul 18, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    miller: but we most spend time arguing over the meaning of words :)

    My understanding of the contemporary definition of “God” is a “logos-based” understanding, whereas I believe I’m going with an older “mythos-based” understanding. And I know I may be wrong, but this is how I see it.

    words have different meanings to different people even with in the same context… It does this by ensuring that experiences, and their interpretations, align with our expectations and understanding of the world [confirmation bias, pattern recognition]. However, due to the natural limitations of the brain (for example, only being able to think in three dimensions), we are not able to perfectly interpret reality in its entirety. To get around this issue, we build simplistic models of reality and hold these internally as valid. We add to and build upon these models from the beginning of our days until we die (and we each have our own model). Such frameworks are referred to as schemas by psychologists and cognitive scientists. To paraphrase Wikipedia, a schema is a mental structure that represents some aspect of the world and collectively these structures represent one’s understanding of the world.
    [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

    everyones understanding of the world is different so the words descibing these ‘models’ as different … i guess the question that remains is .. how nihilistic are these words ….

  • 16 Hugo // Jul 18, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Yes! Miller, I like you immediately. ;)

    Gerhard, you’re explaining what we’re fighting about. Much of this blog is precisely about digging past the words, messing up the words, mixing up the words, in order to start thinking about the meanings of those words. And the meanings of those words for different people. And the subjective or even subconscious or emotional “meanings” of those words — i.e. subconscious or emotional definitions are not what you’d get when you ask them for their conscious rational “definition” of the word.

    How does that sound?

    I suppose something like this explanation should go into the “About” page. The “The Problem with Diversity” post is a longer-winded way of trying to say something similar. Not particularly concise…

  • 17 Linda // Sep 1, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    The secret of happiness:
    Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.

    I didn’t even see this post until now.

    I completely understand your point about God. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately and have been writing about it, but could not come up with anything that really illustrated my thoughts. But you’ve inspired me here. So let me try it out over at my old blog. *cringe*

  • 18 Hugo // Sep 1, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Linda, your link contains no URL…

  • 19 Linda // Sep 1, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    Oops.

    http://www.ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com

    There you go.

  • 20 Linda // Sep 1, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Okay Hugo,

    I revised the conclusion on the post. Please tell me what you think, so I don’t think I’m going crazy… or turning into an atheist. ;-)

  • 21 Hugo // Sep 1, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    I dropped you a quick comment on your blog, writing the first thing that came to mind – dumping unfiltered thoughts as they came up. I think it’s pretty cool.

    Though I can’t help but wonder at your (feigned?) concern about “turning into an atheist” – what do you mean by “atheist”?

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