Flying Spaghetti Monster

My post on Sam Harris a month ago raised some interesting discussion on the subject of whether it’s even logically consistent for an atheist to call themselves that. Many people immediately assumes that atheism means one core thing: The positive declaration that there is no god. But there are several strains of atheism, and many of the most prominent atheists do not subscribe to “strong” atheism. Good interview in Salon with “Darwin’s rottweiler,” Richard Dawkins. Asked “Why do you call yourself an atheist? Why not an agnostic?”

Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

n.b.: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster came about originally as as a response to the Kansas School Board.

Music: The Mountain Goats :: Dinu Lipatti’s Bones

26 Replies to “Flying Spaghetti Monster”

  1. I’ve always found the case example of pagan gods in discussions of faith awkward. It struck me that the reason for this is most likely because Thor, Apollo, and other characterizations of the divine are used to try and make those with a faith in a Christian God look foolish; I think the spaghetti monster drives this point home. It is easier to make faith look foolish in the modern mind when it is illustrated with images of men in tights, or a flying meatball.

    Faith in a higher being, and our understanding of who or what God is or is not, is not that simple or static. Our understanding of God changes over time. Thor and Apollo are no longer seen as accurate representations of our relationship to the divine. To quote the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.”

    The other qualm I have with the criticisms of people such as Harris is that they blame faith in a manifest Christian God for all the terrible things in the world. Faith is his convenient scapegoat. He gets to take an artificial high ground by disconnecting himself from human history by lumping together everything that is human that he does not like into a foolish box. Harris claims to be a man of pure science, but on a whim claims that faith is the root cause of the world’s tragedies, and on another whim casts aside any question that he does not foresee science ever answering, yet many of these questions, such as “why are we here” are the questions that built Western civilization and are the foundation of the intellectual thought that built what science and theology are today.

    I think stronger and more legitimate, more scientific, arguments can be made that violence in this world is caused by the instincts and drives of man: anger, greed, and selfishness. A man of science would pursue that road of inquiry rather than the irreverence that he has chosen. At the root of our pain is not faith, religion or anything else metaphysical in nature. The fault of these things is man, plain and simple. If religion and faith were unknown to us we would still kill, cruelly and ruthlessly. But, then again, psychology isn’t a REAL science, not like biology or chemistry or physics…

    Then there is the question of ethics and morality. Can science answer these things, what is moral or amoral? I don’t know, but most people who don’t believe in God as the root of ethics or morality usually take up some other form of metaphysical reasoning: humanism being the highest form of atheistic belief, but not one at all incompatible with Christianity. If we are to simply accept certain forms of ethics or morality on the notion that they are rather nice and beneficial — that anchor is a metaphysical one, too — we can blow in whatever direction the wind may take as easily as a faith in Jesus Christ. What is the result? New inquisitions or crusades, but without the cross as the excuse.

  2. Gilbert: interesting that you should dismiss atheists references to Thor and Apollo, and then go on to dismiss psychology as not a REAL science like… biology. In what respect is psychology not real? Obviously the environment in which its experiments take place is not generally as controllable as those for chemistry and physics, but it still follows scientific method and produces verifiable results.

    Whereas I would say that the use of fantasy gods make faith in a Christian God look foolish mainly because faith in a Christian God is foolish, and finessing the concept of a god is like polishing a turd.

    Scot: Surely Sam Harris, not Richard Harris. Perhaps it was God who left that cake out in the rain?

  3. Dan, my comment on psychology was made in sarcasm with the point being that it is a science that attempts to explore and discover things that are much more difficult to know because the human condition, emotions, and the mind are not yet within our abilities to fully measure. While you certainly get results from psychological experiments they are not always as verifiable as one might like. This is because we cannot measure all psychological experiments in the same way that we measure the physical world.

    I hope this clarifies the comment for you. I wouldn’t want my inquiry to cause a misunderstanding that turns what could be an interesting discussion into a turd farm. But, then again, aren’t farms just made of turds?

  4. Having been struggling (again) lately with this atheism/agnosticism question, I keep coming up against the kinds of arguments that Dawkins makes there. What that argument does is require that the definition of “God” be as specific as the definition of “Thor.” That’s fine and dandy, but it sidesteps the entire point of describing oneself as “agnostic.” Agnostic, to me, means “I don’t know what started all of this.” It could be some kind of “intelligent” being, or “god,” or it could be nothing, or whatever. So, in other words, I STILL don’t get why some people say they’re atheist and others say they’re agnostic, and it’s frustrating to me that I seem to worry about it when I think about this stuff.

    Gilbert: it sounds to me like you’re basing your opinion of what Sam Harris is doing/arguing on something less than any kind of detailed analysis of his work. He certainly doesn’t “blame faith in a manifest Christian God for all the terrible things in the world.” He blames faith, in its various forms (certainly not just, or primarily, the Christian God,) for many (certainly not all) of the problems we face.

    If you’re going to argue that “stronger and more legitimate” arguments can be made than Sam Harris’ arguments, you should probably read his arguments. There’s certainly plenty of room for disagreement with what he’s saying, but your statements are missing the boat entirely, I think.

  5. Meanwhile, this particular Episcopalian has on his wall at work: 1) the 2006 wall calendar from the Episcopal Church Pension Group (great church-related cartoons) and 2) a picture of the FSM (mainly in order to gently mock the “God as Magic Sky Genie” concept – with which I, as a Pandeist, have a great deal of trouble).

  6. Corrected: Richard –> Sam

    iSquub: I hear you (on continuing to grapple with the distinction between atheism and agnosticism). I think it comes down like this: The hard-line agnostic says “I can’t know if there’s a God, so I’m not going to try and say.” It’s a safe bet. For the atheist, extreme improbability is the same as non-existence. “I can’t prove there are no fairies or elves, but I’m sure there aren’t any. I can’t prove there are no banana split trees, but the improbability of them existing is so great that it would be foolish to act as if they might exist.” So I think the atheist knows that lack of evidence does not equal proof of non-existence in a purely logical sense, but from a perspective of practical reason, it makes perfect sense to say there are no banana split trees / God (this is what Dawkins is saying in the quote above).

    For what it’s worth, much of what I hear Dawkins saying seems too strong / too strident. From what I’ve read, Harris’ arguments seem more palatable.

  7. If we are to simply accept certain forms of ethics or morality on the notion that they are rather nice and beneficial — that anchor is a metaphysical one, too

    I disagree with you here – there are plenty of purely rational bases for morality/ethics, which do not derive in any way from religion, but that aren’t themselves metaphysical. Ethics can be perfectly well grounded without a religious foundation. In fact, more so – since ethics are based in pure reason and don’t hang on historical artifacts, books handed down through ages, etc.

  8. If you’re going to argue that “stronger and more legitimate” arguments can be made than Sam Harris’ arguments, you should probably read his arguments. There’s certainly plenty of room for disagreement with what he’s saying, but your statements are missing the boat entirely, I think.

    I, squub, I don’t think you are being fair to my context with your “stronger and more legitimate” quote use above. In context I said, “I think stronger and more legitimate, more scientific, arguments can be made that violence in this world is caused by the instincts and drives of man: anger, greed, and selfishness.” There is a great deal to discuss here and, I admit, it is hard to stay focused. On a number of posts that Scot has made on faith here I have wanted to comment, but have not because I have been unable to focus on one particular aspect of the topic. Here, I have tried to stay focused on Harris’ criticisms of faith as scapegoat for violence (with the unfortunate, but necessary, slides into bigger issues). I do see that he talks generally of faith, but he also often takes liberties with Christian faith in particular in the interview. As an Episcopalian I find it easier to talk from where I stand than to pretend to universally defend all incarnations of faith.

    it sounds to me like you’re basing your opinion of what Sam Harris is doing/arguing on something less than any kind of detailed analysis of his work.

    I don’t think I’m missing the boat at all within the material present, nor am I missing a detailed analysis of what is present here. I have read the interview linked in the story and have based my response on it — the detail of my analysis is as deep as the interview allows. I cannot do more than this, and if you feel that my response is missing something than it is because Harris did not articulate his own beliefs well. In turn, my comments on Harris blaming faith primarily derive from the interview’s arguments, which I have read here:

    My sense is that you don’t just think religion is dishonest. There’s something evil about it as well.

    Well, yes. I think there’s something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that’s dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you’re taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die — anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed — that clearly is evil. And people don’t have to justify it because it’s their faith. They don’t have to say, “Well, here’s a very good reason for this.” All they need to say is, “That’s what my faith says.” And we’re all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we’re actually faithful ourselves, we’ve been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it’s had historically — the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York — all in the name of faith.

    My argument is that anyone who states that faith is the cause of these events has taken to a hollow understanding of humanity and the human condition and our tendencies to use greed, anger, selfishness, and hate (et al) to get that which we desire. To be clear (and possibly controversial in our politically correct world), the Crusades were not the result of faith, but of greed, anger, fear, and all the other fallacies of human beings. Christian faith was the convenient excuse to make it palatable. Faith has been at times the convenient veil of humanity’s darkness, however, the kinds of tragedies committed in the name of faith can occur, and do occur, without any faith whatsoever.

    As an aside, I do agree with Harris’ point that people do give faith an irrational respect regardless of consequence. But, I part ways with him that this means faith is inherently evil.

  9. Scot,

    there are plenty of purely rational bases for morality/ethics, which do not derive in any way from religion, but that aren’t themselves metaphysical.

    I never intended what I said to be taken as an argument in favor of the absolute necessity of a religious foundation – historical artifacts, books, and so on – as the only basis of ethical or moral systems.

    My argument here is that any ethical or moral system, regardless of religion or existence or nonexistence of a god, must sooner or later take a metaphysical angle into consideration to anchor its positions to make it appear to be superior to alternatives that are unsavory. This usually occurs in the conception of good and evil, which ultimately cannot be divorced from ethical or moral behavior.

    there are plenty of purely rational bases for morality/ethics, which do not derive in any way from religion, but that aren’t themselves metaphysical.

    I’m not sure how you can come to this conclusion when rationalism calls on the mind to find truths that cannot be obtained from sensory perception. While ethical/moral systems utilize rational that are not inherently metaphysical at first, as the systems broaden or are explored in more detail, and questions become more difficult to answer or answers become unsatisfactory, metaphysical reasoning on good and evil become necessary to anchor the system. If we exclude these discussions from our reasoning we must admit that systems that are completely opposite from our own are equal.

    I, for one, am not ready to admit that murdering someone else for edification of my own desires is ethically or morally acceptable.

    If you feel there is an acceptable argument around this difficult barrier I would be more than interested in hearing it. But, I suspect in part, this is one of the difficulties in your own struggles over atheism.

  10. In a final note (for my day), I should add that while I have written a great deal here (for a series of blog comments), and at times my words have veered between reflection, inquiry, and combativeness that I in no way mean to ever sound harsh. I hope that helps maintain the overall quality of the discussion among “strangers” here. I do enjoy the conversation and don’t wish to turn anyone off.

  11. Gilbert:

    You’re right, I was over-stepping when I said you were missing the point. I was speaking from the perspective of Harris’ The End of Faith, which I’ve just recently finished reading. Before and since then I’ve also read a lot of interviews; so what I should’ve said is something else entirely.

    Harris, it seems to me, is frequently intentionally inflammatory, and that’s one of my biggest frustrations with his book and his interviews. I don’t know enough about him to defend him; but I think it’s a shame that he presents himself that way because he goes further in his book, and explains himself better, and I think it’s worth reading for anyone interested in this kind of discussion. The problem, like I said, is that the tone of his writing is very frequently too antagonistic.

    In particular, though, he has a lot to say about what you’ve said here:

    My argument is that anyone who states that faith is the cause of these events has taken to a hollow understanding of humanity and the human condition and our tendencies to use greed, anger, selfishness, and hate (et al) to get that which we desire. To be clear (and possibly controversial in our politically correct world), the Crusades were not the result of faith, but of greed, anger, fear, and all the other fallacies of human beings. Christian faith was the convenient excuse to make it palatable. Faith has been at times the convenient veil of humanity’s darkness, however, the kinds of tragedies committed in the name of faith can occur, and do occur, without any faith whatsoever.

    Faith CAN sometimes be blamed for these things; and to my eyes and ears he presents a very valid case for this. Specifically: the best explanation for there existing men who are willing to blow themselves up in order to kill airplanes full of people is that they are taking literally the tenets of their faith.

    I’m also curious about what you’ve written here:

    While ethical/moral systems utilize rational that are not inherently metaphysical at first, as the systems broaden or are explored in more detail, and questions become more difficult to answer or answers become unsatisfactory, metaphysical reasoning on good and evil become necessary to anchor the system. If we exclude these discussions from our reasoning we must admit that systems that are completely opposite from our own are equal.

    I’m not clear on your leap there: how is metaphysical reasoning more well equipped to answer the intricate complexities of moral problems than is reason? If you can’t answer a moral dilemma logically, and then fall back on tenets of faith to answer it for you, you’re just begging the question. Why are the tenets of your faith the ones providing the right answer, and not the tenets of some other?

    What you’re MOST right about is that this is a deep, broad topic, and the fact that I keep trying to deal with it here in the comments of this weblog is distressing.

  12. My argument here is that any ethical or moral system, regardless of religion or existence or nonexistence of a god, must sooner or later take a metaphysical angle into consideration to anchor its positions to make it appear to be superior to alternatives that are unsavory. This usually occurs in the conception of good and evil, which ultimately cannot be divorced from ethical or moral behavior.

    I’m not sure I understand why it’s necessary for an ethical system to veer toward metaphysics. In utilitarian ethics, “good” can be defined as that which benefits the most people, and we don’t think of utilitarians as metaphysicians. The “good” can be grounded in principles of benefit to health and welfare and happiness of humans, not in abstractions that reach beyond this world.

    Ethics in any system is still a prickly pear, but its study doesn’t have to be metaphysical.

    This point really isn’t part of my struggle with atheism, but to me it’s an important mark against arguments for theism – I don’t see any necessity for metaphyics in order to have a cohesive and agreeable ethics.

  13. In utilitarian ethics, “good” can be defined as that which benefits the most people, and we don’t think of utilitarians as metaphysicians. The “good” can be grounded in principles of benefit to health and welfare and happiness of humans…

    My difficulty with this line of reasoning is that it is too constrained with little depth of meaning; at least at first appearance without further explanation. At this point, one could just as easily argue that Good is grounded in might makes right or the achievement of what one desires for oneself (over another). There is little in the way of strong argument to say what Good actually is, beyond the idea of how to best benefit oneself.

    I’m not sure I understand why it’s necessary for an ethical system to veer toward metaphysics.

    Morality is based in reason, and reason itself is something that is manifest in both the physical world and in places beyond our reach: the mind and soul. It has a profound affect on us, yet at the same time, is beyond our abilities to completely measure. Reason itself is something that is the creation of metaphysics: the product of human thought.

    This is because morality concerns itself not just with what is right and wrong when we deal with our neighbors, but it also concerns the behavior within each individual and the purpose and direction of humanity as a whole. These are all things that cannot (or perhaps it is better to say should not?) be distilled to simple utility.

    This point really isn’t part of my struggle with atheism, but to me it’s an important mark against arguments for theism – I don’t see any necessity for metaphyics in order to have a cohesive and agreeable ethics.

    I think that this statement is perhaps the center of our divergence, and perhaps, the divergence of the greater human movements towards atheisms and theisms. I should also add that I did not mean to jump to conclusions on your own background or thought, but this does help clarify your own thinking to me. I hope that my own writing has been similarly useful.

  14. Faith CAN sometimes be blamed for these things; and to my eyes and ears he presents a very valid case for this. Specifically: the best explanation for there existing men who are willing to blow themselves up in order to kill airplanes full of people is that they are taking literally the tenets of their faith.

    A valid criticism, and one that is hard to argue against given the overt statements and public knowledge of the declared beliefs of Islamists.

    If you subscribe to the liberal argument on the movement towards Islamist teaching in the Muslim world, however, how can you also make the argument that these problems are caused by extreme economic disparity, Western neo-colonialism, and all the other socio-economic causes of friction between Muslims and the Western dominated world? Is it faith or is it socio-economic disparity? I don’t believe it can be both; it has to be one or the other.

    I would still argue that it is the darker side of humanity that drives these acts. A faith in God in these cases has become the focused outlet for rage. Any other ideal or human institution could just as easily become the focus depending on the background and history of the society or culture. In the case of Imperial Japan during World War II the safety of a nation and family was the focus of kamikaze.

    I’m not clear on your leap there: how is metaphysical reasoning more well equipped to answer the intricate complexities of moral problems than is reason? If you can’t answer a moral dilemma logically, and then fall back on tenets of faith to answer it for you, you’re just begging the question. Why are the tenets of your faith the ones providing the right answer, and not the tenets of some other?

    Because reason itself is metaphysical in nature. In the case of Christianity reason is our connection to God. Without reason we cannot know God’s will. Reason bridges the divide between the ordinary and extraordinary.

  15. I should have clarified that I am not myself a utilitarian, and I know that Utility is full of problems that make it untenable. I was merely using it as an example of how we can have an ethics based on pure reason and empirical conditions without veering into metaphysics.

    I’m not sure what to say regarding your position that reason itself is metaphysical. I suppose that’s ultimately true, but then again metaphysics does not itself require a leap to God. Philosophers have written metaphysics for centuries that don’t even touch god concepts (e.g. Kant).

    It’s interesting that you say “In the case of Christianity reason is our connection to God” – that’s a fairly unusual (but not unheard of) religious position, and most non-religious people of course see religion as inherently non-rational. There are religious philosophers that seek to work within the realm of reason, but there are also philosophere (Kierkegaard) who see it the other way – that God cannot be reached through reason, thus is takes the *leap of faith* to bridge the gap. I think most religious people are in this latter camp — recognizing that God is not a product of pure reason but feeling nevertheless convinced of its existence. Thus, for both most religious people and for most non-religious people, God is not a rational concept (nor need it be), and reason is not the connection to God (faith is).

    I would be interested to hear what Harris et al. would have to say to the religious philosopher who feels as you do, that their religion is purely rational. I think Harris would probably be dismissive of the possibility and say that the reasoning must be flawed.

  16. I think you’re right about Harris – although his book comes across as a polemic against religion, the basis of his attack is religion’s irrationalism, in particular the fact that most religions are based upon texts many centuries old, which are never allowed to be challenged, while in the meantime every other aspect of human belief has been seriously overhauled. If you could convice him of a rationally-based argument to believe in religion, he would logically have to acquiesce, but I think you would have a difficult (if not impossible) task in doing so.

  17. In the podcast, Harris says straight out that if Jesus returned to earth, all scientists would be compelled to treat religion as a science.

  18. The last chapter of Harris’ The End of Faith discusses eastern schools of meditation and the like. He almost comes across as a little bit of a mystic there, but not quite. I think he feels that consciousness can be altered through things like meditation, and that the experience of such altered states CAN be an important, and real, thing. But when the jump is then made to stating that the CAUSE of that altered experience is anything metaphysical, you’re back to the same problems with faith.

    I think that saying “reason itself is metaphysical in nature” is just another leap, and I think it’s based on the notion that all of consciousness cannot be explained within the framework of science. If you posit that consciousness is metaphysical, it’s an easy thing to assume that reason is also. But the assumption that consciousness is metaphysical is just another assumption. Whether it’s true or not remains to be seen, but the premise should not just be assumed.

    Or perhaps i’ve misunderstood Gilbert’s statement, in which case I’d like to know: what do you mean when you say that reason is metaphysical in nature?

  19. squub: Is consciousness a physical thing? If it’s not, and you agree there is such a thing as consciousness, then it’s metaphysical.

  20. I don’t know. Is computer software a physical thing? Is a song a physical thing?

    To me those are not metaphysical things, and those are in the same category as consciousness. Or they are probably in the same category, at any rate.

    I consider consciousness to be most likely a physical process.

  21. Those things are products of mind, while consciousness is mind itself. We can apprehend software and songs in a way we can’t apprehend mind (just as the eyeball can’t see itself). So I don’t think they’re in the same category, though I do see your point.

  22. No, I don’t think so. It is, I think, the line that Douglas Hofstadter takes in Gödel, Escher Bach: “mind” is the physical structure and activity, “consciousness” is what that physical activity makes us feel, in the same way that a piece of music is physically just some notes (or resonances) strung together in a row, but the effect of the song on us is much greater.

    Hmm, 15 years since I read that book, it really is time I dug it out again.

  23. Scot: You may be interested in this interview of Daniel Dennett by Robert Wright. It’s more of a discussion, really, and it’s talking about exactly these things. Dennett’s on the side I’m probably on, that consciousness is not outside of mind, but is simply the state of the brain. To my mind, what we call consciousness is “just” the software running on the computer of our brain. Or maybe, closer to what Dan said, mind is the program and consciousness is the state of the program at any given point in time.

    I don’t think it’s a given that we can’t apprehend consciousness; maybe we just haven’t yet gotten it all figured out.

  24. Dennett’s on the side I’m probably on, that consciousness is not outside of mind

    I hope I didn’t imply that that’s my position. If I have a position at all, I’m with Wittgenstein – I think these things are beyond our ability to answer adequately, and it’s only language itself that seduces us down garden paths into falsely thinking that we can apprehend them. “Mind,” “Consciousness” — these are just feeble attempts of language to lay claim to something we can’t possibly understand fully. But I definitely don’t think consciousness is outside of us in some way.

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