The rational tail and its emotional dog (and its practical ethical implications)


Deutsche Version: Der emotionale Hund und sein rationaler Schwanz (und deren praktischen ethischen Implikationen).

Youtube Version

This is a title of a ground-breaking article by the brilliant evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt.


Research on moral judgment has been dominated by rationalist models, in which moral judgment is thought to be caused by moral reasoning. Four reasons are given for considering the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached. The social intuitionist model is presented as an alternative to rationalist models. The model is a social model in that it de-emphasizes the private reasoning done by
individuals, emphasizing instead the importance of social and cultural influences. The model is an intuitionist model in that it states that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions). The model is more consistent than rationalist models with recent findings in social, cultural, evolutionary, and biological psychology, as well as anthropology and primatology.

He contrasts moral rationalism, according to which objective moral truths stem from human reason with moral intuitionism as championed by the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume:

His most radical statement of this position was that “we speak
not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume, 1739/1969, p. 462).
The thrust of Hume’s attack on rationalism was that reason alone cannot accomplish the magnificent role it has been given since Plato. Hume saw reason as a tool used by the mind to obtain and process information about events in the world, or about relations among objects. Reason can let us infer that particular action will lead to the death of many innocent people, but unless we care about those people, unless we have some sentiment that values human life, reason alone cannot advise against taking the action. Hume argued that a person in full possession of reason yet lacking moral sentiment
would have difficulty choosing any ends or goals to pursue, and would look like what we now call a psychopath.

He then went on giving cogent empirical arguments why our moral feelings first come about through non-rational and irrational processes and are only rationalized in hindsight and most often unconsciously.

If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is
driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like
thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy. The wag-the-dog illusion follows directly from the mechanics of the reasoning process described above. Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1987) point out that by going through all the steps of hypothesis testing, even though every step can be biased by self-
serving motivations, people can maintain an “illusion of objectivity” about the way they think.


He then said something very relevant for Christians, and more generally for everyone genuinely seeking to follow the Golden Rule:

The bitterness, futility, and self-righteousness of most moral arguments can now be explicated. In a debate on abortion, politics, consensual incest, or on what my friend did to your friend, both sides believe that their positions are based on reasoning about the
facts and issues involved (the wag-the-dog illusion). Both sides present what they take to be excellent arguments in support of their positions. Both sides expect the other side to be responsive to such reasons (the wag-the-other-dog’s-tail illusion). When the other side fails to be affected by such good reasons, each side concludes that the other side must
be closed-minded or insincere. In this way the culture wars over issues such as homosexuality and abortion can generate morally motivated players on
both sides who believe that their opponents are not morally motivated.

Culture war, intolerance and bigotry

As can be expected, these lines have caused a lot of heat for they tend to infuriate every culture warrior on both sides of the great divide. But this has a strong explanatory power.

This explains why both Christian and atheist extremists forget all basic rules of human decency when affronting each other by using emotional bullying, ridicule and constant mockeries. They are convinced that reason is on their side, that those disagreeing with them are either morons or profoundly wicked people, and that they deserve to be treated in the rudest manner.


As he himself expected, Haidt provoked a great furor as he wrote an article pointing out the numerous biases dominating the thoughts of most militant atheists yearning for the destruction of an entity called “Religion”.

I consider the following principle as being a moral ground rule which ought to govern every heated debates or clash of worldview:

it is always wrong to mock, ridicule or bully a respectful and kind opponent, regardless of how offensive and reprehensible some of his or her ideas might be.

Cognitive psychology can be a great help to better understand our own biases but it will never do one thing: making for ourselves the decision to always strive to follow the Golden rule no matter what.


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59 thoughts on “The rational tail and its emotional dog (and its practical ethical implications)

  1. You probably know Pauling´s reformulation of the golden rule:
    ““Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error.” ~ Linus Pauling”
    => that always springs to my mind when I see something about cognitive psychology + moral reasoning😉.

    Re “They are convinced that reason is on their side, that those disagreeing with them are either morons or profoundly wicked people, and that they deserve to be treated in the rudest manner.”
    – Absolutely! No matter which position re moral philosophy people claim to subscribe to, every human being is naturally a moral universalist, they intuitively believe that their moral judgments are objectively true and that people who disagree with them are not merely wrong, but “wicked” as well. I´d further say that every human being is naturally a moral consequentialist. Even if people vehemently deny that they are moral consequentialists, I´ve never seen anyone who *in practice* does not act like one. Take the Catholic stance on abortion for example. They *claim* that their position re abortion follows from the objective moral truth that killing is wrong. However, the same Catholics would agree with the statement that a war can be “just” – like the war against Nazi germany for example, even if such a war involves the inevitable death of innocent civilians, the *consequences* justify the action.

    There have been many fascinating experiments in this field. One of my favourites (which was designed by Jonathan Haidt incidentally) involved describing a scenario to people, asking them if the situation describes is “morally wrong”, and finally to *justify* their moral judgment. One example was this situation:
    “Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?”
    => Virtually everyone declares this situation to be *obviously* morally wrong, but when asked *why* it is wrong, everyone struggles to come up with a rational answer (and, afaict, no one managed to come up with any rational answer).

    When it comes to discussions that involve moral judgments, I would totally agree that the golden rule is very important. But I´d say that even more important (or at least equally important) is to realize the fact that your moral judgments are, to a very large degree, influenced by subconscious / emotional factors, probably even much more so than they are influenced by rational thought. The only solution to this is to try to be brutally honest with yourself – if you find that you are actually unable to rationally justify your moral judgments, you should honestly consider that you might have been misled by tradition, subjective disgust, questionable authority etc.pp.

    I don´t want to claim that atheism provides a moral high ground (it obviously doesn´t), but, when it comes to moral judgments, it does accomplish the task of getting rid of *unquestionable* moral authorities – Popes can be (and often are) wrong, “holy books” can be (and often are) wrong. There is a reason why the Catholic church always was, and still is, one of the greatest obstacles to moral progress – because it places more importance on *unquestionable* rules than it places on people. Such obstacles to moral progress can of course occur in non-christian philosophies as well (Stalin and Hitler were assumed to have quasi-divine attributes like infallibility by their loyal followers for example) and I wouldn´t claim that Atheism is the only solution (it obviously isn´t).
    What I would claim however is, that people and organizations that claim to have *unquestionable* moral truths should have *no place* in any moral discussion (unless they want to discuss among themselves). IMO, the authorities in the Catholic church and every Catholic that is loyal to Rome should be shunned from participating in *any* moral discussion. I don´t think they should be mocked or ridiculed or anything like that, but they shouldn´t be listened to either – enough people have suffered and died for their dogmas, and unless they finally acknowledge that their dogmas and their popes deserve no more respect than the opinions of everyone else, they don´t deserve a spot on the table (and I would say the same for every other organization or person that claims infallibility).

    • Hi Andy, there is lots of stuff here like always :=)

      I will deal with the metaphysical (I know this word makes you vomit😉 ) consequences of such studies in further posts.

      I believe that this incest thought experiment work well for Western liberals having nothing against One Night Stands but for people always relating sexuality with love this doesn’t work that well.

      I agree that people claiming moral infaillibility should be excluded from public discussions UNLESS they use universally recognized moral principles.

      I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is that bad. Most young Catholics I know of are pretty progressive and tend to avoid holding fast on dogmas.
      And even among conservative Catholics in France (and probably also in Germany) I don’t know anyone believing that God ordered a genocide, like Paul Copan and William Lane Craig did. All say that the writers of Joshua got God wrong or that the stories were meant as allegories.

      While very few secular people claim infaillibility, many believe that some of their thoughts are nearly infaillible and act accordingly.
      This is the case of most German physicians who hold fast on certain specific dogmas concerning the prescription of medication rather than objectively seeking the well-being of the patient.

      Übrigens habe ich Deutschland verlassen und bin gerade im Nordengland, wo ich in einer Woche einen neuen Job starten werde.
      Arbeitest du selber in Bayern?

      Liebe Grüsse, Marc.

      • “I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is that bad.”

        actually, the Catholic Church is worse: it’s evil.

        any organisation that would wean, harbour, and protect predators is evil personified.

        for me, there is no greater evil than preying on the innocent.

        good luck in England. cheers.

        • First of all thanks :=)

          Did the whole Catholic church approve of or cover such evils?

          There were recently scandals of sexual abuse among Skeptical organizations with evidence of cover-up.
          Yet I would not conclude that these organizations are evil unless I see clear evidence that most of the leaders consciously protected the predators.

          Otherwise I’d be glad to skype with you whenever I have more time.

          Lovely greetings / Liebe Grüsse. (I hope this does not sound too familiar in English🙂 )

      • Hi Marc,

        you say, “I believe that this incest thought experiment work well for Western liberals having nothing against One Night Stands but for people always relating sexuality with love … this doesn’t work that well. “.
        There is a difference between “sexuality and love are intrinsically connected for me” and “I think that recreational sex which doesn´t involve romantic love is morally wrong”.
        One is a subjective preference, the other a moral judgment. And rationally inferring a moral judgment from something that could be nothing but a subjective personal preference is problematic. I see that you tried to justify such a moral judgment in the blogpost you linked to, but I think you missed the point a little – you argued that committed relationships are better for the wellbeing of people than a series of one night stands (I would nitpick a little about that but I don´t strongly disagree with this statement), but how does this affect people that are not in a committed relationship? (but might be looking for one)
        Is it better for the wellbeing of people to live as celibates while they are looking for a committed relationship instead of occassionally having recreational sex that doesn´t involve romantic love? I don´t think that there is a rational argument for that.

        “I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is that bad. Most young Catholics I know of are pretty progressive and tend to avoid holding fast on dogmas.”
        – This is why I was talking about the “authorities” and Catholics that are “loyal to Rome”. I didn´t want to imply that Catholics per se are bad people, not at all! (sorry if I came across as implying that)
        But I utterly despise virtually every single Bishop, Cardinal and Pope I have ever seen. I am convinced that the highest authorities in the Catholic Church are thoroughly morally corrupt and there is plenty of evidence for that – when faced with the decision of supporting democrats or fascists or staying politically neutral, they *always* sided with the fascists. When facing simple moral dilemmas (so simple that they shouldn´t even be called “dilemmas”) like “is it better that a) an adult woman AND a fetus dies or b) that only the fetus dies” or “is it better that a) one rapist priest goes to prison or b) he doesn´t go to prison and keeps raping children” – they manage to *systematically* make the wrong choices (and hurt countless people by that).
        This is why I hope that more and more good people simply leave the Catholic Church and instead join a different church (or start their own).

        “Übrigens habe ich Deutschland verlassen und bin gerade im Nordengland, wo ich in einer Woche einen neuen Job starten werde.
        Arbeitest du selber in Bayern?”
        – Dann wünsch ich dir mal viel Spass in England😉. Ich arbeite im Moment noch in NRW, aber ich werde auch bald umziehen – wohin weiss ich aber noch nicht, ich hab mich auf diverse Stellen beworben.

      • Lest you think we castigate sans reason:

        From the Attorney General’s “The Sexual Abuse of Children in the
        Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston” –>,d.eW0

        “There is overwhelming evidence that for many years Cardinal Law and his senior managers had direct, actual knowledge that substantial numbers of children in the Archdiocese had been sexually abused by substantial numbers of its priests…”

        “… Two hundred and fifty priests and other Archdiocese workers are alleged to have sexually abused at least 789 children since 1940…”

        “The Archdiocese steadfastly maintained a practice of not reporting allegations of sexual abuse of children to law enforcement or child protection authorities..”

        “…the Archdiocese’s response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children included at times quietly transferring the alleged abuser to a different parish in the Archdiocese, sometimes without disclosing the abuse to the new parish or restricting the abusive priest’s ministry functions…”

        The widespread sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston was due to an institutional acceptance of abuse and a massive and pervasive failure of leadership. For at least six decades, three successive Archbishops, Bishops and others in positions of authority within the Archdiocese operated with tragically misguided priorities. They chose to protect the image and reputation of their institution rather than the safety and well being of the children entrusted to their care… the Archdiocese has yet to demonstrate a commitment to reform proportional to the tragedy it perpetrated.”

        I don’t care that abuse takes place in other organisations. Preying on the innocent is evil.

        Evil incarnate is the institutionalising of predation of the innocent.

        But, I’m sure we can find a few theists that will tell us that since we are all fallen, then none is innocent.

        brilliantly satired –>

        • “Evil incarnate is the institutionalising of predation of the innocent.”

          I agree it is horrible. But this is not a reason for me not to go to progressive (or even conservative) Catholic Churches and Cathedrals where the whole congregation and the priests/bishops are completely and sincerely disgusted by these ignoble misdeeds.
          I do believe that the Catholic Church needs to be purged.

          “But, I’m sure we can find a few theists that will tell us that since we are all fallen, then none is innocent.”

          Yes, especially consistent Calvinists who say that God caused our fall but hold us eternally accountable for sins which were inevitable.
          Hopefully you don’t believe I am one of these theists :=)

      • Lothars, i do not believe you are such a theist. i rather think you’d be a typical homo sapiens like most of us, who recognises a need to live with each other.

        “the whole congregation and the priests/bishops are completely and sincerely disgusted by these ignoble misdeeds…”

        great. then do the right thing: protect the innocent and bring the predators and their protectors to justice–because i do not see any god(s) doing it for us–and perhaps i’ll retract my broad-brushing of all of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as evil.

        and, while you are at it–and i know this will be as difficult as getting a leopard to lose its spots–stop with the lies and pretense that the RCC has some kind of direct hotline to some supreme deity. acknowledge that all the dogma, doctrine, credos, and rituals are nothing more than beliefs. acknowledge that the institution deserves no special treatment–equal treatment under the law. and the RCC takes its responsibility as leaders seriously, and leads responsibly.

        the institution can believe in any god(s) it wants, but keep those beliefs to itself, please.

        lastly, abide by “a rule of law.”–of the land, that is.


      • Few secular people claim infallibility? Are you serious? The infallibility of their positions, moral or otherwise, it the keystone of progressivism.

  2. as i said: there is no greater evil than preying on the innocent.

    the fact that Skeptical organisations indulge in sexual abuse and cover-up change the evil–my deinition–that is the Catholic Church?

  3. “…it is always wrong to mock, ridicule or bully a respectful and kind opponent, regardless of how offensive and reprehensible some of his or her ideas might be.”

    Nope, you’re wrong. When it comes to religions that threaten you, and you know that those threats are to intimidate you into their beliefs, then the only way out of intimidation is to mock, satire, laugh or ridicule.

    You need a lot of courage to mock Muslims for they will kill you as Christian heretics were killed by Christians themselves, before the modern era. You need intelligent humor to show how ridiculous Christianity was and is.

    Christians cannot laugh at atheists because they are only into tragedy and dramatics of their religion. When Christians laugh at atheist, they laugh with hate, because in their inane beliefs, atheists will suffer forever.

    All that “respectful” dialog asked by Christians is a new facade they have to put since modern times ask for civility, something Christians didn’t need to practice for thousands of years, for they were a totalitarian religion.

    What Christian practiced was “love” = “Accept our love or you’ll burn”

    I would like to read a post in which you refrain calling even the simplest disbeliever of Christianity as an “anti-theists”. From what I read, you have not a clue what is the difference between atheist, “militant” atheist, or “anti-theists”, for as it seems, anybody who disbelieve your religion is against your religion. Radicalist as Jesus himself: “He who is not with me is against me”.

    • Hello, I will go in length into your remark about the moral permissibility of mocking and ridiculing respectful opponents in a future post.

      I think you should really refrain from making judgements on people you know very little about.
      Andy, Xon-Xoff and Zilch are living examples of respectful, non-militant atheists. They do argue against (the rationality of) belief in God, but they do that in a respectul manner and they don’t view all religious believers (and Christians for that matter) in the same way.
      Jeffery Jay Lowder is a great intellectual defender of atheism but he is by no means militant.

      Frankly speaking, do you feel threatened by liberal and progressive Christians?

      Even though it would be quite flattering, I hope you don’t feel menaced by me :=)

  4. Hey everyone! I’d like to politely disagree with all of you (possibly) on a couple of things.

    First of all, about tone. the Bible offers some good advice on this: To everything there is a season, and that includes using ridicule. I don’t feel guilty at all when I make silly remarks on YouTube sites who claim the Moon Landings were a hoax perpetrated by the CIA, for instance. Trying to patiently explain science to these guys is a waste of time- the only thing you can do is say equally ridiculous stuff in hopes that they will see how their beliefs are just as ridiculous.

    But on the other hand, what’s the point in being impolite to someone who is polite? You are simply going to make them feel bad and/or make them ignore you; and you are almost certainly not going to change their mind. Even more important: we live in a world where people believe all kinds of things, and most of them must be wrong, logically speaking. And the world is not going to become 100% Christian, or Muslim, or atheistic, overnight: so if we want to live in peace (I do), then we should behave accordingly, and that means being nice, even if they’re dead wrong.

    That’s why I very rarely engage in making fun of people’s ideas, and I try to make sure that I respect people’s right to believe what they want. I doubt that religion will go away faster if all atheists make fun of theists. While I do fight religious ideas that do real damage, such as the anti-science position that leads to global warming denial, I’m not sure that religious people on the whole behave worse than atheists- there are some pretty nasty atheists out there too. And I enjoy the friendships I have with theists, who even here in Austria are probably still in the majority.

    Okay- that said, I’m afraid I will have to respectfully disagree with my atheistic colleague Andy here, for the first time I think. Andy relates the story of sister and brother Julie and Mark, who make love with no hard feelings, pregnancy, or disease. Andy then says:

    => Virtually everyone declares this situation to be *obviously* morally wrong, but when asked *why* it is wrong, everyone struggles to come up with a rational answer (and, afaict, no one managed to come up with any rational answer).

    Wrong on both counts, in my case. First- I don’t see why this should be morally wrong, if Julie and Mark have no problems with it- in fact, I know a pair of twins, Abby and Marc (coincidence?) who have been lovers on and off for years with no problems. Second- I have no problem coming up with a rational answer to why incest is usually considered wrong, and it’s not anything new: there are very good biological reasons to avoid incest, and we humans aren’t usually sexually attracted to our siblings, or even to unrelated people we grow up with- that’s why marriages within kibbutzim, even though not biologically related, most often fail. Even our cousins the bonobos, who make love in every imaginable and unimaginable combination, don’t often engage in mother/son sex.

    Thus, it’s perfectly natural that incest should be (usually) considered morally wrong- it’s in our genes. But is it “actually” wrong, in the case of consenting adults using birth control, in terms of hurting anyone? I don’t see why it should be.

    cheers from perverse Vienna, zilch

    • “First of all, about tone. the Bible offers some good advice on this: To everything there is a season, and that includes using ridicule…. Trying to patiently explain science to these guys is a waste of time- the only thing you can do is say equally ridiculous stuff in hopes that they will see how their beliefs are just as ridiculous.”
      – I think I agree with that. As long as people take care to ridicule not people, but rather only the ideas they have, I think it´s ok to do that. And some ideas are just so silly that ridicule almost seems to be the only option, example:

      “there are very good biological reasons to avoid incest, and we humans aren’t usually sexually attracted to our siblings, or even to unrelated people we grow up with- that’s why marriages within kibbutzim, even though not biologically related, most often fail. Even our cousins the bonobos, who make love in every imaginable and unimaginable combination, don’t often engage in mother/son sex. Thus, it’s perfectly natural that incest should be (usually) considered morally wrong- it’s in our genes.”
      – Yup. Although I doubt that this is genetic, I think it´s much more likely that this is cultural. There were cultures were incest was quite widespread (egypt in antiquity for example), and a transition from such a state to a state where incest was universally condemned happened very quickly (on an evolutionary timescale), which is hard to explain if this were genetic. Also, the average fitness cost of incest is not very high in reasonably large populations – and natural selection is *very* weak relative to neutral drift in humans (and mammals in general). Detrimental traits that come with only small fitness costs, like color blindness for example, are essentially “invisible” to selection. So I think that this is more of a tradition / cultural evolution rather than a genetic trait.

      • Andy- agreed, the genetic cost of incest is not very high. But evolution does also go for slim odds. And the evidence from the kibbutzim, and also from Chinese arranged marriages where the couple grew up together as young kids, where in both cases there was a great deal of cultural encouragement, not condemnation, but the marriages failed anyway, makes it seem obvious to me that there’s at least some genetic component to incest avoidance. But yeah, I’m willing to believe that it’s largely cultural.

      • zilch, yeah – what you mentioned about Bonobos is also a good point. They have a culture and they do learn skills from their parents, but I have a hard time imagining how a Bonobo mom could communicate an idea like “don´t fuck your closest relatives!” without an actual language😉.

    • Hello Zilch, thanks for your wise words about the use of ridicule. I will write a post about this soon.

      By the way, what is your job in Vienna?

      I am in England and will start a new job there very soon.

      LG, Marc.

  5. Oh, and ps Andy, about the esoteric stuff: yeah, my neighbor down the street here is an esoteric shop. The couple who run it are nice people and we get along well, but I just don’t say anything. What’s the point?

    • I usually don´t say anything about this as well, but when those esoteric ideas become actively harmful – for example when people believe that a psychic can talk to their deceased loved ones (which hinders the actual grieving process) or when they waste their entire fortune on a psychic, I think something has to be done.
      And ridicule is one of the best weapons in this case (South Park did a *very* good job at exposing John Edward (a very popular psychic who claims that he can talk to the dead) and Scientology with ridicule – and at least for scientology, I think they actually made a difference, it was one of their most popular episodes)

      • I’ll fully agree with you there, Andy. Some of these charlatans do real emotional (not to mention financial) harm. And Scientologists are Freiwild as far as I’m concerned: they try to destroy the reputations and lives of those who leave the “church”.

  6. Great article on an important idea.

    I’ve long felt that we mostly adopt our positions (theological, ethical, political) for reasons that are not purely rational, and then use reason afterwards to justify our positions. So when we try to argue others into our position with logic alone, we all too often end up in point-scoring and name-calling rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue.

    There’s still a place for rational argument, for being thoroughly thought-through on the issues we believe in. If we feel passionately that something is wrong or right, good or bad, we should be able to explain that position clearly and reasonably. And equally we need to understand that those who disagree with us often have very good reasons for their views too, and we must be prepared to engage with those reasons rather than just trying to refute them.

    But, as you point out, we also need to realise that reason isn’t the only (or primary) factor in our position or in our opponents’ position. Rather, much of it comes down to gut feeling, instinct, intuition and emotion (and sometimes prejudice).

    And I totally agree that when we dialogue with those we disagree with, we need to be courteous, respectful, willing to listen, and willing to question our own views and assumptions. We may well be wrong after all.

    So, great article, and deserves to be widely read and engaged with.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      Atheists like to point out to studies such as this one for explaining away religious beliefs.

      They forget this is a double-edged sword, and that the beliefs they passionately defend were often there BEFORE the arguments which are supposed to justify them.

      • “Atheists like to point out to studies such as this one for explaining away religious beliefs.”


        no. atheists do no such thing. some folks, who may consider themselves atheists, may make assertions about their particular beliefs on certain issues. and when they do feel free to ask those folks to demonstrate that their assertions represent the world about us.

        when i claim that the RCC is evil, I provided evidence for my bold assertion. it was up to you to take me up on my assertion as you did. but my claim is mine and no one else’s. my claim, coming from an atheist, does not represent atheism–that’s ludicrous.

        no one represents atheism, for it is not a doctrine or system or institution.

        atheism is a rejection of beliefs in god(s)–nothing more, nothing less.

        please stop with the conflating of atheism with theism. atheism is not the opposite of theism.

        stop playing loose with the meanings of words please.

        in many respects, subterfuge is dishonest.

        if you don’t stop with the dithering, then i’ll start calling you Mr Dumpty.

        • Okay, I should have said “many atheists”, my apologies.
          I was speaking in GENERAL, and was certainly not referring to your criticism of the RCC as a whole which might or might not be right.

          I stick to the historical definition of “Atheism” as it is found in the Larousse (main French dictionary: „Doctrine qui nie l’existence de Dieu“ (doctrine which denies the existence of God).

          Accusing someone of wilfully playing with the definition of words in order to defend his beliefs is a serious charge. This is something I could not do morally while looking myself in the mirror.
          What’s more, I could not have inner peace if I did so, for what are my beliefs worth if I have to resort to such ruses in order to defend them?

          However, being an imperfect creature, I do recognize that I may use words in an inappropriate manner, a problem which is compounded by my natural impulsiveness.

          I hope you have become (slightly) less angry on me.

          Friendly greetings from the horribly rainy England.

      • ok, understood. your definition eluded me. i was not aware of the definition in the Larousse dictionary. I stand corrected, and, i was not angry, more than a little exasperated.

        as you notice, i chided you before, thinking of my definition, unawares of yours. this demonstrates all the more reason for establishing definitions.

        i retract my charge of playing with definitions. sorry.

        i have berated some of my theist friends for the same playing with definitions; however, they are aware of the definition that i use.

        i’m curious if it is defined similarly in German? is this a cultural thing?

        how is it defined in a typical German dictionary?

        this link defines it as “Ablehnung eines Gottesglaubens” –>

        my little German is not enough to translate to English, so please help.

        • No need to apologize!
          Yep, Ablehnung does mean “rejection” and Gottesglauben means belief in God.

          “Lehnen” means to lean towards.
          Ab meant originally “off” but now above else “away from”.
          With time, “ablehnen” has come to have a much stronger meaning than just “leaning away from”.

          So I hope this small ethymology lesson sort of helps :=)

          By the way, is Spanish your mother tongue?

      • My two cents’ worth on the “meaning” of atheist: I agree with xon-xoff that most atheists nowadays define atheism as “not believing in gods”, not as “believing that gods do not exist”. The German definition, “to reject belief in God” as lothar accurately translated, seems pretty much like my definition “to not believe in gods”.

        In any case, although many atheists and theists make a big deal of trying to pigeonhole people as being “hard” or “soft” atheists, or “agnostic atheists”, it seems to me that belief systems cannot necessarily always be so simply categorized: they are often a great deal more nuanced than their definitions would make them appear.

        For instance: Richard Dawkins was interviewed by a theist once, who tried to pin him down on the exact percentage of certainty he had that God didn’t exist. Dawkins first said that he couldn’t put a number on it, and when pressed, said something like “99%” certainty, and added that he couldn’t be “absolutely” certain that life wasn’t seeded on Earth by aliens. He was obviously just trying to make a point about the logical impossibility of being “absolutely” certain, but of course this quote was picked up gleefully by creationists, who had a field day claiming that Dawkins believes in panspermia.

      • my mother tongue is English. Trinidad & Tobago were British colonies from 1888-1962. from 1498 to 1888, Trinidad was a Spanish colony, but settled mostly by the French–go figure; Tobago changed hands from Spanish to French to Dutch and back over the same period. throughout the period, both islands were settled by the sea-faring colonials: Dutch, Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French. and before the Spanish, Arawaks and Caribs, from mainland South America.

        i agree Zilch that belief is much more nuanced than a definition may try to capture. as it may be apparent by now, i do take umbrage with the definition of atheism as being the positive assertion that there are no god(s). with what our cognitive faculties give us, i think we may observe that things are; things exist. i don’t know how to conceptualise that a thing is not. as long as i think “a thing,” then it is. this may not mean that it is a material thing, but since it is my mind, then it is, conceptually.

        so, the claim “god is” is possible; whereas the counter claim “god is not” perhaps is not possible. “a thing is not” sounds like an oxymoron to me.

        now, though the claim “god is” is possible, i think this is purely in the intellect. to take then this intellectual possibility and give it ontological meaning is another. as i see it, this where the intellectual possibilities result in the plethora of gods about us.

        to go even further then and assert that a given possibility became material, is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient, well, that’s that’s just beyond belief, per se.

        what the hell does omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient mean? really, i’d like someone to explain those inconceivable terms to me.


      • Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting someone from Trinidad and Tobago, xon-xoff. Nice to be so international here.

        And about all these omnis- I’m puzzled by them too. Any discussion of what “omnipotent” means that I’ve had with Christians soon dissolves into arguments about how it must be limited by various things, but can still be called “omnipotence”. For instance: can God make two plus two equal five, or create a stone so big He can’t lift it? If not, then God cannot do everything, but is constrained by logic. Can God rape or lie? Humans can- that means that God’s omnipotence is further restrained by His character, so it’s not really all-powerful. The Bible is also full of places where it’s obvious that God is not omnipotent or omniscient.

        Another problem: if God is omnipotent and omniscient, I don’t see how we can have free will. God knows everything we will do, (omniscience), and creates us in exactly such a way that we will do that (omnipotence). We may think we have free will, but we don’t from God’s point of view: we are like Fred Flintstone in a cartoon that’s already in the can: we can only do what we were drawn to do. I’ve never found a theist who could refute this except by handwaving.

        cheers from cool Vienna, zilch

      • danke Zilch. i rather like hanging out here in Lothars’ lair.

        BTW: your Zitar (i think that’s the name of one of the olde musical instruments that you build, right) looks splendid. must take a bit of time and energy to build something like that.

        “Omniscience and ominopotence are nice doctrines, but they are not essential parts of the Christian faith.”


        so, Lothars, tell us, then, what are omniscience and omnipotence, and, what do they mean to the Christian faith?

        and what about omnibenevolence and omnipresence?


      • Thanks for the compliment about my instrument, xon-xoff. “Zitar” is probably, like “Zister” (in German) and “guitar”, related to the Greek name “kithara”. Maybe related to the Sanskrit “sitar” also. All plucked string instruments.

        And yeah, it’s a lot of work to build one, but it’s just like everything else: one step at a time. Anyone can learn to do it.

        What do you do as a profession, if I may ask?

        cheers from sunny Vienna, Scott (zilch)

      • @zilch

        “What do you do as a profession, if I may ask?”

        you may, always.

        i work with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations as a Telecommunciations and Information Technology specialist. For the last 23.5 years. Not quite as esoteric as crafting centuries olde musical instruments.

        cheers from sunny, cool, Boston, Massachussetts.
        (been here for the weekend relaxing–no Internet for for a couple days. headed back to NY later this morning)

      • Wow, xon-xoff, I’m impressed- your work is technical and important. I pegged you for a computer guy of some kind because of your handle, but I somehow pictured an Asian- shows how our stereotypes can fool us. 😆

        I have an inner nerd who would be very gratified to do something more technical/sciency than what I do, but only gets to do simple logarithms for calculating string parameters. The little messing around with computers I’ve done is enough to make me have great respect for those who know their stuff.

        cheers from foggy Vienna, and please let me know if you’re ever around here, or in the SF Bay Area- I’d love to treat you to lunch.

      • “cheers from foggy Vienna, and please let me know if you’re ever around here, or in the SF Bay Area- I’d love to treat you to lunch.”

        thanks. if i get to either location i shall be delighted to join you.

        same offer of hospitality from my end. if you are in the NY area, let me know. i’m hardly in my home country, Trinidad & Tobago, but, if you get there and i’m there, i can show you around.


  7. Re ‘omnipotent’ etc – as Lotharson says, the ‘omni-’s aren’t core Christian doctrines, and not all Christians set much store by these kind of attempts to define God’s attributes. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t make much of them, and they mainly came into Christian theology via Greek philosophy.

    What Christians do generally assume is that God is perfect, complete, and ultimate. Nothing greater or better or more ‘original’ than God can be imagined. Theologians have tried to express this idea in various ways, by calling God ‘The Ground of all Being’, or Ultimate Reality, etc. They talk of the Necessary or Non-contingent Being. But really human language isn’t up to the task. Even in the Bible, when asked for his name (i.e. definition), God just says ‘I AM’.

    The thing is, Christians don’t see God as a possible being in the same order as (say) fairies or angels or unicorns, or indeed Zeus or Wotan. They see him as being of a completely different order or category to all other ‘things’ and ideas – God is not a thing but the source of things. He is the ultimate, the original, the perfect, the infinite etc. As such he is not ‘provable’ but is axiomatic – the first cause of everything else.

    However, they also see God as having entered into his universe and become ‘incarnate’, meaning that in a sense he does now become examinable. Christians believe that in Jesus we do somehow see God, so we can start to talk (a little) about what he is like. And so we get key Christian ideas like ‘God is love’ and ‘God is good’.

    NB I’m not trying to persuade anyone to believe in God, nor to accept these descriptions of ‘him’, just trying to explain where they come from in Christian theology.🙂

    • Hey liberal, I’m willing to bet that you’re not an American Christian. Every American Christian I’ve every engaged with insists on God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

      • You’d win the bet🙂 – I’m from the UK. Have to admit I find a lot of American Christians (and American Christianity) pretty scary, though there are honourable exceptions. Of course, there are fundamentalists here in Britain too, but they’re not the majority voice.

    • thanks for your explanations TheEvangelicalLiberal.

      yes, as Zilch recognised quickly, your liberal view of the ‘omnis’ are not shared by all christianities. and that sorta adds to clouding the issue of definitions.

      Unitarians, Arminians, may not see Christ as a Trinitarian does.

      anyhoo, as i posited elsewhere, for me–and this is my opinion only–all this belief stuff boils down to belief. and, i do not mean by my understanding to demean people’s beliefs. we’re entitled to our beliefs.

      the descriptions and understandings above are not shared by all those professing to be christian, so, as a non-christian, i have to ask, as i have been asking for a long time: beyond the not-easily-defined ‘omnis,’ which of these are the correct tenets? which are incorrect? how shall a non-christian sift through the details?

      William of Ockham’s understanding that we may not reason our way to god except through faith appears to me to be a reasonable understanding.

      so, if we all–all homo sapiens–accept that perhaps we only have beliefs, and that we all need to work our way through a world in which we all live, then perhaps we can live and let believe.

      i underastand that christians do not see their god as others may, but, yesterday afternoon i had an interesting tour of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, located within the Cambridge University campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts. in the museum, most of the works/displays is dedicated to native American cultures of the Americas. as i stood in wonder before some of the stellae of Mayan cultures, some of which depicted religious figures, and the intricate and animated drawings of the Aztec deities, i asked myself: how am i to know if these Mayan and Aztecan deities interacted with these Central American cultures?

      given that the Aztec and Mayan cultures have declined, where does this leave Quetzalcoatl?

      were the deities of the american cultures real? do they exist today?

      • @xon-xoff – Sorry for the delay in responding. You raise some great points, though to do them justice would take much more than a blog comment…

        The thing is, I don’t believe the kind of precise definitions you’re seeking are either possible or particularly useful.

        Firstly, we’re essentially discussing the fundamental nature of reality and being, and at this level you’re never going to get complete agreement. If I can draw a loose analogy with science, different theoretical physicists favour different versions of string theory, M-theory and so on. When we’re talking about God, we’re talking on this kind of level – at the absolute limits of human ability to conceptualise and describe.

        But most physicists will agree that there *is* a fundamental physical reality even if they don’t all agree on how to describe it. Similarly, most Christians will agree that there’s a fundamental spiritual reality we call God, even if we disagree on exact definitions and attributes.

        Secondly, for most Christians our faith isn’t predicated on definitions and doctrines but on something much more like a personal relationship. I’d draw an analogy with falling in love. I’m not sure how I could attempt a scientific description of my relationship with my wife, or of her fundamental nature, but even if I could it would largely miss the point.

        Thirdly, definitions and doctrines just aren’t what Christianity is about. Jesus made very little of such things. Rather he said things like ‘Follow me’ and ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’. He invited people into a transforming relationship; he didn’t require them to sign up to a creed. I’m interested in theology so I like thinking about the nature of God, but I don’t think it helps me to be a better Christian. And I don’t think it matters that other Christians have different theologies to mine.

        So about other people’s gods like Quetzlcoatl, I don’t know because I have no experience of them. It seems to me that these beings are not of the same order or category as God; they seem deeply flawed and contingent. But maybe they were the best representations of God that the Aztec people had.

        I’m also happy to accept that there’s an evolutionary element to our religious impulses. We may well have an in-built drive to worship, to spiritualise the universe, to invent specific gods. But that doesn’t mean there is no objective reality to any of these things; just that our individual versions (including mine) may not be the most accurate representations of that reality.

        PS re-reading my original comment, I can’t see much that’s at odds with classic or historical Christianity – most of what I’m saying is pretty standard stuff. Yes, some people do get hung up on the ‘omnis’, but these are late additions to theology and weren’t part of original Christian belief.

      • once again, TEL (if i may abbreviate your elongated moniker please), thanks a lot for your elucidation.

        i do get hung up on definitions. and that’s because far too often homo sapiens tend to be clones of Humpty-Dumpty. they say one thing, and stretch it to mean so many other things. nonetheless, i do not charge thee as being a Humpty-Dumpty. your meanings are clear, and, you do not hide behind loaded words. i will say that on occasion i have had to chastise Lothars, but, he is no Humpty-Dumpty either. again, understand that i do get hung up with definitions, and perhaps i should relent.

        now, you claimed “[t]hirdly, definitions and doctrines just aren’t what Christianity is about.”

        i’m not sure if this is the case. i thought the big organised Abrahamic religions were all about doctrines.

        when i was a very young boy, brought up a Roman Catholic, it was all about doctrine: “recite and affirm the Apostle’s Creed.” i was never encouraged to establish a relationship with Christ. i had to establish a relationship with the RCC.

        it’s only when i heard from the televangelists on the TV in the 80’s, did i hear whispers about engendering a relationship with Christ. today, i hear it quite often–loudly.

        bugger! i hate to say it, but, we circle back around again to definitions. in fine, you suggest that Christianity is more about a relationship with Christ. i know Christians that would say otherwise: “relationship with Christ?! pshaw!!! (1) follow the bible and what’s written there!! (2) faith, faith my son!! (3) believe in the resurrected Christ and all will be well (4)… ”

        you see my conundrum, right.

        “It seems to me that these beings are not of the same order or category as God; they seem deeply flawed and contingent.”

        ok, i accept your understanding that the gods of other cultures seem flawed and contingent. i may not agree, but i accept your understanding.

        you realise that in some respects, and in a similar vein, your god, as related to me severally by Christians, inter alia, seems illogical, right.

        “… at this level you’re never going to get complete agreement.”
        “But that doesn’t mean there is no objective reality to any of these things…”

        well, let’s agree that there is something like an objective reality. it may be difficult, but i think if we try and try again and again, we might figure something out, perchance, perforce.

        and by figuring something out, i don’t mean to try to convince anyone to change beliefs–beliefs are [should be?] personal. i may essay to convince us to come to a mutually acceptable agreement on how we interact in the commons, when we are in public, inside of this objective reality.


      • Hi xon-xoff, apologies again for the lengthy delay in replying – I’ve been offline for several days on holiday. Though I’m probably only ever going to be a sporadic correspondent at best.

        Thanks for your kind words! I’ll do my best to avoid Humpty-Dumptyism. Trouble is, outside of scientific discourse, words are so infuriatingly imprecise and language so inherently metaphorical that it can be very hard to avoid H-D-ism completely…

        I sympathise re RCC upbringing – enough to put you off the whole Christian thing for life. I had a half-Catholic upbringing and that was bad enough. I have great respect for some individual Catholics (mainly Franciscans and Benedictines), and the new Pope seems surprisingly good on most counts, but I find a lot of Catholic teaching fairly bizarre – if not just plain bonkers.

        I do see your conundrum with the differing definitions you’ve been given of Christianity – e.g. ‘have faith’ vs ‘read the Bible’ vs ‘learn your catechism’ etc (though to be pedantic, these don’t exactly sound like definitions, more like instructions). If I were asked for my own definition/instruction, I’d give a different one again – ‘love God with all you have, and love your fellow-human as yourself’.

        But I’m very much a both/and guy, not an either/or. I don’t see these definitions or whatever as mutually exclusive but complementary. I’d say that all of them can have a part to play, though I’d see some as less vital than others.

        Others may disagree, but that’s okay. I don’t need everyone who calls him/herself a Christian to have exactly the same understanding as me. We agree on a very few core things, and the rest is up for grabs. Christianity certainly has both communal and individual aspects, but I don’t see that it has to be institutional or to have a set of defined rules nor even a precise creed. As I said last time, Jesus himself never spoke in such terms.

        Again, that’s not to say that there isn’t an objective truth or an optimum definition of Christianity, or of God, or of faith – or of reality itself (whether that be God or not). It’s just that fallible humans are never completely going to be able to arrive at it or agree on it. But we don’t need to – so long as we don’t feel the need to kill or hate each other over our disagreements.

        While we’re on the nature of fundamental or ‘objective’ reality, philosopher Keith Ward makes an interesting point on the difference between materialists and non-materialists (generally theists). Materialists work from the assumption that matter is the fundamental or original reality, whereas non-materialists work from the assumption that mind (or ‘spirit’, or ‘reason’) is. And then we generally get into insoluble chicken-and-egg arguments about whether matter can give rise to rational mind, or vice versa. Perhaps the truth is that both are equally fundamental…

        Sorry, I realise this probably doesn’t address all your specific points and questions…

      • @ TEL

        “Sorry, I realise this probably doesn’t address all your specific points and questions…”

        no worries. we’re engaging each other. we may not find answers to many things, but, by discussing we may unearth a gem, perhaps.


  8. Sorry I am late to the party, but I enjoyed the article.

    I particularly liked your summarizing statement, “it is always wrong to mock, ridicule or bully a respectful and kind opponent, regardless of how offensive and reprehensible some of his or her ideas might be.” This is the way I try to interact as well.

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