Everything You Know About the Adulterously
Atheists... foxholes...

Wow, this is a little amusing, a little pathetic (in the modern sense of "lame"), and quite pathetic (in the ancient sense of "full of pathos"). I just discovered this "prayer" that I wrote back in September, 2004, when I was working at that godawful truck routing company by the airport. Probably right around the nadir of the last ten years of my life, really.

I've changed quite a lot spiritually since then, and my life has also become much better, both quantitatively and qualitatively (more on this, later). Even so, this weird, conflicted message to "any God or Greater Being" is endemic of a real problem that I'm struggling with right now--that of giving thanks.

Since time immemorial, giving thanks to the gods for one's good fortune has been a sign of virtue, while failure to do so has indicated a selfish character and, usually, a well-deserved comeuppance. This makes a lot of sense to me, for as we ritualistically thank God (through prayers, burnt offerings, new temples, or whathaveyou) we are also acknowledging that good fortune has a place in our life, and cementing the good times in our memory, claiming them as a full part of our life's story. When hard times come around, it's all too easy to forget that joy was a part of us, unless we memorialize it in some concrete fashion.

And yet this is no reason for an Atheist to start believing in God (and even if it were, how would I know which one to start with?). I feel that matters of faith and spirituality are far too important to ever be treated as simply as a means to an end. In addition, it's quite dishonest to pretend to give thanks to imaginary figures (if they don't exist) and quite unjust to give them more credit than they deserve (even if they do).

Much of my good luck (as I mentioned) has come through my own merit, and while humility is important, it's also important to remember one's own worth. Also, to me, prayer in general and prayers of thanks giving in particular imply a sort of quid pro quo--you save me from this shipwreck, I'll repay you with sacrificed cattle. You save my cat, I'll go to church on Sundays. Surely the ein sof is above petty bartering? And surely it's demeaning for me to pretend to barter for things that I deserve--that everyone deserves--merely by being alive.

After I wrote that bit of heartfelt html, Byron did indeed get better. My relationship with Katya became more strange than ever, but also more wonderful. I did get that job at Northwestern, it was better than I imagined, and I went on to experience good fortune in ways that I hadn't even dreamed of while routing big rigs (the 'nidge, for example, is something I could never have predicted!). I feel like I'm narrating the ending of "A Christmas Carol" here, which says a lot about how great my life is these days--some times it might not feel very "happily ever after", but by comparison it is pretty amazing.

I would like to find a way to express all this joy. An honest, respectful way that doesn't involve groveling or make believe. Something with dignity, but not just a casual 'blog entry. I think that ritual helps to formalize such actions, and also allows them to transcend the profane and become sanctified.

Writing that html in 2004 certainly helped at the time, and now, three years later, I can read it a realize just how fortunate I am. However, it's just a hastily-typed digital record. Now that I've survived that stage of my life (and, no matter what happens next, I can certainly state that I survived that period) I'd like to recognize it in some way. If I had the right thanksgiving ritual my current bounty might stay on in my mind longer, and become a real part of my personal narrative. That seems quite important to me.

P.S.--As you can see in my letter, I tried never to pray for things (trafficking in unknown magics, I thought then) and still avoid it. To this day I would never say, "Please God, let me do such and such". I don't believe in God, and so why shouldn't I say these empty words? It's magical thinking, and I see it as a (very mild) character flaw. Further evidence of the "soft" part of my "soft atheism".

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based on the preview, i thought your site was going to post my text unformatted, so i went and wrote valid XHTML, and what to I get but the above?
posted by jeremiah on February 22nd 2007.
Your prayer is terribly precious. Not a character flaw: http://jmjohn.revolt.org/?q=node/71.
As a realist, if you observe magic, you believe it. Further, the God i believe in gives all good things as gifts, without seeking recompense, so you have nothing to fear from asking us at Reconciler to ask for you for whatever nice things you want. Such is the nature of love.

Charity said that I was mean about Russel. Sorry about that. I can, at times, be cantankerous, but I am a friendly person who loves to think with others out loud about things. I come in peace.

Some thoughts on the above posting...
As far as merit goes: the supposition that "goodness" "merits" "blessings" assumes several things:

1. "good" and "bad" actions
2. an order to the world
3. a form of justice that assigns blessing based on behavior

The question then is: upon what standard or order action is to be judged:

1. God
2. Law
3. Gods, or the inner intuitions of men and women: the god or goddess within

Within polytheism, the sense of "goodness" and "badness" is judged relative to a multiplicity of gods, and thus goodness or merit in this sense could be judged by any number of chaotic or benevolent beings.

If judged through a Law, we have a static moral code which i believe unable to account for the infinity of human action. How is any system powerful enough to judge whether Benjamin, in the infinite complexity of his choices, "deserves" a good turn?

Given a singular God, then, we then are left to decide the nature of that God. Christianity posits a God whose nature is Love and Justice.

One final question, in all respect. Why is it that so many people, who may have done terribly noble things like give away their last crust of bread, then proceed to starve tragically to death? If desert or merit is on a continuum, those guys merit good things before I do. They've been in line way longer. Thus, if the standard is relative, how is it that I even merit goodness when, relatively, I am so bad?

Because of this, I view all good things as unmerited, especially as there are others in line in front of me. All bad things are a result of the ways that I have not shown absolute, self-sacrificing love towards other (something that i fail at roughly 99.999% of the time-the exeptions being when God gives me that ability as a gift). Most of the time, no matter how hard I try, I still think of myself before others. As I see it, the Christian faith is basically all about asking God to help one be a better person. This is what God will always give as a gift, as much as we allow.

So the real question becomes: what do you ask for?

your friend,
posted by jeremiah on February 22nd 2007.
Sorry about the preview quirks. The first half of this reply got its own blog entry, here are my other bits:

"[Y]ou have nothing to fear from asking us at Reconciler to ask for you for whatever nice things you want. Such is the nature of love." Thank you very much. I do agree that I have nothing to fear, but only because such a fear is magical thinking. Just because you believe in a "without seeking recompense" sort of god does not, in and of itself, mean that I have nothing to fear. It only means that you believe it. Many other people disagree and how do I know that you're right and they're wrong?

"I was mean about Russel. Sorry about that." Were you? I hadn't noticed. Russel is a great hero of mine, but I'm hardly enough of a logician to be offended by critiques of his work--I can barely understand them! Certainly it seems that, in principle, tools such as logic can be pretty flexible while still telling us certain truths. After all, two and two reliably make four, even though there aren't really any twos or fours to be found in the world. But yes, you didn't seem especially mean and, anyway, I heard much worse from LaRouchies. Then again, they are mad.

"As far as merit goes..." Perhaps instead of what I said, I should have written, "Many of the things that have happened to me that I consider beneficial (my "good fortune") are directly related to factors that I set up by myself ("my own merit")". The casual forces that got me the job mostly stemmed from things like my letter of reccomendation, my academic background, and the way I handled the face to face interview--all things that I take the credit for. My name wasn't drawn from a hat, for example, nor did my boss witness an omen that led her to choose me.

"[W]hat standard or order action is to be judged" How did you leave out Reason from that list? That's the one I vote for! I grant that "All knowing, Benevolent God (A.K.B.G.)"is an excellent standard for judging behavior, but we do not have this. What we have is "Faith that certain laws were written by the AKBG"and "Interpretation of these laws".

Faith is a very tricky standard because it is subjective--there's no guarantee that my faith will be the same as yours. Perhaps I think that we should follow an entirely different set of commandments? If so, we disagree, and faith alone cannot resolve that disagreement.

And no one believes that god told us everything we had to know, there is also some interpretation to be done, be it the pastor's sermon on Sunday or the vast commentary on the Talmud, interpretation is just another name for "Reason".

At it's best the Law is a set of guidelines that the most beneficial behavior for the most cases. At it's worst, it just codified force designed to preserve status quo.

Finally, Intuition is even worse than Faith, because it is far less rigorous. You and I may have different Faiths, but at least we'd be consistant about it. I find I often disagree with my own intuitions!

[marker here for the complex but irrelevant discussion of polytheism that we should have]

"[W]e then are left to decide the nature of that God. Christianity posits a God whose nature is Love and Justice." Christianity does posit such a God, but other religions posit other gods. Myself, I posit a God whose nature is equivalent in all respect to non-existence. None of this positing helps us to judge anything, however, except within the system that contains that particular axiom. So if you're merely saying, "If you were a Christian, you'd think X" then, while true, I don't see how that's any more useful than me replying, "And if you were a Manichean, you'd think Y".

"One final question..." In all respect, bad things happen to good people because the world operates on physical properties that do not include Justice. Fortunately, they don't include Malice, either.

At least, that's my answer to your question--I'd expect that Christians migjht have a different one ("it's all some sort of test", perhaps, or maybe "if people didn't starve to death you'd never appreciate the good things in life". You can't have white without black, don't you know!).

I do wonder, though, if your God is naturally Loving and Just, why does It allow bad things to happen to you, even though you haven't shown absolute love? Are your misfortunes really proportionate to your lack of self-sacrifice? And why do you need to ask god to make you a better person--isn't that like a ninth-grader writing a letter to her English teacher, asking him to teach her English? If you ask me, I'd say such a student should spend that time working on her homework--the teacher will teach, even without being asked. Won't god help you to be a better person, even if you never pray for it?

[marker for long and complex discussion about the efficacy, utility and necessity of prayer that we should have]
posted by Whirr on February 22nd 2007.

in response, which Henry VIII is the true Henry VIII

Certainly more clear than which is more macho, knife or pineapple. There are two Henries, one of the song and one of history. They both bear the same name. But the thing is, we straighten out the confusion deciding which properties constitute membership, by degrees, to set "macho." This is how we embark upon the religion question as well.

I have begun to think, but I have not finished thinking. As for now, it is late. Till tomorrow, then.

posted by jeremiah on February 22nd 2007.
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