Religion is somehow different… (a meandering ramble about linguistics, atheism, and weird cognitive biases)

A little bit of context to start— I’m currently living in China, teaching English at a kindergarten. The school I work for arranged an apartment for me, which I share with another teacher. It’s a nice place in a nice neighborhood, and my Chinese is good enough that I can get around and even help translate for other expats – don’t worry for me!

My roommate and I get along for the most part. Our habits match up pretty well, so it’s not like there are constant arguments about one or the other of us being a slob or partying too much, etc. We’re both low-key people, and we agree on a lot of things.

That said, I’ve made something of a case study out of her regarding contradictory beliefs and other cognitive weirdness that surrounds the idea of atheists vs. other minorities. (It’s okay, she definitely won’t see this because she hates atheists! More on that later…)

My roommate is a non-religious ex-Catholic who was going to major in linguistics for a short time, but dropped it for something completely different and much more practical. She’s a practical person like that. I, on the other hand, did major in linguistics, and am an atheist. I try to be practical, but mostly live in my head… On the bright side, one thing that I’m confident about is that I am a rational person and my beliefs are quite consistent because of all that time I spent in my head trying to suss out the duds with logic. If I find a contradiction, I’m good at admitting to myself that something is not right. There are no hurt feelings to be had here if someone tells me I’m wrong and points it out logically. I will come around. (After a debate, of course. Gotta keep poking at it to see if it holds up.)

Anyway, two out of three sources of friction between us have been “the nature of language/linguistics”, and “atheism”.

…The third conflict was about a stray cat that I picked up and which we kept for a week or so. I wanted to find her a home since we couldn’t keep her in a small apartment with both of us being gone the whole day. But nobody wanted a cat! So my roommate (hereafter RM) convinced me to just put her back where I found her. :'(

But that’s not important! Let’s talk linguistics and atheism!

RM is fond of mentioning that she’s studied linguistics, probably because it’s a “cool” thing to say among people our age in the “social justice” crowd. I’m not sure if she realizes I’ve studied it as well. I must have slipped it in a conversation sometime, but regardless, she tries to school me in linguistics with amusing results. Mostly it’s just me being confused about what she’s trying to get at because she isn’t very good at forming coherent arguments when she gets passionate about something. I just go “Huh?” and also fail at forming coherent counter-arguments because I’m flaky like that. It’s the unfortunate (and ironic) miscommunications of a pair of language nerds – one who studied not enough and mostly the social aspect of linguistics, and one who studied maybe too much of the more technical, cognitive science-y theory bits and can’t actually talk language with normal people anymore. (God, but do I love the smell of Optimality Theory in the morning! Embodied Cognition you say? Delicious!)

So we have our disagreements about linguistic theory. Sometimes I find that we’re actually agreeing, only RM has a very combative argumentation style and likes to make hyperbolic, black/white statements that really throw me off since I’m the opposite with carefully worded, avoiding-generalizations speech. Regardless, RM is adamant that rules do not exist in language (WTF?), language having rules is a misconception most linguists have (b*tch you did not just insult my professors), and that language keeps changing (agreed), so that words don’t really have any meaning to them because people keep changing what they mean (???).

She literally at one point said, “Nothing has meaning. People just make up whatever the f*** they want and say ‘this is what it means’. Except they all mean different things, so there really is no accepted definition for anything.” Okay. I can see where she’s coming from… It’s a really pessimistic place just on the other side of hyperbole mountain, but I can see it, sort of. I disagree, and my answer is “Grice’s maxims”, which I would be glad to explain more fully at a later time, but for now, these are her beliefs. Let’s see if that last point is consistent when it comes time to speak about religion/atheism...

…Oh, it’s not. Because religion is somehow different.

I don’t know how we got to the topic of religion; I certainly wasn’t the one to open that can of worms. RM launched into a diatribe about how the Bible is wrong, all religions are wrong, etc. Preach it, sister! There was no disagreement from me, although I did notice some bitterness in her voice as she spoke about what was actually in the Bible. She would say, with confidence, “What Jesus actually said was…” and the like, as if she hadn’t fully let go of her religion despite growing disenchanted with the majority of it. And that’s fine by me. We’ve all got to start somewhere.

HOWEVER, she then turned her rant to atheism, and it was at that point I began to get quieter and quieter until the conversation petered out with a grumpy “Hnn” from me and I not-so-subtly walked away to my room. She didn’t know I was atheist at the time, though I’m pretty sure she suspects it now from the way I reacted to her nasty attack.

“You know the people I really don’t understand,” she said, “are atheists. They confuse the hell out of me. Because they believe in nothing, and nothing, as a concept, doesn't exist." This was spoken angrily, with much vehemence in her tone. Disgust, even.

I was thinking, “Just because you can’t wrap your mind around the concept of nothing doesn’t mean it’s not a thing. Or the absence of things. Whatever. And anyway, atheists believe in plenty of things on an individual basis. WTF your definition is wack.” Of course, I asked for clarification to make sure we were talking about the same thing. “Doesn’t atheism just mean the absence of belief in higher powers? It says nothing about the individual atheist’s beliefs in other areas.”

The clarification she provided was that just about everyone who calls themselves atheists these days, or people who just believe in science, are actually agnostics. "Real" atheists believe in "nothing", which, again, she repeated, "doesn't exist". She insisted that my definition was something that confused people following a fad tried to co-opt, and that, again, a "real" (she kept throwing that word around) atheist is not those people. Those people are ok, but they're confused. They’re actually agnostics, and agnostics are cool. The fake-atheists would be great if they’d just admit they were agnostic. "Real" atheists are a-holes.

“Really?” I asked. “All the acknowledged agnostics I’ve met were fence-sitters, you know, transitioning away from religion. They seemed much more confused about their beliefs than people who call themselves atheists.”

“Pfft! No. You’ve just met weird people.” She pulled the you’re-from-the-boondocks-I’m-from-Cali card on me then.

If you'll notice, this “atheists are agnostics” argument and her other statements about language constantly changing, definitions constantly changing to reflect the times... they contradict each other. Why is it that she can accept language change (and is even more extreme in her beliefs on that front than I am) except when it applies to a word she doesn’t want to change? Unexamined cognitive biases due to religious brainwashing, I tells ya.

From hanging out with a bunch of atheists online and IRL, I can pretty much say that the "real" atheists from RM’s definition no longer exist. They are not a thing that is "real" anymore, except for, like, a bunch of nihilistic ex-religious kids who will either come around to the modern atheist movement or go back to their religious roots. It's reeeeeally not a thing that the greater atheist community deals with much anymore.

Also, who gets to claim labels? If "confused agnostics" (we are not confused, we are not agnostic) want to be called atheists, shouldn't they be called atheists? Especially when there are enough of them to drive their definition of atheism as the mainstream.

To test this out, I asked her sometime during that disastrous conversation, what is the definition of “Christian”, then? Is it not anyone who purports to believe in Jesus as the son of god? Therefore, is not anyone who claims the Christian label, and who practices a form of what is commonly accepted to be “Christianity”, a Christian? There are competing sects, sure, but they all fall under the umbrella of Christianity, don't they?

Apparently not. Apparently my gentle guiding questions were too gentle and she took them as cues to get on a soapbox. To the previously indoctrinated RM, most people calling themselves Christian are not Christians. (A very religious response!) Only those who believe in and act according to a specific set of random crap on which only she is an expert are Christians. Because obviously her interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. That is why she is no longer Christian… And harbors some strange lingering hatred for Protestants for some reason… And tried to give me a Catholic-based (i.e. wrong, so so wrong, I am using the word of etymologists and secular historians while you are using bible studies, also wrong) history lesson of the word “Christian” and the word “Protestant” etc., ad infinitum.

Either way, it comes back to the language thing. The definition of atheist has changed; get with the times. But no, she seemed pissed that the definition had changed and insisted that it should still be the old one, whichever "old one" it was that she was referring to, if it even ever existed. Well, which is it? "Language keeps changing, everything changes" OR "No, see, the original, real definition was..." Those are both statements she's made. They contradict each other. Ergo, she is the one who is confused.

Put another way, if I'm an “agnostic” with a 99.99% disbelief in higher powers and I want to be called an atheist, I should get to be called an atheist without anyone’s bullcrap about how I’m not a “real” atheist just because I’m not a jerk about it. If I'm a 5 on the Kinsey scale and want it to be known that my sexual orientation is "gay", I should be called gay, not called out on the few times I was attracted to the opposite sex as if that invalidates my identity. If I'm a transman and want to be referred to as male even though I haven't had T or surgery, I should also have that right.

Strangely enough, RM is the type of person who would agree wholeheartedly with the latter two statements and would get heated defending their rights. But for some reason, not the first? Why is there any difference? They’re all minority identities. They’re all labels that the individuals chose to take on for themselves. The latter two arguably have more impact on an individual’s daily life, but that doesn’t mean RM’s attitude holds up logically.

It would take a special kind of a-hole to deny gay people their identity just because they rated a 5 on the Kinsey scale and not a perfect 6, which almost never happens. Like, "Gee, you were once sexually attracted to someone of the opposite sex! Even though you pretty much live the stereotypical gay lifestyle and never act on those odd, once-a-decade heterosexual urges, you are technically bisexual/pansexual/whatever and should embrace that label instead! Let me tell you what your identity should be!"

NO. EMPHATICALLY NO. That would be a horrid thing to do.  Or can you imagine the opposite? “Wow, you were once attracted to someone of the same sex! It never happened again, but that still automatically makes you a bisexual!! Go embrace the new label I have chosen for you because I know you better than you know yourself!”

Yeah, decent people just don’t do that to others. So. Why is it any different when it’s a 99.999999...% sure-of-no-deities “agnostic” who lives like an atheist and wants you to respect her atheism because in her mind she is an atheist?

Because religion is different, that’s why. It does funky things to otherwise sensible people’s heads.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the cat’s doing fine outside; I still see her around. I give her all the scritches. All of them.


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Comment by Kacie Tsao on November 21, 2014 at 7:11pm

It's so weird and childish how the religious fantasize about the universe catering to humans.  I work with kids now, 2-3 years old, and that's the kind of behavior I would expect from some of them - the toddlers - because their brains haven't developed enough to understand that they're not the center of the universe and their teachers don't exist to cater to them alone.

(Pretty much how religions got started, anyway - the brain farts of a toddler.)

Comment by Michael Penn on November 21, 2014 at 6:52pm

I think it was the recent debate between Matt Slick and Dan Barker where Slick actually went out of his way to paint a very large universe that would be needed just to hold everything together and cater to us on earth, the tiny speck, just by the nature of how everything is. WOW. Look at how important mankind is. God did all of this just for us. Oh, I'm impressed!

Impressed mostly by the large ego that humans have. RM would feel great if she was in Slick's congregation. Slick keeps saying that god gave us morality and if you think it differently as an atheist it's impossible because your brain is just a chemical computer. God put some kind of laws inside you, etc.

Morality. The idea of less harm or do no harm. This is how everyone should be treated. In other words, if I don't want somebody poking my eye out with a stick because this harms me, I should also not be doing this to other people. You don't need god for this decision. Slick asks how do you know rape is wrong? It's a dumb question. Before committing rape ask the intended victim if she likes rape. I'll bet the answer is no, and god had nothing to do with that.

Some people can't take a crap without god, and yet they are content knowing that he is watching them in the bathroom every day. God cannot give you privacy, he's concerned if you masturbate, but he cannot do anything about world hunger because it might infringe upon his devine plan, or your personal free will. God just gets more impossible the further you go with ideas of him.

Comment by Kacie Tsao on November 21, 2014 at 6:24pm

Thanks for the comment, Michael.  Haha... I meant sensible with day-to-day life decisions, that sort of thing.  I absolutely agree that religion is not sensible.

RM's atheism rant was quite extensive.  She also stated that she doesn't like atheists because they're "closed minded", they've shut their minds off from any possibilities of there being something greater (out there in space or whatever, IDK), and it's just so pessimistic in the way they think that they constantly want to say we're so small and insignificant in the universe. ...And that she couldn't get along with someone with that sort of negative mindset.

I think that was the gist of it.  I had some trouble processing those statements when they were made because I've always thought my atheism to be very freeing.  I'm not restricted to my own limited human imagination when it comes to what could be out there in the universe.  I'm actually *more* open to scientific possibilities, to questioning what lies beyond the big bang.  It's not just "god/mysterious power did it", which is unimaginative as shit.  The truth that we are slowly uncovering is far stranger than anything I could have come up with if I were to play pretend with the spiritual types.

The part that bothered me most about her rant was actually the assertion that being small in the face of the universe is a negative thing.  Humans have enough ego as it is; we don't need to always be relevant on every scale.  We're NOT the center of the universe, we ARE tiny specks, and saying anything different would be a flat-out lie.  Just because it's a "depressing" thought to RM and others like her doesn't mean they should deny the truth to make themselves feel better.  They're failing to separate two completely different scales, taking the fact that they're insignificant specks in the universe to mean that everything in their life is also insignificant.  Yeah, in the grand scheme of things this is so, but things that are important to individuals are still important, just on a smaller, more personal scale.

I suppose I just don't understand why some (most?) people tend to think so negatively when it's brought up that they're small on a scale that has nothing to do with their daily lives.  I *like* feeling small.  It's humbling and awe-inspiring.  That weird biochemical rush that the religious get when they think about god?  I get that when I go stargazing.

Comment by Michael Penn on November 19, 2014 at 11:46am

Yes, religion is different and it does funky things to people's heads. Notice that I left the "otherwise sensible" part out of your sentence. That's because religion is not sensible. Your RM sounds like a one time fundamentalist Christian who has fallen away from mainstream but retains her own own interpretation of the Bible and what it all meant. Such people are halfway there to being atheist and they may or may not complete the journey. As a former Christian I can identify.

I also hate word changes, but we know everything changes. Singer Andy Williams had a song in which he remembered when "everyone was happy and gay." I doubt seriously if he meant homosexual. That isn't to say that a homosexual cannot be happy.  :)

If RM does not like atheists because they "believe in nothing" and that makes no sense to her, let me explain something. When you take everything that we know out of the universe there is still something there. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean that "god did it." Don't believe me? Just ask Lawrence Krauss. Knowing things of this order helps in trying to understand the big bang.

I'm an atheist and the word in simple form means "without god." I have to go one better with it to say that I do not believe in the supernatural, period. To only believe in no gods and yet believe in ghosts and fairies would make little sense. In a lifelong search for god I have found no evidence. This does not mean I can tell you with 100% certainty that there is no god. To make that claim the burden of proof would be on me. I have no proof or evidence of any kind. I have a great lack of evidence. So, I am 99.99% certain that their are no gods. Call me agnostic if you like, but agnostics really do want to believe. Some of them "hope" for evidence and hope is like "faith." I have no hope or faith. I'll take Mark Twain's definition of faith as "believing something that you know is not so."

I might end by saying that I can no longer take the Bible and tell you "what it really meant." If I make such a statement I would simply be comparing a scripture viewpoint to modern day right wing fundamentalists who are infiltrating politics and government. Beyond how they might interpret something, why would I be on a rant about beliefs I no longer have unless I am trying to poke holes in that belief? For example, if you are secretly still afraid of "burning in hell" by all means, let me help you out.

I've seen enough in your posting to excite people all over for many, many remarks. Well done.


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