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Is a hood ornament a car?

August 24, 2013


Let’s try a little thought experiment, shall we?

Imagine you’re the proud owner of a brand spankin’ new BMW M3. (We’re off to a good start, aren’t we?) To sweeten the pot, let’s imagine that you didn’t even need to shell out the $60,000 price tag a new M3 would cost because in your family, everyone is given one on their 25th birthday. Why at age 25? Who cares, I just picked it…but let’s say the auto insurance costs are too high before that, so your family’s accountant has advised against it. Why are BMW M3s given instead of a Mercedes, or an Acura, or a Renault (French car, not available in U.S. to my knowledge), or a Tata (Indian car, not available in U.S. to my knowledge) or any one of the other available cars? Let’s just say that your family has always driven BMWs and is partial to them. Maybe you’re part German and you have an ancestor who worked for BMW.

For a number of years, you happily drove around in your M3. You made a few small modifications here or there… You hated the floor mats, so you changed those. You put racing tires on the car and made other modifications to the interior so you could take it to the track on weekends. (Famously, maybe you showed up to an airport with a bunch of winter tires and tried to get them checked onto your flight home… I’m just spit-balling here, so stay with me.) Apart from some of these minor changes like the upgraded tires, floor mats, better seat belts, new stereo, etc., you’ve kept the car structurally in tact. Despite your changes to the car, at this point, I think everyone would agree that you’re still the proud owner of an M3. I’m no car expert, but given that you haven’t modified the engine or the body or anything structural, BMW may likely feel the same and honor your warranty.

Now let’s skip ahead a few years… After growing up in this BMW family of yours, and happily driving around your own M3 for many years, you’re preference in cars is starting to change. You have a family now and the M3 just isn’t big enough for your needs. So, you buy a Buick Enclave and that becomes your family car. But you’ve held onto the M3 because of all the joy it brings you. Your modifications to the car have begun to get more extreme, however. You’ve changed quite a bit with age and have decided to take a Dr. Frankenstein approach to tinkering with the M3 rather than simply selling it. Mortified with its fuel efficiency, you swap out the engine for one that can run on biodiesel. You hate the shape of the body, which isn’t practical at all, so you get the blow torch and welding equipment out and you extend the body turning the car into a station wagon. Hell, you don’t even see the need for tires anymore (you’ve got that sweet Buick Enclave after all), so you’ve lopped those off and replaced them with massive skis so that you can use it as a snowmobile on the weekends. In fact, the only thing that’s original on your car at this point are the M3 and BMW logos.

At this point, I think it would be safe to say that you’ve changed the car so much that you no longer drive an M3. Nothing in the car’s owners manual resembles any of the actual hardware or software running on the vehicle today. In fact, this thing that your driving is probably no longer a car, at least not by any commonly accepted definition of the term.

Needless to say, to your M3-loving family, you’ve got to be considered an abomination. You’ve taken a perfectly good vehicle and butchered it, rendering it so indistinguishable from its true self that it’s not even a car anymore! “But, it still has the BMW and the M3 logos on the car, and I still have the BMW keychain” you protest to your disapproving family. “I’m just a non-practicing BMW M3 owner,” you say. In a final bit of desperation, you leave the door open for yourself and for your kids, who you want to at least have the option of inheriting their own M3 one day, by saying: “Maybe one day in the future I will go back and buy another M3, and I will definitely send my kids to driving schools that teach exclusively on M3s.”

To summarize, it’s clear the person in this story is not a “non-practicing M3 owner,” he’s a former M3 owner. Could the person buy another M3 some day? It’s possible, but for now, nothing about his garage suggests anything that remotely resembles an M3 is inside.

Now let’s try to relate this analogy back to religious belief…

The car analogy above occurred to me last week after a relatively long back-and-forth with some friends of mine who are, essentially, agnostic deists, but insist upon calling themselves “non-practicing Christians.” More specifically, my friend who made the original argument (a couple others glommed on) identifies with being a “non-practicing Catholic.” Since I grew up Catholic myself, attending Catholic school until I was 10 yrs. old, being an “altar boy” (thankfully, one who was never molested!) and then religion classes every Sunday until I made my confirmation in my teens, I know the religion well and can relate with his upbringing and concepts like “Catholic guilt,” which thankfully I have not felt for many years. I do, however, definitely remember the feeling, and for some odd reason, my mind always darts back to being a horny teenager who tried his best not to act on his urges of self-gratification on extra holy holidays like Easter and Good Friday. After all, if god didn’t want me eating meat during lent, surely he didn’t want me beating it! From my current perch, I look back on my old self with quite a bit of empathy and a small amount of pity.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent with that paragraph above, so let me bring this back to the car analogy…

What does it mean to be a Catholic? I’m sure you can find a detailed definition out there somewhere and plenty of Catholic bloggers have probably written about this extensively. But taking the lazy route, here are just 2 important things that would seem to me to be pretty essential. Without these two, you’d not just be a pretty terrible Catholic, but you wouldn’t be a Catholic at all. (See car analogy above.)

1. God created the heavens and the earth. (I’m ignoring the 6 days of work while resting on the 7th day thing and the earth being 6,000 years old nonsense.)

2. Jesus, God’s son, walked the earth in bodily form, was crucified, and rose like a zombie 3 days later. (Again, for simplicity, ignoring stuff like the Matthew account which assumes lots of people rose from the dead that day, making Jesus’ feat seem somewhat commonplace.)

Clearly there is a whole lot more that goes into being a Catholic than this, like believing that communion is actually the body and blood of Christ and not just a symbol, believing in the infallibility of the pope as the vehicle for god’s divine word, etc. But for simplicity sake, I only need these two.

What would you say if someone said they were a non-practicing Catholic, plus offered up the following summary of his beliefs? Note that this is my short-form summary of this, so it’s not word for word…but I think I’ve captured it accurately:

A. I believe in the creator God, or a “supernatural force,” who created the universe it/her/himself, but after it was created the universe just took over from there. I believe this because I like to have an explanation for stuff and this is my best answer for now.

B. I pray with the strong possibility that these prayers go unheard…It makes me feel better sometimes.

C. I beleive Jesus was the son of god because it was engrained in me from the day I was born, but realize if I was born somewhere else I wouldn’t believe this.

D. I believe Pascal’s Wager… Namely, there is no downside to me believing in god and only upside. If I am wrong, then I’m dead and that’s it, but if I’m right, then great. (Implicit in this statement, I believe, is that the upside includes help from god in the here and now and/or potential eternal life in heaven reunited with loved ones.)

The first thing to say is that A is entirely out of synch with B-D. Either god or the supernatural force set everything in motion and then left everything alone, or he didn’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In other words, if you really believed A, why would you do B? Maybe you’d meditate, but why would you pray unless you thought it was possible someone was listening? And if you thought it was possible someone was listening, A is just wrong. Additionally, A is also completely out of synch with both of the Catholicism requirements. The bible, the only thing we have to go on here and the owners manual for Christians, does not say that god created everything and sat back, letting the universe unfold on its own. To believe A is incompatible with Catholicism, rendering you NOT Catholic. Similarly, A precludes Catholicism requirement #2. Someone who “set things in motion and then let the universe develop on its own” does not send down his son in bodily form to change the course of human history. Catholic requirement #2 is the embodiment on an interventionist god. Again, to reject this is incompatible with Catholicism.

I’m just scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this, but at the risk of going on forever, I’ll move on to my final point:

I think we can safely say that C is a TERRIBLE reason to believe something, and this would not be nearly good enough for the Catholic god if he actually existed. On the “ingrained in me from birth” part, we abandon all sorts of dumb shit that is ingrained in us from birth (e.g. prejudices from the previous generation), so why hold on to anything for this reason? That aside, if you died and showed up to the gates of heaven and this is your explanation for believing in Jesus, those pearly gates would hit you in the ass so quickly you’d have no idea what just happened. Incidentally, this this is precisely what’s wrong with D, which is essentially the famous philosophical argument known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal, for all his brilliance as a mathematician, has had this idea (which many believe was just a joke) completely discredited. I’ll leave reading up on Pascal’s Wager to the reader (just google it), but it suffices to say that any god worth his weight in salt would not be fooled by a probability wager. Additionally, Pascal’s Wager suffers from the problem that you can insert any god claim and it works equally well. So, by this explanation, one should also be believing in Allah and all other gods that may turn out to be the true god upon death.

In summary, I’d urge anyone reading this to just abandon the nonsensical beliefs once and for all. If you’re like my friend mentioned above, you’re not a “non-practicing” anything… You’re at minimum an agnostic (you don’t know) Diest and very likely an atheist in denial. Worth pointing out is that we’re all atheists with respect to gods like Zeus, Thor, Oden, etc. Those gods are on no stronger ground than the Judeo-Christian god, so let’s just go one god further, shall we?

We need all the good people we can get on the Atheist team. Most of you are 99.9% of the way there anyway, which is a very good thing. This would be a pretty dysfunctional society if we still had slavery, if we stoned non-virgins to death on their wedding day, and all the other barbaric stuff that is explicitly instructed in these ancient books. We’re the authors of our morality, and it’s time we owned up to it so we can move beyond this nonsense. One glance at a newspaper and you can see the havoc that religious belief is contributing to throughout the world. Wouldn’t you rather wear the jersey (or, to use the car analogy, use the keychain) of the good guys? Personally, when I think of how corrupt the Catholic Church is with its harboring of pedophile priests and its preaching the evilness of condoms amidst an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa that kills 80,000 people a year, I don’t want any association with such an organization so wicked and evil. As much as I’m a Yankee fan, if they did a fraction of what the Catholic Church has done, I’d burn all my Yankee stuff and become a Red Sox fan immediately! The stakes here are huge… Let’s not give any more credibility to these corrupt organizations called religions by identifying ourselves with them, even if we are “non-practicing.”

Besides, every time someone abandons their religious beliefs and becomes an atheist, an angel gets its wings! Don’t believe me? It’s in the book of Adam, look it up.


From → Weekly Blog

  1. Your Mama permalink

    I get your analogy. Nicely done. I am an M3 owner, though it was not gifted to me by my parents at age 25. That would’ve been awesome…..

    OK, so, I like your points but have to disagree. I don’t think that just because somebody may believe that God made something from nothing and then took a step back allowing the science (which He originally dictated) to take over thereby excludes you from praying to a Christian God. It’s another example of Pascal’s wager. While this believer has a feeling that perhaps God had less of an impact on current events and literal biblical accounts than are claimed, one really doesn’t know for sure and its probably just better to not discount the possibility. Therefore, why not pray?

    To the second point, admitting that your upbringing has influenced your beliefs, I completely disagree with you. What this person meant by that statement was merely that Jesus being the son of God was something he believed in because he was taught to believe in it. He’s admitting that he wasn’t born with that belief but that it was taught to him. If he was born in India, he’d believe a cow was the ultimate life form on earth. However, he was born in upstate NY, raised catholic, and that is how the cookie had crumbled.

    Full disclosure: I am NOT the person who made these statements, but a blatant plagiarist that asked to copy his beliefs in order to avoid thinking for himself. As such, I am obligated to defend said beliefs as compensation.

    Maybe we should talk in person over a round beers?

    • First off, yes to the beers! With that as our fallback, allow me to quickly address these two criticisms:

      #1. In a way, you’re correct that one could still pray as sort of a “fire insurance policy” (hell analogy), and this would in fact be a version of Pascal’s Wager. But I’d say two things about this. First, we’ve already discounted Pascal’s Wager. Why pick the Christian god to pray to out of the thousands of other options? Taking Pascal a bit further (this is not proposed by Pascal to my knowledge), assuming you don’t have an infinite amount of time to pray to each god, and you don’t want to piss off one god by praying to another (most gods are jealous!), seems like your best mathematical bet is to pray to either the “likeliest” god, or the one who has the worst version of hell (or if you’re an optimist, best version of heaven). I doubt most people who pray to a god have done these calculations, so Pascal’s Wager would fail for this reason as well. The second problem is just definitional, I think. You assume a “prime mover” god may in fact listen to prayers and would factor that in on judgement day, and I assume, perhaps by my definition of “prime mover” which I probably could have clarified better, that he certainly wouldn’t. I assume a prime mover who gets out of the way and lets events proceed on their own to be, by definition, utterly indifferent to us as humans. He’d almost have to be, wouldn’t he? Say you created a universe… Unless you died shortly after, wouldn’t you at least check in on it from time to time? Anyway, we can hash this one out over a beer, but that’s why I don’t find this argument particularly compelling.

      #2. If I implied that the person who offered reason C. believed this was a GOOD reason, allow me clarify here that he definitely did not say that, you are 100% correct. He was purely offering it as an explanation. My point in bringing it up was simply to shine a light on this as a real reason that lots of people use for believing stuff. In your case and his, it’s a comment that doesn’t even need to be said, but I find a lot of credulity out there and take every opportunity I can to point out its possible sources when they present themselves. As you well know, just because an answer is familiar doesn’t make it right, and that was my point.

      Thanks for the close read of this and keeping me honest!


      • Your Mama permalink

        Nice counterpoint. I appreciate a good back and forth without emotions getting involved.

        A lot of this is semantics now. My point about Pascal’s Wager (ie, insurance policy for after death) is merely that if one believes, even in the slightest bit, that there may be legitimacy to what they were taught, why not give it a shot? It’s win/win…err…at least not lose/lose. WHICH God to pray to or religion to adhere to is irrelevant to the point being made. I do agree with your mathematical principle of religious decision making, but you’re looking at the entire thing through a different set of glasses than others. You were raised catholic so I can’t say its your upbringing. Perhaps its the books you read, or your inherent nature to doubt things that supplants faith based knowledge. Whatever the reasons, you don’t have the emotional ties to religion that many other do. It’s not a fire and brimstone, your willy will fall off if you whack it on Easter type feeling either. It’s a deep seeded emotional connection to the principles and lessons taught to you through the religion as you grew up that you often use to fall back on. It is, for many people, the foundation for their moral character. You can’t just rationalize that away with math and logic. I don’t mean to sound like George Bush here, but your silly ‘facts’ don’t mean a damn thing in the face of my religious ties.
        Yes, that is the easy way out since I pretty much castrated any argument you’d use to counter. That’s OK with me though. I can live with myself.

      • I’m not quite sure where to start, so this may be out of order with how you presented it. If so, my apologies.

        I’ll start with where we agree. You are absolutely correct that I have no deep-seeded emotional connection to the religion of my upbringing. I believe that Catholicism has been such a force for evil in the world, it’s hard to feel positive about my former beliefs. I don’t need to go any further than child molesting or its anti-contraception position amidst the AIDS epidemic to make my case. Catholic people may be good and often do amazing things in the name of their religion, no doubt, but the institution itself is wicked and evil. In other words, I have fond memories of some of the people and interactions, but not of the religion.

        Also, there are no “lessons” that were taught to me by my religion that couldn’t have been taught, and in fact would have been more meaningful if taught, by secular means. Things like the golden rule are pretty universal to almost all societies and all religions (which tells you the common factor here is humans), so things that were presented to me as “Christian” morals were nothing of the sort. Just as there is no Muslim physics or Christian arithmetic –there is just physics and arithmetic– the only morality that makes any sense is a human morality. That’s not to say that all societies are equally moral because they’re not, but more often than not you’ll find religion as the source of moral corruption (e.g. the anti-gay marriage lobby, the oppression of women, etc.). To be fair, what else would you expect from a 1st century book like the bible (I think 7th century in the case of the Koran)?

        Morality is a REALLY complicated issue and we could have an entire separate dialogue about that, so let’s definitely save that for in person. But, there are lots of people who will absolutely argue that you can, and in fact should, use science to rationalize right and wrong. Science is the only objective, free of bias, method we have. Read Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape” if you want to learn more about what neuroscience, and science in general, can say about morality. I think you’d be very surprised.

        You are also correct that I have an affinity for truth, facts and logic. One of my main goals in life, something that gives me great joy, is believing as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible. Once logic and reason tell me something is false, I just can’t believe it no matter how hard I try…even if I have fond memories of it. If you wanted to rekindle your belief in Santa Claus, could you force yourself? I realize Santa is a cut and dry case, and at its surface god seems like a lot more complicated and nuanced issue, so that small bit of doubt, that “maybe it’s real even if its unlikely” sentiment can creep in for people. But for me, and for lots of religious people once they sit down and really give this some thought, there isn’t any doubt that the god of the bible (or Koran, Torah, etc.) is impossible. The prime mover god (the Diest god) is not so “impossible” because he has no features and does not manifest himself in the real world, so I’ll grant you that. But by definition this god has no features, no morality, no teaching, no doctrines, etc. (People don’t kill one another for a Diest god.) For that stuff, you have to go to the religions, and as I stated there are no fond memories there, as far as the institution is concerned.

        Finally, as for Pascal’s wager, I do see a lose-lose here. You may be able to get me to a win-lose at best… But definitely not a win-win! I say “win-lose” is possible, because I will concede that it’s “subjectively” possible for someone to find meaning in their life through religion. A guy spending his life in prison, or a psychotic person who uses it as a crutch to tether himself to reality and prevent him from going on a killing rampage would be good examples. But those are the exceptions. For normal sane folks, they may find personal subjective benefits to religious belief, but objectively speaking, in my view society as a whole would always be worse off for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned in my blog. (Providing a smokescreen for the fanatics, wasted effort that could have been expended on something that is actually true and benefits society, etc.)

        Probably more of a long winded response than you were hoping for, so my apologies. Can’t sleep though, so figured I’d reply and got carried away in my sleep deprived stupor.

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