The end of rational discussion

May 13, 2009 | By | 11 Replies More
Creative Commons photo by Denis Collette on Flickr

Creative Commons photo by Denis Collette on Flickr

Recently I wrote a fake news item that took the Genesis story of man’s ejection from the Garden of Eden and transplanted it to the present day. I thought that it would be a great way to get believers to view this story in a fresh way before they even realized that they were doing so. I wanted them to judge the actions of God without realizing that it was God that we were talking about. It worked well…a little too well.

Many of the believers that I routinely tussle with about religion on various forums did not immediately see the satire for what it was. They became enraged at the fictional stand-in for God, Mr. Ian Oda, and demanded in their posts that justice be done. When I pointed out the many clues to the true nature of the news story, I was criticized. My analogy was “way off” and “all wrong”, they said. I didn’t understand the bible at all, they said. God was exonerated once again.

One particular forum member was quite interested in pursuing the discussion further. He made some good points. I made mine. Eventually I had him backed into a corner (at least I thought so) when I told him that it seemed clear to me that the God of the bible was a badly written fictional character created by men and reflecting all of men’s inadequacies and flaws. This was his reply.

“I guess you can say ‘I believe he is fictional’. I felt the same, before having him work in my life. I’m not going to write a book about it, but I’ve been through the worst and have seen plenty of miracles in my life. I have seen the horrors of sin, and have seen God’s work to correct that in my life. I am a better person, because of it. Something is working in my life, whether you believe it is God or just something that happens, I know the truth, because I have witnessed it. Why can’t you just accept God’s love in your life? Mike, you are a destroyer of hope.”

So there it was once again. The wall that is impossible to penetrate. The wall that I have hit many times in my discussions with believers, when they are honest enough to take me all the way up to it. It’s a wall made of the Pain and the Need that drives someone to discard rationality because the alternative is just too horrific to face.

Is the only thing standing between me and a belief in God some catastrophic personal event? Do I have to become a drug addict or a cancer patient in order to understand? Do I not believe in God because I’ve been too lucky in my life? Could that be true??

My own brother, who is as staunch an atheist as I, admitted to me that when he was very sick last year he “…actually prayed”. He went on to say that it was,

“…fear of death…pure and simple. When that moment is upon you (or you perceive it is) you will do and believe anything that lets you think there is a higher power that may be able to save you from this.”

What do I hope to gain by exposing what I see as the absurdity of their beliefs? I have hit my wall, my crisis of non-faith. How can I, in good conscience, continue to be a “destroyer of hope”?


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Category: hypocrisy, Language, Meaning of Life, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

Comments (11)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    Belief can do many strange things. Some come with benefits, such as the placebo effect, where your belief in the pill, potion, or procedure suffices to 'cure' you.

    It can also be a huge negative, as discussed in the latest edition of New Scientist:

    The placebo effect has an evil twin: the nocebo effect, in which dummy pills and negative expectations can produce harmful effects.

    This is the mechanism underlying voodoo, hexes, and curses. If you believe it can harm you, it probably will.

    Maybe being atheist has a positive health benefit after all!

  2. Tony Coyle says:


    Great word!

    It's a word that immediately caught my fancy… and it's apparently been around since the 60's! I want to know why I wasn't informed of this before? How many other words are out there, lurking in thesauri like snakes in the grass, ready to pounce and deflate our pitifully small vocabularies with a single bite? How many? Do I need to purchase the complete OED? Again?

    (ok – that was a fib – I've never actually purchased a complete copy of the OED – but I have seen one in the wild!)

  3. Alison says:

    Aw, Mike, I thought it was very well done. I always like it when humor takes a moment to sink in as such.

    What I don't like is the idea that if you haven't found god, you just haven't suffered enough – because, of course, if you still haven't found him by the time you keel over, eternal suffering will make up for having enjoyed being alive. What, do people find that "just wait, you'll get yours one day" attitude comforting? Schadenfreude as a life principle? And what about people who suffer immensely and turn away from god – is the solution to up the suffering until they wise up?

    Rhetorical questions, obviously.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: The final quote in your piece reminded me of Terror Management Theory, that idea that people are driven into their concocted worlds by the realization of their own mortality.

    I wish there were a "neutral" place to aim for when discussing religion with believers. A place where I won't automatically be judged to be morally deviant just because I don't believe in God, but where MY lack of belief won't cause a commotion for believers. I don't think there is such a place for believers. If you're not with them, your against them.

  5. stacy kennedy says:

    Mike, your piece is very timely for me.

    I lost a very dear friend 11 days ago. I went to a memorial service for her last night. I couldn't stop crying; all night long others looked at me with kindness and empathy and said things like, "She's in a better place" and, "we'll see her again." I couldn't reply with emotional honesty and say, "I'm devastated by the fact that she's entirely gone, forever; she'll never see anything, enjoy anything, again, and I'll never see her again." The best I could come up with was, "I hope you're right" (I do), and, to a woman who told me Nola's in heaven, "If anyone ever deserved it, she did."

    Now, today is National Blasphemy Day. I was looking forward to posting something snarky about religion on Facebook, but now I haven't got the heart for it.

    Forgive me for rambling, and for being so personal. But these things are not easy to articulate and frankly, I'm not interested right now in cleaning up my copy, as it were. Suffice it to say, I know that sometimes life is too painful to face without illusions. I do sometimes think that some atheists have been very lucky, and don't really "get" what profound suffering is, and how necessary some sort of comfort can be. I don't imagine you're one of them; the fact that you asked the question suggests otherwise.

    For the record, I've earned my bona fides in suffering. I'd lost both my parents by the time I was sixteen, and both to lingering, agonizing illness. I was born with a facial deformity. I struggle with chronic, often severe, depression.

    Again, forgive my being so personal. I just think this issue you raised is so important.

    So what makes me different from most of the other people at Nola's memorial? I haven't always been an atheist, but I was never able to believe in ANYTHING in a wholehearted or complacent way. I've come to believe that some people just care about getting to the bottom of things; we want to know the truth, if we can, wherever it leads us, even if the truth hurts. And other people seem to feel that, since we can't be certain about the ultimate questions we all have, about origins and consciousness and whether there might be some sort of deity or life-after-death, they may as well just believe whatever they find most pleasing to believe. (Tom Stoppard seems to be one of these; he once said he believed in God because he was happier that way, or something like that. I'm inclined to agree with whoever it was who said that that's immoral; that we should care what's true. But I would only apply that standard to an intellectual, because most people–extremely smart people among them–just don't analyze things that deeply.)

    Maybe that's the key. Most of us lack the time, energy, and sometimes the education, to think too deeply about things, and of course most people haven't been taught to think critically. So why wouldn't many of them believe in God and some sort of afterlife, especially since these beliefs have the imprimatur of culture and thousands of years of history behind them? And that goes double, triple, for the people who are struggling and suffering. I try never to lose sight of those people when I criticize religion.

    So. I would address your questions ("What do I hope to gain by exposing what I see as the absurdity of their beliefs?…How can I, in good conscience, continue to be a “destroyer of hope”?)

    I don't think we need to go after all religion. I don't agree with Sam Harris, who said that moderate, liberal religious people are "enabling" the fundies. (That's based on a misunderstanding of religious history, IMO; fundamentalism is a fairly recent phenomenon. But anyway it just strikes me as unfair. As an atheist, I'm not responsible for Pol Pot or Stalin.)

    I think we need to fight superstition. And we really, really need to fight authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Religion, by its nature, tends toward all three things, but 1) All three of them are human tendencies that show up in other things as well, and 2) "Religion" isn't a single, easily definable thing. I'm waiting for we "New Atheists" to define it; as critical thinkers, we're being kind of sloppy (actually, Dawkins, to his credit, defines the sort of religion he's arguing against in The God Delusion quite precisely, but nobody ever seems to remember that part. But few of us seem able or willing to make distinctions.) There are religions that don't rely on god-belief (think of the elite forms of Buddhism, and of pantheists like Einstein, and, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out, there have been a number of "theists" who didn't, in fact, believe in god. Never mind why they continued to identify as religious; it would take us too far afield, and I'm out in the back 40 already, here.) My point, if I have one, is: keep on making fun of morally indefensible beliefs. Belief in the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story means belief that Mr. Ian Oda is the boss of us all, and that has some awful real-world consequences. Let the agressive, would-be theocrats squirm. But at the same time, we can find common ground with many believers. We can acknowledge the tragic side of life. We can push for more critical thinking without forgetting that much of life is not rational. We can acknowledge the beautiful things in religion–I for one am a sucker for the Sermon on the Mount–and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can form alliances with people like the Rev. Barry Lynn (he of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.) We can present the case for atheism on its intellectual merits, and suggest that the very real needs religion addresses can be dealt with in other ways.

    As I was reminded last night, by the recitation of some very beautiful ancient poetry, to everything there is a season. Your story is terrific (gonna post it on Facebook and send it to my book club and hope it goes viral!) and a lot of religious people will get the point–and the humor. The ones that don't can potentially use the challenge. And then there are times when the best thing to do is to bite your tongue and understand, and try to find common ground.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thank you, Stacy. I really enjoyed your comment. As far finding common ground, here is a lot of it to find.

      I have some friends who are good-hearted smart people who wear their religion on their sleeves. One of them just became disease-free after a many-year battle with a horrific disease. It never occurred to me that she should be challenged when she made religious claim in my presence. I assumed that she drew hope from those beliefs, and probably strength. That said, if she had tried to convert me while she was desperately sick, I would have told her that I wasn't interested. My general approach is that I wouldn't have brought it up with her unless she challenged me to join her religious.

      So, why don't I give EVERYONE that same latitude? I don't know, really. For those who are not desperately sick, I often find myself poking and probing until the topic of religion comes to the fore. Then I often find that those who I assumed were religious are not. And I find that those who go to church don't belief much of what they are taught there. I also find that many people who don't go to church believe in "God," and that that God is sometimes supposedly sentient. It usually ends up being a mutually respectful and interesting conversation, and I feel more connected to that person no matter what their answers are to the God question.

      But there definitely are times where I stay my distance from that topic.

  6. Thank you Stacy for your lovely comment. You don't have to apologize to me for getting personal, I was very touched by your honesty.

    You were the person I needed to hear from. You have obviously experienced many hardships in your life and yet it hasn't driven you to abandon your intellect. That is encouraging to me. I have also met many devout people with whom I agree on many topics. Like Erich, I have a best friend from youth who is very religious but has not thrown away a healthy skepticism. People like that are out there if we have the patience to look.

    Of course I will not give up on fighting narrow-mindedness wherever I see it. "Morally indefensible", that's the phrase you used that is the key to all of this for me. Religiosity need not be attacked unless it is being used to support the marginalization and oppression of others.

    I will keep your story in mind as I go forward.

  7. Danny says:

    Mike, your insight and honesty gave me chills. Thank you for sharing as you did. What I gathered from your post is that you are doing what every human ought to do… examine their motives.

    Some debates are worthwhile and beneficial. However, many debates I've read and even participated in seem to be operating from a place of pride, pain, anger, or malice. When I recognize that (and I sometimes don't), then it seems to no longer be about finding the truth but about validating one's feelings/beliefs or emotional retaliation. It may be cathartic for those involved, but either way it is unproductive as a debate.

    I recognize that many religious folks I know often operate from an empty, arrogant, or fearful motive. I know this because whenever their beliefs are threatened they go into self-protect mode by putting up that "wall" or slinging insults. Likewise, some skeptics I talk to seem to operate from a wounded, jaded motivate. They have been hurt by religion or jaded by hypocrisy, and so they want to inflict the same hurt back on a religious person.

    Of course, there are theists and skeptics who I do not see operating from these motives. These discussion tend to be a bit more healthy and productive, even if no agreement is found.

    Lastly, I wanted to say that I was touched by your story, Stacy. Your paragraph "I think we need to fight superstition" resonated loudly with me. I feel the exact same way.

  8. Karl says:


    I do not find fault in rational discussions. The fault comes in to play when all one feels they need to consider is the physical workings of their own body and mind as well as the interpersonal relationships with other people. If the physical materialistic world is all there is you do not need one iota of change to your destructiveness to other people's faith in the immaterial. If however you truly believe in live and let live, what makes you able to say that others need a little cold water in their face now and then?

    Religion, ideas or thoughts that cut others down to a proper opinion of themselves are not spitefully harmful. Religion or thoughts that engender delusions of granduer are harmful to not just the individual but also society as a whole. Striking a happy balance as usual in the middle is not possible for those who will not listen to each other.

    In some cases you are fully justified in taking harmful voodoo down a notch or two. But those who speak against the positive aspects of the work and power of the Spirit of God in a person's life have no legs to stand on, besides their own antithetical perspective of how what they are talking about just couldn't be what really occurred.

    I guess it comes down to whether the placebo effect is real or if the mind is only removed from its own self-fish tendencies long enough to say God indeed was in the mix.

  9. Thanks Danny. Your post is very insightful. We must constantly examine our motives, that is true. As I said to Stacy, whenever I see someone using the bible to justify oppressing another human being, my red flag will still go up and I will do my best to trip them up. But I am also more sensitive now to those who mean no harm and merely derive comfort for their beliefs.

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