Atheism and the New Sincerity

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 1, 2011 in Inspirational

Reposted from February 6, 2010.

evel

When I had my crisis of faith, I felt like I was losing everything. Without God and the promise of immortality, what was the point of it all?

I’ve written before that in some ways, there is less purpose without God, and in some ways there’s more. And though I personally find naturalism to be enchanting, I know many people find it disenchanting. They think naturalism leaves them in a universe that is ultimately indifferent and absurd, and their two options are cynicism and postmodern irony.

Are cynicism and irony the only plausible responses to a universe without intrinsic meaning or value?

A growing crowd of passionate persons would say “No.” Their movement has been dubbed the New Sincerity.

What is the New Sincerity?

Jesse Thorn, host of The Sound of Young America, describes it in his Manifesto for The New Sincerity:

What is The New Sincerity? Think of… Evel Knievel. Let’s be frank. There’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally. Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things. Here is a real man who feels at home as Spidey on the cover of a comic book. Simply put, Evel Knievel boggles the mind. But by the same token, he isn’t to be taken ironically, either. The fact of the matter is that Evel is, in a word, awesome

So now, dear reader, you’re in on the Next Big Thing. Something more Hedwig than Rocky Horror; more Princess Bride than Last Unicorn; more Bruce Lee than Chuck Norris. Something new, and beautiful. So join us.

Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: “Be More Awesome.” Our lifestyle: “Maximum Fun.” Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.

There’s nothing ironic or cynical about Evel Knievel. He’s just awesome. Sincerely awesome.

There was nothing ironic or cynical about Prince’s cover of “Creep,” which transformed Radiohead’s self-loathing lamentation into an uplifting celebration of humanity. Richard Thompson’s folk-guitar cover of “Oops I Did it Again” was conscious of the ridiculousness of the original song, but nonetheless earnestly embraced what is good and beautiful about the Britney Spears hit.

You can see the New Sincerity in the films of Wes Anderson. Wes’ characters are broken and pathetic, but Wes does not revel in irony and cynicism. Instead he cheers them on, warts and all.

You can see the New Sincerity on YouTube, where bug-eyed Noah Kalina became a star by photographing himself every day for 6 years and making a raw timelapse video from the photos. Where young Lim Jeong-hyun became an internet superstar by playing a speed metal version of Pachelbel’s Canon, hunched awkwardly in a chair in his crowded bedroom. Where balding Jud Laipply’s evolution of dance video jump-started his career in inspirational comedy.

You can see the New Sincerity in the directness and wide-eyed wonder of poems by Dave Berman, Catherine Wagner, and Tao Lin. You can hear it in the neo-folk music of Devendra Banhart and Okkervil River.

You can see the New Sincerity in those who invest thousands and thousands of hours to master parkour or animated wall-painting or wingsuit base jumping… just because it’s awesome.

You can see the New Sincerity in the film The Cult of Sincerity. (Watch it online.) Money quote: “The right thing shouldn’t be doing what makes you happy. What makes you happy should be doing the right thing.”

You can see the New Sincerity in John Krasinski’s character in The Office, in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer, and in Ze Frank.

You can see the New Sincerity at MaxFunCon, a gathering of people who just want to be more awesome. Speakers include John Hodgman and Andrew W.K.

What people loved about the Susan Boyle phenomenon was the New Sincerity of it all. Susan was deprived of oxygen during birth and later diagnosed with learning disabilities. She was bullied at school. After her father died, she lived alone in the family home with a cat.

Then she decided to be more awesome and live her dream. She took singing lessons and sang at every church and karaoke bar she could find.

And then frumpy Susan Boyle got on the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and blew the audience away with her performance of the very unironic “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Her performance got over 120 million views on YouTube, and her debut album marked “the best opening week for a female artist’s debut album since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991.”

Very few people who dare to be more awesome will match the success of Susan Boyle. But we can all be more awesome in our own way.

Hundreds of nearly broke people are traveling around the world, staying for free with strangers via a website called CouchSurfing. Does that interest you? What’s stopping you?

Thousands of average frustrated men are putting aside their egos and learning how to be cool, fun guys who can attract the women they want and show them a good time. Does that interest you? What’s stopping you?

Millions of people are embracing a notion of romantic love that is fully authentic – without dependency, jealousy, obligation, or ownership over another’s sexuality. Does that interest you? What’s stopping you?

You don’t even need to make big changes to live the New Sincerity. Throw water balloons in the summertime. Participate in a flash mob. High-five people without irony.

Of course, we all enjoy good irony at times. And we have our moments of cynicism. But don’t live your life that way.

You’ve got one life to live. Make it the best damn life ever.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

silentdebate February 6, 2010 at 8:06 am

Luke,

Fucking awesome man.

Love,
Stamati

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Robert Gressis February 6, 2010 at 9:06 am

Great post, Luke!

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Hermes February 6, 2010 at 9:32 am

Exactly. One to add to the list, though it’s a commercial;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=at_f98qOGY0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0jZzBEKIMc

If they added a clip of some parkour it would be that much better.

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Molly February 6, 2010 at 9:36 am

I have no problem being sincerely awesome. In fact, it would be a struggle not to be!

But, I refuse to give up irony and sarcasm in everyday speak.

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Hermes February 6, 2010 at 9:47 am

Molly; sarcasm and irony without cynicism?

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lukeprog February 6, 2010 at 10:24 am

Yes, good link, Hermes.

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Haukur February 6, 2010 at 10:45 am

lukeprog: Yes, good link, Hermes.

It is indeed a good link – nice to finally agree with Hermes on something.

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Jeff H February 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I too like the attitude presented in this post. However, the link leading to the description of “New Sincerity” presents it as some sort of answer to postmodernism. Or perhaps some sort of post-postmodernism. Do you think that it is robust enough (philosophically speaking) to get past the challenges that postmodernist thinkers pointed out? Or is this sort of “let’s do whatever’s awesome!” just some sort of wishful thinking?

I haven’t spent too much time working through postmodernism (I’ll get to it, though), so I’m honestly curious if anyone has any thoughts about this. If anyone does, it would be…awesome. ;)

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lukeprog February 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Jeff H,

To my knowledge, the New Sincerity is not intended to rebut the philosophy of, say, Derrida; rather it is a lifestyle choice in reaction to postmodern culture.

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Jeff H February 6, 2010 at 4:46 pm

lukeprog: Jeff H,To my knowledge, the New Sincerity is not intended to rebut the philosophy of, say, Derrida; rather it is a lifestyle choice in reaction to postmodern culture.  

Ahh, so wishful thinking, in other words.

Lol just kidding…that makes more sense. I guess I need to lay off the Nietzsche for a while to stop reading so heavily into everything :P

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Hermes February 6, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Haukur:
It is indeed a good link – nice to finally agree with Hermes on something.  

Excellent. The first part of my evil plan of assimilation is complete. :-}

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Eric February 6, 2010 at 8:27 pm

I don’t see how “The New Sincerity” stands a chance against the wisdom of Qoheleth. And I think ‘wisdom’ is precisely the right word here: The New Sincerity may be hip, it may be clever, it may be fun, and it may even be “awesome,” but it’s still chasing after the wind. Indeed, it’s usually *after* someone is as ‘awesome’ as he’ll ever be that he feels the most unfulfilled; the wise throughout the ages have always have always started with this basic premise. But I suppose that if the New Sincerity is sincerely tried, it will ultimately lead most reflective and honest people back to the wisdom of the ages, and so in this sense can be judged a good thing.

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Eric February 6, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Let me add that I have nothing against being awesome: by all means, be as awesome as you can be. I love the Susan Boyle story as much as anyone. But see to it that the hounds don’t change scent (as Lewis put it), causing you to mistake awesomeness for that ‘something’ you were (most likely) looking for in the first place.

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Hermes February 6, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Eric. Ecclesiastes. Interesting choice; a later book that focuses on futility and faith. To that, consider the following;

Dan Gilbert asks; Why are we happy?. The punch line is at 4:00, though this is one of the best talks on TED.com and that’s saying something.

While attitude isn’t everything, it’s quite a bit of the pie.

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Beelzebub February 7, 2010 at 1:51 am

What? you mean you shouldn’t put your trust in Jesus and pine for the day when you’ll be dead? Shocking.

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Molly February 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

Hermes: Molly; sarcasm and irony without cynicism?  

Yes, sarcasm and irony in a lighthearted, joking manner.

Here are more advocates of awesomeness for awesome’s sake.

http://improveverywhere.com/

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Hermes February 7, 2010 at 10:02 am

Works for me!

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Gary February 7, 2010 at 4:24 pm

So the New Sincerity is linked to atheism via the problem of Evel?

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ayer February 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I hope this “New Sincerity” catches on, and that it especially embraces and affirms the sincere beliefs of the religious
(like Evel Knievel: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/aprilweb-only/115-43.0.html
and Susan Boyle: http://tinyurl.com/ykt6asb)
(though I’m not sure if the Sarah Silvermans and Christopher Hitchens of the world will give up their cynicism and irony).

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Hermes February 7, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Ayer. Nice. Marking your territory. Keep it up.

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Hermes February 7, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Gary: So the New Sincerity is linked to atheism via the problem of Evel?  

[ rim shot ] :-)

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Mathew Wilder February 14, 2010 at 9:26 am

Gary FTFW!

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Julia Mason April 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Susan Boyle may not be a very good looking woman but she has an angelic voice. |

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Kieran Adams May 6, 2010 at 4:39 am

I have seen the performance of Susan Boyle and it is never short of excellent. Definitely one of the best voices out there. .:

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Steven J December 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm

“New Sincerity” lol. just he same old old triviality again. “The infinite depthlessness of those unending human spaces of emptiness continuously fills my mind with sickness unto death” – Pascal/Kant via Swift.

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free earl February 1, 2011 at 5:54 am

Modernism and Postmodernism are just stories propogated by disillusioned Marxists like Clement Greenberg anyway. I wouldn’t put much stock into what those guys think (look at Zizek, guy is basically a stand up comedian for the euro radical-chic crowd) .

I’ve never been religious, so I don’t know the pain of having those beliefs snatched away from me, but what is meaning anyway? Meaning is something in our heads that’s generated by living and the situations we find ourselves in, not something that exists in the fabric of the universe like oxygen or light. And if a deity did exist, how would that provide “meaning”? Would he hand out “meaning” like free school milk? It would just be something that existed his/her/it’s head, rather than in humans.

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Rob T February 1, 2011 at 7:26 am

Great post, Luke! So, simply put – the New Sincerity could be boiled down to the slogan “Be Awesome.” Couldn’t agree more… which, I guess is why I own this T-shirt

And, since we’re on the topic of awesome Britney Spears covers, I’d like to mention that Travis’ cover of Hit Me Baby One More Time is pretty damn awesome, too.

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Steven R. February 1, 2011 at 8:37 am

Finally some common sense in this. I remember having a conversation with my friend where we were discussing love. He told me it was worthless since it was just a chemical reaction. I pointed out that even if that’s so, the way it makes me feel towards another person was what made it so great, not whether or not it was all in “God’s purpose”, part of some mysterious entity that defied all of our experiences or a chemical reaction rooted in the brain; what matters is what you made of it and that it’s probably for the better that we can understand why we love than just chalk it up to some grand design nobody knows anything about. He then admitted to me that he felt the same way but because everyone treated it with contempt, he felt he should to.

What we’re experiencing, I think, is the collapse of even more ancient and absurd societal institutions (in this case, the idea that someway, somehow, God provides “meaning” and “purpose” to life) much like what was happening around Nietzsche times. The question then becomes, will we embrace nihilism or try to make sense of it all?

Lastly, I want to stress how it can sometimes be good to revel in irony, cynicism and even self-lamentation. OK Computer (yes, I’m a huge Radiohead fan) is a record that I discovered just as the sometimes harsh realities of the world began setting in (how insignificant we feel when compared to the starvation that is found world-wide and the way our current social structure seems to dehumanize us) and, despite the general depression of the album, it cheered me up. I wasn’t alone in my despair and other people could connect and identify with the disillusionment of the modern age (and really, this has more to do with political and social setbacks than naturalism) and that at the very least, we were all connected as human beings. So even a record that is glum and deals with some very harsh topics can turn into a form of catharsis. It really is all up to you to determine how you take it.

By the way Luke, I love you. You listen to Okkervil River? Sweet. And for the record, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead thinks that Creep is an uplifting song about finding yourself.

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KT February 1, 2011 at 10:14 am

Luke, man, you should embrace religion again and become a dudeist.

http://dudeism.com/

Gotta do it just like Snoopy in Peanuts: “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?” That’s what I’m talking about! ;)

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Patrick February 1, 2011 at 10:17 am

Eh, I feel like “sincerity” and/or “authenticity” is being used, at least in some cases, as a generic pro word. Most discussions of that sort of thing leave me feeling cold. Like the link on “authentic” love. “Authentic” love doesn’t admit of jealousy? Srsly? You know how fast that descends into self parody?

I’ll just be over in my little corner doing what I want and being cool with that while everyone else is busy being “authentic.”

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Derrida February 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

Speaking of awesome Brittney Spears covers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWxxTph7ibU

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cd February 1, 2011 at 10:58 am

Sounds like this outlook could be summed up in the universal life-affirming advice: Just *Live*.

Re Koheleth: I’ve met wise people and I’ve met people who assert knowledge of ‘the wisdom of the ages’ but apparently can’t realize it in a manner that persuades. In my experience selfidentifying Christians seem almost invariably the latter. It’s my sincere belief that that is why Christianity is fading fast in the West now.

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MarkD February 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

I have been meaning to pick up Dreyfus and Kelly’s All Things Shining and take a look at “whooshing.”

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CharlesP February 1, 2011 at 11:56 am

Another in something akin to this vein is the vlogbrothers (author John Green and his brother Hank) and their Nerdfighter/DFTBA “decreasing world suck” stuff… some religious people, some not religious people… just trying to do positive things (I think you can find on youtube some videos of them doing “positive pranks” where instead of TP-ing houses they left little bags of candy and a note)…. they do a day of charity fund-raising via youtube every year (or at least they have for the last couple years if I recall correctly).

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BenSix February 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm

But awesomeness is, like, so mainstream.

Anyway, I can’t help thinking “awesomeness” is valuable as a gut reaction. In moments of contemplation all those high-fives, youtube vids and failed attempts to study game might seem a little vapid. Perhaps we should think less…

We philosophy professors think that when we frame such questions we are getting at the fundamental dilemmas and conditions of our own lives and those of our students; we flatter ourselves that no one should get through life without pondering them. Well, why not, exactly? We keep raising questions without answers, and if we don’t give up because we are diseased in some way, it doesn’t follow that everyone has to follow us down our road to nowhere. If you’re focused not on what your life and death means but instead on what’s happening at tonight’s kegger . . . well, we don’t actually have any answers to the questions we are raising, but the kegger will actually occur. While we speculate our way into layers of reality that bear on nothing practical, and the existence of which is sheer speculation, people go on living just the same. And if they feel no demand for meaning, that doesn’t seem to be any less rational than feeling no call to jump over the moon; not trying is a perfectly good approach.

Still, fuck it, I’m down with the whole “don’t just work 9 to 5 and bum around in front of the TiVo” thing.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 1, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Steven R.,

Cool, I didn’t know that about Greenwood.

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Colin February 1, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Luke,

The first time I read this I thought it was retarded.

After rereading it, I’ve gotta say… I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s still retarded.

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Zeb February 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Luke, are you going to MaxFunCon? If so, you should definitely blog it or podcast it. I’ve always wanted to hear what it is like from the point of view of an attendee, and since I live on the East Coast I probably will never attend myself.

It’s nice to see some recognition for the value of narrative reality over mechanical reality.

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Thrasymachus February 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Fuck being “awesome”. I just want to be right.

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cornbread_r2 February 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I’ve not been able to look at any mundane thing quite the same since the plastic bag scene in the film American Beauty

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Zeb February 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm

He told me it was worthless since it was just a chemical reaction. I pointed out that even if that’s so, the way it makes me feel towards another person was what made it so great…

I say the same thing about God. There is an interesting excerpt on Slate today from a book about how the widespread belief in God may be explained biologically by over active mind projection. While I still believe that God is an objective reality and that it is potentially reasonable for all people to believe in God, I can imagine being cowed into the position that God is a subjective experience shared by many but not all people. Even so I expect I would find it valuable and worthwhile to continue relating to this personification of life, the world, and everything, both privately and in community.

tl;dr Even if I come to believe that God and love are just chemical events in my brain, I will continue to value and pursue them.

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Patrick February 1, 2011 at 6:15 pm

I say the same thing about God. There is an interesting excerpt on Slate today from a book about how the widespread belief in God may be explained biologically by over active mind projection. While I still believe that God is an objective reality and that it is potentially reasonable for all people to believe in God, I can imagine being cowed into the position that God is a subjective experience shared by many but not all people. Even so I expect I would find it valuable and worthwhile to continue relating to this personification of life, the world, and everything, both privately and in community.tl;dr Even if I come to believe that God and love are just chemical events in my brain, I will continue to value and pursue them.  

Would you change how you pursued love? Would your views on issues of religious doctrine change? Are there any aspects of your religion you would drop?

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Patrick February 1, 2011 at 6:15 pm

That was supposed to be “would you change how you pursue religion?”

But I suck at thinking and typing at the same time.

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Steven R. February 1, 2011 at 7:03 pm

God may be explained biologically by over active mind projection. While I still believe that God is an objective reality and that it is potentially reasonable for all people to believe in God, I can imagine being cowed into the position that God is a subjective experience shared by many but not all people. Even so I expect I would find it valuable and worthwhile to continue relating to this personification of life, the world, and everything, both privately and in community.tl;dr Even if I come to believe that God and l

I think that works but only in the way that Bokonism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokonism) does. Unlike love, though, religion would only be effective in a pragmatic sense and really, it would be extremely easy to argue against key tenets. All in all, God would just become like a shared placebo.

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Zeb February 1, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Would you change how you pursued love? Would your views on issues of religious doctrine change? Are there any aspects of your religion you would drop?

Certainly my views on doctrine would change. I would come to view them as strictly like zen koans, useful for affecting the brain rather than communicating true beliefs. I’m not sure if there is anything I would drop, other than literal belief and the defense thereof. When it comes to morality I don’t see any reason to discount the ‘wisdom of the ages’ that I believe is distilled in religious tradition, even if god had nothing to do with it. I would give traditional proscription strong weight in the consideration of moral decisions, alongside personal conscience and philosophical/scientific analysis, and I would still advise others to do the same, though I would drop my slight prejudice that others follow my particular tradition’s proscriptions. Possibly I would end up pursuing religion in an entirely post-modern way just for fun, a la Bokononism or the Church of the Subgenius, or McKenna’s neo-shamanism, but most likely I would keep using Eastern Catholic Christianity, which if you didn’t realize how old it is and how seriously some people take it, you might mistake for a New Sincerity take on Christianity. It certainly is ridiculous and over the top, but not ironic.

Unlike love, though, religion would only be effective in a pragmatic sense

Steven R, what do you mean by that?

All in all, God would just become like a shared placebo.

How is love any different?

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cl February 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Speaking of awesome: 1 and 2. Of course, being “awesome” has nothing to do with one’s (a)theism. You either are, or you aren’t. These guys? Are.

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Steven R. February 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

Steven R, what do you mean by that?How is love any different?  (Quote)

1. I meant that religion wouldn’t have any real truth to it or reveal anything, it’d just be helpful to people in the way that placebos are. As I understand it, the American Pragmatics saw religion as a tool people could use to feel better, not reveal metaphyiscal truths or provide real morals.
2. Love, unlike religion, is just a feeling. How it comes about is irrelevant to how it makes you feel. On the other hand, religions makes claims about an entity that exists and about how it wants you to behave and a relationship between a deity or deities and humanity, along with usually making some metaphyiscal claims. Clearly, none of this concerns love.

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cl February 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Steven R.,

Love, unlike religion, is just a feeling. How it comes about is irrelevant to how it makes you feel. On the other hand, religions makes claims about an entity that exists and about how it wants you to behave and a relationship between a deity or deities and humanity, along with usually making some metaphyiscal claims. Clearly, none of this concerns love.

I’d have to disagree. Biblical faith, for example, incorporates love into how “it” wants us to behave. Love is an inseparable element of the “religion” I endorse.

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clamat February 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm

@cl

I’d have to disagree. Biblical faith, for example, incorporates love into how “it” wants us to behave. Love is an inseparable element of the “religion” I endorse.

Ah, but define “love.” That’s the rub, isn’t it? Romeo and Juliet and The Graduate and Natural Born Killers are all considered “love stories” by some. People think we all mean the same thing when we talk about “love,” but there are as many definitions of “love” as there are people who claim to feel it. And all of them are equally justified – it may not look like it to me, but who am I to tell you what you feel is not love?

Very much like “God.” Joseph Ratzinger and Fred Phelps tell equally justified “God stories.”

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Steven R. February 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Steven R.,
I’d have to disagree. Biblical faith, for example, incorporates love into how “it” wants us to behave. Love is an inseparable element of the “religion” I endorse.  

Biblical faith also incorporates belief without solid evidence into it (Paul, I believe, is the one who seems to promote such a view) and it defines love as a sort of relationship with God. Clearly this is not what I meant by love and it seems that relationships with God are best explained through Neurotheology, which has different parts of the brain involved than typical human relationships from which love as I used it develops.

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cl February 11, 2011 at 4:12 pm

clamat,

I agree. A definitional mess can ensue seemingly any word. I accept the Bible’s definition, and I’m going to bet that you would, too:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [1 Cor. 13:4-7]

Of course, my only point was to dispute the claim that none of the religious “claims about an entity that exists and about how it wants [us] to behave” concerns love. Love is an integral component of the religion I endorse. Jesus wanted us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This clearly concerns love, and not “love for God,” either, but, love for human beings.

Steven R.,

Biblical faith also incorporates belief without solid evidence into it (Paul, I believe, is the one who seems to promote such a view)

False. Paul believed on the basis of evidence.

[Biblical faith] defines love as a sort of relationship with God.

Correct. It also speaks a great deal about love for fellow human beings–precisely the type of “love” you were talking about. So, it seems to me your claim is incorrect at worst, imprecise at best [i.e., your vague use of "religions" lends well to sweeping generalization].

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David June 19, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Holy fuck. I cried. :D

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Algernon September 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm

It absolutely was pleasant to study through your posting. I personally liked the short while that I used looking through it and wished to leave a comment to mention that….All the best

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