My wife (a Taiwanese, Christian), my four-year-old daughter and I (an American, atheist) live in Taiwan. We were returning home on the subway in Taipei after a very pleasant dinner with my in-laws and began a quiet conversation about how attached my daughter has become to her grandfather. My father-in-law is now in his late seventies and his health is starting fail so I mentioned to my wife how difficult it will be for my daughter when he passes away. To this my wife replied “Yeah, it will be hard for her when Grandpa’s in heaven.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth when an older woman, probably in her sixties, who had been sitting on the seat next to me sprang up and began shouting at my wife “How do you know he will go to heaven? There is no god! It’s common sense! Are you stupid?” This not only brought the eyes and ears of everyone on the train onto us but also frightened my daughter. The lady kept yelling at us in broken English but we said nothing and when the train arrived at the next stop where we hurriedly exited and took the next train home.

What bothers me about this incident is not the rudeness or the verbal assault of the lady, but rather my own inability to argue in favor of religion or at least a respect and tolerance for others religious beliefs from the point of view of an atheist. I would love to hear back from like-minded people who have had similar experiences or have a good approach to the religious tolerance issue from an atheistic point of view.

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It was in fact my exposure to Buddhism and even more so Taoism that first opened my mind to the fact that the Christianity I had been brought up with was probably, in fact, wrong. This led me into a sort of Taoist-deist type belief which I held for many years and finally the rejection of any type of theistic or supernatural claims at all. I agree that the world would be a much better place if everyone could cast off their religious delusions, and I am all for encouraging and helping that change along by teaching people to think for themselves. However we need to be careful to not become as bad as many of the religious been in forcing our views on others.
Two thoughts in response to your comments.

1. Several of us in recent discussions have mentioned that some need the comfort of believing in an afterlife to face the reality of death. I find myself wondering if it's that simple. Speaking for myself, I continue to have a great deal of difficulty facing the reality of death, but that does not make belief in an afterlife an option for me since I realize that such a notion is absurd and false given the obvious fact that a physical, functioning brain is necessary for consciousness. Being strong enough to face that has nothing to do with it-- it simply is the difficult truth.

2. I don't see why made up gods that are "embodiments of characteristics of the universe" are any better than a made up god of the Abrahamic religions. They are all fantasies and ultimately need to be abandoned by a life form on our speck of a planet trying to comprehend our existence through the very best scientific methods.

B.K., I find myself thinking the same way.  Sure, holding any fanciful beliefs about our existence in some conscious form after death, are childish. I think we need to grow the hell up and try to fix things here

if better understanding of our surroundings can be achieved by giving human characteristics to our emotions, then you should embrace it.  Being ultra rational is being detached from your humanity.  Understanding of the cosmos can never be achieved by pure rational thought.  For example we can see the universe but can we ever truly understand it? rationally probably not, it is far too great in complexity for the mind to grasp, the same way an bug can see a building but no matter how much he examines it he will never be able go grasp the complexities of how it was built or even what its purpose is, he is however aware of the building the same way we are aware of the universe.  This universe has 11 dimensions that we are aware of at the moment, our mind can only comprehend 3, evidence exists for the other 8 but only by trying to put them into forms we can comprehend will we ever be able to make any sense of them.  so "fantasies are necessary if you want to be able to even begin to piece together the cosmos. Cosmos by the way is a Greek god who embodies the incomprehensible. :)

 Understanding of the cosmos can never be achieved by pure rational thought

Could be, but it's very unlikely that fantasy will enable people to understand the cosmos.

There's much  more to human life than understanding the cosmos though - and I keep on thinking - what about the ancient role of storytelling and myth in human life?  Religion is like a movie you watch - in church or whatever.  With most movies, there's a coming back to reality as you walk out of the theater.  With religion, people stay in the movie-reality to some extent all the time.  Is this necessarily bad? 

While it's crucial for humanity to use both our rationality and our imagination in order to think wisely about our problems - I'm not so sure I want religion to disappear entirely.  Humanity is so rich with variety, and religion is part of that variety. 

"Understanding the cosmos can never be achieved by pure rational thought."

Then science should just accept defeat now and give up! Fantasy will solve it all!

right, I mean if science cant get us to understand something that our brains are incapable of understanding well then we should just give up.

You understand that we are not able to perceive any dimensions of matter past the third dimension right?? so we will never be able to define them any where other than our imagination, me and all the other physicists on the planet will continue imagining them you just give up

DesCartes said he discovered the Cartesian system by watching a fly in a room. He saw he could express the location of the fly by the distance it right of the left wall, above the floor and in front of the back wall. This discovery was not a rational process. He did not start from a self evident truth and move forward by necessary steps. He observed his surroundings through his senses and at a more abstract level could perceive the relationships. The most famous of rationalists had used empiricism to discover his most famous contribution to Mathematics.

Darwin has to be the most amazing empiricist. He spends decades observing and documenting details about the variety between and within species, geological formations and every observable physical trait of our planet and is capable, at an abstract, rational level of perceiving the relationships that exist.

Where do you find progress in human understanding that is pure rational thought? Aren't our greatest rational discoveries always based on an enormous amount of empirical observations?

When I taught Math, my students and I would spend a lot of time observing the location and degree of variables in equations, the first and second degrees of the dependant variables in tables of values and the shape and slopes of lines on graphs. We would use these observations to understand the rational relationships.It all depended on empiricism.

"Understanding of the cosmos can never be achieved by pure rational thought

Could be, but it's very unlikely that fantasy will enable people to understand the cosmos."

Luara, you just lack the imagination to understand their fantasy ;-)

Remember that Einstein himself said imagination was more important than knowledge. See, no less than Einstein proves that intelligent design is true. Ha.

you just lack the imagination to understand their fantasy ;-)

I have never been accused of lacking imagination!

I'm sure you're a wonderful creative and imaginative person.  I hope I came across in the playful manner I intended.

For some reason, these quotes came to mind regarding this topic.


“You used to be much more..."muchier." You've lost your muchness.”

“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I didn't intend to deny the role of imagination in science - that would obviously be wrong. 

But the original poster on that subject said that science might fail in understanding the universe completely - and somehow, fantasy would succeed.  That is what I don't agree with. 

Fantasy might illuminate the inside of your own mind for you.  It might even illuminate the nature of people.  It can certainly inspire.  But outside of the context of science, it isn't going to tell you things about the nature of the huge part of the universe that doesn't include humanity.  Imagining that it does, is a religious claim. 


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