An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. Continue reading

Why it matters to know what you mean by words (quick example)

People might wonder about why people like me worry about what a particular word or phrase means in a particular context. Here’s a quick example (that I removed from another article about something else) about how it matters.

You don’t even know what you’re saying unless you know what you mean by it. Even otherwise logical inferences can be affected by vague terms that mean more than one thing at the same time. Suppose someone thinks genre fiction is something that is formulaic and repeats the same old stuff, but also identifies any novel as genre fiction if it just has things like dragons or detectives. Then the person will end up assuming any book with dragons or detectives is formulaic and repeats the same old stuff, even though this is hardly a truth about the world, and even if it was, it would be incredible if someone didn’t soon break the conventions and, say, write about a different kind of detective in a different kind of plot. In this case, two definitions of genre fiction, one involving being formulaic and another just involving involving certain kinds of elements, would get confused to make an effective baseless belief about the world.

This of course has to do with prejudice and stereotypes too. It also appears in politics, and it’s something George Orwell wrote about. But I won’t go into more detail now, I just wanted to note this as a quick aside.

Wouldn’t it be scary if everyone was unique?

“Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?”

That idea has been used as a defence of diversity and the right to be different. I suppose it’s okay as such. What I want to comment on — briefly — is a different use.

This is another place for the “I don’t know how common this is but I’ve heard it said” disclaimer. So, yes, that. This other way I’ve heard this idea used sometimes is about things like how men and women are “different”. Two (or more) groups are different, and it’s good because it would be boring if everyone was the same.

It’s just that you’re not talking about diversity when you say that. What you’re defending is a generalisation. Two groups can only be different if people within one group are somehow the same — not different from each other. If everyone was different, you couldn’t say it’s two groups of people specifically that are different. So basically you’re saying that every person being the same would be boring but just two different homogenous groups is the right amount of diversity. (Well, it’s just enough for Othering.)

There are all kinds of complications such as about legitimate generalisations and the fact that this kind of use of the “wouldn’t it be boring?” at first sight should include using it to defend cultural diversity (which I’m not talking about here) since that also involves groups. I’m not going into all that here.

Here, I want to make just one point: Sometimes when people talk about differences, they’re really talking about people being the same. If you’re defending the notion that there are two or more groups that are different from each other and therefore internally somehow alike, you’re not defending the idea that people are different — those who disagree with you will mostly be saying that people are more different than you are saying. Having just two or a few groups isn’t un-boring, it’s a false security. Having to take everyone individually, now that’s an interesting challenge. Thinking of two groups is just hiding from that.

Fundamentalist on Others’ Behalf

Click here for the Finnish version: Fundamentalisti toisten puolesta

Yet another one of these… I don’t know what to call them. I’d like to say “internet fallacies”, but that wouldn’t be quite correct.

Sometimes people blame those they disagree with for not having as extreme opinions as the accuser would like. I’ve seen this at least in the context depicted by the following example, though I am reasonably certain it shows up in others, too:

Annoying atheist: Christians are crazy. Do you really believe that god killed almost everyone in a flood and someone gathered all species of animals in one ship?

Less annoying Christian: No. It’s a story that is a product of its time.

Annoying atheist: What! It’s your holy book! You should believe it! Continue reading

An Explanation for Why You Shouldn’t Explain the Joke

See here for the Finnish version: Selitys sille, miksi vitsejä ei saa selittää.

I’ll try writing the Finnish version first for this once. Who knows if it’ll make any noticeable difference.

How does the sense of humour work, and why does it exist? Overall, I don’t know. I have, however, noticed that there is often one common element in humour. It’s the reason why jokes aren’t so funny when explained. Continue reading