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A watch(ed) maker never (produces a plague of) boils - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
A watch(ed) maker never (produces a plague of) boils
Earlier today simont wrote about topics of discussion which are simultaneously interesting and tiresome, and the first thing which came to mind as an example (which, it turned out, he regarded as "an excellent example"!) was the argument formerly known (on ox.* and elsewhere) as TGGD: that is, The Great God Debate. I was going to write about the various interesting-but-tedious-but-addictive conversations and try to draw some conclusions about what made them thus, but I ended up just writing about TGGD instead. So sue me.

I think the main reason I find TGGD so frustrating is that everybody involved usually seems to be incredibly strongly convinced of their own rightness and the wrongness of all other positions, but nobody can actually prove anything on either side.[0] What results is at best a tedious stating and restating of positions, at worst a furious battle with both sides throwing axioms at each other. I don't know if there's any recorded evidence of someone changing their mind about religion as a result of a usenet debate, but I've certainly never seen it. There's an obvious reason for this: you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themself into[1]. You're using the wrong tools: not so much using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, more like using a fish to change a bicycle tyre. The only possible exception to this, as I see it, is that opinions are sometimes changed by ad hominem arguments: if someone repeatedly behaves cretinously in TGGD, their whole belief structure may be (however unfairly) forever tainted in your mind as a result. But essentially, the debate is unscientific; I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, I just mean that trying to subject it to scientific analysis is not necessarily a useful or interesting approach.

Are there interesting conversations to be had about religion? Of course.[2] And that's part of the frustration: all that potential interest being reduced to a mud-slinging match between a bunch of people who seem to think (in the face of libraryfuls of evidence to the contrary) that the only reason the question of Whether God Exists And If He Does What About Dinosaurs And Cancer Then hasn't been answered yet is that not enough has been written about it yet. Unfortunately most of the interesting conversations would involve starting from the assumption that belief systems other than one's own may contain something of interest, and this often doesn't seem to happen. There are plenty of interesting conversations to be had about the benefits of religion to society and the individual, about the separation (or otherwise) of church and state, about the history of religion... No, please don't leap in and say "other people's delusions/fairytales are fundamentally boring"; they may be of no interest to you, but stories can be interesting, the shared narratives around which people weave society can be interesting, delusions can be psychologically and philosophically interesting. Really, trust me on this: lots of things which are not maths[3] can be interesting.[4] However, everybody in TGGD is generally so entrenched in their positions vis à vis the wrongness and stupidity of everybody else[5] that the necessary mutual respect tends to be lacking.

I think there is something inherent to debates concerning religion which, while it doesn't inevitably cause this sort of attitude, certainly helps it take hold: that is, the ever-present implication of Judgement. It is difficult (though not impossible) to exchange ideas on an equal footing with someone whom (you assume) believes that you are damned to eternal torment, or indeed (from the other side) with someone whom you regard as having condemned themselves to a fate worse than death. There is an unequal relationship there, where both sides think the other side is sadly misguided but could be saved from their misguidedness if they would only listen. Of course, by "listen" both sides mean "change sides": because all sides believe that they are self-evidently right, the idea that someone could listen to the message, hear it and still disagree with it is, well, beyond belief. So they shout louder. AND LOUDER.

The real tiresomeness of the debate, though, is that attempts to say "this is tiresome, can we have a more interesting conversation?" will always be interpreted as a desperate attempt to have the last word. Once you're in, there's no way out. Starting TGGD is the conversational equivalent of declaring thermonuclear war (but with fewer actual explosions and more sarcasm) and we all know what the only winning move is.

[0] I have a marvellous proof of the (non-)existence of God which this post is too short to contain. NOT REALLY.
[1] This isn't original, but I don't know who said it. Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably.
[2] At this point I was going to digress briefly into the question of what constitutes an "interesting" conversation, but I don't have time if I'm going to get something posted today.
[3] Okay, okay, everything's maths really. It's numbers all the way down. But you know what I mean.
[4] I admit, this risked turning into a massive rant about the standard oxbridge.tat debate, which basically boils down to drawing a raggedy line IN BLOOD between Oxford/Humanities and Cambridge/Sciences, but that just made me lose the will to live.
[5] As I am somewhat vis à vis the oxbridge.jihad above. I made no claim to be impartial.
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teleute From: teleute Date: November 5th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Possibly the best post I've ever read ever. I want to copy and paste it at people every time they are being tiresome :-) Congrats on supreme fabulousness.
hairyears From: hairyears Date: November 5th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Or: yes, an erudite and thoroghly readable contribution to a debate that I don't want to engage in and fervently hope that no-one else will start.
mobbsy From: mobbsy Date: November 5th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I found TGGD quite interesting to read the very first time I saw it as an undergraduate (on ucam.chat). I hadn't really been exposed to much theological debate before, to the point I think that even the omnipotence paradox was new to me¹.

I'd agree that after the first time, or rather after a while into the first time, TGGD is pointless, repetitive and dull. However, there's the off chance that it might be new and interesting to somebody, even if they aren't participating.

OK, so that probably doesn't constitutes enough of a good to counteract the tedium of the constant circular arguments involved for everybody else nearby.

¹ I was brought up as church-going CoE, and increasingly as a teenager got bored of it all and stopped bothering rather than actively deciding anything. I don't think religion was ever important enough to me for me to have thought deeply about it. The zeal of newly awakened atheism was important for a bit, but I got over that.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 7th, 2009 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I found it quite interesting the first time too, and in retrospect I think if I hadn't had that sort of arguing as a corrective to the evangelical lunacy that I was caught up in at the time when I was discovering usenet, I might have ended up in a very different place. But IME the argument just gets too circular and too aggressive to be interesting, too quickly.

I agree that the argument might be interesting to people to whom it's new. But I think I will leave that teaching/demonstrating role to other people. I'm just not patient enough to go round old arguments for the sake of people who haven't had them before. :-}

I was brought up as church-going CoE [...]

I did things the other way round -- brought up areligious (not even atheist, particularly, just no mention of religion except colouring-inRE lessons at school), was a stereotypical disaffected sixth-form atheist, rebelled against stereotypical rebellion by Getting Religion at university, found that there wasn't room in the evangelical church for people who believed in thinking. Escaped with thought processes mostly intact... (touch wood (not really because that's just a superstition ha ha)).

BTW, I know you've read a lot of philosophy -- as an atheist, do you find the theological aspects of philosophy irrelevant/pointless/irritating? (Surely until relatively recently most philosophy was also to some extent theology? -- but IANAP so that may be a naive assumption...)
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 5th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure it's possible to have interesting discussions about 'the benefits of religion to society and the individual' without taking a position, actually... surely if you think that the benefits are psychological you're assuming it false, and if you think the benefits are about a right relationship with God you're assuming it true?

Similarly the separation of church and state: if your view of the truth or otherwise of religion doesn't inform that, then you're clearly doing it all wrong. (It's possible to be a atheist and a disestablishmentarian, a Christian and a disestablishmentarianism, a Christian and an antidisestablishmentarian or an atheist into antidisestablishmentarianism, but your reasoning will be different in each case, and neither side of the religious debate will be able to talk to each other -- someone who thinks that the church should be disestablished because God intended it to be on the side of the powerless, not the powerful, can't really have much of a meaningful conversation with someone who thinks that it's all just a story but it's a useful one form a social cohesion point of view).

Having said that, whether you think that God was at work in the history of religion might inform your view, but I don't think it's as foundational to it as in the other two cases, so I'll let you have that one.

j4 From: j4 Date: November 7th, 2009 12:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure it's possible to have interesting discussions about 'the benefits of religion to society and the individual' without taking a position

"Taking a position" sounds to me like stating one's axioms, which seems entirely sensible; the problem arises when the 'debate' turns into a fight to see who can state their axioms loudest -- not so much "taking a position" as "taking a position and bludgeoning everybody else over the head with it".

Surely if you think that the benefits are psychological you're assuming it false

If you think the only benefits are psychological, then yes, by definition. But I think many believers would agree that their religion (and the observance of religion) has psychological benefits! On the other hand, they might well disagree with nonbelievers (or not) about why some things seem to be beneficial for the mind/body.

Similarly the separation of church and state: if your view of the truth or otherwise of religion doesn't inform that, then you're clearly doing it all wrong.

See above re axioms: I'm not suggesting that interesting debate is only possible if people don't take a position on the truth or otherwise of any given religion -- but that it's not possible if you never get beyond taking a position. Clearly the truth of religion is not the only factor in people's opinions about the separation of church and state.

someone who thinks that the church should be disestablished because God intended it to be on the side of the powerless, not the powerful, can't really have much of a meaningful conversation with someone who thinks that it's all just a story but it's a useful one form a social cohesion point of view

Well, they certainly wouldn't agree ... but by objecting to circular and aggressive arguments I didn't mean to imply that the only useful conversations were ones where everybody agreed with each other! IMO terms like "powerless" and "powerful" are as much to do with concepts of society as "social cohesion"; I'd like to think that your hypothetical someones might be able to have an interesting conversation about the social function of the church, while agreeing to differ on the reason for it.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Expand
1ngi From: 1ngi Date: November 5th, 2009 12:55 am (UTC) (Link)
This was a stunning read and made me laugh out-loud.

And yes. Abso-fucking-lutely.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 7th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! :)
emperor From: emperor Date: November 5th, 2009 07:54 am (UTC) (Link)
As far as I can tell from the odd maths paper I've read, they all gave up on numbers years ago! :)

I've had a couple of TGGD-alike conversations that haven't been dreadful, but they've always been in person with people I've known reasonably well, and it's been more "can you explain your world-view to me" than "so, about eternal damnation, then...". I think that's easier to do face-to-face, because you won't get a bunch of people intent on TGGDing bundling in wielding (eternal) flamethrowers.

So, err, yes, I agree :)
cleanskies From: cleanskies Date: November 5th, 2009 09:07 am (UTC) (Link)

off the subject

My kitten is snoring! Tiny kitten snores!

There's a place on the internet you can go to get all these arguments out of your system so you don't have to bore your friends with them. Some big atheist community where religious types turn up in a continual stream to test their religious (and religion-based) convictions. timscience uses it daily to keep his religion-based irk down to a managable level (and focussed on the people who need it).
j4 From: j4 Date: November 7th, 2009 12:40 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: off the subject

OMG KITTEN! I think if more people could hear TINY KITTEN SNORES they would probably stop worrying about all that heavy shit like religion. :)
shermarama From: shermarama Date: November 5th, 2009 09:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not quite sure how I've managed this, given how many times people have told me I'm overbearing in arguments, but on this one, me the hardcore atheist and my boyfriend the church-goer can have serious and interesting and non-contentious conversations. Possibly because we're both aware that it could be such a nightmare and we want it not to be, although I think we have surprisingly compatible positions on what religion is despite the fundamental difference. He thinks the Bible is the word of God filtered through various translations, misunderstandings and interesting literary styles, and I think it's the same thing apart from being the word of men who really want there to be a God, which leaves plenty of room for going 'ooo' about the interesting structures and stuff. I dunno, just to say, possibly the exception that proves the rule, I have found a situation where it's not thermonuclear war.
boyofbadgers From: boyofbadgers Date: November 5th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC) (Link)
As an atheist with overbearing tendencies, I've also managed to have a large number of decent conversations about religion with religious people in person. The internet is a different matter, though, and the ox/ucam section especially so. I don't think it's entirely down to the simple distancing effect of words on the screen as opposed to IRL either - these conversations tend to draw large crowds when conducted online, and discussing anything contentious with a large group of acquaintances is a much trickier business than doing so with one or two friends. Not only is there the basic problem of having to address multiple different positions at the same time, there's also the tendency to grandstanding that talking to an audience brings out in a lot of people, which in turn puts other people's backs up.
simont From: simont Date: November 5th, 2009 09:20 am (UTC) (Link)
I like the post title. If you're going to contort, contort shamelessly ;-)

I basically agree with this post, except that my experience of TGGD is that it doesn't always fall into tiresomeness in the way you describe – sometimes it manages to do it in other ways instead!

Another annoying failure mode is meta-meta-metagaming. You start off with people trading arguments as to why they think God does or (respectively) does not exist, and then they focus down on some point along the lines of "but you're not denying that that part at least might be true" and next thing you know you've gone through "but at least you must concede that it isn't fundamentally unreasonable to believe this or that" and another few rounds of "all I'm really trying to say is" on both sides until they're arguing about some esoteric point of the ground rules of the discourse five layers of abstraction away from the original question and even if one side were to win the argument (which they won't anyway, for all the reasons you give above) neither of them would be able to remember what if any bearing it had on the original question of whether God does or (disrespectfully) does not exist.

On the other hand, there is an LJ on my friends list which I basically friended for the author's strong track record of being quite interesting about TGGD when other people linked to his posts. Possibly it's important that he's an ex-Christian, so although it's clear which side of the debate he believes, it's also clear that he has experience of thinking carefully about both sides and can remember how it felt to believe the other one, and hence doesn't fall into the trap you mention of assuming that the other belief system cannot possibly contain anything of interest.
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 5th, 2009 09:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. And (no) God1, yes. And I want to apologise.

Of couse I'm neither sciences or humanities these days; I'm commerce. Maybe that's where I was all along and why I never really picked a side. :)

1 agnostic.
ewx From: ewx Date: November 5th, 2009 09:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I find pw201 writes interesting things about religion: TGGD without the usual degeneration into “because God (said so|doesn't exist)” would I think be a reasonable description.
ewx From: ewx Date: November 5th, 2009 09:28 am (UTC) (Link)
...in fact that might well be who SGT is referring to above.
vatine From: vatine Date: November 5th, 2009 10:25 am (UTC) (Link)
TGGD is, mostly, boring. No, actually, tedious. In that "oh, my, ghu! another train-wreck down the rails of narrative imperative!"

I have had some pretty good TGGD moments, though (discussing the Christian view of God with a chap who converted to catholicism from protestantism, spent a while deciding that, no, he DIDN'T want to become a monk, after all and then went down the route of theological studies, with a possible view of becoming a priest).

However, that was, essentially, a mutual exploration of stances on ontologies.
geekette8 From: geekette8 Date: November 5th, 2009 10:29 am (UTC) (Link)
because all sides believe that they are self-evidently right, the idea that someone could listen to the message, hear it and still disagree with it is, well, beyond belief.

Yes! I worked with someone once who actually used the phrase (in an argument about some technical point) "If you don't agree with me, you must not have understood what I am saying".

There just really isn't any useful response at that point.
htfb From: htfb Date: November 5th, 2009 11:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I remember an early-edition doing remarkably well under light needling at a party on the Botley Road. The logic of your rather Oic-curious position at the time led you to agree to some surprising propositions about an intrusive personal God, but you stuck to your guns and I for one welcomed an interesting conversation.

One of the things I miss about student life is being evangelised by enthusiastic freshers. The south London Jehovah's Witnesses aren't nearly as fun. But we will not go again or ape an ancient rage, Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age."
htfb From: htfb Date: November 5th, 2009 11:18 am (UTC) (Link)
That's supposed to say "an early edition j4"
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: November 5th, 2009 11:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Maybe we're all just getting old. I first encountered ucam.chat and its uniquey controvertial style twelve years ago ..
ewx From: ewx Date: November 5th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC) (Link)

Oh and another thing. “if they would only listen” reminds me of a remark in Anthony Beevor's excellent history of the Spanish Civil War, to the effect that the Republicans (democrats, communists, trade-unionists, anarchists etc) seemed to be thoroughly convinced that the democracies (Britain, France) would send assistance if only they could explain their case to them clearly enough.

But in fact they'd deeply misunderstood the policies the relevant governments were following: they very much wanted to stay out of the war and really were prepared to see the Republican side lose (as it subsequently did).

So this problem isn't restricted to TGGD by any means, nor to modern internet argument...

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