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Oct 31, 2012

An atheist in church: in propaganda, you can't beat God

Is it egotistical to want top billing at one's own funeral? Faced with the onslaught of propaganda in stained glass and frescos -- not to mention the sermon -- consider it lucky if you get mentioned at all.


Church and graveyard

I am — at the very least — a third generation atheist. Religion to me is a foreign country. I sometimes describe my reaction to it as similar to that of a non-American watching gridiron football. I can see that it excites great passion and enthusiasm amongst its supporters but for the life of me I can’t see why.

Nevertheless, I recognise it is an important part of other’s lives and try to respond courteously on the rare occasions I find myself in a house of worship. Usually this only occurs at weddings and funerals. Most (not all) the church weddings I have attended have been relatively mild in terms of religiosity, but it is in the contrast between secular and religious funerals where this old atheist and advertising creative has been — not to put too fine a point on it — gobsmacked.

The secular funerals I have attended have all been bitter-sweet affairs. There has been much grief but, strangely, also much joy. They have felt more like a celebration of someone’s life and personality rather than grief over their passing. I have thoroughly enjoyed — even though often through tears — the stories told about the person who has died by friends, family and colleagues. I have heard tales of war and great suffering, but also of humour, courage and friendship. I have heard funny stories about the dead person’s quirks, weaknesses and foibles. Stories of battles with the bottle, lousy marriages and difficult relationships but all told with a love, affection and recognition of shared humanity that ultimately gave hope to the mourners rather than the opposite.

I have never heard My Way played, but I have listened to both very good and very bad music. While death is the reason for us all being there, secular funerals — despite atheism having been accused of being a death cult by some of the religious — are all about someone’s life. The person who has died is very much the star at their own funeral. They don’t share the limelight with anyone or anything else. Most of those secular funerals have been what I would call a good send off.

The religious funerals I have attended, with one shining exception, have been the complete opposite. At some, the priest officiating has called the deceased by the wrong name (this has happened more than once, I promise you) and then proceeded to make some anodyne remarks with all the individual relevance of a newspaper horoscope. An old workmate or golfing partner sometimes rises to relate a few short anecdotes. Perhaps a son or daughter gets to say a word or two, but then the proselytizing begins. In the sad, anonymous services at funeral homes this is usually mercifully short and formulaic but at a full Catholic service, I have sat through both barrels. And been shocked.

The two full Catholic funeral Masses I have attended were for the very devout mothers of two close friends and I don’t doubt for a moment that these were exactly the funerals these women wanted and were absolutely entitled to have.

My observations are those of someone who comes to the ritual as a complete outsider, someone who knows nothing about it in advance. With that proviso, it was the advertising practitioner in me that found the whole experience particularly disturbing. But, to be fair, there were some aspects of these religious funerals that were a vast improvement on the perfunctory funeral home versions. In both these funerals the priests knew the deceased person very well and so could — and did — add some affectionate anecdotes of their own. Children and grandchildren got time to speak and pay their respects, and we did get a real sense of the person who had died, their life and their passion for their faith.

But it was once the ritualised part of the ceremony began, no doubt a great comfort to those familiar with the rites of the Catholic — or even just the Christian — church that my inner ad exec started to get uncomfortable.

I began to recognise many of the techniques I have used in my business to persuade people to buy a particular product or service. It is not the first time that I have been aware of parallels between the ad business and religion. Visiting medieval cathedrals around Europe I have looked at the magnificent paintings, carvings and religious iconography and had the — no doubt blasphemous — thought that I was looking at the work of fellow art directors and copywriters. The artisans who produced most of the religious art we see when we visit ancient cathedrals are anonymous, just like modern advertising creatives. We are not artists, expressing our own vision of the world, we are professionals paid to express the vision of our clients.

Where some see sacred art, I saw propaganda. Brilliantly executed, powerful and meaningful propaganda, but propaganda none the less. I have no objection to it, mind you. I love great ads and I have a professional appreciation of the deft use of powerful human stories, brand logos, selling messages, brand benefits and clear market position that all the truly great advertising campaigns must communicate before they can persuade.

But it is the propaganda that was delivered over a cooling corpse that left me somewhat nonplussed. Although I recognised many of the techniques used in the sermons, it wasn’t that which bothered me so much. It was more the use of someone’s death to re-inforce the selling message that — I confess — somewhat unnerved me. I recognised the use of hope and fear to reinforce the brand message. Hope that fellow believers among the mourners would meet their loved one again in heaven followed up by fear that non-believers had lost them forever. And an even more fundamental hope and fear than that, of course, the hope that our own obliteration could be avoided by the promise of eternal life.

I accept that when we gather to mourn someone’s passing, we also mourn our own inevitable demise. Advertisers use hope and fear too. It is our stock in trade. Skincare, for example, is sold on the hope that using it will make you look better and the fear that if you don’t use it, you will look even worse. To be fair, parents use these two emotional drivers constantly too, as do teachers, employers and anyone in authority. They are sometimes characterised as the carrot and the stick.

I accept that the hope offered by the familiar and ancient rituals at religious funerals to those that believe can offer real comfort in times of grief, it was simply that I hadn’t expected the selling of the message to be quite so blatant. So when Archbishop Peter Jensen suggests that people who want My Way played at their secular funerals are egotistical, I don’t disagree, but I am left with a sense of the pot calling the kettle black.


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54 thoughts on “An atheist in church: in propaganda, you can’t beat God

  1. David Taft

    Thank you Jane for this. I have often observed the disappointment of the deceased having to play second fiddle in a religious funeral though I hadn’t recognised it for its marketing potential in the way you point out.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Why on earth (or anywhere else, above or below) would you expect subtlety, and be surprised by blatancy of religious views expressed at a funeral in a church? Every priest or minister worth their salt will be very much aware that funerals are a rare opportunity to have the undivided attention of those that are, from their perspective, ‘unsaved’. These are literally, to them at least, matters of life and death. The only surprise here is that Caro apparently can’t see this. It appears either a profound failure of imagination (odd in an advertising type) or she genuinely does not know what she is talking about.

  3. Moloch

    My grandmother’s funeral was marred by Random Vicar Syndrome. An English Funeral By The Numbers, because that’s just how you did it.

    She didn’t have a pious bone in her body and would’ve much preferred us to gossip about her over a couple of games of bingo.

    One big difference Jane.
    You sell real things. They don’t.

  4. Andybob

    Jensen said that ? I’m gonna record myself singing “My Way” karaoke style and require it be played down the pub at the wake.

  5. Shooba

    Seeing as how magnificent European buildings and works of art were created when religious devotion was absolute, I doubt they exist as propaganda tools. They exist to stroke the egos of their patron or church hierarchy, to be sure, but not to convert anyone.

    If you’d done the research necessary for this article, you’d understand that most religious funerals, and certainly any Christian one, is a sacrament. There are reasons certain texts are used and certain points are reiterated… And it’s not propaganda.

    I’d say the author has slightly too high an opinion of the ‘craft’ of advertising, which is 95% common sense and 5% empirical research, anyway.

  6. bluepoppy

    This reminded me of a wedding I attended years ago in the Mormon Church (a ‘reformed’ offshoot of it as I recall). The priest/preacher took the opportunity to not only lecture the wedding guests on religion but to chastise those who were not part of the Church membership (ie. most of the guests whom the groom had known at university).

    Many of the guests sat gobsmacked and if it wasn’t for the sake of the bride and groom many would have walked out. It wasn’t a wedding but a religious conversion seminar. It was not only bizarre but the unashamed self-interest was all too apparent. And just a bit scary.

  7. Scott

    Most formal funerals are about not just the individual, but also the greater purpose they served (for example Military or Police funerals honour the service, not just the individual who died).
    Why is it no surprise that a Christian funeral also represents that sort of service? That the person served God?
    Also the christian faith is all about renewal (death into life, sin into forgiveness etc) so it is more about comforting those left behind than a celebration of the person’s life. Hence the quite formal structure to help those who have lost a loved one cope with the uncertainty.
    The Christian faith has been around for a couple of thousand years after all so the rites and rituals have been stress tested a few times. It is the humanist funeral that has yet to prove it’s longevity.

  8. zut alors

    The lack of appreciation of gridiron is a great comparison, Jane.

    Ah, the art work: my favourite being the punch up in the temple of the moneylenders. I like to pretend it actually happened.

  9. Spica

    The pot and kettle reference is rather bold.
    It seems to me that advertising people and clergy both lead gullible folk by the nose, the former for money, and some of the latter by genuine conviction.

  10. donkeyotee

    I only recently went to my first Catholic funeral; what I thought was the smell of an electrical fire starting in the projector was just the incense being waved around. How much I still have to learn …

  11. zut alors

    Spica, agreed, both are for the gullible.

    However, I’d put more credence in a slimming potion than a virg1n birth.

  12. Holden Back

    To quote the Vatican:
    Propaganda Fide is the Department (Congregation) of the Holy See founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV with the double aim of spreading Christianity in the areas where the Christian message had still not arrived and of defending the patrimony of faith in those places where heresy had caused the genuineness of the faith to be questioned. Propaganda Fide was therefore, basically, the Congregation whose task it was to organize all the missionary activity of the Church. Through a provision of John Paul II (in order to better define its tasks), since 1988 the original Propaganda Fide has been called the “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples”.

    Of course, that only covers us from the 17th century, but the idea of established Christianity’s absolute dominion over the religious or spiritual life of people, even in Western Europe is not fully supported.

  13. Mark Duffett

    HB of course there are no absolutes in these things, but there’s a good reason why for over a millennium ‘the West’ was effectively synonymous with ‘Christendom’.

  14. Craig Angus

    I agree with Scott. And simply if you are uncomfortable about the rituals & traditions of the faith that funeral is being held in, then show respect & don’t attend until the physical burial & wake takes place. It is also important for the family of the departed to take control & discuss with the religious representative prior what they would like said & how it is run. This has always been the case for the catholic funerals I have attended which has always been done with the up most sensitivity for the bereaved regardless of beliefs. As for propaganda, no kid, stating the bleeding obvious here, advertising has learnt much from evangelists over time. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the art work may have symbolic reference to the historical period it was created in, a time window to past cultures & public opinion. So when in church so to speak, please judge with the eyes of a historian & not through the 21st century keyboard & computer…

  15. Harry1951

    As a former Catholic and now agnostic I have experienced some Catholic funerals and mostly found them quite alienating. My mother passed away early this year and we her children are also mostly secular in our views but we felt it right to respect her faith so we had a priest officiate at the Springvale cemetery rather than at a Catholic church, and we ran the show rather than the priest. Not all priests will do this but we were unwilling to hypocritically toe the Catholic line with their standard “Mass”.

  16. Mon

    I’ve had a few occasions where I’ve almost popped my clogs. One particular time springs to mind when reading this article that occurred back in 2004. I was in the touch & go phase in ICU & when I came around my mother said that she had worried that she’d never asked me what I wanted for a funeral. I’d been raised/indoctrinated in the Catholic faith & she feared that I, as a committed atheist, would be cursing her from some fictitious afterlife. I assured her that she could do as she wished but if one egg & lettuce sandwich was served at the wake I would haunt her forever.

    Times have now changed. I do want my funeral in a Catholic church & I’ll have a prerecorded heart rendering speech. My two final words will come from phrase made famous by the Hangover movie; Toodooloo %^&*#$%@#$%^s & as they take me out it will be to the tune of Knock On Wood.

    Last year my soul mate died suddenly. The majority of people at his memorial service all spoke of seeing him again one day which only made me feel more emptiness & pain. Some months later I came across a piece by Aaron Freeman; ‘You Want A Physicist To Speak At Your Funeral,’ which I find a great comfort; http://imgur.com/lxQ9g

  17. Kieran Crichton

    Thanks for a stimulating read.

    Of course, Peter Jensen is simply riffing off a very old pulpit trope that seems to get a lot of play in Presbyterian and certain Evangelical Anglican circles. There’s a hackneyed joke about two preachers that goes with the story that’s about as old as Billy Graham’s smile. It’s very timely, given that Jensen is now in his final months as Archbishop of Sydney.

    I’ve never heard that Sinatra song at a funeral anywhere other than in a Catholic church. Speaking as a professional musician who spends a lot of time playing the organ for funerals, some of them in churches, I can say it has only ever been requested for Catholic funerals organized by people who have not carried on with the practice of their family religion. Jensen is quite right to critique it as vulgar although I’m not sure it’s absolutely true to say it’s egocentric, given that most funerals are planned when one presumes the person whose opinion might decide things is otherwise unavailable for consultation about music choices. Often it’s a reflection of a family in the very early stages of mourning rather than a really well-considered decision.

    The hardest part about planning a funeral — or a wedding, for that matter — is that many people only come out of the woodwork to engage with the churches at these liminal stages of life. And that’s OK. The churches are generally fairly good at catering to the needs of families to honour a dead relative; where things fall apart is when the family fails to recognize that clergy are bound by the discipline of their church, which means the use of established forms of service, along with the use of symbols and actions that are part of the service. This conflict is often played out very intensely in the selection of music, as this is one area of service planning that has a large degree of freedom. The best weddings and funerals I have experienced in churches have been like the ones you describe, where the people are known to the priest prior to the life event. Indeed, the most life-affirming funeral I’ve seen in the last twelve months only included a funeral director because the family couldn’t hire a hearse elsewhere.

    But I’m still a little puzzled by the rest of your piece. Even after going away for a while and re-reading, I couldn’t help asking exactly what Catholic rituals you found so disturbing? Was it the use of holy water, or incense? Or is your problem with the celebration of Mass? It’s understandable that the Mass is a pretty uneasy and strange experience to a non-churchgoer, but what aspects of the ritual did you find disturbing at the ‘full Catholic’ funerals you attended?

    It seems to me that you’ve leapt off onto generalisations about propaganda and art criticism without actually helping your readers to understand what you’re trying to get at. To a reader coming from a religious (but not Roman Catholic or Sydney Anglican) perspective, this is a pretty heavy-handed way of going about things.

    You were writing about ritual, and that is a genuinely interesting issue that you haven’t really addressed here. Could we have a sequel with the ritual backstory please?

  18. Malcolm Street

    Craig and Scott – how would you feel at an atheist funeral which spent as much time and effort evangelising atheism as it did celebrating the deceased’s life?

  19. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Shooba, the writer outlined in some detail the lifelong “research” she had carried out in order to bring a lay person’s perspective to a religious ritual. Caro stated clearly that she is “… at the very least — a third generation atheist.” Religion to her is a foreign country. Foreign countries speak foreign languages. Unless you are a believer (you know, the old bodily resurrection thing, transubstantiation maybe, infallible pope, chosen people/promised land, 75 waiting virgins etc.) the concept of the sacrament could be as peculiar as a Higgs-Boson particle ie. mumbo jumbo words about some fundamentally difficult conception. My dictionary uses, as the second meaning: “..thing of mysterious and sacred significance, sacred influence, symbol etc.” I’m glad that Jane Caro doesn’t even pretend that she knows what this means. Is that 95% commonsense on her part or 5% empirical research? What would your numbers be?

  20. Scott

    No worries at all Malcolm. Unlike others on crikey, I respect all people’s religious beliefs, or lack of. Wouldn’t stop me offering a quiet prayer for the departed though, and being supportive of those whose loss I shared.

  21. Norman Hanscombe

    Jane, anyone who writes, “I can see that (religion) excites great passion and enthusiasm amongst its supporters but for the life of me I can’t see why” has a poor understanding of human nature.
    As an Infants School pupil in the early 40s when I seemed to be the only atheist there I shared that unsophisticated view. In Primary I became an agnostic, then later an indifferent agnostic, but I always understood WHY my acquaintances were believers. This included numerous non-theistic religions ranging from Marxism then to Postmodernism and Political Correctness today.
    I’ve clearly been far more fortunate than you in the many funerals I’ve attended in my lifetime. I rarely accepted most of what was said/done at the services, but (perhaps because I moved in more tolerant circles?) never saw anything as grossly offensive as it seems you have.

  22. AR

    I’d like “Born to be WILD!” blasting out of the sound system as I’m incinerated, it has a beat and one can dance to it.

  23. Christopher Nagle

    Playing second fiddle to God comes with the turf and the prospect of being immortal. Not a bad tradeoff I would have thought compared with being a permanently terminated dead center of fleeting attention secular.

    I am a secular, but don’t think much of this article’s secular complacency, superior attitude and false sense of security. Haven’t you noticed that old style religion is starting to redefine global politics in ways considered impossible a generation ago, when we seculars confidently expected it to molder into the garbage heap of history? Didn’t happen did and it is going to keep not happening.

    I think there is a good chance they will be dancing on the grave of secular humanism and any other materialist ideology within less than a hundred years. And the reason for that is that the secularism that emerged out of the American and French revolutions will go down with the successor to the economic system that raised it: consumer capitalism.

    Almost everything that we are doing right now, existentially, socially, economically and ecologically is becoming an unsustainable and dysfunctional mess. The religious fundies can already smell the disease, and ‘know’ they will clean up as modern institutions start to crumble under the weight of their own incompetence and a little help from people who think they are in touch with a higher power.

    And they will regard the two hundred and fifty year period of secular dominance as just an awful-what-were-they-thinking-of aberration.

  24. AndrewP

    Thanks Jane. I too have been alarmed by the religious funeral. In particular, I suspect that non-believers are not persuaded by the ‘you are going to hell’ sermon, which is my experience at protestant funerals. When an individual person tells you that you are going to hell, it is a deliberate insult and intended to be offensive. It is no different from the pulpit. It is also incorrect. What should be said is ‘we believe you will go to hell’, or ‘we have faith that you will go to hell’. Confusing beliefs for facts is not a good way to convince the skeptical. Usually some token acknowledgement is made, like the speedy speaker at the end of a political advert, before launching into the main sales pitch. But leaving out the uncertainty removes the humanity and ends up looking like a cult.

    There must be more effective ways to take advantage of the opportunities when the un-churched are in attendance. For example, by showing the visitors that the church is a welcoming, tolerant, supportive and non-judgemental community. Or talking more about the departed as an actual person. Tell more of their story, of how they faced the uncertainties of this life and of the next. Stories of deep humanity might inspire someone to give church a go.

  25. J G Downs

    Yep, yep yep yep, all good comments, nice piece Jane.

    Except one thing..and always the same mistake all athiests love to revel their little backsides in.

    For the life of me, why do you continue to mistake the false and corrupt representation of institutionalized religion here on Earth, by the church, with the great cosmic action of life and rebirth expressed through the anthropomorphic language of the bible and too many other ancient texts to mention?

    Or, are you just harbouring a hatrid of life itself, under the pretext of of branding all religions with the same brush… that’s very nice, neat, easy and tidy. No need to contemplate and think, no need to analyse any deeper, just judge them all and be done with.

    Jane, we get your gist, nice show!!! but just for the heck of it, google athiest NDE ( Near Death Experience ) and begin again from there.

  26. Malcolm Street

    AndrewP – “Stories of deep humanity might inspire someone to give church a go.: Well said!

  27. Holden Back

    Gosh, Mark Duffett, I hadn’t noticed, thanks for alerting me to this conflation.

    Slaughter in the name of peace, accumulation of vast wealth in the name of poverty – now it all makes sense!

    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m profoundly moved by the mass, and respect many religious, people of clear eye and good works whom I count as close friends.

  28. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    JG Downs, you give the impression that you are some version of theist. If so then you are of the view that there are gods out there. Therefore you are able to experience (see, hear, be aware of) stuff that non-theists can’t. That must be a gift. However, just because you are able to experience stuff in the ether doesn’t mean that stuff is available to be experienced by everyone else. If you thought this stuff was available to all then it would be reasonable to suggest that non-believers are simply in denial of the obvious.
    If you believe in gods then you have no idea what is happening in the heads of non-believers. Believers are changed by their belief, their minds are inhabited by their conviction, they are blind to the uninfected mind of the atheist. In other words, as a theist you cannot (by definition) understand the atheist.
    You might be on to something with your beliefs but don’t expect to be understood by non-believers and don’t be offended by their apparent ignorance. Oh, and give some thought to the dog and the vomit.

  29. mikeb

    I don’t know what churches you’ve been going to but certainly in my case all the services I’ve attended have been focused on the deceased and the “Catholic” portion was relatively short and as per the script. No suggestion of any propaganda action in play that I could detect. I guess some people will be pre-disposed to find something to complain about. I doubt if the deceased was concerned.

  30. floorer

    When the last pope died an I saw all those people bowing and touching his dead body and the whole ceremony, the glitz, the gold, the reverence for this one dead human being I knew whatever passing courtesy I had for religion was gone. For me it’s now no more than hokus pokus.

  31. Sally Keller

    Jane Caro fancy sh*tting on someones funeral just because you didnt like the symbolism or religious appeals, for these people they think the greatest gift is leading someone to eternity so i appreciate their compassion whether its right or wrong.

    If you want to preach Atheism think of some ways it can inspire us instead of continuing to sh*t on other people beliefs.

  32. floorer

    christ Keller get a grip.

  33. Sally Keller

    Mr Floorer, perhaps have a look at the world biggest public funeral when Ayton Senna died and go and tell them all how stupid they are as well; I don’t think they care.

  34. floorer

    C’mon Keller Caro wasn’t taking anything away from the person who died or the people paying their respects but how much the church pushes itself forward in a time of grieving.

  35. Norman Hanscombe

    Hugh (9:58 am) it’s not only theists who can be (to use your words) “simply in denial of the obvious.” Your inability to understand that others might not suffer from your inability to empathise with those holding contrary views says more about your thought processes than theirs.
    I, and most of my friends, “don’t believe in gods”, but fortunately we understand why believers believe they are the only ones right, and non-believers of your category don’t believe in gods. We even understand the humour in non-theistic believers such as you claiming those not falling into line with your prejudices (and I can’t resist quoting your quaint words) are, “blind to the uninfected (sic) mind of the atheist.
    Floorer (5:57 pm) the sorts of “hokus pokus” you mention have long been part of our species’ predilection, as has been demonstrated over the millennia, even with secular gods such as Lenin and Stalin. Surely we should be trying to understanding WHY this is such a common feature?
    Some, by the way, might feel Sally Keller is much less in need than you are of getting a grip on the topic?

  36. floorer

    Hanscombe your whole post is a pompus crock, Lenin Stalin secular gods, that line’s older than you. “I have a foot in both camps so my view is unbiased and therefore better than yours”……. Hah pfft.

  37. Norman Hanscombe

    I wouldn’t even dream, dear floorer, of attempting to match your scintillating wit and rapier-like repartee. As for your grasp of language and logic, you’re in a class, indeed world, of your own.
    You’re spot on, of course, saying my ideas aren’t new. They weren’t even new when as a youngster in the 40s I was puzzled why people I saw to be far more intelligent than I was, showing the same determination you possess to carry on believing their myths — theistic AND non-theistic — regardless of any logical difficulties this involved.
    I feel I must, however, make an effort to help you understand I do NOT have “a foot in both camps.” Nor do I suffer from a foot in mouth problem, which is why I wouldn’t dream of arguing, “my view is unbiased and therefore better than yours”. My interests lie in premisses upon which arguments stand, and the logical steps by which one reaches conclusions based on those initial premisses.
    You, on the other hand fall back on a response Socrates never came up with, and I’m pleased to quote your brilliant response: ……. “Hah pfft.”
    In you we have a winner!!!!!!
    Well done Floorer.

  38. Xerodog

    When we organised a Catholic funeral for our father as he would certainly have wished, we were not disappointed by the service or the priest. In fact, the entire service was structured in a way that gave every member of this large family a role (I am including the prayers at the funeral home before the following day’s funeral mass and the burial) which was meaningful and needed at the time.
    The Catholic element was certainly foregrounded, but not in a way that was overpowering. Admittedly, we had been brought up as Catholics, but those of us who have moved away from this faith did not find reason to complain and neither did those outside the family who were not religious and who attended to pay their respects.
    What Dad had done whist alive, his loyalty and devotion and the foibles and struggles involved in his life were not forgotten or unremarked either. There was no gloomy prognosticating on his death and its significance. It was not treated as a marketing opportunity by the clergyman. Rather it was a statement of what Dad himself believed about this life and a hoped for afterlife. The beliefs that he shared with the Church were affirmed but not as a warning to those who don’t share them.
    I believe that the non-religious who attended his funeral were self-assured enough to see this and not to be in any way disturbed by its religious content or message. In other words if the service had elements of propaganda, I credit people with the cultural sophistication to deal with that and to distinguish between their beliefs an those of others.

  39. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Norman, I’m disappointed that you have misread or misquoted me and therefore misunderstood me. I wrote: “If you thought this stuff [the experience/awareness/perception of the existence of gods] was available to all then it would be reasonable to suggest that non-believers are simply in denial of the obvious.” You seem to think, by what you wrote, that what I meant was that theists are in denial of the obvious. I made no such assertion. Theists seem to look upon atheism as a religion – as you might expect because that is their point of reference. The point I tried to make is that atheism, as I understand it, isn’t anything in particular except the absence of belief about religious notions. If religious believers think that atheism is ‘something’ then I am not an atheist. Atheism has no philosophy as far as I know about the non-existence of gods. Atheism doesn’t frame the debate in terms of religious belief because it can’t. Religious belief doesn’t exist in atheism. Therefore your concept of “non-theistic believers” is, to me, totally illogical – but maybe that is you?

  40. Norman Hanscombe

    Hugh, I wasn’t referring to your frankly odd ‘argument’ you’ve repeated above. I’m interested, however, to see you reject the absurd notion “that theists are in denial of the obvious.” To defend such a weird stand would be a tall order, wouldn’t it?

    Atheism states there is no God. The non-theistic religions to which I refer don’t rely on a deity either. I was using the term religious as a shorthand description of a need which seems strongly engrained in homo sapiens. I’ve watched it in action since Infants School, and saw it just as strongly in True Believers such as Marxists whose “God” may have been terrestrial, but the blind faith was just as devout as anything I saw with the evangelical WASPs busily buzzing around Woollahra Primary School.
    On a positive front, Hugh, when my subscription runs out in a few days, no one will be bothering you about words such as “logical” referring to how an argument is CONSTRUCTED, not whether the conclusion comforts someone’s sacred (in a secular sense) beliefs.
    Via con Dios — metaphorically speaking, of course.

  41. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Bollocks Norman – it was your argument that “theists are in denial of the obvious”. I wrote to correct you because you had wrongly attributed (and continue to attribute) it to me. Before you get back on your high horse, just read the blogs again and realise where you have taken this (now) hollow discussion.
    By the way, you write in your last (@40) “…Atheism states there is no God.” That’s not what the dictionary says and it is not what I have tried to say. The dictionary says atheism is a disbelief in the existence of God or gods. You are attributing something to (capital A) Atheism – as if it is a belief system like a religion. It is not. There is no philosophy of atheism. If anything it is a disbelief.

  42. floorer

    Norman Hanscombe, I get your need to understand the why of faith etc, I’ve taken that journey to, but I’m over it. The whole thing’s a curse.

  43. Norman Hanscombe

    Hugh, if you do NOT believe “theists are in denial of the obvious,” that’s a start; and you should now say so clearly. My intent when I quoted your words (and perhaps I should have spelt it out more simply for you?) was that both theists AND non-theists are prone to denying the obvious; not because they’re dishonest, unintelligent, etc., but because we’re all genetically programmed to be prone to missing flaws in whatever our own particular ‘sacred cow’ beliefs happen to be.
    I found it amusing, by the way, when you wrote previously that, “If you believe in gods then you have no idea what is happening in the heads of non-believers.” That confession of lacking empathy is perhaps a sign of your greatest problem?
    Fortunately I lack the “uninfected mind” you believe an “atheist” like you possesses, which may explain why I’ve had reasonable success (in days long past when I once made the effort) to enjoy some success winning over opponents to causes they hadn’t previously supported; but I doubt I’d ever have got through to you, a man who defines atheism in terms as narrow as his blinkered vision. Not to mention someone who can’t understand that a disbelief in something isn’t actually all that different from not believing in the same thing?
    But no one can challenge your unquestioned self-confidence — or doubt that it’s genuine.

  44. Norman Hanscombe

    Floorer, although in the early 40s I seemed to be the only one in my Infants School (or local neighbourhood for that matter) who was NOT a believer, I recognised the comfort such beliefs, Christian, Marxist, whatever, could be, and knew it would be comforting to be able to hold them.
    Unlike you I have no difficulty understanding what a blessing such blind faith can provide in particular cases. I also understand why there were major evolutionary advantages during our distant past in our species being programmed along these lines.
    For seven decades I’ve watched one belief after another pop up and embraced wildly (if not always analytically?) by new bodies of True Believers. That’s what interests me in this topic, and I’m not prepared to adopt a popular faith of many years standing which says we must dismiss the process by declaring as you do that “The whole thing’s a curse.”

  45. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Norman, let me put it to you another way. Theists believe that not only can they conceptualize a god or gods but also they are aware of their presence and they can communicate with them and even worship them. Apparently these things are obvious to theists When you write that you “don’t believe in gods” do you mean you can’t conceptualize gods or that you can conceptualize them but choose not to believe?
    To a theist, the atheist’s inability to perceive these gods, which are obvious to the believer, must seem like the denial of the obvious. That is Norman, theists believe atheists are in denial of the obvious, not the other way around as you continue to wrongly promote as my position. Since theists think that way about atheists it is theists who lack empathy. I don’t think this is the time to bring genetics into it.

  46. Norman Hanscombe

    Hugh, I guess that I must accept (however despondently) that I’m unable to match the commanding intellectual heights from which you are able to see through my paucity of language and analytical skills in a manner which clearly must be beyond me.
    So it has to be goodbye and congratulations, and I can but hope you’ll put your vast armoury of knowledge to good purpose.

  47. tripper

    I must say all these lofty arguments are quite amusing. Love how the uber-christian gets mean when others say they are non-believers – classic right wing tactic. God is a human construct which came by way of explanation of being ie Rainbow Serprent in Aboriginal culture. God has endured because a) he is rich and money=power and b) most people are shit scared that when they die its all over. Oh, and c) most people are sheep, and are afraid to challenge the dominant ideology. Personally I worship little purple fairies that live at the bottom of my garden… C’mon… I dare you to “shit on my beliefs” LOL

  48. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Christ, Norman, you only know about intellectual heights if you’ve been there. Don’t start climbing down before you’ve made half way. Get a grip man!

  49. Norman Hanscombe

    Tripper, you can’t accuse the ‘arguments’ on this site of being “lofty”.
    I am, however, intrigued by your suggestion re why God has endured. Your point a) is curious, your point c) merely waffly; but your point b) is at least novel.
    You say, “most people are shit scared that when they die its (sic) all over.”
    The believers who have hung on to their Christian faith that I’ve encountered (and over the decades it’s come to quite a few) believed it was NOT, as you put it, “all over” after death. Indeed, many believers became quite upset whenever I suggested selfish hopes for a pleasant after life was religion’s biggest drawcard.

  50. Daly

    Jane, an article that expresses my reaction to many Catholic funerals I have attended.
    In Ireland, where the Catholics can still dictate the church services mentions of the deceased must not exceed 5 minutes, must be from only one speaker and must ONLY thank those in attendance.
    The rest of the time is the priest’s to proselytise.

  51. JG Downs

    If you intend speaking about these issues, at least present something that people who actually know what they are talking about can get their teeth into it.

    More meat and less milk.

  52. Norman Hanscombe

    With my time on Crikey almost up it’s good to see, with the last two posts, 1) Daly’s straightforward example of his/her Irish experience (something on which I’m unable to comment) and 2) JG Downs’ plea that “If you intend speaking about these issues, at least present something that people who actually know what they are talking about can get their teeth into it.”
    One can but hope there’ll be rational responses to Daly’s post and (perhaps I’m being over-optimistic here?) more of the relevant posts along the lines suggested by Downs?

  53. mikeb

    @Daly. I cannot comment on the practices in Ireland but no Catholic funeral I’ve been to has been structured like that. If the family requests a mass then the usual short form script is used (probs takes 10 mins), but the rest is up to the family to prescribe.

  54. katieobrienful

    I recently attended a religious funeral and was shocked by the eulogy given by a member of the relevant church. He extensively talked about the despair that non believers feel when they look at this “hole in the ground” and “pit of despair”. It was pretty upsetting and would have been worse for the family members who aren’t religious and who there were many of.

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