Why should nonbelievers pray and go to church?

May 4, 2022 • 8:00 am

Reader Simon called my attention to an op-ed in the New York Times by a secular Jewish (i.e., atheist) philosophy professor who “believes” in prayer, but not in God.  This is one of an apparently continuing series of articles in the NYT about how you can be religious and secular at the same time.

Click on the screenshot to see how one accomplishes this feat.

Much of the article deals with how the “problem of evil” has not been tackled successfully by religion.  He’s absolutely right. Hershovitz offers the usual explanations—free will (he doesn’t mention physical evil, like childhood cancer or natural disasters, which elude that explanation), one can’t have good without evil, and so on. But he concludes:

I’m with Rex. I think the problem of evil poses a serious barrier to religious belief.

(Rex is Hershovitz’s son, who despite also being an atheist is nevertheless studying for his bar mitzvah.)

Nevertheless, Hershovitz sees value in praying. The reason is—wait for it—to accept fictionalism.  That is, you pretend God is real, even though you’re pretty sure that He/She/It is not:

Philosophers have a name for this sort of view. They call it “fictionalism.” Suppose I say, “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts.” If that was a claim about this world, it would be false. Hogwarts doesn’t exist here, and neither does Dumbledore, so he can hardly teach there. But they do exist in a different world — the fictional world that Harry Potter lives in. The sentence “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts” is true in that fiction.

Some philosophers are fictionalists about morality; they think rights aren’t real except in stories that we tell. Others are fictionalists about numbers; they think that math is made up. I think both views are mistaken; I believe in morality and math.

But I think Rex was right — and onto something important: For real, God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real. I am a fictionalist about God.

How does this work?  Apparently it’s the old saw that you don’t have to accept religion but somehow the rituals of religion—the songs, the chants, the incense, the cantor, the reading from the Torah, make the world a better place:

Still, I pretend. And I don’t plan to stop. Because pretending makes the world a better place. I learned that from my kids too — Rex and his younger brother, Hank.

Pretending blurs the boundaries between this world and the ones we imagine. It breathes life into stories, letting them shape the world we live in. Just think of the delight kids take in Santa Claus, even those who know, deep down, that he’s not real. Or the way they lose themselves in play. Pretending makes the world more magical and meaningful. And it’s not just for kids.

When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.

In other words, God is Santa Claus for adults. The difference, though, is that adults enact the ritual of Santa only for their children: a grown human without kids does not put out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve nor expect magical presents. Why? Because such a ritual does not create any meaning or beauty for a grown person.

Now I concede that there’s a certain virtue to tribalism—to the set of rituals, songs, and prayers that make people feel they belong. And with that tribalism comes a ready-made community that will often help you in times of trouble (this is true of many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, the Amish, and so on).

But with the upside of tribalism comes two downsides: the fractionation of humanity along religious fault lines, and the valorization of “faith”, for not all people who go to church are atheists. Most of the people going to church each week are not fictionalists. I’ve met and talked to many religious people on this trip, and take my word for it, they are not pretending to believe.

In other words, by touting religion (even though for him, it’s all a big story), Hershovitz is also valorizing the great majority of churchgoers who really do believe things that aren’t true. And, to be sure, there’s something embarrassing about a grown adult acting out a fiction similar to that of Santa Claus, whether their fiction involves either a series of stories about captivity in Egypt, a man on a cross, or a message from Allah. There’s something even more embarrassing about a grown man writing this stuff in an op-ed in the Paper of Record.

I’ll finish this Wednesday sermon with a quote from H. L. Mencken:

“Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration—courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”

Fictionalism is opposed to all of these, save perhaps fairness. As the example of thriving atheist countries—like those in Scandinavia—tells us, society doesn’t need fictionalism to thrive. Adults can do just fine without pretending there’s a god to pray to. The trick is to prevent them from religious indoctrination in the first place


68 thoughts on “Why should nonbelievers pray and go to church?

  1. Where does one start, with a piece like that …

    I guess mindfulness meditation, or go sing in a group in a good amphitheater, go to a concert, sing in the shower, find new friends – its all sitting in front of our noses, we just need to pay attention, but we still need to work at it, it doesn’t get handed out on silver platters…

    does “praying” imply we don’t need to work at it? We sit back and let god do his goddy thang?

    1. And here’s a great book :

      A Treasury of Jewish Folklore
      Edited by Nathan Ausubel

      And a kids’ book with references to the originals :

      Stories to Solve
      George Shannon

      … there’s tons of such literature out there, with great tales, lore, wit, and wisdom.

      Connection to this post :

      I do not understand the weird insistence on “belief” in “fiction” as asserted by Prof. Hershovitz. Fiction might be based on a true event, but why push past that into non-fictionalization of fiction? Bizarre.

    2. does “praying” imply we don’t need to work at it? We sit back and let god do his goddy thang?

      Probably not the way Hershovitz sees it. He does not believe in god. So he has to at least entertain the possibility of there not being a god to do his goddy thing 🙂

      1. He is missing an important verb: ‘worship’. I think I draw a distinction between praying to someone (whom you necessarily believe in) and worshiping someone (whom you may or may not believe in). My understanding is that praying is like asking, or requesting; where you need to believe someone is getting your request. Even if I post a sign for my hypothetically missing cat (she’s not, don’t worry), I still hope a real, extant community member sees the sign and finds her.

        I could see some value to worshiping a god, even knowing full well that he does not exist; one of my preferred gods is Dionysius, god of wine, merriment, and song, someone who embodies characteristics I want to embrace. And I can do that as an atheist, knowing that there are no supernatural forces.

        But this is all filtered through my atheist lenses. It’s hard for me to make sense of religious speech sometimes, trying to parse something inherently meaningless in a meaningful way.

        1. It (religion) would make more sense if there was more polio, more death in childbirth, more “dying of our teeth” (as Hitch said), more cholera – in short, if we all were living in a period of time in which it would be less like a historically accurate movie and more like an alien planet, with death at the doorstep for no clear reason.

  2. I am reminded that Daniel Dennett enjoys the music of the church. He sings in the Choir. I think there can be a minimal indulgence in such things without committing to myth and superstition. Perhaps in time all the rituals and practices of the church, where they have any value, will be taken over by secular institutions.

    1. “Perhaps in time all the rituals and practices of the church, where they have any value, will be taken over by secular institutions.”

      I think of all the land, claimed centuries ago by religion, with well maintained buildings, lawns, landscaping, probably plumbing, heat, cooling, insurance…

      And its got great acoustics!

  3. It was around 40 years ago when I asked (in the coffee room at work) “What do you call an atheist who regularly attends church?”

    One of my colleagues immediately responded “The organist”. (Need I mention that my colleague was an organist).

    Yes, there can be reasons for a non-believer to go to church.

    On a different point, I am a mathematical fictionalist. Saying that numbers are fictions does not imply that they are useless.

    1. I am a mathematical fictionalist. Saying that numbers are fictions does not imply that they are useless.

      Right. It does nothing at all to the utility of mathematics. You may as well say numbers are blue. I am not saying that you are making a category error, just that it makes no difference.

      But don’t you think the word ‘fictionalism’ in ‘mathematical fictionalism’ is used in a slightly different way when compared to Dumbledore fictionalism?

      What is the point in trying to put mathematics into either the real or fictional category? It does not seem as arbitrary as human language, because even though we speak different languages, we do the same math. But given its utility in physical theory, it does not seem as fictional as religion.

      1. You ask “What is the point?”

        It does not affect the mathematics itself. It is relevant to related philosophical questions. For myself, I prefer fictionalism over Platonism, and I reject the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument.

  4. Apparently Hershovitz doesn’t follow sports. If he did, he wouldn’t need to pray to a god he doesn’t believe in. Sports offer all of the make-believe a person needs.

      1. …& lucky pants?!

        Well, sports people are frequently full of superstitions & irrational linking of behaviours with sporting outcomes. Another form of religion perhaps.

  5. One of the things that struck me in that piece was that Hershovitz likes to pray in Hebrew (which he doesn’t speak) versus English, because understanding the words (rather than memorizing the sound and sequence) calls his attention to his lack of belief in the content. At one level I appreciate the call of tradition and community and see how that could appeal. At another I just don’t understand it.

    As Neil Rickert notes above, just because something is fiction doesn’t make it useless. Although the price we pay for maths (or rather it’s benefits – in his example) far outweigh the huge cost of religion.

    1. “Although the price we pay for maths (or rather it’s benefits – in his example) far outweigh the huge cost of religion.”

      For some, perhaps, atheism leaves a god shaped wound that can get infected with ideology, etc. One must tend to this wound. It might be that the proposed scheme of disingenuous prayer can occlude other things infecting the host, but on a temporary basis only.

      Now my smoking analogy comes into play : the disingenuous prayer scheme, like smoking cigarettes, will not kill a person, and it might help in some local, particular way.

      But smoking cigarettes strongly predicts cancer.

      At best, the disingenuous prayer might be the equivalent of a nicotine patch.

  6. Philosophers have a name for this sort of view. They call it “fictionalism.”

    I’d call it delusional.

    But I’m not a philosopher.

  7. … an op-ed in the New York Times by a secular Jewish (i.e., atheist) philosophy professor who “believes” in prayer, but not in God.

    Maybe in his next op-ed the sweating professor can share his recipe for kosher ham.


  8. I’m okay if someone is saying ritualistic practices are like morals and math. I.e. have subjective value. But to make sense those rituals need to be grounded in something. All my buddies and I singing a song when the Oakland Raiders score is a ritual of understandable social bonding. All my buddies cheering when I tell them that in my head the imaginary team the Pellucidar Raiders scored a goal in an imaginary game, not so much. It’s not sufficiently grounded to serve as a good ritual. Praying to God is like cheering on the Pellucidar Raiders.

    So having a ritual meal together? Check. Fasting or lighting a candle or doing something else to remember some historical hardship? Check. Teaching your kids to remember some important lesson using a ritual? Check.

    But praying to god? The only “grounded” value I can see for it is loyalty. The old ‘taming of the shrew’ exercise. Are you willing to pray to God? Are you willing to say that the sun is the moon? No? Then you’re not sufficiently loyal to me or my cause.

  9. Hershovitz forgets that there’s two parts to this fictionalism. There’s the pretense that “God is real.” And there’s also the pretense that “I am someone who believes in God.” That second one isn’t really negated by informing people “I don’t believe in God.” If there’s a conflict, what someone does is usually considered more important than what they say.

      1. Possibly, but I meant to suggest that, in a culture in which believing in God is considered a sign of virtue, an atheist performing religion might be more influenced by a desire to be respected by others than he’s aware of. His explanations sound a bit like rationalizations.

  10. Thank you! I’ve engaged in discussions about the concept of fictionalism before, but never had the right words to discuss it! I never even knew the term. There are points where fictionalism is totally valuable. In political science discussions about fundamental rights, it’s a pragmatic scaffold for people who do not want to embrace the slippery slope that is utilitarianism; Nozick’s Utility Monster is too scary for utilitarianism to be a consistent argument.

    Many of us atheists socially engage in some pseudo-supernaturalist fictionalism, drinking to late friends, and such.

    1. Drinking to late friends seems very different to me compared to praying to a deity I don’t believe in. It’s a ritual to remember a dead friend, share memories of that friend with others and share our feelings about that friend with others. And all of those things are real.

      But I’m not sure I have a good understanding of fictionalism. Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted what you mean?

      1. It depends on the drinking tradition, like pouring a drink on a dead friend’s grave for him to ‘enjoy’. It’s a feel-good tradition based on something (I hope) we all recognize to be a fiction.

        I’m still working on the concept of ‘fictionalism’; I was thinking of imaginary numbers, until some of the other comments here reminded me that all numbers are fictional. You can see two apples, but you can’t see the number two. I’ve had to work with a several legal fictions; I sometimes use one calendar where I am over a year older than I am in the Gregorian calendar. There are several terms I have stopped using because I knew they were based on fictions, but some social conventions are just so convenient!

        Something about this is bringing me back to the idea of a speech act, words that are a special kind of action that may change reality itself, like ‘I claim this land for France’, ‘I declare war’, or ‘I pronounce you married’. Maybe fictionalism underlies a certain kind of speech act.

  11. From Wikipedia: The major political theme of the era was that of revolt against materialism, rationalism, positivism, bourgeois society, and liberal democracy. The fin-de-siècle generation supported emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism, while the mindset of the age saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution.

    In this latest version of fin-de-siècle people prefer comforting stories and narratives – because it’s easy to be emotional and rather more effort is required to be rational.

    1. One man’s fin-de-siècle is another man’s Belle Époque is another’s Gilded Age.

      So it goes.

  12. I know this wasn’t the main point of the post and I know that Hershovitz acknowledges that the problem of evil really is a problem for believers; nevertheless I want to point out that the ‘free will defence’ really doesn’t work.

    Briefly, the free will defence goes like this this: evil (at least human-caused evil) is supposed to be justified because it is a result of free will. God (supposing him to exist) could not get rid of evil without restricting free will. But free will is such a valuable thing that restricting it would be worse than allowing evil to continue. The universe (even with no evil in it) would be a worse place with less free will.

    The problem is that this defence considers only the free will of the perpetrators of evil. It ignores the free will of the victims. But acts of evil (such as murder, torture, rape, enslavement, genocide etc) typically diminish or destroy the free will of the victims. Therefore the argument should run the other way: if God cares about free will, that gives him more reason to intervene to prevent acts of evil, not less.

    1. What amuses me about the free will argument is that it implies that God does not know what humans will do. They are free to choose their actions. Somehow, which I do not understand, free will can be squared with God being omniscient. But, if God really gives human the ability to choose then for God humans are nothing more than a lab experiment where he sits back and observes what humans do. Like rats in a maze. And, if they makes choices he doesn’t like, he punishes them. Yet, this deity is supposed to be loving and benevolent.

      1. I think the whole invention as described very well directly above was never meant to be understood, but used to keep the religion working in the victims’ heads, not unlike the way music works. A music of thought – why does it sound that way? Where is it going? Why is it here? What is it doing? One must keep listening to it to find out, but there’s never an “answer”, if not an understanding.

        An invention that is peculiar in that the first iteration is the final product. It has no leaks, contradictions, or inefficiencies of any kind worth improving upon because it serves to keep the religion working. It is perfect – perfect for keeping the religion working.

        I think that’s from an L. Ron Hubbard idea about Scientology. Keep Scientology Working. Not sure of the quote.

        1. ” A music of thought – why does it sound that way? Where is it going? Why is it here? What is it doing?” There is an answer, Thyroid, which my developmentally disabled son taught me when he was small. Music is a simulacrum of movement. Hence, of course, the historic
          association of music with dance, and clichés like “a foot-tapping” tune. Hence also the key
          system, in which there are analogues of “going” somewhere, and of “coming back”.

          1. Thanks for sharing that personal note.

            I love that concise description – simulacrum of movement. It definitely seems like any sound sequence called music is going from here to some other place – traveling – and ends in silence.

            What is that silence?

            The music begins.

            And on and on it goes.

            Same thing – maybe? – but with thoughts – free will? Whose free will? But if god is omniscient, etc.

            And on and on.

            Is thought being lead somewhere with this? Is there some miraculous, breath taking arrival at a new place of thought, emotion, or other, materializing spontaneously (like music sounding “sad” or “happy”)?.. or at least “new” in that it is experiential?

            Seems there’s no way out of its repeating patterns.

    2. Probably nothing to novel to readers here, but… The problem of evil is only a problem for certain religions. If you just assume that God is an asshole, or that there are a pantheon of fickle, imperfect gods (e.g. the Greeks and Romans), then there is no contradiction.

      But regarding the free will defense for those certain religions where it does create a problem, a lot of them also have the concept of heaven, where everything is perfect and there is no evil. So, if evil is a necessary consequence of free will, wouldn’t that also imply that there was evil in heaven as well? Or do people lose their free will in the afterlife?

    3. I think the Free Will defense for moral evil is even more fundamentally flawed. It rests on a fundamental inconsistency.

      That inconsistency, like most in Christianity, comes from nature of the God they believe in.

      We are told that the freedom to actually do evil is necessary for beings to have morally relevant free will.

      Yet they believe in a Being who is All Good and never chooses to (doesn’t even have the nature allowing Him) do evil.

      So, whether they acknowledge the logic explicitly or not, they believe that “having the nature of only choosing The Good” is compatible with having valuable “Free Will.”

      They can not have their cake and eat it too.


      1. Having a nature to only choose to do good is compatible with having free will. (See: God)

      Therefore God could have made beings who are free willed yet only choose the good, making God blameworthy for gratuitously producing beings who can and do create evil and suffering.


      2. A God who can only do Good does NOT have morally relevant free will.

      Therefore how can it make sense to call God “good’ let alone the Paradigm Of Good? God can not be “good” in any morally relevant sense.

      3. But if you are still going to stick to your guns and say that yes, God would never, or could never, choose to do evil, but God is a NECESSARILY GOOD BEING, and hence STILL proposed as the Paradigm Of The Good…

      …then this tells us about what is ACTUALLY necessary for Goodness. It tells us that the freedom to choose to do evil does not have any intrinsic value, it is NOT necessary for moral goodness and is not a necessary good.

      Therefore how can one propose that “free will to do evil” is of such necessary value as to justify all the evil and suffering it entails? You’ve entirely undercut any necessity to make such a value case.

      1. “I think the Free Will defense for moral evil is even more fundamentally flawed. It rests on a fundamental inconsistency.”

        Hi, Vaal. If we define “good” as what God wills and “evil” as other than what god wills, then there is no “fundamental inconsistency.” Humans can do either what God wills or other than what God wills. God can do only what God wills, and that, by definition, is good. That we, with our puny minds, might consider something God does as “not good” or “evil” is neither here nor there.

        That said, I don’t for a minute pretend that we can make any valid assertions about God based on logic.


        1. Gary,

          That response would miss the point of the Free Will defense under discussion.

          Savvy Christian thinkers have long recognized that what you just wrote would put them on one of the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. In this case the “arbitrariness” horn. If good is “whatever God wills” then if tomorrow God commands all parents to start torturing babies in fire that would be “good” to do. This is widely acknowledged as an unacceptable conclusion.
          It’s entirely divorced from our moral intuitions.

          To paraphrase the influential Christian C.S. Lewis, if God’s “goodness” is not consonant with our own, then in calling God “good” we are calling God “we know not what” and “should be equally prepared to worship a demon.”

          The very reason that Christian theodicies exist is to reconcile our basic notions of “love” and “goodness” and “Justice” etc with the suffering, evil and injustice in a world overseen by a Perfect Being. It’s this conflict they are trying to resolve. There would be no conflict if they just say “good is whatever God wills or does” but that’s not acceptable. The Free Will defense arises as an attempt to reconcile “goodness” as we generally understand and apply that moral term with God creating beings who do evil.

          The other Euthyphro horn is of course that “Goodness” isn’t whatever God does, but is a standard outside God to which God must adhere. Christians don’t like that either because they want God to be the locus and standard of The Good.

          Hence the standard Christian “solution” to the Euthyphro dilemma is to say it’s a false dilemma. There is third option that solves it: Goodness is indeed based on God, but it’s not arbitrary insofar as God could just simply start ordering us to torture children tomorrow. That’s because God has a necessary NATURE, and it is God’s NATURE to be “good” and “loving” in the way we understand those ideas. God “cannot” by His own nature, do or command real evils. (And if anything from God ever looks like an evil to us, we assume God has a deeper moral justification that we would recognize, if we had that information).

          And that solution lands right in to the dilemma I wrote about. God “cannot” choose evil because God’s nature determines what God can and can not do in the area of good and evil.
          That being the case, everything I wrote follows. Either God’s determinantly “good” nature is compatible with having free will, in which case God could have created free willed beings who always do good, or God doesn’t have this morally relevant free will Christians prattle on about, which casts doubt on it’s value, and undermines any arguments that take it to have intrinsic value..

          1. In this nice explication, just want to highlight the repeating thought patterns – in written form – of, I suppose, doubt :

            “To paraphrase the influential Christian C.S. Lewis, if God’s “goodness” is not consonant with our own, then in calling God “good” we are calling God “we know not what” and “should be equally prepared to worship a demon.”

            which regularly resolves to, I suppose, confirmation :

            “That’s because God has a necessary NATURE, and it is God’s NATURE to be “good” and “loving” in the way we understand those ideas.”

            … in the way music contains patterns of tension (the dominant chord, aka the V chord) and resolution (the tonic chord, or I chord).

            The “written form” as I put it would, in ancient times, be possibly read aloud in the church with the largely illiterate congregation at the whim of the clergy (to put it crudely).

  13. Snonnet

    Arnie is humankind’s only god,
    whose personal pronoun is Shit, or that
    which happens. Arnie may not be sought,
    supplicated, prayed to or otherwise
    bought off, lest to you more Shit happen.
    All this you must infer from nothing:
    no revelation, holy book nor priesthood.
    Not even a storefront church downtown.

    The act of worship is anathema.
    What Arnie teaches through cosmic silence
    is to be ready for anything, always,
    while on your way to nothing, nowhere,
    knowing ‘you cannot petition the Lord
    with prayer’ on that road to terminus.

  14. Christmas is my favorite time of the year! Love the music, decorated tree, presents, a couple of feasts, eggnog, mince pies and the general hoopla. If I played the organ I would be the “Christmas organist.” The kids are long gone but when they visit we have their stockings stuffed with treats and gadgets (Terry’s dark chocolate oranges and phone chargers). Yes, I put out a glass of eggnog and a mince pie for old Saint Nick.

    Even Kink the Cat enjoys chasing wads of wrapping paper. Of course our annual Christmas tradition is watching “Die Hard.” Yippie kai yay!

    1. Our family is very similar, with the substitution of “Love, Actually” for “Die Hard”.

  15. Maybe the fictions of a father/dictator God and a moral/compassionate order of things somewhere in the sky are the least complicated ways to inject moral choices into the psychology of an otherwise degraded social order. Imagine a society in which everyone is inundated from infancy on by dishonest practice (see: advertising “industry”); in which greed is explicitly made the basis for life fulfillment (see “consumerism”, and any book with the word “success” in its title); and in which governance is tied inextricably to dishonesty and greed (see: campaign financing). During my periods of residence in Sweden (with a halting knowledge of the language) I got the impression that the first and third factors, at least, were less frantically evident than in the US. And, as our host points out, the Nordic societies
    manage to thrive without the pervasive elevation of “faith” characteristic, so far, of the US. Come to think of it, I wonder whether the dysfunctions summarized above and semi-official religionism don’t maintain a reciprocal or a circular relationship,

  16. I go ’round and round with this one.
    There at first seems no harm to or from an atheist who goes to church and go through the motions. They meet family, friends, and feel connected to their community. It’s all so … nice.
    But that is a contribution to a great collective organization with tremendous social and political power that hobbles human rights and has played no small part in interfering with education and management of our population and fragile planet.

    1. “They meet family, friends, and feel connected to their community. It’s all so … nice.”

      Oh yeah – one might completely forget the reason they are all there – and then the priest says they all have to do some thing, like pray, or give money, knock on doors, cut the foreskins off of penises, mutilate clitorises, conceal womens’ bodies in cloth, sell things,… I get a tad ill writing that, but I think those things are known to be the consequence if religion!

  17. Praying doesn’t require a god. It can be a technique for silencing the yammering internal voices and opening a door into a separate mental space. Just like Tai Chi. Or certain musical experiences. Or a walk in the woods. Or meditation, I understand. I’ve experienced the first four and ended up in the same mental state. Almost always a state of peace, centeredness and openness. Probably a gift from some set of brain chemicals. With gift being the operative word.

    1. Relatedly, music and dance can provide the advantages of tribalism that Jerry mentions, while lacking most of the pitfalls of religion. Bonus: dancing is good exercise.

  18. So does this mean we’ll now need studies on whether praying to a God you don’t believe in is more or less effective than praying to a God you do believe in?

  19. I am a thorough-going atheist but I often pretend there is a goddess–The Great Sky Cat. I can pray to her but she preys to me–having fun as my cats have fun with mice. This explains all the unfortunate things that happen to me.

  20. Everyone in my synagogue (among those I know) knows I am an atheist. I attend services occasionally, say Kaddish for my relatives, fast on Yom Kippur, refrain from leavened bread on Passover, and make the very best jelly donuts on Chanukah. I can translate all the prayers, so praying in Hebrew does not make them more palatable, and some I can barely tolerate. I go to synagogue for reasons that probably have to do with tribalism but also culture. What I do is transvalue the rituals so that they have meaning for a modern person. Thus, for example, saying Kaddish allows me to mourn my parents, my uncles and aunts, my late cousin; Passover rituals comemmorate freedom; fasting on Yom Kippur gives ample time to stop and think; and so on (Chanukah is a toughie, but it is a minor holiday). Without transvaluing the rituals, I would think they were a bunch of gibberish, as indeed I once did. The synagogue, meanwhile, is involved in social action projects, such as hosting an Afghan family in a house we own, that would not happen otherwise. I do not fake believing but rather say the prayers in solidarity with my people and my culture.

  21. I am reminded of a cartoon of a mother who is kneeling and praying at her bedside with eyes looking upward. To paraphrase, she says “And lord, please help Susie stop talking to her imaginary friend”.

  22. I find it tiresome enough that believers are constantly promoting religion without atheists joining in.

  23. What you call physical evil is not what I would call evil. I cannot see that evil exists at all really – rather things that one dislikes or that cause pain to oneself are regarded as evil. Consider eating meat. It harms the animal eaten, that is killed to give pleasure to the eater. Is that evil?

    No evil & no good.

    1. Essentially I am agreeing with you (good), but we have to admit the concepts of good and evil are useful for manipulating people (good or evil? could go either way).

    2. Theologians often call it “physical evil” as opposed to “moral evil”. It makes little difference, for the conundrum to religion is similar: why does God let little kids die of leukemia or kill thousands of people in natural disasters?

  24. The trick is to prevent them from religious indoctrination in the first place.

    Yes. For people who have never believed, discussions about manufactured notions of god seem vacuous. Why get to that position in the first place? But some have no choice in the matter for they are indoctrinated from childhood. Even if they later realize the flaws in their thinking, religion is not easy to give up; it is often the core of their culture and self esteem. A possible compromise is to salvage what one can by extracting the core values that are compatible with modern living, while still observing the rituals.

    Some philosophers are fictionalists about morality; they think rights aren’t real except in stories that we tell. Others are fictionalists about numbers; they think that math is made up. I think both views are mistaken; I believe in morality and math.

    I suppose that means he is a realist with respect to morals as well. I wonder if he has an example of a moral principle that he considers to be real. Plato does not seem to provide any examples 🙂

  25. This is a tough subject, even though it is one that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about. Like most who post here regularly, my understanding of the world does not accommodate belief in the supernatural.
    When I was little, we lived in Japan. My friends practiced Shintoism, and I developed an enthusiasm for it as well. I don’t think there was ever a point where I actually believed that Kami were something that I could interact with, or existed in any detectable way. But I still really enjoy traveling to different shrines , and getting a little stamp in the book I carry for that purpose. I like the rituals. They are comforting. But it seems a lot like a hobby, if I am honest about it.
    My Dad goes hunting a lot, but he rarely shoots anything. “Hunting” is just the framework that he has constructed to let him collect guns and spend a lot of time in the mountains.

    Perhaps the point of religions like Shinto, reformed Judaism, and CofE are primarily to promote shared values, and give everyone a sense of community. Also, everyone learns the rules. I don’t think the rules are as much about making a deity happy as they are about getting along in the community.

    I am certainly not going to opine on all the free will aspects and such. I do think that people like to keep their balance in an unpredictable and often hostile world. “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word!”. So to speak. The word I am thinking of is not “Xanax”, FYI.

  26. “That is, you pretend God is real, even though you’re pretty sure that He/She/It is not”

    I don’t think this is necessarily a crazy idea. I find I can’t think through particularly difficult problems in work projects without explaining my ideas in great deal to someone else. So I write emails to co-workers that I know they will never read, and in the process come to understand those ideas better and see the flaws in them. But I have to be serious enough to actually click “Send”- anything short of that doesn’t have the same effect. I will often follow up one email with another explaining the flaws in my earlier ideas, and proposing corrections to those flaws. Each time reiterating that I’m not expecting anyone to actually read my emails.

    I can well believe that going through the internal motions of talking with someone (or Someone) may make creative insights available that otherwise would be harder to find. The mind works in mysterious ways.

  27. I don’t know about fictionalism. For me, a non-believer, prayer is about saying what we wish for, and are thankful for, without the need to invoke a God or Gods–which is fine.

  28. The “solution” to the “problem of evil” (at least in the sense of unjust suffering), by my thinking, is this:

    At the end of the proverbial day all suffering will either be the just punishment of those who reject God or will be suffering which those who love God will be grateful to have suffered for the accomplishment of God’s good purposes.

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