April 1, 2011

Cheeseburger Without Cheese

Sam Harris on the lack of need for the word "atheism": "Nearly everyone rejects Zeus, Thor, Isis, along with the countless other dead gods of antiquity, and yet no one feels the need to name this condition of unbelief." I liked the sound of that until I realized this: "theism" means the belief in ANY god, not ALL gods---so an "atheist" would mean specifically someone who doesn't believe in a single one of them, as opposed to someone who, as typical for a theist, believes in one god or a certain group of gods, but not the others. There isn't a need to "name the condition of unbelief" of those who disbelieve in specific ones of the available gods, because that's already got a word, which is "theist." It makes sense to me that if pretty much everyone who believes in a god or gods believes in some but not all gods, that we WOULD want a specific word for someone who believes in none of them.

But his point stands even if I think it wasn't well-illustrated by that particular example. He goes on to say that we don't have special words to indicate our lack of belief in most other things. I don't believe in horoscopes, but no one makes me identify myself as an anti-astrologist, and no one asks what horoscope-related trauma caused me to give up my faith in horoscopes. Did I perhaps have a bad experience with people who DID believe in horoscopes? Do I realize that horoscopists aren't perfect, just predictable? I should try THEIR newspaper's horoscope, because if I was trying some OTHER newspaper's horoscope, of COURSE I didn't feel like it was for me. Etc. Nor do I have to call myself a non-vegetarian non-Gemini non-doctor.

Having a word that means "not-that" helps give the impression that "that" is what's normal and right---as opposed to "that" being an addition to the standard model. Better to have words for "plain" and "plain plus the religion option," rather than to have words for "plain plus religious" and "plain plus religious but minus the religious." Better to have "hamburger" and "cheeseburger," rather than "cheeseburger" and "cheeseburger without cheese."

********

As I do each year, I have a sticky note on my computer monitor with "APRIL FOOLS' DAY" written on it. Otherwise (or perhaps I should say "Even so") I tend to fall for things, like the year I believed the most popular rock station in our college city was changing to an all-polka format. Or the year I believed Google had started a dating service, which I STILL think was an AWESOME IDEA. (Did you see this year's Google prank?)

Every year I hope not to fall for a fake pregnancy announcement: I'd get so happy and excited, and the disappointment of finding out it wasn't true would be so awful. So far I haven't fallen for one, but I did fall for one on a non-April-1 day when a Facebook friend did the "I'm expecting!!" joke where the punchline is "...snow!," so I got a sample of what that feels like ("really good followed by really bad").

39 comments:

d e v a n said...

My husband taped down the handle on the sink sprayer and when I went to fill my coffee pot (before 6AM! I was groggy!) I got soaked, and I was also slow reacting to turn it off so the floor got soaked too.
But, then I filled up a pitcher with very cold water and dumped in on him in the shower, so I felt better.

Alicia said...

My husband had this conversation with his mother recently, about how he just believes in one LESS god than her. I think it ended with her crying. Also, since he was hanging on as a believer when we got married, and now is NOT, I think there is the perception that this is somehow related to ME. Sigh.

el-e-e said...

Ack! Devan, that's awful!

My 6yo son told me, "Mommy! There's a frog on your back!! No, really, there is a FROG on your back."

Me: There IS?? *feigned surprise*

Him: April FOOLS!

pretty cute kid, that one.

Nik-Nak said...

Not even going to touch the God/ gods thing. I believe in my thing, you believe in yours is my motto. I firmly believe it's a personal choice and everyone has their own reasons for whatever they think/believe/feel and it's none of my business.

As for April Fool's-I've never had a proper April Fools prank played on me. Isn't that sad?! I feel like I'm missing out some club initiation or something. I was thinking about playing the "I'm pregnant" one on my mom but she'd probably just stroke out so that wouldn't be very effective.

lifeofadoctorswife said...

Several things come to mind:

1. I never realized before how irritating it is that believers get some sort of bonus points system for believing. As though they come automatically from a place of "right," while non-believers come from a place of "wrong" or "deviant." I like your idea of having the hamburger midline (if I'm understanding correctly; and it's early, so I may not be) that is neither belief nor unbelief. That way, believing or not believing is deviant, either way.

2. I really wish you had some horrible horoscope experience to tell us. (Not that you ENDURED something horrible, but it would be an interesting type of story!)

3. April Fool's day puts me on edge. I hate having the wool pulled over my eyes, so I am extra suspicious which leads to suspicion about normal things and results in odd looks.

Mrs. Irritation said...

Am I wrong in not introducing the concept of April Fools Day to my kid for as long as possible?

missris said...

Yup, I have *already* fallen for the "I'm pregnant" blog post. And it's only 9am. I don't like April Fools Day.

Melospiza said...

I HATE April Fool's Day. I HATE tricks. I hate that I feel like I'm expected to COME UP with clever tricks. Most of the time I conceive of myself as someone with a mellow, cheerful sense of humor, but on April Fool's Day it becomes apparent that I am in fact dour and literal.

Fun Fact: this is the third year, out of three that we've been a part of it, that my kids' school district has scheduled April Fool's Day to fall in the middle of Spring Break. Coincidence, or clever (in a dour and literal way) planning?

Swistle said...

Nik-Nak- I don't THINK there's any controversy here: I think everyone agrees that some people believe in one deity and some people believe in another and some people believe in none.

lifeofadoctorswife- I haven't thought the analogy out very far, but I suspect that what I'd want is to use "hamburger" as "human being" and then add beliefs as needed. "Person + belief in ghosts," "Person + belief in God," "Person + belief in astrology," etc.---"Hamburger with ketchup," "Hamburger with pickles," "Hamburger with pickles and ketchup." The test, for me, is whether it works with other things: can we expand this to be "Person + belief in ghosts + love of cats" and "Person + doctor + belief in astrology + likes houseplants"? Yes.

Mrs. Irritation- I sure didn't teach mine! I waited until the first one learned it in school, then taught them how mean a prank can be, and how it's not funny if you're the only one laughing.

Lucy said...

Devan - your post made me laugh out loud....great way to get back at your hubby!

Swistle - Your post was thought-provoking...I liked it. I now have something to think about on our 20 hour trip to Texas today and tomorrow!
lol
Luv u

Kelsey said...

My kids are oblivious to the April Fool thing too - and are on spring break right now, which bought me at least another year.

My mom told us she was pregnant once as an April Fool's joke - even then I had the sense of it not being totally funny...

Kelsey said...

PS You know what would be a terrible combination? April Fool's Day and summer camp - enough pranking goes on there already! Thank goodness it isn't July Fool's Day.

ComfyMom~Stacey said...

I still believe in Thor & Isis. Many pagans do, probably more than the 'nearly everyone rejects' suggested by Harris, but granted probably not that many in the overall scheme of things.

I think they need words for many, one and no god beliefs that go beyond the religion specific words. I think it would make things easier.

I trust absolutely nothing I read on the internet on April 1. Not even the weather channel

Misty said...

I think your horoscope analogy is particularly apt. I also think that this is a valid conversation, needing to be digested by everyone of every persuasion. I don't think you get to opt out of respect for others as human beings.

jen (melty) said...

I think there are two types of people in this world... those who think fake april fool pregnancies are funny and those who do not. I always thought it was mean and cruel no matter which way your victim swung. Call me a curmudgeon.. I hate april 1st... I do enjoy the web sites and the fake news, and read everything with suspicion. I like the "silly" stuff just not the prank stuff.

Maggie said...

Man, my husband is in LOVE with the prank where you put the rubber band around the sink sprayer handle. I will come as no surprise that when we got a new kitchen faucet, I chose one WITHOUT the separate sprayer. His mom and sister also opted for sprayer-less faucets. My husband is single-handedly ruining the separate sink sprayer design market.

Mairzy said...

In a much less weighty context, I've pondered the Southern terminology for tea. We've got "sweet tea" and "unsweet tea." As if tea in its natural state is sweet, and you have to remove the sugar before serving it unsweet. (Not a procedure I recommend. I love sweet tea.)

Humans historically believe in something beyond themselves, so the people who don't believe are remarkable enough to be mentioned. That's less true in today's culture, but I think that's one reason for "theist" being the default term.

So many of those labels have such strong connotations that after reading your post I realize I avoid using them unless it's helpful to understand where a person is coming from.

-- Mairzy

Elsha said...

I'm not a big April Fools fan myself. Although, I did tell my sister she should hold off announcing her pregnancy on Facebook until today (she IS pregnant and announced a few weeks ago) because then people would THINK she was faking, but she wouldn't be. Is that mean too?

I've never been tempted to do the pregnancy fake-out, because I'm sure that as soon as I did, it would be a "joke's on me" and I'd end up being pregnant for real. I want a third, just, you know, not today.

DawnA said...

I don't discuss religion and politics. It's been said those two subjects are best avoided and I whole heartedly agree. What someone chooses to believe or not is up to them completely on both subjects.

I don't think I've ever been April Fooled on April 1. My husband used to like to say in the middle of summer "It's snowing" and of course you look. He got me good one time crossing railroad tracks and he yells "TRAIN". I almost peed my pants.

Caitlin said...

Dang. I had a whole comment written out that appears to have gotten eaten. I will try to recreate, but apologies if you get a duplicate.

"1. I never realized before how irritating it is that believers get some sort of bonus points system for believing. As though they come automatically from a place of "right," while non-believers come from a place of "wrong" or "deviant.""

YES, Lifeofadoctroswife, YES! In my experience, 'atheist' and 'agnostic' are akin to swears for some. The default assumption seems to be that there is a belief. This has lead to some uncomfortable situations for me, wherein someone will refer to their god in a way that alludes to it as fact (which to them it is, I get that, and that is fine), and there seems to be an expectation for me to..agree? acknowledge? that this is also my (THE) reality.
In these situations I don't want to be rude, but nor do I want to get into a discussion about my beliefs OR be untrue to my beliefs (which are just as real to me as theirs are to them). As a result, I never know what to do.

Has anyone else found themselves in a similar situation? How do you handle it?

Swistle, I love this post and I love you for reading Sam Harris. I also love you for broaching this subject, which is certainly still taboo.

Swistle said...

DawnA- I totally agree that those subjects are touchy. But talking about what words to use for things seems different than discussing what people believe, and also seems necessary---just as we discuss what words are okay to use and not okay to use in other touchy areas.

lifeofadoctorswife said...

Coming back to say that a friend posted a sonogram on Facebook and I cannot bring myself to congratulate him because I am afraid it's FAKE.

So now I feel both potentially mean and also unsettled about whether to feel happy/excited or irritated.

Alice said...

fascinating! i hadn't thought about it before, but so very true - the "standard" definition should not be the one that has multiple removable parts, that people can and do opt not to have on their [hamburger].

Barb @ getupandplay said...

I have a friend who is currently 30 weeks pregnant who pulled the "She's here, a little early but doing well" prank on her blog today. Horrible!

Rah said...

As a fellow wordsmith, I appreciate your point. I'll never think of atheism in the same way again.

It seems to me that the word "vegetarian" should really be for people we call vegans. Because truly wouldn't a vegatarian eat ONLY plant foods--and for that matter, would fruits be included in what a vegetarian eats? Many vegetarians are actually ovo-lacto-pesco-pollo-vegetarians (or any one or more of the prefixes)who simply don't eat red meat. Not the same thing.

And they wonder why sleep eludes us.

Anonymous said...

I was shaking my head, thinking, who would play an "I'm pregnant" April Fools joke, until I remembered, I HAD. On my boyfriend when I was 16. I think it scared the ever-living shit out of him, and we broke up not too long afterwards. He was totally my first love, and I have regretted it ever since. How the hell did I forget that?

I am also excited to dig into Harris and stretch out my brain a bit. I always loved this kind of discourse, and haven't read anything like it since I graduated from college. In 1996.

M.Amanda said...

Devan, my husband thinks it's HILARIOUS to pour ice cold water on me in the shower. He also likes to wait until I'm washing my hair, then sneak a hand in to turn off the hot water. I'm so glad he hasn't been enlightened about the sprayer.

Erin said...

Thanks for this, both the first part (especially that) and the reminder about April fools. I'm still lucky that my kids don't know what April fools is.

I have seen links on several sciencey sites that I read (evolutionary/ ecology types) to liningwithoutreligion.org. Pretty cool site actually, all contructive, positive stuff, not bogged down in what we don't believe (inspite of the title).

Magic27 said...

As usual, I think you are absolutely right about the believer/non-believer thing - I get particularly irked when I get pity from believers because I don't believe. Grrrrr. I'm quite happy to let them believe whatever they want, why do so many believers feel the need to try and convert us "poor non-believers"?
As for April Fool's day, I HATE it. The basic French version is OK: it involves cutting out and colouring pictures of fish (no, I have no idea why) and sticking them on people's backs. That's harmless enough. But the pranks thing also exists, and I hate it. I hate being made a fool of (I don't mind gentle teasing and stuff, as long as it's good-humoured). My ex is an obsessive prankster and adores this day. Most of his stories are ridiculous (so that's OK, no one really believes them after a couple of minutes and everyone has a good laugh - one year, he told everyone we'd been given a pet monkey and asked if they could help us look after it). But about 5 years ago, he told EVERYONE (friends, family, local shopkeepers, stallholders at our local market...) that I'd run off and left him alone with no income, no job and two small children. I was SOOOO ANGRY - some of the stallholders/shopkeepers still look at me funny, even now...

Jenny said...

My mother's birthday is April 1, so there were (and are) no pranks in our house! I hate practical jokes, anyway, even on TV. I'm a French teacher, though, so I do tell my students about the French tradition Magic27 mentions. Paper fish seem harmless enough.

About the god thing: a lot of our language is binary like that, without a midline "person" word. You're a smoker or a nonsmoker, for instance. I'm not sure that just because a no-suffix-or-prefix word exists for something means that it's the default.

Joanne said...

I appreciate this post, it is not something I've ever thought of before. Although I'm a .. cheeseburger? I think? I think you raise a valid point and it's always a good idea to be careful with our words so they're not hurtful to others. I actually *am* pregnant and I did announce it today on FB but I am really 12 weeks today! It's not something I'd joke about, it seems very serious to me, and also possibly hurtful to some if I treated it lightly.

Swistle said...

Jenny- No, I know. There are lots of cases like this. I think the only way to evaluate it is case-by-case: in this case, what is the implication? and what is the application? For smoking/non-smoking, the application is mostly accommodations (restaurants, hotels) that used to need to know, and the current implication is that non-smoker is "better"---we know this culturally, and as native English-speakers, not because it's spelled out absolutely by the choice of term. For atheism, we don't use the term theism really at all, which tells us something right away. And we're familiar with the tone of the word "atheist," and the way it's used, and the flavor of it. We can tell that in this case, it's not considered "better."

Bibliomama said...

I did fall for a 'pregnant with twins' facebook prank this very day - the post-it note thing is GENIUS, I never know what date it is. I didn't know the person that well, though - if I had I think I either wouldn't have fallen for it or would have been more upset. The premature birth prank seems especially mean to me - premature labour is no joke. My daughter usually gets me with something silly, which is fine except it makes me uneasy that she's really good at fooling me.

St said...

Great post! No pranks here, I don't like them at all! (Though I agree that the ones in the media are kinda funny, Hulu did one this year)
I thought about it a bit and I think that the words theist and atheist are fine and make sense. Because, really, if you ask someone what they believe it's usually phrased as a "do you believe...". Non-believers answer "no". Anyway, what I'm saying is that the language doesn't bother me but we live in a predominantly theist society so we are always gonna feel like the "other". My first thought was, "sure there is! It's called agnostic" (haha!)
Comfymom-Stacey, wouldn't you be considered a polytheist?

L said...

I love the way you think.

I was duped by the snow thing too. When people decide to have a kid, I interpret it as such a leap of faith and pretty inspiring even if it is a very ordinary act. So, to have that rush and then ...'har har snow' is definitely a downer.

Nowheymama said...

Somebody got me with the FB pregnancy thing. I hate that.

Christie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
artemisia said...

There is a student group on the campus at which I work called the Secular Student Club.

Unfortunately, instead of a healhty fostering of identity and community, they seem hell bent on offending any kind of believer and just trying to stir up nastiness. They held an "un-baptism" in the main quad among other things.

I am so disappointed. They are acting as hateful as the few believers we tend to hear about.

Also it just smacks of immaturity and therefore makes me not want to pay the slightest attention to them. Thus, rending their views illegitimate. They have done other non-believers or whatever a disservice.

Ms. Moon said...

Mmmm. You know, perhaps this is why I don't feel comfortable calling myself an atheist even though I don't believe in the sort of god which can be prayed to, petitioned, had a son who saved the world, etc.
I don't believe in that one OR Zeus, thank-you, or any of the others which have come and gone over the centuries of human history. So yes, I get this and I agree and also, yes, it does make one feel as if the norm is to believe in god and if we don't, if we are atheists, we are at least ab-normal, if not sub-normal.
I suppose I also don't feel comfortable calling myself an atheist because I don't know everything, as much I'd like to think I do.