Kiddie pool / Jesus the scarecrow

I was sitting on the edge of the kiddie pool watching my daughters (2 and 4.5) splash around when the arm of a father setting his 1 yr. old boy in the water caught my eye. A bright red tattoo covered his upper arm as a band. In the middle, a swastika. Then I noticed the face of Adolf Hitler tattooed on his chest and across his back “Nation of Aryan Brotherhood”. Several people asked the teen lifeguards to kick him out. The kids refused, claiming it was freedom of speech and he wasn’t behaving in any other way that was disruptive. He was just sporting his “white pride”.

While public display of the swastika is not illegal in the U.S., it is a crime in other parts of the world. The Aryan Brotherhood is a prison gang, but the public display of gang symbols also does not seem to be a crime, at least at the national level. Consider, however, that to join the AB, you pretty much have to murder someone. Perhaps the broadcasting of the intimidating messages “I’ve killed someone.” “I’m a racist.” and “I belong to a gang of murderers.” is illegal at the kiddie pool, I don’t know.

And that’s the thing -- none of us knew how to react. Should these kid lifeguards have asked him to leave? Should one of us parents? Should we have called the cops? Would doing any of that just incited unnecessary problems or violence for us and our children there at the pool, or via gang retaliation later? What were we teaching our kids through non-confrontation -- that it’s okay to let hate groups sport their placards without a fuss? That we condone subtle terror as long as it’s proposed harm is undetermined? That we should act cowardly when frustrated or fearful? Or is it that we demonstrate a deeper restraint by admitting that we don’t understand this man’s history -- that maybe he was strongly coerced to join the gang. Maybe he’s trying to get out. Maybe we should just give him the benefit of the doubt, and for the sake of his 1 yr. old son, let them enjoy the afternoon together like us “normal” folks. For better or worse, our response was to simply watch him out of the corner of a raised eyebrow and to try to distance ourselves inconspicuously.

I want to explore the roots, psychology, culture, and memetic evolution of gangs in future posts. What I want to discuss here is subtle terror. How just a little bit of fear and suspicion put us on guard and made us attentive, but also left us confused. In not knowing how to react, we didn’t. It is striking to see how fear, even at this not-so-uncomfortable level to do anything about, implicitly makes it an acceptable level to live with.

Terror is the use of unfathomable as well as realistic fear. I say “unfathomable” in the sense that it is so far from our norm or understanding, that we don’t know how to accurately interpret the message to quantify the danger and how to respond to it appropriately. In this afternoon, I was struck that “unfathomable” fear was not only grandiose displays of things like bombs, but also included the subtle presence of cryptic signs.


Fear is a common message in religion. Christianity’s easiest target is Hell and its prospect of eternal, painful suffering. There are also the messages that life without God is empty, loveless, and unfulfilling. A Christian ponders his relationship with God not only by judging how happy he is in the religion and in that relationship, but he also measures this contentment against how he envisions his life would be without God. He uses the relationship to protect himself from what he assumes is threatening.

When admirable traits are given to a God, it is easy to play into the fears of a life without God. Christianity not only introduces the fear, which can leave us stressed and confused, but then offers a solution -- Jesus is the answer (and thereby maintaining it’s corollary: Without Jesus, there is no answer). Perhaps what is important to consider before accepting Jesus as a solution is to ask, “Is the fear real?”

Ask yourself these questions.

Does morality come from God?

Does love come from God?

Does law come from God?

Does happiness come from God?

Does pain and hate come from the devil, or God?

What good is God?

At the core of Christianity is the belief that we have all sinned, and that without God’s grace, we will be doomed to keep sinning. The immediate threat of sin is that we will not know true love and fulfillment. The long term threat is Hell or at least a life of doom.

But what is sin? Sinning is not the same as acting immorally. Sinning is simply refusing God. The reason sinning and immorality are often confused is that when it is assumed that moral commands come from God and not men, then immorality is the same as refusing God. It is in this way that Christianity promotes the idea that the only way you can act morally is to believe in God, and that immorality shows that you are not part of the redeemed.

To cast love, morals, law, and happiness to God is at a minimum an unknowable proposition. That assumption also means that law, morality, love, and happiness are ultimately not natural. If societal demands for collective cooperation are gifts from God, then Christians are equally comparable to those who demonstrate “white pride”. The assumption of the racist is that they are better than other races because they have been endowed with physical traits and/or culture that is superior. The assumption that love, morals, law, and happiness can only come from God does nothing but lead to bigotry.


Evolution is often cast as predator/prey, dog eat dog. Indeed, like capitalism, independent greed and selfishness can work to promote the common good of a population. And also like capitalism, there is an ironic recognition that cooperation is also mandatory for our (or a population’s) overall fulfillment and success. Cooperation is often overlooked in considerations of evolution, but individuals of a species work together. It is not unreasonable to believe that if ants can work together building colonies, then we humans, with our superior intellect, opposable thumbs, and gift of gab can also work together to construct colonies where we find fulfillment.


From the atheist’s point of view, God, religion, and laws and behavior attributed to God, are man-made constructs. As such, when Christianity presents “Jesus is the answer”, it is important to ask, “To what?” Can it be shown that the questions for which Jesus is the answer are not man-made constructs, which many times are created and play into human fears? No. As such, Christianity apparently offers up its own strawman arguments leaving Jesus, paradoxically, hanging on a cross like a scarecrow.


Cliff Martin said...

Nice segue from a racist hate group to Christianity. Sets a rather stark stage, doesn't it. Why didn't you ask this sad relic of a human being about his story? Might conversation disarm the terror?

Though your analysis of Christianity in general is not far off the mark, my personal starting points for belief are not fear-based. The short version: I start with the philosophical question "is my life bound up in some purpose, a purpose that might originate in something larger than myself?" or "am I merely a random product of some impersonal, non-teleological force?" I come down on the side of purpose. Then, in my search for an understanding of what that purpose might be, I ultimately arrive at the feet of Jesus.

Nicolas said...

Having never believed in God and/or Jesus, I don't really know if believing in hell induces fear. I suspect that the prospect of hell induces anxiety rather than fear, and I'm not sure this compares to the immediate fear caused by the pool nazi. It is the same distinction that ethologists make between acute and chronic stress. Those are very different physiological mechanisms, the first one basically preparing the organism to flee or fight (increasing blood supply to muscles, stopping digestive functioned digestive etc..), while the chronic stress had more subtle but long lasting effects.
It is however true that the church uses fear for political purposes, especially when its unity is threatened: One example is the treatment of the devil by the catholic church. Prior to the Reformation, the devil was described as an almost amusing figure that was easily fooled (perhaps as a metaphor of pagan cults). When the Reformation movements appeared, the catholic church completely changed the way to talk about the devil, and made it a truly dreadful and omnipresent force that was almost impossible to escape, unless you were absolutely true to the catholic faith. I don’t know if sociological studies have been conducted on that issue, but I suspect that the fear element is stronger in emerging doctrines and small religious community confronted to competition from other branches than in mainstream religious doctrines.

Psiloiordinary said...

Fascinating post Tom.

We seem to be almost identical twins when it comes to our ideas and opinions.

- - -


Another piece of the mysterious jigsaw puzzle that is the "evidence for your belief" is hinted at here;

"I come down on the side of purpose."

But you don't say why!

The mystery continues ;-)



Tom said...

The irony, Psi, is that I do have an identical twin who is a leader in his evangelical denomination, where he often preaches. He home schools his kids primarily so they don't get exposed to evolution.

Cliff Martin said...


True, in the interest of brevity, I did not cite reasons for choosing to believe life has purpose as opposed to believing it is void of purpose. I suppose it is as simple as stepping out on my porch, breathing in the fresh air, observing the beauty of all things, pondering the fantastic wonder of life itself, and concluding that there must be meaning to all this above that which I might compose for myself. Operating on that hunch, I have launched out into a life of faith which is richly rewarding, and in which experiences continue to validate belief.

But really, why must I defend my choice, but you need not do so? Why have you chosen to believe that there is no ultimate purpose worth pursuing? Surely neither of our assumptions about life can be made on the basis of empirical evidence. Nevertheless, we must choose to believe in a teleological cosmos, or a non-teleological cosmos. So why have you made your choice?

Psiloiordinary said...

Sorry Cliff,

But I feel you are being unfair on two counts.

First you make out that I think life has no meaning or purpose but elsewhere you know I have stated the opposite to this consistently. Surely you haven't forgotten?

It almost seems as if you mid represent me on purpose?

I just don't think that the meaning and purpose has to come from something supernatural. I have plenty of purpose and meaning in my life thank you.

Secondly you make out that I demand from you what I will not do myself. I have openly and willingly given my reasons for doubting the supernatural from our very first conversation more than a year ago. I have never seen any evidence that stood up to the slightest scrutiny. Asking you what your evidence is seems like the nece logical stage in any friendly and civilized conversation.

Perhaps you are just having a bad day?

- - -


I have a brother ( not a twin ) that I don't have anything to do with. This is because his universe only seems to contain himself.

It is a great sadness to me. But I have tried everything I can think of and until and if he comes to his senses then for the sake of me and my family we just stay out of his way.

I hope you and your brother get on. Then again I can imagine your deep frustration that he is brainwashing
his kids and hiding part of what is perhaps their greatest birthright and the most uniquely human achievent from them - the fruits of human endeavour in the form of knowledge.

Obviously this should be crime. Don't kids have rights in the us. I think there are calls here for home schooling to be inspected and where kids are being mistreated like this to take them into state education.

Isn't the right to a decent education one of the UN's "rights of the child".

Best to both


Cliff Martin said...


No, my friend. I do not think I have intentionally misrepresented you. I apologize for leaving that impression. I have acknowledged in the past (and I still do) that your life is meaningful, and that you have found purpose. That is why I used the language I did, referring to "self-composed meaning" versus "ultimate purpose".

But leave all talk of one's individual life purpose and meaning aside. My final question had less to do with personal purpose and meaning, and more to do with the nature of the cosmos. Surely you would agree that we all must make this philosophical choice: "we must choose to believe in a teleological cosmos, or a non-teleological cosmos."

1) Is that a fair statement?
2) If so, then you and I have made life choices to come down on opposite sides of that question. I've given a brief account of my choice. Can you give me an account of yours?

Tom said...

Cliff, Psi, Nicolas,

I'm on a nice holiday weekend enjoying the aspens changing in the rockies. (God's paintbrush this time of year is amazing!) I will respond tomorrow night or shortly with more thorough responses.

Thanks for your comments!

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

No problem - here you go with my position - again;

If by teleological you mean the universe looks designed then - No it doesn't look so to me - I see no evidence to support that idea that stands up to any sort of scrutiny. Most evaporates as the "anthropic fallacy".

If you take the next logical step and say that it must have been a supernatural designer then - No I don't see any evidence to back up any supernatural claims that doesn't evaporate when looked at rationally.

I am struggling with your comment that we can choose to believe in something or not.

Do you mean that we do this in light of evidence or not?

I believe in things through making a rational decision after weighing the arguments and the evidence - especially for such a huge question as this one.

So I can't really be said to simply "choose" - in the sense that I might choose wallpaper or my favourite classical composer.

I don't choose to believe how much money I have in the bank. I don't choose to believe what health care options will be best for me and my family.

So if you mean the same kind of thing by "choose to believe" as I have described above - looking at evidence - then please share your evidence with us.

- - -

I cant help thinking that this is not what you were asking - I know you are an intelligent chap and we have gone over this a few times. Somehow my repeatedly pointing out that I don't believe in things without evidence or good reason doesn't seem to count somehow.

Perhaps when we do get to find out what your reasons are for "choosing to believe in a cosmos with a purpose" this may shed some light on our difficulty in communication.

I hope so.



Psiloiordinary said...

Sagan always was so GOOD at this kind of discussion.

Here's an interesting post on his thoughts;

Try "Demon Haunted World" by Sagan - it is a sceptical classic.

Tom said...

Thanks for that link, Psi. I was forwarded that article by a NY Review of Books subscriber and couldn't figure out how to link to it without subscribing myself. It looks like after a couple of weeks or so it becomes publicly available. Whatever. It is a good and interesting read, but the last part falls short. Not that I know what to add, per se, but Weinberg says we should just learn to accept mortality and a Godless universe through humor and hedonism. Granted, hedonism is not acting selfishly or against the community, but to just say, "Carpe Diem", while true, will not deconvert any theists. Sagan's quotes are much more optimistic, but still, humanists will have a hard time convincing most theists of going down this hedonistic path since it is typically sinful.

I'll post more on everyone's other comments later tonight.

Cliff Martin said...


I'm hoping we can just leave a comma on the discussion of teleology verses non-teleology. I do believe that on that question we can marshal empirical evidence on both sides. I want to return to the discussion ... but it will take some time to develop, I think. I will soon post a review of Mike Gene's The Design Matrix which I have found quite fascinating, apart from its theistic underpinnings. I want to also read Denton's book, Nature's Destiny which forwards the same basic arguments favoring teleology, but from the standpoint of an atheist. An atheist, who unlike you, is not so quick to reject the anthropic principle.

That would be interesting. You and I could debate the evidence in Denton's book, and I would be siding with the atheist. Hmm...

Tom said...

Cliff said

Why didn't you ask this sad relic of a human being about his story? Might conversation disarm the terror?

That is precisely the point. The fear was there because it was unknown and therefore unpredictable. "It" being the history of this man, his mood, his affiliations, his history. I did not know how to approach him. I've never seen a guy like that before in my life. I think the appropriate thing for him to do is to wear a T-shirt when in such a public place with his toddler. By him showing up without a T-shirt was indicative to me that he was there to make a statement. But what would be his response to me telling him that his displays, especially at the kiddie pool, are offensive and that I would appreciate if he put on a t-shirt? (I am curious about his story, and perhaps the Christian thing to do is to befriend all people. After all, when such a person is never befriended, he will only hate more. Call it shortsighted or rude on my part, but I would like to keep this man out of my life).

As uncomfortable as the fear was, it was much easier to be complacent with that level of unease than face what we perhaps envisioned could happen if we tried to alleviate the problem with a discussion/confrontation.

Now, had I known this man's history, I would have either asked him to put a shirt on, or I would have left. That is, either he was a real danger (and I would have left) or he was just being offensive (and I would have asked him to put a shirt on and I'd stay).

So, it gets back to the question: Is the fear real?

When it is imagined, we play the game that it could happen. After all, if it were so far out of the realm of imagination, then we would recognize it as ridiculousness, and move on. But when we can conjure up a story that is crazy and unrealistic, but still imaginable, well, then it's something that could happen.

There are two fears of turning apostate: 1) You could be wrong. 2) You could be right. In the first case, these are the same fears that keep people in Christianity -- fear of hell, fear of losing a moral grounding, fear of not being loved, fear of not being happy forever, etc. (I am not saying that fear is the only driver of staying in Christianity, and one could easily say that people stay in marriages by similar fears). It is the second case that is too difficult for the nonchalant Christian or uncommitted agnostic to swallow to actually become atheist.

So let's ask the question: What if there is no God? This is a scary question for you, Cliff, because you fear that if your life is not "bound up in some purpose" larger than yourself, then we are all on this futile, nihilistic ride.

The question is not scary for me anymore, but at the same time, I don't have any easy answers, and I still miss those days of feeling like the master of the universe and I were working together toward wrapping up this divine plan.

The flip side of the fear question is: Is the assurance and fearlessness real? What is the likelihood of hell? What is the likelihood of heaven? Can life exist outside our cell and tissue walls? Is there a different history of Jesus and the Jews than what is presented in the Bible?

These questions start to play with the notion that there is no God, but they don't answer the question "What if there is no God?" They don't get into the meaning of life, as it were.

And so here's the deal. Nobody has that answer, but the discussions are hopefully meaningful!

I still look to biology for these answers. What is the meaning of life for all the little critters? Why do they fear death? Why do they act the way they do? My dog exercises many different emotions and I think he has found contentment in life. We can perseverate over the meaning of it all, but other animals seem to somewhat live it without the concern we give it. Granted, we have a much deeper understanding and imagination of ourselves and the world to delve into the question, hopefully with more meaning, but we can lose the forest for the trees.

The other thing that I have been unable to get from any Christian is how the meaning of life is in any way different than it is for materialists. If the meaning of life is to live in Christ eternally, what does that mean -- especially in a bodiless form? Or if not a bodiless form, what are the physical constraints/capabilities of a body that lives forever? I guess what I'm getting at, Cliff, is that if you can not speak to such futuristic caricatures of life, then I don't think you can speak to a teleological force, and in which case, you are here in the pool with the rest of us, that "knife-edge" as Weinberg states, knowing our mortality and seeking ways to become fulfilled in the material confines we are completely ensconced in.

Tom said...


My brother and I have a very shallow relationship. His take on evolution is that it takes faith to believe in it, and since that will just lead to atheism (as I demonstrate), then he'd rather just leave well enough alone. It's frustrating. I see that the more embroiled he is in his church (everything -- his social circle, work circle, and everyone he interfaces with) and the more I take up science, the further apart we will grow.

Regarding laws in the US for homeschooling, I think as long as the kids are passing certain grade landmarks, they are fine. Even if they weren't, the only way they would get found out, really, is if someone reported them to social services, and even then, it is not illegal to teach young earth creationism in private schools or home.

Tom said...


Thanks for your perspective. While some emotional responses can be rather dynamic, I am not talking about fight-or-flight responses (unless knee-jerk reactions count as fight-or-flight!) I assume rats getting shocked is a good way to make them focused, but does chronic pain lead to confusion?

Do you have a source for the devil's history?

Cliff Martin said...


The other thing that I have been unable to get from any Christian is how the meaning of life is in any way different than it is for materialists.... I guess what I'm getting at, Cliff, is that if you can not speak to ... futuristic caricatures of life, then I don't think you can speak to a teleological force, and in which case, you are here in the pool with the rest of us ...

If I limit my thinking to a typical Christian eschatology and soteriology, I would agree with you. But my understandings are different from that of many other believers. I see all of life history, the purpose of Creation, etc. in the context of a cosmic battle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and hate, etc. The Bible instructs me that, even though the mechanisms are unseen, my prayer and my worship make a difference in this battle; how long it takes for evil to be annihilated, how long it takes for “mortality to be swallowed up in life” the very “purpose” for which we were made (2 Corinthians 5:4-5), how long it takes for love to ultimately supplant hate and fear, etc. A life of obedience, of actively seeking the reign of God, even the sufferings of life, all of these play into the working out of God’s plan in this cosmic battle.

So I think very little about “heaven” or “hell”. I know little about either (as you suggest), and they have very little to do with my motivation to follow Christ. I am far more engaged in the ongoing battle, and my role in it.

These motivations lead me to live a moral life, to be generous and kind, to live unselfishly (not saying I’m doing all that great in these endeavors!); and no doubt, you, Psi, and many others like you strive to live the same way. These values have their own built-in benefits. But my motivation is transcendent, outside of mere enlightened self-interest, and I am also motivated to pray the prayer Jesus taught us, and to worship God privately and publicly. So yes, in some respects I am in the pool with you. But in many respects, I approach life from a completely different angle.

Nicolas said...


I do have a source for the devil's history. as a matter of fact i just found out this book has been translated: It's called "A History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present"

The consequences of chronic stress in animals are primarily behavioral (behavioral disorders appear before physiological problems and heath impairment). Among the most spectacular manifestations of behavioral disorders are stereotypical behaviors, in which the subject engages in repetitive, ritualized and apparently meaningless activities (rolling of the tongue, head weaving, self-centered rocking, self-mutilation etc..). So chronic stress leads to abnormal behavior in animals and humans.
I think that if you were to investigate the behavior of people exposed to a constant underlying fear of hell/eternal damnation, you would probably find a higher proportion of stereotypical behaviors. I'm sure we can all think of examples of religious behaviors that are truly reminiscent of those stereotypical behaviors.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi All,

Cliff, I think I have previously offered to debate the evidence for a devine creator on the side of the believer.

But I am only aware of arguments whihc are defeated by logical or evidence or both.

I am dying to see your argument - take as long as you need to muster it - although it seems strange that it might take more than a blog posting.



Psiloiordinary said...

To paraphrase;

"Hedonism is typically sinful".

I think you need to support that claim;

How do you know what is sinful? (we'll agree that sinful = evil/wrong to keep things simple)

What evidence do you have that non believers are more sinful or less moral than believers.

I think I have good evidence of, at worst, no difference, but pretty thought provoking evidence that the reverse is the case.



Cliff Martin said...

Psi writes, I am dying to see your argument - take as long as you need to muster it.

I am working on it. I really am! I fear you may be disappointed, as there may be little if any new material. But part of the reason I am taking so long is that I want to present it in a meaningful way. I am looking forward to the discussions!

Tom said...

On the "hedonism is sinful" phrase, I am talking about believers' stance that boil down to two problems of definition. Believers equate hedonism to complete selfish, reckless abandon, which, in turn, leads to a complete breakdown in moral fiber and the destruction of a workable system for communal enjoyment. It's a naive interpretation of the word, much as if someone said capitalism equated to greed. As such, however, such behavior is "sinful" because it runs counter to the assumption that law, which keeps the moral fiber intact, comes from God.

Anonymous said...

You both sound like educated idiots