Thursday, January 15, 2009

Art and Atheism

Gordon McCabe, having said that I use The Sunday Times for pro-religious campaigning - which, apart from being pretty Looney Tunes in itself, is also, since Gordon appears to have read so much I have written, a palpable lie - now traduces my journalism. I'm not going to respond to this nonsense but I will say something more about religion. In fact, I have long sought a theme for this blog and religion may be the very thing. I have no faith and no system to which I wish to convert people. Aggressive and militant atheists (MA), however, do. Garden variety atheists I can handle, but these people are philistines and usually fools and, on the whole, I would avoid their company, not for fear of their arguments but because those arguments are unlikely to be interesting. I have argued for agnosticism, but this can be advanced one step further. Bear with me, there are many ways in which what I shall try in vain to say next may be tried in vain to be said. Here's one. Some time ago Will Alsop and I concluded that the great dividing line in the human species lay between those who had had an aesthetic experience and those who had not. We further concluded that it was possible, with careful study, to distinguish between these people on the basis of even brief contact. And, finally, we concluded that those without aesthetic experience represented a large majority of the population. I do not believe any MA can ever have had an aesthetic experience - ordinary atheists yes, but MAs no. (In fact, I don't quite see how an aesthetic experience would not at least leave people agnostic, but I am a tolerant, understanding type.) The reason I say this is that genuine contact with art is a transcendent experience of such inexplicable and enduring intensity that it simply could not co-exist with the rank vulgarity of putting signs on buses saying God probably does not exist, nor with any certainty that he does not, nor with any desire to convert people to this view, nor, in fact, with any absolute certainty about anything. The fundamental, almost baptismal (Eeek! Sorry, Gordon.) mark that art leaves on people, the mark identified by Will and me, utterly precludes such behaviour. 
There is more to be said on this and I shall say it, but, for now, a family crisis may mean I shall be unable to blog for the next few days.

60 comments:

  1. I am sympathetic to your views. But:

    'I concluded that the great dividing line in the human species lay between those who had had an aesthetic experience and those who had not. We further concluded that it was possible, with careful study, to distinguish between these people on the basis of even brief contact. And, finally, we concluded that those without aesthetic experience represented a large majority of the population'

    This appears an arrogant and sweeping assertion. How do you know?

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  2. What is an 'aesthetic experience'?
    Is it the same as a numinous experience?
    Deeply unfashionable as she currently is, Simone Weil has a lot to say in 'Waiting on God' about the reactions of different races (she sees them more as tribes) when they come into the presence of the divine.
    She thought that some races were more naturally receptive to the spiritual than others.
    Is there anything in this?

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  3. "The reason I say this is that genuine contact with art is a transcendent experience of such inexplicable and enduring intensity that it simply could not co-exist with the rank vulgarity of putting signs on buses saying God probably does not exist, nor with any certainty that he does not, nor with any desire to convert people to this view, nor, in fact, with any absolute certainty about anything. "

    Now, surely you can see that this is self-contadictory (unless you are not really certain after all that 'genuine contact with art is a transcendent experience' etc, in which case it is a poor criterion with which to divide up the human species). Actually, I am not so sure that dividing up the human species into a huge in-group and huger out-group is such a good idea anyway, even if it weren't so implausible. Surely history is full of warnings about that kind of thinking.

    I am sure others will list all those who have, beyond question, had a 'genuine contact with art' by any definition and have not found it at all inconsistent with less high flown acts like advertising on buses and rubbing along with the common folk in all sorts of other ways, and whose examples therefore seem to thoroughly contradict the thrust of this post.

    One thing I would like to clear up, though, is who these 'militant atheists' we keep hearing about are? We know who the militant religionists are (the ones with guns) but I have never seen or heard of an armed atheist movement. I take it that 'aggressive atheist' means the sort who writes books about it. Oddly, the same doesn't seem to follow for religionists. Deep waters, indeed.

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  4. Bacon sandwiches

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  5. sorry, I thought you were saying that art has the power to move us emotionally but if that emotion doesn't then move us towards God then the experience is spurious.

    that would be silly, wouldn't it?

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  6. I think what Bryan is saying, and if he is then I agree with it, is: there are some people (atheists and others) who are very clever.... but they just don't get it.

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  7. "I think what Bryan is saying, and if he is then I agree with it, is: there are some people (atheists and others) who are very clever.... but they just don't get it."

    If he is, he is taking a very cheap position. You must see that it could be swung both ways? That's because it is not an argument, just a attitude. Simply striking attitudes won't get us very far.

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  8. Incidentally, wouldn't the whole of the post be refuted if it could be shown that any imporaatnt artist/architect (by common consent) were also an atheist? Unless we take the view that there can be important artists who do not have aesthetic experiences, in which case the Appleyard/Alsop club of people who really understand art must be very exclusive indeed.

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  9. I was thinking something like that yesterday.

    I was driving past with my draw dropped at this........

    CLICK HERE

    And thought to myself with is how fundamentalist Atheists must see the world.

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  10. I did an arts degree and for a long time believed I was a uniquely spiritual being who really 'got it' unlike the unfeeling plebs who undertook scientific subjects or took the Clapham omnibus. Reassuringly, science grads always seemed sneakily envious of the arty types - generally we could articulate better, were more entertaining, knew cool stories. Age and experience has shown me that most people witness and experience things very differently and their feelings are no less valid than my own - in very many cases they are more intense and from time to time make me feel a bit cheap. So this notion of 'getting it' appears a bit spurious. However, I do dislike the Dawkins/Hitchens take on religious belief and experience - they are missing something and so, as we become less religious as a society, is the culture.

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  11. It certainly isn't a science vs arts thing. It's more about an attitude to what humans are.

    Come on, we all know it when we see it. Unless we can't, in which case we wouldn't be bothered about it anyway.

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  12. I'm guessing by the influx of anonymous posters that the Militant Athiests are out in force.

    I am personally an athiest. This is simply because I don't believe in God. I don't feel the touch of an ineffable precense in my life or in the world around me.

    Militant Athiests, like Dawkins, drive me to distraction. In seeking to convert, in acting like a pack of zealots, they are proving themselves to be just as bad as the Church at it's worse. Religion, or a lack of, should be a personal choice. I stress the word personal, because for a choice to be truly personal, it can't have been influenced by some frothing lunatic.

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  13. Interesting idea but i think it needs fine-tuning. Human beings are so tricky and perplexing that it's entirely possible for a man to have an intense aesthetic experience but to respond with despair that (he feels) there is no underlying metaphysical basis to this, that a beautiful girl is not Beautiful but merely beautiful; or that Beethoven is just air vibrations which, by some quirk of his brain, he hears as exquisite music. That despair could even become the rage so characteristic of the MAs, and every instance of beauty would only drive him on to rail against the lies he rejects precisely because they are so alluring.

    However, at least as far back as Plato (in literature) beauty has been deemed a mark of the divine, and so the means by which human beings can arrive at some knowledge of the gods (c.f. Phaedrus, Symposium). And certainly, for me at least, there seems something divine in beauty, whether it is 'natural' (e.g. a tree) or man-made (e.g. a painting) - i find my sense of beauty inseparable from a sense of the divine. And conversely ugliness always seems somehow man-made, as if it could only have been produced by humanity, by men bereft of the gods.

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  14. Brit, I never said it was a science versus arts thing. It is an example from my own experience, which has led me to believe that it is very arrogant to believe that I have 'got it' and others haven't.

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  15. By the way, since the Bloggers' Code demands that we must mention Richard Dawkins a minimum of six times per thread - I think Dawkins does get it. He might even get it too much.

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  16. Brit, personally i find Dawkins divinely beautiful. i love to contemplate his witch-hunter general face, sometimes for hours on end. i've tried to talk to him about the paradox this presents but he just keep running away and throwing objects at my head.

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  17. "Militant Athiests, like Dawkins, drive me to distraction. In seeking to convert, in acting like a pack of zealots, they are proving themselves to be just as bad as the Church at it's worse. "

    Nobody seems to want to tell me but I might as well ask again: in what way is Dawkins 'militant'. I can't imaging a man less likely to engage in an act of violence and he certainly doesn't appear to go armed. And since when did writing a book about something make you a zealot? Why do these standards only seem to get applied to atheists writing on the subject of atheism? Nobody accuses religious novelists (some of whom are popular hereabouts) of 'militant theism' or zealotry, do they?

    As to the idea that Dawkins is immune to the power of beauty or aesthetic experience, I can only assume that the people who believe this haven't read much of his work. Those of us who have usually find ourselves looking at the world with a powerfully renewed sense of wonder, blinking at the staggering beauty of it all. The handwaving of the religiose just doesn't do this for me. Why the world should feel more beautiful or even meaningful because we believe in a hugely powerful being like Zeus is beyond me. What is so lovely about Zeus? Just a sex-obsessed bully isn't he? Of course the stories about Zeus are beautiful, but they are human artifacts.

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  18. In Tesco's yesterday Dawkins threw a can of baked beans at my head as i was trying to discern traces of the divine in the way he does his weekly shopping. He said i was a loony.

    i kept the beans. One day i will eat them, the Beans of Dawkins.

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  19. Hmmn, this argument makes me a little suspicious. Saying "Art will save me" is not so different from saying "God will save me". Both depend on something out there. There is nothing out there. It's up to you, or me.

    Imho it really depends on something inside here, and whatever it is can be awoken in so many ways you could not count them. What matters is waking up, not how the waking up is done or whether (the Road to Damascus thing) this happens suddenly or gradually.

    So I suspect Brit has a very strong point. Some folks get it and some folks don't. That isn't a judgement, simply a state of affairs. But to say it all comes down to "art" - a very slippery term - is awfully limiting. I'm chucking in Folsom and tattoos to keep those Google hits coming.

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  20. "So I suspect Brit has a very strong point. Some folks get it and some folks don't. That isn't a judgement, simply a state of affairs. "

    It's just handwaving.

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  21. Well, I can understand that it would look like handwaving if you didn't get it.

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  22. What is 'it' anyway? Is this some kind of philosophical Mornington Crescent?

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  23. "Well, I can understand that it would look like handwaving if you didn't get it."

    But, hang on Brit, you are the one who doesn't get it. Didn't you know? That is why it doesn't look like handwaving to you. (See how this goes?)

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  24. Oh well, maybe it would be an idea to leave Prof Dawkins out of this. And all the guff about beauty, wonder, loveliness, etc. This isn't a Hovis advert and there's a bit more to life than staring all day at some allegedly lovely scene with your mouth open. Leave that one for the old folks home. What gets you through the good times are the good times. The question is what gets you through the bad times.

    This is all about it, folks. Nothing whatever but everything arises from it, as the saying goes. It is there but no one has to get it.

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. (Not really, John.) You seem to think every argument is the same argument. It's quite odd; no matter what anyone says, you act like they're attacking your particular brand of secular rationalist disbelief.

    I prescribe Enderby, Handel, long periods of silence, Visions of Johanna, death and Nigeness.

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  27. Make your blog about religion and you will get tons of traffic and comments. At Nature we only have to mention the word and we get inundated.
    Anyway, I agree that aesthetic experience is one definition of humanity, or "being human", and that it is an experience one can have whether scientifically or arts-trained, and whether an atheiest or not.
    "An appreciation of beauty" is something that seems to desert anyone who is "politically correct", rather than to be to do with one's education or religious belief. Certain po-faced "do-gooders" among the social workers, council employees, people who write government information leaflets (who ARE those people?) and people in "help centres" for example, could do with some aesthetic appreciation. For the sanity of the rest of us.

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  28. In arguments with MAs, I'm often struck by their co-dependant relationship with creationist literalism and how anxious they are to position faith as a competing natural history that violates everything science has discovered since the Enlightenment. It's as if they are intellectually frozen in Sunday School and delight more in battling medieval cosmologies than listening to what modern theology and modern critics of scientific orthodoxies have to say. Religion, at least Judeo-Christianity, is the story of human consciousness (especially consciousness of mortality and the irrationality of existence) and alienation. It is the belief/assertion that there is meaning to existence and experience beyond all the objective determinisms the Darwins, Freuds and Marxs throw up, which most of us readily believe explain other people perfectly but are woefully incomplete in explaining ourselves.

    Unsurprisingly, the "proofs" that there is reality beyond the material are found mainly in subjective experience and testimony. They resemble the proofs of a court more than the proofs of a lab. The extent that we can share their authority depends on shared experience and our willingness to believe the other guy knows what he is talking about. As such, there is no more tiresome rejoinder than an endless repetition of "But how can you be sure?" Those who debate atheist Darwinists learn pretty quickly that they can come up with an objectively determined explanation for absolutely everything that ever happened and absolutely everything everybody experiences or does, just as the Freudians and Marxists can. These are usually unconscious and evident only to the formally indoctrinated. Those determinisms always collapse under the weight of their own philosophical illogic, but also because at some stage many folks rebel with varying degrees of passion against the idea that they are objects of impersonal forces in a random, meaningless universe. Something inside screams at them that such violates every notion of beauty, good, truth, justice, love, etc, (as well as their opposites)that sets the boundaries of their lives and could not possibly be true.

    So, the authority for Bryan's argument lies in whether you think Bryan has the depth, wisdom and experience to know what he he is talking about or whether you think he is either suffering delusions or is as ignorant and naive as a four year old who believes in Santa, and that clever scientists like Gordon are the only ones who have truly figured everything out.

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  29. "Religion, at least Judeo-Christianity, is the story of human consciousness (especially consciousness of mortality and the irrationality of existence) and alienation."

    Well it depends on who you tqlk to, doesn't it? For many people it is the story of pain, violence, torture and misety. Surely science and poetry provides better insights into human consciousness than 'god did it'?

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  30. "The problem people have with Dawkins is that he is aggressively evangelistic in his atheism. "

    This 'aggressive' and 'militant' meme won't lie down will it? In what way is Dawkins 'aggressively evangilistic'? YOu can only mean that he has published a book about it and made a TV series and discusses it in the media when invited. That is a very special definition of 'aggression', I would say. Are all those theologians who have written books about religion 'aggressive' and 'militant' too? Thought not.

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  31. John, you don't think arguing that religious people who raise their children in their faith are committing child abuse qualifies? How about splenetic first-person rages against the Amish who, last I heard, weren't troubling anybody? Asserting that anyone who believes in God is either stupid or a liar?

    If you think this is all academic and that such rants by a popular authority have no chance of having practical consequences, you are very naive.

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  32. Peter, making strong points about religion or politcs in a book is not aggressive. It takes a real effort to read through to the place where Dawkins makes perfectly reasonable points about the abuse inherent in some religious indoctrination, it can hardly be described as 'aggressive'. The same follows for the rest of your complaints. Expressing opinions that others disagree with is not aggresssion. I agree with Dawkins, by the way, that the Amish society is an especially repellent one. I commit no act of agression by saying so.

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  33. Some years back a distinguised science writer told me, in a sort of ecstasy of exasperation, "The thing you arts graduates will never understand is that there are just two classes of things in this universe: there's physics and there's bullshit."

    I don't think I had ever understood the value of my education until then.

    Apropos of Dawkins (if we have to) I rather liked Andy Hamilton's line on TV last week: "He's worse than a Jehovah's Witness -- a sort of Jehovah's I-Never-Saw-a Bloody Thing".

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  34. I agree with Dawkins, by the way, that the Amish society is an especially repellent one. I commit no act of agression by saying so.

    That's a keeper.

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  35. I am pleased you wish to keep it Brit, but it would be more fun if you explained what it was about it that gripped you (I hope it wasn't just the mispelling of 'aggression').

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  36. John Meredith

    Can't you see the contradictions in your own arguments. Just for a second imagine that they were being mouthed by someone of a religious disposition. Would you accept them? Can aggression only take a physical form? Or is aggression and militancy only perpetrated by those you disagree with?

    Peter Burnet:

    "the objective determinisms the Darwins, Freuds and Marxs throw up, which most of us readily believe explain other people perfectly but are woefully incomplete in explaining ourselves."

    I wish I'd come up with that. As well as the rest of well argued and non-aggressive comment.

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  37. "Can't you see the contradictions in your own arguments."

    Well, no, or I wouldn't make them. If you would like to point them out to me I would be very interested.

    "Can aggression only take a physical form?"

    No, but no evidence has been put forward that Dawkins has been verbally aggresssive either. He expresses emphatic views politely and, generally, in print. How is that 'aggression'? Is the Archbish of Canterburuy aggressive and militant? I don't agree with him at all, but I can't therefore accuse him of militancy.

    "Or is aggression and militancy only perpetrated by those you disagree with?"

    The terms have fairly precise meanings, espacially 'militant' We know what militant religion looks like, because the militants are armed and we can see them every night on TV. If there are no armed atheists, or atheists organised for combat, they are not 'militant' and it is likely the word is just being used to discredit perfectly peacable people.

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  38. Well, you could count Dawkins throwing a can of baked beans at my head an act of aggression, though to be fair i was running at him with a big sexual grin, and i was shouting something like "come home with me!", which may not have sounded as friendly and inviting as i meant it to be.

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  39. John

    I give in. You're right. Militant does have a "precise" meaning, as you say. Silly me, I missed the obvious clue when I heard about the 'Church Militant'. As for the Militant Tendency, how could I have failed to spot the assault rifles.

    Advice. Look up the word 'nuance' and try and apply it to your perspective on life.

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  40. "I give in. You're right. Militant does have a "precise" meaning, as you say. Silly me, I missed the obvious clue when I heard about the 'Church Militant'. As for the Militant Tendency, how could I have failed to spot the assault rifles."

    'Chutrch Militant' is a specialist jargon phrase, but it is referring to 'Christain soldiers' (onward etc)and the analogyu is to the war against the satanic foe. When we use 'militant' adjectivally, we mean engaged in violent conflict. 'Militant Tendency', of courtse, was a law unto itself, but if you think they were dedicated to limiting themselves to peaceful struggle, I think you should think again.

    Anyway, we needn't squabble, just try saying 'atheist' instead of 'militant atheist' and we will understand each other.

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  41. The first of that lot, Oxford Prof. Peter Atkins, author of mad reductionist tract The Creation, descibed himself as a militant athiest on tv in the eighties. Shit me up he did.

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  42. "It certainly isn't a science vs arts thing. It's more about an attitude to what humans are."
    About the only piece of common sense on the blog today Brit.
    An lot of opinion wafting down from the clouds. You will pardon me while I stifle a yawn.

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  43. I agree with you on militant atheists. Don't you think it's perhaps rushing to judgement though to presume that an aesthetic experience will lead to agnostism? The first time I realised God didn't exist felt very aesthetic. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensivily on the value of aesthetic experience while disbelieving in God or an afterlife. He wasn't a proseltizying aethiest but his philosophy left no doubt that he was one.

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  44. I want to speak up for John Meredith on this thread. I can't see anything he said that is unreasonable. Malty, Brit and one or two others are just Bryan's gang eager to support their leader. Gee, wish I was as spiritual and knowing as them, then maybe I could join the gang too.

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  45. Malty, Brit and one or two others are just Bryan's gang eager to support their leader.


    Eh? I thought Bryan and Malty were in my gang.

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  46. HORIZON it was, 1987: 'Not only am I an athiest, I am a militant athiest' (his stress not mine).

    Basilisk face of pure void-beholding horror and contempt (for us, mere God-fearing mortals, not the void, they worship that).

    Catch him if you can - he's worse than The Dork.

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  47. It clicked when Dawkins said, out of all the arts, he didn't get painting.

    The still, silent stare outside of space and time.

    God that.

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  48. What these people do not get is that it is very easy to view things as they do. Where the full extent of the thought, is that man is animal. Where every scribble and daub is worthy, every endevour above survival laudable and all expression needing amasement.
    I hold that man is human and has been human and that it is difficult to hold the idea to yourself and for others.
    The Human Position- if you will forgive- is since 1945, where the full response of ideas on pollution, science ? based and acted upon with industrial management could be seen.
    FACT. the european States did not want ANY information from those places getting out, it was the Yanks that were shocked to the core.
    But why, for God sake, were the yanks so shocked, and shocked enough to demand trials. They were hardly shining lights themselves.
    It comes down to brotherhood and it is the whys of the sixties reformation in the southern states, Northern Ireland and SA. For if you accept the old method, then you accept that some are human and some are not, cattle.
    Your idea of aesthetic is just pure BS. For it exposes your training rather than the original.
    Are you with mind presenting this.

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  49. Shades of Gary Glitter, Wannabe in my gang, my gang, sonny.
    As the man said, we are all in the gutter, some of us are gazing at the stars.
    Nice arse, Ava Gardiner.

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  50. If more people were honest and admitted the fact that, like us, they were in the gutter then less opinionated waffle would occur.

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  51. Burned into me it did, that phizzog. Knew he was wrong from the horror it instilled in me. Like an alien - that one from the back-end of Star Trek - beaming in over the airwaves to mock our cosy little world.
    Rebellious angels, these athiests, jealous of our love and resentful of the need to serve.

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  52. It's beginning to feel more and more like a fascist hippy commune in here.

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  53. No anon, that's the Labour goverment.

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  54. Yup, from Bryan's aestheticism to John's atheism and finally to Malty's arseism in a single thread. They're all the same really if you stand far enough away. I can't see what's wrong with hippie communes myself.

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  55. Thank God / a railway sleeper for that, Mark has wrapped it up in a nutshell, in the words of the inestimable Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is ?"
    Yes petal, that's all there fucking well is.

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  56. Hi Bryan,

    I hope things are going well.

    ~~~

    Hi John,

    I see you are a soldier in Catherine Fahringer's army, fighting in the cause to topple the common usage of the phrase "militant atheist."

    ~~~

    Hi Peter,

    Aesthetically speaking, what a beautiful comment: In arguments with MAs, I'm often struck . . ..

    ~~~

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  57. I don't see the necessary connection between aesthetics and belief in a supreme being. Aesthetic experiences are subjective, they say more about the subject than anything to do with the object.

    I've had what I consider "aesthetic experiences", particularly looking at the night sky or the Grand Canyon, but I'm not sure I did enough back flips to qualify for Bryan's definition. But I don't really care if I make that cut. I'm not impressed with most people who self-identify as aesthetes. It's an affliction that usually brings with it a decidedly negative opinion toward vast swaths of one's fellow men.

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  58. Wow, I go away for a couple of days and when I come back another religious battle is raging on Thought Experiments. Bryan, remember Yeats: "The worst are full of passionate intensity, the best lack all conviction."

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  59. Haven't you read Roth's Indignation?

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  60. Seems to me that much of the critical community (both academics and hacks) have never had an aesthetic experience in their lives - and yet they thrive under this disqualifying handicap, and, as a result, so do mediocrity and banality and downright artistic fraud.

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