A Parable

Imagine yourself in the midst of a great city, surrounded by people of all kinds. Above you is a bright, beautiful blue sky. You turn to a person near you and say: “Isn’t that a beautiful blue sky?” and the person just looks at you funny and walks hurriedly away. Confused, you turn to the next person and ask why the other person reacted so strangely to your comment about the blue sky.

“Blue? My friend, the sky is green. Can’t you see? It’s completely green in every respect.”

Dumbfounded, you stand there, unbelieving. Is it possible that your eyes are damaged in some way? What could you be missing here? The person smiles a comforting grin at you, as if placating a child, and walks away. You pull a dollar bill from your pocket – you know for a fact that your money is green, and it is not the color of the sky. You walk to the park, and you see trees, and grass, and yes, those things are green. Obviously. You look from the tree to the sky and back again, and there is very clearly a difference in color. There are a lot of people enjoying the day in the park, and you go up to a man who is wearing a green hat and a green tie, and you ask: “Sir, please, can you tell me what color that tree is?”

“Well it is quite plainly a green tree.”

“And the grass?”

“Green as well.”

“And what color is the sky?”

The green wearing man looks back at you with a smoldering look in his eyes. “Look sonny. I know where this is going, so don’t even bother. I’ve been persecuted my whole life because I follow the path! The sky is green, and that is that.”

“But you’re wearing a green hat and tie!”

“Of course!”

“They’re not the same color as the sky!”

“I don’t feel like debating this,” the man sighs, “because I know the truth.” By this time, another man has come by and shouts at the man wearing the hat: “You’re a fool! You think the sky is sea green, when it can only be forest green. Why can’t you accept this??”

The two men argue, and it becomes quite heated. You step back, again incredulous at the exchange. The men eventually come to blows, and people around them start gathering, but no one moves to stop them. You look around and desperately grab someone and say: “Please! Please tell me that you can see the sky is blue!”

And the person you grabbed looks at you and wavers and says “Well… what does it matter anyway? Why not just follow everyone else and call the sky green? A lot of other people say the sky is green… so, you know, just in case those people are right, I say it’s green too. It’s better that way.”

This is what it’s like to be an atheist.

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42 Responses to A Parable

  1. kitteridge says:

    It’s good, but …. I’d think the equivalent would be more like: “The sky may seem blue, friend, but a book I read said it really is green and so, I believe it is and you cannot convince me otherwise.”

    And then there would be a sort of sad tone about how clearly, you just don’t understand what faith is about. The deeply religious feel faith equals fact — “because the Bible tells me so, etc.” Belief supersedes anything you can empirically qualify.

    That’s what’s so weird about the recent “creationist” exhibits and other attempts to have religion follow the scientific model. Not the same thing.

    • mik3cap says:

      I didn’t necessarily want to bring books into it, or to make it lean towards implicating one religion or another (one that has a book or one that doesn’t or whatever). I just wanted it to be about perception of reality and denial of evidence.

    • moviemuff says:

      there was a time(not so long ago) when most people did not read – so all of faith was based on visual images – i think color is a great reference point to compare conceptually, however i think just saying “green’ is not enough either. Perhaps it should be written in a phrase “the sky is as green as the. . . ” and each time someone replies – the replies is sheepishly the same.

  2. sirroxton says:

    Eh, I know what you’re trying to say, but I think your parable would be much better served with a petty conceptual distinction rather than a petty semantic distinction.

    • mik3cap says:

      I considered adding a conceptual discussion on the perception of color and that the brain “sees” something other than objective reality (google for “grue” and “bleen”). But then I realized that doing that is completely besides the point. And the point is simple: When there is evidence before you that indicates one thing, why are you believing in something completely different that has no credible evidence to support it whatsoever?

      • sirroxton says:

        Right, as you point out, the semantics of color names confuses the parable. Something like the disputed existence of a tree in the park would have avoided the problem.

        • mik3cap says:

          I don’t know. The thing is, you can pretty much prove that a tree does or doesn’t exist. But you can’t really prove that the color a person is “seeing” is green or blue; you can ask them to identify colors, but you never know what they actually see when they’re looking at something. Maybe their brain is actually telling them it’s green, the way that the brainwashed John Smith thinks he sees five fingers in 1984; maybe they’re hallucinating. Who knows?

          • sirroxton says:

            Go with something like the five fingers, then. Even if people’s brains make them see green, they’re not really wrong. The parable just doesn’t work.

            • mik3cap says:

              They are provably wrong if they are mentally ill or delusional, and the wavelength of light from an object they call blue and the wavelength of light from something they call green are similar. Just because they “see” something doesn’t mean they’re right. There weren’t voices actually speaking just because the Son of Sam “heard” them. There isn’t room for relativism in this metaphor.

              • sirroxton says:

                When people say green, they don’t mean 520–570 nm light. But this is a gross tangent. My only point was that the subject of the parable makes it more confusing than it should be.

  3. eclective says:

    Ah, I don’t want to add to the number of people who already have nitpicks with this and make you feel outnumbered; but I think that’s a bit of an inaccurate metaphor. It’s not that religious people in general (maybe some subset of them who do look at things that are blatantly one thing and call them another, but by no means all) are looking at something that’s clearly one thing and yet are deluded into the idea that it’s another. If it were as clear as knowing that the sky is blue, people wouldn’t be religious; the fact that religion is about something we can’t touch or see or smell, that we can’t know from direct experience (well, maybe some people can…) and that we can only guess at, is what makes it so pervasive. To see a clearly blue sky and say it was green, you’d have to have something either psychologically or physically wrong with you; but religious people aren’t mentally ill. They just assume a different explanations for what they do see.

    I agree a lot of the debating over whose man-in-the-sky is bigger and badder can get really immature and aside from the point, but I don’t think this quite describes the core concept going on here.

    • mik3cap says:

      If it were as clear as knowing that the sky is blue, people wouldn’t be religious

      See, I don’t believe that would be the case. If aliens landed tomorrow and definitively proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they created the world and everything in it, I guarantee there would still be a lot of people who would believe that a god did the job.

      Evolution is as much scientific fact as it comes, yet there are many religious people who refuse to believe in it, preferring the “magic man in sky made animals and me and world” approach.

      While religious people aren’t considered to be especially mentally ill by our society, I believe they’re as delusional as a child who believes in Santa Claus.

      • saintentreri says:

        But you should also mind that religious people aren’t necessarily that fanatical. Those are just the ones who get the news coverage. There are those of us who simply choose to believe that no human being has the necessary capacity to decipher the basis of reality in all it’s intricacies.

        There could be a being that far beyond my understanding and perception, because it’s not my right to say definitively that that being does not exist without complete proof. Of course, by this route, one could also settle with things like aliens and ghosts, or whatever paranormal occurrences people claim to witness. In essence, I believe that anything is possible, because there is always the possibility that humanity is not nearly the most advanced species in existence, nor the most intelligent.

        If there is a ‘god’ or godlike being in reality, I would think he (or whatever) would be sort of like a Vulcan during the time before first contact (or the alien group in the RA Heinlen book Have Space Suit, Will Travel). What being that advanced would bother with so provincial and violent a species as humans?

        • mik3cap says:

          Fanaticism really doesn’t factor into it. The absence of fanaticism in a population at this time is not an excuse to tolerate socially acceptable delusions.

          Is it right and good for a child to continue to believe in Santa Claus into adulthood? There could very well be an unproveable being beyond all understanding who brings presents to small children. Same with tooth fairy and Easter bunny. Should adults believe in these things, and is it necessary for them to believe in them? Why is a god different from Santa?

          My point here is this: you’re right that anything is possible, and I agree; but believing in something with no evidence whatsoever – and in fact with some evidence to the contrary – is delusional. There has never been any indication of a supreme being that can’t be explained by rational means, and there never will be.

          • sirroxton says:

            Even moderate Christians believe fundamental things about the nature of the universe that affect their actions, thought processes, and general outlook on life. If that’s not fanaticism, then the word “fanaticism” is less useful than you might think.

            • mik3cap says:

              You make an excellent point. And I suppose a pharmacist refusing to fill 10,000 birth control prescriptions over the course of a number of years might have a bigger impact than a man killing a doctor at a clinic.

              • sirroxton says:

                The way I see it, everything should be communicable. Rational ideas can be discussed critically, especially self-critically with an acknowledgment of natural human biases. Concepts that are rooted in personal feelings are still valuable, but we must acknowledge them as being rooted in personal feelings.

                Moderate Christianity is a huge hurdle to getting everyone communicating in the same language, and while getting people communicating in mutually understandable ways wouldn’t usher in a new era of harmony, it would be a huge leg up for intelligent public discourse.

                • mik3cap says:

                  Maybe what’s needed is more exposure to scientific thinking and rationalism at an early age. What’s really happening is that concepts are not getting equal time; Santa and God get more exposure among children than the germ theory. It’s not like we can’t boil concepts down to make them understandable – instead of the teletubbies dancing around like morons and pointing at the baby-sun, maybe they should be in space and push each other around causing equal but opposite reactions.

                  • sirroxton says:

                    I see the value in that, and I think I agree with you; however, there’s one little counterpoint that’s crawling under my skin.

                    Science demonstrates that there are better ways of finding answers to questions than consulting the oracle in your head. But doesn’t that reinforce the idea that every question has an absolute answer? A lot of the educated latch onto things like utilitarianism purely because of its false promise to give cold, mathematical answers to hard social questions. People need to learn to let go and realize that the answers to a lot of questions don’t exist in any absolute form — that we need to have the moral courage to choose for ourselves and act upon our answers, while having the intellectual honesty and humility to realize that those answers are more or less arbitrary and deeply personal. Science is an important piece of that lesson, but it’s not the whole thing.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      I don’t think there’s any danger of losing the warm fuzziness you seek. It’s going to take a long time to bridge the gap between that and the vast underrepresenation of rationality and scientific reasoning, so I doubt it’ll become a problem any time soon.

                      There are plenty of social Darwinists on the religious side of the equation too. People will latch onto *anything* that helps them prove their point, and make it their own.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      When a scientist tells a religious man that science has the answers, he looks at science and says, “Uh, no it doesn’t.” And he’s right. Absent the understanding of how to make moral decisions without divine instruction, the whole science-as-life-philosophy thing looks very nihilistic, and it’s not surprising that people run away screaming, clutching their crucifixes.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      So it sounds to me like you’re really saying is science lacks the comfort factor of the denial of death that religion has… or perhaps it is lacking the complete and utter absolutism of divine answers that are “right” yet have no basis in reality? I flat out refuse you on this, I deny your relativism of “everyone is right” just because people have the ability to come up with a funny little god-story in their imagination that tells them why they are right.

                      When a person comes up to me and says “I’m right” and I say “Why?” and they say “Because I said so” I call shenanigans. That’s basically all that religion is offering. What’s surprising to me is that people are satisified with that – but I suppose as children it is the first training we ever receive from our parents “Do it because I tell you to.” Isn’t it a shame then that people can never “grow up” achieve a higher moral level than doing whatever their daddy-priest tells them to do?

                      Science offers repeatable results, and I would submit that morality based on science is always more valid than any based on “just because” since the knowledge of action derived from science is at least demonstrable. People may not agree on the course of action, but you can at least say “This is probably what will occur if these things happen” versus “You will get punished if you are bad.”

                      Religious morality is the most immature, childish moral state I can concieve of, and has not the slightest amount of independent thought tied to it. It stunts human growth in this respect.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      Science doesn’t give us an absolute reason for not killing other people. We personally value human life and extrapolate (perhaps in a “scientific” way) based on that. Do you disagree?

                    • sirroxton says:

                      Sorry, an absolute *mandate*. There are plenty of absolute reasons, but there are reasons for many bad things.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      You’re saying that science has no equivalent of “do unto others?” and that makes it nihilistic? I think that one could easily say that without sentient thought, there can be no scientific advancement – therefore the potential loss of original ideas through killing other humans is a detriment.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      No, no, obviously I don’t think science is nihilistic. But the unimaginative person looking at science as an alternative to religion would be left with a big question mark as to how to handle moral issues. That makes science as an alternative seem deeply unsatisfying. What I’m saying is that people need a little more hand-holding (above and beyond science curriculum) with respect to understanding how to live as an atheist to make the idea of switching less horrifying.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      I just reread your comment. While my old point still stands even if I accept what you said (that you need to teach people how to engage in those mental gymnastics), I reject your point.

                      Science doesn’t include its own advancement as a value. That’s a personal choice. That’s the most BIZARRE contortion of the naturalistic fallacy I’ve ever scene.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      *seen. Jesus.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      No, I think science does include its own advancement – by definition of the scientific method, if by nothing else. How else could the method work, if not through refinement and retesting of hypotheses, over and over again? And why else would any scientist say that their work stands on the shoulders of those that came before them, if they didn’t believe in advancement? I think it’s just too implicit and not a very overtly proclaimed value… and maybe that’s the problem: science is not as viral as religion.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      I don’t think it’s implicit, despite your unscientific handwaving, but let’s put that issue to the side.
                      Would you say that if killing people didn’t prevent the advancement of science, it would be… OK? I really must insist that the “warm fuzzies” are critically important.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      You’re the one arguing against the point, now you want to put it aside when I call you on it? That’s unfair. I also don’t accede to your calling what my statement “unscientific handwaving”. Back yourself up with some logical statements, if you can.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      Why don’t you start by making a logical argument?

                    • sirroxton says:

                      OK, I take that back. That wasn’t helpful.

                      But really, by saying, “Let’s put that aside,” I really meant, “Let’s assume I agree for the sake of argument.”

                      So, assuming I agree for the sake of argument, would you say that if killing people didn’t prevent the advancement of science, it would be… OK? I’m inferring from your argument that the advancement of science is the primary reason for keeping people alive. Please tell me that I’m wrong on that utterly offensive point.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      You know what? If it were, it would still be infinitely preferable to “because magic sky man said so”. At least it’s a reason based in reality.

                    • sirroxton says:

                      *shudder* We’ll probably have this conversation again in the future, if you’ll permit it. I feel bad that I’ve flooded your journal with provocations.

                      Right now, I’m just aggravated, because if I’m having this much trouble getting a smart, committed atheist on the same page as me, what chance do I have of swaying anyone? In this regard, my aggravation isn’t a reflection of you, but of my stupid ego.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      I am stubbornly adamant about rejecting religious beliefs that base their absolute morality solely on ancient texts, and not on rational thought. If there is no reason besides “because the book said so” I refuse to accept it. And I’m afraid “divine truth” always boils down to “because the book said so.”

                    • sirroxton says:

                      Well, that and “because the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear,” but yeah, we agree completely on that front.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      Well, by your earlier reasoning, anything I say is right because everyone is right about everything. Is that the kind of “logic” you seek?

                    • sirroxton says:

                      I don’t know how you got that impression of my reasoning.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      To your other point: you asked me for a science-based justification of not killing, then rejected the one I came up with. Do you want me to come up with another one, or would you rather just tell me the words you want me to write so you can make the rebuttal you seem to have saved up somewhere? It might just be easier for you to make your point instead of engaging me in a dialectic.

                      The framework you’re looking for obviously doesn’t exist in science, largely because scientists have been afraid to apply morality to their work; maybe for fear of hindering progress, or “tainting” results, or maybe because the scientific method and rationalism themselves are relatively new societal concepts that still need work. I am therefore trying to invent it for you, so bear with me if that’s really the thing you’re looking for.

                    • griffytime says:

                      I have one question; When you were trapped in the car with Ben…all those years ago…did you say “oh,God”.
                      Just curious.

                    • mik3cap says:

                      No, and neither did I think that god would save or had saved me. I relied on myself to stay conscious and be lucid and try to escape from the car.