Jesus Among the Utilitarians

Matthew 22:36-40 (KJV)


“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


[So I wrote this after I wrote the introduction, because what I intended to be an introduction got considerably more technical than I wanted it to be and didn’t look like an introduction anymore. In any case, this is the real introduction. Feel free to skip the intro below and get to the real thing.

In any case: the stuff below is an (atomic, ethical) exercise in what I think taking religion seriously would look like – that is to say, if we actually took religion seriously as a guide to matters on ethics, metaethics, ontology, etc.[1] Don’t treat it as a thing meant to persuade you of anything in particular. It’s more of a reeling-out, more of a demonstration, I’d say.]


So obviously if you are a religious person, and in particular if you are a Christian, the little bit of the Bible you see up there is kind of important. Important because it’s probably about as close as the book comes to telling you, in precise axiological form, not just what you ought to do, but what matters. The passage kind of signals its own importance, really: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, it says pithily, wagging a finger at you.

Before we get to the thing I want to talk about (which is what it might mean to love thy neighbour as thyself), I suppose, for clarity’s sake, that we should take a look at this passage and what’s going on here, because it’s irritatingly complicated.

Let’s name three kinds of obligation. (1): Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; (2): Love thy neighbour as thyself; and (3): everything else the Bible might oblige you to do.  What’s complicated is figuring out, from that passage, what the relevant relation between (1), (2), and (3) is.

There’s lots of possibilities.

One is that Jesus is providing the (apparently cynical) questioner with a lexical ordering, viz., saying that some rules in the Bible trump some other rules. Maybe he’s saying that

(A1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)]; or

(B1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)], but (2) also trumps (3); or

(C1): [(1) and (2)] trump (3).

These readings suggest that at least one of the two specified commands is great because it overrides: anything that runs up against it must give way, step aside, be thwarted. These lexical readings only really makes sense if you assume the Bible has contradictions, and so needs some rule by which the priority of different moral commands can be sorted out. But then it’s obvious that the Bible is full of contradictions.

Another option is to adopt an elaborative reading of the passage: Jesus is saying that the 600+ rules in the OT, and possibly all the guidance that comes after (although I’m casting a wary eye at Paul), are really just elaborations of one or both of the two commands, or that one command is an elaboration of the other. On this reading at least one of the two commands is “great” because it contains everything else. Possibilities:

(A2): (2) is an elaboration of (1), and (3) is an elaboration of (2); or

(B2): [(2) and (3)] are just elaborations of (1)

(C2): (3) is just an elaboration of [(1) and (2)]

I think all of these views are probably a bit off the mark. I think that (A2),  (B2), and (C2)must be wrong, because (2) is hugely contradictory to (3). I.e., “love your neighbour” really, really, really does not sit easily with all the genocidal stuff, stoning of children etc. in the OT. You’ll notice that it’s the fact that Jesus mentions (2), the whole love-your-neighbour thing, that rules our nearly all purely elaborative readings of the passage. If you took out (2), I think you could quite comfortably assume that “love God” = “follow all the rules of the OT”, i.e., (3) is an elaboration of (1). But the insertion of that radically compassionate element in (2) throws this all into a bit of disarray.

So I think there’s some lexical ordering going on. In fact I think it’s necessary, given the welter of contradictions the Bible throws at us. I think A1 and B1 are not obviously wrong, but are not to be favoured, really, because I don’t think that (1) has lexical priority over (2). Jesus was asked: which commandment is the greatest? Assuming that Jesus intended to answer the question (and that he was not stupid)[2], it would be weird for him to reply, “Well, so-and-so is the greatest rule. And this is the second greatest rule.” Why talk about the second-greatest rule when only asked about the greatest? My preferred reading is what we’ll call C1+, viz., [(1) and (2)] trump (3)], and that (1) and (2) are coequal because (2) is not merely an elaboration of (1) but is identical to it. If you find identical a bit too strong, a version of more widespread appeal to ordinary Christians would be that (2) is almost completely identical to (1). So a person who abides by (2) is a person who loves God, but does not love him fully, in the personal sense which (1) captures. So (1) guarantees (2) completely, and (2) guarantees (1) almost completely.

This is basically the third of our lexical-ordering options, with a little rider tagged on clarifying exactly what the relationship between (1) and (2) is. It might make sense of the mysterious bit where Jesus feels compelled to say, “and the second is like unto it”. Like unto it because it’s very nearly the same thing. On this reading, Jesus is really responding to the question by saying something like:

“Well, OK, the greatest commandment is the obvious one – love God absolutely, because God is that object which is deserving of our total and unconditional devotion. But I can see that that’s not really helpful, since I might just be telling you to just follow the 600+ rules of the OT, without giving you any sense of where the moral weight of Biblical teaching is, or without giving you real guidance re how you should behave morally. So I guess I should clarify that what it means to love God absolutely is to love your neighbour the same way you love yourself. And this second commandment (or statement of (1)) does give you some real guidance on how you ought to reason morally.

Hey, was that meant to be the intro? That was long.

The point is: (2) is important, even if you don’t accept, as I do, that (2) is (1) translated into practical-reason terms and that (2) trumps (3). If you subscribe to C1+ then obviously (2) is overwhelmingly important. But on any other reading (2) at least puts itself forward as giving you real moral guidance in one way or another.

The Real Thing

Let’s talk about what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

It would be weird if neighbour was literal, ofc, so I’m going to assume that neighbour means people. And since I can’t think of a good reason “neighbour” should exclude some people,[3] I’m going to assume neighbour = all people.

This command to love your neighbour as you love yourself really sets out a rule, therefore, that is some sense unbiased. It says, take a relation which you have to yourself, and apply that relation to all other people. The corollary of that is that the same relation is applied to all people.

That relation is love. There’s a bazillon different theories of what it means to love, but the command does at least tell us that whatever it is referring to using the word love, it is a relation that is also internal to us: whatever understanding of love we choose must allow us to sensibly say that we love ourselves. We are asked to love as we love ourselves, after all. This immediately rules the application of any “love as union” theories in this context, viz., and theory which stresses that love is about two “I”s becoming a “we”. Nozick for instance argues that love is a pooling of well-being and autonomy – but that makes no sense when there is just one person’s well-being and autonomy to consider.

The idea that we love ourselves is actually really hard to parse. This is because we usually think of a relation (such as love) as applying between two different things. A mereologically simple object – something with no parts at all – really can only have one relation to itself: it is itself. And that’s it. Can’t stick a cigarette wrapper in there, much less something as glompingly big as love. Even a set which contains itself and nothing else is not a simple object: you can talk about a set and the thing in it quite sensibly, even of those two things happen to the same.

So when we say we love ourselves, what we really have to mean is that there is some relation between us and a part of us, or some relation between a part of us and another part of us. I guess this is the thing we need to pin down. And the most obvious way of pinning it down is use the intuition that we have a certain kind of robust concern for ourselves, that we act to fulfil our preferences – that we pursue our goals and desires with all the effort and ingenuity we have, and regard failure to achieve these goals as bad, regrettable, unfortunate. And with just the right amount of merciless cribbing from Hume, you can kind of see that this seems separates out clearly enough (for our purposes at least) two distinct bits of us which are related in a way which gives meaning to the word love.

  1. That bit of us which consists of our preferences.
  2. That bit of us which rationally pursues those preferences.

And so what it means when we say we love ourselves is that we display robust concern for ourselves. And what that means is that we act on our preferences by formulating certain plans, trivial or complex, to realise those preferences.

All that matters because we can now figure out what it means to love our neighbour as we love ourselves: it’s another way of saying that we ought to have the same relation to other people’s preferences which we have to ours: we pursue them. This coheres kind of well with a common feature of many understandings of love: when you love someone, you don’t try to make them into something which they are not simply because you might desire that thing more: rather you take them as given, as they are right now, whole. My interests are also your interests, but they are still yours; I’m valuing you for your own sake, rather than for mine. That’s why there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything like an intrinsically bad preference, or an evil preference.

So: let’s imagine the set of all preferences which exist, and let’s call this the Total Universal Preference Set, or TUPS, because a snappy abbreviation will give this essaylet the dignity it would otherwise lack. Our goal is to pursue TUPS – to maximise the satisfaction of TUPS.  Pursuing TUPS is kind of difficult, because many preferences will be wildly contradictory with others. Well. Not quite. A preference by itself cannot contradict any other preference, so what I’m really saying is that the pursuit of a preference will often be incompatible with pursuit of another preference.

Let’s consider first the situation where these incompatibilities cannot be resolved. When we are deciding what to do when our preferences conflict, we generally do one of two things. Often we simply act according to the preference which is more intense. Pretty straightforward stuff: at gunpoint, we’d rather pass our wallet to the robber than risk getting shot. Or: we abandon one preference (or several preferences) if it conflicts with several other preferences (or some greater number of preferences) of equal strength. So according to this interpretation of the command to love your neighbour as yourself, the right thing to do in a trolley-problem-esque situation would be to try to satisfy as many preferences (to be alive) as possible: hence pull the lever, push the fat man, and so on. So far, so straightforward.[4]

But we can also try to resolve incompatibilities, in one of two ways. We could modify the world so that the pursuits of two preferences no longer run up against each other, or at least run up against each other a lot less. On a trivial level, nearly every preference restricts pursuit of another preference because resources are finite. Capitalism (one might say) is one way of coordinating our pursuit of preferences so that they don’t conflict quite as much as they might.

The other solution is to modify preferences so that they align. Which preferences should we modify? Well, each preference has at least two characteristics: an owner, and an intensity. There are some preferences which are both intense and widespread. Off the top of my head, here are four of them, not-too-precisely stated:

  1. A preference for being alive rather than dead.
  2. A preference for being loved / cared for, rather than being alone.
  3. A preference to be treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously.
  4. A preference for being free of intense physical pain.

These 4 preferences seem to be so powerfully embedded in most of us that a person who does not feel all 4 of them would usually be considered quite pathological. This is not to say that such a person is in fact pathological – I’m just pointing out that these 4 preferences are really, really, really strongly held by most of us. It’s hard to get you to feel this, but imagine how much you’d prefer not to suddenly appear naked in a prominent public space (say, the entrance of the nearest subway station) with a thoroughly distasteful symbol (say, a swastika) emblazoned across your chest. You’d be fucking mortified if that happened to you, yeah? Well: I bet that you’d endure that, like, a thousand times over if that meant that you got to stay alive, or not be alone forever, etc.

Importantly, we regard it as good if our own preferences conflict as little as possible in the first place, so that we can maximise the satisfaction of our preferences: think of how often we speak of a coherent plan of life, of directedness to our existence. Think of how a person who is an alcoholic – who has a strong preference for drink – also prefers that he not be an alcoholic, because this prevents him from pursuing many of his other preferences. When we apply this logic to TUPS – to the universe of preferences which are not our own – what we really are doing is extracting subsets of TUPS which are pathological because they seem get in the way of fully satisfying TUPS, (in particular because they conflict with intense + widespread preferences such as the 4 listed above) getting rid of them, and replacing them with non-pathological preferences.[5] These subsets might be

  1. The subset of other-hating preferences.[6]
  2. The subset of all selfish preferences.[7]
  3. The subset of all sadistic preferences.[8]

So basically: try to make others less racist, sexist, selfish, sadistic. In fact it seems to be more or less a direct logical consequence of the command to love our neighbours as ourselves that we try encourage others to love their neighbours as themselves.

What We’ve Got at the End of All This:

One not-obviously-stupid way of taking seriously the moral directive to love your neighbour as you love yourself:

*Maximise the satisfaction of all preferences, viz.,

A. Minimise conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Modifying preferences
  2. Modifying states of affairs

B. Resolve conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of more intense preferences
  2. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of the greater number of preferences;

Which, I realise, is probably as good a place as any to end this exercise.


[1] This has been done before, of course, and many times over, but the point is that it’s super weird that the average religious person who professes to genuinely believe in that some-text-or-another contains within it deep + abiding truths bothers to form no coherent thoughts about it at all, relying instead on the platitudes which are usually dished out at sermons today. Plus, TBH, a lot of the more well-known results of People Taking Religion Seriously are just too full of woo for my liking. Take the Thomist doctrine of Divine Simplicity, which turns out to be motivated more by a desire to make God seem all great and cool and abstract and stuff rather than to be even minimally coherent. So: if God is w/o parts and possesses no contingent qualities and is actually metaphysically equivalent to concepts such as goodness, justice, mercy, power, etc., then it follows that each of God’s properties is identical with each of his other properties, so that mercy = power, which is insane. Plus if God = his properties (and his properties are properties) then God also = a property (the property of being itself, I guess), but that means God can’t actually do stuff, because properties don’t do stuff, and it isn’t conscious or capable of loving, because properties aren’t conscious or capable of loving. Which is also insane – or at least stupendously unattractive as a view to hold. Plus if God is absolutely identical in all possible worlds (because possessing no contingent properties) then we need to discard fairly intuitive ideas such as “it is contingent that God punished Adam”, and, even more weirdly, all possible universes must be exactly the same, because in every universe God would have to know exactly the same things, and God knowing X = X is true.

[2] Depending on your persuasion, you might think these are generous assumptions. Whatever. They make it easier for me to do the thing I want to do.

[3] Especially given all that Good Samaritan + other-cheek-slapping  stuff in the NT.

[4] Although I guess I should clarify that when you push the fat man over you’re really weighing up his preference not to be used as a means to an end + his preference not to die + and your preference not to murder against the preference of 3 people not to die.

[5] E.g., compassionate preferences, such as the preference that there is less suffering in the world, rather than more. More specifically, preferences that (1) other people are alive rather than dead, (2) other people are loved and cared for, rather than alone, (3) other people are treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously, (4) other people are free of intense physical pain, and so on.

[6] E.g., preferences which are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, or otherwise discriminatory.

[7] E.g., nationalism.

[8] I think sadistic preferences are a lot more common than we realise: I’d regard the desire for retribution as a preference that’s both straightforwardly sadistic and almost universal, for instance.


The glow had long gone down behind the serrated edge of the mountains. It was late.

The order had not come in yet. Earlier Ary had asked Major Kenner if he and John could take the patrol of the outer encamp.

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

“Everyone’s tired,” Ary said. “We thought since we’ve got no orders yet that we could take things off C-2, sir.”

Major Kenner was one of those people who was always calm. He stopped writing and looked up at Ary.

“They got hit three days ago,” he had said. “Three deaths.  They need something to do.”

From another person that might have been cruel. But Major Kenner was not like that. He leaned back in his chair and gave Ary a look that said, go on, say what you think.

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

“No,” Kenner had said. “You are right. I can’t unfuck this situation for C-2. Hope they get through this.”

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

“Do you know what C-2 is like? They were teasing Danks all the way through because he’d not got his first kill. He was the loader, of course he hadn’t done it. They said he needed to do it so that they’d be a hundred percent. They will not go to Combat Stress. I can’t make them.” He stopped. “Well, I could. But it wouldn’t work if I made them do it. I need not to be the asshole here for a while.” Kenner grinned and looked tired. He did that. Ary was not used to it. He never did it if there was a Lance Corporal around but if he was with anyone from O2 onwards he sometimes came across like the rugged, fundamentally decent guy, the guy just a bit tired of it all, the guy that he must have been when he was a Corporal.

“No-one thinks you’re the asshole, sir.”

He shook his head. “Do Perries do platitudes now?”

Ary was about to say that he had meant it something but Kenner waved it away.

Kenner called Sergeant Friend and said, “Leave C-2 off it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

“The Perries will be doing the patrol. Tell C-2 to rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kenner turned to Ary and said, “Thanks, I guess.” Not like an O5 at all.

“No problem, sir.”)

The night was still. Ary walked but was not thinking of anything in particular. In the distance the grinding gears of the terrainers and the Big Ts moving. It was strange how even in the most urgent of times everything seemed to move slowly. There was something good about the patrol. The stillness came from outside and went into him. Vague tonnage of exhaustion coming away, one small weight off his shoulders. There were not many times when he could feel this way.

He noticed the soldier because he was holding a cigarette and he could see the light a long way off. He was standing against the perimeter and smoking. After some time the guy put the cig out and then stood there, not moving, looking out. He held his rifle to his chest with one arm and did not move.

When Ary was close and coming around the corner he made a noise with his step so that the soldier would know.

The soldier turned and started violently. There was panic and sudden terror on his face. He jerked around and fumbled nearly unconsciously let the handguard tip from his right hand into the palm of his left and before he knew it the muzzle of his AR was pointed straight at Ary. Then he realised what he had done.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Fuck. Sir, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to do that. I just—”

Ary saw the name stitched onto the sleeve of the soldier’s BCO: Hasse.

He did not recognise the name but he thought he recognised the face. Hasse was in C-2. He was a big guy but there was a tilt to his eyebrows that always made him look a little sad even when he was laughing.  Ary had seen him with the others neatly painting letters onto one of the FOB terrainers: FUFB. Fuck you FOBbits. Someone might have called him Doleface.

Hasse backed away and slung his rifle. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back now, I just needed to get out for a while, you know, for – for –” He stopped. “I’ll go back now, sir, if you let me.”

Ary did not say anything. He knew how Hasse felt, the shock of seeing something alien come out from the dark like that.

“Muzzle discipline,” he said. He nearly said Corporal but did not. “You’ve let it go to shit.”

There was a moment of hesitation where Hasse did not know if he was looking at an Officer (Spec) or just another human.

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

People did not know how to speak to Peregrines. You could see the way their eyes moved, looking for a mouth or the eyes in the mechanical head, shuttling, searching. Most people looked away after a while. They talked normally but they looked away. Hesse looked right at Ary. He hesitated and said, “I was looking for you, sir.” Then he leaned against the wall and slumped against, let himself be pulled down until he was sitting with his back against the perimeter, rifle between his knees. He put his forehead on the butt and let out a long shuddering breath.

“Things have gotten so fucking—” He put both hands out in front of him and clenched them hard. “I needed to get out, talk to someone outside, you know, not outside, but not part of the whole – this whole –”

“Have you been to Combat Stress?” Ary said. It felt stupid as it came out of his mouth and he knew how Hesse would read it; an inquisition, a command.

“I can’t,” Hesse said. “I don’t have a problem. It’s about Tom. The care packages came in earlier today, do you know? I stood in the line and got Tom’s because he was my best friend. I didn’t think he would wake up, I didn’t know, so I opened it.” He shook his head and held the AR very tightly. “Look at this,” he said, “Isn’t this pathetic? Me, here, bitching to a fucking Peregrine.” He hit himself on the side of his head, lightly, twice. “I’ll go back in. Sir. I’m sorry.”

“If you need to talk,” Ary said, “You should talk.” He did not know what else he could do.

Hesse was silent for some time. “I don’t know how you deal with it,” Hesse said. “How did you deal with it?”

“I didn’t,” Ary said. “It’s not something you deal with. That’s not what they usually say, I think. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“I got his care package and inside there was only a bar of soap. It was so fucking ridiculous. Why would Tom need a bar of soap? There’s so many other things you need out here. Photos, food from home. But all that Tom got was a bar of soap. Maybe his family was poor. I never asked and he never said. I don’t know, when I saw it I just broke inside and I stood there suddenly realising I wanted to collapse and cry but you can’t let them see you like that. So I didn’t do it, I smiled and made a joke. I said, well this is good isn’t it, because I don’t care what heroic shit he’s done, he’s a holy stinker, and I laughed. But then I had to go to the showers and cry like a baby for an hour.”

“When I started out,” Ary said, “I had a friend who was religious.”

Hesse stopped for a moment and then said, “What, like he prayed and all that shit?”


“What happened to him?”

“He was the first one to die on our first Drop.”

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

“I’m sure it did. But it can’t stop you dying.”

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

“When they read his Personal Effects Statement it turned out he left me his personal music player. He’d got an electric one, one of the old ones, just because he would never Woodpecker stop him listening to whatever he wanted, he said. I couldn’t use the player at first. I would look at it and it would be too much. One time I tried it and it wrecked me. But it helped. The loss became real and became possible to actually take, to grasp. The track at the top of the frequently played list was something from the Trove. It’s hard to imagine but there it was. From what is now our enemy. Sheep May Safely Graze.”

“Have you heard what happened to Tom? Sir.”

“It’s strange for someone to keep calling me sir. I went straight to this from sergeant. I’ve never been called sir before. And I don’t talk to people in the company very much. It’s strange.”


Ary could see the way Hesse was holding the rifle, upright against the ground, both hands on the barrel. The barrel had been painted ochre but some of the paint had flaked off and the dark metal shone from beneath, small irregular patches. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Hesse, for the anguished thing seeing now the whole world that had been circling around finally closing in, bereavement  shrunk to a brute knowable fact.

“What happened to Tom?”

“We were clearing a street in Otley, the usual thing. We were in the APV.”

Ary had seen it. The C-2 APV, like many others, had had a message written on the inside of the driver door. Those who survived mines in anti-ambush vehicles felt the need to do these sorts of things: This truck saved the life of my friends and I four of us on Apr 02 04 Kilnet at 1700.

“It was all normal and then it went off right underneath us, lifted the entire APV up. It wasn’t a small thing. It was an EFMP, it went right through the front and killed Rewes, straightaway, cut him nearly in half. The change in pressure or something left Zima and Watters unconscious, bleeding from the eyes, the ears. The rest of us got sprayed with molten metal. When Tom and I came out of the back it was a complete fucking mess. We had been completely cornered. We got told at first that one of the worst things you could get caught in was a firefight. We didn’t believe it at the time but it is true We ran to Sergeant Savidge but she had been hit under the arm and twice in the chest. It was fucked-up. The flak stopped the two to the chest but the one under the arm was bleeding like skippy.

Tom looked down the alley and saw everyone pinned and he took the Handle from Savidge and he did the suppressive fire, he organised it by himself, and then he said he wanted to run down the front of the alley and get Odell and Wyer. I told Tom, no, don’t do it, but he just said no. I think he heard me. When he disagreed he never had a fight out of it. He just did his own thing. He thought about what you said and if he didn’t agree he would do his own thing, you know? So I gave him cover and he ran down and got struck immediately in the knee, I saw it ricochet off the guard and his leg fold in a bit so that he nearly kneeled, and although that sort of shot hurts like hell, he went on and took Odell and Wyer by their vests and hauled them back. I think he was hit again, twice, I don’t remember where. But it was when he turned to go back even though I was fucking screaming at him from behind the APV that he got hit in the face. I was crouching there and then Tom’s blood was all over me and he spun a little bit and fell like he was already dead. He was just lying there in the middle of all the scattered bearings from the APV. I think I lost my mind a little, you know? I didn’t imagine this sort of thing. I lost my shit. I screamed and ran – this is what they told me – I ran out to him and got him to the 9-ton, I must have done it. The thing I remember is that the round that got him was not the ordinary thing. It splashed something over his flak and the ARA had melted. Do you know what I remember? It was strange because it’s a smell I know from home. I was pulling him back and I smelt the barbecue and it was him, Tom, Tom was burning in my hands as I dragged him. It was in my nose. Didn’t go away until long after.

“Look, man, I know there are no heroes in the military. It’s all a lie. I’m as fucking – I don’t know – as fucking cynical as anyone else, but Tom was that sort of thing, he was very close to the real thing. That one time he got shot in the neck in Lome-I. He came around to us with his hand on the side of his head like that, the sick bastard, blinking like he knew it was the end, trying not to scream or shout, he just said, hey, I’ve been hit, what does it look like. And it looked like there was just a fuckload of blood coming out of the side of his neck, and I seriously thought he was a dead man. And Tom just looked at me and said, you’d better be scared shitless because I’m going to steal all your pussy now.”

Hesse stopped and breathed. “I looked at him in TRR. He’s not got half his face. Can’t imagine all that pussy he’s going to get now, huh?” He tried to make his voice sound playful but there was much more in it, uncertainty and much more. “All those pity fucks.”

“You’ve been lucky,” Ary said. “To know Tom.”

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

“I thought when I came in I’d just try to do the good thing, get a little respect, try to do the correct thing, but look at this. I think he was keeping me alive and now. I don’t know. Maybe I’m broken. Maybe I’m not. I’m okay with explosions, I don’t flinch or anything. I can get back in the APV. But I’m – I’m fucking diminished, you know what I mean. Suddenly it’s all gone from under me.”

Ary remembered the look of sudden terror on Hesse’s face when he had seen Ary appear, that reaction that without any words or thought had spoken: kill, kill, kill.

In the distance there was a loud blare from a terrainer backing up, probably involved in some delicate negotiation with the Big Ts. “Grief is the correct thing,” Ary said. “It’s not a problem. It’s the necessary thing. It says something. This is what it’s about, really. You know it and it is not a bad thing.”

“I feel,” Hesse said, almost drowsily. “I feel—”

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

Hesse got out another cigarette and tried to light it but could not and threw it away. “They came to me, just earlier today. They’re starting to work on Tom’s Full Citation for valour because they think he’s going to die. I knew what they wanted me to say so I said he was selfless, you know? I said he didn’t care at all about himself, he cared for my squad. That was what it took, to run out into the fire like that. He probably wasn’t even thinking about it. Selfless. It was easy to say because it was all true. And I got so fucking angry then. I felt like reaching out and hitting them. So much violence you might as well call it grief, call it trauma, CSR, call it what you want to. Because I thought, if only the fucker had been less selfless, if only he had been a bit more of a fucking coward and come back when I called. I wanted to tell them about how he was a great guy, like where the real value in him was, that it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a fucking idiot—” Hesse stopped to pull the sleeve of the BCO over his face. “—fucking idiot who ran out into, into fucking intense fire, nothing to do with all that shit, it was just that he knew but to make tired people happy, he made people feel like they could not die, he knew when not to talk and when to talk. But they don’t give a shit. I looked up what citations before I entered. I thought it was cool to get one of those. They were all the same: ‘complete disregard for personal safety’, ‘extraordinary calm and presence of mind under intense pressure’. How could Tom be that? Was he calm? Who the fuck knows? Was he disregarding his safety? We were his safety and he was mine. He’s not just like everyone else. Fuck, this is – this is – just –”

Ary did something he had seen someone in Combat Stress do once. “What’s your name, Corporal?” he said.

“James,” Hesse said.

“James,” Ary said. That was all he knew.

Three kinds of fire support: suppression; neutralisation; destruction. Discourage or maim or kill. And Ary knew that these were not just things to be done by one army to another but things that each army did to itself, to each single thing in it, when the promises of departure began to dim, and maybe even well before that, when all the lives crowded themselves out, all perfect and all past repair, and forgot about all the time that had to steal by before they could say it and not have as a lie: all is well. All is well.

“I can’t believe it,” Hesse said. “How did I not imagine it?” He took in a long breath and as he let it out he tried not to let it shudder. He stood up.

“James,” Ary said. “I don’t think anyone imagines it.”

“If there were proper war films people would never go. The honest film would not be a story. It would be someone smiling and coming towards the camera, laughing down a street, and then a round comes screaming and it all ends. Thirty seconds and that would be all. Or someone burning up ten thousand metres above the ground when the world below is still a turning marble. Or someone dragging themselves out of the hatch in a sub and then getting stuck and drowning in foam, in the surf.  I watched all the movies, you know? Even the ones that were about the horrors of war. All lies. All lies. All of them were beautiful. They had images that stayed with you because they were so well put together. In this war nothing has been put together like that. Everything stays with you because you were there. That’s all there is to it. The only good thing about it is when you are about to fight and there is a thrill. It’s not joy, it’s a kind of yearning. You want to get the hundred percent. But you only get that if you want to kill and no film does that. It cannot make you want to kill. ”

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

“Do you get caffeine at the DFAC?” he said.

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”



“Don’t do it,” Ary said. “It does not help.”


“Go see Tom.”


“Ask the medics how he is. If you want to sit there for a while. I’ll tell them to let you.”

Hesse shook his head. He pulled at his hair, not violently but with force.

Ary waited for a while and then said, “You need to get some sleep, James.”

“Yeah.” Hesse sounded like he wanted to say something more but had stopped himself. “Do you know – do you know what I wanted out of this? I wanted people to respect me. When Tom was around I could really believe it. That’s what I wanted at first. People will always respect you. You can do these amazing things, you know? You’ve proved yourself. Me, myself, I’ve got nothing to prove. I mean – there is nothing I can prove. I hope people respect me because of what I’ve been through.”

Ary wanted to say that was not what it was about. But he did not say it. “I don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Nobody deserves what they get whether or not it is good or bad. When I got into my first Carcass in the Peregrines I realised they were all broken too. It’s okay.”

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

“Yeah, the Wanderers. Can you – are you allowed to say?”

Ary looked out. Now nothing was moving. Things had moved out of sight. “It’s lonely,” he said, “but in a good way. I have my partner.” He realised his mistake as soon as he’d said it.

But Hesse said, “That’s what I’d thought. Just imagine what it is like to be invincible, to be like that.”

Again Ary wanted to say, no, that was not it, but instead he looked at Hesse. There was nothing left in Hesse anymore, like he was empty, unspooled too fast, dissolved from the heat of friction.

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“I can’t even know your name,” Hesse said. He looked at Ary. He was young but his face was lined everywhere with anguish big enough to be invisible, all but invisible. “Thank you.”

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

“I was asking you about the patrol. Don’t worry about it.”

On the way in Ary realised that he did not know who Tom was, at all. He looked up the TRR (Critical) list. It took sometime time because only the surnames were listed alphabetically. But eventually he someone with the correct brief. Lance Corporal Thomas Eely was not expected to survive another 48 hours.

“Get some rest,” he told Hesse. The big shoulders were slumped but tight.  A note forever wrapped inside its own bell. “There are things to be done tomorrow.”

He watched Hesse disappear inside and then went back out to the encamp, hoping that nothing had managed to come through while he had been with Hesse.

The Thing About Religion

Sometimes when you read a really good book or watch a really good film you end up feeling empty inside. The reason is because you want to live in world of the film or book. Does this happen to you? It happens to me quite a lot, this kind of fantasy-bred withdrawal.

The reason why I’m try to describe that feeling is because I don’t really have a thesis. Or maybe I do. The point I’m trying to make is that religion is like that, and it’s okay. No. I think I have a thesis, and it goes either: This Is Why I Am Religious, or maybe – Why Believing in Religion Is Really Not That Special, If You Kind Of Think About It.

This kind of essaylet ought to begin with caveats, no? Have some caveats:

Caveat 1: There probably aren’t any arguments for God. There may be good reasons to believe that a God exists, but these aren’t arguments. Creationism has been properly fucked over by molecular biology and chirality and irreducible complexity is nonsense because jawless fish are missing a whole bunch of clotting factors and whales are missing factor VII and primitive molecular rotors do serve a function and we do know how the eye evolved (depressions; pinholes; closed chambers; closed chambers with convenient refractive indices & crystallin etc.) and more generally EXAPTATION woot – and the ontological argument is weird not because one can construct absurd analogies to it (which analogies really need not disturb the religious person at all) but because thinking of the existence of an object as a property of an object is super suspicious (Kant) and besides who let you define “great” that way and isn’t it internally incoherent, plus Godel was sloppy and never bothered to define what a “positive property” was (tsk) and if you want to talk about modal logic who actually, really, gives a shit about axiom S5 anyway? (Plantinga, possibly no other respiring being.)

Caveat 2: yes, I’m claiming to invest genuine belief in (some of) the multitudinous and very possibly contradictory claims emanating from the cobbled mythopoeia of a Yawhistic tribe whose beliefs liberally borrow from Mithraic traditions and pagan stuff and Babylonian myth etc., and yes of course some of this mythopoeia reads like a manual for genocide and slavery and the systemic fucking over of women and (possibly on some highly, highly, highly contentious readings of several scattered verses largely in the OT and then largely in Leviticus) sexual minorities. The relevant caveat is that I don’t believe this stuff i.e., I think it is wrong. On this more later.

Caveat 3: I’m not making normative claims. Hmm. Maybe I am, or will end up doing so inadvertently. If you see those treat them as purely incidental to the larger descriptive enterprise of this essaylet.

Caveat 4: I’m not claiming to be representative of religious people in general (because for a start I seriously am not), although I suspect the things I describe about religions are more widely applicable than religious people who might read this will claim.

[Aside: which exactly is the demographic that will find this essaylet in any way persuasive? Conservative Christians or literalists will have fucked off long before reaching this point, moderate Christians will find this entire thing far too self-aware and constructed, somehow, as if the entire argument is too mediated to be genuine, agnostic individuals might give the tiniest smear of a shit, which is only a smear of a shit, atheists of a Dawkinian disposition will be unpersuaded and indeed insulted by the bit on science below, and I suspect human beings in general will find this all too reductive or nihilistic or crude. But hey writing this is fun.]

Caveat 5: I’m not making a defense of organised religion (which I dislike), nor am I making the claim that religion that has made the world a better place. That’s a Big Empirical Question (BEQ) and I don’t like BEQs because they probably require a lifetime of dedicated research to begin to answer in any reasonable form plus what is the relevant counterfactual I’m supposed to access here, eh? and I’m lazy and seriously I’m just trying to write a nice little essay.

Hey those caveats were long. Hm.

Oh yeah obviously I’m talking about Christianity because it’s the thing I’m familiar with.

Let’s talk about fiction.

It’s nice, yes, enjoyable? Okay. Good. Now the reason I am religious is because the Bible is like fiction, except that it’s fiction that (1) is pretty good (2) is made better if you think of it as true.

That the Bible is a piece of pretty good fiction is pretty trivial. It’s a generally deeply fascinating anthology that mushes together wildly differing styles and themes (isn’t it strange how the tone changes so drastically between Nahum and Habakkuk?) and has a ton of fun symbolism whose power is not lost even on committed non-theists.

Probably all this is made better with examples. Have some examples.

This, from Ecclesiastes 12: 4-5:

When the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.

Now this is the NIV, which famously sacrifices a lot of poetic power for clarity in translation, and even then this passage evokes stunningly well the what-the-fuck-is-the-point-of-this-anyway ennui/despair that existentialists with dangerous hair later came to grapple with.  Replace all the colons with full stops and you can imagine Beckett writing this.

And if you want to talk about fantastic imagery, there’s the mad psychoanalytic free-for-all of Revelations. This is from Revelation 13:

The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

It’s so trippy I honestly wish I had written this because damn it would be intense.

But I suppose the Main Thing is that as a piece of fiction the Bible can be seriously unlifting and redemptive. Probably everyone alive in the Judaeo-Christian world has seen 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Now: on one level this is very sappy and overblown and corny. It’s difficult to be a human being living in this generally cynical age and not think that to at least some extent. But on another level – and you get this if you actually read the passage wordwise (especially that second bit), this little thing from Corinthians is outrageously and underservedly beautiful. I suppose part of that is because it does not put itself forward as one person speaking to another in the sense of “Hey, don’t you think love is awesome?”; (I mean, okay yes Paul is writing to someone but you’re reading this without really thinking of that) instead it’s a sort of prophetic no-questions-asked-and-no-responses-solicited declaration, and hence achieves a kind of high poetic almost-but-not-quite aphoristic eloquence that isn’t really around in fiction nowadays. There’s a pulse, there’s some stark contrasts deployed, there’s a nice little (or big) message.

I say isn’t really around. But if you still don’t get what I’m trying to make emerge from these passages  read Cormac McCarthy because literally his entire body of work revolves around neo-Biblical rhetorics. Here are some short snatches from The Road, which is his most accessible thing:

“—the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”

“—looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.”

“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”

You kind of get it now? While we’re on this bit about redemptive stuff in the Bible, here are a couple more passages that are Nice in the big-R Redemptive sense:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15)

Or this:

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night – (Psalm 91:4)

Or this:

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to gain, And a time to lose… (Ecclesiastes 3:1-6)

Now that’s odd, isn’t it? I began by saying that the literary merit of the Bible was pretty trivial and then wasted a lot of time bamboozling you with quotes. The reason is because I sort of realised that getting a good feel of what some bits of the bible are like is important for part two of this argument, which is that as a piece of fiction the Bible becomes better if you don’t think of it as fiction and take it as true.

Because, obviously, if it says (some) nice things, and it is true, then those nice things are true, plus reading the Bible while actually believing that those things are true is a better experience than reading it just as fiction.

Part of this is because, firstly it is actually possible to believe that Bible is true. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for this, but there are probably only two big ones.

The First Big One  is that the Bible, unlike most good fiction (and in common with many other religious texts, probably) actually puts itself forward as true. Like actually does so. It does not begin by saying: “Look at all this stuff: it is true.” It begins on the assumption of its truth and manages to be really quite compelling about it – I mean compelling about its belief in its own truth, not compelling in the form of a logical argument it makes about its truth. So it begins in stark rhythmic minimalist form:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And John 1:1 (incidentally one of the few passages that reads nearly exactly the same in all the different translations) repeats this with a bit more metaphysical flourish:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

And that is a good beginning for a myth, conceptually unoriginal as it is.

Another thing I should mention under the First Big One is that the Bible is totally sincere about itself in a way that modern writing has become quite afraid of (obvious point but – important!) It is not cynical or recursive or iterative or ironic. It is sort of self-aware in that books make reference to each other, but it is not aware in the mediated, I know-I-Am-Putting-Myself-Between-The-Words-And-The-Reader way we have become quite used to with our Pynchons and Wallaces and DeLillos. This opens the Bible up to parody but also creates a odd naïve little space for totally sincere belief.

[Aside: this is actually the problem with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As a deity there’s nothing really wrong about it, except for the fact that it’s such an unpersuasive deity because it’s doing the exact thing that religion cannot be, which is be parodic or self-aware. Now I’m sure atheists will say that’s the point, but – how’s this for recursion – that’s the point.]

So the First Big One really is that the Bible manages to (for some people at least) accomplish something that all good literature tries very hard to do but we rarely believe actually does, or in fact never actually genuinely believe does: which is to be capital-T True. Not just look-at-the-human-condition -wow!-isn’t-it-weird-true, but true in the: these-are-moral-truths-and-metaphysical-truths-and-there-is-meaning-immanent-in-things True.

The Second Big One is that it is easy to believe that the Bible is actually true because there’s lots of people who believe it is true and act on that premise. To be honest I don’t much like the majority of Christians because they seem to me to swing wildly between being platitudinous and incredibly close-minded, but it’s probably a lot easier to believe that a book is True because lots of other people do. Those Christians whom I find to interesting people (read: not literalists), at least, certainly do make it easier for me to believe that the Bible is (partially) true, possibly purely from a social-acceptance standpoint.

Okay: so it’s easy to believe that the Bible is True. The next step in the argument is to realise that this is a very attractive thing to do. This is not so complicated to understand. (1): the nice things the bible says are now true, and (2) reading the (nice bits of the) thing becomes a more-than-fictional-and-really-quite-moving experience.  The Main Thing here is that the Bible makes moral claims unlike most fiction, and does it effectively, and then just gives those claims to people. Look at all of Jesus’ stuff involving prostitutes, stones, slapping, etc.

And the thing is it’s all really simple. I mean we all know ethics is bunk, really, don’t we? I mean logically? A Very Clever Friend on facebook (it was a sprawling megathread involving in a non-tangential sense the value of liberty, the evil of coercion, and debaters, so this is quite understandable) referenced “the futile bashing together of incommensurable intuitions carried out via the wholly inadequate vehicle of language.” You can’t really derive moral truths from anywhere, really, and all Parfit does is sort of throw around a couple of examples that he thinks are problematic and then do lots of hand-wavy stuff. If I gave you the three classical laws of logic (identity; excluded middle; non-contradiction) and then gave you access to all the knowledge in the world you still couldn’t derive a moral theory for me because Hume Actually Really Did Fuck Us All Over. And even if you could create a moral theory perfectly consistent with all the moral intuitions of everyone in the universe you’d still need to tell me why moral intuitions are things we ought to give a shit about. Kant is nonsense (but seriously isn’t universalisability just an attempt to sneak in intuitionism and what makes something a means, exactly?), Bentham is nonsense, the Bible is nonsense. The main thing is that the Bible has a story which is quite compelling, and really nice language, isn’t stupidly overcomplex, and, unlike stuff philosophers write – manages to simply assume its truth, and therefore assure of its truth. Which is not to say the Bible is better – I evidently don’t think all of the Bible is correct, and I probably prefer the Kantian over than the Old Testementary approach to genocide – but which should make it obvious why opting for the Bible has easy benefits. It offers some serious moral security; there is a God; moral truths come from it; the God is good and cares for you.

[Aside: isn’t is a little strange that so many philosophers who genuinely believe that they have figured out What Morality Is spend so much time trying to convince other professional philosophers that they are right, rather than resigning their positions and dedicating their lives to trying to convince ordinary people that they ought to act or think in certain ways? Obviously this does not apply to all moral philosophers, but it’s still surprising how un-socially-active they are. Meta-ethical question: Can you see morality as an intellectual puzzle without actually being daily agonised by it and still claim that you are in any true sense interested in the morality of things?]

Now for the Big Problem. What about the nasty bits of the Bible? As it turns out, not a Big Problem at all: the Bible is big enough and contradictory enough to give me enough room to ditch all the nasty stuff on the basis of its being culturally bounded and plain wrong while retaining all the good stuff. In fact the thing about the Bible is that it’s got two halves, and the second half differs so wildly in outlook and tone from the first that the resulting morass of tensions allows for moral wiggling all the way up to the nth dimension. I – and most Protestant Christians, probably – prefer the second half over the first, and the second half thankfully is all about loving and respecting your fellow man and all that jazz which most people are pretty chill with.

What was my thesis again? This Is Why I Am Religious, or maybe – Why Believing in Religion Is Really Not That Special, If You Kind Of Think About It. Ah yes.

Actually further to all that stuff about why believing the Bible to be True has benefits, there is also a thing – and it’s a very me thing, sorry – about music. Which is to say that aside from just the reading of the Bible, being religious opens up a biggish repository of valuable musical experience.

Listen to this. Well, not all of it. The first 9:47, by which I mean seriously waste 10 minutes of your life listening all the way, or at least please don’t stop before the high voices come in.

Now: Bach designed the whole thing to be a religious experience. It was meant for a religious audience. The subject is Matthew 27-28. Actually believing that these things really happened, and knowing the metaphysical significance of these things, makes the entire musical experience so deeply and extraordinary intense it becomes in one good sense quite noumenal. Now obviously a non-religious person can get this music too. But it’s always a comparative appreciative edge to be religious.

I think this is true because before I knew the subject of this music I liked it; after I knew the subject of the music I became positively obsessed with it. It wasn’t even that I was listening in a pensive or prayerful manner – it’s just that knowing what the words meant and being religious meant that they plugged into something that I believed to be true and that made the experience pretty special plus of course the music was fucking unbelievable.  And and and Bach’s writing is seriously just fucking replete with religious symbolism. Jesus’ words in the St Matthew, for instance, are given special treatment in the recitatives, you get diminished sevenths for prophecies and the worlds “kill” and “crucify” are highlighted with chromatic melodies. Listen to this chorale (you’ll recognise the tune). Look up the words: Know me, my keeper, My shepherd, take me to thee. By thee, source of all good things, Much good has befallen me. Imagine someone actually believed those words and was listening to this thing – you can imagine what the difference in the experience means.

You see what happened there? I came this close to saying that my belief in Christianity was a aesthetic belief. It’s not, because of all the moral claims that hang on it. It’s a lot more than that – it’s a convenient belief, is what I am saying.

Let’s talk about science.

Science, like ethics, is bunk. As in: induction is rubbish and admits of no non-circular justification and falsificationism does no better. Why should we only care about falsifiable things? Should it matter that we can’t prove some things untrue? How is this inconvenient? Religion cannot be definitively proven to be true. Neither, the falsificationist says, can any scientific theory. The difference is that while a religious claim can never be proven to be definitively false, a scientific theory can. But how is this an advantage? Why can’t we be falsity-avoiding and just punt for God while accepting science on non-falsificationist grounds? The only argument a falsificationist can make is one based on Bayesian-probabilistic grounds, but Bayesian approaches to probabilities themselves presume a consistency in the universe that is totally unjustified. If you ask a sciencey person what their objection to miracles is they will say: they  violate well-established scientific theories. But this does not follow. All the scientific method tells us is that at certain points in space and time experiments were carried out that verified certain claims about what those experiments would achieve. That tells us absolutely nothing (but only logically, mind) about every other point in space and time. What is the magic that blows up experimental results into universal-and-presumed-to-be-true-until-proven-otherwise-laws? Why laws rather than just coincidences? Why the assumption of constancy over space and time that fuels the outrage of our Dawkinian types when someone mentions people rising from the dead or walking on water? Theories don’t say anything. They can’t, logically speaking, predict anything either. If that does not make sense I suppose the more blunt way of putting it is: there are no theories.

[Aside: I think some mathematicians actually do kind of get it. It’s all a game, we have no reason to prefer these axioms over those other premises apart from the results they generate, and we are mostly trying to make things either interesting or convenient.]

But all this really misses the point of science. It does not explain the fact that I don’t give a shit about science being logically bunk or the fact that I steadfastly refuse to jump from windows (because gravity) and will bet gazillions on experiments in the future being consistent with, I don’t know, QCD. I believe in science – by which I mean I really seriously in-my-gut think it works despite its logical nothingness – because it’s very convenient, and because the results it generates are things I really really want to believe are true because they’re mindblowing and elegant and are so good at explaining nearly everything (dark matter/energy, turbulence, GUTs, why matter, why time, but otherwise.) I mean yes maybe God made the earth with all its fossils already there and the CMBR is just a deceptive superbig superfaint cosmic lightshow that was put out there to test our faith but that’s stupid not because it’s stupid but it’s stupid because it’s so boring.

Doesn’t everyone more of less treat science this way? No-one can prove it actually works but we don’t really care.

That was an analogy, by the way. With religion.

Which I suppose is the response to people who will observe that my belief in religion can’t be genuine because it’s too self-aware. I’m not sure what that means. I do pray, indeed there are many points when I feel seriously compelled to pray, and I think there is a God. I feel about my beliefs about God the same way I feel about say gluons. They’re all real. One mediates colour charge and one generates moral truth. Well yes all right of course the feelings I have re prayer/reading the Bible are a conditioned construct of the way I was brought up, etc., and I’m happy to recognise that as an entirely accurate diagnosis. But that’s like diagnosing any belief in anything in general. We’re all conditioned, and that’s okay.

[Postscript: I was going to write something alone the lines of how there are no truths out there and it’s all internally generated anyway but that opened up a disgusting can of worms viz. internalism and reliabilism that to be honest I’m nowhere near as familiar with as I ought to be, so I’m running away from this now.]