What's the difference between a talent and a handicap? Your first reaction to that question might be some sort of a snort, mixed with a duh, and finished with a fine spray of pfffft. Clearly, talents are useful skills while handicaps involve limits that are imposed on us.

But is it really that clear?

It's the rare sculptor, musician, or actor who finds a career to match his or her talent. It's far more typical for a wannabe actor to be waiting tables, and a wannabe landscape artist to have a day job in the insurance industry. My best guess is that 99% of all supposed talent has no use whatsoever. In fact, talent probably distracts wannabe artists and prevents them from putting their full efforts into something more useful.

Handicaps are hard to define too. If only two humans existed in the universe, it could be said that each has handicaps relative to the other. Perhaps one runs relatively slowly and the other is relatively bad at spelling. It's no wonder the term "differently abled" has become fashionable. It's more accurate and less judgy.

Recently I have been thinking about talents versus handicaps in the context of religious belief. Research indicates that some people are born with a natural inclination for belief and some are not. I'm firmly in the "not" category. Would it be fair to say I have a talent for skepticism? Or is it more accurate to say I have a handicap when it comes to belief? How do I label my condition?

I could start by asking if belief is useful. Based on my personal observation, and what I have read on the topic, religious people are generally healthier and happier than others. That's the ultimate form of usefulness. Belief passes the utility test even if you factor in the occasional inquisition, terrorist attack, religious war, and whatnot. Those are the exceptions, and have more to do with power than religion. In most modern societies, the vast majority of religious people aren't causing trouble for anyone.

When it comes to usefulness, I would rank religious belief higher than most other talents, including, for example, yodeling, line dancing, juggling, and so on.

Our gut feeling is that "truth" has to be important in this discussion. With so many different and mutually exclusive religious beliefs, either all of them are false or, in the best possible case, all but one of them is false. Arguably, whichever subset of believers has the "right" understanding of reality has the most useful talent of all, especially if it leads to an eternity of bliss in heaven, or paradise, or an awesome new life after reincarnation.

As a non-believer, part of the package is that I don't believe my mind is delivering to me an accurate picture of reality.  I can't rule out the possibility that we're all living in our own illusions, in which case the atheist and the believer are both so completely wrong that their differences are immaterial. If you add 2 plus 2 and your answer is orange, you can't say you had a better answer than the guy who added 2 plus 2 and got zebra.

The bottom line is that I'm a non-believer who is strongly pro-religion because of what I perceive as its usefulness. And I think my genetic inability to believe is more of a "differently abled" situation than a talent.
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Apr 11, 2012
I think the comment that either all religions are false, or all but one is false, is an oversimplification.

Religion (any religion) isn't a single idea. Each one is a very large basket of ideas, some of which are obviously true to all but the most anti-(whatever), some of which are obviously false to all but the most strident, and some of which are in a gray area, and may be true or false depending on !$%*!$%*!$%*! perception and other issues.

So, I think it would be more accurate to say that for each religion, it's amount of truth will be a point on a continuum somewhere between 0% and 100%.

Of course, it will probably be impossible to objectively choose where each religion lies. My point is that you need not believe them all to be "wrong" or declare one to be true and all other wrong. There's nothing wrong with seeing some degree of truth in each and every one, even while simultaneously selecting one to be the one you use to guide your personal beliefs and actions in life.

I am a moderately religious person. I have selected a faith (which one really doesn't matter for the point of this discussion) and I live my life according to its principles as I understand them. I don't do everything the religion demands - some because I disagree and some because I'm too lazy (a character flaw I admit I have), but I still believe. When I look at other religions, I don't think "it's not mine, therefore everything it teaches is wrong", instead I think "it's got some great ideas that my religion shares, some very interesting ideas that I disagree with, and some wacky ideas that I think are total BS."

I think this is a perfectly reasonable approach. Of course, that's just plain obvious, since only a fool would promote an idea that he believes to be wrong.
Apr 10, 2012
"As a non-believer, part of the package is that I don't believe my mind is delivering to me an accurate picture of reality. I can't rule out the possibility that we're all living in our own illusions..."

So, is it that: (1) you don't believe your mind is delivering to you an accurate picture of reality, or (2) you believe there's a *possibility* that it's not? Those are two very different things. And, as a religious person, I'd like to point out that both of those things involve...wait for it...belief.
Apr 4, 2012

Have you read "Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion" ?


It follows this line of thinking fairly closely, and then tries to take the good stuff without the junk.
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Apr 3, 2012
"I want to believe"

- Mulder
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Apr 3, 2012

I don't think it is coincidence that a Pew forum survey found out that atheist have the best knowledge of religion. (At least atheists with respect to traditional ideas of religion such as you and I). Once you dig into that stuff you realise the extent about which it is some good ideas mixed in with power and control.

I can't say I could ever get close to even contemplating believing in any higher being attributed with the powers generally given to 'God', yet who acts with suspiciously human drives. Or who, given the size (and length of time of existence) of the universe, is particularly bothered about us lot down here. Still, it would be nice to know the real story - if you work it out let me know!

Apr 3, 2012

This one really hit home with me. I grew up in the south in a mixed religious environment. I was mainly involved in the Baptist groups but spent some time Catholic as well. At about age 12 I decided to read the bible completely and thoroughly from cover to cover. When I finished I realized something, I didn't believe. I then went on a "quest" to learn about religions. I learned the history of world religion, and have a basic knowledge of all of the main religions in the world. I found that as a result, if you categorized all of my religious knowledge it would best be labeled, "Mythology." I learned that what we call the main world religions today are actually "mash-ups" of other religions that came before them, and many of them share the same "characters" and traditions but often with different names. I wished I could believe. I envy people who do. I tried to educate myself and find the reason to believe or the right religion, but it just pushed me farther away. And here's the kicker ... I do believe in "God". I can not look at a tree, in all of it's complexity and sophistication on a molecular level, and even considering the atomic and sub atomic level of the structure of the universe, and believe it is all just a random accident. So, I believe in "something", I just don't believe that his or her name is Jehova, Allah, or any of the other names for "God" that I have heard. I'm not sure that humans even have the ability to comprehend the true nature of the universe. I have learned to develop my own spiritual relationship with the universe. I still envy the "believers", but I don't think they truthfully have any greater understanding of the nature of God than I do. Thay just claim to. I've been told that people like me are called, "Thinking Agnostics". Maybe we need to organize, there's probably a tax break or grant involved. :)

[Actually, if you believe God created the universe, that makes you a "believer." -- Scott]
Apr 3, 2012
Religion and philosophy. What could anyone possibly have to say in this post? </sarcasm>
Apr 3, 2012
I'm sure that there are demonstrable exceptions, but I general consider talent to be a result of interest. If you're interested in drawing, you do a lot of it and learn to think in drawing terms. If you're interested in math, you do a lot of it and learn to think about math a lot. If you're interested in juggling, you can be good at that (I decided to learn how to do it a year ago, and after !$%*!$% for about a year, I'm pretty good at it, now. I practice every day, usually during conference calls or while copying files or compiling projects). I'm always telling my kids that you can't be good at something without practice.

Religion seems very much like that, to me. People who have a strong interest in spirituality (which I would mostly describe as a strong disinterest in complicated and emotionally difficult perspectives) invest a lot of time into it. I have no doubt whatsoever that there are mental states that arise in meditation or prayer to which these people have some right to stake a special claim. Maybe the talent is that they achieve these elated mental states. And all the horse crap is sorta like the practice it takes to get there.
Apr 3, 2012
Let's start with a little science shall we:

As a believer in God, I've recently been interested in the more utility aspects of religion. I've been thinking that some of the things from the bible were there not only because they were morally good, but because they have some kind of extra use as well. One example is that catholics who go to confession often tend to be happier (as well as possibly better off spiritually) because confession requires them to talk about the things they've done wrong and feel badly about. It gets it off their chest and gives them a way to say I'm sorry. So you have possible spiritual benefits as well as personal ones. I also don't think that confession is catholic only (well, non formal confession anyways), but you get the point.

One of the reasons increasing secularism scares me is that people loose access to the jewels of wisdom and other benefits of religion. When Montesque came over to the US in the 1800s, he was shocked everyone could read. Even though Europe had better universities, it also had a lot more illiterate people. And why could everyone in the US read?

The Bible.

You were expected to be able to know it and read it and understand what it was saying. Thus you had a tanigle benefit of religion: reading. Because of that, you had a generation of people that could pick up a piece of paper and say this is why my country exists, or this is what my government is, what it can do, and more importantly what it can't. That was huge back then. It's no wonder John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and congress (including 14 signers of the Constitution) printed up bibles and had them sent to schools.

Here's one example that you see repeated in the bible: don't turn away from wisdom when you see something attractive instead. The Garden of Eden, Solomon's turning away from grace, Sampson and Delilah, even Judas's betrayal. Sometimes the correct thing to do isn't exactly the most attractive option. That's an important lession.

Another one: take the ten commandments, even without the religious aspects, I think we can all agree that murder, theft, adultry, little punks that don't listen to their parents, lying about others, and coveting is bad in general.

Or take the kosher laws. First on heating food related items, clean water and bleach are pretty relative inventions. 3rd world countries still don't have them. Fire kills germs, it was their only option back then.

The rule on no pigs? Pigs carry the flu (like H1N1) and in places without basic medicine, like Isreal in the time of the bible, the flu could kill you. Also pig waste if you get a lot of them together gives off gasses that make everyone in 50 miles sick. Finally a pig that gets loose will destroy crops.

Finally looks at what Jesus taught: have mercy on others, treat those like you'd like to be treated, forgive those who have slighted you. While I personally believe he is the son of God, even if you disagree, you have to admit the truth to his teachings.

Here's a last thought I have that can apply to religion or otherwise: you need faith before you can find truth. If you don't have faith, you'll never believe or accept the truth. You won't accept evidence or wisdom or anything unless you can have faith in it.

As for talent or handicap, that's up to you to decide and to make the most use of it.
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Apr 3, 2012
you seem to have looked into the research about "talent" in the past. At least you mention it here http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/the_illusion_of_winning/. The context was a different one, but the statement still holds true: that the outcome of most activities that need what is popularly called "talent" is "predetermined, to about 95% certainty, based on who has practiced that specific skill the most over his lifetime."

The actual innate part of "talent" is the ability and willingness to purposefully practice the particular skill to get better. That ability to be motivited is necessary, but not sufficient to be good at something. Can you practice and get better at believing? I don't think so.

So you have:
- propensities (the inclination to do something)
- skills (the abilities after a given amount of practice)
- handicaps (the physical limitations that hinder purposeful practice or make it impossible)

In the context of belief, the propensity is the willingness to think/argue things through from a given set of assumptions and the choice of assumptions, the skill is in the ability to rethink the assumptions when you reach logical inconsistency, whereas a handicap would be actual brain damage of some kind. If your skill at logical reasoning is low, you will probably believe some quite weird things, but even someone with a high "talent" at reasoning can be an adherent of some religion. In some cases, he/she will have reasoned incorrectly (even Roger Federer makes unforced errors), stopped at some point regarding the examination of his/her assumptions or chosen assumptions that can't be verified (like the God who ignited the Bang Bang but then never again interacted with the universe, but who will do so when things go too wrong.)

Any way you look at it, believing is not a talent - it is either a propensity, a handicap (if there is a RL inhibitor of logical reasoning) or the application of a skill.


P.S. On motivation and talent: Children do better when they are praised with "you worked hard" than with "you are talented".
Apr 3, 2012
How sad that I have to be subjected to a popup ad just for voting on the article. Is Scott Adams so desperate for revenue that he has to resort to such tactics?

I'll get off my soapbox now.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 3, 2012
I do not believe that most "non-believers" are not religious. My agnostic conservative friends seem to be the least religious folks I know, while my liberal friends who claim to be "non-believers" are tireless, guilt-ridden evangelists who believe that: their comfortable western lifestyle is sinful, that extreme weather is the result of the sinful western lifestyle, that global apocalypse is imminent if we all don't change our sinful ways, that they must eat sanctified food (organic = kosher/halal), that certain sacraments must be observed (Earth Hour last weekend), etc.
Apr 3, 2012
still buttering up the republican side of the bread I see..

As for religion, it will continue to exist as long as it continues to fulfill a need that no one else in society will touch. If you are down and out for some significant reason where would you rather go for emotional support? A church group where people will hug you and pray for you, or to a meeting of arrogant atheists who will more likely say: gee that's tough, but please do not touch me, loser.

It's pretty much the church who is willing to get in there and help society's untouchables: the homeless, for example, and provide them with shelter, comfort and food. When I see atheists doing the same thing, then there might be a chance for rationality to rule over religious beliefs.

Apr 3, 2012
I, too, am a non-believer who is pro-religion. And I want to know what that's called?! Yes. I'm looking to be labeled.
Apr 2, 2012
I find that when it comes to performing a given task, limits are often more useful than tools. If somebody told me, "make anything you want" I would be at a loss. On the other hand, if they were to add, "to these specifications," or, "with these materials" it would be a challenge that I have a lot of fun working on.
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Apr 2, 2012
It is possible to be objective about the talents and handicap thing. You don't have to guess about it.
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Apr 2, 2012

As a non-believer who has moved around quite a bit I am quite jealous of those who can just go to a church and be accepted into a community.

Put me down as saying it is a big handicap.
Apr 2, 2012
I'm a believer, but I don't think in terms of absoulte correctness. I think my beliefs are "mostly correct", while the beliefs of others are less correct, but not usually completly wrong.

To use the analogy my answer to 2 2 would be "something in the neighborhood of positive numbers less than 5", versus the person who gets an emphatic 2 2 = 11. At least I hope I'm correct and its not 2 2 = banana.

But as for usefulness - there are two ways to look at it. If there is free will, religion is useful in getting people to do something, rather than nothing. And if there is no free-will, it is useful in trying to distract ourselves from the fact that our lives are pointless. to the non-beleiver the answer to 2 2 is "I'm hungry, what's for lunch?"
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Apr 2, 2012
"differently abled" is not less judgy. Just like the word "special" everyone knows perfectly well you refer to someone LESS able.
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Apr 2, 2012

Nice post. There are so many derivatives off one variable.

For me, Talent is competence, a Handicap is a disadvantage and there is this third thing, I'll call it the sixth sense or the subtle efforts of the subconscious. (This subconscious can be unwarranted at times like the eerie but resonating resemblance of Traylor and Trayvon, or it can be a welcome assurance of reason when reality dares perception.)

Religion, when viewed as a composition of rigid doctrines, can never define the philosophy of survival for any of the three - Talent, Handicap or ESP.

For instance, your own suspicion that skepticism defies religiousness is based on an irrational premise.


Broaden the horizon a bit while defining religion and it can become all inclusive.

Let me try one: If philosophy is a man's relationship with reality, then religion must primarily describe the associated concepts, virtues, ethics, values and metaphysics, and then proceed to establish the philosophy.

This sort of definition can make any discipline including science become a religion.

Religion, not theosophy.

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