Living With Darwin by Philip Kitcher

by Harry on January 15, 2007

I’ve just finished reading Philip Kitcher’s new book Living With Darwin (UK). It is fantastic. He provides a careful but completely accessible defense of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, against the defenders of Intelligent Design theory. He also agrees with religious opponents of evolutionary theory that it is a genuine threat to a certain kind of religious belief. He calls this “providentialist” belief, on which “the universe was created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and is especially concerned for humanity”. Darwin really is a threat to their beliefs and, in a nice observation that he attributes to Christopher Peacock, Darwin is probably singled out because he is the only threat whose views get encountered in a systematic way by anyone who does not get an elite college education in the humanities (in the US especially). Voltaire, Hume, Kant, all might be seen as worse threats if anyone knew who they were.

I’ve always thought, and am on record as saying, that ID is a kind of intellectual fraud. But Kitcher convincingly argues for a twist to the fraud claim, which is that the proponents of ID are also perpetrating a fraud against many of their supporters. What their backers want is an alternative to Darwinian theory that is consistent with providentialist beliefs and, ideally, with the literal truth of the preferred parts of the Old Testament (so, for example, with the view that the Earth is not ancient, but pretty new, and that humanity has existed only for a short time). The proponents of ID nod and wink to fundamentalist Christians so as to suggest that their alternative meets these criteria. But they do not have a positive alternative at all; they focus exclusively on the gaps in evolutionary theory, and the concessions they make in order to make their arguments coherent are concessions that anyone who believed the literal truth of the relevant parts of the Bible could not make.

Kitcher’s writing is accessible to anyone, and unless you are really up on the details of both intelligent design and evolutionary theory you’ll learn a lot without feeling that you are putting out much effort. I’m disappointed to think that books like Dawkins’ and Harris’s latest books are bestsellers, and Kitcher’s equally accessible but less inflammatory book might not be.

Or perhaps it is just as inflammatory. The final chapter is a nuanced and rather wonderful account of why providentialist religion must be false, but why this fact should not inspire in atheists any kind of triumphalism or disrespect for religion. It is, in other words, opposed both to fundamentalist Christianity, and to the militantly secularist atheism propounded by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the like. Perhaps the reason I loved the book is that Kitcher expresses in this last chapter something like the attitude I have come to have myself toward the anti-clericalism found in those other authors, but articulates it far more precisely and humanely than I have been able to do for myself. Kitcher poses “spiritualist” religious belief as an alternative to providentialist, where spiritualist belief “does not require the literal truth of any doctrines about supernatural beings”.

Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion…Spiritual Christians place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others.

Spiritual religion offers recipes for living well, and constitutes the heart of a heartless world – he uses Marx’s opiate metaphor approvingly, in the medical sense in which Marx, I presume, intended it. Spiritual religion offers comfort in harsh times, and helps believers to negotiate those aspects of their lives which are hard to control and understand. Dawkins et. al. celebrate the falseness of religion, but offer nothing at all to perform the functions that spiritual religion. A world unimproved in any other way which lacked spiritual religion would be a worse world.

Now I’m on ground about which I’ve not done a great deal of reading (I certainly don’t have Kitcher’s deep understanding of Christianity, for example) but about which I am pretty opinionated, my opinions largely having been developed in the process of many decades of close relationships with just a very few evangelical Christians. (I was once Best Man at a wedding of two evangelical Christians, if that gives you a sense of where I’m coming from). The quote above implies that spiritual and providentialist versions of religion are mutually exclusive, but I think that’s wrong (and not necessarily what Kitcher thinks), and that the spiritual (life-guiding, self-understanding providing) dimension of religion coexists with the providentialist aspect in many believers. I also prefer the metaphor of a crutch to that of an opiate. And I realize that both these metaphors could seem just as insulting and disrespectful as Dawkins’s hectoring.

But I hope that it can be rendered less insulting by two observations. First, religion is not just a crutch or an opiate. It is also a compass, and religious practice and observation within a community is a source of meaning just as much as any other communal activity. Science does not, and cannot, provide a compass or, for those of us who are not scientists or keen observers of science, a source of meaning. So all of us rely on something like a religion – given cultural resources on which, to be sure, we reflect, and which we challenge, but for which there is no rational argument. His tentative diagnosis of American exceptionalism (the fact that providential religious belief has survived so well here compared with other modern democratic societies) is that America is exceptional in other ways too. It is exceptionally materialistic, exceptionally harsh in the penalties attached to failure in societal competitions, and, not unconnectedly, exceptional in how few sources of meaning and comfort are provided by social institutions other than churches.

Second, it seems to me that, again, all of us, me and Kitcher included, need crutches, often if not always. (Perhaps not all of us—Dawkins and Dennett are, perhaps, exceptions, perhaps in Dawkins’ case because being married to a Time Lord would tend to trigger a surfeit of self-esteem—but all of us who are not extraordinarily emotionally well-integrated, talented, and lucky). I don’t think of religious believers as any more emotionally and psychologically damaged or troubled than anyone else; it’s the human condition, and while some are lucky to be more kindly treated by the world than others we all need comfort, and the religious are lucky enough to have beliefs that allow them to draw that comfort from religious practice. The rest of us have to find other sources, and we should be honest that many of our sources of comfort have no more defendable by reason than belief in the supernatural. If the “religion acts as a crutch” view is accompanied by the “and we’re all cripples, me included”, as it is, and I believe sincerely, in Kitcher’s case, perhaps that makes it less insulting than it might otherwise be. Kitcher can’t say anything more without abandoning his integrity; like me, he is an atheist, and it seems to me that it would be disrespectful to pretend that we had doubts when we don’t, or to withhold our reasons for our atheism. Elaborating them, as Kitcher does, without a sense of superiority, and with an understanding of our own fallibility, is the best we can do.

So, I think just about everyone should read Kitcher’s book, certainly everyone in America, and especially everyone who is concerned with the debates about the biology curriculum and the debates about the place of religion in modern society. Its beautifully produced (small, short, with an attractive cover) making it a great gift (just gave it to my dad, in fact, who’s 67 today), beautifully written, reasonable, and right.

{ 105 comments }

1

Slocum 01.15.07 at 4:35 pm

He also agrees with religious opponents of evolutionary theory that it is a genuine threat to a certain kind of religious belief. He calls this “providentialist” belief, on which “the universe was created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and is especially concerned for humanity”.

I think that’s right, and it annoys me no end to read those who argue that there is no real conflict between science and religion (not, I think, because they truly believe it, but because it would be convenient if it were so). In this, fundamentalists understand the issues much more clearly than those arguing for peaceful co-existence.

Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion…Spiritual Christians place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others.

But if you’re going to give up the providentialist version of Christianity, why bother with the rest of it? Can’t we can do better than a world view centered around a grisly torture and execution? One in which posits an inherent conflict between spirituality and ordinary human relations (whose original disciples abandoned their lives and families)? One with explicitly negative attitudes toward women and sex? (Paul’s writings fit nicely with the Wahhabi view of the world).

2

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 4:46 pm

“So all of us rely on something like a religion …”

I think your heartfelt piece above is sadly a little flawed by imprecision inherent in the word “religion”. All of us rely on a moral belief system that cannot be purely scientifically justified. That’s quite different from the supernatural stories that often (not exclusively, but often), come to mind in the word “religion”. Conflating these two meanings can be very confusing in discussion.

3

Francis 01.15.07 at 5:00 pm

Science does not, and cannot, provide a compass or, for those of us who are not scientists or keen observers of science, a source of meaning.

why not? It seems to me that the motivating principle underlying the social sciences — like economics, sociology, anthropology and the like — is to provide a scientific basis for evaluating why some societies thrive and others fail.

Second, it seems to me that, again, all of us, me and Kitcher included, need crutches, often if not always.

But why rely on a particular sky father? If the teachings, precepts and parables (which essentially can be boiled down to empathy, self-sacrifice and obedience to the golden rule) are what is valuable, why the need to align with a group that needs to have those teachings come from Dad? Aren’t the principles valuable in themselves?

4

Kenny Easwaran 01.15.07 at 5:04 pm

Dawkins does have a chapter or two in his book discussing the ways that science and the like provide this sort of “spiritualist” religion (which he calls “Einsteinian” religion, because it’s the kind of thing that Einstein often gets quoted on, perhaps misleadingly.) And he emphasizes that he’s not attacking that. Though his bashing of particular religions often does overshadow that unfortunately.

5

Patrick S. O'Donnell 01.15.07 at 5:17 pm

I’ve found virtually everything written by Kitcher to be of value and thus I’m not surprised of your (enthusiastic) endorsement here.

Seth,

I’m not sure what you’re criticizing: as seems clear above, ‘something like a religion’ could very well refer to a moral belief system, as Harry did not say all of us rely ‘on a religion,’ and thus did not conflate the two meanings. In any case, scholars of religion(s) have not consensually agreed on a definition of what religion is, and thus, after Wittgenstein, often speak of this or that/these or those characteristic(s) which make for religion(s), not all of which will necessarily be present within any one ‘religion’ (if this be imprecision, it’s of the sort we can live with).

6

Bill Gardner 01.15.07 at 5:33 pm

Exceptional post, Harry, and I second Patrick S. O’Donnell on Kitcher.

You say, “religious practice and observation within a community is a source of meaning just as much as any other communal activity.” I would add that for most people religious practice and observation within a community is the only affordable and effective means of self-transformation. For better, and sometimes for worse.

7

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 5:39 pm

Patrick – It *could*. It’s *possible*. But it’s UNCLEAR.

My problem is that it’s very amenable to being taken as a sophisticated version of the fallacious “Science is a way of thinking, Religion is a way of thinking, they’ve both ways of thinking, so Science is just like Religion, …” [and fill in the rest …]

I think to an extent he did fall prey to the conflation of meanings, as francis/#3 just pointed out. It’s a rather trivial statement that we need some sort of organizing principle in our lives. Terming this “something like a religion” opens up an argument two-step, where religion means something vague in one place, and “sky father” in another.

8

"Q" the Enchanter 01.15.07 at 5:39 pm

I’m curious, Harry, if you’d want to give examples of the sort of “crutches” you think “all of us” rely on.

9

Pablo Stafforini 01.15.07 at 5:40 pm

I’m not sure what you’re criticizing: as seems clear above, ‘something like a religion’ could very well refer to a moral belief system, as Harry did not say all of us rely ‘on a religion,’ and thus did not conflate the two meanings.

I don’t see what goal is being advanced by using the word ‘religion’ to refer to a moral belief system, except perhaps reinforcing the widespread but mistaken notion that ethics needs to be grounded in a supernaturalist foundation to have objective validity.

10

Patrick S. O'Donnell 01.15.07 at 6:02 pm

Again, an analogy is not identity. No one is using the word religion to refer, simpliciter, to a moral belief system, nor have I or Harrry claimed or implied ‘that ethics needs to be grounded in a supernaturalist foundation to have objective validity.’

Seth,

I prefer to read what Harry wrote, I’m not quite sure what you’ve read. ‘Cultural meaning,’ for instance, or having beliefs or values that, at bottom, are not rationally justified (like, say, a Sartrian existentialist worldview; even if everything built up from it/them or deduced from it/them is coherent or in some sense rational) is not necessarily equivalent to what others mean by, nor need it invariably denote or imply ‘religion,’ vague or otherwise. Perhaps illustrative of what might be meant above by ‘cultural resources’ can be gleaned from Henry McDonald’s book, The Normative Basis of Culture: A Philosophical Inquiry (Baton Rouge, LA and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).

From here on in I’ll let Harry defend himself!

11

Matt McIrvin 01.15.07 at 6:06 pm

“Spiritualist” is a terrible word to use, given its historical association with occult fads centered around communication with the dead.

12

John Emerson 01.15.07 at 6:06 pm

Harry, I’m sending P.Z. Meyers after your ass. Be very afraid.

13

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 6:12 pm

patrick: Then why use a phrasing that could very easily be taken that way, that is often taken that way, even if it’s not the authorial intent? That’s a poorly made argument.

My point is not to say it’s being simplistic, but rather that the problem is a sophisticated version of the simplistic fallacy I outlined above – subtle shifts in meaning of a contentious word making an argument problematic, and leading to either question-begging or triviality.

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harry b 01.15.07 at 6:22 pm

thanks for the comments so far — honest, I’ll reply to the seth charge (but along the liunes that patrick has alreayd done, and offer some examples for “q”; but I am in high demand from my children at the moment and can’t respond usefully….

15

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 6:34 pm

Here’s what I’m reading:

“The final chapter is a nuanced and rather wonderful account of why providentialist religion must be false, but why this fact should not inspire in atheists any kind of triumphalism or disrespect for religion. It is, in other words, opposed both to fundamentalist Christianity, and to the militantly secularist atheism propounded …”

Simple fallacy, that frankly tends to irritate many a*-*theistic (not necessarily atheistic) people:

“Science is a way of thinking, Religion is a way of thinking, they’re both ways of thinking, so Science is just like Religion, …” [and fill in the rest …]”

A major critical-thinking intellectual project is to separate moral meaning from “sky father”. The phrasing used in the long article above seems dedicated to confusing and conflating the two. Now, of course when it’s stated that bluntly, it’s clear. In such a discussion, nobody here is going to say they are the same. The problem is the lack of clarity being so confusing. Defining “providentialist” and “spiritualist” religion, then blurring religion as roughly moral meaning, seems to end up saying that anti-clerics shouldn’t be disrespectful of the sky-father since people all need moral meaning in their lives.

As a point of view, that has a long history. But it’s not exactly self-evident.

16

harry b 01.15.07 at 6:57 pm

Well, I’m free for a minute, and I think you’re talking nonsense Seth, or at least trying to construe what I have said in a way that is as uncharitable as possible, and that is inconsistent with other things I have said. If it helps, I can say explicitly the following things:

I believe:

1) there is no god
2) it is a matter of fact whether there is a god or not
3) science as construed post-Boyle is the best way of finding out the truth about the empirical world (about which there are truths to be found out by the way) and has no competitor worth mentioning
4) Darwin’s theory of evolution is true
5) Darwin’s theory of evolution is incompatible with the (false) claim that there is an intelligent designer.

OK?

I thought it would be clear from what I’ve written above that I believe all those things; if it isn’t, that’s fine; some of the readers are clearly are able to fill in gaps.

Science tells us nothing about how to live our lives well; religions, like some other cultural constructs, tell us some things, some of which are true, some false. Discerning the truth and falsehood about how to live well takes reason and wisdom. Furthermore, people find meaning and solace through religious belief and practice, as they do through engagement in artistic endeavour and appreciation, music, freindship, family, and numerous other facets of our shared lives. Could people find meaning and morality without religion? sure, and I hope that many of us have. Should we therefore simply attack religious belief? No.

A whole part of Kitcher’s book, as I made clear, explains why he thinks it is false that there is a “sky-father” and I endorse wat he says there (in my post, or I thought I did). I’ll explain in a further post (which was going to be a part of this one) why I think that some anti-clerics and atheists should refrain from ridiculing the beliefs of religious believers (even providentialist ones). I’ll leave that mysterious some for further elaboration.

17

Donald Johnson 01.15.07 at 6:59 pm

I’m curious to see what Kitcher’s argument is, though I’m sure I’ve seen some version of it before, or for that matter, have thought of some version of it myself, no doubt more crudely expressed.

Let’s see–there’s the argument that Darwinism is based on a two-step process, as Mayr puts it–random chance supplying the genetic variability upon which natural selection acts. The whole point of the theory is that it explains the apparent design and the incredible complexity in nature without relying on some intelligent designer supplying carefully crafted mutations, as Darwin’s pal the Christian biologist Asa Gray would have had it. Darwin wouldn’t buy it. And as Steve Gould liked to say, (though Conway Morris strongly disagrees), the end results are random and show no sign that if the whole process occurred again, that anything like humans would appear.

Then there’s all that cruelty in nature, which can’t be blamed on Adam’s fall as the fundies would have it. The earth had this 4.5 billion year history and the universe has been around for about 13 billion years and why would anyone think it that it was all in preparation for us?

Is that the argument? I’m trying to remember if those are the standard ones. There’s not much in this that’s going to upset what I’ll call the moderate Christians, the ones in-between those that Harry calls the liberals and the fundies and/or intelligent design types on the other side. We don’t claim to be able to prove the existence of a providential God–excuse me, the omnipotent skyperson, as the local lingo has it. But we’ve read the book of Job and not all of us expect the universe to be a cozy medieval one which is obviously designed for us.

18

Francis 01.15.07 at 7:08 pm

The quote above implies that spiritual and providentialist versions of religion are mutually exclusive, but I think that’s wrong.

And that’s where you’re wrong. Providential religion has been proven false unless god has a very strange sense of humor. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by treating those who believe in providential forms of religion any differently from those who wear tinfoil hats or were planning on jumping onto the spaceship following the comet. (As for specific harms created by mainstream acceptance of providential religion, look no further than some of the ongoing support for the Iraq war, which seeks End Times.)

The warm fuzzy spiritualist version of religion is by contrast mostly harmless.

The only way in these two religions are not mutually exclusive is in their rejection of atheism.

19

Francis 01.15.07 at 7:11 pm

Science tells us nothing about how to live our lives well. … Discerning the truth and falsehood about how to live well takes reason and wisdom.

or, in other words, it takes a scientific approach how to figure out how to live well.

20

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 7:17 pm

Harry, please understand, I’m not trying to make statements about what *you* believe in terms of personal religion, let me be clear about that. I saw the part “like me, he is an atheist”.

What I am saying is that the above article has serious argument weakness in it, from the multiple and shifting meanings of the term “religion”.

I – and I think others in this thread, though I seem to have been foolish enough to post the most – are taking issue with exactly:

“why I think that some anti-clerics and atheists should refrain from ridiculing the beliefs of religious believers (even providentialist ones).”

Mostly, that the reasons proffered are pretty weak and don’t amount to much more than saying it’s rude to criticize people’s beliefs since those are dear and important to them.
(n.b., is gloss – I’m writing a short comment here, not a long article like the above!)

21

Steve LaBonne 01.15.07 at 7:38 pm

The warm fuzzy spiritualist version of religion is by contrast mostly harmless.

But also pretty silly, and I really don’t see why one “shouldn’t” say so.

Darwin may not (quite) rule out “spiritualist” religion, but neurobiology does, and that conflict will only become more obvious in the near future as understanding of the brain continues to advance. The idea of some kind of “non-material” “substance” that thinks and feels (whether it be a “soul” or a deity) is really not at all compatible with science, I’m afraid. And I don’t see how even the fuzziest varieties of religion can do without some such notion.

22

Steve LaBonne 01.15.07 at 7:42 pm

Addendum: on further thought I suppose there may be a couple of extreme outliers on the religious spectrum that could subsist, like the most austere versions of Theravada Buddhism, or the Spinozist pantheism that’s notoriously difficult to distinguish from atheism.

23

harry b 01.15.07 at 7:43 pm

Ok Seth — sorry for my irritation. We’re at cross purposes though. I don’t think I offer any reasons at all for refraining from ridiculing the beliefs of religious believers. I don’t do so (or I try not to) and I have what I think are good reasons, which I think I can explain (in another, really long post, which was originally part of this one till I figured that two really long ones was better than a monster one). The second half of this post is more addressed to religious believers than to non-believers.

I do think, though, that we should distinguish three aspects of religion (not 2). There are the doctrinal beliefs (God, Virgin birth, transubstantiation, literal truth of Genesis, etc). There’s the moral code. And there’s something a bit different from the moral code — the shared practices and traditions that change (as the other two do, to be honest) over time, participation in and reflection on which give people meaning. I think the moral code is simply disconnected from the rest (Kitcher rehearses the argument of the Euthophro which is obviously right and which, once you accept it, makes it impossible to see a god as the source of moral truth). But that is only part of “how to live” and of “finding meaning”; religious traditions and practices contribute to these in a complicated and important way. Anyway, I shall offer actual reasons in a later post, honest (I say that with some confidence since it is more or less written, though I’ll be watching what you say to see how I need to modify it…)

24

Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 8:07 pm

Harry, no problem, I understand how you got a misimpression too (a need for clarity works both ways :-).

Just as a matter of advice, I’d say that the word “religion” is so deeply tied into the aspect of “doctrinal beliefs” in ordinary English, that when writing for any but the most specialized audience, it’s good practice to avoid trying to made it do double or triple duty.

Many militant anti-theists are not stupid, and fully understand about searching for meaning, social traditions, community cermonies – the idea is to strip “religion” of any exclusive claim to these domains, because the evangelical counter-argument is that they come from God, or religion in the sense of theism is necessary.

If your post is going to say theistic beliefs provide these things, I suspect there will be a long thread that will be basically yes, but, so what, we can have them without theistic beliefs.

25

vivian 01.15.07 at 10:15 pm

With respect, Seth, no matter how literally clear Harry could be, (some of) the people you’re worried about would happily find some way to misread and misuse and misquote what he says. You can’t save him from that fate with judicious editing. I think your comments are grounded in this concern for Harry, but do hint at blaming him for any misuses.

26

The Fool 01.15.07 at 10:40 pm

Religion is a crock of shit. Stop making up excuses for it.

If you want to understand the stridency of the atheist, just ask yourself what you would do if you moved into a new city and you found out that everyone in town was convinced that all water was poisonous and went to absurd lengths to avoid ingestion of water. You would keep on insisting that it wasn’t and anyone who had a strong opinion that water was inherently poisonous to humans you would regard as a fucking idiot.

That is how the atheist unavoidebly thinks of the theist. Its not a sign of a bad character or an extremist temperament in the atheist, its just a common sense reaction.

The theist is someone who clearly has a problem evaluating evidence. A big problem. Because anyone who has actually considered the evidence and continues to believe in god is just brainwashed. In at least this one area, they have been manipulated to the point that they have lost the ability to think rationally. And its just hard to respect someone like that.

27

Russell Arben Fox 01.15.07 at 10:48 pm

I do think, though, that we should distinguish three aspects of religion (not 2). There are the doctrinal beliefs (God, Virgin birth, transubstantiation, literal truth of Genesis, etc). There’s the moral code. And there’s something a bit different from the moral code—the shared practices and traditions that change (as the other two do, to be honest) over time, participation in and reflection on which give people meaning. I think the moral code is simply disconnected from the rest…But that is only part of “how to live” and of “finding meaning”; religious traditions and practices contribute to these in a complicated and important way.

I’ll be very interested to read your post, Harry. In my observation, the “shared traditions and practices” aspect you refer to do not just “contribute to [the moral code] in a complicated and important way”; they provide it with the context by which it can be recognized as a moral code in the first place. It is one thing to insist, as you do, that a moral code can exist apart from doctrinal religious claims; that’s perfectly true (though it is just as true that many believers, including most of my co-religionists, would probably–and ignorantly, in my view–insist otherwise). But it is another, and much different thing, to insist that such a moral code can be broadly identified and promulgated as normative apart from cultural and social presumptions and givens that generate collectively understood normative standards in the first place. (And that is not implying an absolute or even a necessarily moderate cultural relativism; even a completely critical approach to the reception of traditions and practices, such as Habermas’s or Voltaire’s, in which we stand apart from our presumptions and use science or whatever to determine what is moral for ourselves, still needs a continuity to stand apart from.)

I realize, Harry, that you are not insisting upon the latter point; I only bring it up to highlight my understanding of the role I see “shared traditions and practices” playing in, if not necessarily the initial generation of any given moral code, than its practical livability and long-term maintenance (including being passed along to subsequent generations). And if that understanding is correct–and admittedly, it may not be–then one would need to demonstrate that a culture of “shared traditions and practices,” this third element of one’s religion/crutch/source-of-comfort-and-meaning/whatever, can in fact survive without the support of some set of “doctrinal beliefs” actively affirming that there is a truth or power or reality within said practices. The evidence from mainline Christianity and Reform Judaism, in regards to this matter at least, is to say the least not wholly positive.

28

Bill Gardner 01.15.07 at 10:52 pm

“I suppose there may be a couple of extreme outliers on the religious spectrum that could subsist, like the most austere versions of Theravada Buddhism…”

The Buddhists also have problems with Darwin. The doctrine about karma usually involves, unfortunately, a kind of atheistic providentialism. The good will ineviteably flourish, the evil will ineviteably suffer. This occurs in an unexplained way, even without a deity to make it so.

29

Colin Danby 01.16.07 at 12:11 am

I thought this was a great post, and to “compass” I would add a set of ways of thinking and learning about the social world and our relations to other people. A kind of knowledge. That’s part of why it can’t be reduced to maxims.

This requires an ontic and epistemological difference between the questions sciences answer and ethical questions, and you get a number of replies from people who don’t recognize the distinction. To pick one, I can’t agree with Francis that

“the motivating principle underlying the social sciences—like economics, sociology, anthropology and the like—is to provide a scientific basis for evaluating why some societies thrive and others fail.”

Passing over the difficulties in operationalizing this question, I doubt you’d find much ethical content in an answer! Plenty of oppressive, violent groups lasted for centuries, grew, conquered others and so on. Currently the world’s richest and most powerful nation practices torture.

One of the advantages of the kinds of distinctions Harry makes is that science, natural or social, is freed up from having to tell us how to live. You can study an ecosystem or an historical period without having to read it as allegory for something else, though certainly study of human history provides ample material for ethical reflection.

30

David 01.16.07 at 12:47 am

Harry, I’m a huge fan of pop-evolution books, and I’m going to go out and buy Kitcher’s book.

I accept that science can’t provide a compass for living, but I reject that religion is the only, or even best, basis for morality.

As a darwinist, I accept that religion is product of human evolution. I believe that religion is built upon innate human senses of right and wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily *own* those senses — there are characteristics of human nature that provide a basis for the myriad religious beliefs across the world.

I don’t know if you’ve picked up Dennett’s recent book calling for a scientific study of religion on a broad front, but I’m recommending it.

31

Dick Mulliken 01.16.07 at 2:10 am

To underline one point, Darwin is indeed only a stalking horse (a rather wonderful one), in the sense that creationists ewould have to hide all the evidence as well, which means outlawing geology, paleontolgy, molecular genetics astrophysics and so on. The evidence is there and far more compelling than the theory.
Beyond that, I rest content with my Santayana based theology which tells me that there is no God and Mary is His Mother Or as my Methodist pastor put it, he’s delighted so many aetheists coem to worship in his congregation

32

Frank 01.16.07 at 5:03 am

,
..he uses Marx’s opiate metaphor approvingly, in the medical sense in which Marx, I presume, intended it.’

Marx had appropriated that metaphor from the Reverend Charles Kingsley.

33

aaron 01.16.07 at 6:28 am

Spiritual religion offers comfort in harsh times, and helps believers to negotiate those aspects of their lives which are hard to control and understand. Dawkins et. al. celebrate the falseness of religion, but offer nothing at all to perform the functions that spiritual religion.

harry,

you must not have read the last couple chapters of sam harris’ book. in ‘the end of faith’ he takes great pains to establish precisely the distinction for which you praise kitcher.
based on my reading of harris i am inclined to believe that his arguments are much more nuanced and gentle than those for which he is represented and therefore does not deserve to be lumped in with the likes of dawkins and dennett.

34

Callan 01.16.07 at 8:06 am

“If you want to understand the stridency of the atheist, just ask yourself what you would do if you moved into a new city and you found out that everyone in town was convinced that all water was poisonous and went to absurd lengths to avoid ingestion of water. You would keep on insisting that it wasn’t and anyone who had a strong opinion that water was inherently poisonous to humans you would regard as a fucking idiot.”

I think that I would want to find out whether the taboo had a rational basis e.g. pollution of the local sources of fresh water, a historical basis e.g. a plague caused by polluted water in the past and the taboo being maintained despite the plague and pollution being a thing of the past or whether it was just a common or garden superstition. If the latter I’d want to know how it had come about and, if I was planning to stay in the place in the long term, I might well want to explore the issue with the local savants with the long term intention of explaining that they were under a misapprehension.

I wouldn’t, at any time, call anyone a fucking idiot because if the locals have some ground for their belief it would be embarassing to have them point and mock as one writhed on the ground in agony and if the locals were just plain wrong, I don’t think that calling them names would do much to persuade them of the fact.

None of this should be taken as an elaborate analogy for the superiority of religious belief or not, just an exploration of the de-merits of assuming that those who disagree with you are stupid and making that assumption explicit in debate.

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Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 8:15 am

If the latter I’d want to know how it had come about and, if I was planning to stay in the place in the long term, I might well want to explore the issue with the local savants with the long term intention of explaining that they were under a misapprehension.

To extend the analogy, suppose many generations of savants had been trying in this gentle, indirect way to bring them in contact with reality, to little or no effect. Would it really be such a terrible thing for a hydrological Dawkins or two to arise in that society?

By the way, the implication in your parable (“I think I would want to find out…) that “militant atheists” take no interest in the historical and evolutionary origins, is flagrantly false. This particular kind of misrepresentation is, I fear, quite typical of those taking your position.

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Callan 01.16.07 at 8:47 am

“By the way, the implication in your parable (“I think I would want to find out…) that “militant atheists” take no interest in the historical and evolutionary origins, is flagrantly false. This particular kind of misrepresentation is, I fear, quite typical of those taking your position.”

I think it was a perfectly fair response to the post I was responding to which hadn’t considered any position beyond the hydrophobes being a bunch of fucking idiots.

Actually some do, some don’t. My – admittedly highly subjective – impression is that an older generation of militant atheists knew what they were talking about. People like Russell, Ayer and Flew* had, generally, taken the trouble to inform themselves about what they were criticising before they criticised it. I’m not convinced this is the case with Dawkins (I have never read Harris’ stuff so cannot comment). I suspect that this may have something to do with the notion of the meme. Once one has cheerfully decided that people who disagree with you have had their minds colonised by some kind of virtual virus one is under no obligation to take them seriously.

*Before his entirely regrettable conversion to a Deist version of ID.

37

roy belmont 01.16.07 at 9:13 am

Science and religion as presently construed are fragments of what they both once were in combination, a unified way of being in the world.
That sounds more nostalgic and romantic than it’s meant.
“Science” is a term for the provable knowing of things, it begins at the Cartesian sum and it moves outward from the self toward the as-yet unknown.
Religion is a conversation with what’s already out there. Or an attempt at it.
The conflict is in the application. Trying to make the left shoe fit the right foot, and vice versa.
The arrogance of so many science-partisans – that there’s nothing there until it’s proven – would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so dangerous.
The dangers of religious arrogance are visible all around us.
It may well be that there’s nothing out there, but given the infinite nature of things that seems unlikely. Or do we have to prove the infinite nature of things first, in order to say that? And how will that be done?
Praying before you cut down a tree has a lot of practical benefits, not the least a centering of awareness in the immediate moment and locus, but it’s also got that just-in-case thing going too. What you pray to, and how you form that prayer – that’s the job description of religion.
Science has nothing to offer in that regard. Science doesn’t discriminate between Caligula and Charlemagne, between a life-filled world in harmonic balance and a dead planet void of life altogether.
It’s not supposed to, it distinguishes between them, it describes without judgment.
Global warming is a failure of religion far more than of science, though the specific details of its causes and effects are entirely within the purview of science.
Getting a moral compass to read true without some kind of religious input from outside the solipsistic requires something like a metaphor at the outer reaches of the imagined commons.
These things are wrong because they will doom us all.
But they benefit me.
The rebuttal is, dooming us all has a weight that’s far greater than any personal benefit could ever be.
By what measure?
Something vague and golden way off there down the timeline.
Science has no term for what that is that isn’t demeaning or woefully inaccurate. Religion has too many, and most of them proprietary.
But without a recognition of that ineffable goal, vague as it is, our moral systems have no possibility of compass.

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Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 9:29 am

I’m not convinced this is the case with Dawkins How about actually reading his book, which discusses this particular question at considerable length (though I will not claim that it’s a major contribution to that genre- the discussion is pretty superficial but it is not absent) and then commenting? And another figure often tarred with the same brush, Dennett, wrote an entire freaking book (a much better one than Dawkins’s IMHO) about nothing but that.

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Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 9:43 am

Getting a moral compass to read true without some kind of religious input from outside the solipsistic requires something like a metaphor at the outer reaches of the imagined commons.

Say what? The inverse golden rule is a sound guide for all but the most unusual and complex cases, and religions have never been much use for the latter either (nor have the endless divagations of moral philosophers on recondite thought experiments, no offense to the philosophers among our esteemed proprietors here).

40

Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 10:34 am

Darwin really is a threat to their beliefs and, in a nice observation that he attributes to Christopher Peacock, Darwin is probably singled out because he is the only threat whose views get encountered in a systematic way by anyone who does not get an elite college education in the humanities (in the US especially). Voltaire, Hume, Kant, all might be seen as worse threats if anyone knew who they were.

By the way, I’m more than a bit uncomfortable with this way of stating things. The real problem the “providentialists” have is not with Darwin personally in the sense that they would have one with Hume; it’s the massive accumulation of evidence for biological evolution since Darwin’s time, the most powerful and extensive branch of which is molecular in nature and would not even have been comprehensible to Darwin.

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"Q" the Enchanter 01.16.07 at 11:34 am

Harry, I know you’ve been put upon to answer “the critics,” but I’m still wondering about what sort of “crutches” you feel you need to rely upon in order to find meaning in life. (As you may have guessed, I’m skeptical that there are any truly irrational beliefs humans need to hang on to to get through the day.)

Also, just as an aside, I’d want to suggest that just as an intellectually honest atheist would be “disrespectful to pretend” to doubt where there is none, perhaps it’s also important to be honest about the extent to which we find religious belief downright ridiculous. The language of ridicule has an obvious cost (viz., the likelihood of alienating an otherwise potentially receptive audience), but there is also a benefit in conveying the sense that religious belief isn’t merely untrue but deeply unworthy of us. I wouldn’t want to engage in pointed ridicule of religious persons, per se; but carefully poking fun at the more obvious absurdities that abound in popular religious belief might on balance have a salutary effect. (‘Ridicule’ may be too strong a word for what I have in mind, but you’ll take my meaning.)

42

Hogan 01.16.07 at 11:58 am

The warm fuzzy spiritualist version of religion is by contrast mostly harmless.

But also pretty silly, and I really don’t see why one “shouldn’t” say so.

Indeed. I also routinely tell the people around me that they’re married to stupid ugly spouses, and that their jobs are pointless and their leisure activities bestial. And you can’t imagine how much that’s improved the community I live in.

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dearieme 01.16.07 at 12:20 pm

Your post seems to attract all manner of Christianity Denialists.

44

mudduck 01.16.07 at 1:40 pm

Human beings live in Story as fish live in water. We can’t help it. Language is story. A noun and a verb are a short story. From the thousands of happenings and observations of a day, we pick a thread of narrative. (Analysis teaches us to edit our stories.)

Human beings also are built to seek causes. “Eat berry, get sick – berry bad.” “Old woman squints at me, I get sick — old woman bad.” What Darwin, Galileo, and others bring to the impulse is the concept of evidence. The story we tell, the causes we discern, should be supported by evidence.

Religion is a story told within a group of people. Religions are based on tradition (received opinion) and authority. In religion, tradition + authority = truth. In science, there’s no real “truth” — there are facts and hypotheses.

We need personal and group narratives — we can’t escape them. And you can’t replace something with nothing. How to save the communal values of the old narratives that don’t stand up to demands for evidence? The “spiritual” problem of our time.

(We aren’t “spirits,” either. Our sense of being pilots sitting in a cockpit behind our eyes is an illusion. We are organisms, and consciousness is an effect of bodily processes.)

45

Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 2:03 pm

And that little boy who had the nerve to point out the Emperor’s nakedness- how can you have a decent community when there are such rude people running about?

46

Hogan 01.16.07 at 2:08 pm

Emperors have it coming. People just living their lives . . . not so much. (Unless they’re the aggressors, obviously.)

47

Steve LaBonne 01.16.07 at 2:12 pm

People just living their lives . . . not so much. (Unless they’re the aggressors, obviously.)

Which, considering how much crap atheists get in our religiose society, the religiously deluded very often are.

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roy belmont 01.16.07 at 6:32 pm

“The inverse golden rule is a sound guide for all but the most unusual and complex cases”

““the motivating principle underlying the social sciences – —like economics, sociology, anthropology and the like – —is to provide a scientific basis for evaluating why some societies thrive and others fail.”

I’m thinking, Steve, you won’t see the underlying arrogance in both of those statements for what it is and what it represents. It’s the same stance, the same posture of dominance.
Solipsistic hubris.
If we haven’t seen it it doesn’t exist.
It won’t exist unless and until we do see it.
Hey Xeno? Where you goin with that pencil in your hand?
Try this. You’re here – at point A on an infinite line.
You can describe whatever you find in an ever-widening radius of accumulated provable knowledge around that point.
You can posit a given point B anywhere out there and work your skeptical self toward it with all your might main but you don’t get to talk about 1. what’s at the end of the line, and 2. let alone whatever (infinite) planes and solids contain that line.
1. because it doesn’t have one
2. because that’s outside the reach of your instrumentation, and it will remain so for the duration of your stay here.
Religion as it’s now popularly held is a straw man for anally-clenched right-brain chauvinists who’ve navigated the last 150 years of human progress, such as it was.
Religion must answer for a lot, zealots and fanatics and fundamentalists, yes – but then science has given us such wonderfully more appropriate figures – like say, Joseph Mengele and Sidney Gottlieb. And such illuminating and humanity-enhancing by-products as the internal combustion engine and subliminal advertisement.
I said global warming’s a failure of religion, but more accurately it’s a failure of religion to guide and admonish ungoverned science.
North America was “discovered” and “settled” by men whose arrogance was fueled by the conceits of religious chauvinism, a foundation of immorality that haunts everything that happens there. Replacing religious chauvinism with a-dogmatic scientific chauvinism doesn’t seem like much of a gain.
But then if you look closely you’ll see the partisans on both sides of this artificially polarized contest have a big stake personally in their own side’s victory, regardless of the “fitness” and soundness of the logic in their positions.
And that’s really what it’s about eh?
Survival?
Darwinian niche utilization?
So who cares if the fundamentalists are wrong, intellectually? If they win, they win. And they get to go on reproducing more of their own kind.
Which is what the whole thing’s all about from the get.

49

engels 01.16.07 at 6:56 pm

Unlike religion, a compass will generally lead people in the right direction.

Also, I think it might be acceptable to take someone’s crutch if he is using it to beat you over the head.

50

Donald Johnson 01.16.07 at 9:36 pm

Sheesh, what’s a fucking idiot have to do to get insulted around here? I’m a providentialist Christian.

But on that subject, the reason you shouldn’t go around insulting people like me merely for the thought crime of believing some orthodox Christian doctrines is really quite simple–I don’t deserve it. You might have reason to insult me for my beliefs if my beliefs cause me to behave like an intolerant jerk or in some other way cause harm to others. Not otherwise.

Those who think that religious belief in itself is sufficient cause for name-calling are just bigots.

51

mtraven 01.16.07 at 10:48 pm

Thanks for posting this; I’ve been trying to articulate a moderate position in the evolution/religion wars and it sounds like Kitcher has made a valuable contribution for those of us trying to steer a course between simpleminded extremes. The recognition of religion’s function as a haven in a heartless world is especially needed. I get really tired of loudmouthed brights assuming that people adhere to religion simply because they’re stupid, without stopping to think that maybe religious belief is completely rational and pragmatic for people who may not have the benefits of a nice middle-class academic sinecure.

52

Matthew 01.17.07 at 8:37 am

I wish all atheists (like me) would read Karen’s Amstrong’s book and realise that (relatively) recent Western Christianity has had a particularly literal, blinkered view of (the concept of) God and scripture, and that religions used to view God as the embodiment of the transcendance and the unknown… and not just in their mystical variants such as Sufism etc.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 8:41 am

Those who think that religious belief in itself is sufficient cause for name-calling are just bigots.

I don’t believe in name-calling either. I do believe in politely but firmly pointing out that your beliefs have been decisively refuted by a huge mass of scientific knowledge and, in my considered opinion, deserve toleration but not respect (those are quite different things). What you do with that information is, of course, up to you. This is actually far more polite treatment than we atheists typically receive from believers.

54

Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 8:48 am

Matthew, you’re not the only one who is well aware of these things. I’m afraid there’s still a big problem, which I will restate from one of my commments above:

Darwin may not (quite) rule out “spiritualist” religion, but neurobiology does, and that conflict will only become more obvious in the near future as understanding of the brain continues to advance. The idea of some kind of “non-material” “substance” that thinks and feels (whether it be a “soul” or a deity) is really not at all compatible with science, I’m afraid. And I don’t see how even the fuzziest varieties of religion can do without some such notion.

55

harry b 01.17.07 at 8:52 am

steve — is that really right? Maybe in the large swathe of history religious believers (like everyone else) have been susceptible to murder rape and pillage. But do you really experience a lot of intolerance — as an athiest — from religious believers? What form does it take? Do you think it comes from most religious believers, or a handful of hotheaded bigots who, if they didn;t have religion to back them up, would be thuggish toward you on other grounds? (For example, it seems silly to me to think that the behaviour of the likes of Ralph Reed, James Dobson, etc has anything to do with their religious belief — in an atheist society they would find other ways to make lots of money and gain lots of status by exploiting the vulnerabilities of others).

“q” — my promise of another post dealing with many of these things directly stands, and I’ll include examples there. But this thread has given me a lot of food for thought so it won’t be immediate, sorry..

Thanks to the many of you who have helped deflect the flack from me! I appreciate it — but also appreciate a lot of the flack which will help me think better about these things.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 9:15 am

I imagine things are rather different in Britain than they are in the US; but here, casual references to unbelievers as weird, untrustworthy, potentially dangerous, etc. are an integral part of the culture, and are part of the normal stock in trade of right-wing politicians and pundits (not only the most obviously loony ones, either). And yes, these attitudes, in a less strident form, are quite common among moderate members of “mainstream” churches as well, and I have encountered them with some frequency. The average person looks at you rather as though you had two heads if you tell him you do not believe in his, or any, god.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 9:20 am

P.S. Sorry, I forgot that you’re in the US- but then, not exactly, because you’re in Madison. I once ahd a European scientist tell me “when I first came to the States I couldn’t understand why people badmouthed it back home; I found it was a wonderfully enlightened, tolerant place. Then I left Madison.”

I live and work in a much more conservative part of the Midwest (exurban Notheast Ohio) and moreover, working in law enforcement (a heavily Catholic field, around here)as a forensic scientist, I am situated well outside the academic bubble. From were I sit things are as I described.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 9:39 am

P.P.S Another indicator to ponder is- how many openly unbelieving people hold elective office, at any level, in the US? And as a thought experiment, imagine the sort of campaign that would ensue were one to run.

59

harry b 01.17.07 at 10:11 am

steve — as I hinted in my post I have close relationships (very much outside Madison) with fervent providentialist Christians (exurban SouthEast Ohio, in fact, which is, I agree, nothing like Madison — and I suspect the other part of the country I have lived in, southern california, is also more like Madison in this respect than like our respective parts of Ohio). Perhaps the closeness of the relationships makes for a different kind of discourse than would otherwise occur. I think that they feel, and have reason to feel, strongly alienated from public discourse and the public culture, and that ridiculing their religious beliefs only enhances that sense of alienation, making it more difficult to engage them around discussions that, if you’ll forgive me, really matter for politics (like around taxation policy, the design of the welfare state, whether we should go to war and stay in wars, whether large corporations should basically control the political and cultural space, etc). What also strikes me is how reasonable they can be about all these topics if they are engaged by people (like me) who seem respectful of them as religious believers, while clearly being (as in my case) atheists.

But sure, they are not used to the idea that atheists can have a moral compass. Ridiculing their religious beliefs doesn’t really help them to understand that morality is entirely available to non-believers (well, maybe it would, I haven’t tried, but I doubt it). If I rolled up with a “nothing fails like prayer” bumper sticker on my car, I can’t imagine it helping me to explain either that morality couldn’t derive its authority from a God, or that we should adopt universal healthcare and take rigorous steps to abolish child poverty and to change zoning rules to promote socio-economic integration of neighbourhoods.

On the paucity of openly atheist elected officials and the (to my, admittedly foreign, eyes) sickeningly ritualistic invocation of God by elected officials, pop stars, sportspeople etc — sure, I think that is evidence of something pretty bad. And even if it weren’t, it would be pretty bad anyway. The idea of a God who helps the Green Bay Packers to win, or who helps some politician get elected is, I presume, revolting to anybody who has reflected about it for at least a second, and that includes people who believe very deeply in providentialist religion. I can only assume that the public permission politicians and sportsmen have to invoke God comes not from religious belief or intolerance but from something like the generalised unthinkingness that allows otherwise perfectly sensible Britons to talk rspectfully of the parasites who constitute the Royal family, or to mourn the death of Diana. Sorry, I’m rambling.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 10:26 am

Well, I don’t think that what I’ve said, or anything that Dawkins says in his book, amounts to ridicule. And I do indeed think that a book like Dawkins’s has the potential to open the eyes of ordinary folk who, in their millions, have never so much as encountered the idea that religion can be seriously questioned by someone who clearly doesn’t have two heads and isn’t an axe murderer. (The book is certainly not aimed at people like me, for whom everything in it is boringly old news.) In other words, it’s a real contribution toward dispelling precisely the “generalized unthinkingness” you cite. Which is why I’m glad that it seems to be selling well.

But again, think a bit harder about why there are almost no openly unbelieving elected officials, and in so doing I again recommend the thought experiment of imagining the kinds of campaigns their opponents would run. I still maintain that there’s really a wee bit more than just “unthinkingness” going on there. It wasn’t so long ago that we had a Preznit, father of the current chimpcumbent as it happens, who openly questioned whether an atheist could be a loyal US citizen.

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Donald Johnson 01.17.07 at 11:08 am

Steve, I have no objection to what you said in post 52–well, a disagreement, but not an objection. I don’t think scientific evidence (such as the overwhelming evidence for evolution) can have any bearing on most of my beliefs. In principle some of them could be refuted by some future scientific discovery, but it hasn’t happened yet. But if I want this kind of argument I can read the Kitcher book or something else along those lines. The line of reasoning that is objectionable is the following–

1. Religious beliefs are totally irrational
2. Person A is religious.
3. Therefore, Person A is irrational and should be insulted until he comes to his senses.

I get the distinct impression that if atheists were the majority in this country, some of them would turn out to be every bit as intolerant as fundamentalist Christians.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 11:21 am

When you give me an example of these horrible “militant atheists” doing #3, I’ll take your complaint more seriously. No doubt you can find a few obscure bloggers or whatnot, but as I’ve said, compared to the crap atheists take from believers in this country all the time (and I’d again take you more seriously if you displayed any concern about that), it’s less than minuscule and you frankly have quite a nerve complaining. Color me totally unsympathetic.

And yes, religious beliefs are irrational, and entirely incompatible with our actual knowledge of the universe. Notice that I didn’t say you’re a bad person, I simply criticized your irrational beliefs.

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mtraven 01.17.07 at 12:00 pm

Re: 54. Neurobiology doesn’t rule out “spiritualist” religion. It may rule out the cruder forms of it, in which the spirit is viewed as just a sort of magic kind of material substance. But that’s not the only available idea of what spirit means. Consider spirit as a kind of idea, or abstract form, or organizing principle. Consider it as part of the software that operates on our neural hardware. Consider “team spirit”, a real phenomenon whatever might underlie its implementation.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 12:10 pm

The more you know about the almost unfathomable complexity of organization and function the brain requires in order to do the amazing things that it does, the less seriously you’ll be able to take such blatant wishful thinking.

65

Crystal 01.17.07 at 12:18 pm

I’d like to read Kitcher’s book, if for no other reason than he wrote an excellent critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition. (Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, incidentally, appear to be a form of atheistic religion, though not all atheists subscribe to them. And harsh, punitive and woman-hating religions they are – sounds familiar…)

I’m a pagan, so I get accusations of damnation and loony irrationality from fundies and atheists alike. However, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the likes of me are practically mainstream. In fact, atheists, Buddhists, pagans of all stripes, and just plain spiritual-but-not-religious folks outnumber the conventional Christians out here.

Given this, my opinion on how to deal with people you think hold silly, irrational, or misguided beliefs is to STFU and MYOB. Unless they are directly making your life miserable. When people tell me that my beliefs are misguided, silly, or what have you, I don’t say to myself, “Why, that Joe is so right! I am silly! I am misguided! Thank you, Joe, for showing me the light!” Rather, I think to myself, “Jeez, that Joe is a loudmouth jerk. He needs to shut up, go away and mind his own beeswax.”

All the atheists I know came to their atheism by self-reflection and consideration, not because someone harangued them about their irrational beliefs. You don’t win people to your side by hectoring them and showing off how very much smarter you are than they – no more than anyone is converted to fundamentalism by reading Jack Chick comics or those Watchtower magazines.

An attitude of smug condescension coupled with a buttinski I-know-what’s-good-for-you is going to alienate people, not win them over.

Another thing is that most atheists – not all, by any means, but a vast majority – are comfortably well-off, college-educated, and white, with all the class and race privilege that entails.

66

Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 1:09 pm

Right, and gay people also should just shut up and not rub good heterosexuals’ noses in their deviant sexuality, right? Try out that attitude where you live!

And most of us don ‘t live in places that bear much resemblance at all to the Bay Area, so your “advice” smacks of the very “smug condescension” you pretend to deplore.

Wake me up when a significant proportion of the seats in Congress are occupied by “out” atheists. Until then people who choose to hold irrational beliefs of various kinds and who expect me to reaasure them of how wonderfully OK that is to me, are ever so politely and respectfully invited to osculate my posterior.

67

Crystal 01.17.07 at 1:17 pm

Homosexuality =/= atheism. You don’t choose to be gay. However, you do choose your religion or lack thereof.

68

Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 1:25 pm

Analogies are never exact in every detail. It’s still none of anybody’s affair to tell either class of people that they should shut up and mind their own business.

69

MQ 01.17.07 at 1:30 pm

People do choose to actually be gay, in the sense of having same-sex partners. They don’t choose to *want* to be gay. Likewise, our spiritual allegiances are a choice that stem from internal desires and environmental background that we did not choose.

70

Crystal 01.17.07 at 1:51 pm

Well, homosexuality = atheism is still a very flawed analogy. Gays are born gay; atheists are not born atheists. Gays, as a rule, want to be left alone to live with/sleep with their same-sex partners, and they don’t go around telling straights how stupid and misguided they are (even Dan Savage doesn’t do that). And, of course, gays are still beaten up or even killed just for being gay – most famously, Matthew Shepard. Maybe there are hate crimes against atheists; however, I doubt there are atheist Matthew Shepards or James Burkes.

What it boils down to, for me, is a basic respect and tolerance for other adults’ beliefs as long as they aren’t impinging upon the civil rights of others. I, a believer in a divine intelligence (though I don’t call it “God”) would prefer not to be called stupid, misguided, or insane. In turn, I won’t call atheists any of the above nor will I try to convert them to Dianic Paganism. Respect and tolerance have to cut both ways. Even if you know you are both much smarter and much more hard-done-by than anyone else out there.

By the way, there are no out pagans in Congress either. Nor are there any Buddhists, Taoists or Hindus (to my knowledge). And we only got our first Muslim congresscritter last election.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 2:00 pm

Once again, tolerance and respect are two very different things. I would never dream of impinging in any way on your right to hold and talk about what I might regard as distressingly irrational beliefs. But I certainly would’t congratulate you on holding them, which to me is what is implied by the rather strong word “respect”. You seem to think I have no right to say, for example, that “I consider your beliefs irrational and I think it would be a good thing if you reconsidered them in the light of scientific evidence that conflicts with them.” (This is purely hypothetical, you understand, because I have no idea what sorts of metaphysical commitments your version of paganism actually makes.) If you’re not saying that then just what are you trying to say?

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Crystal 01.17.07 at 2:15 pm

Steve: what I am trying to say is that you have every right to think it. You even have a right to say it – free speech and all that. Just don’t expect me to say, “Why yes, Steve! You’re right! I am irrational! You are right, and I am wrong! I’ve seen the light!” In other words, don’t be a noodge or Helpy Helperton.

People who get up and in others’ business need to expect that their brilliant insights and Just Wanting To Help will be greeted with open arms. This is what I mean when I say that atheists are wasting their breath when they try to convince theists of the error of their ways.

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Crystal 01.17.07 at 2:16 pm

Oops, I meant “will NOT be greeted with open arms.” Most people don’t really like Helpy Helpertons.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 2:26 pm

Well, of course I don’t expect you to say that; when did I say I expected it? Nor should you expect me (and I’m sure you in fact don’t) to say “wow, I need to think seriously about adopting paganism”, unless, of course, you’ve brought me some serious evidence that it’s true.

And I think you’re wrong about the breath wasting. Oh, not in the case of a sophisticated person like yourself who has nonetheless chosen to be deluded; I realize how elaborate your defenses probably are. (Notice that I’m really not showing any interest in persuading you?) But as I said, when you get away from places like the Bay Area, it turns out there are a lot of people who unthinkingly follow the path of their childhood religious indoctrination and have never so much as encountered the idea that religion is open to serious question. If someone like Dawkins opens the minds of even a few of those- and I think he will- it’s a net gain for rationality.

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harry b 01.17.07 at 2:37 pm

crystal — I agree with everything you say. But you are an easy case because you explicitly say that you do not want to evangelise, and you imply that you do not base yoour politics on your religious faith, or if you do its not in a way that would bother steve (I’d guess). Steve is more xercised (I’d guess) by people who do want to convert him and/or people who use their religious beliefs to inform their politics in a deep way that might make life much more difficult than it should be for other people (eg who would, if they could, outlaw or penalise in other ways homsoexuality, enforce traditional gender roles etc). I agree with him that when people try to outlaw homosexuality, for example, we should be very straightforward in opposing them and, if they appeal to religious premisses, we need to point out very forthrightly why those religious premisses are flawed (or, which is different, why they don’t support outlawing homsexuality). As to evangelising; I don’t know about that. In a funny way I appreciate being evangelised (its nice to know they care), but resent the presumed assymetry in our positions (why shouldn’t I evangelise for atheism back?). But, and this is one difference between steve and me (I take it from the discussions) I have no interest in getting other people to be atheists. I ‘m an atheist and simply can;’t imagine that changing, but it is not part of my identity at all (in the way that being a pagan or Christian or Muslim would have to be part of one’s identity). SO, irritatingly, there is a correct basis to the presumed assymetry! However, I absolutely do want to convince my interlocutors that they should support a much more egalitarian social order, vote for same-sex marriage and for universal healthcare and the elimination of child poverty and better schools for the poorest children, etc. I think that confronting their religious beliefs will usually get in the way of that. I also think, though, that it makes a lot of sense to argue with people about the compatibility of moral decency with non-belief in God. Again, challenging their theism (let alone ridiculing it) gets in the way.

I disagree about Dawkins. I think he does ridicule Christians, and I think he does it quite deliberately and knowingly. I’ve been coy up to now, but I think there’s a reason for this — he really doesn’t have some other social justice agenda that leads him to want to pry some of them away from their alliance with business/corporation oriented political elites. So, for him, no opportunity cost. He also has enormous self-confidence (as I said, being married to a time lord might do that for you) and has no plan for how, in America, the good that religious belief and practice does for people would be replaced.

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H. E. Baber 01.17.07 at 2:43 pm

The providentialist/spiritualist distinction is surely a false dichotomy. One can certainly buy religious metaphysics–belief in the existence of a supernatural being and post-mortem survival without holding that it intervenes in the natural world, either miraculously or otherwise. And someone who holds this view may also reject the notion that religious belief has anything to do with moral concerns, which are also entirely a matter for secular investigation. Science is the business of scientists, operating according to the assumption of methodological naturalism; ethics is the business of philosophers operating according to secular principles. Neither has anything to do with religion.

So what’s left for religion? Easy. Metaphysics and cult, e.g. speculation on the intricacies of the Trinity doctrine on the one hand and on the other church buildings, liturgy, music and art. For those of us who enjoy metaphysics and aesthetics religion is one of the fun things in life. Of course, I’m Episcopalian.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 2:44 pm

I happen to think it’s a bad thing in itself for people to hold unfounded irrational beliefs. And more instrumentally, even when those beliefs are themselves not associated with noxious forms of politics, the existence of a widespread mental habit of unjustified belief certainly renders the ground more fertile for such politics. I can only reiterate that I think Dawkins has gotten these points exactly right. So we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Meanwhile, somebody is buying Dawkins’s book in pretty substantial numbers- and as I said earlier, it’s really of little interest or value to people who already think as he does.

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Francis 01.17.07 at 3:57 pm

I think he does ridicule Christians, and I think he does it quite deliberately and knowingly. I’ve been coy up to now, but I think there’s a reason for this

well, reasoning hasn’t worked so well, so maybe it’s time to add a little sarcasm and ridicule.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 4:40 pm

By the way, speaking of people who can make comfortable pronouncements because they’re speaking from a position of privilege, that’s how the prissiness of some humanists with respect to pointing out the damage done by pervasive religiosity appears to us scientists- who are actually on the front lines. The problem for us goes way beyond just the obvious “creation science” and “ID” nonsense. There is a large amount of systematic and highly effective pressure to simply exclude any serious treatment of the “controversial” subject of evolution from K-12 biology education. (The treatment in any of the textbooks from the major publishers is generally derisory, thanks to abominations like the Texas textbook selection committee. And many teachers avoid even the little that’s there like the plague.) This has done massive damage to science education in the US, which is weak enough to begin with. Darrow may have lost the battle against Scopes, but he won the war and it’s stayed that way ever since. (The self-congratulatory “moderate” religionists who like to preen themselves on not being followers of Pat Dobson have for the most part done fuck-all to effectively fight against this situation, with a few honorable exceptions- almost all of the latter being scientists themselves.) Those who don’t have a dog in this hunt ought to think twice before delivering haughty lectures on politeness to those of us who do.

Sorry if I sound pissed off, but that’s because frankly I am.

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harry b 01.17.07 at 5:49 pm

steve, I agree completely that the pressure to teach such things as ID and creationism in biology is wrong and damaging. I could list off, though, a huge number of things that are far more damaging to science education in the US. EG, lousy training in ed schools, lousy pre-existing science education, teacher certification which doesn’t require a science major in order to have a science certification, lousy salaries for science teachers relative to other professions science majors might enter; the lack of any kind of career ladder in teaching; appalling school administrators who know little about teaching and learning and, worse, don’t think that teaching and learning have much to do with their jobs; lack of a national curriculum to exert pressure toward quality on the producers of science textbooks (and counterpressure against the localistic anti-science and generally anti-intellectual demands); the low status of the teaching profession in general;…. well, you get the idea. Worse, I think all these factors make things easier for the pro-ID/creation forces to bamboozle people and not get their way exactly but do the little bit of damage that adds to the damage all these factors do. They have not done appalling damage, much as they’d have liked to — things would be barely better without them, and it is a distraction to claim that they are the main sources of the problem.

So, pissed of as you may be, those of us who know the world of k-12 education well see the IDers as, certainly, appalling fraudsters, but appalling fraudsters whose behaviour is like a gnat’s bite in the grand scheme of things.

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harry b 01.17.07 at 6:03 pm

And by the way if your first sentence in #79 conforms to your standards of politeness in conversation our standards are sufficiently different that we might mean different things by terms like “ridicule” and be talking past each other a bit.

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Crystal 01.17.07 at 6:16 pm

However, I absolutely do want to convince my interlocutors that they should support a much more egalitarian social order, vote for same-sex marriage and for universal healthcare and the elimination of child poverty and better schools for the poorest children, etc.

Well, Harry, you are right in that I am an easy case – because I firmly believe in all of this. It’s nice that my religion aligns with it, but really, it’s my conscience that’s my guide here. Jiminy Cricket would be proud.

And I wish that Dawkins would say more about this. You are right that he seems more aligned with business interests than anything else – he’s an Enterpriser, if you will. And of course he’s a huge supporter (if not one of the founders/revivers) of sociobiology, which, IMHO, is a religion of the most reactionary, racist, sexist and repellent sort. Not that Dawkins himself has given signs of being a racist or sexist but many socibiologists are. Just to name one, Steven Pinker, self-proclaimed atheist and also extraordinarily sexist. Secular beliefs don’t necessarily mesh with liberal politics. I will never forget the day I saw a pic of Penn and Teller (or maybe it was just Penn) kissing up to Richard Pombo (for non-Californians, Pombo was a horrible anti-environmentalist Republican Congressman who got voted out of office in November, oh frabjous day).

And the more I think about it the more I can see why Steve might be so annoyed and righteous with his atheism. You see, I’m a fortysomething, single by choice, childfree by choice woman who has gotten the “barren womb” lecture, the “who will care for you when you get old” hoo-rah, the “women over 40 face a terrible ‘marriage market'” well-meaning noodge and of course the “but all women waaaaant chiiiilllldrunnn” assumption…yes indeed, there comes a time when you really want to tell the Helpy Helperton crowd to go sit bare-@ssed on a large cactus. An atheist who is surrounded by reactionary fundamentalism day in and day out might well get a little fed up.

But I still believe in live and let live and remember that not everyone is going to believe the same as you, nor are people going to have perfectly rational beliefs. Nor is it religion per se that is the problem, as I see it; the problem is right-wing authoritarian personalities who get the bit in their teeth and use religion as an excuse for their reactionary beliefs. The Bell Curve and A Natural History of Rape to name two were not inspired in their loathesome racism and sexism by religion. Authoritarian, suspicious sorts who are intolerant of ambiguity can use any religion OR atheism to push reactionary politics.

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harry b 01.17.07 at 6:40 pm

Steve — just adding to my comments in 80 — Ask your 10 smartest colleagues (who have at least a BS in some science subject) why they did not go into middle or high school teaching. I’d be really surprised if half of them even considered it for more tha a minute (an indication of its low prestige); I’d be willing to guess that of those that did, the factors I cite played more of a role than the controversy over ID. But I’d be really interested if I’m wrong, and if so it will really give me pause.

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Matt 01.17.07 at 7:36 pm

Harry- what’s a “time lord” (some sort of Dr. Who reference?) and why would it make one enourmously self-confident to be married to one?

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mtraven 01.17.07 at 7:37 pm

Steve, congratulations on your appointment as official spokesperson and Grand Inquisitor for the Magisterial Court of Science. In this capacity, we will expect you to define and articulate the official view of what science is and what its interests are. We also expect you to be able to tell non-scientists from scientists based on short fragments of text, the better to root out heresy. We trust you will take an active role in making those officialy decreed to be non-scientists shut up.

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Donald Johnson 01.17.07 at 7:42 pm

Steve, I’m trying to break my habit of typing out gigabyte length political manifestos whenever I type a comment, so it didn’t occur to me to tell you how many years I’ve spent telling evangelical Christian friends (with some success and some failure) that evolution is very strongly supported by the evidence. The fact that atheists can be virtuous people, I have to say, is not a subject that has ever come up that I can recall, but I’ll jump right in on your side if it does. Seriously. In other contexts I’m often enraged by the mindnumbingly stupid and sometimes immoral positions some of my fellow Christians take on various issues for religious reasons and I get into sometimes heated discussions about from time to time. So do a lot of moderate Christians.

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 8:10 pm

Harry, with respect, I truly don’t think you fully understand the magnitude, extent and success of the pressures to downplay the teaching of evolution in the K-12 system.* It’s a problem that predates by many, many years the advent of ruses like “creation science” and “ID”. And it’s extremely damaging because very, very few students leave school understanding that evolution is not a detachable part of biology but rather its central, indispensible organizing principle. Of course the other things you mention are huge problems- precisely why it’s a tragedy that they’re further aggravated by the pressure not to teach “controversial” evolutionary topics.

By the way if a Christian or a defender of Christians gets the vapors from Dawkins’s (or my) tone, surely he must have a heart attack reading Hume or worse still, Voltaire…

*Here’s some personal experience for you on how deep the rot goes, for whatever anecdotes are worth. My daughter, now in nitnh grade, has had three creationist teachers in her career- two in grade school and the last, shockingly even to me, her 8th grade SCIENCE teacher. I discovered the latter when my daughter brought home a “critical thinking” handout on the age of the earth which was in fact a compendium of well-worn old earth creationist canards. I got in touch with him and politely but firmly let him know that I was aware of the source and inappropriateness of his handout. I pointed him to sources of accurate information and even had my daughter lend him a couple of books. I suspect he was only rpetending to be openminded but at least he knew he was being watched and there was no more nonsense (and I’m sure you realize that the mere absence of nonsense is very far from being sufficient for good science teaching.)

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 8:11 pm

I get into sometimes heated discussions about from time to time. So do a lot of moderate Christians.

Good for you- I mean that sincerely- but I wish this happened more often and, even more importantly, in more public fora.

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harry b 01.17.07 at 10:05 pm

steve — this may be a case where we disagree because you just have much lower expectations than I do regarding the other factors. I interpret your anecdote as evidence in favour of my complaints, not yours; correct my complaints, and such people either wouldn’t get the job, or wouldn’t feel able to do what they do. Don’t correct my complaints, just get rid of the IDers, and you’ll have similarly incompetent people teaching biology similarly badly. I could give you a ream of similar anecdotes from History and social studies classes in middle and high school, but with Maoists, Feminists, Rrepublicans, Libertarians — the problem is that the principals and the ed schools excercise no quality control and teachers believe they can do what they want.

If you don’t mind me lecturing you for a minute, you should go to the Principal, make sure he or she sees you, show her the assignment, and explain what biology is, and that your daughter and all the other kids in the school should be taught it, and not something else, and that it is the principal’s job to know what is going on in every department, and to be involved in the intellectual life and teaching and learning in the school. If you do, your principal will stare at you as if you have two heads (is my guess). Ok, lecture over, and revealed at the end to be probably bad advice.

But why are we discussing this? Most of Kitcher’s book is a devastating take down of ID and creationism, which shows conclusively that it has no place in the science classroom, and I endorse all that here, and in the piece I linked to ultimately in the THES (which you can get t, probably, by registering, but its probably not interesting enough to bother). So, we agree both on the quality of biology teaching, and on the inappropriateness of ID, but I put much more wieght than you do on the factors I have outlined, and your anecdote doesn’t persuade me otherwise….

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Steve LaBonne 01.17.07 at 10:11 pm

Well, yet once again, I can only invite you do do some digging into the very long history of pressure not to teach evolution, or to greatly softpedal it, in American schools. Scopes, as I said, in fact changed nothing (or more correctly was actually a turning point in the wrong direction). See this for example.

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Luc 01.18.07 at 11:33 am

Read the comments and I’m left wondering why the line

“A world unimproved in any other way which lacked spiritual religion would be a worse world.”

isn’t rated as the controversial issue here.

The statement for example implies that either the Dutch have improved in some mysterious way, unknown to me, or the US is a better place.

The statement also fails at being consistent with a coherent view of a non religious world.

People don’t offer these community services because they are religious, but because either they feel the need themselves or they are convinced by other people to behave like that.

And neither is going to disappear when people stop being religious. A scientists could easily verify this by comparing religious and non religious communities across the world.

Religion is different for the song and dance, not for the motivation, needs and wishes of people.

The holy cows, Wodan, Mercator, God et al., are a result, not a cause. And thus dropping them doesn’t make the world a worse place.

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Donald Johnson 01.18.07 at 1:07 pm

I’ve read Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”. Several times–Hume is an entertaining writer.

But no vapors. And no sense that anything he said was threatening to me as a providentialist Christian who thinks the evidence for evolution (and natural selection as the guiding force) is pretty compelling. He wouldn’t even be that threatening if I were a fundie. Frankly, Hume would be pretty far down on the list if I were going to recommend a book to an intelligent design-believing friend in hopes of changing their mind. I have recommended some of Dawkins’s books–the earlier ones where he sticks mostly to biology and doesn’t pretend to know anything about religion. I glanced at the Kitcher book in the book store the other day and it looked very good–I’ll probably buy it sometime and loan it out.

Getting back to Hume, the fact is that the origin of the apparent design in biological systems was a legitimate scientific problem and until Darwin came along, the notion that some intelligent designer was the cause was the leading reasonable candidate for a solution. Hume points out that the designer wouldn’t necessarily have much if any resemblance to the Christian God. It might be a committee, or an incompetent god or maybe some unknown process. Yawn. Point out a real alternative to a designer, which Darwin finally did.

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harry b 01.18.07 at 1:23 pm

matt – Time Lords have the secrets of time, so being married to one might give one certain advantages. Yes, its a Dr. Who reference — Dawkins is married to Lalla Ward, who played Romana II in the late seventies, the companion who was also a Time Lord and who, I think, went on to be President. I think, though I’m not sure, that the late Douglas Adams (who was a friend of Dawkins) introduced them.

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harry b 01.18.07 at 1:27 pm

Steve – I know the history. I’m just saying that it is not the central, or even a major, explanation for lousy biology teaching in our schools. Even in so far as it is a cause, it gets traction only in the context of the other causes. Of course, I don’t have proof about the relative weight of the causes. Nor do you.

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RS 01.18.07 at 2:07 pm

“A world unimproved in any other way which lacked spiritual religion would be a worse world.”

Well I guess it is trivially true because of the get out “unimproved in any other way”. The question is whether alternative moral and social codes and rituals would replace those of religion naturally and inevitably. Certainly it is not the case that atheists are somehow missing out, so it is not obvious that without spiritual religion those that are currently non-atheists would be missing out on something. The assumption would seem to be that these people are somehow temperamentally dependent on religion, and could not cope without it.

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LogicGuru 01.18.07 at 4:19 pm

I’m still not understanding why in a discussion like this there isn’t the recognition that the core of religion as it’s ordinarily understood by ordinary people–even if they wouldn’t admit it–is CULT: church-going, holidays, myths, hymns, etc. Most religious people go through the motions, participate in these activities because they enjoy them and get a sense of uplift, but just don’t bother their heads about doctrinal issues. As for ethics, they have a vague idea that it’s being nice to people and don’t worry about the details.

Even amongst conservatives who pay lip service to the party line, most don’t really care. There are only a few activists amongst fundamentalists and secularists who are making all the noise–which is being exploited for political purposes.

Maybe we in Academia have a peculiar take on religion because we meet few ordinary religious believers. So looking at the world from our perspective there are our kind of people, who are for the most part completely secular, and the great unwashed masses of fundamentalists out there in the Real World. It just ain’t so.

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SamChevre 01.18.07 at 4:33 pm

Further evidence on your side, harry b, would be the level of mathematical competence of HS graduates. Most of the same factors that affect science teaching affect math teaching, but creationist thinking is entirely irrelevant. My observation would be that science literacy is not notably worse than mathematical literacy.

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Steve LaBonne 01.18.07 at 5:40 pm

logicguru, I live and work very much outside the academic bubble, and for whatever my personal experience is worth it’s pretty much 180 opposite to what you say. The conventionally minded people I know are mostly but by no means all regular churchgoers; from talking to them I have gleaned that all, including those who don’t regularly go to church, are in fact primarily attached to the comforting idea of Big Daddy in the Sky. Their churches provide them with the comfort of being surrounded with like-minded people and with social opportunities, but they would cling to Big Daddy whether they attended or not. It is certainly true that this attachment does not include any concern for theological niceties, but that it not at all the same thing as saying that ritual is actually more important than comforting beliefs (of a fairly simple and generic kind).

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Steve LaBonne 01.18.07 at 5:59 pm

I should add that I never make any secret of the fact that I have no use for religion. With people I interact with regularly we’re long since past the “but how can you not believe…” stage and amicably agree to disagree. One good reason for atheists not to hide their views is that many ordinary people really have swallowed the usual canards about atheists… until they actually meet one, whom they know to be a highly ethical person, in the flesh.

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tom 01.18.07 at 7:09 pm

At this point in a very involved series of threads, this might be way too late, but two things. First, going back to Greek Theodicy (e.g., Hesiod), the story of the world was the science of the day. And the belief. Belief in hecatonchires was not “irrational,” it was built upon the construct of the world that, in many ways, became the fundament of later science. Beliefs are only irrational if one is unable to see the difference between believing in reason and the reasons for belief.

Second, the system or construct that explained the world for the early Greeks was first and ethics was a derivation from it. Ethical norms were things humans could propound in view of, and deriving from, the truth of the real. But they were distinct from theoria, and were a choice only there in any consequential way for humans.

Religion was what humans did to get by – with the gods and fates – as a result of their understanding of the nature of the world. Kind of like paying the vig.

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LogicGuru 01.18.07 at 8:27 pm

Of course they believe in Big Daddy–I didn’t deny that–but so what? I know people who believe in Platonic forms, possible worlds and propositions and others who don’t believe tables exist. So what? Metaphysics is harmless.

They have a notion that there’s “something there” and like the show and the sociability but they don’t care about the details, don’t have any militant agendas about evolution or anything else, and their primary ethnical concerns are with being nice and seeing to it that their kids don’t engage in high-risk adolescent behavior.

So what’s so bad about that? I LOVE religion. I enjoy it. Lots of people do and, whether they’re right or wrong about the metaphysics, whether God exists or not, what’s the problem? They aren’t crusading against atheists, promoting creationism or attacking gays–they’re running bake sales, chatting with friends at coffee hour and singing hymns.

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Steve LaBonne 01.18.07 at 11:13 pm

I was simply disagreeing with what I took- mistakenly, it appears- to be your point that they value ceremonial more than beliefs.

On the rest we’ll have to agree to disagree. Widespread indifference to the truth or falsity of one’s beliefs can’t be a good thing in itself even if it has few direct bad consequences in many cases; and as people like Dawkins and Harris have explained at length, the pervasive fellow-traveling atmosphere of even wishy-washy Christianity provides a friendly growth medium for the flourishing of more harmful forms, which have a tendency to out-compete the more anodyne forms where the former have established themselves (eg. much of the US below the Mason-Dixon Line). I don’t expect followers of the diluted variety to welcome that message, but I do think there is some validity to it.

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roy belmont 01.19.07 at 4:53 am

Unlike Donald Johnson, I’m not trying to “break my habit of typing out gigabyte length political manifestos whenever I type a comment”, though I’m making a concerted effort to avoid unnecessary hyperbole whenever I can see it.
This religious business is, and will be for at least a while, the central issue we face as a collective organism. Our morality will change to fit consensus about it, or fragment to fit its absence. Iraq as a military noun is a direct result of our confusion and unresolved bickering about these questions, and the moral confusion that results.
Cheap answers come easy and quick.
The brief version of what I’m trying to say here, for those inclined to skip multiple-paragraph posts, is that the real struggle around this issue is itself Darwinian, on both sides. Or all three may be a more accurate way of stating that.
Crystal: “Authoritarian, suspicious sorts who are intolerant of ambiguity can use any religion OR atheism to push reactionary politics.”

There’s a not insignificant amount of comfort to be had from taking the pernicious garbage issuing from the Bush White House at face value. It’s simple, it scans, and it’s child’s play to rebut and refute. It makes the other side feel good about themselves while at the same time keeping the stage-set presented by the presenter and his script-writers intact. So Bush’s policies are “mistaken” and the result of incompetence, as opposed to intentional and duplicitously conceived.
Much of this discussion occupies similar ground.
The simple and easily met fallacious arguments of the bizarrely powerful ID constituency is idiotic self-delusion; the wishy-washy bland non-assertions of the well-fed ecumenicals is complicity and cowardice.
These are simple and easily analysed, readily explained by anyone brave enough to take on the consequences.
That Bush may have been used as thoroughly as the American people is discomfiting, scary.
That the present state of the nation’s soul may be a result of intentional manipulatiop, and not rampant self-delusion is equally scary.
On the other hand we have the insistence on Darwinian explanation for life as we know it coming from people who are adamantly rejecting any organic Darwinian selection on the human genome as it’s now configured – now that we’ve evidently arrived at the apex of our development.
Maybe the ID crowd’s representative of something more than just the awesome strength of aggregated idiocy? Maybe science in a pure unbiased mode does not and never will exist in human terms? Maybe there’s something else, something bigger and more fateful going on?
Academia’s got a lot to do with what we think are the irreducible fundamentals of discourse – truth trumps desire, the impartial facts are central. In the real world these things aren’t paramount, they’re just strategies, no immediately better than deception and self-delusion; because what matters is what works, solely and finally, selection proves fitness – that’s Darwinian, baby.
In that context the belief in scientific truth as a kind of redemptive quantity is nothing more than religion by another name.
At the same time the anti-Darwinian bunch are up to a mess of heinous duplicities that are textbook examples of Darwinian call-and-response. Like a plant that emits poisons from its roots, or an ant colony hormonally charged to attack alien drones.
And again, triple-conversely, present society’s rife with this Darwin-in-a-box trip that makes it okay to deny the sculpting force of the natural world, the pressures that gave us our “gifts” such as they are – intelligence, quickness, a complex immune system – while at the same time cheerleading a campaign to have economic losers fed to the wolves.
Social Darwinism full-strength or watered-down is waiting behind a lot of the more benign points of argument here.
In Academia possession of the truth furthers survival, and we’re all processed by Academia for at least 12 years or so. This skews the p.o.v. for a lot of otherwise rational minds.
In the real, non-anthropocentric world, possession and dissemination of the truth may over long enough spans of time further survival, but in the short run without much digging we can all find examples of the obverse. And nature’s full of camouflage and deceptive adaptations, where the truth of some coloration or sound is reconfigured to some creature’s advantage, and/or some other’s disadvantage.

LogicGuru: “…whether God exists or not, what’s the problem?”

There was a politician on CSPAN speaking to the egregious nature of the Mohammedan. He said something like
“I have no problem with people talking to God. They can do it all day if they want, I don’t care. It’s when God starts talking to them…”
In the town where I live, when I was a kid there were a few street crazies who would go around talking out loud to “people who weren’t there”. Now there’s dozens of people on the street whenever I go downtown, talking on cell phones. Same thing, except there’s an assumably verifiable human presence at the other end, now. Maybe that’s analogous, maybe it’s not.
An atheist obviously would say God doesn’t talk to anyone, because there is no God. So talking to something that doesn’t exist is at best a kind of hobby, a diversion. But getting communications from your hobby – that’s clinical.
An atheist would also say it’s stupid and a waste of time to pray to the spirit of a tree before you cut it down, because there’s nothing there to receive your prayer.
Certainly if there is a God, if there are spirits we should talk to them, as opposed to pretending they don’t exist and possibly incurring their wrath. But how can we know?
And right there’s where it starts to get scary and uncomfortable. Because somebody’s got to put it on the line, don’t they? Who that would be and how they’d do it are outside the scope of this thread. But I would like to repeat something I’ve been saying for some time now.
The human mind in its locus of the brain is the center of any atheist’s claim to fame, to wonderfulness, to grace and beauty in the world. That brain came out of the flux of animate matter on this planet, Earth, which is a flyspeck of presumably inanimate matter in orbit around a minor star in a universe filled with stars. Every bit of driving energy the brain has and uses comes from a incredibly minuscule portion of the energy given off by that minor star. Really really minuscule. To look at the celestial imagery caught by the Hubble space telescope, or even just the night sky itself, and assume what that is is nothing more than real estate, mostly uninhabited, is an act of arrogance that dwarfs the hubris of Western Man’s “conquest” of the New World, but it comes right out of the same place.
Both scientific atheism and religious fundamentalism have one central thing in common, they’re both violently anthropocentric – one by default and one by dogma.
Those of us who think the arrogance in both those positions may actually be the real problem are getting lost between them, and the unnecessary and artificial amplification of that polarity’s a big part of what’s doing it.

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Steve LaBonne 01.19.07 at 7:01 am

That’s lovely. What in the hell are you talking about?

To the exent I can make any sort of sense out of this stuff at all, you seem to be imlying that those of us who don’t like religion and do like discovering the truth about the natural world have never heard of Hume and consequently are in the constant habit of collapsing the gap between is and ought. Meanwhile, back in the world that the rest of us inhabit, most of the “socal Darwinism” (a phenomenon that has nothing whatever to do with evolutionary biology) in the contemporary US is strongly associated with the Religious Right.

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tom 01.19.07 at 11:47 am

Less Hume, perhaps, than him.

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