Liberalism and Secularism: Not One And The Same

by John Holbo on September 4, 2007

Stanley Fish:

Back in June, I wrote three columns (”The Three Atheists,” “Atheism and Evidence” and “Is Religion Man-Made?“) about the recent vogue of atheist books, books that accuse religion of being empty of genuine substance, full of malevolent and destructive passion, and without support in evidence, reason or common sense.

The authors of these tracts are characterized by professor Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.” He asks (rhetorically), “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth?”

In a similar vein, Tom Krattenmaker, who studies religion in public life, wonders why, given their celebration of open-mindedness and critical thinking, secularists “so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door” when it “comes to matters of religion?” Why are they closed-minded on this one subject?

But my question for you is: why can’t the likes of Stanley Fish go three paragraphs without insulting his opponents and adding injury in the form of the worst sort of brazen ‘why are they still beating their wives’ question? Riddle me that.

I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism. Which suggests that there may be a need to revisit Fish’s title: “Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same”.

(Also, the sentence, “in liberal thought, ‘reasonable’ is a partisan, not a normative notion,” is conspicuously confused.)

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09.04.07 at 3:34 pm
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09.10.07 at 6:55 am

{ 134 comments }

1

Mark Corrigan 09.04.07 at 1:27 am

Yeah, that Alasdair Macintyre guy is such a wanker.

2

thag 09.04.07 at 1:48 am

For decades and decades you think to yourself, “wouldn’t it be good if genuine intellectuals–university stiffs, guys who write books–had positions of public visibility in the States, just like they do in Europe!”

And then your wish is granted in the form of Stanley Fish, and you realize how malicious fairies can be.

3

ed 09.04.07 at 2:26 am

I keep on getting reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s quip, in response to his days’ equivalent of Hitchens, that a clever Jesuit could destroy the standard athiest argument in five minutes.

Seriously, I can understand the problem when athiests enter the public discourse. In the United States, flouride is put in water. Only the nuttiest of wing-nuts objected to this, on wingnutty grounds, but in fact most countries don’t put flouride in water and its actually a questionable practice. If you question the science behind this idea, you are marked out as weird, and yet it has real concrete public policy consequences. If you believe that there is no god or gods, it probably would drive you up the wall to see religious institutions get a tax exemption, for athiests to be effectively excluded from high political office, to see religious movitived terrorism, to see a good deal of education still in religous hands, etc., all on the basis of an incorrect belief. I’m a believer and I still object to all of the above.

As a result, athiests’ public arguments tend to focus on the problems with bad public policies and private practices justified by religious belief, rather than their stronger card, which is the unlikelyhood of religious belief according to current scientific method. And their arguments can therefore either appear petty, or can be refuted by examples of where religious belief has, in fact, had a positive influence on public police.

4

ozma 09.04.07 at 2:53 am

I do get sick of the hypocrisy charge for liberalism.

But Stanley Fish is still a dreamboat. Oh, be still my heart. Sigh.

5

John Brown 09.04.07 at 3:00 am

Stanley Fish is 180 degrees off the mark.

Almost all liberal ideas originiated as religious ideals. For example, the anti-slavery movement, the movement for political rights for racial minorities and the movement for women’s rights were first advanced in this country on religious grounds by Puritans, Quakers, and other religius movements and organizations.

Authoritarianism is the opposite and the opponent of liberalism. In Europe, the Nazi and Communist parties have been the vehiles of intolerance and authoritarianism. “Party descipline” and loyalty to the national leader and the fatherland were used to deny all legitimacy to those who disagreed with “THE AUTHORITY” (Hilter, the Party, Stalin, etc.)

In this country, Autoritarians have relied on the claim the “God is on our side” and that “if you disagree with our political position, you are not a Christian” (or otherwise a religious person) to deny all legitimacy to those who disagree with the Authoritarians’ political positions.

Where churches would not prostitute themselves to this raw polical power grab, some activists used political techniques to take over or attempt to take over churches and denominations (witess the use of UnChristian and ruthless political campaigns by Paige Patterson, Zig Ziglar, et al. to take over the Southern Baptist Convention and the attempt by the Creedal Movement to take over the United Methodist Church).

Deeply-held religious beliefs and religious movements and awakenings have, more often than not, led men and women to oppose injustice and intolerance and to work for social change and liberal ideals.

Unfortunately, a generation ago the Republican Party sold its soul to Southern (and Northern and Western) segregationist and ultra-right wingers because the Party was so desperate to become a party-in-power again. The segregationist and ultra-right wingers were authoritarian Christians who had historically opposed an end to slavery, later promoted Jim Crow, and then opposed civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities and opposed rights for women (with campaign slogans in the 1960’s of “keep ‘em pregnant and barefooted”).

It is the ultra-right that is promoting revisionist history of the United States and revisionist history of Christianity (and other religions). They are the ones who are betraying the history and theme of religion in America.

6

bh 09.04.07 at 3:04 am

Every time I’m exposed to Stanley Fish’s shtick, I’m reminded of this article: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28771

7

Matt 09.04.07 at 3:05 am

A few years ago a colleague of mine in grad school was writing a paper for a sort of interdisciplinary humanities thing. He wanted to beat up on relativism, but as it turned out it was pretty hard to find relativists saying stupid things, stupid relativists being more creatures used to scare kids and the like than real dangers. But then he found what he was looking for, Stanley Fish, and everyone was happy. Here you had a big name saying first-class stupid relativist things. I guess if he didn’t exist we’d just have to invent him.

8

bh 09.04.07 at 3:16 am

Matt, I think you’ve hit on Fish’s real strength–he’s a Hall of Fame useful idiot.

Lesser mortals would have to choose between the Krazee Relativist type and Even-the-Liberal-New-Republic type, but not Our Stanley.

It’s almost like Babe Ruth switching from pitching to hitting.

9

Incertus (Brian) 09.04.07 at 3:21 am

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion.

I discovered, when I read past the first three paragraphs and swallowed my anger at the beginning, that Fish actually says just what you’re saying here. You just have to get past the stupid shit to discover it.

10

John Holbo 09.04.07 at 3:35 am

I don’t think Fish is getting it right, incertus. At least I don’t see it. The root of his trouble is that he thinks believing P is incompatible with tolerating others’ beliefs that -P. He concludes that liberals are compelled to ‘wear their convictions lightly’ (as he writes elsewhere.) But this just isn’t so. I can be absolutely sure I am right, and you are wrong, yet think it would be a bad idea (for a great many reasons, ranging from the wholly pragmatic to the loftily principled) to compel you to my way of thinking, politically.

11

Jim Harrison 09.04.07 at 3:56 am

Fish always reminds me of the old grad school bit about how every philosophy paper has two parts: the part where you put it out and the part where you take it back. Except that Fish’s writings always take the taking back to absurd lengths, which is why I’ve given up reading his stuff. The first couple of paragraphs are always a lure that is stuffed with red meat in order to attract attention. By the last paragraph, little or nothing is left.

12

josh 09.04.07 at 5:22 am

‘…critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism.’
It is remarkable how much mileage has been gotten out of these. Though I have to dissent with the call for a moratorium on them — by this point, whenever a political theorist trots out this line of argument, I have the feeling of hearing an oft-heard, well-remembered snatch of song. Not a particularly good song, granted; still, familiarity has its charms.

13

nick s 09.04.07 at 6:05 am

Oh, if only Lodge had had the foresight to give Maurice Zapp an op-ed column.

14

magistra 09.04.07 at 6:40 am

Fish is generalising wildly, because there are certainly lots of atheists and agnostics who can discuss religion without resorting to abuse. The problem is that the loudest and most prominent atheists at the moment are those (like Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchins) who can’t. (Just as often the most prominent Christians in the media are the more vocally extreme ones.) Dawkins in particular seems to me to be the unusual phenomenon of what I can only call a missionary atheist. He thinks everyone ought to convert to atheism (and as a result those who hear his message but do not respond positively are obviously the wicked and those hard of heart). I find particularly offensive the implication in his works that I am akin to a child abuser because I am bringing my daughter up in the faith which I believe.

15

abb1 09.04.07 at 7:06 am

There’s a difference between religious faith and organized religion, you know. Most organized religions do deserve a bit of destructive passion, I think. You want religion – go Unitarian.

16

ejh 09.04.07 at 7:14 am

Dawkins in particular seems to me to be the unusual phenomenon of what I can only call a missionary atheist. He thinks everyone ought to convert to atheism

What would be the problem with that? Apart from the word “convert”, which doesn’t fit because atheism is not a religious creed but the application of reason.

17

dsquared 09.04.07 at 7:30 am

I like Dawkins because he demonstrates that the alleged “fundamental human need” for religion is not really a need for supernatural belief, but is actually just a specific expression of the fundamental human need to behave like a twat while pretending to be really virtuous.

18

SG 09.04.07 at 7:50 am

magistra, you admit that you have converted your children to your religion but disapprove of Dawkins trying to do the same to adults? Even if the notion that he were “convertng” people to atheism were correct, this seems a hypocritical position.

19

brooksfoe 09.04.07 at 7:53 am

Let’s see. Fish:

In saying this, I am not criticizing liberalism, just explaining what it is. It is a form of political organization that is militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion – the claim to be in possession of a truth all should acknowledge – as anything but an expression of unreasonableness and irrationality.

Of course, every single strong religion holds precisely the same conviction about every other strong religion, apart from itself. A fundamentalist Christian deems “unreasonable and irrational” not just secular and religious liberals, but also fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Communists and every other non-fundamentalist Christian on the planet. Liberals are intolerant of Nazis, radical Muslim theocrats, and people who are holding knives to their throats; hence the circle of their tolerance is incomparably vaster than that of, say, Pat Robertson.

One thing we can’t do is appeal to some common ground that might form the basis of dialogue and possible rapprochement. There is no common ground, and therefore Lilla is right to say that “agreement on basic principles won’t be possible.” After all, it is a disagreement over basic principles that divides us from those who have been called “God’s warriors.” The principles that will naturally occur to us – tolerance, mutual respect, diversity – are ones they have already rejected ; invoking them will do no real work except the dubious work of confirming us in our feelings of superiority.

Clearly, the existence of a country composed of adherents of different and radically opposed religious faiths, as well as those who profess no faith at all, is completely impossible. Such a country would tear itself to pieces within a few short decades on the barbs of its own contradictions.

Oh wait. Experimental evidence shows that such countries boast the world’s most resilient and prosperous societies.

But while convincing in practice, such a situation is impossible in theory; so, it does not exist.

20

Seth Finkelstein 09.04.07 at 7:53 am

“I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that” – Tom Lehrer

21

ejh 09.04.07 at 8:44 am

Religious people do seem to find it very difficult to handle the question “where’s the evidence?”. Which is really the only question Dawkins is asking.

22

Ginger Yellow 09.04.07 at 8:52 am

In a similar vein, Tom Krattenmaker, who studies religion in public life, wonders why, given their celebration of open-mindedness and critical thinking, secularists “so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door” when it “comes to matters of religion?”

Swap “secularists” with “theists” and “matters of religion” to “books by atheists” and I have exactly the same question. Pretty much every theistic review of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens has made basic errors, either misrepresenting the author or constructing stawmen.

This guy has apparently written a book responding to Dawkins, and yet the extract/synopsis in the Guardian is so riddled with elementary mistakes that it’s hard to believe he’s writing it in good faith.

There are plenty of things to criticise Dawkins on, and plenty of things in the latest bunch of atheist books – I’m a huge Dennett fan in general, but I think his religion book is seriously misguided. But all the religiously inspired criticisms I read of them are really, really weak. There’s much better commentary coming from atheists and religious readers who don’t beat their chests about religion while they’re reviewing it.

23

dsquared 09.04.07 at 9:29 am

Religious people do seem to find it very difficult to handle the question “where’s the evidence?”. Which is really the only question Dawkins is asking.

The trouble is that they give him the only answer that could possibly be given (ie, a non-natural answer involving something like direct revelation) and he can’t handle that either.

24

Katherine 09.04.07 at 9:40 am

I’m not a Christian or believer of any ilk, and I have to agree with Magistra – Richard Dawkins is a bully, and an ignorant one at that, in that he is actually quite ignorant of what he is criticising, and, like dsquared says, quite unable to handle answers to the question as posed by ejh. The answer, really, is that there isn’t any evidence, but in any event the question missed the point entirely.

25

ejh 09.04.07 at 9:42 am

I’d have thought the question was the point, given that the answer is so important.

26

dsquared 09.04.07 at 10:27 am

given that the answer is so important

surely Dawkins’ whole point is that the answer’s not important? (and he’s right on this, which is why I can never understand why he believes it is).

27

ejh 09.04.07 at 10:46 am

If Dawkins thinks that the existence or otherwise of God is not important, why exercise oneself so much as to which answer people believe? I can’t believe it’s just the method that concerns him.

I would have thought the answer was important, too, not least for the traditional reason that if I am wrong I am going to have to do some fast talking after my demise in order to explain some of my more aggressive statements about the deity.

28

bi 09.04.07 at 10:49 am

“Where’s the evidence?” Well, there’s no evidence… that’s why it’s called faith, no?

29

bad Jim 09.04.07 at 10:52 am

I know enough about astrology to draw natal charts and explain them, and I have, and I know enough physics, astronomy, biology and psychology to convince anyone capable of entertaining an argument why astrology is a waste of time on the order of doing crossword puzzles.

Instead of going into detail I prefer to note that, as a Virgo, I don’t believe in astrology.

There really don’t seem to be very many supernatural events. Perhaps fairies and elves, gnomes and ghosts are limited to one-night stands and Thor somehow prohibited from striking lightning in the same place twice. With only anecdotal evidence to the contrary, practically speaking, there’s no downside to the assumption of their absence.

So why not say so?

30

Katherine 09.04.07 at 10:52 am

The question seems to have moved from “where’s the evidence for God” to “is there a God” – which is actually quite different. The distinction is an important one.

31

abb1 09.04.07 at 11:06 am

Perhaps fairies and elves, gnomes and ghosts are limited to one-night stands and Thor somehow prohibited from striking lightning in the same place twice.

I saw a troll crossing recently, a spot where trolls cross the road; they have a special sign there. Not internet trolls like me but the real ones. Well, not the real ones but… ah, forget it.

32

novakant 09.04.07 at 11:47 am

where’s the evidence?

Well, there’s not a lot of evidence for the existence of a natural law or an autonomous self either, yet, day in day out we act as if these entities were somewhat real. That doesn’t mean one should just make any stuff up, but if religious intellectuals treat God as some sort of regulative idea and it helps less learned people to create a narrative that gives them comfort, I don’t see that as much of a problem in general.

33

dsquared 09.04.07 at 11:51 am

With only anecdotal evidence to the contrary

See this is the rhetorical move which renders the whole dispute pointless. If you’re going to rule out people’s personal testimony of their religious experience as “anecdotal”, “subjective”, etc, then you’ve ruled out the only possible evidence they would ever be able to give. Which might be fair enough for all sorts of contexts (deciding on school curricula, etc), but which does actually mean that you’re not achieving the destruction of religion by reason which was advertised on the book cover.

34

Ginger Yellow 09.04.07 at 12:40 pm

“If Dawkins thinks that the existence or otherwise of God is not important, why exercise oneself so much as to which answer people believe? I can’t believe it’s just the method that concerns him.”

Why not? A large part of his argument – as expressed for example in his recent TV show – is that the method by which we come to knowledge is all important. That the scientific method, and evidence based reasoning in general, is a far more reliable way of discovering truths about the world and the universe than revelation, anecdote or instinct. That eschewing evidence can lead to disastrous results, whether on the grand scale of the Crusades or the Inquisition, or on smaller scales like measles outbreaks because of MMR scares or being exploited by conmen.

35

Ginger Yellow 09.04.07 at 12:47 pm

If you’re going to rule out people’s personal testimony of their religious experience as “anecdotal”, “subjective”, etc, then you’ve ruled out the only possible evidence they would ever be able to give. Which might be fair enough for all sorts of contexts (deciding on school curricula, etc), but which does actually mean that you’re not achieving the destruction of religion by reason which was advertised on the book cover.

But that’s not what was advertised on the cover. What’s advertised is the demolition of the “rational” arguments for religion – design in nature, Pascal’s wager, the First Cause, etc. Dawkins fully admits that you can’t “destroy” by reason belief in a theologian’s God who has no empirical effects on the universe. He merely tries to argue that postulating such a God is unncecessary, and that the God(s) that billions of people actually believe in, as described in the Bible or the Koran or other texts, demonstrably does not exist.

36

Barry 09.04.07 at 1:19 pm

ejhL “If Dawkins thinks that the existence or otherwise of God is not important, why exercise oneself so much as to which answer people believe? I can’t believe it’s just the method that concerns him.”

(Leaving aside the methodolgy question, which has been covered above)

Are you even casually familiar with US politics? It’s drenched in religion, with the range of ‘mainstream’ getting narrower, and moving towards the imperial right. This is rather important.

37

Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 2:02 pm

If you’re going to rule out people’s personal testimony of their religious experience as “anecdotal”, “subjective”, etc, then you’ve ruled out the only possible evidence they would ever be able to give. Which might be fair enough for all sorts of contexts (deciding on school curricula, etc), but which does actually mean that you’re not achieving the destruction of religion by reason which was advertised on the book cover.

No rational criticism can touch a position so carefully defended against it; that’s not news (to Dawkins any more than to anyone else). But your description pertains only to the beliefs of a rather small elite. Especially so in the US, where by far the most prevalent, noisiest and most influential forms of religion are of the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” variety.

38

Lee 09.04.07 at 2:03 pm

Interestingly, 10+ years ago Fish debated Richard John Neuhaus on the compatibility of religion and liberalism with RJN taking the “pro” side:

Fish: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3817

Neuhaus: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3819&var_recherche=stanley+fish

Fish responsds: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3820

39

"Q" the Enchanter 09.04.07 at 2:04 pm

I seem to recall that Berlinerblau’s article was bereft of even one example of one of these author’s actually “referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth….” (I suspect Fish’s piece suffers the same infirmity, but I’m not inclined to pay “select” prices to find out.)

I don’t know about you, but in school I was taught to show my work.

40

Steven Poole 09.04.07 at 2:11 pm

I have the feeling Fish uses his journalism merely as a vehicle to provoke and annoy – and in this he is apparently very successful, and no doubt giggling all the way to the bank. Sweeping dismissals of his work in toto, on the other hand, are not to be taken seriously.

41

ed 09.04.07 at 2:17 pm

As to where’s the evidence, Christians think that God was a historical figure, who lived among us, and whose actions and claims to divinity were recounted by eyewitnesses. This is the most popular theistic religion.

Muslims think that God spoke directly to an undisputed historical figure. This is the second most popular religion. So the majority of theists have conceptions of God backed by historical events that either happened or didn’t happen, and can be examined in light of the evidence. Another problem with the athiest critique is the assumption that everyone believes in the Jewish God.

42

lindsey 09.04.07 at 2:32 pm

Well, there’s not a lot of evidence for the existence of a natural law or an autonomous self either, yet, day in day out we act as if these entities were somewhat real.

I agree. Why the double standard? Perhaps they even are real (cue gasp from athiest at the heretic).

43

Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 2:33 pm

Since those events quite clearly didn’t happen in the way that Christians and Muslims believe (which is why the 19th-century advent of the “higher criticism” caused such consternation among Christians, and why attempts to apply the same methods to the Koran result in death threats), how is that “[a] problem with the athiest [sic] critique”? And the reasons for not believing in other gods (apart from the vaporous non-personal “god” with no observable effect on the universe) are pretty much the same as for the God of th Abrahamic religions, so there’s no “problem” there either. (A focus on Christianity and Islam is amply justified by their numerical preponderance and correspondingly powerful influence.)

44

Ginger Yellow 09.04.07 at 2:37 pm

“Well, there’s not a lot of evidence for the existence of a natural law or an autonomous self either, yet, day in day out we act as if these entities were somewhat real. “

For the first one, define your terms, for the second, it’s not as thought atheists haven’t addressed this question. See Dennett’s Freedom Evolves or Hofstadter’s I Am A Strange Loop.

45

dsquared 09.04.07 at 3:18 pm

So the majority of theists have conceptions of God backed by historical events that either happened or didn’t happen, and can be examined in light of the evidence

The majority of believers in evolution think that man was descended from apes, which is a historical event that didn’t happen. The majority of believers in electrons think that they are little objects orbiting the nucleus, which they aren’t. The majority of believers in gravity believe in something like Newton’s Law, which isn’t accurate. C’mon, for Dawkins’ sake, you argue against something based on its strongest and most defensible case, not on “what most people believe” (which itself is a sociological claim which ought to be substantiated).

In any case, it’s not like Dawkins or Dennett give any more slack at all to New Agey types who believe in undifferentiated “spirituality” without support from false historical claims.

My main horse in this race, by the way, is that the kind of thinking that starts people trying to call themselves “Brights” needs to be combatted right from the get-go, and this is where it has its root.

46

Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 3:26 pm

There’s a big difference. In science, it really doesn’t matter what non-scientists believe. In the case of religion, its influence on society and politics depends very strongly on the numerical weight and fervor of the mass of “unsophisticated” believers.

By the way humans most certainly did descend from (and are themselves) apes, just of course not from any extant species of apes. If you want to play word-juggling games you’d best be careful to keep all your own balls in the air.

One thing we can agree on is that the “Brights” business is nauseating.

47

Bloix 09.04.07 at 3:28 pm

Fluoride “has no real concrete public policy consequences”? How about the public health benefit of keeping teeth in people’s heads?

“A compilation of 120 fluoridation studies from all continents (Murray & Rugg-Gunn, 1979) showed a reduction in caries in the range of 50 – 75% for permanent teeth and about 50% for primary teeth, in children, 5 – 15 years of age, following life-long consumption of fluoridated water… [C]ontinued exposure to fluoride ions has a caries-protecting capacity in adults… In addition to the reduction in enamel caries, fluoride ions will also significantly reduce the prevalence of cemental caries… This fact is of importance for middle-aged and old people whose root-surfaces are often exposed by gingival recession.”

Report produced jointly by the UN Environmental Health Program, the ILO and the WHO, 1984. http://www.inchem.org/documents/ehc/ehc/ehc36.htm#SectionNumber:6.1

Here in the US, most people of all economic classes have reasonably strong teeth. Visibly bad teeth here are a sign of poverty. In England, many ordinary working and middle class people have terrible teeth. The difference is fluoridation.

48

Ginger Yellow 09.04.07 at 3:31 pm

“The majority of believers in gravity believe in something like Newton’s Law, which isn’t accurate.”

Really? The vast majority of believers in gravity “know” that the attraction of two massive bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? I think you give them a bit too much credit.

49

ejh 09.04.07 at 3:35 pm

A large part of his argument – as expressed for example in his recent TV show – is that the method by which we come to knowledge is all important.

Well, we don’t get the TV show here (and if we did, they’d only dub it) but surely it’s integral to what Dawkins argues that a consequence of poor method is that you end up with things like belief in God, which he manifestly has a problem with?

the kind of thinking that starts people trying to call themselves “Brights” needs to be combatted right from the get-go

I agree with this to a large extent – it’s no way to make friends and influence people – but on the other hand is there a nice way of saying “look, you’re making this stuff up and it matters”? And can we expect everybody who makes a rational point to make it in a rational manner?

I’d much prefer the “Brights” stuff to be shelved, it’s not very bright. But I do have something of an old-fashioned solidarity function which says that I should defend and understand the people who are on the side I’m on as well as criticising them.

50

jcasey 09.04.07 at 3:38 pm

The problem with Fish’s always facile analysis of liberalism is that he treats all values as categorically identical. If I like cheese, I value it; if I am Catholic, I value Eucharists; If I believe in religious tolerance, I value it in the same way I value Eucharists. That’s just dumb.

51

stuart 09.04.07 at 3:42 pm

Muslims think that God spoke directly to an undisputed historical figure. This is the second most popular religion. So the majority of theists have conceptions of God backed by historical events that either happened or didn’t happen, and can be examined in light of the evidence. Another problem with the athiest critique is the assumption that everyone believes in the Jewish God.

God is speaking directly to me right now, and is telling me you are full of shit. Use evidence to disprove it, if you don’t believe me.

52

dsquared 09.04.07 at 3:50 pm

on the other hand is there a nice way of saying “look, you’re making this stuff up and it matters”?

Well, “you’re making this stuff up and it matters” would do just fine in contexts where it did matter, which I personally think are few and far between. “You’re not allowed to make public policy based on things that you can’t prove without non-natural evidence” seems to me to be all the principle we need, though – the general project of getting up in people’s faces about their imaginary friends seems absolutely unnecessary (and potentially pernicious in itself, as there are plenty of “Brights” who apparently want to pass laws telling women what they can and can’t wear in public).

53

Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 4:00 pm

Things look a bit different on that score in George Bush’s America than they do in the much less religiose UK. (And western Europe arguably became less relgiose in the first place because of people in past generations who were willing to “get up in people’s faces”. )

54

Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 4:01 pm

P.S. The utter obnoxiousness- indeed, flagrant illiberalism- of passing laws telling women what they can and can’t wear is another thing we very much agree on, though.

55

ejh 09.04.07 at 4:02 pm

the general project of getting up in people’s faces about their imaginary friends

Thing is (a Catholic writes) their imaginary friends are in our faces all the time and this does matter. You don’t have to say “everybody who believes in God is a cretin” and of course should not do so: but there is, I think, a lot of value in shouting “STOP!”. To my mind Dawkins’ great virtue is that he has brought the whole question of God-belief out into the open, to be discussed and argued over, for the first time I can remember.

If he doesn’t make the case in quite the way people would like him to – well, nobody’s perfect and other people may make it in a different way. But he’s opened a box that I think needed opening: and I do not see how we can deal with the question of “public policy” unless that box is opened.

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dookie 09.04.07 at 4:17 pm

“But my question for you is: why can’t the likes of Stanley Fish go three paragraphs without insulting his opponents and adding injury in the form of the worst sort of brazen ‘why are they still beating their wives’ question? Riddle me that.”

Uhh, cause Fish hasn’t had anything to say for at least a decade?

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Russell L. Carter 09.04.07 at 4:19 pm

“(and potentially pernicious in itself, as there are plenty of “Brights” who apparently want to pass laws telling women what they can and can’t wear in public).”

Laws (rather, school board rules) applicable to children, both sexes, in public schools. Not emancipated women. So this is an unnecessary slur. Or maybe you refer to reactions to extreme versions of Hijab, which is it?

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dsquared 09.04.07 at 4:22 pm

I was specifically thinking about the substantial current in the Turkish Army which believes there to be a constitutional principle allowing them to overturn democratic elections if the winning Presidential candidate has a wife who wears a headscarf.

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ejh 09.04.07 at 4:29 pm

#57 – and I suspect that a number of those who are keenest to bang on about democracy in the context of Middle Eastern invasions will be less keen to do so in this one.

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abb1 09.04.07 at 4:38 pm

Dawkins attacks God, but there are many other irrational doctrines; various forms of tribalism, for example. You overturn one idol they’ll just erect another.

Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to advocate your own doctrine? Humanism, for example; whether it’s secular or not doesn’t seem to make much difference.

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Grand Moff Texan 09.04.07 at 4:53 pm

Hmmm, all that space spent by Mr. Fish, et al., whining about what other people are saying, but not making a case for religion.

I wonder why?
.

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engels 09.04.07 at 4:59 pm

Humanism… whether it’s secular or not doesn’t seem to make much difference.

humanism noun 1 a system of thought which rejects the supernatural, any belief in a god, etc, but holds that human interests and the human mind are paramount, that humans are capable of solving the problems of the world and deciding what is or is not correct moral behaviour. (Chambers)

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engels 09.04.07 at 5:01 pm

Humanism… whether it’s secular or not doesn’t seem to make much difference.

humanism noun 1 a system of thought which rejects the supernatural, any belief in a god, etc, but holds that human interests and the human mind are paramount, that humans are capable of solving the problems of the world and deciding what is or is not correct moral behaviour.

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C S 09.04.07 at 5:06 pm

We are apes, by the way.

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abb1 09.04.07 at 5:30 pm

Whatever, engels. I don’t really understand why rejection of “any belief in a god, etc.” should be a requirement here. And what’s behind that “etc”, btw, can one believe in, say, homeopathy or lucky numbers (or something) and remain a humanist?

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the witch from next door 09.04.07 at 5:51 pm

Just as an aside – for those who (like me) are bored of Dawkins’s condesention and found Dennett’s book a bit disappointing, can I recommend Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained? Once you get past the hubristic title, it’s a fascinating read, and deals with religion in exactly the way I want to see it dealt with – i.e. as an interesting natural phenomenon, whose characteristics can be studied and for which some early sketches of an explanation can be sketched out and considered, without feeling the need to be a prick about it.

It’s got a lovely cover, too.

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seth edenbaum 09.04.07 at 6:03 pm

Dawkins militant atheism is derived from militant theism. He’s a foundationalist who’s as terrified of relativism as any priest. His defense of science is that it’s not man made.

As I’ve said before the problem isn’t religion it’s faith, and that will never go away. You want an example read Chomsky. His assumptions are his faith. Every time you gloss over an illogic to defend what you believe it’s an act of faith; and how are you going to banish that? The only way is to pretend that you never slip up. The only way to do that is TO LIE.
Dawkins is also as terrified as a priest of the transformation of thought into historical document. He wants absolutes. There are none. In the end in human experience we’re all subject to ethnography.

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seth edenbaum 09.04.07 at 6:10 pm

Oxford American Dictionary (courtesy of Apple)

Humanist:
an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

(often Humanism) a Renaissance cultural movement that turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought.
• (among some contemporary writers) a system of thought criticized as being centered on the notion of the rational, autonomous self and ignoring the unintegrated and conditioned nature of the individual.

The second and third definitions are contradictory. There’s an argument to be made that the enlightenment was less “humanist” than the renaissance. Voltaire was a humanist. Pangloss was not.

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 6:35 pm

Dawkins militant atheism is derived from militant theism.

Care to defend this bizarre proposition rather than expecting us to take it on your say-so?

Dawkins is a scientist. He is extremely well aware that science deals in provisional truths and in probabilities- indeed, he is at pains to emphasize that as a vital way in which it differs from the false certainties of religion. Only the most incompetent reader of his works could claim that he’s some kind of frustrated foundationalist.

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 6:41 pm

for those who (like me) are bored of Dawkins’s condesentionI found TGD boring as well- everything in it is very, very old hat- but remember that you and I are not part of the target audience. He wanted to reach people to whom the ideas he was presenting would actually be novel. And there are many such.

Boyer’s book is indeed very good, though it’s just one viewpoint on a set of questions that remains very open. The most valuable aspect of Dennett’s book is that it includes an overview of the ideas of other authors, including Boyer.

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 6:42 pm

Sorry about the borked blockquote tag. Note to self- use the damn preview!

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robertdfeinman 09.04.07 at 6:51 pm

Two points.

For those who want to approach the issue of authoritarianism and religious dogma I suggest you read the free, online book by pyschologist Robert Altemeyer. He doesn’t deal with religion explicitly, but with what he calls the “right wing authoritarian” personality type. This type of person believes in a strong leader and a hierarchical organization to society. There is also a strong correlation between this type of personality and conservative social beliefs. Here’s the link:
The Authoritarians

Understanding what makes such people tick can go a long way in avoiding unfruitful dialogs.

Second, the atheist “surge” consists, at the moment, of four popular writers: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. These four have thrown much of the religious intellectuals into a tizzy. Why? There are thousands of books promoting religion, but these authors go to the top of the best seller list. Again why?

Ideology (including religious ideology) depends upon the unquestioning belief of the followers (see point one). As soon as this belief is questioned there is a danger that the passive followers will start to think for themselves. This is always seen as a threat. In extreme cases it leads to groups which sequester their young to prevent such exposure – the Amish and Hassidim are examples.

Ideologies which depend upon unverifiable precepts are at the most risk and thus react the most forcefully. That’s why we have had a history of pogroms, inquisitions and holy wars, all designed to stamp out infidels and unbelievers. The Nazis and the other totalitarian regimes took to burning books to control thought.

So we have four authors in a sea of religious dogma. They need to be polemicists to be heard. They may even overstate their case in some instances. But this is what it takes to get noticed. Many of the smears leveled against them are not to be found in their actual writings. This is the norm for those who must appeal to the emotions of their followers. Demonize one’s opponents to prevent your followers from looking into the books themselves.

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novakant 09.04.07 at 7:05 pm

For the first one, define your terms, for the second, it’s not as thought atheists haven’t addressed this question.

Natural law in its contemporary formulation as human rights or universal rights are fine and dandy as an expression of how some of us would like the world to be, but you’d have a hard time providing evidence for their existence beyond their being a manifestation of human imagination and aspiration. Yet, they are immensely powerful concepts that guide our actions. In the case of the self, we seem to have the irrefutable evidence of first-hand experience, but on closer inspection we see that this doesn’t amount to much in terms of objective evidence. The same can be said about concepts such as consciousness, free will and morality. They are vital to our understanding of the world, as well as to our social interactions and our legal system – yet when we examine these concepts and their evidential basis, we see that science still can’t tell a whole lot about them. We use these concepts out of convenience and necessity, but we haven’t even understood yet what a scientific explanation of these phenomena might possibly look like. Science might significantly alter our understanding of them, render them obsolete or we might find out that a scientific explanation will ultimately miss the point and we will never be able to give a comprehensive scientific description of them.

I am an atheist myself and am not saying that religious explanations will help us much in this regard. But considering the scientific status quo, I think demanding that all our concepts be based on hard evidence is a clear non-starter.

P.S. I’ve read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and found it very banal and disappointing; he just kept burning strawman after strawman while evading the hard questions. So I don’t expect much from him anymore on this matter, but if you say the Freedom Evolves is worth it, I might give it a try.

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seth edenbaum 09.04.07 at 7:22 pm

“This is always seen as a threat. In extreme cases it leads to groups which sequester their young to prevent such exposure – the Amish and Hassidim are examples.”
If you put the Amish in that category then you don’t know much about them.

As far as rationality and militancy is concerned people who argue logic with priests aren’t being very logical. You can’t argue with faith, and if you persist then one can only assume it has more to do with your own psychology then anyone else’s.
People like Dawkins (and Chomsky) overestimate their own reasoning abilities and as a matter of ideology, those of others as well. Dawkins is angry that people are silly, but anger isn’t going to help, and is more of a symptom than a cure. Liberals, expecially those who style themselves libertarians, love reason. Conservatives, in the sense of those who support the ACLU, are pessimistic enough to prefer the rule of law. And if you think I’m being silly myself I’m quoting one of the old leaders of the organization that empoloyed both my parents in various capacities over 20 years. The rule of law is conservative. Another reason Posner is opposed to it.
And as to standard issue liberals being hypocritical, they’ve been hypocritical since the beginning, they’re the incurious the self-satisfied bourgeois. But these days since the right spends so much time calling liberals leftists they’ve begun to believe that’s what they are. That’s where rationalism without historical memory will get you.

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abb1 09.04.07 at 7:23 pm

…history of pogroms, inquisitions and holy wars…

But that’s mostly politics. The elites certainly do use religion to motivate the masses, but they’ll use anything else as well: nationalism, fear, greed, even concerns about human rights; anything.

Why would it be such a big problem if some Thomas Jefferson or Mahatma Gandhi believed that the universe was made by ‘Creator’ instead of ‘Big Bang’, that’s what I don’t understand.

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 7:34 pm

You can’t argue with faith, and if you persist then one can only assume it has more to do with your own psychology then anyone else’s.

Evidently Jesus was in need of therapy, since he loved nothing better than arguing with priests. ;)

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ejh 09.04.07 at 8:34 pm

You can, of course, argue with faith. Arguments are not only for the immediate moment: what you say now can have an effect in the future even if it is not listened to now. Indeed, I suspect most arguments work that way.

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seth edenbaum 09.04.07 at 8:41 pm

“You can’t argue with faith…”
you’re quibbling. If you want to discuss of one faith argues with another that’s a different question.

“So we have four authors in a sea of religious dogma.”
Plenty of people think Dennett argues from dogma.

“…history of pogroms, inquisitions and holy wars…”
I’m no sure where that comes from since I read it in Abb1’s quote, but that’s just silly. Here you get into arguments over Gods that fail, which ones and why, but they all fail, the old and the new. Rumsfeld is an atheist. Militant atheists think secularism is not a cure for delusion. Simple non-believers know otherwise.

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Seth Finkelstein 09.04.07 at 8:45 pm

Is there actually much proof that militant atheism is in fact counter-productive? Or is that argued against as a matter of faith?

[Note, trivially, being aggressive always has a downside somewhere – but I get the sense that the objections are not exactly evidence-based]

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 8:47 pm

Militant atheists think secularism is not[sic] a cure for delusion.Assuming the “not” is an error- this is horseshit (as by the way is every statement containing the utterly moronic phrase “militant atheist”.) Nobody is saying that either that the mental habit of not taking things on faith is the beginning and ending of all wisdom (only that it’s a good and possibly necessary start), nor that people free of religious delusions (Karl Rove being another Bushco example) are guaranteed to be free of other kinds. At this rate you will soon exhaust the world’s supply of straw.

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Roy Belmont 09.04.07 at 10:08 pm

Abb1-
“Why would it be such a big problem if some Thomas Jefferson or Mahatma Gandhi believed that the universe was made by ‘Creator’ instead of ‘Big Bang’, that’s what I don’t understand.”
The place where it becomes a problem is at the focused locus, the endpoint, the raisonne d’etre, of whatever moral/ethical system you’re using to hold your society together.
The idea that moral systems have actual definable and discussable goals is a little heretical, but there they are, they do.
In a neutral-background universe, where we’re pioneering everything, the survival of “us” is the only goal, the sole raisonne. The tenuousness of that gets real obvious when you dig into the fossil record and see how wide-open change in species is, pretty much the continuum from shrew-like early pre-primate mammals to Thom Yorke is an “us” so the moral/ethical stuff evaporates when you look too closely. That’s the ground for the accusation secular atheism has no real moral basis except what it inherits culturally from the various theocracy start-ups.
As used in these dialogues “us” is pretty much an average/median of whoever’s around at the moment, so the contest becomes being/staying around, and that’s about as refined as your moral/ethical goal’s gonna get in that context.
Robertdfeinman’s “why we have had a history of pogroms, inquisitions and holy wars…”
is far more easily answered as biology, nothing more complicated than nature red in tooth and claw, competing organisms struggling for dominance and survival.
This is outside the human social contract, dressing it up in political costumes as if it were is evasion and denial. Within the social contract we’re supposedly all about none of that shit. Thus international law and universal condemnation of so-called war-crime etc.
The facts consistently tell another, starker tale.
Some of us are insisting that without the sticky glue of made-up morality nothing will hold us together at the degree of cohesion necessary for all this neat stuff to keep appearing before our delighted eyes. Others agree but don’t see that lack and disintegration as a problem.
The believers’ position is much simpler:
Having a conscious and semantically active “creator” outside the local system means, for those who intend to co-operate with it, no need to rely on local survival modes for moral/ethical weight and direction.
Most of the time the two sides don’t conflict and it won’t matter. Keeping everybody in line and reproducing, with a steady accumulation of resources and refined utility etc.
Until the population’s insupportably large, then having a passive socially-instituted cull based on mindless blind obedience to unprovable beliefs starts to make a lot of sense, for those with enough local power to guide and shape the immediate genome, cultural as well as physical. Not a transcendence of the biological imperative but a reconfiguration of it.
The pseudo-conflict between “Creator” and “Big Bang” – choose one – masks the larger more germane one, between “infinite, impossible to comprehend much less manipulate universe” and “locally-invested anthropocentric/locally-invested centerless universe”.
If we leave Edinburgh, Scotland in a van, headed south, and some of us think we’re going to Rome, Italy, others that we’re going to Barcelona, Spain, it won’t matter all that much – until we get to, say, Paris, France.

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seth edenbaum 09.04.07 at 11:04 pm

“Militant atheists think secularism is not[sic] a cure for delusion”

Then why is atheism so important!? What are you trying to prove? Isn’t your own secularism enough? Atheists are in no position to moralize. No one is. So talk about delusion; and prove to me you’re capable of reason. Make the case that justice should be ad hoc, since that what the rule of reason means. You want a rule of “serious” people, and a “serious” press, and a “serious” populace, and if you can’t have it your gonna take your ball and go home. Well go then and sit by yourself, with your two or three friends.

“At this rate you will soon exhaust the world’s supply of straw.”
What a dumbass. It’s as if I’m some stupid winger site. I spend enough of my time lecturing the academic dumbasses at this site for being scholastic formalists. Now we get intellectually snobbish comic book enthusiasts. Talk about glass fucking houses. God save as all from atheist nerds. This is where we end up. Designing new ways to increase our intellectual passivity.
All you want you do is replace one foundation with another. Does moral ambiguity frighten you? Is that it? Is it something you spend your life running away from? You think your hands are clean?
You’re in the muck the rest of us.

What’s the purpose of religion? To give a foundation to law.
The gobbledygook doesn’t matter, except as how it describes the culture. Talk to a fucking anthropologist, he’ll explain it to you.

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leederick 09.04.07 at 11:04 pm

“If you’re going to rule out people’s personal testimony of their religious experience as “anecdotal”, “subjective”, etc, then you’ve ruled out the only possible evidence they would ever be able to give… which does actually mean that you’re not achieving the destruction of religion by reason which was advertised on the book cover.”

I’ve think you’ve missed the depth of the modern atheist case. Step (1) is the traditional takedown of the objective case for god. Step (2) is to show why the case from subjective experience is bullshit.

When I look at a Hermann grid my personal testimony of my experience is that I see grey blobs at the intersections. There aren’t any. I can have evidence that there are grey blobs – my subjective experience. You can dismiss this as “anecdotal” and “subjective”. But you also have another card up your sleeve – you can show that my personal experience is misleading and should not be relied upon.

Personal testimony of religious experience is “anecdotal” and “subjective”, but these guys don’t only rule it out on that basis. They also claim it’s delusional, and make a positive case for that.

There’s nothing remarkable about this. There are plenty of examples where science has shown that people’s personal testimony of their experience is wrong and worthless. I’ve ‘personal experiences’ I know to be false and to not have happened. You can destroy the value of personal experience by reason, and that’s what these guys think they can do to religious experience.

That’s why the New Atheism is causing such a stink, the traditional theist fall back position of personal revelation is under threat.

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 11:11 pm

What a dumbass.

I’m sure it would be a great use of my time to continue conversing with someone who “argues” so intelligently.

All you want you do is replace one foundation with another.

How in the hell would you know what I want? As a scientist I’m committed to fallibilism and to the constant need to revise what we think we know.

The only “militant”, belligerent moralizng I see here is coming from you. I think it’s you who need to ask yourself just why you have such a bee in your bonnet about Dawkins. Did he piss in your soup, or something?

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Steve LaBonne 09.04.07 at 11:40 pm

That’s why the New Atheism is causing such a stink, the traditional theist fall back position of personal revelation is under threat.

I’m not so sure- the final fallback position is simply to disclaim any connection between those “revelations” and the observable physical universe. That position seems to me impregnable, albeit the general run of religious believers would find it rather unsatisfying. Certainly such an exiguous variety of religion is not going to exert any theocratic claims on the rest of us, so I for one wouldn’t be concerned to wasted any breath in opposing it, however pointless I might find it.

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 12:32 am

Along with an anthropologist we need to bring in someone to discuss the relation of religious revivals to economics; since the new atheists claim not only that their own thoughts are impervious to historical contextualization but that by all rights that must apply to the ideas of the people they’re arguing with/about as well, even when those people are born again christians.
We’re all free actors right? No determinism allowed! If there were determinism there’d be no republic!
To religious people all philosophy is moral philosophy. Any discussion of science as such is a smokescreen.

The “new” atheism is the tail-end of modernism, the last cry of positivism.
It would be interesting if someone would write about the new Islamic cosmopolitanism in Iran and Turkey and how it has more depth and will have more permanence, than the veneer of modernity imposed on those countries by their autocratic and military modernizers. And religious cosmopolitanism is the beginning of secularism.
Like I said, it would be nice.

And while you’re at it someone should explain to me why Steven Weinberg, that most rational of rational men, is so committed to the irrational ideology of Zionism.
One more thing: Isn’t dualism basically a religious notion? Other than faith, what else does it have going for it?

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 12:34 am

“What’s the purpose of religion? To give a foundation to law.”

This one of the oddest and most academic (in the bad sense) explanations of religion I have ever heard. Religion may be used in specific cases to justify different sets of prohibitions and proscriptions; however, it is hopelessly reductive.

My Great Aunt Fanny, for example, used religion as a reason not to do her self in after the rhumatis got so bad.

Some guy or another used religion as a justification of treating well the least amongst us, your remember long hair? crazy ideas about stuff? Joe Ferguson?

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 12:41 am

“This one of the oddest and most academic (in the bad sense) explanations of religion I have ever heard”

It’s not odd at all. It’s standard.

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 12:45 am

” spend enough of my time lecturing the academic dumbasses at this site for being scholastic formalists. . . . The gobbledygook doesn’t matter, except as how it describes the culture. Talk to a fucking anthropologist, he’ll explain it to you.”

So wait is that anthropologists arent scholastic? dumbasses or academics? I’ve met a few who are all three, some even use religion to justify the wearing of wigs when clearly they are bald, using Lombard’s Sentence.

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slightly_peeved 09.05.07 at 12:46 am

Ideologies which depend upon unverifiable precepts are at the most risk and thus react the most forcefully.

“Ideologies which depend upon unverifiable precepts” is a tautology.

All moral systems are ultimately unverifiable. At some depth, every moral system sets up some sort of goal as self-evident and unprovable.

Which of course means that believing in stuff that can’t be proven is fundamental to human existence.

You can destroy the value of personal experience by reason, and that’s what these guys think they can do to religious experience.

If personal experience is destroyed, how does science (which is a consensus of personal experience) stand?

How does consciousness stand? Consciousness is subjective – you could all just be pretending to be conscious for all I know.

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 12:48 am

“It’s not odd at all. It’s standard.”

For whom? Exactly?

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 12:57 am

I’ll stop but aren’t some religious folks antinomian? Which suggests that religion is sometimes used to subvert the law, isn’t it?

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slightly_peeved 09.05.07 at 12:59 am

tom bach:
My Great Aunt Fanny, for example, used religion as a reason not to do her self in after the rhumatis got so bad.

Some guy or another used religion as a justification of treating well the least amongst us, your remember long hair? crazy ideas about stuff? Joe Ferguson?

Err… you just provided two examples supporting Seth’s point.

The laws are, in these cases: “Don’t commit suicide” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself (and by neighbour, I mean everybody)”.

steve labonne:
That position seems to me impregnable, albeit the general run of religious believers would find it rather unsatisfying.

Why? The belief that God rewards believers in this life, rather than the next, is actually not that common, though it does seem to have a high number of adherents in the US (perhaps it ties in nicely with the manifest destiny thing). It’s certainly not Catholic doctrine.

As the Irish comic Dara O’Briain once quipped, the general response of the Catholic Church to jokes and mockery at its expense is “haha… very funny… but you’re going to hell.” This world’s expected to suck – the next one’s the good one.

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lindsey 09.05.07 at 1:27 am

tom — yes. (for one example)

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engels 09.05.07 at 1:45 am

All you want you do is replace one foundation with another.

And belief in God provides a foundation for morality how exactly?

Atheists are in no position to moralize. No-one is.

Why?

Does moral ambiguity frighten you? Is that it? Is it something you spend your life running away from? You think your hands are clean?

What has being an atheist got to do with rejecting “moral ambiguity”? And why would someone who believes there are certain moral truths be less likely to experience guilt than someone who doesn’t? I’d have thought the reverse was true.

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 2:12 am

“Err… you just provided two examples supporting Seth’s point.”

Only if you define personal decision as quided by law instead of moral principles, which — for me in any event — are neither laws nor law like.

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tom bach 09.05.07 at 2:22 am

At least as I understand this some folks use religion as a basis for decisions absent law’s guiding hand. It is obviously true that religion is used in some cases to support law (the two tables); however, in other case religious folks ignore laws they see as violations of religiously justified moral codes, which cannot be limited by the man-made law. You, or one, might insist that these codes can be reduced to laws or law-like statements, but this is ruductive and ignores the placticity that attends dealing with situations as they occur based on a set of beliefs derived from a set of beliefs in higher powers.

For myself, I would argue that belief in God(s) is a waste of time; but, not that belief in God or a religious sensibility, as matter of standard understanding, is only a justification for laws.

But then again, I, no doubt, am scholastic, dumbassed, and academic, unlike the subtle, clever-booted, and non-academic (which suggests that many of them work at McDonalds or, perhaps, DC Comics) anthropologists who understand religion in a standard way as justification for law etc.

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engels 09.05.07 at 2:57 am

however, in other case religious folks ignore laws they see as violations of religiously justified moral codes, which cannot be limited by the man-made law

For example

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 3:56 am

I didn’t say our laws, I said LAW and was referring to the idea of law, or custom, the elements that draw a society together. The separation of religious and secular law is a pretty recent phonomenon. The history of secular law begins in religious law.
And in religion the legal and the social functions, the storytelling function, are more important than mysticism, which is always on the periphery.
Again, nothing new.

And just to be clear: “Smokescreen” refers to religious fundamentalists’ discussion of science. They’re not interested in science and there’s no reason to discuss it with them. Cut to the chase: go straight to moral philosophy, that’s all they care about. And considering that moral philosophy to most liberals is a byproduct of functionalism, I can see why they’re pissed.

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abb1 09.05.07 at 7:12 am

Roy (82) …until we get to, say, Paris, France

I’m arguing that believing in ‘Creator’ is not the bright line here.

Let me try this. Suppose I live in a typical US town and I’m concerned about crime in the neighborhood..
1. I install a good lock on the door. I’m a rational responsible individual.
2. I install a good lock and buy a handgun to keep in a drawer. Just in case. It’s probably unnecessary to have a gun, but it gives me a peace of mind. I’m still a rational responsible individual.
3. I sit all night in the corner trembling, pointing the gun at the door. Now I’m a basket case.

Somewhere between 2 and 3 I crossed the line, but buying a gun wasn’t it, at least I don’t think so.

I think a guy who believes in abstract ‘Creator’ will go with you all the way. Even a guy who like to resolve difficult dilemmas by thinking “what would Jesus do?” might follow you all the way to Barcelona. It’s not God, it’s something else. Dogmatism?

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bad Jim 09.05.07 at 8:18 am

My Irish ancestors were fairly early converts to Christianity. My Swedish ancestors came around much later, only about a thousand years ago. It’s my understanding that they actually had laws before they converted to the One True Faith. It may well be that their pagan laws were to some extent based on their heathen beliefs, perhaps likelier that their enforcement was entangled with religious observance – but laws tend to have common elements across cultures.

If you kill my brother or rape my sister or short me on a business deal I’m going to come after you. If we both belong to a sufficiently competent society I might seek justice according to our commonly accepted norms before crawling through your bedroom window to slit your throat, if only because I have to take into account the likelihood that tomorrow night your brother might just do the same to me.

We start making up rules as children. It comes with the language, and with the sort of rudimentary understanding of game theory that life experiences impart. Even dogs exhibit a conception of fairness (though they cheat shamelessly).

The very idea that we get morality from religion begs the question. It assumes that we were lawless before some revelation. We weren’t.

Laws and religion appear simultaneously in the historical record because both were written down when writing was invented. We might as well assume that we hadn’t yet invented recreational sex.

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magistra 09.05.07 at 10:28 am

What you feel about militant atheists I think depends quite a lot on whether you’re in the predominantly religious USA or predominantly secular Europe. In the USA maybe Dawkins et al feel like a few points of light in a theocratic gloom. In the UK, if you’re a committed Christian, you are already likely to feel slightly beleagured, with a mass media that by and large treat Christians as weird people (either comic or menacing). (In particular, the Guardian newspaper, whose political views I share, normally has at least one article or more a week deploring religion). The prominence given to people like Dawkins going on about the threat to religion of our culture civilisation seems disproportionate from this POV and his attitude offensive. Yes, I’m enough of a liberal to believe that Dawkins has the right to be offensive and I don’t dispute his right to attempt to ‘convert’ people. (He seems to me to want more than the use of reason, and come near to the logical positivist view of rejecting anything that can’t be demonstrated by a scientific method.) But I am allowed to say that I don’t like his rhetoric and particularly his bad-mouthing of all believers. (Equally I don’t like Christians who go around calling non-believers ‘godless heathens’).

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Harald Korneliussen 09.05.07 at 10:30 am

dsquared: “You’re not allowed to make public policy based on things that you can’t prove without non-natural evidence”

There’s no way to pass that as a public policy without making quite a paradox – it’s itself based on a value judgement which can not be proven without non-natural evidence.

Like pretty much everything else in politics.

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Harald Korneliussen 09.05.07 at 10:36 am

Bad Jim: “The very idea that we get morality from religion begs the question. It assumes that we were lawless before some revelation. We weren’t.”

The door breaks open! -more-
The door wasn’t closed after all!

I idly picked up “Religion within the limits of reason alone” and leafed through it in the university bookshop yesterday. That morality is independent of and prior to religion was on the first page.

I’d buy it, but I doubt me studying it would make much difference to the stream of Dawkins-inspired hostility I meet in any net forum I let slip that I am a Christian.

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ejh 09.05.07 at 10:54 am

In particular, the Guardian newspaper, whose political views I share, normally has at least one article or more a week deploring religion

Gosh, one a week?

It’s a tidal wave of hate.

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 10:59 am

I’d buy it, but I doubt me studying it would make much difference to the stream of Dawkins-inspired hostility I meet in any net forum I let slip that I am a Christian.

I’m genuinely sorry that you’ve been subjected to such uncivilized and uncalled-for treatment. But as an atheist in the religion-soaked US I also have to say, welcome to my world.

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magistra 09.05.07 at 1:06 pm

A tidal wave of hate – no. A drip-drip-drip of hate, in the same way that some other newspapers get at gays or blacks or women. (Would you say an article a week in one newspaper criticising them was negligible?) In a culture where you’re a minority (and practicing Christians are a minority in the UK) it gets wearing.

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 1:20 pm

Not having seen the articles in question, I cannot tell whether they were actually abusive toward believers themselves or simply expressed disdain for their beliefs. If the former that’s deplorable and inexcusable, if the latter- tough shit. You are entitled to personal respect and consideration, but not to having your beliefs, religious or otherwise, go unchallenged.

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 2:17 pm

Something relevent HERE
Summarized by Brian Tamanaha. Switch out militant atheism for positivism etc.

In a characteristically thoughtful essay (found on Solum’s LTB), Steven D. Smith observes that in an era when law is flourishing, “jurisprudence—the activity of theorizing or philosophizing about law, about the nature of law—seems close to moribund.” Smith asks: “is jurisprudence a dinosaur that has outlived its time and is being artificially kept alive?”

Smith observes that the classic debate between legal positivism and natural law over the nature of law now seems “quite pointless.” Most natural lawyers today recognize that governments enact laws according to their own criteria of validity (and hence immoral laws can have legal status), and most legal positivists recognize that we are not obligated to obey immoral laws or legal systems. Hardly anyone debates these issues anymore. According to Smith, jurisprudes have thus drifted off to take up questions in ethics, economics, contract law, tort law, constitutional law, and so on, but there is “nothing in this sort of question that is peculiarly within the province of jurisprudence.”

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 2:19 pm

The second paragraph should also be indented.

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Jonathan Edelstein 09.05.07 at 2:39 pm

In science, it really doesn’t matter what non-scientists believe.

20th-century eugenics?

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 3:11 pm

“In science, it really doesn’t matter what non-scientists believe.”
…and does that include political science?

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 3:23 pm

What I meant (and yes it applies to political science or any other highly professionalized scholarly disciplines) was that outside, non-professional input, except in very rare circumstances, is not effective in influencing the internal development of the discipline. I intend that more as a descriptive than as a normative observation and indeed I think that’s not necessarily a good state of affairs in 100% of cases (as #112 points out, eugenics- though it really went far, far beyond anything that could legitimately have been supported even from the primitive genetics of the time, and I would really not call eugenics per se a scientific discipline- could have used a lot more outside interference.)

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 4:32 pm

What I meant (and yes it applies to political science or any other highly professionalized scholarly disciplines) was that outside, non-professional input, except in very rare circumstances.

You mean like the press? Or maybe Dear Leader?

As the man says: “Time for another blogger ethics panel”

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ejh 09.05.07 at 4:36 pm

A drip-drip-drip of hate, in the same way that some other newspapers get at gays or blacks or women.

Oh really? Would you like to quote some comparable examples?

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 5:02 pm

You’ve got it backwards. It’s the press and Dear Leader who aren’t sufficiently influenced by science. (David Broder and colleagues are anything but scholars, and I was talking about fields of professsional, generally academic scholarship.) Anyway, this is now way off-topic.

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 5:18 pm

So if you have a degree you’re an officially designated Very Serious Person (“VSP”) I guess Max Boot more serious than me.

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 5:26 pm

Do you understand what “descriptive, not normative” means? It’s a fact of life that if you want biologists, political scientists (NOT pundits), or what have you to listen to your ideas, you need to be able to present them in their professional language and according to their standards of rigor. I do not say that’s always a good thing, but there are good reasons for it and in any case it’s a fact of life.

Now no more. As I said, this is way off-topic.

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seth edenbaum 09.05.07 at 5:36 pm

It’s not off topic at all, it goes to the reasons people hector each other over ideas and beliefs. I don’t want scientists dictating science policy for the same reason I don’t want generals dictating military policy. You extend your ability to reason in your field to a general principle. Democracy, even representative democracy is not the rule of self-appointed experts. Democracy is not technocracy.
I blame Dawkins et al. (and our technocratic elite in general) for the Weimarization of our culture no more or less than I blame fundamentalist christians.

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Steve LaBonne 09.05.07 at 5:47 pm

Do you understand the difference between scientific research results and science policy? I’m talking about the former. You get a vote only on the latter.

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ejh 09.05.07 at 5:56 pm

A drip-drip-drip of hate, in the same way that some other newspapers get at gays or blacks or women. (Would you say an article a week in one newspaper criticising them was negligible?)

A more rational comparison, of course, would be as if there were one article a week in the Telegraph criticising socialism or socialists – that is, taking issue with a set of ideas and the people who hold them.

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Roy Belmont 09.05.07 at 8:57 pm

Abb1 #102- The movie “Close Encounters” had that sweaty bit right out front – dude is all about committed to the alien thing not in theory but “Here they come!” so no more mowing the lawn going to work etc.
The Bible has it in the story of Abraham and Isaac, though admittedly at a time when stabbing your own son to death on an altar because God told you to wasn’t nearly as bizarre and antisocial is it would now be.
Both of those cases have the tension and snap toward submission that’s the gist of the dilemma, and here, Bob Dylan – Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin me on!”
God says, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God says, “You can do what you want Abe, but
the next time you see me comin, you better run.”
Abe said, “Where you want this killin done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”

The bright line isn’t exclusively internal, it’s external as well happening as a function of time’s ineluctable passage. We end up impaled on the fork in the road if we don’t choose. What I’m trying to make clearer is how little of the actual theology is bearing on this question. It’s Darwinian all the way, dressed up in yards of abstract costuming, but in the end there will be truncated branches of human possibility left behind, and that’s what gives it so much weight. The anti-Darwinian stance of the fundamentalists is a ruse, same as the pro-Darwinian stance of the positivists is a ruse. The fundos are totally working a survival edge, they appeal directly to the meat selfishness of their congregations, while the positivists are subverting every single Darwinian process they can get their hands and equipment on. Toward what end? Survival. Yet when we look at how we got here, we see the balance between individual immediate survival and the long slow curve of evolving stuff we really are.
People want information, in order to make informed decisions. But we’re talking about an infinite universe here, it’s impossible that we can get enough relevant info into our heads given the limits of time and capacity. Educated guesses, hunches and intuition, and the possibility of inspiration, information coming in from outside the system, we muddle along.
But it’s still Darwinian, it’s still all and only about who survives and breeds and who doesn’t. This may explain some of the resistance of simple-minded people to a series of changes in social complexity that promise fair to leave them behind.
That and the fact we’re getting closer every day to the great Satanic dream of physical immortality.edenbaum #100-“The history of secular law begins in religious law.”
bad Jim #102-“Laws and religion appear simultaneously in the historical record”It seems pretty clear at least to me that at one time we must have had an integrated field kit of both religion and law, that what we now see as these two completely separate things was once whole, unified.
You can pick up echoes of this in some indigenous spiritual practices still today. It’s there in most of the mystical literature as well.edenbaum #100, redux- “And in religion the legal and the social functions, the storytelling function, are more important than mysticism, which is always on the periphery.”From here these things seem discrete but in the full tide of absorption, in say a child whose mind is wide open and receiving stories that have been carried, unmediated by third-party intervention, from the same cultural springs as food and shelter and language, mysticism is not an “other”, it’s air, stars, the way things smell, the sound of something moving in the brush where you can’t see clearly what it is.
In that regard we haven’t gained a clearer understanding of where we are, in a wholistic sense we’ve lost the integration with where and what we are at the same time we’re transforming where and what we are irrevocably, not adding to it but reducing, diluting, flattening, and the affect and effects of most popular religions show this exactly in parallel with the attitudes of positivist science and its champions. Anthropocentricity being what they have most in common, not the flags and team colors, but how they perform.
Man against the world, dominant, in control.
Where we were once lost and alone in the hateful wilderness, now the wilderness is beaten to its knees and begging us for mercy.

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robertdfeinman 09.05.07 at 9:44 pm

Interesting that the same arguments that have been batted back and forth for 2000 years keep getting an airing.

What is true is that the current principal religions are organized along the lines of an elite group who knows the “truth” and a bunch of followers who are instructed in it. The details differ, but this is the essential element. To further their case the elite point to a variety of devices which only they are privy to. This can be the reading or interpretation of certain documents, or even getting direct information from a higher power. Since their authority rests with these devices and since normal people don’t have access to them, the result is that the leaders must be obeyed and not questioned.

That’s the core – obedience. It is why the founders didn’t put religion in the constitution. The constitution depends upon the people ruling themselves. There is no higher authority. There are no privileged people, neither religious nor royalty. Democracy is the antithesis of organized religion. The founders were sensitive to the recent history of the US and Great Britain to realize that many people were strongly invested in their religious beliefs, so they made allowances by promising that religion wouldn’t be controlled by government.

The idea was to protect religion from government, not the reverse. Once one religion becomes associated preferentially with government it leads to civil strife. You can look at the English Civil War, the behavior of the Massachusetts Colony or to more contemporary cases in the Middle East.

It is also a fact that as societies become more advanced, and as democracy becomes more entrenched, the degree of religiosity declines. There are parts of western Europe where the religious are less than 10% of the population. The societies do fine. They don’t have rampant lawlessness, nor do they have to invoke dogma to come up with a set of ethical principles on which to base laws.

The US appears to be an anomaly, in that a large group of people profess a belief in a supernatural being, but they don’t act like they mean it when one examines everyday life. The incidents of misbehavior is not lower in those who profess strong religious beliefs. In fact things like divorce are actually higher.

I don’t think there really are any significant number of people who believe absolutely as many did before the Reformation. This would require a single dominant religion with no alternatives. In this country we have over 1500 denominations. People shop for one that fits their values, and sometimes move to another one if they have disagreements. Even people who stick with a specific religion decide what parts they will follow. The issue of Catholics and birth control is a perfect example. The percent of Catholic women who use birth control doesn’t differ much from the general population.

So, what is the religious faith that people profess to have? Is it something that is in the core of themselves or is just a convenient peg on which to hang whatever collection of beliefs the individual has?

In spite of all the fear mongering, I think the importance of Islamic fundamentalism is overstated. Once again there is lots of visible adherence to the ceremonies, but this doesn’t seem to affect how the majority of the population deals with their personal lives. It does make a good bogeyman for use by the conservatives to short circuit any in depth discussion of the issues.

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abb1 09.05.07 at 10:04 pm

It’s a good point that the line is moving as time goes. It’s also a function of location. Some places are ahead others a little behind. Basra and Wichita will catch up in due time, I’m sure.

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slightly_peeved 09.06.07 at 12:22 am

101:

I believe that most recent examples of such culls, and of the bright lines behind them, involved no deity – the Cultural Revolution in China, Stalin’s purges, the Khmer Rouge.

I don’t think the line is between “Creator” and “No Creator”, since people on both sides of that line have performed those culls. As you said, I think it’s dogmatism, or in particular the dehumanization of people based on their beliefs. It’s those who believe that the people thinking different from them are less human, or less worthy of proper treatment. To use 82’s terminology, the line is between those who support the reconfiguration of the biological imperative, and those who wish to transcend it.

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tom bach 09.06.07 at 1:02 am

“I didn’t say our laws, I said LAW and was referring to the idea of law, or custom, the elements that draw a society together. The separation of religious and secular law is a pretty recent phonomenon. The history of secular law begins in religious law.”

Define please “pretty recent.” Machiavelli, for example, developed laws of political behavior explicitly without reference to religion. Christian Thomasius, equally explicitly, derided the notion taht law either eminates from or gains justification from religion.

If you mean that in the dim distant past of Hamurabi, Moses, and the Incas (to pick three) religion undergirded their world view, fine; but this does not for some kind of an exhaustive list nor yet does it foreclose formulating law without regard to religious sensibilities. Furthermore, what happen in the past does not determine what happens now. Does it? Ought we, to copy Zinzendorf, throw lots to make decision because the throwing of lots (as means of gaining insight into God’s or the God’s will(s) has some historical warrant (The Iliad).

It is realy odd, how some people use history ahistorically. But again, I am, no doubt da, schol, and aca.

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tom bach 09.06.07 at 1:06 am

And another thing, that guy with the long hair and the weird ideas, didn’t he say render unto Ceasar (odd he gave that kind of authority to a pizza place)? Doesn’t this suggest (rather clearly) that in at least one spokesman (or spokes 1/3godman) for Xtianity was against the notion of intermingling things of that world with things of this world?

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tom bach 09.06.07 at 1:15 am

A final point, go read the parable of the wheat and the tares, here Christ argues against the judgement of man (laws or law take your pick) in the differences between that which correct according to God is unkown and unknowable to man until such time as the reaping. Granted, the wheat and tares has been traditionally read as an argumetn for toleration in intra-Xtian debate; however the radical disjunction between God’s understanding and that of humanities opens pretty clearly the door to a rejection of the efficacy of seeking to use one’s (or a group of ones) understanding of the divind understanding to structure the world, no? If so, we have a fairly important spokesmodel for religious sensibility rejecting the notion that it ought or, indeed, can guide the organization of life here below.

Or is Xt “pretty recent”?

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bad Jim 09.06.07 at 8:20 am

This argument is a little bit like the “framing” debate that flares up at ScienceBlogs.

The framers, Mooney & Nisbet, point to evidence that so much of the American public is wedded to their religious beliefs that they simply reject scientific evidence to the contrary, even though they hold science in high regard. From this they conclude that, when the issue is one of educational standards or public policy, it’s counterproductive to attack religion directly. Hard to argue with that.

Contrariwise, the same evidence demonstrates to Myers & Dawkins that religion is itself the problem, and I’m disinclined to disagree.

It’s primarily, but not entirely, an American argument. Here, we few proud self-identified primates are fighting for the science of biology, and we’d certainly find our continent more congenial were more of our countrymen godless. I apologise on behalf of my fellow apostates, atheists and agnostics if, in our thrashing back towards the more fearless Enlightenment precepts of our predecessors, we’ve knocked anyone’s noses out of joint.

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Ginger Yellow 09.06.07 at 12:15 pm

In the UK, if you’re a committed Christian, you are already likely to feel slightly beleagured, with a mass media that by and large treat Christians as weird people (either comic or menacing). (In particular, the Guardian newspaper, whose political views I share, normally has at least one article or more a week deploring religion).

In the UK, if you’re a committed Guardian reader, you are already likely to feel slightly beleagured, with a mass media that by and large treat Guardian readers as weird people (either comic or menacing). (In particular, the Sun the Telegraph and the Mail, whose political views I do not share, normally have at least one article or more a week deploring the Guardian).

Novakant: I’m not sure my opinion’s too useful to you, since I thought Consciousness Explained was excellent (and it mostly gels with the hard neuroscience done by the likes of Kristof Koch). I didn’t find Freedom Evolves particularly good, mostly because I didn’t find compatibilism a particularly difficult problem in the first place. I’m told that his earlier book, Elbow Room, which covers similar ground, is much better, but I haven’t read it.

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seth e 09.07.07 at 12:56 am

I’m in 8eijing and on a blackberry.
As someone once said I’ve got other priorities at least at the moment.

I try to take my secularism lightly
The biggest threat to democracy is extremism and like produces like far too often.

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SG 09.07.07 at 1:47 am

How come the defenders of religion get to blame the inquisition and the crusades on “human nature” but atheists don’t get to do the same for Stalin’s purges?

Putting this stupidity aside, religion remains the most destructive force on the globe, historically and now. Every advance western society has made has been despite religion. The church has been the last institution to adapt to modern ideals, and has been the first into the breach to argue for their repeal and to sieze the opportunity their repeal has offered. You don’t see many “militant atheists”[sic(k)] rushing to Iraq to convert muslims by the sword, do you? Or fleecing their followers while fucking their children.

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slightly_peeved 09.07.07 at 5:03 am

You don’t see many “militant atheists”[sic(k)] rushing to Iraq to convert muslims by the sword, do you?

But did militant atheists make the sword?

I personally think any ideology – religious or atheist is to blame for atrocities committed in its name.

An interesting question (which I’m still thinking through myself) is if people are going to argue that religion should be abolished in favour of science, should the role science has played in facilitating the wars and atrocities of ideologies be examined?

Science is generally portrayed as morally neutral, but I’m not sure if the “brights” are portraying the following of science as a moral good in and of itself. If so, examples such as the atom bomb and the maxim gun really need to be discussed.

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maha 09.08.07 at 6:12 pm

Religious people do seem to find it very difficult to handle the question “where’s the evidence?”. Which is really the only question Dawkins is asking.

The problem with this question is that much of religious doctrine is based on metaphors for something that cannot be reached by conceptual thought. Doctrines are the interface, not the reality. I realize that most religious laypeople don’t make that distinction, but I assure you that many do, and (I suspect) most clerics and theologians have some inkling of it.

So before you ask for evidence, you need to clarify exactly what you want evidence of.

For example, God is a metaphor. No one can give you evidence of a metaphor. What does the metaphor represent? Perhaps someone could give you evidence of whatever that is, but first you need to thoroughly understand it so you know what you are looking for. And that’s the work of a lifetime. Good luck.

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