Respecting Religious Believers

by Harry on March 11, 2008

Via Lindsey, I read this paper by Simon Blackburn (pdf) which appears, again, in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life edited by Louise Antony, and containing essays by 20 or so atheist philosophers. The collection is well worth reading. Its not as though it can have been difficult to find atheist philosophers who are willing to talk about their views, but netween them the contributors display a nice range of attitudes toward religion, including deep respect, envy, and outright hostility.

Blackburn’s chapter is, for the most part, an argument against versions of respect for religion that hinge on interpreting the claims of religious believers as not being the kinds of claim that can be true or false, and he makes that argument rather well. The point in dispute, though, is whether we can truly respect people who have what we regard to be false beliefs. He thinks not:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.


So, just to be clear, we can respect them in all sorts of senses, and for all sorts of reasons, but we cannot respect their holding of that belief.

Like Lindsey, but coming at it from the other side (she has to figure out how to respect atheists’ disbelief in God, I have to figure out how to respect theists’ beliefs in God), I disagree. I do respect (some) Christians, and acknowledging their belief in God, which I think is false, does not detract from that respect in any way; in fact, I respect their holding of that (I think false) belief. I confess that for some of them I have absolutely no preference that they change their beliefs. How can this work?

Here’s Lindsey:

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It’s the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons don’t sway my own beliefs). That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

I think that is right, and I want to add some comments about exactly what the respect consists in and what counts as “legitimate” in this context.

Here’s what I think my respect for (some) Christians consists in:

  • some general, hard to define, pro-attitude to them holding that belief (and no preference that they change it).
  • a genuine interest in their foundational religious commitments and practices.
  • a highly skeptical willingness to consider, and reconsider, our disagreements, if occasion arises (highly skeptical not because I am closed minded, but because I have over the course of a so-far middle-lengthed life, already given them a great deal of consideration, and have a settled view, so would be surprised if it were to change now).

What underlies this respect? Some sort of judgment about the condition in which the person holds the sincere belief. Suppose I knew that there was a decisive proof of the non-existence of God that could easily be grasped by the person, and to which they had access. Then, certainly, I would not respect their holding the belief, but would think them either irrational or dishonest. But there is no such decisive proof. Suppose I thought that their belief were merely a rationalization of their own self-interest, or were something they used to justify a sense of superiority over others. Well, I do think this about some Christians, and I do not respect them. But I do not think this about all, or even most, Christians. Rather, I think that some Christians (the ones whose adherence to Christianity I respect) have genuine faith in God, which, though not rationally supportable, is not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality, and their faith is sincere and would survive testing and careful reflection. In that respect it is not unlike my belief in the basic decency of most human beings and our ability radically to improve the quality of social institutions.

The condition is something like this. It is possible to respect someone’s holding of a false belief if you believe that the person is someone of good will, and who has deliberated carefully, and honestly holds the belief given their non-irresponsible reflection on that deliberation and their personal experience.

It helps that I share a good deal of what I regard as very important beliefs with many Christians – specifically an ethical outlook that values virtues such as kindness and humility, and a political outlook that demands that we attend to the interests of the least advantaged. And while they tend to think that belief in God is importantly connected to these moral beliefs, I think (obviously, and for Euthyphro-ian reasons) they’re wrong about this. Lindsey talks about living out one’s values with integrity, and I agree that (or at least, trying to live out ones values with integrity) is a necessary condition on my respecting someone’s false beliefs (but not a sufficient condition—if the values are wrong enough there is no virtue at all in living them out with integrity).

But it is even possible to respect people who are wrong about moral truths, as long as their beliefs fall within some limits. Think about political principles: I can respect some conservatives and some libertarians who sincerely, and after careful deliberation, disagree with me, if I believe that it is careful reflection, rather than rationalization of self-interest and privilege, that leads them to hold onto their views. Some moral truths, and many truths about political morality, are not obvious. Of course, if I believe, as I do with some conservatives and libertarians, that their beliefs are really rationalization of self-interest, I do not respect them, or their holding of their beliefs, at all.

But the same is true of people who hold true beliefs in the wrong way. If you’ve been active on the left for long enough you have come across people who hold their views not in the sincere and thoughtful way I have suggested, but basically as prejudices or rationalizations of self-interest, and who treat their ideologies as weapons. (Michael’s friend David Horowitz has always struck me as someone who moved from a particularly nasty part of the left to a particularly nasty part of the right without changing the way he held his beliefs very much). These people: even though you agree with them, you don’t respect their holding of their beliefs.

A final comment. Throughout Blackburn’s piece he emphasizes that the religious believer holds false beliefs. Lindsey’s response emphasizes our recognition of our fallibility—the humility to know that we have been wrong about key matters, that our perspective is not God-like, and that we might, however unlikely it seems, be wrong about this now. My intuition (and that’s all I’ve got here—I’m already way outside of my professional areas of expertise, so no doubt some of our readers will think all this naive) is that she is right that this sort of humility is a virtue, and it is, indeed, part of respecting someone’s holding a belief that we regard our own stand as not infallible (my third condition was a skeptical willingness to consider the disagreement, implying recognition of the possibility of falsehood). The certainty that one is infallible about these things is one of the most unattractive, and unrespect-able, about some fundamentalist Christians and some militant atheists. There is a gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right, and that gap is what makes respect possible.

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{ 202 comments }

1

Matt 03.11.08 at 1:21 pm

I think that I largely agree with this. The one place I might disagree (though I’m not sure if this is a disagreement or not) is about one way in which I tend to feel about much religious belief that makes it hard for me to characterize the feeling I have as respect. That is, it seems to me that the causal origin of much religious belief is such that it’s not the sort of thing we can expect to have a high likelihood of truth, and the methods of testing religious beliefs (one’s own, I mean- not scientific testing) seem to me to be pretty dubious devices for finding truth as well. Much (probably most) religious belief is held because one was raised in a tradition- one is a Christian (or sub-branch there of) because of where one was born and who one’s parents are. If the same person had been born elsewhere her religion would have been different. This makes religion more like culture, and I can enjoy various cultures, appreciate facts about them, and be glad they are around but I don’t normally respect them unless they are distinctive in some ways. (We might say we respect a culture because of its great achievements, but it would still be a bit funny, I think, to say we respect a bearer of the culture for that reason.) Now, not all religious belief is like that, but much is and when it is I cannot say that I respect it, even if I don’t have negative attitudes towards it. Similarly, it seems to me that the methods often used to test one’s own religious belief- introspection, prayer, mortifications of various sorts, etc., are particularly unlikely to lead to true outcomes as opposed to either wish fulfilment or delusion. This is so when these methods are applied to non-religious beliefs, too- deep introspection isn’t a very good way to find out about much of anything, I think. But, religious belief doesn’t hold up that well, I think, to methods of testing we do find more reliable. So, the fact that a believer has subjected her beliefs to the common methods used to test religious belief by believers also doesn’t make me respect those beliefs. The pay-off of this is that while I don’t disrespect all religious belief, or disrespect it as such, I don’t want to say I have respect for much of it- it doesn’t seemed formed in the right way to me. That doesn’t mean I want to stamp it out or that I have any deep desire to discourage it. I especially don’t think that a liberal state can or should use the machinery of the state to stamp out religious belief. I’m glad there is a diversity of ways of life around, for basically Millian reasons. But in many cases I suppose my attitude is something other than respect, if that means holding in esteem and not willingness to accept the existence of.

(Note that much of what I say here applies to other views, such as political views, which most people also often hold for reasons that ought to make us not respect their holding of the views, even if we favor the views they do hold.)

2

Jacob T. Levy 03.11.08 at 1:21 pm

conservatives and some libertarians

That sounds like a careful and deliberate formulation– ‘libertarians’ qualified by ‘some,’ ‘conservatives’ not so. [though the whole set is going to be limited by the way they hold their beliefs; the implication seems to be that even some libertarians who hold their beliefs in the right way don't receive your respect.] But a few sentences later, ‘some conservatives and libertarians.’ Any particular reason for the first phrasing?

3

harry b 03.11.08 at 1:29 pm

jacob — careless copy-editing!!! (which careful readers of my posts must have come to expect, surely…) will fix.

4

John M 03.11.08 at 1:31 pm

It isn’t clear to me why you treat false religious beliefs differently from false political beliefs. I assume that in the latter case you would prefer (as per Blackburn) that the friend whom you repsect for other qualities, should rectify his or her false political beliefs and I am betting that you make some amicable attempts to persuade them to your (correct) point of view. This does not mean that you do not hold your beliefs lightly, just that you hold beliefs you consider to be correct (although that could change) and are temporarily at least committed o them. So why not prefer that your friend changes his or her false beliefs on religion? What makes this sort of false belief a special case? Is it not always the case that your friend would be better off holding correct rather than false beliefs?

5

Z 03.11.08 at 1:33 pm

I’ll respect any irrational belief, seeing that everyone holds one or another, as long as the holder fully recognizes that he is not entitled to base any form of public argument or action upon it. Unfortunately, when it comes to religious beliefs, many people seem unable to do so.

I think that some Christians [...] have genuine faith in God, which, though not rationally supportable, is not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality

I think you might take some heat with this comment, Harry. After all, outside the realm of logic, very few things are excluded by straightforward canons of rationality, and though something as vague as faith in a deity certainly is not, the same is true about the existence of leprechauns and unicorns (especially invisible pink ones). Religious beliefs are in that respect extremely different from, say, political ones: though I might not agree with conservative beliefs, I agree that many people holding them do so in a way responsive to evidence and strive to present them in a way that allows me to challenge them in a meaningful way. The same is not true of religious beliefs, almost by definition.

6

Z 03.11.08 at 1:41 pm

Matt’s comment also reminded me that I probably should make a distinction between different kind of religious beliefs: religions tend to incorporate statement of facts in their credo (Catholicism certainly does) so that no one, according to the official profession de foi of the Catholic church can be a good catholic and not believe that Jesus accomplished miracles and resurrected after three days. Such religious beliefs merit no respect in my opinion, as they are self-evidently false, and it doesn’t strike me as immoral to gently chastised people holding them for intellectual laziness.

7

Bloix 03.11.08 at 1:42 pm

“Is it not always the case that your friend would be better off holding correct rather than false beliefs?”

No, it’s not the case. What does “better off” mean? Happier, healthier, more productive, wealthier, a better spouse, neighbor, parent, colleague or friend?

I am myself an atheist, but I don’t see how my atheism makes me better off than my believing friends and acquaintances.

8

Chris Bertram 03.11.08 at 1:48 pm

Just to say, Harry, that the Blackburn line is repeated endlessly on lots of blogs (I’m thinking Butterflies and Wheels, and Oliver Kamm off the top of my head) and I’ve long wanted to write a rebuttal. Now I won’t have to.

9

Daniel Elstein 03.11.08 at 2:00 pm

One issue here is the connection which Harry mentions between religious belief and the Euthyphro problem. Those of us who think that, for Euthyphro-like reasons, most theists are mistaken in their beliefs about what the connection between God and morality would be (if God did indeed exist), will not find it so easy to allow that theistic belief is not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality.

Insofar as it is implicit in the faith of many theists that the existence of God is morally necessary, their faith rests on a philosophical error. That error is not itself a result of faith (it isn’t that they have faith that the Euthyphro problem has a solution, or some such), and so it cannot be defended in the way that Harry suggests. If a strong connection between God and morality is not rationally defensible, then a certain widespread kind of theism isn’t either.

Another part of this issue is that one notorious way of responding to the Euthyphro problem, i.e. voluntarism, is itself morally (as well as philosophically) problematic. Since Harry agrees that it is harder to respect those who have wrong moral views, and many (most?) theists are voluntarists, at least implicitly, respect for those theists is trickier, even if their faith doesn’t depend on their voluntarism. Of course none of that is to suggest that the relevant philosophical issues are easy, or that I have more than very-close-to-certainty (if that!) that I’m right about them.

10

Juan 03.11.08 at 2:17 pm

Harry,

I’d be interested to know what you think of Feldman’s essay in the same volume.

11

Russell L. Carter 03.11.08 at 2:19 pm

Prior to about January 2003 I leaned largely toward Harry’s view of things, but since then it seems that the evidence has forced me to skew more toward Matt’s.

The problem is that respect is an enabler.

On the ground though there’s probably not much difference, as Matt notes, but for me personally there’s a big difference in the way I understand people. Just getting older, I guess.

12

John M 03.11.08 at 2:20 pm

“I am myself an atheist, but I don’t see how my atheism makes me better off than my believing friends and acquaintances.”

You do not think you are better off having true rather than false beliefs? What motive do you have for investigating beliefs that you hold unless you believe that you would be better off having truer rather than flser ones? Why not hold beliefs regardless of their truth value?

13

John M 03.11.08 at 2:26 pm

Another angle on this is to question the degree to which you can truly be said to respect a person if you allow them to continue to hold false beliefs without any attempt to correct that. Surely that puts you, the holder of knowledge, in a position of power (no matter how slight) over the person with the false belief? Isn’t it patronising to decide that some people are simply better off holding false beliefs and that you will not attempt to enlighten them? Can you have a relationship of equals in such a situation, and can there be real respect without that assumption of equality?

14

Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 2:41 pm

Matt (#1),

Much (probably most) religious belief is held because one was raised in a tradition- one is a Christian (or sub-branch there of) because of where one was born and who one’s parents are. If the same person had been born elsewhere her religion would have been different. This makes religion more like culture, and I can enjoy various cultures, appreciate facts about them, and be glad they are around but I don’t normally respect them unless they are distinctive in some ways. (We might say we respect a culture because of its great achievements, but it would still be a bit funny, I think, to say we respect a bearer of the culture for that reason.) Now, not all religious belief is like that, but much is and when it is I cannot say that I respect it, even if I don’t have negative attitudes towards it.

There’s a lot to unpack in your claim(s) here. Let me attempt a couple of points:

1) You seem to be suggesting that the “accidental” occurence of belief (such as receiving it from one’s parents due to the culture/environment they’re part of and raised one in) is in some manner an argument against respecting those who hold to it. Why? Can or should we assume that all beliefs–all beliefs worthy of respect, anyway–about morality, ethics, whatever, ought to have grounds of purely formal reasons supporting them, grounds that believers ought to properly seek out for themselves? This seems like stacking the deck in favor of a certain kind of hyper-rationality, a way of viewing the world which Hume devastated a couple of centuries ago. It seems to me that invoking cultural or environmental reasons for affirming a belief is as common and as legitimate an element in moral argument as any other.

2) What do you mean by “distinctive in some way,” and what qualifies as a “great achievement”? An alcoholic, perhaps one who grew up in an environment of alcoholism, would very like consider the ability of Alcoholics Anonymous or some other similarly religiously grounded support group–like the one provided weekly in the basement of dozens of churches you and I could both name–to strengthen him in his struggle with his addiction to qualify as a thing of greatness, one that quite distinctly shaped his life. Ditto for Promise Keepers, ditto for the Salvation Army, ditto for Catholic Charities, etc., etc. I’m not trying to pin you down here unfairly, but might it not be that your gesture towards some occasional respect offered to cultures (and therefore presumably some culturally shaped religious believers) reflects a bias towards certain kinds of “great” cultural achievements, as opposed to the countless little things that cultural and religious acitivites make possible every day?

15

Brian Weatherson 03.11.08 at 2:46 pm

I think I agree with a lot of this up to the last paragraph.

I don’t see how it’s really a response to Blackburn’s saying that the religious believer has false beliefs to “emphasize our recognition of our fallibility”. You recognize that we are fallible, and you think that the religious believer has false beliefs, so for all that’s been said here (admittedly I haven’t read the Blackburn paper) Blackburn might too.

Indeed, Lindsey’s entire response seems to turn on reading into Blackburn something that just isn’t there, at least in the quoted passage. Blackburn says he’s convinced that theists are false. Does this mean he’s concluded that theists *must*, in any interesting sense of must, be wrong? No, he’s just concluded that they are wrong.

What could possibly be the mistake here? Is it assumed that we can only be convinced of something if we think we are infallible on the point? There’s no reason to attribute that view to Blackburn. Is it that we should never draw any conclusions on points on which we are fallible? Again, it’s hard to charitably credit that view to Blackburn, and I’m not sure any anti-agnostic will want to run with it. Lindsey appears to draw an absolutely absurd sceptical conclusion here: “Because we cannot know, we have a compelling reason to give some credence to other belief systems.” There’s really no compelling reason to believe this. Certainly no compelling reason is offered, and I don’t know of any good arguments for scepticism from the premises that are even suggested. Moreover, if there were such an argument, there would be a compelling reason to be an agnostic.

The simple point is that there’s no logical space between being an atheist, and believing that theists are wrong. Nor is there any logical space between believing in atheism, and believing that your belief in atheism is correct. There may be logical space between believing in atheism, and believing you don’t know that atheism is true, but I don’t know that it’s an attractive space. In general when I believe I don’t know that p, I give up belief in p. I don’t think I have to respect people who don’t do that – in fact I’m not sure I even have to regard them as believing in the sense of belief that I’m most interested in.

16

Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 2:48 pm

Z (#6),

Religions tend to incorporate statement of facts in their credo (Catholicism certainly does) so that no one, according to the official profession de foi of the Catholic church can be a good catholic and not believe that Jesus accomplished miracles and resurrected after three days. Such religious beliefs merit no respect in my opinion, as they are self-evidently false.

On the one hand, a claim to “self-evidently” true arguments about the impossibility of certain specific faith claims; on the other hand, Harry’s conviction that there is no “decisive proof of the non-existence of God,” an acknowledgement that at least “some things not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality” may deserve elements of respect, and in general a gesture in the direction of “the gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right.” As a religious believer I have a dog in this fight, obviously, but I can’t help but think that most people, religious or not, would intuitively see the point of Harry’s humility here. I mean, we’re only talking about “respect,” after all.

17

Bloix 03.11.08 at 2:52 pm

john m- I respect many religious believers. Garry Wills, for example, is a deeper, more insightful, more humane person than I am. If I ever had the opportunity to have a conversation with him, we would not be on a plane of equality – I would be at his feet. But that doesn’t affect my conviction that his religious belief is mistaken.

18

Ralph Hitchens 03.11.08 at 2:56 pm

“…once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it … We would prefer them to change their minds.” Blackburn seems, to me, to be a very narrow-minded person. I think, for example, that to any reasonable person the LDS doctrine is out there on the edge of loony. But I’ve also known many Mormons, and on the whole found them to be virtuous, admirable people. How presumptuous it would be of me to wish they would change their minds. How could I calculate how much of who they are is owed to their Mormon upbringing?

19

Steve LaBonne 03.11.08 at 3:05 pm

Ralph, you’d respect them LESS if they continued to be virtuous, admirable people but left the LDS church? If you’re not saying that, it’s not clear that you’re contradicting what Blackburn actually wrote.

As it happens, Christians are perfectly familiar with the logic of his position: love the sinner but hate the sin.

20

richard 03.11.08 at 3:10 pm

re: 12 (john m) You do not think you are better off having true rather than false beliefs? What motive do you have for investigating beliefs that you hold unless you believe that you would be better off having truer rather than flser ones? Why not hold beliefs regardless of their truth value?

The religious case is not necessarily generalisable: we may prefer true to false beliefs in principle, and we can easily cite examples where harm attaches to the holding of false beliefs, but in the specific case of a choice between believing or not believing in a Judeo-Christian God, where’s the harm? Note: I am not asking (as none of us are in this abstract argument) if there is no harm in the practices of various Christian denominations, only in the fact of belief.

21

Matt 03.11.08 at 3:15 pm

Russell- I guess that on your first point I’d insist that “respect” is a feeling towards something that implies an achievement of some sort. We talk of things as being “worthy” of respect. So, I don’t “respect” people’s common-sense beliefs, the ones they just have. It’s awfully good that they have them, and it would be silly to question most of them very seriously, but it also seems funny to me to say that I “respect” them in any real sense. To the extent that people have their religious beliefs because of accidental reasons, and the means they use to test them are unlikely to be truth-conducive, they also seem to fall into the category of things that are not the right sort of things to be respected. Again, not all religious belief is like this, but much is.

(“Respect” here might mean ‘not denigrate’ or “hold in esteem” or something like that. I’m using it exclusively in the latter sense- in the large majority of cases I don’t think we should denigrate people’s religious beliefs.)

So, beliefs that one just has are not, I think, worthy of respect no matter what those beliefs are. Nothing Hume says opposes that, I think. To think otherwise would be like respecting someone because of their race or their height- it’s the wrong sort of thing to respect.

On the second point, I’ll admit to not being very clear, in part because my comment was too long already. But, if it makes sense to respect, in the sense of holding in esteem, a culture at all (I’m not sure it does) then we might well respect a culture that has achievements we value- if it encouraged great learning, or care for all people, say. It would usually be a mistaken leap to extend this same respect to the individual members of the culture, though, unless they have done something in particular. As for most cultures, and most things about any culture, it seems wrong to me to say that we have respect towards them as opposed to other feelings, many of which can be positive and of course some negative, once again taking “respect” to mean “hold in esteem” and not “not denigrate.” Anyway, I hope that’s of some use.

22

John M 03.11.08 at 3:22 pm

“but in the specific case of a choice between believing or not believing in a Judeo-Christian God, where’s the harm?”

Yes, you are right that it is somewhat different to believing that the blue wire is the live one, but we often usually know in advance the value or the harm that might accrue from false world views held over time, can we? And although a particular false belief may not kill you or obviously harm you now, it may endanger you at some future time physically or psychologically, so don’t we usually assume that we are better off without them? And if we don’t enlighten a friend who holds a false belief, aren’t we in some way treating them at best high-handedly (not knowing what harm may come from the false belief)and at worst with contempt? At very least we are patronising them, arn’t we, if we allow them to continue in ignorance because we, from a position of knowledge, have decided that ignorance is better for them? In any other sphere we would think it beholden to at least express the correct view even if it is emphatically rejected in a way that makes us think twice about broaching it again. Certainly many believers take this view (and I think it is logical of them given their beliefs). Most of them knock on my door every couple of weeks.

23

Bloix 03.11.08 at 3:24 pm

Richard – the holding of a belief, whether true or false, can be beneficial or harmful without respect to its truth. The same belief can be beneficial in some respects and harmful in others, or beneficial at some periods and harmful at others, or beneficial to some people who hold it and harmful to others.

Imagine a soldier in a war who believes that God does not want him to kill innocent civilians. His belief may be simple: If I kill innocent civilians, I will go to Hell. His belief may be more sophisticated: all human life emanates from God; when I kill, I destroy God’s holy creation; therefore God forbids me to kill without necessity. In either case, his belief is false. If he refrains from killing innocent civilians because of his belief, both he and the innocent civilians are better off.

24

John M 03.11.08 at 3:26 pm

“but we often usually know in advance the value or the harm that might accrue from false world views held over time, can we?”

Should be:

but we can’t always, or even often, know in advance the value or harm … etc.

25

Patrick 03.11.08 at 3:32 pm

You could have written a much shorter post by just writing the following:

1: Blackburn believes that we can respect people whom we believe hold false beliefs, but that the fact that we believe they hold false beliefs means that we cannot respect them FOR that false belief, and that we respect them less WITH the false belief than we otherwise would WITHOUT.

2: I do not believe that religious people hold false beliefs. I have placed that matter in abeyance. I disagree with their beliefs, but I am not willing to call those beliefs false in an official sense.

That’s the only part of your post doing any analytical work. The rest of the material, about good faith and careful deliberation, can apply equally to persons holding both true and false beliefs. And that just brings you back to Blackburn and the degree of respect you would accord each group.

26

richard 03.11.08 at 3:49 pm

22: we, from a position of knowledge, have decided that ignorance is better for them

This might be patronising and/or prejudicial to absolute equality between interlocutors, but (a) hopefully, as atheists or agnostics, we have a sense that we’d better not make concrete claims for ‘our own knowledge and their ignorance’ unless we can deploy some clear evidence and (b) maybe a bit of perceived inequality doesn’t matter. I’m not at all sure that the flat field of discourse you propose is possible, anyway.

27

richard 03.11.08 at 4:01 pm

23: except that your examples depend on the belief impinging on the believer’s actions and practices, which I hedged against, following the line of the original argument. FTR I think that’s a problem with the whole line of argument per se, but we’re able to hold this kind of ‘ideal space’ argument because we have a society where consequences from belief are not in play – most atheists and Christians adhere to the same social and cultural norms anyway.

28

Martin James 03.11.08 at 4:04 pm

What makes a political or moral belief true?

I don’t respect anyone who falls in love for a good reason and I don’t respect people who don’t fall in love.

29

Damon Linker 03.11.08 at 4:12 pm

A fascinating and illuminating discussion.

I do wonder, though: Why is it that so many people who are profoundly skeptical of religious experience so unskeptical when it comes to moral experience? Let me explain. Except for radical utilitarians and sociopaths (not necessarily the same thing!), all human beings have had experiences of nobility or dignity — of being moved by a person or an act of sacrifice that makes us think that the person or act is HIGHER or NOBLER than other persons or acts. These are usually acts that we judge to be intrinsically good in themselves, regardless of the consequences (for the moral person himself or even for the object of the act, provided the intention was pure). I’m not making some contentious Kantian claim here; rather, I’m making a phenomenological claim about fundamental moral experience.

So, my question is: What is the ontological status of these pre-theoretical judgments, which all of us have made and make all the time? Do they respond to a fact about the world — namely that there are certain acts that are, in fact, intrinsically good in themselves? If so, what could this possibly mean? What is the ground of this dignity? Did it evolve through the same blind processes that have guided the evolution of the physical universe (including biological species)? Or, instead, are these experiences groundless — a kind of psychological/subjective projection onto a meaningless universe?

I bring up all of this because (1) I think that it is these moral experiences that lead so many people to embrace some form of theism, as a ground for the nobility we all experience; and (2) anti-theists might be able to undermine the grounds for belief in this or that theistic view, but they cannot destroy the phenomenological motive for holding SOME such belief without taking aim at the coherence of moral experience itself.

And so we go, round and round.

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Bloix 03.11.08 at 4:19 pm

Belief in God is not a “political or moral belief.” It’s a belief in a fact about the Universe. The only reason we cabin it off as a special kind of fact is that when people refuse to do so they wind up killing each other.

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seth edenbaum 03.11.08 at 4:30 pm

The question is whether or not to concentrate on beliefs as such as opposed to values, and beliefs concerning value. Everyone maintains logically indefensible beliefs of one sort or another. Billionaires value money, that is their own control of large amounts of it. I find that desire both illogical and wrong. But it is not illogical and wrong to engage in the discussion of the significance of greed, even the benefits, over the course of human history. Still I would prefer the “logic’ of a local priest to that of a billionaire, in the same way that I would prefer the logic of an atheist english professor: one who believes that curiosity about the world does not require greed. These days the defense of the existence of greed often becomes a defense of greed, but there’s a distinction. So now I guess I’ll make a qualified defense of the existence of religion.

When it comes to things people value, there’s a whole list of people I have a hard time having respect for; from Rawlsians to Libertrians, to the nobel prize winning physicist who wrote a chapter defending Zionism in a book titled “Science and Its Cultural Adversaries.” How can I respect such irrationalism?

The question regarding religion is what takes its place. Philosophy can’t, at least as long as philosophizing resides in the attempt to create a unified formal system of value and thought, and as long as it refuses to look at the function of religion and its irrational beliefs, rather than simply at the irrationality itself [that is without some sense of "second order" curiosity]
Religious texts function as a way of ordering experience and prioritizing in the public discussion of values. The Bible has the function we now give to founding documents and constitutions, which remain after all historical and temporal, not absolute.
To a believer the only philosophy that matters is moral philosophy. Everything else is ancillary. To many modern thinkers it’s the reverse. This is an idea cribbed from science, and it’s resulted in a fair amount of absurdity. For others, equally modern and equally secular, that reversal is in error. To them moral philosophy, the discussion of value, is still primary. And science does not answer questions of value.

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CJColucci 03.11.08 at 4:45 pm

I’m not sure whether this is off-topic, but doesn’t Blackburn come off as an ill-mannered, self-righteous prig for accepting an invitation to a seder (when all concerned were aware he wasn’t Jewish) and then refusing to participate like the rest of the invited guests?

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Chris Schoen (nontheist) 03.11.08 at 5:09 pm

I’m a fan of Blackburn in other affairs, but he is way off his game here.

Theists and atheists do not disagree on facts, they disagree on metaphysics. What may or may not be respectable about religious belief is not what it gets right or wrong about naturalistic truth claims, like gods or afterlives, but the depth and meaningfulness the belief engenders. I think most people can observe that this is a feature that is highly variable, both among the religious and irreligious alike.

I don’t know who Simon Blackburn’s friends are; they may be shallow and sanctimonious, they may be humble and wise, or somewhere in between–in other words, whether they are the kind of people who use religion to “demand respect.” He doesn’t say, but it seems unlikely that if they were such, he would have dropped off their dinner invitation list long ago.

Blackburn didn’t have to put on the yarmulke at dinner, and was within his rights withholding his respect for the sabbath ritual, but to rule out the possibility that religious beliefs he considers false can directly contribute to a humane, compassionate, thoughtful–in short respectable–life, seems to me terribly tone deaf.

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Z 03.11.08 at 5:22 pm

Russll Arben Fox #16. I respect too much your insights to risk being misunderstood by you. Literal belief of religious statement of facts, I can’t respect too much (in fact, at all), lest I’d fall in a complete solipsism, as they very much clearly contradict each other and are more often than not ludicrous. I mean, I am sure you don’t spend too much time carefully thinking about how long Ameratsu shut herself in a cave or whether it was Isaac or Ismaël that was supposed to be offered in sacrifice. I am sure you accept the symbolism of it all and concentrate on the moral teachings. Am I wrong?

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Jim Harrison 03.11.08 at 5:24 pm

Assuming that “respecting someone” isn’t itself a magical or sacramental act, what is the importance of the original question? Why should we worry about whose opinions we respect unless our respectfulness or lack of respectfulness is somehow helpful or otherwise valuable. In profane life, after all, as opposed to a seminar room, it is routine not have respect for people’s ideas about almost everything since most people don’t have a worthwhile understanding of anything and those who do have some understanding, have it about a very small range of topics since the default case for our kind is obviously ignorance and confusion (Urdummheit).

As far as I can see, the utility of not respecting religious belief lies in this: it is necessary to find some way to convey to the listeners who need to know that ordinary religious beliefs are not legitimate hypotheses about the nature of things or the basis of morality but gross and obvious superstitions irrelevant to any serious attempt to understand the world. Engaging popular theological notions is already an error, because such bits of nonsense don’t rise to the status of mistakes. Acting like the promoters of doctrines of vicarious atonement or eternal punishment or divine election are reasonable individuals is no way to get the chewing gum off your fingers. Of course, since the inmates in this particular madhouse are in charge of the place, it is prudent to dissemble or follow Aristotle’s ancient advice about regarding the others with light irony, but it remains necessary to devise ways to communicate with other reasonable people—or the reasonable parts of other people. Hence the value of disrespect.

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Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 5:35 pm

I’m having a hard time with Lindsey’s “You go, atheist!” position.

Unless confronted with faith – which is quite rare where I live – atheism simply isn’t a part of my life and makes no demands on me. It’s nice that I get automatic respect and all, but it’s like getting respect for not wearing antlers.

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lindsey 03.11.08 at 5:35 pm

(sorry for the long post…)

John M writes (#13): Another angle on this is to question the degree to which you can truly be said to respect a person if you allow them to continue to hold false beliefs without any attempt to correct that. Surely that puts you, the holder of knowledge, in a position of power (no matter how slight) over the person with the false belief? Isn’t it patronising to decide that some people are simply better off holding false beliefs and that you will not attempt to enlighten them? Can you have a relationship of equals in such a situation, and can there be real respect without that assumption of equality?

To be fair to this point, there’s a difference between engaging someone in their beliefs and doing everything in your power to change their minds. Admittedly, I, and many Christians, do try to persuade others to believe in God (because we believe that we hold a true belief, laugh all you want). In the same way, Harry at least, does engage with Christians (or at least me) about my beliefs, making it clear why he doesn’t believe, and genuinely interested in why I do. He’s not bothered if I don’t change my mind, but he does engage those beliefs (Harry you may want to say something about Kerry’s debate where he just ignored the question in the audience, which showed a disrespect to the audience member –sorry I’ve forgotten the story). So in that sense, engaging in each others beliefs through conversation is our way of both understanding and respecting each others beliefs, and I suppose in our way we are each trying to show each other why their belief is false. But that doesn’t amount to an outright campaign to change each other’s minds. I don’t think that you can both respect someone’s belief and ignore it (or merely tolerate it). Real respect, in my opinion, requires you to treat that belief as one that is worthy of both consideration and critique. If you didn’t respect it, you wouldn’t bother to critique it. Whether you care if the person actually changes her mind is not the same as treating her belief as something that is worthy to be evaluated (for both its merits and shortcomings).

Brian W (#15) says: (about Harry’s last paragraph)…Indeed, Lindsey’s entire response seems to turn on reading into Blackburn something that just isn’t there, at least in the quoted passage. Blackburn says he’s convinced that theists are false. Does this mean he’s concluded that theists must, in any interesting sense of must, be wrong? No, he’s just concluded that they are wrong.

Okay, on this point I will concede that perhaps I wasn’t reading Blackburn charitably, BUT that was how it came off to me (and I think, to Harry, though he can comment on that himself). The attitude seemed pervasive throughout the article, and it was easily recognizable in the sense that I’ve come across it all too often (not least among Christians). It’s the idea that I can’t respect you because you just are wrong, when in reality you don’t respect them because you think they are wrong. You may, as Harry said, be “very-close-to-certain” that you are right, but that’s quite different from being completely certain. Perhaps this has no effect on how we should evaluate each other’s beliefs per se, but having this sort of humility does enable the process of respect formation. Because I am aware that I could be wrong, I find it easier to engage with and appreciate your (opposing) beliefs. I think that a lack of this sort of humility is a block to respecting others. That doesn’t mean you and I can’t draw conclusions, even fairly close to certain conclusions (as we all do), but it does mean we have to at least approach opposing view points with a different sort of attitude. Maybe you don’t think that’s important, but I think it is precisely because I see humility as a key to respect. If I was completely convinced in my own infallibility, then I would not bother to even consider opposing beliefs, because it would be a non-question. And perhaps Blackburn doesn’t have this attitude, but after reading the article, he could’ve fooled me.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 5:36 pm

Matt (#21),

I’d insist that “respect” is a feeling towards something that implies an achievement of some sort….(“Respect” here might mean ‘not denigrate’ or “hold in esteem” or something like that. I’m using it exclusively in the latter sense- in the large majority of cases I don’t think we should denigrate people’s religious beliefs.)

Ok, this is helpful in grasping your argument. For “respect” you mean an appreciation of a (presumably active and/or conscious and/or difficult) accomplishment or achievement; an “inherited” or “accidental” belief therefore doesn’t qualify, because it doesn’t necessarily involve an effort that you can acknowledge as worthwhile. I can follow your point there, though I still see a problem–specifically, the fact that everything is going to be tied at least in part to culture and/or environment, somehow. (Someone comes to believe in political egalitarianism at least in part because of a poor person they became friends with; another person turns to atheism after being exposed to the horrors of war; yet another person embraces religious faith because of the example of schoolteacher; etc.) This is the point of bringing up Hume: what we think we can conclude (“achieve,” perhaps?) rationally is actually, for the most part, just inherited habitual assumptions. So anyway, if I take your point seriously, than doesn’t that mean you’re not sure if any belief or conviction–or any individual practice that follows from a belief, for that matter–whether political or moral or religious, can ever properly be deserving of “respect,” as you are using the term?

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Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 5:48 pm

Damon (#29),

Great to see you commenting here; thanks.

[A]ll human beings have had experiences of nobility or dignity—of being moved by a person or an act of sacrifice that makes us think that the person or act is HIGHER or NOBLER than other persons or acts….What is the ontological status of these pre-theoretical judgments, which all of us have made and make all the time? Do they respond to a fact about the world—namely that there are certain acts that are, in fact, intrinsically good in themselves? If so, what could this possibly mean? What is the ground of this dignity?

I appreciate you bringing some phenomenology into the thread. (As we’ve discussed before, and as some here might be interested to know, it appears to be basically this kind of phenomenological appreciation (perhaps, even, “respect”?) that is moving Habermas to reconsider religion as an important contributor to rational discussions in the public square.) I count myself as one of those who employ a theistic explanation to account for the dignity we attach to these “pre-theoretical judgments” (that is, I think there are facts about the created world–what Charles Taylor once called in a debate with William Connolly a “slant” to the way the world works–that our intuitions are often cognizant of). It seems to me that many philosophers, leary of going down Taylor’s route (and perhaps either unwilling or incapable of addressing them through neuroscience, as Collonlly in recent years has tried to do), attempt to elide this whole phenomonological aspect of human existence entirely, shunting it aside as some weird kind of existential question, as opposed to recognizing it as an issue which is central to the whole debate.

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enzo rossi 03.11.08 at 5:52 pm

You don’t need to maintain that religious beliefs are false to be able to subscribe to Blackburn’s position. It’s enough to maintain that they’re irrational.

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lindsey 03.11.08 at 5:53 pm

And to righteous bubba who says :I’m having a hard time with Lindsey’s “You go, atheist!” position…Unless confronted with faith – which is quite rare where I live – atheism simply isn’t a part of my life and makes no demands on me. It’s nice that I get automatic respect and all, but it’s like getting respect for not wearing antlers.

This made me laugh, though I’m not sure if that was your intention. You say you are glad to have automatic respect, but alas, you don’t. I will respect your atheism when you show me why you hold it and how you live by it. Many (militant) atheists forfeit their respect because they can’t be bothered to do just that (and the same goes for the more militant brands of fundamentalism, and I hate to say). Respect is not the default. It is earned. Someone asked why we should bother with respect at all. Well we do live in a pluralistic society. If you and I want to coexist, we have to figure out just how that’s going to work. We may, upon thoughtful collaboration, discover some surprising similarities and agree on some policies, etc. But this stage is hard to reach without the type of respect I’m getting at. Also, fwiw, the type of respect that Harry and I have for each other’s beliefs has, surprisingly, helped me navigate my own beliefs. Because I respect what (and how) he believes what he does, and because he respectfully engages my beliefs (not without pointing me to where he thinks I’ve got it wrong, mind you), I have a better sense of what I believe and why. My beliefs have a more solid foundation than before because his respect led me to further examine and reexamine what I believed. This could have resulted in me giving up my beliefs (and for those who care, it did result in my giving up my strange sort of political conservatism to embrace a more socialist-oriented outlook), but in the case of God he’s helped me strengthen it (not on purpose, I don’t think, and perhaps you’d see that as a disadvantage to respect, but of course it would be different for each person depending on just why they believe what they do and whether those reasons held up to further scrutiny). Again, my respect for Harry (and for his disbelief) has made me more responsible with my own beliefs, and that, I think, is an advantage of this type of respect.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 6:04 pm

Z (#33),

I appreciate you kind words, but I’m fear I’m going to have to disappoint you.

Literal belief of religious statement of facts, I can’t respect too much (in fact, at all), lest I’d fall in a complete solipsism, as they very much clearly contradict each other and are more often than not ludicrous.

First, you’re of course correct that many different religions’ takes on the “facts” about the world are contradictory; it would be bizarre if this wasn’t the case, as those religions teach different things about what God’s or the gods’ relationship to the world is, what He/She/It/They have done and/or are doing, and what we should do to get right with He/She/It/Them. But I don’t see how that’s an invitation to solipsism; it’s an invitation, if you’re a believer, to choice. (I choose not to believe that Hare Krishna will save you; I do not think it is a correct religion. Note that I can still appreciate and learn from and be bettered by and therefore “respect” Hare Krishnas, using the term here in a somewhat broader way that Matt does above.)

Second, are they really all ludicrous? Equally? That all religions worth being called such are at least minimally ludicrous is a given; they involve the supernatural, those things beyond (but, as Harry says, not necessarily excluded by!) the “straightforward canons of rationality.” That’s why they say it involves faith. But I think it also involves some acknowledgement of those “pre-theoretical judgments” that Damon mentioned above, and some religions, I think (but again, of course, I’m biased in this regard) do fewer and less “ludicrous” things with those judgments than others, and that isn’t always irrelevant to choosing between them.

I mean, I am sure you don’t spend too much time carefully thinking about how long Ameratsu shut herself in a cave or whether it was Isaac or Ismaël that was supposed to be offered in sacrifice. I am sure you accept the symbolism of it all and concentrate on the moral teachings. Am I wrong?

Um, I’m afraid so. I actually treat a great many of the claims made by my own religious choice as involving metaphorical and/or symbolic matters, probably more so than some of my ecclesiastical supervisors might appreciate. But, well, when I talk to my kids about the Book of Mormon, or teach Sunday School about it, I’m treat a lot of it as more or less straightforward facts. God and Jesus appearing in a grove of trees, ancient records inscribed on metal plates, the whole nine yards (or at least seven of them). Sorry.

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Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 6:09 pm

I actually treat a great many of the claims made by my own religious choice as involving metaphorical and/or symbolic matters, probably more so than some of my ecclesiastical supervisors might appreciate. But, well, when I talk to my kids about the Book of Mormon, or teach Sunday School about it, I’m treat a lot of it as more or less straightforward facts. God and Jesus appearing in a grove of trees, ancient records inscribed on metal plates, the whole nine yards (or at least seven of them).

Why two positions?

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Matt 03.11.08 at 6:18 pm

Russell- of course all of our beliefs are tied back to basic belief that we accept as “bedrock”, to use Wittgenstein’s term. We (mostly) just accept those- it’s necessary to do any reasoning at all. But, surely we don’t “respect” those beliefs in others, we would merely find them crazy or unintelligable if they didn’t have them. But also, surely religious belief isn’t like this- it’s open to evaluation in a way that “basic” beliefs are not. (I know some philosophers want to claim that belief in God is “basic” in a somewhat similar way but I find those arguments very week, and don’t think they show much about particular religious beliefs anyway.) Even for beliefs that we ourselves endorse, does it not seem funny to “respect” others for holding them or respect their being held if they are held for bad reasons? We can be _pleased_ that someone is an egalitarian even if this is because they lived next to poor people, but it seems awfully funny to me to _respect_ them for holding that belief. So I guess I’ll just insist that in order for it to make sense to respect someone for holding a belief, or to respect their beliefs, the beliefs must be be caused in the right way. Many, perhaps most, religious beliefs don’t seem to fit here to me, though this applies to many other sorts of belief, as I’ve said.

Next, of course there’s a sense in which the types of evaluative standards we can use depends on our cultural history- it would be funny to hold people who have not developed science to the scientific standards in deciding whether their beliefs warrented respect, we might think. But this doesn’t mean that our standards are not good ones or that it’s not reasonable to apply them. I don’t think Hume’s valid points here help the believer at all. (He’d find it funny to think so, surely, since he thought religious belief was both open to rational criticism and deserving of it.) So, I don’t think your final point applies- when someone holds a particular belief for good reasons, where these are determined by our best standards, that belief is worthy of respect, even if we disagree with it. Lots of beliefs are held for such reasons, and not just by philosophers. It’s anti-intellectualism to think otherwise.

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Elliot Lake 03.11.08 at 6:45 pm

It sounds like much of this lack of respect, on either side, is lack of respect because the other does not reinforce the person’s own set of beliefs.

While there are many things I might disagree with/disbelieve in/know to be baloney about someone else’s beliefs, if I also know they are moral, kind, sincere people, I respect them in those areas and leave their beliefs to them.

Respect includes paying attention to boundaries, and as long as they are not damaging others with their beliefs, the sum of their behavior is more important to me than the parts.

I know kind & unkind atheists, kind & unkind Christians, and I will take kind and sincere every time, over self-important, imperious behavior from anyone. They do not have to agree with my beliefs for mine to be valid as beliefs, nor do I have to agree with theirs. The idea that we have to endlessly wish to change their minds sounds defensive (and offensive). Crusades, anyone?

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Rowz 03.11.08 at 6:45 pm

“Of course, if I believe, as I do with some conservatives and libertarians, that their beliefs are really rationalization of self-interest, I do not respect them, or their holding of their beliefs, at all.”

Why are progressives so frequently worried about this possibility? My political beliefs are not really an instrumental good; I will never have any appreciable influence on the political process, so why should I jerry-rig my beliefs as if they were?

For my part, I have no problem assuming that progressive beliefs are always held in good faith.

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geo 03.11.08 at 7:05 pm

#29: Except for radical utilitarians and sociopaths (not necessarily the same thing!), all human beings have had experiences of nobility or dignity—of being moved by a person or an act of sacrifice that makes us think that the person or act is HIGHER or NOBLER than other persons or acts.

Damon, this is rather shocking. Hume, Bentham, Mill, William James, Dewey, Rorty, Peter Singer, and Kai Nielsen would probably all have called themselves “radical utilitarians” — unless you’re using the term in a rather shrunken, highly academic sense.

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Matthew Kuzma 03.11.08 at 7:21 pm

I think you and Blackburn are arguing past one another in a sense, because he predicates his statement on the condition “But once we are convinced that a belief is false,” whereas you seem to constrain your own discussion only to those religious beliefs that are not demonstrably false, but merely require faith as justification. I suppose you are directly contending with his “or even just that it is irrational,” clause, but even there I find some trouble. You seem to imply that there are virtuous reasons to believe something that has no rational justification, but I’ve never seen one, nor do you explicitly state any examples.

So to the extent that I assess a religious belief to be false, I agree with Blackburn. This is true of things like disbelief in evolution, the belief that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS, or the belief that women are beholden or inferior to men. I can’t imagine a virtuous reason for holding an irrational belief, but I agree with you that to the extent that they exist, they are worthy of respect.

Finally, I wonder about your claim that a belief in gods “is not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality,”. Isn’t one of the canons of rationality that we shouldn’t believe that which is unsupported by any evidence? Could you respect someone who genuinely believed they had been abducted by aliens, or that they were made of clay brought to life by a magic spell? You can’t disprove these things readily, so is it enough for you that a person holds their beliefs sincerely and that they stand up to your cursory inspection?

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abb1 03.11.08 at 7:23 pm

Matt is correct, of course. The set of your beliefs is a product of your environment; you have about as much control over it as you do over the color of your eyes. You are what you are, it’s silly to respect or disrespect people for their eye-color or shoe size or their beliefs.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 7:26 pm

Righteous Bubba (#43),

Why two positions?

Um…I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you taking from my comment that there is the way that I understand my own beliefs, and then there is a way I explain them to my children or in a Sunday School class? I didn’t mean to suggest that I take qualitatively different positions at those different times; I was just acknowledging that that sometimes I dwell upon what I believe in a moral/symbolic mode, and sometimes upon what I accept in a more literal vein. Different audiences, different contexts. Is that not what you were getting at? Because if not, I’m sorry, but you kind of lost me there.

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Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 7:28 pm

I didn’t mean to suggest that I take qualitatively different positions at those different times

That’s what I read or misread.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 7:37 pm

Matt (#44),

I’ll just insist that in order for it to make sense to respect someone for holding a belief, or to respect their beliefs, the beliefs must be be caused in the right way.

I think I understand you, but it may be that we’re going to continue to talk past each other a little bit. It would seem to me that even under your terms, one could speak of a certain belief being “respectful” if it was achieved/accomplished in the face of opposition, hostility, an absence of support, etc. That is, I can admire–“respect,” maybe?–the religious faith of a Scientologist (who are, if I may make my honest prejudices known, a bunch of nutcases) who may have endured all sorts of discrimination and abuse will their faith intact. Causation–a question of sources–would have nothing to do with it. Or then again…maybe what I’m respecting there is some virtue of courage or conviction that their religious faith contributed to, but not the faith itself? You make me wonder. I’m going to have to think about this more, but I still suspect that your invocation of respect as a feeling properly tied only to beliefs that are achieved or caused “in the right way” leads us back to bedrock, to formal reasoning–to something that has been evaluated, without cultural influences, in a rational way. And I’m just not sure what kind of belief would really qualify under those criteria.

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spencer 03.11.08 at 7:41 pm

Nor is there any logical space between believing in atheism, and believing that your belief in atheism is correct.

There’s no such thing as “belief in atheism.” Atheism is a lack of belief. I don’t believe in gods. Therefore I am an atheist.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one to many of us atheists.

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roger 03.11.08 at 7:48 pm

Blackburn’s point may be a strand in the motivation one sees among some atheists to do missionary work. I’ve always found that curious – the idea that not only is there no God, but I must convert people to the idea that there is no God.

If you think that belief in God is different than the belief that certain facts are true – if you take it that this belief is integrated into the way some people are – then I think the conversion impulse, at least on the part of someone who is an atheist or at least a non-believer in a personal god, is stifled. While there are derivative beliefs that a person might have from his or her God belief that I’d argue about and try to convert that person away from, I’d distinguish that from the central God belief. There is a core of truth in the notion that it isn’t good “manners” to talk about religion. That truth is that one has to be careful about trying to change a person’s fundamental beliefs.

This is what I like about old fashioned atheism – the non-missionary kind. It had a nice asymmetry to the conversion religions – well, massively in the U.S., Christianity. Christianity shows little respect at all for anyone’s fundamental beliefs outside of Christianity. Instead, the Good News was very much like News – intrusive, aiming to get inside people and colonize their thoughts. It succeeded, brilliantly. Non-missionary atheism, on the other hand, was never going to be socially successful.

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Matt 03.11.08 at 7:54 pm

Russell- I don’t think (and don’t think I said) that one must face oppistion and overcome it in one’s beliefs for them to be worthy of respect. Rather, one must have come to them in the right way- via rational reflection and consideration. So, if I believe that we should care for the poor because “that’s the way I was brought up” or because my folks thought so that’s certainly a good thing and I’m glad it’s so. But, it would seem very funny to _respect_ the belief (or rather, the person holding it for holding it), don’t you think? It could have just was well been the other way. But, _even if the original cause_ of my having this belief is the same, if I subject it to rational criticism, consider what other’s believe, think about weaknesses in my position, and so on, and come to the conclusion that this position is the best supported one (or no less supported, even) then it might be reasonable to respect me for holding it. This would be so even if no one opposed me or threatend me- that’s not at all part of the issue. (I think there might have been confusion based on my talk of “achievement” before, but that was only in reference as to why we might respect a culture). Anyway, I worry that you think that if we don’t respect believers for their beliefs we must disrespect them or dispairage them, and that’s not so- we can accept their beliefs and tolerate them and be glad for a lot of different ways to live without thinking the beliefs are worthy of respect.

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Brock 03.11.08 at 8:15 pm

The set of your beliefs is a product of your environment; you have about as much control over it as you do over the color of your eyes. You are what you are, it’s silly to respect or disrespect people for their eye-color or shoe size or their beliefs.

People’s beliefs are directly under their control, but people’s belief-forming processes certainly are.

I can choose to acquire beliefs about the origins of human life on this planet by studying science, or by uncritically accepting ancient mythologies.

If I knew someone who actually believed in the existence of God on the basis of evidence, that’s a belief I can respect. The diversity of life on earth was some evidence for the existence of a God, until Darwin and others came up with a better explanation. Of course, I think any such evidence was/is misleading. If I didn’t, I would abandon my atheism.

And I can respect philosophers who have believed in God based on subtle but fallacious philosophical arguments. (Not so much now that the fallacies have been explained, but historically.)

But belief in something that you’ve been raised to believe, just because one is too intellectually lazy or timid to consider the alternative? That’s not a belief I’m willing to respect.

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voyou 03.11.08 at 8:35 pm

brock: I can choose to acquire beliefs about the origins of human life on this planet by studying science, or by uncritically accepting ancient mythologies.

This seems to sum up the disagreement between Harry and Blackburn. I doubt anyone respects people for “uncritically accepting ancient mythologies”; including religious people, who I doubt thick of themselves that way. And it seems to me pretty debatable as to whether that is what is actually going on in religious belief. Describing religious belief, without any serious engagement with what believers actually believe, as “uncritical” is tendentious.

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abb1 03.11.08 at 8:39 pm

No, Brock, you don’t acquire beliefs by studying, you acquire information. Studying may, indeed, change your beliefs, but it wouldn’t be intentional; you still have no control over it, it’s not a deliberate act.

You can study atheism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism and then you might (though unlikely) end up believing something you didn’t believe before, but, again, obviously it’s not because you’ve chosen to, it’s just something that happened to you.

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Richard 03.11.08 at 8:55 pm

Surely this assumes that you can always reliably intuit someone’s grounds for holding a particular belief; I’m not sure how you can be especially sure that any given belief is a product of careful deliberation. The advantage of Blackburn’s thesis is that it doesn’t depend on having some form of window into men’s souls.

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Patrick 03.11.08 at 8:57 pm

No, a summary of the disagreement between Blackburn and Harry would be “Harry doesn’t believe religion is false in the same sense that Blackburn does. For Blackburn, the truth or falsity of religious claims is of the same character as the truth or falsity of any other claim. For Harry, religious truth values are softly bracketed.

Harry in no way disagrees with Blackburn’s rule, just its application in this context.”

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Jim Harrison 03.11.08 at 9:00 pm

Believers and their defenders are in much the same position as fellow-travelers in the 30s. For various reasons, most of them neurotic, they want to express solidarity with members of a social movement that is despotic and highly irrational. Just as leftist intellectuals came up with extremely complicated, allegorical versions of Marxist-Leninism in order to defend the indefensible, apologists for modern Christianity, Judaism, and Islam pretend that their elaborate intellectual constructions have some analogy with what actual believers believe. And just as radical political operatives had nothing but contempt for the useful idiots they exploited, the rank and file of the big religions have no real use for the religion of the intellectuals. No red meat there.

Not a new story. St. Augustine sounds an awful lot like an Arthur Koestler character as he stands on his head to assert that his philosophical ideas had some similarity to the gross superstitions of his saintly mother, superstitions which, from a sheerly statistical point of view, are surely close to the central tendencies of Christian faith.

People don’t usually lose their faith because they are convinced by new evidence or arguments. They simply arrive at a point in their lives where they no longer feel the need to go exerting the huge amount of effort it requires to claim that anvils float. Whatever else it is, atheism isn’t much of an accomplishment.

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abb1 03.11.08 at 9:17 pm

…belief in God is different than the belief that certain facts are true…

This reminds me of an exchange from some Soviet novel (“village prose” kind) circa 1960s. It goes something like this:
A: there’s no God.
B: how do you know?
A: why, Gagarin flew in a spaceship, orbited the earth, didn’t see any gods out there.
B: ah, but have you ever seen Gagarin?

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Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 9:29 pm

Whatever else it is, atheism isn’t much of an accomplishment.

Depends on the circumstances. For some people it’s a death sentence, for me it’s nearly irrelevant.

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Martin James 03.11.08 at 9:46 pm

Simon Blackburn states he “deplores the features of humanity…”.

It seems irrational to deplore a fact. Values and emotions and morals and dignity and free will are all so obviously irrational that it hardly seems worth the time to try to separate the cases.

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Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 10:20 pm

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Martin James 03.11.08 at 10:35 pm

Righteous B.

I scanned the first 20 hits. I’ll turn up the rhetoric.

It seems irrational to deplore a fact. Values and emotions and morals and dignity and free will are all so obviously irrational that it doesn’t at all seem worth the time to try to separate the cases.

Blackburn gets so very close to taking himself ironically, but just can’t quite do it. His ability to deplore is so sincere, so convincing, so undeniable, that he must write against those deplorable humans with all their “cheating” land and respect grabbing existential poses.

He’s so deplorably beautiful! He’d approach the sublime if he could just add a little Tammy Wynette “Stand by your Humanity” to his grief at those cheating religious hearts.

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Brock 03.11.08 at 10:41 pm

I doubt anyone respects people for “uncritically accepting ancient mythologies”; including religious people, who I doubt thick of themselves that way. And it seems to me pretty debatable as to whether that is what is actually going on in religious belief. Describing religious belief, without any serious engagement with what believers actually believe, as “uncritical” is tendentious.

You obviously were not brought up as a Southern Baptist. I was, and I speak from experience when I say that “uncritical” is being generous to 99% of them.

No, Brock, you don’t acquire beliefs by studying, you acquire information. Studying may, indeed, change your beliefs, but it wouldn’t be intentional; you still have no control over it, it’s not a deliberate act.

The fact that beliefs are not directly chosen doesn’t make them automatically immune to being the sort of thing worthy or unworthy of respect. It’s the process of belief-formation that makes them worthy or unworthy of respect.

Or, if you prefer, it’s the process of belief-formation itself that’s worthy or unworthy of respect, and certain beliefs (e.g. astrology, creationism) are evidence that the believer’s process of belief formation is not worthy of respect, in the way that lots of traffic tickets are evidence that someone is a poor driver.

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John Quiggin 03.11.08 at 10:50 pm

Roger at #55 has already said much the same thing, but I’ll have a go as well. It seems to me that “respecting religious belief” here does not mean “admire” but “respect the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they do”. As the song has it “You go to your church, I’ll go to mine.”

This obviously entails legal toleration of “all beliefs and none” but goes beyond that to imply that vigorous attempts at conversion are a bad thing, particularly if they take the form of attacks on the current beliefs of the hoped-for convert.

Long experience suggests that this is a sensible view in relation to religion.

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dsquared 03.11.08 at 11:04 pm

this looks to me awfully like another example of those who reject (or never read) Keynes on the distinction between degree of belief and weight of evidence being condemned to reinvent him. (And if you take a non-question-begging approach to what might constitute evidence, then it’s not at all obvious to me that the atheists have it anything like as much all their own way as they think they do).

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Crystal 03.11.08 at 11:45 pm

Roger #55 and John #69: I agree. I’m a proponent both of freedom of and freedom from religion. Unless someone is actively trying to curtail my personal freedom (as in legislation), or getting up in my grill (“you believe X? you are wrong, and a poopyhead to boot) it’s none of my business what others believe or don’t believe.

Or, simply put: “don’t be an asshole.” What a better world we’d live in if everyone followed that little belief.

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seth edenbaum 03.11.08 at 11:49 pm

This entire discussion is about doctrine. I can’t even begin to count the number of arguments on this site that have originated in little more than subjectivity, assumption and blind faith, and most people here are trying only to replace one foundation with another. There have been village atheists for as long as there have been village priests, and the village atheist will say quite correctly that life is eating, fucking, shitting, and dying, and that the point is to enjoy what you can while you’re here. There is no purpose and no telos, and the scientists’ grand and endless search for facts, hyperbolically referred to as “truth,” is silly. Platonism is still the most common faith of so called secular science. And of course the people involved in it are more interested in the adventure, intellectual or otherwise than in he social aspect or actually helping people. Big science is largely self-justifying pyrotechnics. Water treatment plants and general medicine are not glamorous.
Everyone wants to believe that their metier will have some great moral purpose. By and large it won’t. Being an atheist isn’t trying to find something else to believe in, as grand and glorious as you old religion was supposed to be.
To want the grand and glorious is to miss the point.

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Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 12:01 am

There is no purpose and no telos, and the scientists’ grand and endless search for facts, hyperbolically referred to as “truth,” is silly.

Please continue typing on your magical thinking machine.

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Francis 03.12.08 at 12:16 am

Water treatment plants aren’t glorious? Speak for yourself, sport; I think they’re fascinating. (Sewage plants even more so — it’s amazing how little smell they have.)

The US alone has a population of 300 million people and waterborne diseases are virtually exterminated! When in this history of humanity have so many worried so little about something so important?

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 12:17 am

Well actually bubba if you think of the computer in terms of telos, then you’re the one indulging in magical thinking.
To me it’s just a tool: a faster ball point pen and a faster post office. It’s nice, but not meaningful in itself unless I choose to fictionalize it as such.

can you hear now?

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roger 03.12.08 at 12:41 am

Crystal, I like the motto, dont be an asshole. But you need to turn it into Latin to make it more resplendent!

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 12:46 am

“The US alone has a population of 300 million people and waterborne diseases are virtually exterminated!”
And enlightened reason says we should spend money on water treatment plants around the world, to the point of cutting finding for super-colliders, space exploration, high-tech gadgetry, and diseases that kill only a few thousand people a year. But political and economic realism says otherwise.
So is the short-sightedness of humanity an absolute truth or merely a temporal one?

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harold 03.12.08 at 1:19 am

“I know too much to be a skeptic and too little to be a dogmatist” –Pierre Bayle (1847–1706)

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Francis 03.12.08 at 1:24 am

hey, my job is to help various groups of Southern Californians have safe, affordable and reliable sources of potable water. They pay me; I provide legal advice. Requesting God’s help get perchlorate out of groundwater that’s 400+ feet below ground level is unlikely to satisfy either the State Bar or the clients. Building brand-new water treatment plants with sexy new technology, by contrast, will do both.

Oddly enough, my faith (or, more accurately, complete lack thereof) plays no role whatsoever in developing legal, engineering and political solutions to difficult water contamination problems.

You were the one who said that water treatment plants aren’t glamorous. Maybe so, but living without them substantially reduces aggregate societal glamour. So let’s split the difference and recognize that, by reducing diarrhea and infant mortality among other things, water treatment plants contribute to glamour.

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Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 1:29 am

Well actually bubba if you think of the computer in terms of telos, then you’re the one indulging in magical thinking.

I don’t. Please fire more electrons at me regardless of what those silly scientists with their facts say.

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Stephen 03.12.08 at 2:08 am

Here’s another reason to respect people of faith: diversity is a social good.

No doubt there is a limit beyond which we should not be tolerant of difference. But inside of that limit, I think it would be a very bad thing if everyone thought the same way as everyone else.

It would make the world far less interesting — in itself, a very regrettable result. But more significantly, it might also lead to an intellectual equivalent of inbreeding. It would become very difficult to break through to new intellectual paradigms, if everyone’s thoughts mirrored everyone else’s. On this topic or any other.

Therefore, even if I think atheists are wrong (I am a Christian), I am grateful that they have a perspective different than mine on the world and our place in it.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 2:47 am

I’m not defending glamour, I’m describing why public health is not considered glamourous even by the majority of proudly rationalist pedants. And sanitation? In the US? Did you know that in NY until it was made into a scandal by of all things a feminist orthodox jewish performance artist the sanitation workers in NYC got their desks and lockers as hand-me-downs from the Police and fire department? The trashmen were given the trash! Literally. Fascinating stuff. One of her performances involved shaking the hand of every garbageman in NY, and they loved her for it. She showed them respect, and that doesn’t happen very often. After all they’re trash-men!

And blubba, unlike you and most others here (I’d bet) I’m a third generation atheist. And speaking of electrons my grandfather invented that little round thermostat you’ve lived with in your various homes throughout your life. He sold to to “old man Honeywell” back in Minneapolis, because marketing bored him, and he wasn’t greedy. But he also wasn’t poor. He had 20 patents and owned a small phone company. Look inside that thermostat and think phones circa 1953 and you’ll understand, unless you’re even more dull than I think you are. But maybe somebody give you a dictionary so you can look up “telos.” It’s the difference between technology and Fordism. Im sorry son, but the answer to the question “why are we going faster?” is not “because we’re going faster!” Next up I’ll be going into my “why sheetrock sucks and plaster doesn’t” routine. But since your name’s bubba you should know that already. But maybe since this is america all you know is sheetock… and McDonalds.
I’m sorry for you son, rilly I am. Maybe it’s because of those three generations: my family got over seeing atheism as the magic bullet long ago. True believers will always find something to worship, even if its only themselves.

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Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 3:16 am

I’m sorry for you son, rilly I am.

I’m pleased to gain sympathy from the person I’ve gathered is the CT clown, and I’m happy your relatives have done something worthwhile.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 4:23 am

In discussions of dogma the religiously inclined are among the only defenders of the definition of language as the creation of community and not of individuals. There are secularists who would make the same argument, but they usually avoid these sorts of debate. The secularists who fight with believers are knee-jerk individualists. I will respect the faithful more than those who debate them (at this level of abstraction) because regardless of their metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, their observations about the processes of culture, community and language production are empirically sound. The individualists’ arguments are based on faith.
“I’m free! I’m free!”
No, you’re not. You’re utterly predictable.

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bad Jim 03.12.08 at 8:29 am

D² has me at a loss, as usual. The utter absence of evidence for supernatural phenomena doesn’t suggest to me that there might be something out there that we aren’t taking into account.

As a practical matter, I rarely engage other people in theological discussions. I know two Episcopalian ministers slightly. One started a homeless shelter in my town and I run into him occasionally at fundraising events and elsewhere. The other presided over my sister’s first wedding, one of his daughters is always at the opening of a new exhibit at our art museum, and her sister is my brother’s girlfriend.

It would be about as reasonable to discusss God with them as it would be to explore homosexuality with my mother’s accountant: an invasion of privacy, a crossing of boundaries. What has art or money to do with God or sex?

My late sister-in-law once asserted, to my dismay, that biblical inerrancy was not batshit looniness. I loved her so much that I didn’t contest the issue.

Respect, I think, is something we owe to the boundaries of social intercourse rather than each other’s conduct or beliefs.

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dsquared 03.12.08 at 10:50 am

The utter absence of evidence for supernatural phenomena

What would you say to someone who had had a direct divine experience? There are a lot of them about. (Of course, what one would say as a materialist would be that this sort of subjective evidence doesn’t count because it can’t be objectively measured. But by this point it is pretty clear that the deck is stacked).

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Steve LaBonne 03.12.08 at 12:37 pm

Deck is stacked? I suppose that’s one (not very apt) way to put it. In Bayesian terms, damn straight my prior for “divine experience” is one hell of a lot lower than it is for “hallucination”. The latter are, you know, quite common. (And often have readily identifiable physical causes, by the way.)

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Z 03.12.08 at 12:54 pm

What would you say to someone who had had a direct divine experience?

I would tell him that though I don’t doubt he had this experience, in order for evidences to be acceptable to me, I should be able to replicate them, or at least that some referee we both trust should be able to replicate them, and that I am sure he has the same conduct towards evidence in 99% of cases. I would add, as I in fact did when talking to a good friend of mine who had a divine experience, that whatever she learned during this experience, she has a moral obligation to communicate in a way that is accessible to those who didn’t. And if that person was a good friend and a reasonable person, I would conclude by suggesting we both have a look at the descriptions of conscience-altering experiences induced by drugs, adrenaline, sleep or oxygen deprivation and other similar techniques, in order to see if his experience might somehow fit the description.

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abb1 03.12.08 at 1:35 pm

If I happened to believe in gods and angels, there would be no way you could logically prove me wrong, is there?

Therefore, this is a matter of judgment. And, of course, one of my (and everyone else’s) beliefs is that my judgment is sound.

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nitpicker 03.12.08 at 1:41 pm

As someone who came to faith after spending a long time as an atheist–and an insufferable, rude one at that–I feel that having lacked a belief in God myself allows me to understand atheists better. I know that no amount of conversation will lead to conversion because one cannot choose to believe something they find false. So I don’t argue faith and I respect the traditions of others when they do not conflict meaningfully with my own. What is the cost of “put(ting) on a hat, or some such” to show respect not to a faith, but to the friend who believes in it?

And, when members of my own faith begin to act judgmentally, I remind them of one of the several passages of the Bible I have memorized for such an occasion. “Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12)

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engels 03.12.08 at 1:41 pm

Noone has ever had a direct divine experience, although a lot of people claim to have had one, in some cases sincerely…

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engels 03.12.08 at 1:50 pm

“I’m free! I’m free!”
No, you’re not. You’re utterly predictable.

So tell me — what am I going to eat for lunch?

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abb1 03.12.08 at 1:59 pm

Fish n chips?

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engels 03.12.08 at 2:26 pm

Also, I probably agree that ´militant atheism´, like other forms of militancy, could be a worrying development. But I must have missed the news reports of Richard Dawkins smashing shop windows, Colin McGinn throwing stones at police, etc, etc…

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John M 03.12.08 at 3:13 pm

“What would you say to someone who had had a direct divine experience? “

Well first of all you’d want to know a little bit more about what he meant by ‘divine experience’, but if it just meant a feeling of the numinous when listening to Bach, or a vision of an unearthly creature, or any of the usual sort of thing like that, I’d say there were other, more parsimonious ways of explaining the phenomenon without having to posit the existence of an all-knowing immaterial super-being who had created the world, and ask him why, therefore, we should prefer his explaination.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 3:39 pm

abb you’re like swiss clockwork. And how many others have said that by now?
Engels, you’re not far behind. The history of militant atheism covers the last century and much of its violence. Stalin was an atheist and so am I. I think our differences outweigh our similarities, but you may disagree.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 3:43 pm

The history of religion is the history of “divine experience” socialized, ritualized, and told as story. Religion itself is the story not the experience itself. Revelation is the McGuffin. Individualized religious experience is problematic.
Talk to Hobbes.

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JimV 03.12.08 at 4:04 pm

After being sent to church twice a week until college, I have met one person (Ron) who claims to have had a divine experience. God appeared to Ron one night, and temporarily gave him an IQ of 10,000 so that he could follow a debate which God then had with the Devil, proving that every word of the Bible is true.

I have very gently expressed the opinion that the brain is a physical organ, and like other organs, is unfortunately subject to maladies which disturb its functions. Ron will not consider this as a possible explanation, although it turns out he has been diagnosed as bi-polar.

See “Littleton’s Law of Miracles” for an explanation of the other sort of evidence that is commonly claimed for divine experiences.

I like Ron a lot, despite the aching knee joints I get from long discussions with him when we encounter each other on street corners, but I don’t respect his beliefs, nor those of any of the other religious people I know (most of whom are better people than I am). I remain open to the possibility that there may be respectable beliefs among the many religious people whom I do not know, or for that matter that there may turn out to be a god or gods after all. If there are, however, I must assume they have some good reason for leaving their existence ambiguous as it should be easy for them to prove their existence if they wanted to (simultaneous press conferences in every city in the world, for example).

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John M 03.12.08 at 4:38 pm

“The history of militant atheism covers the last century and much of its violence.”

Don’t be daft. There may have been cases of ‘militant atheism’ but I find it hard to think of many. In any case, the idea that Dawkins and company are ‘militant atheists’ when their militancy is restricted to writing books and talking, is absurd. By the sme token JK Rowling would be a ‘militant fabulist’.

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mds 03.12.08 at 4:43 pm

I don’t. Please fire more electrons at me regardless of what those silly scientists with their facts say.

Indeed. And the electrons travel regardless of whether Mr. edenbaum believes that their existence qualifies as “truth” or not. Which some of us consider a significant factor in judging the truthiness of scientific facts.

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Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 4:49 pm

Now now, mds, you may be required to look “telos” up as opposed to “non sequitur” and seth’s dad can beat up your dad.

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abb1 03.12.08 at 5:48 pm

In any case, the idea that Dawkins and company are ‘militant atheists’ when their militancy is restricted to writing books and talking, is absurd.

Their militancy is restricted to writing books because they have no power, just like militancy of the neocons was restricted to writing letters, magazine articles and websites before 2001. Had they had power, I’m sure they would’ve given Supreme Leader Khomeini a good run for his money.

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abb1 03.12.08 at 5:50 pm

…because they know The Truth, you see, and they know what’s good for you.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 5:55 pm

I suppose it would be an arcane point, but (again) facts are mundane. Truths even at their simplest are mundanities compounded with values. The struggle for “objectivity” is the attempt to separate facts from values.

A months or so ago I scanned through a PBS doc on space exploration that followed the Cassini mission and the Huygens probe. After the landing on Titan one of the project managers, describing her near ecstasy as the data began coming in referred to her relation to Titan as akin to love. This was said seemingly without self-consciousness or irony.
The rocks on Titan are facts. The landing didn’t change them atomically or Platonically. The desire for them or for knowledge about them, and all the psychological baggage that accrues to the process, are something else entirely. I was more fascinated by the woman’s wide-eyed and childlike expression than by the rocks. That interest is what defines me as a humanist: an awareness of the difference between a first order and second order awareness, or first order and second order curiosity.

I used to be surprised to encounter adults incapable of even high school level introspection, but the logic of geekdom is preadolescent. Historians will look back at our age in wonder.

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Roy Belmont 03.12.08 at 6:45 pm

Honest self-introspective historians look back at every age with wonder.
Facts are the elephant’s body parts under the hands of the blind wise men. They have to be, they’re mere pieces, not entireties. “Truth” separated from its context has to be partial. In context it’s part of the totality. All else is incomplete and inherently “untrue” by virtue of being incomplete, separated for purposes of examination.
There’s a Xenic aspect to the accumulation of facts toward the whole, because it’s infinite you can’t get all the way there without a categorical leap, an infinite one. This is why current theories of theoretical physics and astrophysics start sounding like religious speculation and myth. Multiple dimensions, other worlds, simultaneous temporal non-linearity, states of being counter-intuitive to mundane thought. Religion and science as practiced today are carrying shards of a greater truth that refutes them both.
Dawkins and Co. seem militant because they dare to violate the smug complacency of organized religion. They challenge the thuggish dominant squat of religious power on the face of the body politic.
Said challenging has to perforce be done militantly, because there are lots and lots of rabidly delusional defenders of the faith(s) out there, not all of them even semi-rational. One imagines Dawkins as at least the target if not the direct recipient of some very bizarre and threatening hate messages from the darker sub-levels of Judeo-Christianity’s current architecture.
Which is where respect and tolerance comes in. Also the idea that progress is some kind of linear inevitability, rather than a burst of profusion, means enlightened atheists are free to disavow the massive presence of religious scholarship that preceded them. But if you look at it in that linear way you can transpose the same process, project it forward, and out of these constrictive puritanical idiocies and bogus world-views could come another Enlightenment, whose force and trajectory are directly caused by that constrictive pressure.
The benefits of the quantitative gathering of facts that leads to understanding and application, to technology, fall on human beings who aren’t shaped by those facts but by the murkier, wetter conditions of their social contexts. Better men may rise from the coming Dark Age, who wouldn’t have otherwise. Who couldn’t have.
Out of the chaos and awful confusions of revolution, etc…

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abb1 03.12.08 at 7:10 pm

Said challenging has to perforce be done militantly, because there are lots and lots of rabidly delusional defenders of the faith(s) out there, not all of them even semi-rational.

Yes, but for every one of those rabidly delusional folks there’s probably a couple of dozen of mostly rational church-goers; I’m sure you know many of them. The problem with militancy that it doesn’t know where to stop, it’s on the mission, it wants purity.

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seth edenbaum 03.12.08 at 8:05 pm

I’ll ask one more time: In Turkey, who are more delusional, and less modern, the secularists or the Islamists?.
Answer: The secularists.

Empiricism, dig it.

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ScentOfViolets 03.13.08 at 12:35 am

Suppose instead of asking someone how they know that they have had a mystical ‘religious’ experience instead of a mundane hallucination we turn it around: What would an atheist consider evidence of God’s existence?

In particular, I disagree with this:

If there are, however, I must assume they have some good reason for leaving their existence ambiguous as it should be easy for them to prove their existence if they wanted to (simultaneous press conferences in every city in the world, for example).

In fact, I think that divine beings would have a hard time proving that they were divine, rather than possessing extremely advanced technology. It seems that things like time travel, the creation of life, the ability to heal even grievous wounds are now considered staples of sf, not the provinces of gods.

Can anyone think of a test that would rule out the former possibility?

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Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 12:50 am

Can anyone think of a test that would rule out the former possibility?

A verifiable trip to hell to visit Richard Nixon ( or dear old dad/mom/whoever you know) might be one.

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ScentOfViolets 03.13.08 at 1:15 am

Really? Assuming you’re not being facetious, how would you rule out advanced virtual reality technology, to name but one possibility?

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Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 1:24 am

Half-facetious. When I hear dear old dad moan out his crimes I’ll know it’s him.

Anyone who has that kind of advanced virtual reality technology – playing the trick on me in plain sight of others – might as well be a god anyway.

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ScentOfViolets 03.13.08 at 1:48 am

Or maybe you only think it’s in plain sight of others. Maybe your memories have been edited.

But stick with your scenario. That sounds like a holodeck episode in Star Trek TNG. I’d hardly call the characters ‘godlike’.

But would that really constitute proof for you? Or would you demand something more than extreme prowess at the technical arts? I can’t articulate this very well, but it seems there must be more to the god trade than complete and absolute mastery of the environment. Would you say this is a category error?

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Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 4:14 am

Or maybe you only think it’s in plain sight of others. Maybe your memories have been edited.

Maybe that’s going on now. Not worth bothering about.

But stick with your scenario. That sounds like a holodeck episode in Star Trek TNG. I’d hardly call the characters ‘godlike’.

But they are. The holodeck is a great moral crime.

But would that really constitute proof for you? Or would you demand something more than extreme prowess at the technical arts?

How would I know they were technical arts?

I can’t articulate this very well, but it seems there must be more to the god trade than complete and absolute mastery of the environment. Would you say this is a category error?

I’m not sure what categories we’re even talking about.

Let’s say without worrying about the methods that something’s convinced me that it has the power ascribed to the god of Abraham. Does that fill me with religious feeling? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe I’d ask it to make me have that if it was determined to lord it over my life in some asshole manner.

But this is all fantasy. Like it or not I have to deal with the fact that people are religious and I think they always will be. I catch myself performing little rituals like most people – urging a sports team on with wild gesticulations like the TV is going to show me my will in operation – and geeking out on knowledge in the way Seth seems to despise and which I agree is more or less religious. And this is all without worrying about myth and storytelling. This magical thinking and religious awe is part of what makes humans do interesting things; while I think a lot of the particular details of the more persistent outgrowths of supernatural thinking are risible and sometimes dangerous bullshit I wouldn’t want to trade away whatever it is in people that makes those leaps. Along these lines I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that there is no temple of Babe Ruth. Elvis got his.

A world in which there is a yearly change of religion would be kind of funny. You’d get your prayers out if you wanted and then before orthodoxy made things too ridiculous and too many questions were asked it’d be on to the next one.

113

seth edenbaum 03.13.08 at 5:33 am

I only despise “geeking out” on knowledge because that’s using knowledge as a crutch. I went out for dinner tonight with a friend of mine, a surgeon, who went on a rant about young doctors who test everything and read charts rather than examining anything themselves. Since they no sense of detail, of cases, and know only rules and generalizations, they don’t see shit. He and four other big shots lounging around after an all day oncology seminar spent a couple hours telling each other horror stories.

What does it mean that the mythologies of the Turkish secularists are more threatening to to the growth of liberal democracy than the mythologies of the Islamists? What does it mean to be unable to recognize that fact!? And it is a fact. What are the priorities of those people who refuse see what’s before their eyes because it “must not be.” But then maybe democracy is not something they’re interested in.
McGinn et al. can kiss my fucking ass. They’re idiots.

114

JimV 03.13.08 at 12:23 pm

scentofviolets @#110: you’re right, I keep forgetting that nothing but mathematical theorems with well-defined axioms can be conclusively proved or disproved. (As James Randi put it, I can’t prove Santa Claus doesn’t exist.) I hereby amend my statement at #99 by changing “prove” to “offer substantial evidence for”.

115

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 12:29 pm

What does it mean that the mythologies of the Turkish secularists are more threatening to to the growth of liberal democracy than the mythologies of the Islamists?

It means that “secularism” in Turkish terms is merely a convenient but highly inadequate label for a deep social class divide that involves a whole lot more than religion. But being such an ace humanist and all, you knew that, right?

For the record, I (a “miltant atheist”, if you like) have always felt that crap like the anti-headscarf law in Turkey, and France for that matter (let alone the Turkish Army’s despicable record of trashing democracy and human rights in the name of “secularism”), represents a deplorable violation of basic human rights. For all you or I know, Colin McGinn feels the same way. Why don’t you ask him?

116

richard 03.13.08 at 1:33 pm

it seems there must be more to the god trade than complete and absolute mastery of the environment. Would you say this is a category error?

My faltering attempt to answer this is that we’d have to examine the claims made for godhood, and also the usually unvoiced expectation of veneration that attaches to gods in general. Those are bigger tasks than I’d want to take on in a blog comment/lifetime.
For YHVH and its derivatives, there is a claim to have made everything. Making more things (like another Earth on the other side of the sun that we could go and visit, for instance) might be counted as evidence, or supplying some observable data about what’s already made, especially ourselves, that fits into existing doctrine: unique serial numbers or some such, or repeatable interaction with a disembodied soul, might convince large numbers of atheists. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to break through the shell of anyone who saw The Matrix or read existentialist philosophy or the works of al-Ghazzali at an impressionable age, however. These works question (and sidestep) the whole concept of evidence, so evidence won’t be useful in countering them.

But since gods on the YHVH model can do anything, they must be able to tackle this, and, consequently, there’s some kid of error in asking what evidence they could provide.

FWIW I think an actual encounter with a verifiable, bona fide god would be absolutely terrifying – like being in a room with a sabre-toothed tiger that can not just subject you to a violent, painful death at will, but could do anything else to you as well. Perhaps the most impressive trick pulled by all ‘benevolent’ gods is that their followers think they’re good, even when they threaten stuff like eternal damnation. That might be the ultimate test of godhood – the ability to soothe away anxieties of the soul with a kind of metaphysical valium.

117

engels 03.13.08 at 1:43 pm

Seth, do you actually read anybody´s comments apart from your own? To whom is your factoid about Turkey supposed to be a response? Who thinks that leftists should always ally themselves with secular rather than religious movements? I certainly don´t think that and I don´t many others here do either. Perhaps it would be more interesting if you were to try to understand what other people´s views are and argue with them, rather than ranting against the straw men in your head?

118

engels 03.13.08 at 1:59 pm

I will respect your atheism when you show me why you hold it and how you live by it. Many (militant) atheists forfeit their respect because they can’t be bothered to do just that (and the same goes for the more militant brands of fundamentalism, and I hate to say).

So the argument is that ´militant´ atheists tend to be (a) less rational and (b) less moral in their behaviour than the good kinds of atheists, like Harry, and Christians like Lindsay? What it be too much to ask for some evidence for this particular smear?

119

engels 03.13.08 at 2:04 pm

(It seems to me that as a general rule the truth is almost the reverse: ´militant´ atheists are more likely to have well thought out reasons for their beliefs than the Harry-and-Lindsay-approved ´respectful´ kind…)

120

s.e. 03.13.08 at 2:07 pm

“For all you or I know, Colin McGinn feels the same way. Why don’t you ask him?”

I’ve tried, but he’s a “bright” and you can’t argue with brights.

121

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 2:10 pm

Especially because their talk of “humility” is so laughable. What’s “humble” about taking at all seriously the idea that this vast universe was created for the sake of a bunch of hairless apes on an insignificant planet? Leopardi put it best:

…And mindful of
your state here below, of which
the ground I stand on bears witness,
and that, on the other hand, you believe
that you’ve been appointed the master
and end of all things: and how often
you like to talk about the creators
of all things universal, who descended
to this obscure grain of sand called earth,
for you, and happily spoke to you, often:
and that, renewing these ridiculous dreams,
you still insult the wise, in an age
that appears to surpass the rest
in knowledge and social customs: what feeling is it,
then, wretched human race, what thought
of you finally pierces my heart?
I don’t know if laughter or pity prevails.

122

s.e. 03.13.08 at 2:13 pm

I’m sure McGinn agrees about human rights, but they aren’t his focus. His focus is “reason.” Mine is democracy. I’m interested in rationality as result, he’s interested in it as a cause (in both meanings of the term). He doesn’t understand the difference, and neither does the Turkish military.

123

richard 03.13.08 at 2:19 pm

I will respect your atheism when you show me why you hold it and how you live by it.
Is anyone else struck by the labor theory of value that seems to inform this discussion and the one on voting responsibly? In order to be respected you have to put effort into (a) thinking about why you think what you think, (b) communicating it, (c) making it appeal to rational critique. As long as we all know you’ve done this work, your political and religious opinions are worthy of respect.

124

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 2:26 pm

Richard, another thing about that quote is that it embodies the idiotic but evergreen “atheism itself is a religion” meme. Sorry, being an atheist simply means that I don’t believe in the existence of “divine” beings (because I don’t see any good reason to do so, and moreover I’m not even sure the very concept is a coherent one- there’s some discussion about that above). It’s not some kind of metaphysical system by which I live, any more than is my a-toothfairyism.

125

Tracy W 03.13.08 at 2:41 pm

In fact, I think that divine beings would have a hard time proving that they were divine, rather than possessing extremely advanced technology.

Breaking the laws of thermodynamics would count for me as being divine, especially the first law. That may be extremely advanced technology, but, well, someone who can break the laws of thermodynamics is surely by definition divine? They could create a universe.

Though I’m not sure how anyone could convince me beyond possible doubt, as I have many memories of being shown how magic tricks are performed, and yet I still stare in wild-eyed wonder at any new trick, until I come across some explanation of that one.

126

richard 03.13.08 at 2:51 pm

125: why yes. “how do you live by your atheism?” The same way you live: respiration, eating, stuff like that.

126: I know I probably should care more about this, but I don’t feel qualified to spot infallibly when these laws have been broken. I am also easily bamboozled by quantum mechanical effects and imaginable science fiction ultra-tech. Faster than light travel should also break physics as we know it, shouldn’t it? And yet it’s almost a given for any “sufficiently advanced” alien visitor.

127

abb1 03.13.08 at 4:07 pm

I don’t believe in the existence of divine beings, but I don’t believe that not believing in the existence of divine beings is the foundation of the rest of my beliefs.

I can easily imagine someone sharing most of my beliefs while disagreeing with me on the existence of divine beings; there are many ways to skin a cat. The question of existence or non-existence of divine beings may be fundamental for some people but completely (or almost completely) inconsequential for others.

128

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 4:08 pm

Richard, another thing about that quote is that it embodies the idiotic but evergreen “atheism itself is a religion” meme.

Yup, ass-backwards, and still really has nothing to do with respect except in consideration of Lindsey’s position. I apparently have to have grappled with what Lindsey believes in order to be taken seriously. UFO nuts have the same position.

Who wins respect when Lindsey deals with an atheist? Lindsey does, given freely to herself for her own position, and the atheist may receive leftovers for having taken her seriously for no good reason.

129

louis 03.13.08 at 4:13 pm

#123 — source for the Leopardi quotation?

130

lindsey 03.13.08 at 4:16 pm

To engels,
My use of militant is perhaps unfair, but it designates an attitude (an attitude quite easily found in the comment thread around CT) that you are right and everyone else is a buffoon. Those ‘militant’ believers or non-believers don’t engage in reasonable (and open) discussion with their counterparts because they feel above it, and that’s ridiculous and not very productive. It’s the sort of attitude that’s found on both sides of the atheist/theist divide, and it’s a way of holding those particular beliefs that I don’t respect.

And richard,
So what if it’s labor intensive? Respect (in the deeper sense, this is obviously not talking about mere toleration) is never automatic. It’s earned. And I think it is important how you live out your beliefs. If you tell me you believe that men and women are equal but then turn around and discriminate against women, then I won’t respect your “professed belief” in equality. It’s a combination of being intellectually honest with yourself and others and then being consistent. We’d be better off if people did put more labor and thought into examining what they believe (and for that matter, how they vote).

131

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 4:22 pm

And I think it is important how you live out your beliefs.

It’s a non-belief. I don’t live it out. I don’t do anything at all with it but comment on the internet from time to time and vote against religious crazies.

132

seth edenbaum 03.13.08 at 4:27 pm

I’m going to repost this since the it’s been caught in moderation limbo. I posted it using my initials and that seems to have triggered the filter.

I’m sure McGinn agrees about human rights, but they aren’t his focus. His focus is “reason.” Mine is democracy. I’m interested in rationality as result, he’s interested in it as a cause (in both meanings of the term). He doesn’t understand the difference, and neither does the Turkish military.

That’s the key. Democracy is formal. It’s about means, not ends. Under the rule of reason the guilty go to prison. Under the rule of law they may go free if the state didn’t follow the rules regulating arrest. At that point actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant. The rational defense of democracy is the rational belief that there are more important things to worry about than absolutes. At some point contempt for “illogic” or “unreason” segues into contempt for formalism and democracy and the drive for “progress” becomes the opposite of what it claims. The title of this post is “Respecting Religious Believers.” My question is whether we should respect people who focus on that question, especially if the discussion is in terms of politics.
I can’t.
Democracy is not utilitarian. It’s strength is in the constant redefinition of “utility.” When utility has one meaning, when the press or any of the branches of government chooses reason over the defense of it’s prerogatives, republican government falls apart. Reasonable government is the result of formalized adversarialism and institutionalized skepticism. Whether its “true” or not doesn’t really matter. Science geeks who want to run the world logically don’t seem to understand that.

133

Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 4:40 pm

ScentofViolets has made an important point that I don’t think is being fully grasped.

If Richard Dawkins had a vision on the road to Damascus, to what would he attribute it? Certainly madness, or the visitation of creatures from the future would precede divinity as explanations. These possibilities follow from metaphysical priors. If this vision had apparent power over Space and Time, how we he be able to prove that he was God, and not a hallucination or future visitor? It would not be possible, given Dawkins’ metaphysical bent. And if for some reason Dawkins was converted on the spot, it would not be because of “evidence,” because there is nothing that vision could do or say that couldn’t as easily be explained by a hallucination or holodeck.

This is the crux of the fallacy that this argument is about truth claims and evidence. At a certain point all observations and facts must fall in line with our picture of the world, which itself is not subject to verification (though it can be judged on less absolute grounds). I take serious issue, for example, with the (more or less unconscious) modernist metaphysics that the world is “made” of passive inert stuff, reducible to particles, subject to “laws.” It’s not that there is another explanation that is “more true,” but rather that this is a crappy way of looking at things that has gotten us into a lot of trouble as a civilization and a species.

Atheism itself may not be a religion, but that subset of it which puts forth that facts can be perceived outside of any contingents (whether our own culture or biology) is certainly a belief system, and in this day and age, a rather bizarre one.

134

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 5:10 pm

#132- “La Ginestra”, in Tony Kline’s translation:
http://www.tonykline.co.uk/PITBR/Italian/Leopardi.htm#_Toc38684164

#130:

I don’t believe in the existence of divine beings, but I don’t believe that not believing in the existence of divine beings is the foundation of the rest of my beliefs.

Neither do I, nor does Dawkins, nor does McGinn. Can we have done with this silly strawman now?

Here’s what I think. I believe there is such a thing as a religious cast of mind. If you have it, you will be powerfully drawn to some religion or quasi-religious totalizing system (there are certainly some non-theistic and even non-supernatural ones, including those aptly described by that much-abused word “scientism”.) Some who have it are able, by education and mental discipline, to free themselves from subjection to such a system, and become “soft atheists”. But they can’t help but remain conscious of the resulting void, and this gives them the ability to empathize with religious believers.

On the other hand, those of us who were born without this faculty- and I readily admit that we seem to be very much in the minority- were able easily and painlessly to slough off whatever childhood religious indoctrination we received, and we have very great difficulty in understanding what the fuss is about.

People of these quite different temperaments are bound to talk past each other in discussions like this one. I’m afraid I don’t see much remedy for that. But there’s not a great deal of harm in it, either.

135

Patrick 03.13.08 at 5:37 pm

136: “ScentofViolets has made an important point that I don’t think is being fully grasped.”

No, ScentofViolets has made a trite point that is easily dismissed. I don’t need to meditate upon the degree of proof an allegedly supernatural being would have to offer me before I would stop searching for nonsupernatural trickery, because to date, every allegedly supernatural being has utterly, totally, 100% crapped out when asked for proof.

ScentofViolets is attempting to use a hypothetical case that is completely divorced from reality or human experience so as to push questions of “proof” so far back that we end up discussing foundational questions like “how do I know that the world around me really exists?” And once someone admits, “ok, technically, I cannot PROVE that I don’t live in the Matrix,” ScentofViolets is primed to say, AHA! You have faith just like religious people! Its all really the same! Your belief that you don’t live in the Matrix is EXACTLY LIKE someone else’s belief in a supernatural universal consciousness that guides their daily life!

So. Trite.

136

seth edenbaum 03.13.08 at 5:50 pm

“I believe there is such a thing as a religious cast of mind.”
Are the assumptions of the Turkish military based on anything other than faith? Is that not an example of a “religious cast of mind” Have you registered none of the foundational assumptions in McGinn’s writings on consciousness, or is it just that you share them?
Weinberg on Zionism? Faith.
“I believe there is such a thing as a religious cast of mind.”
Yeah. People like to believe things. Stupid, but inevitable,

137

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 5:56 pm

Are the assumptions of the Turkish military based on anything other than faith?

Of course they are. I take it that, incapable of reading as you evidently are, my previous attempt to point out that the “religious” / “secular” divide in Turkey is shorthand for a broad sociological divide that extends far beyond religion, went right over your head. As previously observed by another commenter, you appear unable to engage with anything except the strawmen in your own head.

138

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 5:59 pm

Here’s what I think. I believe there is such a thing as a religious cast of mind.

There are religious disorders of mind. One of the PBS pop science shows with Vilayanur S. Ramachandran had a guy whose optic nerve became [technical garbage I don't remember] and as a result whatever he saw became profound, pregnant with meaning no matter what his intellectual mind told him. I don’t recall if there was a resolution or if it’s the case that he’s the same today.

It would be interesting to identify a case of brain damage that turned someone into an atheist. Not actually trolling there.

139

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 6:01 pm

…and as a result whatever he saw became profound, pregnant with meaning no matter what his intellectual mind told him.

Sounds like the stereotypical pothead. “Hey man, have you ever looked at your hands…?” ;)

140

abb1 03.13.08 at 6:01 pm

I believe there is such a thing as a religious cast of mind.

I don’t. I believe it’s indoctrination. Or sometimes indoctrination that failed originally, later gets resurrected and reinforced by some psychological trauma, like death of a child, or ‘miraculous’ recovery of a dying child or something like that.

141

seth edenbaum 03.13.08 at 6:05 pm

Here’s McGinn on his blog:

Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there.
…Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.

You ready to defend this moralizing idiot?
Yes or no?

142

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 6:12 pm

When and where have I defended McGinn’s body of work as a whole? I know only a little about it, and the minor part of it that intersects my interests at all, his notorious “mysterianism” about consciousness, strikes me as profoundly silly. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to be told that he’s written or uttered any number of silly things. (He’ll have to work overtime to catch up with you, though.)

143

seth edenbaum 03.13.08 at 6:14 pm

“I take it that, incapable of reading as you evidently are, my previous attempt to point out that the “religious” / “secular” divide in Turkey is shorthand for a broad sociological divide that extends far beyond religion, went right over your head.”

And I take it that you consider Turkey some sort of twilight zone where the laws of the rest of the world do not apply. I ignored your comment last time because it was bizarre. Throwing out data because it doesn’t confirm your bias, and then using that as your defense?

“The US is shorthand for a broad sociological divide that extends far beyond religion,”

144

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 6:15 pm

Sounds like the stereotypical pothead.

Sure. Crap about holodecks misses the obvious: messing with the brain of a person can severely alter personality, perception, morality and religious feeling right here and now, creating in some cases a literal religious cast of mind. Does that imply anything for those who assert divine experiences?

145

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 6:23 pm

How about enlightening us , O wise one, with your ARGUMENTS- not bluster- for holding that the erstwhile ruling class in Turkey is distinguished from other classes solely or even primarily by religion, rather than by a thick constellation of cultural attributes for which religion is largely just a convenient marker? By the way, I hope I would be a strong supporter of Erdogan’s party if I were Turkish. They’ve governed quite well as far as I can see.

146

Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 6:30 pm

messing with the brain of a person can severely alter personality, perception, morality and religious feeling right here and now, creating in some cases a literal religious cast of mind. Does that imply anything for those who assert divine experiences?

Implying that as long as we don’t “mess with it” our brains allow us to experience reality exactly as it is.

147

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 6:33 pm

Implying that as long as we don’t “mess with it” our brains allow us to experience reality exactly as it is.

Nope. I make no claims that my atheist brain is in tip-top running order.

Still, arguing the truism that there is interpretation to information can get a little crazy. If I come to your house, tie you to a chair and steal your TV I think we may both later agree on what occurred, though maybe not in open court.

148

Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 7:00 pm

Still, arguing the truism that there is interpretation to information can get a little crazy.

My point precisely.

If I come to your house, tie you to a chair and steal your TV I think we may both later agree on what occurred

Well, maybe we’re both delusional!

It’s no good saying that the malleability of brains explains one way of thinking, but not another. It implies one side has some kind of escape clause from the relational aspect of knowing, which is logically impossible.

149

abb1 03.13.08 at 7:01 pm

I think atheism too is the result of indoctrination or epiphany based on some previous indoctrination. Myself, I grew up in an environment where religion was the subject of ridicule – and here I am. Had I grown up in rural Alabama or small town in Iran – it would’ve been a completely different story. You are what you eat.

150

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 7:02 pm

It’s no good saying that the malleability of brains explains one way of thinking, but not another.

That isn’t what I said.

151

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 7:12 pm

So abb1, how did I come about, growing up in a devoutly Irish-American Catholic milieu?

152

Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 7:14 pm

Atheists are impossible!

153

abb1 03.13.08 at 7:16 pm

I don’t know, you tell me.

154

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 7:43 pm

Nothing to it. I just decided quite firmly around the age of 12 that all that stuff was obviously pretty silly, and I never looked back. (As a cultural heritage it certainly comes in handy for appreciating Dante, among other things.) Yet I continued to be exposed to plenty of indoctrination- in order to spare myself from listening to a lot of BS from my Mom, I allowed myself to be dragged to Mass every Sunday without argument until I left for college.

My data point doesn’t seem to fit your hypothesis very well. And since I know plenty of stories like it, I’m not so sure I’m an outlier.

155

Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 8:09 pm

Bubba,

I’m not sure what the point of saying that brain damage can cause religious feeling might be, if it isn’t to imply that religious cognition, unlike rational cognition, is defective.

What am I missing?

156

abb1 03.13.08 at 8:09 pm

Well, it’s not just the family; it’s the whole environment: your school, your neighborhood, and the whole Zeitgeist thing of the period.

157

Steve LaBonne 03.13.08 at 8:16 pm

All of which was even more religion-soaked at that time than now (I’m not sure you fully realize how religiose America is even today). “Atheists” were known only as crazy old ladies like Marilyn Murray O’Hair.

158

Roy Belmont 03.13.08 at 8:18 pm

#136:“…serious issue, for example, with the (more or less unconscious) modernist metaphysics that the world is ‘made’ of passive inert stuff, reducible to particles, subject to ‘laws.'”
Actually that’s just late 19th/early20th c. physics. Professor David Deutsch, no slouch on the physics tip in his own write, is convinced and pretty convincing that there are many “other worlds” than this one. In their own universes.
He spreads it out as a kind of linear and parallel thing, but obviously if you have other worlds and universes especially many of them, you can easily have a meta-organization to which all those worlds belong. Must have, pretty much. And then there’s lots of room in that larger picture for all kinds of beings, divine or otherwise. Because its boundaries are infinite, or nearly so.
Those reduced-to “particles” are just the places where the antique instruments began to lose their resolution, bestowing an inaccurate and opportunistic finality on what they found.
“Quarks! The final particles!”
“Whoops! There’s more!”
And more and more, because it’s as infinite, or nearly so, down there, as it is above and beyond.
An assumption in many of the main critiques of religion, and in things like the rejection of telepathy by people like The Amazing Randi et al. is there’s nothing outside the laboratory but noise.
And since there are no such things anyway critics feel they have no responsibility to conjecture pre-existing conflict around them, resistance – opposition to the public explication.
No tension other than between scoffing and credulity.
If telepathy is a real capability in human beings it’s probably been around a long time, and probably developed into and among groups of the like-minded, behaving the way contraband economies or repressed sexual minorities do, and the lack of mainstream verifiability and examples may have more to do with occult business practices and weaponization than dipshit chimeras and delusional fantasies.
The Scots especially, and Gaels generally, have a long tradition of second-sight and prophetic dream, Native Americans as well. Polynesian kava-visions recorded the Europeans coming before it happened. No accident perhaps these cultures were broken violently.
The facts and hypotheses we’re getting now from the front lines of physics seem as weird and counter-intuitive as anything analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ever carried. It doesn’t take much more than an open mind to project that weird wonderfulness into some kind of much bigger than human reality, with much bigger than human players working in it. The Matrix being only one fairly mundane example.
Not that I’m saying that’s exactly what’s up, but the anally-clenched rationalism that refutes the childish beliefs of the religious won’t stand up to the blowback from its own team’s illuminations. There’s either other dimensions out there, or there’s something even stranger. No going back to the Edenic world of simple things.
The rationalists demand reasons to alter their views, which makes sense, as does the reliance on faith by believers. The conflict’s really about survival isn’t it? Or is that a diversion?
Faith abets the surviving of the faithful, as sceptical reason abets its adherents.
What everyone wants is insurance against being scammed. My personal experience is that the louder and more obvious sellers of that insurance are generally scammers themselves, and make dubious allies at best.
There’s something tender and open in the public faith of people like Lindsey. Something vulnerable that gets chopped up in the jaws of logic. Even though I don’t believe her view of things is accurate enough as it stands, I’ll insist it’s no more inaccurate than most rationalist worldviews. Just less rational, which you’d expect.
Rationalism gets its eminence from its immediate utility, and that gets reinforced in an educational system that makes it central to success, which constantly rewards logical patterning in the young, and all too often discourages and trivializes the intuitive and imaginative. By the time most of us get out of university the primacy of rational thought is asseverated like dogma, it’s in the air we breathe, even though most of our experience and behavior most of the time has little to do with conscious logic.
In the Church of Logical and Rational Positivity, as with any system of tenuous and unsupported beliefs, heresy gets met with scorn and violent denunciation, and given enough political strength, outright persecution.
Calls for humility and tolerance become brave in that context.

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Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 8:20 pm

I’m not sure what the point of saying that brain damage can cause religious feeling might be, if it isn’t to imply that religious cognition, unlike rational cognition, is defective.

X causes Y does not mean that X is the sole cause of Y.

Up in 115 I tried in a mushy way to argue that I believed religious feeling – or at least the beginnings of it, and the wiring for it – was part and parcel of what makes us interesting folks.

The argument above paired with the brain-damage example does not imply that I wish to be beaten about the head with a blunt instrument until I become more interesting, though some would support that.

160

abb1 03.13.08 at 8:32 pm

America is religious, but if you live, say, in Berkeley, CA you may not not notice it. And from there you’ll find a whole spectrum of levels of religiosity down to Hicktown, Georgia.

161

Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 8:56 pm

Roy,

You’re right that the metaphysics I describe is out of date among physicists. Among biologists and social sciences they are less so, and among the laity they still hold pretty firm, for religious and non-religious like.

And thank you for bringing tenderness and vulnerability into the discussion. These things are rarely included in philosophical argument, but they are eminently respectable.

Bubba,

I dig what you’re saying. But I assumed this question was a rhetorical one, whose answer you believe is yes:

Does that imply anything for those who assert divine experiences?

Did I read you wrong? Because I could replace the word “divine” with just about anything, and it would still obtain.

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Righteous Bubba 03.13.08 at 9:21 pm

Did I read you wrong? Because I could replace the word “divine” with just about anything, and it would still obtain.

I don’t think I was as clear as I could have been, sure.

What I meant to address was scales-falling-from-the eyes or religious ecstasy or what have you, the uncommon religious experiences that have resulted in, well, religion. It was not meant to imply that all religious people are brain-damaged (although again I think imaginative and mystical leaps are part of the wiring of most of us).

And it could be that I’m somewhat ignorant here: it’s my impression that most religious people are believers but do not have the brushes with the numinous that various saints have had, unless you count “COOL! AWESOME SUNSET!” in those experiences.

One morning I was waking up just post-dream and in something of a haze. I opened my eyes slowly and there was a glowing white form in front of me, floating and slightly changing in consistency. I waited a bit and it didn’t go away, at which point I screamed my lungs out.

When I gathered my wits I realized that I just hadn’t focused my eyes and I was looking at a patch of sunlight on the wall.

If I’d, say, run out of the room and not come back maybe I’d believe in the supernatural, because I well remember how terrified I was that this impossible thing had come to visit me. I don’t want to pretend I have infallible logic behind me and that’s that.

Your conclusions about what Dawkins would think about a god struck me as awfully sure for someone who is not Dawkins.

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Chris Schoen 03.13.08 at 9:37 pm

Your conclusions about what Dawkins would think about a god struck me as awfully sure for someone who is not Dawkins.

I meant them rhetorically. Dawkins can react to divine visitation however he likes. The point is just that metaphysical constructions, among other constraints on our thinking (such as those posed by our use of symbolic language), are not themselves subject to verification.

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ScentOfViolets 03.14.08 at 3:59 am

No, ScentofViolets has made a trite point that is easily dismissed. I don’t need to meditate upon the degree of proof an allegedly supernatural being would have to offer me before I would stop searching for nonsupernatural trickery, because to date, every allegedly supernatural being has utterly, totally, 100% crapped out when asked for proof.

ScentofViolets is attempting to use a hypothetical case that is completely divorced from reality or human experience so as to push questions of “proof” so far back that we end up discussing foundational questions like “how do I know that the world around me really exists?” And once someone admits, “ok, technically, I cannot PROVE that I don’t live in the Matrix,” ScentofViolets is primed to say, AHA! You have faith just like religious people! Its all really the same! Your belief that you don’t live in the Matrix is EXACTLY LIKE someone else’s belief in a supernatural universal consciousness that guides their daily life!

So. Trite.

I find this rather bizarre and a complete misreading of my point. (I guessing Patrick didn’t know this, but I’m an atheist myself.)

I am saying that there doesn’t seem to be a good agreed-upon standard of proof for the existence of God, and that should one appear to make the claim, He would have some pretty high hurdles to jump over.

I’m asking, in short, what a god would have to do to prove himself in your eyes. Speaking only for myself, it would not be enough to demonstrate Vast Cosmic Powers. Sagan makes this point in his novel “Contact” when he has the human protagonist converse with beings literally billions of years old: even though they can quite casually move entire suns millions of light-years in the blink of an eye, they are still looking for evidence that God exists. To them, it’s not enough to be able to do what they themselves do so easily, though to a human these aliens appear, well, to be if not precisely gods themselves, godlike in scope.

Which suggests to me that either the notion of being a god is just silly to begin with, and thus nonsensical to ask if one exists(that’s my personal belief, actually.) Or there is some sort of quality of the numinous that is very hard to pin down with words.

And thus my original post: I think most people who are atheists, even atheists who are in some sense scientifically literate, would have a tough time seriously coming up with a standard of proof they would find acceptable.

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Z 03.14.08 at 7:39 am

even atheists who are in some sense scientifically literate would have a tough time seriously coming up with a standard of proof they would find acceptable.

Well, give me an acceptable definition of God or divine and I will give you an acceptable standard. Taking a rather standard notion of God, if Jesus returns in ways exactly or even remotely linked to the ways described in the Revelations (with angels, reprimands and congratulation to cities in Israel and the like) then I would definitely be impressed and would most likely conclude that seeing that this a priori ludicrous prediction turned out to be true, other comparable statements could in fact be true and I would most likely start believing in the Christian God. But I understand that apocalypses can happen only so many times and I am no Thomas, so I would settle for much less impressive evidence: uncontroversial evidence that the Earth was entirely submerged a few thousand years ago or a martyr picking up his head and starting to preach would probably be enough for me to seriously reconsider my conception of (that) religion. But I am not holding my breath.

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SusanC 03.14.08 at 10:28 am

Discussions on this blog (indeed, most blogs) don’t show much respect for opposing points of views. So I’m not surprised that a thread on respecting religious belief has plenty of examples of disrespect (if not outright contempt).

I find it quite hard to pin down what “respect” consists of, exactly. Accusing your political opponents of being mentally ill, or having covert motives, seems pretty disrespectful, but you can’t very well outlaw saying these things, because sometimes people do have mental illnesses, or hidden motives.

There’s a separate discussion that could be had on whether mental illnesses exist at all, but if we pass that by and accept that (e.g.) schizophrenia exists, it can be legitimate to ask if a particular person’s religious beliefs are a sign of of the onset of schizophrenia (sometimes they are), or investigate the connection between religious experience and mental illness.

I think it’s disrepectful to play on the religion mental illness angle when you’re not being serious about it – when all you’re trying to do is discredit your opponent (“He is mad and therefore his arguments are of no merit.”) and you don’t really think he has schizophrenia.

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SusanC 03.14.08 at 10:42 am

It would be interesting to identify a case of brain damage that turned someone into an atheist. Not actually trolling there.

I can’t find the reference at the moment, but I seem to remember that in one of Temple Grandin’s books, she describing temporarily loosing her religious feelings after exposure to sheep-dip. She has autism, so her reactions may not be typical, but at least in principle there’s a possible line of investigation here. (Good luck on getting your Institutional Review Board to approve it…)

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SusanC 03.14.08 at 11:04 am

This is what I was think of:

In the summer of 1978 I swam through the dip vat at the John Wayne Red River feed yard as a stupid publicity stunt. Doing this provided a great boost to my career and got me several speaking engagements. However, coming in contact with the chemical organophosphates had a devastating effect. The feeling of awe that I had when I thought about my beliefs just disappeared. Organophosphates are known to alter levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, and the chemicals also caused me to have vivid and wild dreams. But why they affected my feeling of religious awe is still a mystery to me. It was like taking all the magic away and finding out that the real Wizard of Oz is just a little old man pushing buttons behind a curtain.

(Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, chapter 11).

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Righteous Bubba 03.14.08 at 1:45 pm

In the case where the guy got profundity through vision – forgive the poor memory – I think it was the case that somehow his optic nerve was routed through an area of the brain that is responsible for attaching meaning or feeling to things. It seems reasonable to me that that area of the brain could be damaged and an individual left with what I imagine must be a very flat and dull and possibly sociopathic view of the world. Maybe I have that deficit more than the average church-goer.

In any case I think I’ve found the show I’m babbling about.

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Patrick 03.14.08 at 2:59 pm

It WOULD be interesting to find cases where brain injuries caused someone to become an atheist.

Frankly, this is a fight that atheists automatically win. If a brain injury causes someone to become religious, that implies that the origin of religious feeling is in one’s brain chemistry. If a brain injury causes someone to stop feeling religious impulses, that implies that the origin of religious feeling is in one’s brain chemistry.

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Righteous Bubba 03.14.08 at 4:11 pm

Frankly, this is a fight that atheists automatically win.

Hooray! Someone got brain damage so we win!

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Chris Schoen 03.14.08 at 6:19 pm

Bubba, funny.

Patrick, the fact that you view a sort of Vulcan-esque uber-rationality as baseline human cognition than can only be corrupted by faulty wiring (or, maybe: MEMES!) says a lot more about you than it does about brain chemistry.

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Patrick 03.14.08 at 8:30 pm

Chris Schoen- No, you’ve got it wrong. Completely wrong.

Leave aside the surface dispute about whether baseline cognition is more or less accurate than traumatized cognition, and which one is more likely to lead a person to religion or atheism.

That dispute was stupid anyways.

Look at the underlying issue- does religious ecstasy originate from a natural human brain state, or does it originate because the supernatural touched a human mind in ineffable ways?

It doesn’t matter what brain state does what. That was superfluous from the beginning. No matter which brain state leads to which emotion, the fact that it was a brain state rather than the ineffable Touch of God is the reason that the atheistic position gets a boost.

No matter how a gap in human knowledge is closed, the God of the Gaps loses.

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Chris Schoen 03.14.08 at 9:16 pm

Patrick,

If there is a religious teaching that says that understanding it requires a non-naturalistic brain state, I am not aware of it. (Perhaps you’d like to cite something?) Even so, this is not a claim that most religious teachings make.

There’s no logical reason why natural and supernatural need be mutually exclusive. I see your point about gaps, but most Christian theologies do not make use of this argument. Swatting it down is a little like using a crude, one-gene one-trait genetic determinism to reject Neo-Darwinism.

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abb1 03.14.08 at 9:23 pm

A couple of decades ago my close friend’s 3 year old daughter got sick and the doctors expected her to die. She survived and he found religion. It had lasted, I think, something like 5-7 years.

You and I would diagnose it as a case of ‘brain state’, emotional trauma. To him, at the time, it was a clear case of ‘ineffable Touch of God’. Each hypothesis, seems to me, is logically irrefutable.

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engels 03.14.08 at 9:44 pm

More proof if any were needed that what ‘seems to [abb1]‘ to be the case very often isn’t. Also, this–

Their [Dawkin's and McGinn's] militancy is restricted to writing books because they have no power, just like militancy of the neocons was restricted to writing letters, magazine articles and websites before 2001. Had they had power, I’m sure they would’ve given Supreme Leader Khomeini a good run for his money.

–is truly pathetic.

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engels 03.14.08 at 10:01 pm

My use of militant is perhaps unfair, but it designates an attitude (an attitude quite easily found in the comment thread around CT) that you are right and everyone else is a buffoon. Those ‘militant’ believers or non-believers don’t engage in reasonable (and open) discussion with their counterparts because they feel above it, and that’s ridiculous and not very productive.

You seem to be running together two accusation which are very different.

1) feeling certain of one’s opinions on a given matter even though other people don’t agree (cocksuredness or lack of humility as you seem to see it)
2) refusal to engage in reasonable and open discussion

I agree with you that the second is a serious fault, but I don’t think the first is.

You might accuse people like Dawkins and McGinn of the first but it is very unfair to try to suggest that by doing so you have convicted them of the second. Clearly people like Dawkins are far more committed to rationally articulating and defending their beliefs than the kind of seen-and-not-heard atheists that you and Harry seem to like better.

On this very thread this can be seen by comparing Steve’s eminently reasonable defences of his ‘militant atheism’ with the obscurantist rants and pseudo-hippie sloganeering of some of his critics.

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engels 03.14.08 at 10:18 pm

But the real problem I have with your (and Harry’s) position is more basic. This part (quoted approvingly by Harry) seems to be the nub of it

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it.

The exclusive focus on legitimate procedure and individual motivation seems dead wrong to me.This is because it is possible for someone to come to hold beliefs that are wholly unworthy of respect despite her following legitimate procedures in good faith. For example, Shakespeare was an anti-semite, let us say. He was a reasonable man, entirely honest and well-intentioned in forming his beliefs, yet he was infected by the pervasive anti-semitism of his time and culture. Does this mean we respect Shakespeare’s anti-semitism? No, and neither do we respect Shakespeare for his anti-semitism. His anti-semitism is an aspect of him which we may understand, or forgive, or overlook (or perhaps not, as we choose) but we regret it, and we do not respect him for it.

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engels 03.14.08 at 10:28 pm

Shorter version: (1) It’s not true that we must respect people’s beliefs just because they were formed in a sincere, reasonable and conscientious way.

(2) Committment to rational discussion seems to be what drives people like Dawkins and McGinn to get involved in these debates (and perhaps what irritates some people about them) so it seems bizarre to accuse them of lack of committment to same.

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abb1 03.14.08 at 11:05 pm

Richard Dawkins (I don’t know the other guy) denies any legitimacy to his opponents’ views. He knows The Truth, he is comfortable with The Truth and he refuses to see any other angle, any redeeming qualities that might be there. If that’s not “refusal to engage in reasonable and open discussion”, then I don’t what is.

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abb1 03.14.08 at 11:10 pm

Shorter version: he is a fundamentalist. Like Khomeini.

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Righteous Bubba 03.14.08 at 11:11 pm

Richard Dawkins (I don’t know the other guy) denies any legitimacy to his opponents’ views.

Not at all. He is perfectly happy to concede points.

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engels 03.14.08 at 11:35 pm

If anyone other than abb1 wishes to post a response to any of the points in #180-#182 I would be very interested to hear it…

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abb1 03.15.08 at 8:20 am

@185 Not at all. He is perfectly happy to concede points.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig’s observation that “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion

Does it sound like he’s trying to “engage in reasonable and open discussion” with religious folks?

And please, try to imagine the most moderate, most reasonable, most rational non-atheist person you’ve ever known or heard of; Albert Einstein, for example. He calls him “delusional” – and obviously one doesn’t engage in a discussion with delusional people.

Do you see what I mean here?

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abb1 03.15.08 at 10:38 am

Incidentally, our friend engels suffers from a mild case of dogmatism as well. It’s true, he desperately wants to get engage in a discussion with his opponents, it’s just that he can’t find any non-delusional ones: everything on the other side is either “obscurantist rants” or “pseudo-hippie sloganeering”, nothing there that would deserve a serious response. Bummer.

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lindsey 03.15.08 at 11:25 am

To engels,
About your two points. Harry and I both think it’s okay to feel pretty “close-certain” about some things… like 99.99% sure. But the important thing is that there is that .01% room for doubt, and that’s the gap that makes you realize that no matter how certain you feel about your belief, you really can’t be 100% sure (this in particular for the question of whether God really exists). That doesn’t mean we don’t feel damn certain about it. It just means we recognize that even if we feel pretty certain, we can’t be 100% sure. That’s an important recognition to have before engaging with opposing beliefs, because without it I think the 2nd point becomes a problem.

The 2nd point was pretty much what I wanted people to realize, and it’s one not taken well by people here (scan the thread, there is a lot of straight up religion bashing where there should have been discussion about the issue of respect –case in point). Also, did I ever once name names of any militant atheists? No. You know why? I don’t know any of them well enough to know if they would indeed have an honest and open discussion with me about my/their beliefs. For some I have an idea of how they might respond, but honestly, I don’t follow them closely enough to be sure. I’m sure most other people following CT would be a better judge than I would on this account. So no, I made no claim about any of them. Judging from some posts at CT, however, I’m sure a few people here would fall under that category (though I’d like to think that people are more difficult online than in person, so maybe not even then).

You are right that Harry and I didn’t make a distinction (on our two posts) about beliefs that clearly don’t deserve respect, regardless of how you rationalize it. I didn’t write about that because it wasn’t the question at hand (though I guess that makes my post even more incomplete than it was). The question at hand was a belief you don’t agree with but one that others reasonably could adopt. I suppose I don’t think you could really rationalize anti-antisemitism or racism or misogyny in a satisfactory way. But if someone did try to, then no I wouldn’t respect that belief anyway (though it could be rooted in their lack to really justify why that belief is reasonable to hold). Does that answer your question?

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lindsey 03.15.08 at 11:28 am

*antisemitism

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abb1 03.15.08 at 12:55 pm

beliefs that clearly don’t deserve respect, regardless of how you rationalize it

Hmm, I remember reading all those race/IQ discussions recently and it seemed that the strongest anti-racist argument went like this: ‘we don’t think there’s a causal link, but we just don’t have enough information to know for sure.’ If that’s true, it certainly falls into your ‘1% uncertainty’ category.

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Righteous Bubba 03.15.08 at 2:28 pm

Does it sound like he’s trying to “engage in reasonable and open discussion” with religious folks?

Having seen Dawkins engage in reasonable and open discussion with religious folks it doesn’t much matter how you think he sounds.

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lindsey 03.15.08 at 2:30 pm

abb1,
Take the post for what it was, a blog post with some random thoughts I had one day about a random paper I found online. If you want an air-tight-dissertation-style argument, you’re looking in the wrong place. The point was to get some stubborn people on either side of the ideological divide to simmer down and listen to each other. Perhaps then they could find some common ground and (gasp!) lose the animosity. People clearly missed that message. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that’s even possible.

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s.e. 03.15.08 at 3:10 pm

Steven Weinberg is delusional.

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Roy Belmont 03.16.08 at 10:33 am

I’ve been searching around all day for some genuine hippie sloganeering but everything that came up was so clearly just media-generated cliches I had to let it all pass. God only knows what dreck “pseudo-hippie sloganeering” would turn out to be.
Oh.
I like Dawkins more than any religious adherent in his weight class. I feel championed by him in many ways, defended. Yet I believe in the infinite nature of reality, that its perceived boundaries are all illusory, the same way the tactile surfaces of things are real to us only as a pragmatic compromise, between our sensory apparatus and that infinitely complex reality. Given that, it seems pretty much inevitable that there’s a lot more going on, in the sense of orders of complexity and magnitude and being than we’ve cataloged so far. And that’s where the rationalists/atheists/scientificalists all run away screaming. Or really just turn away in disgust. Because you can’t prove it. Even as people like Duetsch come back from the front lines with pictures that are weird and unimaginably complicated. Still you can’t prove their existence without the cooperation of those purported beings. And believing in things you can’t prove is rationally indefensible.
What you can prove is how easily an institutionalized moral focus on something as nebulous as powerful beings who exist in other dimensions but can invisibly influence things in this one, can be bent to serve the aims and desires of that institution’s elect. This is what I take to be Dawkins’ main motive in attacking the illogic of religious dogma. That’s one of the ways I feel defended by him.
But because the context of Dawkins’ effort is an already polarized field, it can’t help but intensify that polarity. This hardens the sides, and further obscures and drowns out the not-so-adamant unpolarized, where I believe the truer frequencies originate.
Respecting someone else’s religious beliefs or not is a moral choice.
Moral choices occur within moral systems.
Every moral system has an identifiable goal as its reason for existing, whether the participants can identify it or not.
Moral systems center on their goals. For an individual to be able to clearly comprehend and articulate the goal of a moral system he or she subscribes to it has to be able to fit inside his or her head. Consequently the default moral system for contemporary humans is a refined hedonism, a more or less socially functional greed.
It takes all kinds of work to get us up to anything like a deferred reward as a conscious moral direction, unless that focus is pre-existing, institutionalized, traditional, inherited.
Most religions place the center of their moralities outside the mundane and immediate, in the divine plan, the mysteries. In some ways this isn’t much different from and at its best is aligned with getting people to consciously and actively place the interests and well-being of not-yet present generations ahead of their own – behavior that reflects the needs and interests of unseen and essentially imaginary beings.
Rationalists don’t mind that so much because of the nearness of those fictive beings. They’re close enough to what we are already as to warrant recognition.
When it comes to “spirits” and “deities” etc, the rational or atheist position is the inverse of Pascal’s wager, there seems to be no percentage in believing. I respect that as a belief, though its logic is less an inevitable progression than a hunch, based on the odds. It’s honest, sincere, legitimately come by. I don’t share it, and I see a danger in it of ommission, much like that of ignoring the needs and well-being of future generations
“The exclusive focus on legitimate procedure and individual motivation seems dead wrong to me.This is because it is possible for someone to come to hold beliefs that are wholly unworthy of respect despite her following legitimate procedures in good faith.”
If anti-semitism means an irrationally negative and unjustly prejudicial attitude toward Jews then it seems by definition to be excluded from “legitimately came to” and “being sincere and honest about”. These are important qualifiers.
If we’re just going to defer the determination of Shakespeare’s attitude toward Jews to Engels, then of course if Engels says Shakespeare’s an anti-semite, he, Shakespeare, is an anti-semite, and his beliefs in that regard will not be deserving of respect, because they’re irrational and illegitimately come to, and unnecessarily harmful besides. But if we’re not going to defer that to someone else then we’ll have to make our own minds up about Shakespeare’s beliefs, and their honesty and legitimacy.
Another example might be, let us say, Iago, who is disliked. But Iago says that the people that don’t like him don’t like him because he’s smarter and more noble and honest than they are.
Maybe he believes that, but since we can see that Iago is doing and saying things that are causing people not to like him, we can say his beliefs are not honest even if they are sincere, and they were not legitimately come to, and thus are not worthy of respect.
That’s how it works in the abstract world.
Out here in the real world things are breaking everywhere strange, and anything that calls to and confirms humane qualities like tolerance and understanding, especially of profound and even potentially volatile differences, is a kind of treasure and should be preserved and defended.

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abb1 03.16.08 at 1:00 pm

Like theism and atheism, antisemitism too is a product of indoctrination (or, I suppose, it could be a backlash against indoctrination, as with Steve LaBonne’s rejection of theism).

Like theism and atheism, antisemitism is not something to be respected or disrespected, only noted and understood in context.

And just like theism and atheism, antisemitism as such isn’t necessarily dangerous – Shakespeare’s (alleged) antisemitism ain’t anybody’s business but but his own – unless it turns violent or oppressive, of course; but that’s a different story altogether.

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engels 03.16.08 at 5:30 pm

Roy – I don’t think you right to say that it is impossible for someone to be an honest and sincere bigot. I also don’t think the issue of whether someone can arrive at bigotted opinions by following rational norms of belief formation is–at the very least–as obvious as you think it is. Bigotry might well be irrational in an ideal sense (as indeed I think religious belief is), but I think that one can arrive at mild forms of bigotry by following everyday norms of rationality, if such attitudes are prevalent within one’s society. Surely it is easy enough to think to think of examples in history, and perhaps today, of people who have held mildly bigotted views but whom we would not wish to describe as irrational, in the everyday sense…

(Some free advice: if you care so much about “tolerance and understanding …of… differences”, perhaps you should reconsider your habit of talking about people whose views you object to in the third person? Some people could find it a little bit insulting and creepy…)

Anyway I wasn’t trying prevent people from “making [their] own minds up” by suggesting they “defer” to my opinions on Shakespeare’s attitudes to Jews, or trying to indoctrinate anyone with my “dogmatism”, fun though all that would have been. Believe it or not, I was hoping to have an argument about a difficult issue which interests me and to which the solution does not seem to me to be obvious.

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engels 03.16.08 at 6:45 pm

Lindsey – I suppose I just don’t really understand your and Harry’s worries that using the word “certain” can make me guilty of some kind of hubris. Are the two of you saying that–in order to display humility in the fact of our finite nature–we ought never to utter this word on its own: although I can be “very-close-to-certain” (Harry) or “damn certain” (Lindsey) I can never be just certain (and above all not completely certain or “100% certain”). This seems to me a bit like the conversational equivalent of wearing a hair-shirt. I am happy to say that I am certain (completely certain, 100% certain) about plenty of things: I have two hands, 2+2=4, torture is wrong. That isn’t to say that I believe I am infallible (I don’t) or that it is logically inconceivable that I be mistaken (it is not).

On the second point, if you won’t be drawn on who are referring to as “militant atheists” then it does become very difficult for anyone to try to defend them against your accusations…

Finally, you do acknowledge that your original generalisation [a belief is worthy of respect if (a) sincerely held and (b) formed in a minimally rational way] was “incomplete” in that there are beliefs that while meeting these conditions are nevertheless not worthy of respect. But then it seems you owe us an explanation of why religious beliefs are not of this kind.

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abb1 03.16.08 at 7:41 pm

or that it is logically inconceivable that I be mistaken (it is not)

It’s not that you are mistaken necessarily, but someone could claim that 2+2 is equal 10 or 11 and they would be correct too.

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Roy Belmont 03.16.08 at 7:43 pm

Engels-
Firstly, I meant no insult with the third-personaging, sorry if it hit you that way. It’s not a habit by any means.
Possibly if you had phrased it other than as
“For example, Shakespeare was an anti-semite…” then tagging a “…let us say.” on the back end.
Smearing Shakespeare, even hypothetically, will get my dander up. And accusations of anti-semitism are way too common right now, it makes that part of the example glare, rather than shine.
The formation of bigoted views may at times come out of a kind of reasoned process, but it’s clearly a defective one.
By definition bigotry is inaccurate and rationality accurate. But rationality is not a binary option, so they’re not exclusive to each other. Though I’m sure you’ll agree that any rational process that results in bigotry would perforce be inaccurate somewhere.
The subject of this post would cover the part where the bigot instead of screaming hate-filled catchphrases presents a subjectively rational case in a dialog with others not holding those bigoted views.
“I got jacked at an ATM in Palo Alto. My sister-in-law got jacked at an ATM in St. Petersburg Fl. My Uncle Howard got mugged in Boston in 1957. In each case the perp was black. Therefore all blacks are dangerous and prone to harmful criminal conduct.”
This is a reasoned and sincerely held bigoted belief. Not impossible, actually common, but the rational process is prionic, incomplete. So yeah, it happens, but I doubt it happens anywhere as a result of an entirely rational process from start to finish. The elisions and logical jumps, the leaps of dark faith that make the conclusion seem inevitable aren’t logical or rational, they’re emotional.
I don’t see my linking you with any “dogmatism” so I’m not sure what that’s about.
The solution isn’t obvious because it’s organic, alive, situational. There is a season for firm intolerance, and a season for understanding. Where we are in that isn’t ever going to be so clearly obvious that it needs no pondering. These times are so fraught, understanding and mercy and tolerance can do so much to quiet the anxious, why not?
If the non-believers’ view is superior, shouldn’t the attitudes and comportment of non-believers be superior as well? Adolescent superiority, proceeding from competitive insecurity, gets expressed as derision and violent rejection. But scorn and rejection out of hand won’t make the already worried calmer. Starting from a position of open-minded respect may.

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lindsey 03.16.08 at 8:46 pm

engels,
I’ll leave it at this: when I said militant (for both believers and non-believers) I had in mind people I’ve met in my own life. Of course everyone assumes I mean the big wig atheists, but I really was referring to actual acquaintances I’ve had and the condescending way that they’ve treated me. So you couldn’t really defend them if you wanted to. That’s not to say the more famous folks wouldn’t fall under that category, it just means I don’t really know if they would or not.

And I’ll admit I’m not sure how to respond to your last point. It was, after all, just a blog post, not a full blown theory of respect (in other words, I have my intuitions, but nothing that would satisfy you I’m sure). Maybe if I pursue that in graduate school I’ll get back to you :)
In the mean time, try and be charitable and take the post in the spirit it was meant, or not, it’s up to you. I think that’s enough from me on this thread.

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engels 03.16.08 at 8:57 pm

Roy – (i) Shakespeare and anti-semitism was not the most apposite or the most sensitive example to choose. I’d imagine you can think of similar examples that would be acceptable to you, though? ‘Let us say’ was an invitation to assume something as true for the sake of argument, not an attempt to declare it true by fiat.

(ii) ‘Dogmatism’ was a reference to abb1’s unfair and stupid smear at #188. ‘Pseudo-hippie sloganeering’ was also a reference to abb1’s comments, eg. that if Dawkins had any power he’d be as dangerous as Ayatolah Khomeini… (yawn)

(iii) I have been trying to distinguish between ‘ideal rationality’ and more limited norms of rationality which guide us in everyday life. For example, if a mathematician tells me that 25 964 951 is a prime number then perhaps I am rationally entitled to that belief in the everyday sense. However, ‘ideal rationality’ perhaps demands that I check all the factors by myself. I took Harry to be claiming that religious beliefs are not excluded by everyday norms of rationality (‘straightforward canons of rationality’). I was trying to show that there are beliefs–for example mild forms of bigotry–which are not so excluded–at least in some cultural and historical milieux–but which we do not feel are entitled to our respect. (I agree with you that all forms of bigotry are excluded by ideal rationality, and I think the same is true of religious belief.)

iv) Finally, I think that one problem with this discussion may have been a haziness about what is meant by respect. I wonder if the concept is itself too nebulous to make this kind of debate very fruitful. Quite a lot of what you have written seems to be a defense of “tolerance” but no-one, least of all Blackburn, said that we should not tolerate religious believers. I’ll admit that I feel a bit uneasy in saying that I refuse to respect people’s religious beliefs, if only because I am not at all sure what this means. However, I am strongly opposed to the attitudes which Harry says his ‘respect’ of Christians consists in, in particular, his

general, hard to define, pro-attitude to them holding [their belief in God] (and no preference that they change it)

If this is what ‘respecting’ believers means, then I have to say I do not ‘respect’ them. I do wonder though, whether such an attitude–of blithe indifference to someone’s holding beliefs which I regard as both false and pernicious–can really be consonant with respecting him as a person.

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engels 03.16.08 at 9:16 pm

Also, I agreed with parts of your second post, about wanting to protect aspects of humanity that tend to get “chopped up in the jaws of logic”, as you put it. I actually think the conclusion of Blackburn’s essay gets it pretty much right:

So in the end, should I have behaved differently that Friday night? I fear the matter is indeterminate. Was I being asked to express substantial respect for an ontological self-deception whose primary purpose includes protecting arbitrary attitudes and customs from the scrutiny of reason? Or was I being asked to show minimal respect, not much more than toleration, for remembrances and pieties that it is human to have, and that desperately need protection against the encroaching world of cost-benefit analysis? I fear that the somewhat unaccountable state of mind of my host may be interpreted in either way, and no doubt in yet other ways again.

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engels 03.16.08 at 9:26 pm

Lindsey – Fair enough. I hope I haven’t been uncharitable to you, though. If you look up through the thread I think you will find that a lot of people here – Harry, Matt, Roy, probably others – are broadly sympathetic to your idea that whether or not a belief is worthy of respect is determined by the individual’s conduct in forming and maintaining it, rather than my anti-individualistic heresies, so I am in all likelihood wrong about this. Now how’s that for humility!

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abb1 03.16.08 at 9:38 pm

But would you at least admit that my comment on 2+2 being equal 10 or 11 was extremely clever?

If not, I’ve gotta tell ya: you’re obviously as biased against me (in a completely irrational way) as Shakespeare (allegedly) was against the Jews. And that seriously undermines your reputation of a rational individual.

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