Politic religion, again

by John Quiggin on May 6, 2009

While the aesthetic defence of religion offered by Terry Eagleton might appeal to a small fraction of the intelligentsia, a far more common belief is that, regardless of truth value, religious belief makes people better citizens, and should therefore be encouraged.

Although this claim has various components, the most obvious social benefits of religious belief, and the biggest source of concern about the adverse consequences of unbelief, is the doctrine of an afterlife in which good actions will be rewarded and bad ones punished. Back in the 19th century, lots of people were really worried about this and, even in the 21st it’s a common theme in US discussions of religion.

But do we really need religion for this?

It seems to me that, if I were a social planner designing a religion for a modern capitalist society (any variant), I’d go for a vague belief in karma, embodied in a semi-comprehensible slogan like “what goes around, comes around”. The general idea is that, if you behave in ways that are bad, bad things will happen to you (note the air of paradox in the title of the bestseller “When Bad Things happen to Good People).

Compared to a full-scale religion, there are a bunch of benefits. First, there’s no need for a costly set of professionals to elaborate and expound the idea. Relatedly, there’s little or no room for theological disputes that can turn into social divisions.

Third, although it might seem problematic that there is no definition of “bad” here, that’s actually an asset. Full-scale religions tend to prohibit things like usury, or being gay or working on the Sabbath, and it often turns out that these prohibitions become obsolete or maybe were never useful in the first place, and that new lists of good and bad behavior are needed.

Finally, there’s a big gain in plausibility. Admittedly, some people appear to behave badly and live well, but it’s easy enough to believe that they are deeply deprived in some unobservable way, or that they would have lived even better if they had done better. At any rate, this seems more plausible than an elaborate afterlife with a gradation of eternal punishments and rewards

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with bias here. I’m an agnostic with a vague belief in karma, so it’s maybe not surprising that I would conclude that my beliefs are socially optimal. Ekelund, Hebert and Tollison, economists who appear to be mainline Protestants, have a whole book showing how mainline Protestantism is more economically efficient than Catholicism or (IIRC) fundamentalism.

http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10939

{ 233 comments }

1

dsquared 05.06.09 at 11:19 am

It seems to me that, if I were a social planner designing a religion for a modern capitalist society (any variant), I’d go for a vague belief in karma, embodied in a semi-comprehensible slogan like “what goes around, comes around”. The general idea is that, if you behave in ways that are bad, bad things will happen to you

Adorno’s “The Stars Brought Down To Earth” argues that an analysis of the newspaper horoscope columns reveals that they perform precisely this function.

2

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 11:28 am

also see here for my attempt to outline what i think eagleton’s actual position is: a marxo-burkean defence of religion as stubborn unthinking obstacle to the too-swift-and-sweeping conscienceless changes of market-modernity — it’s not that it produces better behaviour in itself,via its injunctions and myths, it’s that the clash between the titans of church and commerce, between very different systems of myth, provides a better space for us to live in (and behave well in)

(but this is a bit of a distraction from the question the thread is asking)

3

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 11:30 am

With a grateful acknowledgement to ajay for bringing it to the front of my mind on Blood & Treasure…

“The myriad faiths of the empire were all regarded by the ordinary man as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful”.

4

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 11:37 am

I fail to see how karma is particularly plausible. There are far, far too many examples of bad people prospering and not appearing to suffer in any way, not to mention good people suffering horribly. At least the afterlifers get to believe that it will all be sorted out later on. And, besides, doesn’t an active belief in karma somewhat undermine collective action on social justice? If providence ensures fairness, we don’t need to do anything about it ourselves.

5

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 11:44 am

You could put it on a Blakean basis — where heaven and hell are the responses of other people (and your own responses to their responses).

6

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 12:03 pm

Nah, I don’t think capitalism needs religion for social control. Standard free-market-dogmatism will do fine. No use for karma; markets ensure that everyone gets what they deserve; markets take care of democracy, human rights, and a pony for everyone.

7

Tyler Cowen 05.06.09 at 12:16 pm

I would be very surprised if it turned out that Tollison and those other guys were mainline Protestants.

8

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:19 pm

Standard free-market-dogmatism will do fine.

That IS the religion of capitalism, no?

As an admirer of Blake I’m quite partial to belle le tristes’s suggestion. Only, I don’t think Blake would exactly appeal to planners seeking a means of social control!

9

Lake 05.06.09 at 12:21 pm

How serious is this vague belief in karma?

10

Hidari 05.06.09 at 12:21 pm

I could be wrong about this (God knows, ha ha ha) but I don’t think, precisely, that Eagletson’s position on religion is to defend it as an aesthetic phenomenon per se. Remember Eagleton wrote the script for Jarman’s ‘Wittgenstein’, and I think he is holding a position very close to Wittgenstein’s.

What I think Eagleton is driving at is that Dawkins et al presuppose that Religion is primarily an attempt to make truth statements about the world and because of their scientism they then assume (or have already assumed) that the only kind of ‘truth statements’ that really matter are scientific truth statements. Therefore: religion aspires to be science. And of course Dawkins can then rip the whole enterprise apart because considered as an ersatz science religion is a dead loss: it doesn’t predict anything, it is ‘unfalsifiable’ (or, worse, falsified), when it does make claims that overlap with similar claims made by science (on human origins etc) it’s invariably wrong and so forth.

Eagleton, is arguing (I think) that religion is not an ‘individualistic’ ‘cognitive’ phenomeon relating to beliefs but instead a social, practical phenomenon relating to behaviours, and also that religion does not relate to truth but to meaning. In other words ‘I read the bible and I discovered lots of facts about physics and the make up of the Universe’ is a ridiculous statement but ‘Before I joined the Church my life was meaningless’ is not.

Eagleton might be wrong about this (and I think he avoids the key point that Monotheistic religions at least, are about meaning AND about truth) but I don’t think that he is attempting to justify religion as an aesthetic phenomenon per se (although, like Wittgenstein, I think he would also consider the methods of the natural sciences to be inapplicable to aesthetic discussions).

11

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:28 pm

Therefore: religion aspires to be science.

I think that part of the problem here is that apart from Dawkins, most people in the UK are not fully aware of just how much this really remains true of conservative Christians in the US, and just how much energy they expend trying to force their constantly-adapting versions of creationism into our public schools. That gives one a somewhat less complacent perspective on this question than Eagleton’s.

12

Tracy W 05.06.09 at 12:32 pm

But if you were this hypothetical social planner, how would you get everyone to share this vague belief in karma? From observation when actual governments in modern societies want to get everyone to share a belief (eg “smoking is bad for your health”), they hire costly professionals at marketing firms, or they call on schools to teach this subject – eg we had classes at school on how to avoid catching AIDS. And it appears to take a lot of effort even so to change behaviours.

Relatedly, there’s little or no room for theological disputes that can turn into social divisions.

I presume that this new vague belief is only applicable to those modern capitalist societies that do not include any members of the species homo sapiens sapiens.

Third, although it might seem problematic that there is no definition of “bad” here, that’s actually an asset.

Yep, because of course there is absolutely no chance that people might decide to define interracial marriage, or women getting university degrees, or homosexuality, as bad. Not admittedly that religious belief appears to have stopped the majority of people from doing anything they wanted to anyway (eg I understand that in medieval Europe you didn’t charge ursury, you gave a loan and the recipient paid you back and made a “gift”), so I guess we can take that as a point in your idea’s favour: having a list doesn’t stop people from doing bad things anyway so you may as well not have a list and get all the advantages of brevity.

Note I am an atheist.

13

Hidari 05.06.09 at 12:42 pm

‘I think that part of the problem here is that apart from Dawkins, most people in the UK are not fully aware of just how much this really remains true of conservative Christians in the US, and just how much energy they expend trying to force their constantly-adapting versions of creationism into our public schools. That gives one a somewhat less complacent perspective on this question than Eagleton’s.’

I think this is the Achilles’ Heel in Eagleton’s argument (and Wittgenstein’s for that matter). For all that E. and W. deny that Christians are really making Truth statements and are instead engaging in social behaviours that give meaning to their lives, the simple fact is that Christianity is built on a Truth Claim: either a man rose from the dead (in some non-metaphorical way) 2000 years ago he (or He) didn’t. And, having grown up in a large Catholic family I can tell you now that a lot of Catholics believe this to be a fact in precisely the kinda ‘ersatz science’ way that Eagleton says they don’t. And Eagleton comes from a working class Catholic background, so he knows perfectly well that this is the case.

As you say, in Western Europe, occasional scares about Islam notwithstanding, organised monotheistic religion is really a dead issue. And so Eagleton can afford to strike poses about giving religion its due: nothing much is at stake. If he lived in the United States (or the Middle East) he might not be nearly so complacent.

14

novakant 05.06.09 at 12:48 pm

I’ve only read a review of the Eagleton book, but it seems one of the main points is that Dawkins/Hitchens have no clue what they are actually talking about, i.e. religion, and that consequently their arguments are just vulgar and ignorant. I think he’s on to something there (I’m also an atheist).

15

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:50 pm

I’ve only read a review of the Eagleton book, but it seems one of the main points is that Dawkins/Hitchens have no clue what they are actually talking about, i.e. religion, and that consequently their arguments are just vulgar and ignorant. I think he’s on to something there (I’m also an atheist).

To which the appropriate response is the one Hidari and I have just given.

16

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 12:52 pm

chesterton — as a catholic possibly even less typical than eagleton — specifically denounces 19th-century classical liberal free-market capitalism as a heresy, worse even than communism (cf eg the father brown story “the crime of the communist“), which, of all the then-extant christianities, only the catholic church recognised and challenged as such

again, i think there’s plenty of ways this is a bit deluded, in terms of papal realpolitik and all kinds of other less savoury harms, but i suspect it’s a potent (emotional) element in the argument being made

17

M. Townes 05.06.09 at 12:55 pm

The social planner in this hypothetical faces a major obstacle – namely, the religious beliefs people already hold. It’s much harder to get people to adopt an entirely different set of beliefs than it is to dilute or distort those beliefs to serve as an instrument of society or – more commonly – the state; as far as I know, this is the Russian Orthodox church’s role in Russia today; see also evangelical Christianity at the US Air Force Academy. If you were trying to do this for Christianity in the US’s capitalist society, your version would probably bear a strong resemblance to “the Prosperity Gospel”, depending on what you meant by “optimal”.

18

Adam Roberts 05.06.09 at 12:56 pm

Hidari @10: that’s an exeptionally lucid account of the Eagleton position … thanks. Rather more lucid that Eagleton tends, himself, to be I’d say.

You’re right, I think, that the world’s key religions are about meaning and truth for almost all the world’s believers. I’d say (from reading The God Delusion) that Dawkins gets this too. It’s just that, for him, the Meaning side of things is vitiated by the fact that such meaning is predicated upon stuff that isn’t true. He thinks, rightly or wrongly, that it’s bad for people to build their world-views upon untrue stuff.

19

Nathan 05.06.09 at 1:00 pm

I wrote a review of the Eagleton book for The American Prospect in which I suggest that Eagleton is not necessarily so much more theologically literate than Dawkins/Hitchens (whom he calls “Ditchkins”). And, more to the point, the difficulties his effort to mobilize religion for the sake of politics would raise for both theology and for secular politics. Join the discussion at my blog if you like too.

20

x. trapnel 05.06.09 at 1:02 pm

(Because someone has to … )

<a href=”http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon_04.htm”Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 4:

“The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.”

21

novakant 05.06.09 at 1:02 pm

To which the appropriate response is the one Hidari and I have just given.

Only if you assume that:

religion = conservative nutcases in the US

which entails ignoring huge swathes of both intellectual and art history, as well as the positive social function religion can undeniably perform if practiced in a less extreme fashion.

22

ajay 05.06.09 at 1:04 pm

apart from Dawkins, most people in the UK are not fully aware of just how much this really remains true of conservative Christians in the US, and just how much energy they expend trying to force their constantly-adapting versions of creationism into our public schools.

And, alas, state schools in the UK as well. The delightful Mr Reg Vardy, for example.

The point about truth vs. meaning does rather avoid the central plank in religion’s marketing approach: that their particular set of statements is the best not because they were invented by some particularly bright bloke, nor because they will (if followed) lead to a better and more just society, but because they were laid down by a supernatural being of immense power and wisdom. You can’t really have a religion without that sort of appeal to authority – which has at its core an unprovable truth claim (that said being exists).

23

x. trapnel 05.06.09 at 1:04 pm

Ooops. I meant that to point to this copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract, Book 4. My bad.

24

ajay 05.06.09 at 1:06 pm

novakant, if you assume that only the religion followed by “conservative nutcases in the US” makes any truth claims about the nature of the universe, its creation, and the existence and preferences of supernatural beings, then you’re just being silly.

25

robertdfeinman 05.06.09 at 1:11 pm

Daniel Dennett (the under-appreciated member of the gang of four) has written extensively on the need to believe. Having “faith” is seen by many as a social good in itself, as in:

“I don’t believe myself, but I think it is important for my children to do so, that’s why I send them for religious instruction”.

Apparently there is still some lurking idea that non-believers can’t have a moral framework. The most common counter argument, seen frequently in publications like “Free Inquiry”, is that one should work to maximize the satisfactions of one’s current life and not worry about unprovable future manifestations. This, of course, can lead to questions about social inequality and injustice and why it should be tolerated.

I always find it amusing to contrast the sayings of Jesus about humility and poverty with the opulence of the Catholic church. Similar observations can be made about other religions as well.

26

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 1:11 pm

religion = conservative nutcases in the US

Nobody said that, but going to the opposite extreme and simply failing to acknowledge that religious extremists do, in fact, have major influence in many parts of the world doesn’t seem very sensible. Nor does blithely ignoring Hidari’s point that the modal believer in, at least, one of the organized monotheistic religions is rather closer to the extremists’ position than to Eageleton’s.

which entails ignoring huge swathes of both intellectual and art history

None of which Dawkins attacks (he’s all for teaching comparative religion and Bible-as-literature) so your point is what, exactly?

27

Hidari 05.06.09 at 1:13 pm

‘The point about truth vs. meaning does rather avoid the central plank in religion’s marketing approach: that their particular set of statements is the best not because they were invented by some particularly bright bloke, nor because they will (if followed) lead to a better and more just society, but because they were laid down by a supernatural being of immense power and wisdom. You can’t really have a religion without that sort of appeal to authority – which has at its core an unprovable truth claim (that said being exists).’

I’m not sure if that’s true, which also leads onto another subject that Dawkins doesn’t really discuss: what counts as a religion? Is Buddhism a religion? Probably, sorta, kinda. What about Confucianism though?

Now: it’s certainly true that ultimately these two belief systems do rely on an appeal to authority (they both presuppose that Buddhism and Confucious had some profound insight into the nature of reality, in a different way to the belief that Einstein had similar insights…Einstein made falsifiable predictions which the other two didn’t).

But they didn’t make ‘sky God’ appeals to authority.

28

Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 1:14 pm

Although this claim has various components, the most obvious social benefits of religious belief, and the biggest source of concern about the adverse consequences of unbelief, is the doctrine of an afterlife in which good actions will be rewarded and bad ones punished.

This is a funny sentence. I think the most obvious social benefit is more mechanical: people get together to talk about being good. Some religions don’t even need an afterlife for that.

29

deliasmith 05.06.09 at 1:17 pm

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that Christianity would actually have been of some use if, just as the crucifixion was getting started, God’s hand had emerged from a rent in the firmament and battered to pulp a couple of Roman soldiers and a high priest, then followed up with a loud, clear warning that from now on he’d be keeping a close eye on those kind of people and that kind of behaviour.

30

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 1:19 pm

Is Buddhism a religion? Probably, sorta, kinda.

I believe that Buddhism as she is actually practised by Tibetans and Mongolians is rather different from the abstract philosophical exercise it’s normally thought of in the West.

31

Matt Kuzma 05.06.09 at 1:22 pm

I’d like to point out that in the Eagleton essay linked in the comments to the last post involving Eagleton, he explicitly states that his beliefs do not involve an afterlife in which bad deeds are punished. In fact, entire sects of Christians (to a first approximation all Lutherans) don’t believe in a judgment in the afterlife except as regards one’s belief in God. I have to wonder why they aren’t a source of concern about the same kinds of adverse consequence as those of unbelief?

Anyway, I think it’s obvious that there is no justice meted out naturally on anything like a single human’s time-scale, which is precisely why we need to do it ourselves. I think religion often acted as a coping mechanism for a time when humanity was simply incapable, logistically, of achieving anything like a just society. So you decide that maybe everyone will get theirs in the afterlife.

But now we really can hold everyone, even the powerful accountable for their crimes, at least when they are explicitly crimes. There’s still no justice to be had over the cruel and ruthless businessman who obeys the letter of the law. But we do pretty well and have the capacity to do a lot better, and I think our efforts would be better focused on constructing societies that are more truly based on the rule of law for all members, even say presidents who authorize the use of torture.

32

novakant 05.06.09 at 1:24 pm

I’m not “blithely ignoring” or “failing to acknowledge” anything, and my point is that arrogant, ignorant and reductionist accounts like Dawkins’ are both lacking in explanatory value and generally unhelpful in furthering the discussion.

33

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 1:26 pm

…my point is that arrogant, ignorant and reductionist accounts like Dawkins’ …

Since I have already caught you blatantly mischaracterizing what Dawkins actually wrote, I don’t think this carries much weight.

34

JoB 05.06.09 at 1:27 pm

Dawkins got an honorary here in Belgium last week. He said that forcing children to adopt the religion of the parents was child abuse, other than that he (said he) was all for teaching religion (but then all of them, or at any rate many of them) and letting the children decide.

He was right in his first statement. As to his second: to the extent people ‘choose’ a religion, and allow others to freely choose it; why not? After all, some people choose freely to listen to J. Bon Jovi.

35

JoB 05.06.09 at 1:30 pm

novakant, furthering what discussion? The discussion on non-nutcase catholics suggesting that Africans should abstain rather than have access to condoms?

36

bianca steele 05.06.09 at 1:31 pm

I wonder if there’s a temperamental distinction to be made between those who basically have a vague belief in karma and those who basically have a vague belief in the superego.

37

notsneaky 05.06.09 at 1:36 pm

Agree with #4 that major problem with a belief in karma as a social welfare policy is that it can actually lead to a very cold and uncharitable view of the world. If you have bad things happening to you, it’s because you have behaved badly. If you have the good life – money, mansion, private jet – it’s because you deserve it through some unspecified past act of goodness (if you replace with “past” with “past life” it’s even worse). In such a world, why would anyone support redistribution, egaliterianism, or basic charity and empathy? Everyone’s already getting what they deserve.

Even the agnostic, amoral, jungle capitalism isn’t that cold since, while it lets people fail, it at least admits that some of this is simply due to bad luck (though them’s the breaks and the necessary cost that has to be paid to get the benefits of the system)

Or think about financial bailouts. Roughly speaking, if you want to bailout institutions/individuals/countries without creating moral hazard, then you want to bail out those who got into trouble through bad luck and no fault of their own, and let those who brought on their own ruin, be ruined. But karma breaks this link by, essentially, replacing randomness with purposeful action and causality and in a world where the policy maker believes in karma no one gets helped, the guilty and the innocently wronged alike.

In fact there have been societies, more or less, which have been based on the belief in karma in some way or another (+ all the trappings of religion but I think that’s just sort of inevitable and more window dressing than substance) and they didn’t really turn out any more equal, or any nicer than other societies. Basically I’m having trouble how you can square the belief in karma with egalitarianism.

Now, having said all that, it may be actually true that a bit more belief in karma can be socially beneficial at the margin (if we’re in fact in a world where not many folks believe in it). It makes you act “not bad” but that’s not the same as acting “good”.

38

deliasmith 05.06.09 at 1:42 pm

28 above: Slaughterhouse 5.

“But the Gospels actually taught this: before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. . . . The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ who didn’t look like much, was actually the son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought . . . Oh boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch this time! And that thought had a brother: there are right people to lynch. People not well connected. . . . The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really WAS a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. . . . So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought . . . since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was. And then, just before the nobody died. . . . The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son. . . . God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections.”

39

novakant 05.06.09 at 1:50 pm

Since I have already caught you blatantly mischaracterizing what Dawkins actually wrote

You claiming that doesn’t make it so. I actually agree with Dawkins on a number of points – I’m an atheist after all -, but at the same time am aware that he is embarrassingly ill equipped to discuss the matter in a comprehensive manner, because he hasn’t done his homework, his reductionism is vulgar and his polemic doesn’t lead anywhere productive.

novakant, furthering what discussion?

The discussion between atheists like myself and the vast majority of people who subscribe to some form of religious belief without being extremists.

40

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 1:54 pm

You claiming that doesn’t make it so.

No, but your having typed the the following does:

Only if you assume that:

religion = conservative nutcases in the US

which entails ignoring huge swathes of both intellectual and art history

None of which bears much relationship to anything Dawkins has written or said, especially the part about intellectual and art history.

41

b9n10t 05.06.09 at 1:56 pm

robertfeinmann:

I think Dennet cleverly articulates a foundation of the major modern religions: a belief in belief (his definition of faith).

One can believe or not believe in the tenets of any faith and not be of a particular religion. But to believe in the value of believing: this is what most religions teach and how they market.

As for the thread’s topic: I believe that a rather commonsense morality is fairly integral to our species. Only rarely, and under unusual and trying psychological conditions, to humans lack the ability to read social cues, empathize, and seek harmonious relations with the family/clan/nation/others. I futher believe that science will prove that our conceptions of our morality, often religious in nature, are post hoc rationalizations.

I do not believe in believing this, however.

42

ajay 05.06.09 at 1:56 pm

what counts as a religion? Is Buddhism a religion? Probably, sorta, kinda. What about Confucianism though?

Buddhism certainly does base a lot of its authority on truth claims about the existence of supernatural entities. AFAIK Confucianism didn’t – it was much closer to the second group I mentioned, in that the Analects tend more to claim “you should do this because it will lead to a just, peaceful and prosperous society”, and don’t claim that Confucius was inspired by any sort of supernatural influence to write them. In that respect it’s no more a religion than, say, Keynesianism.
Neo-Confucianism has an admixture of Taoism and Buddhism, so is a bit different.

43

ajay 05.06.09 at 2:00 pm

“The discussion between atheists like myself and the vast majority of people who subscribe to some form of religious belief without being extremists.”

But most religious believers also believe that their religion involves truth statements. Which is your definition of an extremist. (To be accurate, a conservative nutcase).

44

notsneaky 05.06.09 at 2:01 pm

There’s also both an income and substitution effect here. If I come to believe that the connection between present good acts and future good rewards just got tighter that increases the expected reward to good acts today and increases the opportunity cost of not acting good. But it also means that for a given number of good acts I get a higher probability of a good reward, so I might want to switch some of my time from good acts and towards selfish (but non bad) pursuits.

45

ajay 05.06.09 at 2:05 pm

43: nice try, but selfishness is bad.

46

Mo MacArbie 05.06.09 at 2:07 pm

I fail to see how karma is particularly plausible. There are far, far too many examples of bad people prospering and not appearing to suffer in any way, not to mention good people suffering horribly. At least the afterlifers get to believe that it will all be sorted out later on. And, besides, doesn’t an active belief in karma somewhat undermine collective action on social justice?

IANreallyABuddhist, but I think there’s another reading of karma than the one merely about retributive justice. If one works to make the world a better or a worse place, then eventually consequences will be realized by one’s living in that better or worse world. If one backstabs assholes all the way to the top, then one winds up at the top of a whole bunch of backstabbing assholes for a little while.

So to swap clichés, it’s more of a “be the change you want to see” than “what comes around goes around.”

47

Lee A. Arnold 05.06.09 at 2:11 pm

John Quiggan (and dsquared) you’re not far from Wittgenstein:

“Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For “consciousness of sin” is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.”

48

dave 05.06.09 at 2:20 pm

I’m not really a Buddhist either, but I do know that the central aim of the teachings of the Buddha was to allow people to give up what is generally expressed as ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, and to live (and die) without wants. If you ‘want to see’ change, you’re still craving, and the cycle of rebirth, in which existence is suffering, continues. That’s ‘Karma’. Buddhism, in that sense, is an escape-hatch from Hinduism…

49

dsquared 05.06.09 at 2:23 pm

#21: I am told that at Vardy Group plc, it is a sacking offence to refer to Sir Peter as “Reg”. Kind of like the way you can apparently get unceremoniously chucked out of a Ryan Adams concert for requesting “Run To You”, “Summer of ’69” or that Robin Hood song.

50

JoB 05.06.09 at 2:33 pm

novakant-38, fair enough (I’m an atheist as well and I am also very much interested in keeping a distinction between religious extremism and religious belief proper) but still what discussion? A discussion on whether religious belief is beneficial? A discussion on whether religious belief can be innocent enough to be cleanly separated from the extremism that piggybacks on top of it?

My reference to the pope is not coincidental. Catholicism is not now associated to extremism in most cases but a catholic does subscribe to what the pope says e.g. on condoms in Africa. Why’s the catholic not accountable for supporting a belief that does real damage here & now?

51

dsquared 05.06.09 at 2:35 pm

erratum/clarification to #47 – I thought ajay was getting mixed up with Reg Varney but of course Reg Vardy was the father of Sir Peter and founded Reg Vardy plc. Vardy Group plc was set up by Sir Peter with the proceeds of selling his father’s company to Pendragon, and is largely a real estate and private equity firm. I strongly suspect that you could also get sacked there for pitching an investment in buses nonetheless.

This is confusing. Here’s a summary:

Reg Vardy – car dealer (d 1976)
Reg Varney – cheeky cockney actor, first person in England to use an ATM (d 2008)
Sir Peter Vardy – god-bothering philanthropist (although apparently not a creationist according to a somewhat sycophantic Wikipedia page)
Reg Vardy plc – chain of car dealerships (d 2006, now trades as Evans Halshaw)
The Vardy Group plc – private investment company of Sir Peter Vardy (see above)
The Vardy Foundation – philanthropic foundation of Sir Peter Vardy
The Emmanuel Schools Foundation – god-bothering educational arm of The Vardy Foundation
The Reg Vardy Band – 31 time North of England championship-winning brass band, formerly sponsored by Reg Vardy plc
Reg Varney Trio – seemingly unrelated indie band.

52

ajay 05.06.09 at 2:37 pm

dsquared has revealed that I was in fact far more confused than I thought I was. I will print out and laminate the handy Vardy/Varney Disambiguation List he has provided, and use it to forestall any further solecisms.

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dsquared 05.06.09 at 2:39 pm

Sorry, this still isn’t quite cleared up:

Dr Peter Vardy – theologian, as far as I can tell unrelated to either Sir Peter Vardy or Reg Varney.

I think that’s it. There’s also apparently an Aussie Rules player of the same name but I think he at least is unlikely to get confused.

54

notsneaky 05.06.09 at 2:45 pm

Re:44
Eh, you know what I mean, you can’t be a Saint 100% of the time. At some point you’ll want to just plop down on your couch and watch a tv show.

55

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 2:59 pm

56

Robert 05.06.09 at 3:01 pm

I don’t think anyone’s improved on Plato’s suggestion: The gods formed us all out of the earth beneath us, so the earth is our mother, to be protected, and we’re all related to each other, all family. It can be improved, of course–jettison the Myth of the Metals. But as religions made up in order to tame the masses, it’s pretty clever.

57

novakant 05.06.09 at 3:10 pm

But most religious believers also believe that their religion involves truth statements. Which is your definition of an extremist.

ajay, no, I do not believe that 85% of the world population are extremists. While most religious believers might have un- or insufficiently substantiated beliefs, that alone doesn’t make them extremists. Also, holding such beliefs is not exclusive to religion.

but still what discussion?

JoB, generally speaking the discussion has to start with the realization that 85% of the world population hold religious beliefs in one form or another and that they won’t go away anytime soon. Also helpful would be the assumption that most of these people are not stupid and generally open to reasonable arguments. Finally, the aim should not be to make them see the errors of their ways and refute religion, but rather finding a common basis on which we can discuss the effects of certain beliefs on society.

From my experience – and I’m talking mainly about Irish catholics here – this isn’t necessarily all that hard to achieve and I have met a number of catholics who have changed their stance on e.g. birth control or homosexuality over time, while still believing in god and going to church. This might not be an entirely satisfactory outcome from an intellectual point of view, but then we’re talking about the real world here and not some academic parlour game.

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Phil 05.06.09 at 3:17 pm

the central plank in religion’s marketing approach: that their particular set of statements is the best not because they were invented by some particularly bright bloke, nor because they will (if followed) lead to a better and more just society, but because they were laid down by a supernatural being of immense power and wisdom

This argument – It all rests on an appeal to authority! And the authority doesn’t even exist! – is a mainstay of the Impatient Atheist school of writing about religion, but I’m not sure how far it’s either descriptively or definitionally true. When I was a Christian, the authority of Jesus derived from the authority of Jesus’s words, not vice versa – the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of the sheep and the goats, dicta like “whoever would save his own life shall lose it”, these were the things that hooked me in and made me feel that this Jesus person must have been pretty special. Then I learnt that this special person had also gone willingly to his death instead of starting a rebellion (why did he do that? what was that about?); then that he’d risen from the dead, and that actually he was God Incarnate. Which made a kind of sense of the rest of the story, although not without introducing a lot of other questions.

But the ultimate source of Jesus’s authority over me was the same as in the case of Marx or Darwin or Wittgenstein – he said stuff that made my mind work differently, in ways which I found useful and interesting and challenging to live with. Good memes, you could say (if you believed in them).

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Pete 05.06.09 at 3:17 pm

Mo MacArbie @ 45:

I’m not sure that what you describe is karma, exactly. Perhaps, though, this is due to my understanding karma in away that is atypical. So, I think that what distinguishes karma from a more general idea of moral desert or justice is that karma is something like a natural force. Karma involves the idea that when I do good things, good things will happen to me in a manner that is somehow independent of us structuring our society in such a way as to reward good acts and punish bad ones. If it is we who determine that good acts are rewarded and bad ones punished, then this is simply some form of justice, not of karma.

Now, you might be pointing to something like karma as a matter of moral psychology: when I am nice to people, they tend to be nice to me as well. This kind of causal effect of my behavior on others might be construed as a sort of karma. But, this looks to me like a pretty mundane idea of karma, and not really what I thought it was about at all.

So, I don’t believe in any kind of karma-as-natural-law sort of view, but I do think that I should treat people well, and I also believe that when I do so, they will be more likely to treat me well in return (though this isn’t the moral reason to treat them well, even if it is a prudential reason). I also think that if I am miserable to others, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be miserable to me too; if I hold a capitalist ethic of success by tromping over others’ interests, I will tend to push away those with whom I might have had deep relationships, and be left with sycophants and competitors like me. But again, I don’t see this as a matter of karma, conceived of as some [super?]natural function independent of, in addition to, or regulative over other causal processes.

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lisa 05.06.09 at 3:19 pm

I find this a peculiar argument. It ignores the guilt that does all the work in causing the motivation to be moral. People do not necessarily have to be punished directly. They only have to be made guilty. Sometimes the threat of punishment is sufficient to cause this guilt–e.g., the cultural revolution. The cultural revolution and other early revolutionary moments (the CR was not early, in relative terms) were effective in guaranteeing a high level of exemplary personal behavior because people internalized the norms and then violating them caused high levels of guilt. Watching public punishment of violators can solidify this guilt but what works even better is if you have a strong climate of social disapproval.

All you need for this is an extremely compelling ideal that requires an extreme level of exemplary personal behavior and people will internalize the social disapproval until it regulates their behavior. I wouldn’t say that observant Jews who don’t believe in an afterlife are more ethical than others but their private behavior is reliably observant. They don’t need prospective punishment. That God is watching is enough.

I.e., what you need is: Someone is watching. The divine panopticon works but so does the community. Karma only works well if you think the universe is watching. As punishment alone, I suspect it would be fairly ineffective. People are highly irrational about the future.

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Salient 05.06.09 at 3:20 pm

Finally, the aim should not be to make them see the errors of their ways and refute religion,

[ Note: In the following response, I’m distinguishing “beliefs” from its proper subset “socially damaging beliefs” ]

Just out of curiosity, why not? I suppose your use of the phrases “the aim” and “refute religion” precludes the option of having, say, multiple goals, one of which could be to encourage people away from beliefs, assumptions, and characterizations of reality that are socially damaging. That’s not refuting religion per se; it’s advocating for beliefs that advance a view of social progress and against beliefs which might impede that progress.

I would say: One of our many aims should be to make explicit the “errors of their ways (and of our own ways),” in a palatable and charitable format, in order to make the most compelling case possible against socially damaging beliefs.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.06.09 at 3:26 pm

John Quiggan, on the economics issue, what is to be done? I haven’t read Dawkings or Dennet on this: what is their favored approach to helping people get over distress that requires a change in being? Send them to a psychiatrist? Who hopefully doesn’t follow some discontinued scientific framework! (Freud, anyone?) At $300 an hour? (I live near Santa Monica, Ca.)

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CJColucci 05.06.09 at 3:50 pm

I suspect that even most militant atheists wouldn’t give a damn what other people believed unless they thought those beliefs had undue power and malign influence. They would say, if asked, that religions — or at least religions that make literal truth claims, which, contrary to Eagleton’s Faculty Club Theology, is most of them — are wrong, but they would treat the issue the way my friends treat my belief that Bobby Grich was a far superior baseball player to Rod Carew and has a better claim to Hall of Fame membership. It would rarely come up.
To get through the day, we need some kind of moral structure. As a plain historical matter, most of us get our moral structures through religious sources. I doubt most atheists would care whether one’s moral structure had religious or secular sources as long as the non-atheists didn’t treat the atheists as moral lepers lacking any basis for refraining from robbery, rape, and murder, and were as willing to vote for an otherwise acceptable atheist as atheists are to vote for an otherwise acceptable Christian.

64

JoB 05.06.09 at 3:52 pm

novakant-55,

Really, I’m not trying to be obnoxious here but as far as I could see you did not identify this or that discussion just yet. You gave perfectly reasonable things we ought not – always – drag into a discussion (although see salient).

Let me retry a possible discussion: assume an Irish catholic thinks homosexuality is OK and he also believes in the authority of the pope (who doesn’t quite think homosexuality is OK & who – quite probably – thinks any good catholic should think homosexuals are NOK). Would it be too much to point out to this Irish catholic that he can’t have his cake and eat it too? Would it be too arrogant to point out to him that there might be homosexual children of Irish catholics that are, hmmm, less well off than they could be because that he (the ‘he’ co-refers with the ‘him’) is after all an Irush catholic?

If your answer to the last two questions is ‘no’ – what other type of discussion? It would maybe be fine if all belief was Kierkegaardian but at least catholic belief isn’t.

65

Bill Gardner 05.06.09 at 4:00 pm

For anyone who is interested, there are Buddhist thinkers, including some trained in orthodox lineages (e.g., Ken McLeod or Stephen Batchelor), who are trying to work out an understanding of the dharma that does not rely on supernatural beliefs . No criticism of John Q intended, but a vague belief in karma may actually be an impediment to understanding Buddhism.

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dsquared 05.06.09 at 4:10 pm

I suspect that even most militant atheists wouldn’t give a damn what other people believed unless they thought those beliefs had undue power and malign influence.

no, James Randi and his fans certainly do very much give a damn what, eg, Rupert Sheldrake believes, and he’s more or less the paradigm case of a harmless eccentric.

67

Alison P 05.06.09 at 4:10 pm

It seems to me that the point of religion is that it tries to overwrite ‘what actually takes place in human life’ – what you might call unmediated spiritual or emotional experience – with an ersatz and communally approved alternative. That is why so much of the energy of religion is expended on identifying the parameters of acceptable spiritual experience, and the horrid things which will happen to those who step outside these parameters.

Sometimes I think that only a few people feel this disjunct between their own needs and what religion imposes, in which case we’d just have to suck it up I guess. But I think the feeling of disjunct is quite widespread, and that seems to be the best argument against religion. Not merely that it is false, but it’s so difficult to wear, like uncomfortable shoes.

68

ajay 05.06.09 at 4:23 pm

64: The trouble is that if you’re in the business of finding out facts about the world, it’s very easy to become irritated with someone who says that your entire career has been based on falsehoods. Rather as you might be, dsquared, by someone who airily announces “Of course, the London Stock Exchange is really just a front; the prices of equities are really set every day at midnight by a secretive cabal consisting of Prince Philip, the Warden of All Souls, Rabbi Lionel Blue and the conductor of the London Philharmonic. Anyone who believes otherwise is wrong. No, of course I don’t have any proof. Stop oppressing me, man.”

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b9n10nt 05.06.09 at 5:02 pm

CJColucci:

” As a plain historical matter, most of us get our moral structures through religious sources. “

That may be like saying, “as a plain historical matter, most of us get our ability to walk from shoes”. In other words, why not suppose that a certain vague morality -even call it “sociability”- is as innate as we suppose language to be. This would explain why areligious people are every bit as morally concerned as the religious or, to put it another way, why religious belief does not noticeably detract from the suffering that man imposes on man.

And if this is true, then the belief in belief is useful as a social grouping mechanism. The belief must be believable (creation, anthropomorphic god, built in man’s image) but it also must be fantastical so as to allow the belief in the belief to be a “leap”, a genuine mark of mental effort that can be a social marker.

Thus , a faith-based (belief-in-believing) analysis of religion allows us to explain the tension in religious truth claims between plausability and implausability.

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Mo MacArbie 05.06.09 at 5:11 pm

Pete, my own understanding of karma is probably pretty idiosyncratic. I wasn’t trying to make any argument about ordering society. I see it as a natural force as well, akin to determinism if one could link all the causes and effects between an action and the karmic reaction. Every action sends out a wave of either positive or negative energy that eventually hits the shore and bounces back in some altered form.

Say I don’t allow someone to merge in front of me in traffic. Well, then the driver arrives at a date in a foul mood, it doesn’t go well, the server is tipped poorly, etc. until eventually the doctor who otherwise would have cured my cancer in 40 years never was born.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.09 at 5:29 pm

Buddhism is a religion: those who think otherwise typically have a very skewed conception of what counts as a religion, typically, something on the order of the three monotheistic/Abrahamic models of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now it is true as noted above that there are classically trained Buddhists endeavoring to have Buddhism shorn of the supernatural as it were, but I think we can safely say that they are no longer Buddhist, even if they remain committed to Buddhist-like ethics and mind-training (meditation). They are of course perfectly free to do this. What’s missing for them is an essential element in the Eightfold Path (the fourth of the Four Noble Truths), that is, “right views” which falls under the heading of Wisdom (the Eightfold Path has a triune structure involving Wisdom, Ethics, and Meditation). Three essential doctrines in Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Chain of Dependent Origination, and the Three Marks of Existence (or Reality; i.e., ‘no-self,’ ‘impermanence’ and ‘suffering’) cannot be adequately explained without reference to things metaphysical (at least in the old-fashioned sense of that word). Indeed, nirvana itself represents an experience of the “unconditioned,” the conditioned world being the world of phenomenal existence, the natural world that scientists endeavor to understand.

Karma is a metaphysical doctrine (be it in post-Vedic Hinduism or in Buddhism), and although it may involve something we might call “instant karma” (which would mean karmic ‘seeds’ which are planted in this lifetime germinate and come to fruition in this lifetime as well, but that is not the typical case) like “what goes ’round, comes ’round” (as ye sow, so shall ye reap–but the reaping comes after death for Christians and Muslims) it necessarily implicates the doctrines of samsara (countless cycles of death, birth, re-birth: further elaborated upon in the so-called ‘doctrine of dependent orgination’) and rebirth. Karma by definition is not exhausted in one lifetime, and only ceases with “awakening” or “liberation” or “enlightenment,” what is termed nibbana (nirvana). The mechanisms of karma are supernatural or metaphysical insofar as they involve both path and future lives in a causal continuum. This of course is a different way of handling what is, for the theist, the theodicy question (which needs to be formulated differently for the Buddhist in the absence of God).

It’s the Buddhist emphasis on, and extraordinary devotion to, the notion of causality that, I think, makes it attractive to those who, like Batchelor, want to work out a naturalistic dharma (as opposed to, strictly speaking, a Buddhist Dharma). Also, the (especially) Mahayana and/or Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhist use of analytical reasoning in conjunction with mind training that is appealing to those of us who place, rightly, a high premium on the value of rationality. In other words, the Buddhist incorporation of the notion of causality into so many Buddhist doctrinces and practices, as well as its considerable use of the powers of reason (which, after all and in the end, are still duly circumscribed, as they were with Pascal) (analogous to the ‘natural theology’ tradition in Catholicism which, by the way, was in many respects beholden to Islam insofar as the latter tradition preserved Greek thought for the medieval Christian world), that make it attractive to those who want to flesh out something we might term non-religious spirituality (cf. the Stoics and John Haldane’s elaboration of this essentially philosophical and non-religious spiritual praxis).

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Ted Lemon 05.06.09 at 5:30 pm

Bill@63, traditional Buddhism doesn’t rely on supernatural beliefs – it asks you to observe the world and proposes a structure that might help you to make sense of the world, and understand how to act most beneficially in the world. Buddhism never explains the underlying physics of karma, but neither does it ask you to accept that it is magic. Rather, you are asked to use your own powers of reasoning to determine whether or not practicing as if karma exists and works is beneficial. This is what you are asked to do for every Buddhist teaching from the truth of suffering all the way up to enlightenment. It would be entirely rational for someone to reject the tenets of Buddhism on the basis that they do not match with their personal experiences, and a practicing Buddhist would offer no criticism for that. This is remarkably similar to Phil @56 on Christianity.

As a Buddhist practitioner myself, I find the commonly-held notion that religion is the cause of schisms and disputes and even wars to be a very frustrating and naive one. The fact is that schisms and disputes and wars happen whether religion is present or not. They happen in every circumstance of life, from work, to the practice of democracy in your homeowner’s association, to the national political scene.

Religion can provide a convenient platform on which to engage in these activities, but there are many other convenient platforms – for instance, Hitler and the idea of racial purity, Mao and the idea of ideological purity, Pol Pot’s anti-intellectual crusade, and so on. In San Francisco it’s popular to demonize bicyclists for some reason.

So of course we see examples of people going to war under the banner of their religion, but if you contrast their behavior with the tenets of the religion they claim to follow, you will find no particular reason to think of them as practitioners of that religion, and many reasons to think otherwise. So it makes as much sense to blame Christianity or Islam for the Crusades, for example, as it does to blame science for the dispute over global warming.

To go back to your original question, do we need religion for a social morality, I will make two observations. First, on a very conventional level, who is to say that religion is not in fact the result of a need for social morality? You could certainly deconstruct Buddhism that way – whether enlightenment is possible or not, if you live by the laws of karma, avoid the ten bad deeds, and practice the way of the bodhisattva, you will probably be a happier person, and society will benefit from your presence. Whether you have future lives, and whether you wind up getting enlightened, might be something that you could come to know as a result of deep practice, or it might not, but for the average person who just adheres to the religion without trying to go deeply into its practice, the superficial activities the religion leads you to do would indeed seem socially beneficial.

Secondly, what’s your alternative? Religions provide a framework for a moral code that is more than just “human nature.” Human societies do in fact work in the absence of such a moral code, but they can be brutal places. So if you want to have something that’s not brutal, you need an ethical framework that’s more than human nature to make it work. And it has to be something that people will internalize and follow in a meaningful way. Otherwise it’s just laws, which are useful, but not the same thing.

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Hidari 05.06.09 at 5:33 pm

‘But the ultimate source of Jesus’s authority over me was the same as in the case of Marx or Darwin or Wittgenstein – he said stuff that made my mind work differently, in ways which I found useful and interesting and challenging to live with. Good memes, you could say (if you believed in them).’

and

‘It seems to me that the point of religion is that it tries to overwrite ‘what actually takes place in human life’ – what you might call unmediated spiritual or emotional experience – with an ersatz and communally approved alternative.’

and
‘For anyone who is interested, there are Buddhist thinkers, including some trained in orthodox lineages (e.g., Ken McLeod or Stephen Batchelor), who are trying to work out an understanding of the dharma that does not rely on supernatural beliefs . ‘

I don’t know if anyone gives a shit, but in my spare time I do a martial art that appealed to me as it kept a bit more of the ‘Eastern’ aspects than, say, Judo (i.e. it’s not a sport). Interestingly, almost all the original martial arts were originally bound in with moral codes and, yes, religious beliefs. And this one still does. Anyway the interesting point is that after WW2 most martial arts were banned as they were tied in with Emperor worship (it was felt). So it decided that, actually it wasn’t a martial art after all, but a religion. Then, recently, after a new law banned certain religious sects on university campuses, they decided that, gosh they were wrong, and that they were a martial art after all. But the Buddhist ‘philosophy’ has been retained BUT has been almost completely secularised (i.e. you don’t have to ‘believe’ anything supernatural)…Dharma is defined as ‘universal causal force’ for example and there’s no mention of reincarnation.

Anyway my point here is the, to a certain extent, arbitrariness of what constitutes a religion, and also the fact that John Quiggin’s proposed religion sorta already exists. It also indicates that organisations can self-designate as religions in a wholly secular context (although, there are more ‘conventionally’ religious (Buddhist) options available…but only if you’re japanese).

My final point is that the whole Dawkins/Eagleton debate really only makes sense in a ‘western’ context. Is Taoism a religion?

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 5:33 pm

So of course we see examples of people going to war under the banner of their religion, but if you contrast their behavior with the tenets of the religion they claim to follow, you will find no particular reason to think of them as practitioners of that religion, and many reasons to think otherwise.

This arguement can’t be taken too far without flirting with the One True Scotsman fallacy.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 5:40 pm

So if you want to have something that’s not brutal, you need an ethical framework that’s more than human nature to make it work.

What is this even supposed to mean? That ethical frameworks require a supernatural component? That’s demonstrably untrue. Since there’s a lot of talk about Buddhism around here just now, consult the Poisoned Arrow Parable.

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Ted Lemon 05.06.09 at 5:42 pm

Allison @65, if it’s difficult to wear, you’re doing it wrong. I don’t mean to be dismissive – my point is that the “unmeditated” experience you describe is something you ought to be able to have with any object in your world, even the social objects. The mere fact that a social structure exists which perhaps attempts to move you in a certain direction does not mean that you cannot dance within that structure to the tune that most pleases you.

Of course there are obvious exceptions to this where a religious structure is coercive, as opposed to prescriptive. But not all religious are coercive, and not all social constructs are separate from “what actually takes place in life.”

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Ted Lemon 05.06.09 at 5:52 pm

Steve @72, no, I mean that there has to be a rational framework. I’m suggesting that at least one function of religion is to provide a standardized superego that acts counter to one’s impulses. The supernatural component is unnecessary, as the parable to which you refer demonstrates.

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Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 5:58 pm

Steve @72, no, I mean that there has to be a rational framework. I’m suggesting that at least one function of religion is to provide a standardized superego that acts counter to one’s impulses.

That is a very dark view of people.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 5:59 pm

Fair enough. It’s quite clear, though, that many impulses which can reasonably be described as moral are actually part of human (indeed, higher primate) nature- the sense of fairness and unfairness is a famous example. So ethical frameworks needn’t and shouldn’t just turn their backs on our simian heritage but can profitably be informed by it.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 6:04 pm

That is a very dark view of people.

And not a very Buddhist one either- it’s just the familiar “fallen humanity” story of the Middle Eastern sky-god religions.

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koan0215 05.06.09 at 6:08 pm

“And not a very Buddhist one either- it’s just the familiar “fallen humanity” story of the Middle Eastern sky-god religions.”

Actually it sounds pretty Buddhist to this practicing Buddhist.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 6:14 pm

Actually it sounds pretty Buddhist to this practicing Buddhist.

I’m interested to hear more about that. From the little I know about Buddhism, the idea that human nature is depraved and needs to be corseted in an ethical framework essentially external to it doesn’t sound at all like the Buddha’s teaching as I understand it (but does sound quite like Judaism and Christianity). Nor indeed does the idea that there is anything like a fixed “human nature” at all; I take him as having denied this pretty strenuously. What have I misunderstood?

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novakant 05.06.09 at 6:19 pm

Would it be too much to point out to this Irish catholic that he can’t have his cake and eat it too?

See, that all depends. If, say, it’s an old friend or fellow student and we argue about such things all the time, then one might well point that out. If it’s your grumpy old grandpa, who essentially has a good heart, but sometimes sounds like a fascist bigot, then one might be happy that he’s come this far and not try to press the issue further. There’s a human, a tactical and a pragmatic angle to all this.

Also, it’s not as if the liberal belief-system didn’t have its fair share of contradictions, e.g. the nature vs. nurture question, where people of this persuasion generally come down more on the nurture side, but when discussing sexual orientation it suddenly is all supposed to be due to nature.

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koan0215 05.06.09 at 6:22 pm

You’re not entirely wrong, Steve, but it’s a bit more complicated than that as I understand it. There is obviously no doctrine of a “fall” and insofar as Buddhist traditions have a tradition of a “natural man” they wouldn’t use the word “depraved” to describe him. But human beings suffer because of their attachments to objects and states of being that are constantly changing. Because of these attachments (a kind of false consciousness) human beings make bad, grasping, immoral choices. There is definitely a Buddhist concept of sin, it’s just very different from the western idea of sin. Most Buddhist traditions would not argue with the idea that dharma is a great way to get people to act in a moral fashion.

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Phil 05.06.09 at 6:27 pm

religions that make literal truth claims, which, contrary to Eagleton’s Faculty Club Theology, is most of them

Would you care to point to a few literal truth claims made by the Archbishop of Canterbury? The Anglican Communion numbers around 80 million believers – small beer compared to the Catholics, but five times the size of the Southern Baptist Convention, to name but one supposedly representative group of Christians.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 6:37 pm

Would you care to point to a few literal truth claims made by the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Contrary to popular legend, regardless of his attitude towards the finer points of Christian doctrine he is most certainly a theist. That’s a rather large ontological commitment, I would say.

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Bill Gardner 05.06.09 at 7:37 pm

The last thing this list needs is a sectarian dispute among Buddhists, so I will keep this brief. Patrick @ 68:
Three essential doctrines in Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Chain of Dependent Origination, and the Three Marks of Existence (or Reality; i.e., ‘no-self,’ ‘impermanence’ and ‘suffering’) cannot be adequately explained without reference to things metaphysical…
Well, that is the point in dispute. The traditional doctrines do involve supernatural (‘metaphysical’) premises, and are, for that very reason, inadequate explanations of the lived religious experience of Buddhists.
Ted @ 69:
traditional Buddhism doesn’t rely on supernatural beliefs
I wish that were so. But here I agree with Patrick. Creating a Buddhism that coheres with a modern scientific world view is very much a work in progress.

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CJColucci 05.06.09 at 7:38 pm

Would you care to point to a few literal truth claims made by the Archbishop of Canterbury?

I pay very little attention to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, if his critics in his own church are to be believed, may well be a Faculty Club Theologian, but the last time I was in an Anglican Church, a few months back, I opened the Book of Common Prayer and found The 39 Articles, many of which seemed to be literal truth claims to me.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.09 at 7:44 pm

By way of filling out koano215:

The Buddhist functional equivalent of sin, is twofold: trsna [sans diactritics] (or tanha), that is, “desire,” but especially a certain kind of desire (hence synonyms and connotations like ‘grasping’ or ‘craving’), and avidya (or avijja), that is, ignorance. What’s important here is not so much the object of desire, but the mental state or attitude (‘clinging’) that attaches to the object, be it tangible or intangible, physical or mental. So the converse or transcendence of such desire is akin or identical to the notion of “non-attachment” found in the Bhagavad Gita and intrinsic to Yoga psychology (of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras). The converse of ignorance is knowledge, and in Buddhism this knowledge takes specific form having to do with essential Buddhist teachings/doctrines (like the cited in my post above).

Because Buddhism lacks the notion of vicarious atonement (e.g., Jesus suffered–the Passion–and died for *our* sins), specifically, the doctrine of satisfaction or substitutionary atonement (a la Anselm; the other, far less but more sensible atonement theory originates with Abelard, and is chistened ‘exemplary atonement,’ for it focuses as much or more on the life and teachings of Jesus, not simply or largely on the period following his Passover meal with his disciples), and owing to the absence of anything remotely resembling “the Fall” and “original sin,” at least as these ideas have been popularly understood by putative Christians through the centuries, the Buddhist notion of “sin” is quite different in many respects from the Christian formulation. Nonetheless, both find value in prayer, contemplation or meditation, and in general what are loosely and broadly termed “ascetic” practices to overcome one’s egoistic self and re-orient one’s psychological and spiritual energy or attention. Buddhists often stress the potential and the capacity within human nature to attain “awakening” (moksha for the Hindu, nibbana for the Buddhist), Christians often, thus not invariably (nor is their any theological necessity involved here), focus on our “fallenness,” on our proclivity for sin (think the seven deadly ones) and, lastly, on the need for atonement for same that lies outside the individual’s own power to affect, hence, for example, the need for grace, which at least in Theravada Buddhism, is largley absent, although Bodhisattvas and Buddhas can be said to aid the sincere devotee in other traditions of Buddhism. One does not need to die to overcome tanha and avijja or the roots of suffering in Buddhism. In Christianity, only death brings final relief from the various forms of suffering.

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JoB 05.06.09 at 7:58 pm

novakant-80,

That sounds OK because we need not discuss everything all the time with everybody & there’s a time and place for everything & all that.

But the point still is “what discussion?”.

See, in 31 you talked about ‘not helpful in furthering the discussion’ in reference to the attitude of Dawkins and you have to forgive me for insisting on it (I could also shout at you but there are people with more energy and appetite for that). I don’t know what he (Dawkins) would do vis à vis his grandpa or schoolmate and I don’t care. But if there’s a discussion to be had on the merits/demerits of religion (if grandpa or schoolmate put a conviction of theirs in your face for instance) why not point out that religion is not any help in assessing how society is to treat homosexuals?

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.09 at 7:58 pm

Bill,

The doctrines don’t so much “explain the lived religious experiences of Buddhists” in one sense (about which I will not claim to know too much, given the number and kinds of same throughout the world), but rather are meant to illuminate such experiences, and such illumination will vary according to the degree of spiritual progress made by the devoted and sincere student of Dharma. Again, the Eightfold Path is triune in structure and to the extent that one severs these long-standing metaphysical doctrines found in all three “vehicles” of Buddhism, one is distorting or denying one essential part of the Eightfold Path. The Dalai Lama, well known for his interest in modern science, has recently been keen to distinguish the sorts of discoveries made, say, by neuroscientists, and those made by Buddhists with regard to the brain and mind. Thus in a recent talk he took pains to distinguish the former science, which is perfectly valid as far as it goes, from “Buddhist science,” which makes claims about the nature of mind and states of consciousness beyond the bounds of natural science. These claims involve metaphysical premises and we cannot wish them away simply because we are not personally inclined to believe in them or are not persuaded of their veracity. Thus, and again, I think the three marks of existence cannot from a Buddhist vantage point be adequately described without reference to non-naturalistic ideas and doctrines. Of course this entails a normative conception of what Buddhism is all about, even if some Western Buddhists ill-understand it or are rubbed the wrong way by it.

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Bill Gardner 05.06.09 at 8:43 pm

Patrick @ 91:
Thanks for the response. I wonder if we are speaking past one another. Of course, Buddhism involves “claims about the nature of mind and states of consciousness beyond the bounds of natural science”. And, although I am out of my depth here, it includes metaphysics. That doesn’t imply that Buddhist views on mind, consciousness, or metaphysics have to be supernatural. No one has a scientific explanation of consciousness at present. That doesn’t imply that there has to be anything supernatural about it.

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Ted Lemon 05.06.09 at 8:55 pm

Patrick @91, what Buddhism relies on is not metaphysics but subjectivism. Buddhism denies the notion of an objective reality – this is why for example we can’t have a savior who dies for our sins. Because they are our sins, we have to save ourselves from them. The point of the lack of an objective reality is that simply because I practice the teachings and experience some sort of results, doesn’t mean that I can prove to you that I have done so. So Buddhism claims that there are things that you could experience but not prove you’d experienced. From a scientific perspective this is unsatisfying, because you no longer have falsifiability or repeatability. However, that is not the same as saying that it contradicts physics, which is what I think you would be saying if you called this “metaphysics.”

Righteous @78, Steve @80, if you ever spent time on a playground and were not at the top of the power structure, you will naturally tend to have a dark view of humanity. If you ever read the news and pay attention to what is actually happening, as opposed to the stories told about why it is necessary, you will have a dark view of humanity. And of course if you study history, this will further blacken your outlook. It’s just naive to think that humans who do not use rationality to control their impulses can consistently act in a just or humane manner.

Steve @79, if you visit my web site you can get a sense of the degree of credence I give to the notion of “fairness” as a moral guide. It does seem to be the case intuitively (and perhaps anthropological studies back this up) that in the absence of a rational superego, we nevertheless muddle through and manage to have functioning societies. But it is the rise of rationally-derived superegos, of which I would argue Mosaic law, Buddhist ethics, and Christian ethics are examples, that brought us to our current state.

Whether these laws were invented by humans, or came down from beings with either supernatural or natural wisdom that is greater than human, I don’t really care for the sake of this discussion. My question is, is it really the case that we could invent a different construct that works better, and that would actually be successfully internalized by enough members of a society that it would actually work to make that society a more just society? This is what John is proposing in his article.

We need this superego that counteracts our natural impulses because without it, we simply do what we want, and what we want is often not in the best interests of ourselves or others. And we need a reason to internalize this superego – we won’t do it simply because, and most of us don’t really have the time or interest to analyze it logically, decide it will produce the best result for the most people, and decide to follow it on that basis. So whether the promise of heaven, or nirvana, or hell, is real or fantasy, it’s a useful sales tool.

As an intellectual, it makes me uncomfortable to see people following a religion on the basis of a devotional attitude rather than on the basis of reason, because of my own personal training and history, and also a fear that because they are not using logic, they may wind up believing things they are told that are not supported by the actual teachings of their religion. This is a real problem, but it’s one that occurs in any ethical or political system – you can see communists doing it, and libertarians doing it, and neoconservatives doing it. I even see the evangelical atheists doing it. The antidote is for people who practice the same religion or politics, and understand its tenets well, to use reason to temper these excesses. Or, if it doesn’t work at all, to allow it to die under the weight of its own failed predictions, as neoconservatism is doing at the moment.

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Alison P 05.06.09 at 10:13 pm

Allison @65, if it’s difficult to wear, you’re doing it wrong… The mere fact that a social structure exists which perhaps attempts to move you in a certain direction does not mean that you cannot dance within that structure to the tune that most pleases you.

That’s exactly the patronising air I’m talking about.

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omega Centauri 05.06.09 at 11:31 pm

As was noted above, the difficulty with Karma, is that observations of life don’t support a belief in some sort of cosmic fairness function. Most forms of Buddhism (I used to belong to one), used the concept of past (and future) lives to account for the seeming inequity of life.

There is also a problem with simply seeking to go good. For what constitutes a good act? Does smiting unbelievers counts as good? Does sacrificing innocent life to satisfy some presumed desire of a supernatural being count as good? Is refusing to physically attack someone who has harmed your sense of honour to be considered as a charitable -or a disgraceful act? The answers to all of these are cultural dependent.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 11:42 pm

There is also a problem with simply seeking to go good. For what constitutes a good act? Does smiting unbelievers counts as good? Does sacrificing innocent life to satisfy some presumed desire of a supernatural being count as good? Is refusing to physically attack someone who has harmed your sense of honour to be considered as a charitable -or a disgraceful act? The answers to all of these are cultural dependent.

I find that the negative form of the Golden Rule- do not do to others what you would not want to have done to you- is a pretty sound starting point for practical ethics and covers a surprising amount of ground. And we are wired (mirror neurons and all that) for the kind of empathy that supports this principle, as shown by many experiments with non-human primates (so it’s not surprisng that something recognizably like this rule shows up in a wide variety of cultures.)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.07.09 at 12:43 am

Ted,

I’m sorry, but three decades of studying Buddhism has convinced me that it is deeply mistaken to characterize it as “subjectivist.” It does indeed make claims about an “objective reality” and thus propositional truth claims. Phenomena are not, after all, whatever one thinks they are; they do indeed contain objective qualities or attributes established through analytical meditations and insight. For instance, it is established that there is no such thing as inherent existence (of either persons or objects) and thus the objective fact of “emptiness” (actually, ‘self-emptiness,’ a notoriously difficult concept to understand and about which I can only recommend Jeffrey Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness, 1996 ed.). There are any number of book titles I can send your way to explain and illustrate this should you care to investigate my claim further. I never spoke to the question of whether or not any particular doctrines in Buddhism contradict the claims of physics, although I do think certain Buddhist views of the mind and consciousness are not at all phenomena under the purview of physics as presently constituted.

Bill,

I’m personally convinced that science cannot, in principle, provide an explanation of consciousness (the brain being, roughly, a necessary but not sufficient condition for what we term mind), but that has more to do with beliefs that come from particular works in the philosophy of mind (works that are, at present any rate, not too popular) by folks like Bennett and Hacker, Gregory McCulloch, Daniel Hutto, Daniel Robinson (to cite those that come quickest to mind) than from Buddhism, although I think I could show how such perspectives are at least compatible with Buddhist perspectives on mind and consciousness.

I won’t be able to timely respond to any more comments owing to a nasty fire here in Santa Barbara (yet again, it wasn’t long ago that we had the Tea fire and had to evacuate my in-laws): although we ourselves are out of danger, family and friends are not and so my attention will be elsewhere for a time.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 12:45 am

I won’t be able to timely respond to any more comments owing to a nasty fire here in Santa Barbara (yet again, it wasn’t long ago that we had the Tea fire and had to evacuate my in-laws): although we ourselves are out of danger, family and friends are not and so my attention will be elsewhere for a time.

That’s terrible. Good luck, and I hope everybody will be OK.

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Salient 05.07.09 at 12:47 am

I won’t be able to timely respond to any more comments owing to a nasty fire here in Santa Barbara (yet again, it wasn’t long ago that we had the Tea fire and had to evacuate my in-laws): although we ourselves are out of danger, family and friends are not and so my attention will be elsewhere for a time.

Sorry to hear of this. My thoughts are with you. Thanks for the many insightful comments you’ve shared recently, and I hope all goes as well as it can in these circumstances.

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Shawn Crowley 05.07.09 at 7:45 am

“First, there’s no need for a costly set of professionals to elaborate and expound the idea.”

But that’s the very reason for the existence of “organized religion” which after all is what most of us are talking about. Economically, religion is a marvel to shame Mr. Ponzi. The believers pay in the here and now with their labor, money, and obedience with the expectation of an after-death payoff. The product is insubstantial or transubstantial which means very low start-up costs.

I know that I am passing over all the alleged benefits of religion in the here and now. I know some genuinely good people who attribute their goodness to their faith. But these people usually seem to be those who would still be decent in the absence of their faith.

But here in the US, religion is explicitly a tool for social control. The revival of creationism (ID) is supported by social conservatives who believe that a fear of hell is needed to keep the vast unwashed in their cubicles, noses to terminals. Karma doesn’t have quite the kick of eternal torment.

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Bill Gardner 05.07.09 at 8:25 am

Patrick,
You will not be surprised that I do not believe in intercessory prayer… nevertheless, I will be thinking of you, and including you and your family this morning’s tonglen meditation. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

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John Quiggin 05.07.09 at 9:07 am

I’ve got a lot out of this discussion, including a lot a didn’t expect, so thanks everyone.

To clarify, I wasn’t suggesting an organised effort to replace existing religions with some kind of karmic belief. Rather I took it somewhat for granted that something of the kind is likely to emerge as traditional religions decline, and argued that it will probably serve society as well or better. Despite using the term “karma”, I hadn’t thought much about Buddhism as a candidate, but it has some appeals.

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James Kroeger 05.07.09 at 9:08 am

the biggest source of concern about the adverse consequences of unbelief, is the doctrine of an afterlife in which good actions will be rewarded and bad ones punished. Back in the 19th century, lots of people were really worried about this and, even in the 21st it’s a common theme in US discussions of religion. But do we really need religion for this?

You may not need ‘religion’, and you may not even need to believe in God, but you do need to believe in an afterlife in order for you to logically believe that anything you do in this life matters. It is an either/or assumption.

IF we assume there is no afterlife, it cannot possibly matter if you spend your life being a good person or a bad person. Once you die, as far as you are concerned, it never happened. It really and truly would not matter if you were a mass murderer or a kindly saint. The ultimate consequences would be the same. If you were absolutely convinced that there was no afterlife, then why would it matter to you if human beings increase their knowledge about anything? Why would you care about ‘science’ or the Truth? None of it would matter. As far as you would be concerned, you never did exist and nothing else ever did.

And what possible difference would it make whether or not the people surviving your death remembered you as a good person or as a sociopath? Those who remember you for good or ill will also cease to exist some day and so will their memories. The achievements of the Human Race? They never happened. So why ask why? Why try to advance ‘knowledge?’ It cannot possibly matter to us if we answer this question—or any other question—if when we die, we cease to exist.

Now I agree with you that it is not necessary to embrace any particular conceptualization of God or of “The Afterlife.” (Conceptualizations of God as a ‘person’ are especially problematic.) The reincarnation thing works; the Heaven and Hell thing works up to a point, but all that is necessary—in order for us to logically perceive meaning in our lives—is that we believe the following ‘generic’ assumptions about the Afterlife:

(A) We must continue as ‘minds’ (=souls).
(B) There must be continuity between this life and the next. I.e., the next life must ‘build upon’ the current one, otherwise, what’s the point of experiencing this life?
(C) We must believe/assume that there is some kind of ultimate ‘justice.’ It must be true that you will be better off in the long, long run if you choose to ‘be good’ or ‘eschew evil’, or else why bother? If all ‘sinners’ are forgiven, if all those who yield to temptation are no worse off than those who resisted, then why should you deny yourself any forbidden pleasure/experience?

In order for us to fully embrace this life as truly meaningful, we must believe that we are always better off—in the long, long run—if we make the right [good] choices. It’s an open-ended assumption that cannot be proved any more than it is possible to prove that there is not an afterlife. The only thing we can say with absolute certainty re: The Afterlife is we do not know if there is one.

If we embrace the [un-provable] assumption that there is an afterlife, we are able to embrace all of the meaning that we perceive in our daily lives. We are rewarded with a good feeling about the value of our current existence. If on the other hand we embrace the [un-provable] assumption that there is no afterlife, then LOGIC tells us that all the meaning we see in our lives is an illusion and we are punished with unhappy feelings.

That’s not a lot to go on, but I think it’s enough.

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windy 05.07.09 at 9:41 am

I’m not sure if that’s true, which also leads onto another subject that Dawkins doesn’t really discuss: what counts as a religion?

Dawkins was pretty clear about what the focus of God Delusion was, and he did not claim that it covers all aspects of religion.

“Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”

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JoB 05.07.09 at 9:57 am

I must protest!

I wouldn’t want to deny the good intentions with which karma and Buddhism are put up here as more beneficial. I certainly always thought Huxley’s meddling with Eastern thought was quite a bit endearing. But the endearingness as seen from the West is soon gone once you abandon this comfort of distance. Tibetan Buddhism is an awful thing, about as awful as anything that can be seen in the slipstream of well-intentioned prophets elsewhere. Maybe Buddha is not to blame (& maybe Jesus is not to blame) for what is done in his name but to show more appeal to him (or to Him) than to e.g. Heraclitus is unhelpful – good thinkers of dark ages that did the best to help us supersede the issues of their time but that are now, except for inspiration, totally irrelevant.

I don’t see why we should believe in ‘something’ although it is obvious we’re prone to do so, and it is comfortable in many instances – although the comfort person A gets is always at expense of person B. I’m in a personal experiment now for a year of not believing in anything, not even the most abstract notion of God or good & I’m doing fine, really.

It strikes me as if we’re going through exactly the same cycle as we did 100 years ago. Nietzsche will, I hope, be proven wrong on eternal recurrence by someone, one of these days.

PS: if anything, let’s go for Earlism (after the sitcom ‘My name is Earl’): Do good things and good things will happen to you – the best paraphrase of the best moral thinking from East & West, and who knows: maybe with some further rationalizing we’ll build societies that have the boundary conditions in which the maxim will at least approximatively factually true

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Phil 05.07.09 at 10:10 am

I pay very little attention to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, if his critics in his own church are to be believed, may well be a Faculty Club Theologian

Ah, right you are. Rowan Williams isn’t a real Christian. Faculty Club Theology (whatever that means) isn’t proper Christianity. Critiques of “religion” based on selected attributes of selected variants of Christianity are nevertheless true, because HEY! OVER THERE! Taliban! Laura Mallory! Spanish Inquisition!

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Hidari 05.07.09 at 10:31 am

‘Dawkins was pretty clear about what the focus of God Delusion was, and he did not claim that it covers all aspects of religion.

“Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” ‘

That’s fine but in that case Dawkins’ argument really only applies to the ‘Big Three’: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Again I have no problems with this but Dawkins’ acoloytes have a habit of bandying about the word ‘religion’ (and its alleged evils) without bothering to define it. (I should also add that this post was originally about Eagleton, and Eagleton was attacking not just Dawkins but also Hitchens. Hitchens has most definitely attacked Eastern ‘religions’ as well as Western Monotheism)

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magistra 05.07.09 at 11:17 am

I don’t see why we should believe in ‘something’ although it is obvious we’re prone to do so, and it is comfortable in many instances – although the comfort person A gets is always at expense of person B.

So at whose expense is my comforting belief that the dead people who I loved are not merely food for worms, but that an essence of their personality survives? How does this make me exploitative of someone else? Or is this to ignore the fact that people who believe in heaven have nevertheless often been prominent in trying to alleviate earthly suffering?

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engels 05.07.09 at 12:49 pm

I also don’t understand JoB’s claim that the comfort a religious believer may derive from her beliefs is at the ‘expense’ of someone else.

However, an argument that was made repeatedly on the other thread was that even though religious beliefs are false they are nevertheless good for the people who believe them, because they make them happier than they would otherwise be, and should therefore be defended, or perhaps even promoted.

In response to this, I think it is appropriate to point out that we do not usually feel that the decisive consideration in deciding whether or not to hold a particular belief is the contribution it is expected to make to our personal happiness. Someone who did form her beliefs this way would, I think, not be giving due attention to the norms that should govern her choice of beliefs, and part of the purpose of these norms is to protect the interests of others, and of more diffuse values such as state of human knowledge as a whole.

(I am not saying you have made this argument but it was put forward, confidently and repeatedly on the previous thread.)

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ajay 05.07.09 at 1:01 pm

“IF we assume there is no afterlife, it cannot possibly matter if you spend your life being a good person or a bad person. Once you die, as far as you are concerned, it never happened. It really and truly would not matter if you were a mass murderer or a kindly saint. “

True only for someone who doesn’t care about what happens to anyone else – ie a sociopath. HUMAN NATURE FAIL.

106: you have erroneously identified a No True Scotsman fallacy; if Rowan Williams’ beliefs are not those of most people who identify themselves as Anglicans then, no, he is not a “real” Christian in the only sense that matters.

107: “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”- this sort of supernatural creation myth is not exclusive to the Big Three. There are certainly some in some branches of Hinduism, Buddhism and many traditional religions. Not universally believed, of course, but neither is creationism in Christianity…

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belle le triste 05.07.09 at 1:05 pm

(engels, if you’re taking that to be a characterisation of the argument i was making anywhere on that other thread, it really isn’t: my argument is not about the “beliefs people form” at all, really, or about happiness — it’s about the communities and institutions we’re likely to be drawn to, based on our judgments of our own abilities and failings, successes and disappointments, in relation to same)

(if you meant someone else, then apologies for assuming everything is about me)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.07.09 at 1:08 pm

Steve, Salient and Bill:

Thanks so much for the kind sentiment. About two dozen homes lost thus far (several hundred were lost earlier in the year during the Tea Fire) and a fairly large amount of city residents have been either evacuated or are under evacuation warnings. Most of the city’s schools are closed. Sundowner winds are predicted to continue for a couple of more days so it seems we won’t be out of imminent danger until then. The Jesusita Fire is named after a local trail I worked on in my youth (and I was on a forest service fire crew back then too).

Again, I’m grateful for the kind words.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:10 pm

True only for someone who doesn’t care about what happens to anyone else – ie a sociopath. HUMAN NATURE FAIL.

Indeed. Sometimes I think I’m a pessimist with regard to our species (definitely an occupational hazard for anyone working in a field related to law enforcement), but my pessimism certainly pales in comparison with that of someone who assumes that all people are sociopaths and would behave as such if not constrained by fear of punishment in the afterlife. Fortunately there’s abundant evidence that such is not the case.

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ajay 05.07.09 at 1:32 pm

I think there is actually a term from Christian theology – “attrition” – to describe the act of regretting one’s sins not because one has come to believe that they were wrong, but because one is afraid that they will lead to punishment in the afterlife. It’s regarded as a Bad Thing (though very common among religious people)

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John Meredith 05.07.09 at 1:43 pm

“my pessimism certainly pales in comparison with that of someone who assumes that all people are sociopaths and would behave as such if not constrained by fear of punishment in the afterlife. “

Quite. And, of course, as Hitchens is fond of pointing out, moderating your behaviour for fear of punishment when dead (and for no other reason) is not ‘moral’, it is just self-serving. So the ‘no morality without afterlife’ trope is self-refuting.

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JoB 05.07.09 at 1:56 pm

magistra-108, engels-109, fair question and remark, let me ponder it and come back to you

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James Kroeger 05.07.09 at 2:29 pm

…moderating your behavior for fear of punishment when dead (and for no other reason) is not ‘moral’, it is just self-serving.

Since when is ‘moral’ behavior only moral if it is not self-serving? I know that Kant assumed this, but Kant was wrong. What determines whether an action (or failure to act) is ‘moral’ is determined solely by the following conditions: Would everyone benefit if everyone were to act [or choose not to act] in the same exact way? If everyone would be worse off (if everyone were to act in the same way) then the action [or failure to act] is immoral. There is a reason why philosophers like Kant sought to purge “moral” motivation of any self-serving intent, but it is too lengthy for me to go into in this post. I’ll just say this:

The deontological assault on selfish motivation has been responsible for an incredible amount of unnecessary mental anguish. Individuals have been encouraged to behave “unselfishly” but have been given no personal reason to do so (motivation) other than because such behavior is considered praiseworthy (approval). But then they are told that if they are motivated by their desire for praise, their actions must be morally condemned because their motives deserve only contempt. This is why pious individuals often find themselves in a perpetual state of self-loathing. They intuitively recognize their desire for praise while at the same time realizing that their enjoyment of praise is the one thing that must—by definition—deprive them of the praise they desire. So they end up hating their desire for praise in the hope that they’ll become more deserving of it.

Your implicit claim that behavior cannot be moral if it is self-serving is simply not true. In fact moral behavior is always self-serving and can never be anything else other than self-serving.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 2:34 pm

Your implicit claim that behavior cannot be moral if it is self-serving is simply not true. In fact moral behavior is always self-serving and can never be anything else other than self-serving.

I vaguely recall that there is a little poem by (I think) Schiller mocking that aspect of Kant’s ethics. Can anybody call it to mind?

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 2:55 pm

Found it:

The Scruple of Conscience
Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure.
Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not virtuous.

The Verdict
For that there is no other advice: you must try to despise them.
And then do with aversion what your duty commands.

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tim 05.07.09 at 2:58 pm

Your criticism of religion stops at punishment or reward for behavior, when that is not what religion at its core is even about. Following Jesus has at it’s core servanthood and the way that it moves us to serve our fellow man.

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Matt 05.07.09 at 3:03 pm

Not that it’s too important, really, but essentially no one who works on Kant these days thinks that Schiller’s interpretation is at all a plausible account of Kant. It’s a common mis-reading, but pretty clearly a mis-reading. (I’ll direct those interested to Wood, Guyer, Korsgaard, Herman, O’Neil, Rawls, Baron, Hill, etc. for defense. Despite their other differences on Kant interpretation, all agree that this is the wrong understanding of Kant.)

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CJColucci 05.07.09 at 3:22 pm

“I pay very little attention to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, if his critics in his own church are to be believed, may well be a Faculty Club Theologian”

Ah, right you are. Rowan Williams isn’t a real Christian. Faculty Club Theology (whatever that means) isn’t proper Christianity. Critiques of “religion” based on selected attributes of selected variants of Christianity are nevertheless true, because HEY! OVER THERE! Taliban! Laura Mallory! Spanish Inquisition!

I think you’re missing the point. Maybe it’s my fault. I do not presume to say whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is a “real Christian” or not. I have no interest in the details of what I’ve called “Faculty Club Theology” — a damn-near contentless religion, epitomized by Eagleton, that strikes me as both benign and rare. Apparently, neither do Dawkins or Hitchens. (I’ve not read either because nothing I have seen in excerpts or reviews suggests to me that I would learn from them anything I don’t already know.) Given both the rarity and benign character of Faculty Club Theology, neither I, nor, apparently, they, see any point in addressing it in works directed to a general audience, most of whom adhere to non-crazy religions that, nevertheless, share with the crazy ones the properties of having actual content and making genuine truth claims. Maybe someone else should write a book about what Eagleton, et al. say they want to have discussed , and maybe such a book would be good, but I learned in grade school book reviewing that “the author should have written a different book on a different topic” earns very low grades.

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ajay 05.07.09 at 3:23 pm

Your implicit claim that behavior cannot be moral if it is self-serving is simply not true.

True.

In fact moral behavior is always self-serving and can never be anything else other than self-serving.

Not true. What about, say, an anonymous donation to charity by someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife?

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James Kroeger 05.07.09 at 3:37 pm

What about, say, an anonymous donation to charity by someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife?

Simply deciding not to advertise your generosity does not mean that the you do not benefit [selfishly] from carrying out the act.

If your goal is to obtain approval, then the first thing you must do is act in a way that makes you deserving of praise. If you have done so, the personal knowledge that you actually are deserving of expressions of approval is likely to give you a great deal of ‘satisfaction’ just knowing that if the facts were known to others in the right circumstances, you would be a recipient of praise for the good things you had done.

Even if it is ‘only’ God’s approval that you have in mind when you’ve acted generously, you are still acting selfishly, since it is in your clear self-interest to avoid earning God’s disapproval, is it not?

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 3:46 pm

It’s a damn good thing that we’re built in such a way that helping others gives us pleasure even if nobody else knows about it. (And I think it’s automatic and visceral rather than produced by a chain of reasoning such as “If you have done so, the personal knowledge that you actually are deserving of expressions of approval is likely to give you a great deal of ‘satisfaction’ just knowing that if the facts were known to others in the right circumstances, you would be a recipient of praise for the good things you had done.”) If we weren’t wired like that, human societies would be far worse than they already are. They would be, indeed, societies in which everybody was a sociopath.

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dsquared 05.07.09 at 3:50 pm

123: since in the sense you’ve defined it, it is impossible to an action not to be self-serving, doesn’t that suggest that the definition of “self-serving” you’re working with is wrong? “Self-serving action” describes a subset of actions, it’s not a synonym for “action”.

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Mordaunt 05.07.09 at 4:11 pm

110.

106: you have erroneously identified a No True Scotsman fallacy; if Rowan Williams’ beliefs are not those of most people who identify themselves as Anglicans then, no, he is not a “real” Christian in the only sense that matters.

Even if we take the view that a majority of Anglicans now get to define who is and who is not a ‘real Christian’ (a view that would bewilder most non-Anglican Christians, I imagine) that’s still a rather sizeable assertion that warrants more evidence than has currently been put forward.

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Stuart 05.07.09 at 4:29 pm

If we weren’t wired like that, human societies would be far worse than they already are. They would be, indeed, societies in which everybody was a sociopath.

Of course it is hard to see an animal which lives in packs/communities to help rear their young together and protect against threats, etc., and which hadn’t evolved a tendency for most of the individuals to enjoy helping others – even when there is no immediate payback – is much less likely to have succeeded in growing to be very populous, let alone a dominant species.

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Phil 05.07.09 at 4:31 pm

Given both the rarity and benign character of Faculty Club Theology, neither I, nor, apparently, they, see any point in addressing it in works directed to a general audience, most of whom adhere to non-crazy religions that, nevertheless, share with the crazy ones the properties of having actual content and making genuine truth claims.

Rowan Williams is the head of a church with 80 million communicants. I don’t think he would have either reached or remained in that position if his pronouncements weren’t an acceptable expression of the church’s collective beliefs. As for Dawkins’s audience, its British members are much more likely to be adherents of Williams’s church than any other.

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ajay 05.07.09 at 4:32 pm

125: spot on. If doing any action that you want to do is “self-serving” because it gives you the satisfaction of doing something you want to do, are there any actions which are not self serving? The convulsions of an epileptic fit, perhaps? Sleepwalking? Emesis? Death?

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ajay 05.07.09 at 4:33 pm

Rowan Williams is the head of a church with 80 million communicants. I don’t think he would have either reached or remained in that position if his pronouncements weren’t an acceptable expression of the church’s collective beliefs.

Not the point. The question is whether his beliefs are in line with those of his flock.

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CJColucci 05.07.09 at 4:53 pm

“Given both the rarity and benign character of Faculty Club Theology, neither I, nor, apparently, they, see any point in addressing it in works directed to a general audience, most of whom adhere to non-crazy religions that, nevertheless, share with the crazy ones the properties of having actual content and making genuine truth claims.”

Rowan Williams is the head of a church with 80 million communicants. I don’t think he would have either reached or remained in that position if his pronouncements weren’t an acceptable expression of the church’s collective beliefs. As for Dawkins’s audience, its British members are much more likely to be adherents of Williams’s church than any other.

Again, the beliefs of Rowan Williams, whatever they may be, are not the point. I don’t know what he believes. I assume, unlike some of his critics, that he believes that the 39 Articles of the Anglican faith, which include a great many explicit truth claims, are actually true, but I don’t pretend to know, and, not being Anglican, I don’t care.
Are you suggesting that the other 80-odd million Anglicans adhere to a religion that has no content and makes no truth claims?

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Phil 05.07.09 at 5:27 pm

ajay – do what? I’ve got no way of knowing what Rowan Williams’s beliefs are other than reading or listening to what he writes and says. (This is also true of most other people who aren’t me.)

Are you suggesting that the other 80-odd million Anglicans adhere to a religion that has no content and makes no truth claims?

I’m suggesting that Rowan Williams’s published statements are a reasonable guide to mainstream Anglican thinking, i.e. thinking that’s acceptable to the Anglican mainstream. I’m also suggesting that Rowan Williams does not assert as a statement of fact that God “deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” – and that, in point of fact, the “God Delusion” is not mainstream Anglicanism.

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Bikerdad 05.07.09 at 5:48 pm

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:28 pm

Therefore: religion aspires to be science.

I think that part of the problem here is that apart from Dawkins, most people in the UK are not fully aware of just how much this really remains true of conservative Christians in the US, and just how much energy they expend trying to force their constantly-adapting versions of creationism into our public schools. That gives one a somewhat less complacent perspective on this question than Eagleton’s.

Steve,

You have it backwards. The problem isn’t that conservative Christians in the US are attempting to elevate religion to science, it’s that secularists in the US (and throughout the West) operate in the mode of science as a religion. When secularists make claims, either implicitly or explicitly, about meaning, and use science as their delivery vehicle, some folks on the religious side take umbrage and respond. You’ll find very, very few conservative Christians working to influence the chemistry curriculum, or the physics curriculum (aside from perhaps cosmology) based on their religious beliefs. Why not? Because secularists don’t smuggle metaphysical claims in through those channels.

At its core, the issue of creationism vs. evolution isn’t “how did we get here?”, its “why are we here?” Evolution, as taught in public schools and advanced by most secularists presupposes “for no reason whatsoever.” ‘Tis a metaphysical claim derived from science. Given the significant utility that science has brought to our existence, the metaphysical claim get’s a nice shine on it, even if it is thoroughly non-scientific. Those arguing for creationism/intelligent design in schools are attempting to knock the shine off by undercutting the science.

Let’s not forget that those defending evolution have their own “bundles of meaning”, which sometimes amounts to nothing more than “I’m not going to let some yokel who believes in the Guy in the Sky telling ME what the meaning of life is…” From a social perspective, the question of what the dominant understanding of the meaning of life is, and who shapes that understanding, is a fairly important one, as your “public religion” exploration demonstrates.

Evolutionary science is being used to make MEANING claims. Gee, I can’t imagine why folks might push back against being told that they’re nothing more than randomly processed “advanced” monkeys. And that is the real purpose of teaching evolution in grade schools. Seriously, think about it. Even setting aside your professional bias, which would be far more useful to children, being taught critical thinking skills or being taught about evolution? What utility does instruction in evolution provide to the future engineer, lawyer, salesman, dentist, truck driver, lumberjack, chef, etc? Aside from the very small number of people who go on to become evolutionary biologists or priests of evolution (Dawkins, et al), it is useless knowledge. Because evolution operates on such grand time scales, knowing about it has even less utility than having an encyclopediac knowledge of ancient Mongolia.

Rather than asking why conservative Christians in the US spend so much effort on attacking evolutionary theory, perhaps y’all should look long and hard at why it’s adherents spend so much effort defending it, and advancing it from 1st grade on. It ain’t because of the payoff in advancing technology (90% of biology can be taught without any reference to evolution, as can 100% of all other science subjects), and it certainly isn’t because of some noble dedication to Truth . . . .

Respectfully,

BD

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CJColucci 05.07.09 at 5:54 pm

Phil, I’m having trouble following you. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read Dawkins or Hitchens. Maybe somewhere in his book Dawkins has assigned to mainstream Anglicanism a far-out view that does not, in fact, represent mainstream Anglicanism and has, therefore, beaten up a straw man. If so, take it up with Dawkins, not with me. My point, and I’ll try to make this simple, is that most religions, not just the crazy ones, have actual content and make actual truth claims. As I understand Anglicanism — and I haven’t heard you disagree — Anglicanism is one of those religions. At least the Anglicans I know would be deeply insulted to hear that their religion is content-free pabulum. To the atheist, there are good reasons for rejecting the content or denying the truth claims of the types of religions most folks actually believe. It is no answer to them to say, a la Eagleton, that some snootier folks hold a less vulgar notion of religion that mere refutation of content and truth claims does not touch. Maybe someone ought to write a book about what I have decided to call faculty Club Theology. Dawkins and Hitchens didn’t feel like writing such a book for reasons that seem obvious enough. Maybe someone else should. Maybe someone else will.

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Phil 05.07.09 at 6:03 pm

My point, and I’ll try to make this simple, is that most religions, not just the crazy ones, have actual content and make actual truth claims. As I understand Anglicanism—and I haven’t heard you disagree—Anglicanism is one of those religions. At least the Anglicans I know would be deeply insulted to hear that their religion is content-free pabulum.

Either it makes “actual truth-claims” (undefined) or it’s “content-free pabulum”. Nice debating style you’ve got there.

I repeat: Rowan Williams (head of the Anglican communion) does not assert as a statement of fact that God “deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”. This belief – Dawkins’s own summary of his “God Delusion” – is not mainstream Anglicanism. Dawkins is misrepresenting the people and the belief structure which he purports to be writing about.

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CJColucci 05.07.09 at 6:11 pm

I repeat: Rowan Williams (head of the Anglican communion) does not assert as a statement of fact that God “deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”. This belief – Dawkins’s own summary of his “God Delusion” – is not mainstream Anglicanism. Dawkins is misrepresenting the people and the belief structure which he purports to be writing about.

And I repeat, if Dawkins has said something incorrect about Anglicanism in his book, take it up with him, not with me. That said, I’d be surprised if most of the 80-odd million Anglicans don’t believe that God deliberately created the universe and everything in it, including us, whatever Rowan Williams may or may not think, but I am willing to be surprised if presented with actual evidence.

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Phil 05.07.09 at 6:19 pm

The thing is, Impatient Atheism has been around for years; it’s a very familiar dance.

Step 1: find a suitably ridiculous minority religious belief, or else to make a mainstream religious belief look ridiculous.
Step 2: laugh and point.
Response: explain that lots of religious believers don’t in fact hold the ridiculous or caricatured belief in step 1.
Step 3: OK, some don’t, but most do, and pointing out what ridiculous things most religious people believe is still worth doing.
Response: explain that most religious believers don’t in fact, etc.
Step 4: OK, so what do these people believe?
Response: explain.
Step 5: That’s just a lot of verbiage – they really believe $RIDICULOUS_IDEA, we know they do!

It’s very easy to make some Christians – and some versions of Christianity – look foolish, irrational and dangerous; Impatient Atheists are fighting the same battle as most agnostics and a lot of Christians with regard to that one. Doing it for all of them – or even most of them – is a lot harder.

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Jonathan Mayhew 05.07.09 at 6:21 pm

If the archbishop himself doesn’t believe any truth claims like “God deliberately created the universe,” then the atheists have essentially won. We can all go home. The arguments of the new atheists are pointless because the mainstream has already abandoned anything distinctive that might make religion any more than thin, vaguely edifying gruel that may or may not have anything behind it.

On the other hand, if the actual mainstream consists of people believing strongly believing specific things, then it is the faculty club theology that becomes more or less beside the point.

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CJColucci 05.07.09 at 6:29 pm

Phil, as far as I can tell, we’re still at Step 3 of your familiar dance. But let’s just cut to the chase. Are you telling me that most Anglicans don’t believe that God deliberately created the universe and everything in it, including us? If not, then Jonathan Mayhew has it right, and I’m inclined to take his advice and go home.

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Phil 05.07.09 at 6:31 pm

If the archbishop himself doesn’t believe any truth claims like “God deliberately created the universe,” then the atheists have essentially won.

No, the scientists have essentially won: they’ve defeated a range of pre-scientific and anti-scientific worldviews, some of which were at one time or another backed by one or more Church. Nobody’s defeated religion, because religion wasn’t fighting that battle.

Lots of people in Victorian England had a genuine crisis of faith when they were faced with the evident truth of descent with modification and natural selection. Lots of those people came out the other side as Christians – and today’s Anglican Church descends from them, not from the minority of believers who hung on to the Bible and rejected the Origin of Species (a tiny minority in Britain, although it was more significant in Northern Ireland). Old news, obviously – but anyone who can believe in a God who didn’t actually, literally, potentially falsifiably breathe life into Adam can also believe in a God who didn’t actually, literally, potentially falsifiably make the Big Bang happen. And lots of people do.

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koan0215 05.07.09 at 6:37 pm

“but anyone who can believe in a God who didn’t actually, literally, potentially falsifiably breathe life into Adam can also believe in a God who didn’t actually, literally, potentially falsifiably make the Big Bang happen. And lots of people do.”

But here in the States lots of people don’t. They don’t and they want to foist their beliefs on everyone else. Dawkins and Hitchens are basically jerks, but I have to admit that I think that what they are saying is helping reduce the general level of religious craziness in the U.S.

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Matthias Wasser 05.07.09 at 6:41 pm

Are there any large flavors of Christianity where the official teaching – for whatever official teaching is worth – is “good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell?” I attempting, but I can’t think of any that aren’t “Christians go to Heaven, everyone else goes to Hell,” “everyone goes to Heaven,” or the Catholic Church’s weird view [1].

[1] Which, while “salvation by works,” doesn’t quite cut it.

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Righteous Bubba 05.07.09 at 6:52 pm

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koan0215 05.07.09 at 6:55 pm

Are there any large flavors of Christianity where the official teaching – for whatever official teaching is worth – is “good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell?” I attempting, but I can’t think of any that aren’t “Christians go to Heaven, everyone else goes to Hell,”

Mormons have it that everybody goes to heaven, but the good people get to go to a better heaven.

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Fellow Traveller 05.07.09 at 7:02 pm

The current Church of England version of the Nicene Creed begins:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

It swings on what ‘maker’ and ‘made’ mean. Normally one takes them to involve conscious deliberation as when someone makes a piece of furniture or a cake. It would seem a stretch of the word’s normal meaning to use it to apply to unconscious processes such as excretion or exhalation or the production of glands of the body though one could do so if one wished. Since Christians believe that God has a special role for mankind in the scheme of things I don’t see how they can view his creation of the Universe and everything it it as unintended, accidental, fortuitous or unplanned, like Jackson Pollock or another action painter flinging pigment at a canvas and seeing what results. Man’s deviation from God’s will (his intended role for Man) resulted in his Fall from Grace and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden necessitating the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem humanity. If God created the Universe without any prior purpose in mind I don’t see how they can sustain this central belief of their religion. It would be the equivalent of Jackson Pollock punishing his drops of paint for landing in the wrong places.

BTW, William Paley, the famous coiner of the ‘watchmaker’ analogy (referenced in the title of Prof. Dawkins’ previous work The Blind Watchmaker) belonged to the Anglican Church.

Samuel Wilberforce who famously debated against natural selection (defended by Thomas Huxley) in 1860 at Oxford University Museum also belonged to the Church of England and held the office of Bishop in ecclesiastical orders.

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Jonathan Mayhew 05.07.09 at 7:25 pm

Yes, (reasonably enlightened branches of) religion isn’t fighting that battle anymore because it has lost that battle already. Religion used to be a cosmogony, a psychology, and a lot more things that it doesn’t really try to be any more. On the other hand, for a lot of people it still is a world-view that includes all of what it has historically encompassed. The problem is that it can’t renounce its pre-scientific truth claims while maintaining even more specific claims like “Jesus died for our sins.” It’s intellectually incoherent. If you can’t know primary things like “God created the world” or “God exists,” how do you justify secondary claims within theology?

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Phil 05.07.09 at 7:34 pm

William Paley, the famous coiner of the ‘watchmaker’ analogy (referenced in the title of Prof. Dawkins’ previous work The Blind Watchmaker) belonged to the Anglican Church.

I’m well aware of that – I did just explain how the Anglican Church has moved on since Darwin.

If you can’t know primary things like “God created the world” or “God exists,”

Steady on. Believers would say that they do know that God in some sense created the universe, while simultaneously acknowledging that this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ever going to find evidence to back this up (or disprove it). Cue step 5 (“that’s just a lot of verbiage…”).

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JoB 05.07.09 at 7:36 pm

Above I made the following rash claim:

I don’t see why we should believe in ‘something’ although it is obvious we’re prone to do so, and it is comfortable in many instances – although the comfort person A gets is always at expense of person B.

Magistra & engels called my bluff. I have no idea whether they’re still around but: here goes my defense.

Say I believe that ‘if the third car I see is red, I’ll be a happy camper’. My claim is broad enough to include that belief and so it’s wrong (too broad).

But say I believe that ‘anyone seeing a third car that’s red, has to jump through a hole’ – then, I think, my claim is right. So let me qualify it based on my nonsensical.

If person A draws comfort from the fact that she is in a community of like believers, & believes that it would be better for non-believers to be in that community – she at least risks to hurt person B. True, it’s just a risk (she could well be in the community of fans of German schlagers) but once the belief is anywhere near an organized religion (take a Mother Theresa) she would be able to do all the good in the world & still effectively be in a coercive relationship to person B.

Normally in the West and amongst adults this is not a life-threating issue (although it’s rather threatening for an atheistic US politician that has no stomach for feigning faith) but in most of the non-West and for all children this is a real issue.

The reality is that beliefs are never held in isolation. You always have a group and you always have a body of beliefs. There will be harmless members of the group, and there will be harmless items in the body of belief but taking those as examples, and pleading on their basis for harmlessness of the whole phenomenon is not quite right (it’s I think what’s called apologetic).

I’m not saying that all believers are prone to abuse but insofar as they contribute to an orthodoxy of belief (e.g. the Irish catholic that is OK with homosexuals – but is also OK with the pope who is NOK with homosexuals leading to a kid of another catholic being ashamed of being homosexual) they’re not innocent.

I know catholics tend to distance themselves from the orthodoxy and still want to have their cake as well & I certainly would not want to criminalize them (nor muslims who at least can claim they are muslim without subscribing to this or that imam’s version of it) but I fail to see a. reasons to believe (if you want a community you can have that of the German schlager lovers, or CT) & b. why we atheists can’t point out that hipocrisy.

You can go Kierkegaard and go ‘my individual Christianity’ but it doesn’t work, I think, and it provides no comfort (nor much of an after-life if I remember correctly).

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.07.09 at 7:49 pm

I just posted a rather lengthy comment in the Think Again thread that is relevant to some recent arguments and remarks in this thread should anyone be interested.

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Phil 05.07.09 at 8:54 pm

Righteous B – I was looking forward to hearing Rowan Williams’s reply to Dawkins’s last question, the only one which seemed at all likely to pin him down with regard to matters of fact (the fact or otherwise of Mary’s virginity, specifically). Dawkins edited it out, leaving his question hanging unanswered. I dare say he was just being sporting, not letting the Archbishop make a fool of himself.

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Righteous Bubba 05.07.09 at 9:19 pm

Righteous B – I was looking forward to hearing Rowan Williams’s reply to Dawkins’s last question, the only one which seemed at all likely to pin him down with regard to matters of fact (the fact or otherwise of Mary’s virginity, specifically).

I think we disagree on this: miracles including the virgin birth are acknowledged as fact before that, and – faith in mindreading! – I think Dawkins and his editor are satisfied otherwise that cut doesn’t make sense.

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James Kroeger 05.07.09 at 11:02 pm

dsquared:

…since in the sense you’ve defined it, it is impossible to an action not to be self-serving, doesn’t that suggest that the definition of “self-serving” you’re working with is wrong? “Self-serving action” describes a subset of actions, it’s not a synonym for “action”.

People will often use words that imperfectly capture the meaning they intend, which means that they reach for synonyms. I am simply arguing for the acceptance of a more accurate understanding of the term ‘self-serving.’

It may be true that many of the people who use the term ‘self-serving’ assume that the set of all human actions is composed entirely of three subsets: (1) the set of all human actions are both willful and self-serving, (2) the set of all human actions which are willful and not self-serving, and (3) the set of all human actions which are ‘instinctive’ or ‘reflexive’, involving no involvement of the human will. I am suggesting that that in real life, subset (2) is actually an empty set. We can conceptualize the set’s existence, just as we can conceptualize the non-existence of the monitor we are looking at, but in reality, the monitor is actually there.

I would say that contained within the set of all human behavior is a subset of those behaviors that appear to be unselfish, but only if one assumes that that humans do not have a need for the approval of other humans [that can be satisfied when approval is perceived/anticipated]. If we recognize that humans actually experience such a need—just as they experience a need for water—then behavior which ‘appeared’ to be unselfish is actually revealed to be selfish. A more accurate conceptualization of the set of all willful behaviors is that it consists entirely of two subsets: willful behavior that is ‘smart-selfish’ and willful behavior that is ‘stupid-selfish.’

If you are smart-selfish, you will always act to become a source of need-satisfaction to others in order to earn their gratitude. And you will understand that simply expressing gratitude for the kindnesses visited upon you by others satisfies their need for approval, which makes you a valued source of need-satisfaction in their eyes, which in turn earns you the approval you desire. If you are smart-selfish, then you will understand that expressing approval is one of the best ways to earn approval. If you are stupid-selfish, you will be oblivious to the importance of your emotional needs and will not have any good reason to not take advantage of others.

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John Quiggin 05.07.09 at 11:20 pm

James, DD is right, and Hazlitt had your number on this two centuries ago. You are not giving empirical evidence that the set of unselfish actions is empty, you are defining terms so that this is tautologically true. But, as you see, having defined terms in this way, you don’t need the terms “selfish” or “unselfish” anymore. Worse, you now need new words like “smart-selfish” and “stupid-selfish” . And you need another term for things you do because you judge them to be right regardless of whether other people will know of and approve them (in the light of the above post, I guess you could go for karma-selfish). And, when all this is over, you will just have some new and complex synonyms for the original terms.

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engels 05.08.09 at 1:01 am

James, funnily enough I have always thought the opposite. All human behaviour is motivated by moral obligations and there is no self-serving behaviour. Of course there are some actions — like robbing people’s grandmothers for money to buy crack — which appear, on the surface, to be nasty and selfish, but really such people are following a strict moral code, a code which says, do things which appear to be nasty and selfish. Once realise that humans are guided by a moral imperative to be selfish, then actions which on first sight appeared to be selfish turn out to be done out of a sense of moral obligation.

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windy 05.08.09 at 1:02 am

This belief – Dawkins’s own summary of his “God Delusion” – is not mainstream Anglicanism. Dawkins is misrepresenting the people and the belief structure which he purports to be writing about.

It might be useful to remember that Dawkins was raised Anglican. Maybe he was an unusually obtuse boy and didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to take all that stuff seriously.

Sure, having been one is not a guarantee that Dawkins understood Anglicanism, after all “I used to be an atheist/evolutionist…” is a commonly heard refrain. But if Eagleton thinks that we have a moral obligation to confront Christianity ‘at its most persuasive’, shouldn’t churches have an even bigger moral obligation to teach it that way?

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luke 05.08.09 at 2:01 am

only among the british far left nowadays could someone like Eagleton own three houses and then purport to be a marxist. And I find it increasingly silly how defenders of religion nowadays make all sorts of nonsensical claims (religion doesn’t make truth statements) that are complete bullshit for most Christians.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 3:13 am

Re Bikerdad @134,

Gee, I can’t imagine why folks might push back against being told that they’re nothing more than randomly processed “advanced” monkeys.

Gee, I ‘d like people like you to stop coming up with ridiculous strawmen like this. That “nothing more than” is doing an awful lot of work, and it’s purely the product of your overactive imagination- nobody is being taught this. (It’s also a genetic fallacy.)

And that is the real purpose of teaching evolution in grade schools.

No, the real purpose is to teach biology, which can no more be taught without evolution than chemistry can be taught without the periodic table.

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Dan S. 05.08.09 at 6:04 am

Bikerdad (@134) – why teach atomic theory? What utility- besides for the tiny % of students who go on to work in some sort of physical science-related field – does instruction about the building blocks of matter have for future lumberjacks and chefs and salespeople and hired assassins and college presidents & etc.? Or take heliocentrism! Honestly, what on earth is the point of teaching that? Clearly it’s just to advance certain metaphysical claims . . . And plate tectonics – wtf? Who cares!?

Because evolution operates on such grand time scales, knowing about it has even less utility than having an encyclopediac knowledge of ancient Mongolia.

Actually, evolution can operate on a very human time scale in very vital ways, and has obvious utility, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, in understanding things like the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, or pesticide resistance in insects.

And you’d be surprised at how an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Mongolia can come in handy . .

perhaps y’all should look long and hard at why it’s adherents spend so much effort defending it, and advancing it from 1st grade on.

Ha! “1st grade on”?! I wish! Wait, wait, I get it, this is another case of comments somehow crossing over from strange alternative universes… See, in this one (at least in the U.S. context, which you seemed to be discussing), there is a slight chance that evolution might be extremely briefly touched upon late in middle school; otherwise we’re talking a few class periods in 9th or 10th grade. And of course a fair % of high school science teachers don’t ever mention it, due to personal conviction or pressure from parents/administrators, while a larger number present it, (possibly unconstitutionally and utterly unprofessionally, depending) alongside creationism – or, rarely, just teach creationism. (In a recent study of U of Minnesota students taking intro bio (majors/non-majors), about 2/3 of them had evolution in h.s. science class, 29/21% had evolution and creationism, 6/13% had neither, and 1-2% just creationism. )

Evolution, as taught in public schools … presupposes “for no reason whatsoever.”

No. Fail. Sorry.

When secularists make claims, either implicitly or explicitly, about meaning, and use science as their delivery vehicle, some folks on the religious side take umbrage and respond. You’ll find very, very few conservative Christians working to influence the chemistry curriculum, or the physics curriculum (aside from perhaps cosmology) based on their religious beliefs. Why not? Because secularists don’t smuggle metaphysical claims in through those channels.

Well, let me grant, quite uncontroversially, that there are secularists who use evolution to make metaphysical claims – but of course this has little or nothing to do with the people howling about how they didn’t come from monkeys or shouting out in school board meetings that “2,000 years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”. Rather, these people are responding to the perception that evolution in schools (or anywhere) utterly undermines religion (absolutely correct in terms of the rigid and narrowly sectarian biblical literalism they usually subscribe to) and any sort of meaning or purpose to life (ymmv) ; destroys morality, creating a dark, godless dystopia of despair, crime, drug use, and abortion; and – besides filling kid’s heads with what they see as evil, God-denying nonsense – quite possibly dooms children – their children – to eternal damnation.

(Some creationists also oppose linguistic evolution, since this goes against the biblical story of Babel, but since you don’t get much in the way of historical linguistics in high school, afaik, it’s not an issue – also helps that not nearly as many folks are aware of this, and that it doesn’t strike so vital a topic in terms of worldview.)

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Dan S. 05.08.09 at 6:17 am

perhaps y’all should look long and hard at why it’s adherents spend so much effort defending it…

Well, let’s have a thought experiment here. What do you think would happen if there was an ongoing, persistent, and well-organized movement of dedicated geocentrists to “teach the controversy!” about whether the earth goes around the sun. (“Teach the controversy,” that is, because efforts to simply remove heliocentrism from the curriculum and replace it with geocentrism failed, as did attempts to mandate equal time for explicitly religious geocentrism, and then for a thinly-veiled version of that called “geocentrism-science” . . .).

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Shawn Crowley 05.08.09 at 7:04 am

Bikerdad at 134: Even setting aside your professional bias, which would be far more useful to children, being taught critical thinking skills or being taught about evolution?

Wow. I can’t think of anything to say in response. Nor do I need to.

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Shawn Crowley 05.08.09 at 7:10 am

On second thought:

Well I am just a monkey man
I’m glad you are a monkey, monkey woman
Monkey woman too, babe!

I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey!
I’m a monkey man! I’m a monkey man!
I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey!
Monkey! monkey! monkey!…….

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Phil 05.08.09 at 8:03 am

miracles including the virgin birth are acknowledged as fact

Well, kind of. Williams certainly isn’t saying Jesus didn’t perform miracles. What he’s saying is “here’s a story about the way that God works in the world, and it’s a true and important story”. He’s not getting pinned down on whether it’s a factually accurate story.

What particularly irritates me about Dawkins’s approach is this notion that religion used to be all about the statements of fact (which it got wrong), and Williams’s “poetic” style is some sort of weaselly rearguard action in the wake of the C19-20 victory of Science. It’s exactly the other way round: Williams’s approach to Biblical exegesis (“it’s true regardless of whether it actually happened like this”) is at least 2,000 years old – the gospel of John (along with several non-canonical gospels) is written in that style. Biblical literalism is the latecomer – Fundamentals is less than a century old – and flourished precisely in reaction to the perceived victory of scientific reason, not least among Christians.

It might be useful to remember that Dawkins was raised Anglican. Maybe he was an unusually obtuse boy and didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to take all that stuff seriously.

I think he’s an unusually rationalist person and doesn’t have any time for beliefs which can’t be reduced to factual propositions.

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JoB 05.08.09 at 9:34 am

Phil, if your first paragraph in defense of Williams isn’t weaseling, I don’t know what is. As far as I know Dawkins has no problem with the story-telling – but with the factual claims that are made in the slipstream of the story-telling. True – Williams is weasely enough to weasel his way out of anything factual as far as he is concerned but that doesn’t alter the fact that Anglicans take some revealed knowledge as the factual guidance for any moral conduct.

Do you think that Dawkins has a purely rationalist attitude to his wife? If you are so upset at the misrepresentation of Williams’ position, why misrepresent somebody else’s character – without factual basis as far as I can see. Not a very gospel-inspired attitude I’d say.

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Dan S. 05.08.09 at 10:54 am

Even setting aside your professional bias, which would be far more useful to children, being taught critical thinking skills or being taught about evolution?

Bikerdad, which would be far more useful to children, being taught critical thinking skills or being taught about algebra? (Etc.)

Between pro-science-teaching folks and anti-science-teaching creationist folks, which group do you think is more likely to support the teaching of critical thinking skills? Which group do you think is less likely to so so?

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engels 05.08.09 at 11:03 am

What utility does instruction in evolution provide to the future engineer, lawyer, salesman, dentist, truck driver, lumberjack, chef, etc?

Oh dear. We’re going to be here for a while, aren’t we?

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engels 05.08.09 at 11:19 am

And now back to your regularly scheduled accusations of rationalism and philistinism…

And just to add, I agree that Dawkins’ eulogies about the Wonder and Beauty of Modern Science (TM) can get pretty cringe-making. But anyone who argues for cutting evolution from the curriculum on the grounds that it can’t make you a more productive litigator is… well, words fail me.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 12:25 pm

And just to add, I agree that Dawkins’ eulogies about the Wonder and Beauty of Modern Science™ can get pretty cringe-making.

I’d like to see somebody do it better (and arguably it has been done better- Sagan, Attenborough, and Zimmer come to mind for starters) but SOMEBODY has to do it for chrissakes. The popular caricature of coldly rational science is a million miles away from the fascination and awe felt by those who actually study a universe that is “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”, to quote Haldane.

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belle le triste 05.08.09 at 12:42 pm

I actually think Stephen Gould does it better, in Dawkins’s specific area of concern. Maybe the wise CT overlords could put up a bleg post for proposal of and discussion of really really good “pop science” works as already exist (if that’s the right term, it looks a bit rubbish). Anyway, books that do what Steve L wants them to.

Haldane is good too, though presumably a bit outdated these days. Roger Penrose was my non-Euclidean science lecturer and we loved him, all rumpled with his little bald patch — but his books are a bit awful, sadly.

*and leaving aside which of the two is more correct abt Darwin, which I’m not remotely competent to judge; also leaving aside when Gould digresses into baseball stats, bcz SHUT UP SHUT UP

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belle le triste 05.08.09 at 12:43 pm

ffs, non-Euclidean science s/b non-Euclidean geometry

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 12:50 pm

I actually think Stephen Gould does it better, in Dawkins’s specific area of concern.

While I was not trying to give a comprehensive list, indeed I should have mentioned him- he was really a wonderful writer.
(And, you know, some of us are baseball fans. ;) ) Thanks.

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Righteous Bubba 05.08.09 at 12:53 pm

Well, kind of. Williams certainly isn’t saying Jesus didn’t perform miracles. What he’s saying is “here’s a story about the way that God works in the world, and it’s a true and important story”. He’s not getting pinned down on whether it’s a factually accurate story.

At around 1:50 he’s asked if he believes in NT miracles including the virgin birth and he assents and offers more examples. I don’t know what more you need.

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engels 05.08.09 at 12:55 pm

Okay, that sounded more dismissive than it was intended to. I suppose what I wanted to say is that I agree with you (and Dawkins) that evolutionary biology and other parts of contemporary science certainly aren’t just means to technological ends and offer a view of the world which is inherently beautiful, intriguing, awe-inspiring, and what have you, and that scientists have a duty to try to share these experiences with non-scientists. I tend to think that they do that more successfully by showing rather than telling. Books like the Selfish Gene accomplish the first aim rather peerlessly imo. My memory of some of Dawkins’ more polemical pieces, which attempted to do the second, is that they were less to my taste.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 1:07 pm

I haven’t read anything by Dawkins but The Selfish Gene (back when it came out,) so would somebody please tell me, has he ever taken a position on the common assertion by mathematicians that numbers exist in a Platonic ideal realm?

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engels 05.08.09 at 1:13 pm

I like Gould too but I think Dawkins is the better science writer. That’s because I think he gives a better sense of what his subject is really about from the inside. At least, that’s an opinion I have heard from people who actually know about it (which I don’t).

It would of course be extremely crass and philistine for anyone to make a comparative judgement about the aesthetic or scientific merits of two writers based on how congenial they feel they are to their politics, so I am confident that nobody here is doing that.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 1:20 pm

Okay, that sounded more dismissive than it was intended to.

I didn’t take it that way. I’ve only skimmed his more recent books but I have the impression that none of them rise to the level of the excellent Blind Watchmaker. And I’m almost as unimpressed as you probably are by Unweaving the Rainbow even though I greatly appreciate the intent. Waxing poetic is just not his line.

I like Gould too but I think Dawkins is the better science writer.

Well, I kind of disqualify myself from making that particular judgment- I’m biased because my view of evolution is closer to Dawkins’s.

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Watson Aname 05.08.09 at 1:39 pm

Steve LaBonne: just curious, what’s your take on (particularly) the general background part (the first half or so, if I recall correctly) of Gould’s “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” ? For an outsider, it’s always hard to tell how much a specialist is presenting something from their own, or a consensus point of view.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 2:00 pm

the common assertion by mathematicians that numbers exist in a Platonic ideal realm

We’ve been through this before, but that’s equivalent to saying “the common assertion by English professors that words exist in a Platonic ideal realm,” and if you’re going to credibly claim it’s common you need to cite some evidence.

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Donald Johnson 05.08.09 at 2:09 pm

“We’ve been through this before, but that’s equivalent to saying “the common assertion by English professors that words exist in a Platonic ideal realm,” and if you’re going to credibly claim it’s common you need to cite some evidence.”

I don’t know how common it is, but Roger Penrose seems to believe this.

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Phil 05.08.09 at 2:25 pm

As far as I know Dawkins has no problem with the story-telling – but with the factual claims that are made in the slipstream of the story-telling.

The story-tellers aren’t the ones making the factual claims. They disagree radically – fundamentally, even – about what their religion is about, and in very large part the disagreement is about story-telling vs factual claims. To say that Anglicans like Williams “hold the door open” for creationists by maintaining that God exists is a bit like saying that Neil Kinnock held the door open for Militant by using the word ‘socialism’.

True – Williams is weasely enough to weasel his way out of anything factual

It. Is. Not. Weaselling. Look, there’s dialogue in the gospel of John – vivid, highly believable lines of dialogue, ostensibly spoken at incidents which took place either (a) about a century before John was writing or (b) not at all. (You won’t find the resurrection of Lazarus in any of the other three gospels.) John knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t writing a factually accurate account. Williams’s “weaselling” – his willingness to entertain that a story may be true and important even if it’s not factually accurate – is completely orthodox Christian exegetical practice.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 2:25 pm

Absolutely he does! Examples of mathematical Platonists? Penrose, Kronecker, Dedekind, Frege (I imagine,) Hilbert, Gödel, — that list is rather endless. You could almost say instead: Any mathematical philosopher who’s thought about it, with the exception of Brouwer and the intuitionists and some of the phenomenologists, Carlo-Rota, etc.

Recently, Daniel Dennett in an interview reasserted the existence of the Platonic realm of mathematics, presumably eternal and non-evolutionary though its objects and theorems like the Mandlebrot set (which is Penrose’s favorite example) and the Pythagorean theorem are discoverable by us. This, after Dennett strongly asserts that consciousness is entirely engendered by material, leaving open the mystery of how its connection to this Platonic realm is made.

But in fact Salient I adopt your viewpoint (I think,) which is “who cares, as long as it works operationally.” In other words, here, too, I am an agnostic.

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engels 05.08.09 at 2:30 pm

Examples of mathematical Platonists? … You could almost say instead: Any mathematical philosopher who’s thought about it

Er, no, that’s completely absurd.

“who cares, as long as it works operationally.”

Sigh.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 2:33 pm

I don’t know how common it is, but Roger Penrose seems to believe this.

And Goedel did, if I remember a previous thread correctly. I think the trouble is, the few mathematicians who go “high-profile” and become well-known in the modern day lay-population seem to do so because they’re philosophizing. There are a couple exceptions to this, e.g. Nash.

Actually, maybe Arnold’s comment holds if we limit it to “high-profile mathematicians who philosophize to laypersons.” Dunno. But given that there’s at least a 20% chance that Arnold was baiting me with the comment (it’s doubtful Dawkins had anything to say about numbers), I’ll leave it at that. I’d still like to see Arnold cite some reasonable-sample-size polling of mathematicians, if the comment’s going to stand as unassailable.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 2:36 pm

But my actual point is: Let’s adopt the principle that the Truth Value of the Metaphysical Claim doesn’t matter, since it is proven efficacious in the Performance of Certain Transformations.

Now: Should this apply to changes in being, too?

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engels 05.08.09 at 2:37 pm

And what, if you don’t mind me asking, does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China?

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Salient 05.08.09 at 2:42 pm

Oop, I should’ve waited 2 minutes. Thanks for the list, Arnold; it does help to know where you’re getting this from.

At engels’ link: Philosophers have a tendency to step outside the framework of mathematics and ask “from the outside” whether mathematical objects really exist and whether mathematical propositions are really true.

I think that sums it up quite nicely. I naively think of mathematics as a language, and I think that’s a pretty popular viewpoint. Sets and morphisms are a bit like words, I guess; they denote. I might break from the mainstream with this corollary: asking if a mathematical object “exists” is a lot like asking if a word “exists” and the answer to both questions, whatever that answer is, ought to be the same.

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JoB 05.08.09 at 2:47 pm

Lee Arnold, where did Dennett say that – please give a link (because I’m interested in what he has to say on that, not because I want to be in this discussion)

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Salient 05.08.09 at 2:52 pm

And what, if you don’t mind me asking, does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China?

Well, this is where Feynman steps in, for example.

Essentially, the implicit question at hand is something like, does a belief in the existence of numbers require the same leap of “faith” that a belief in God would?

So on that level it’s germane to the thread, more or less. There are probably other relationships I’m not thinking of.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 2:56 pm

JoB: It’s in one of the segments of the Robert Wright interview with Dennett on YouTube. I think it’s #4 or #5. I will dig up a link later.

Engels: I should have written, “Any mathematical philosopher who’s thought about it, with the exception of Brouwer and the intuitionists and some of the phenomenologists, Carlo-Rota, etc.” — and with the exception of those who avoided the issue altogether! (although most of the latter-day ones are really adopting a variation of Brouwer — “constructivism,” etc.)

I have to run to work!

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dsquared 05.08.09 at 3:04 pm

I might break from the mainstream with this corollary: asking if a mathematical object “exists” is a lot like asking if a word “exists” and the answer to both questions, whatever that answer is, ought to be the same.

no, this can’t be right – words don’t exist outside the context of a particular environment of communication but there’s a sense in which numbers do. Also the link between the word and the thing it describes is arbitrary in a way in which the link between a (natural) number and the sets it describes.

For example, if the only physical things that existed in the universe were three rocks, then there wouldn’t be any question about whether the right word to describe them was “rocks” or “pierres”, but there surely would be a fact of the matter about whether there was three or four.

Lots of people who aren’t Platonists about numbers end up being Platonists about sets, btw.

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dsquared 05.08.09 at 3:09 pm

By the way, how much the heck time does it really take to teach the concept of evolution to schoolchildren? Surely one week or two double periods, tops? This isn’t really crowding out very much time for basket weaving, napkin folding, soi-disant “critical thinking” or any other of these allegedly vital skills.

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engels 05.08.09 at 3:09 pm

Lee: You’re right: all philosophers of mathematics hold that view, with the sole exception of the ones who don’t.

Salient: Yes, and furthermore aren’t practices like the conference attendance and peer review–in a way–“rituals” like saying mass or dancing around a totem pole? I fail to see your point.

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windy 05.08.09 at 3:34 pm

I think he’s an unusually rationalist person and doesn’t have any time for beliefs which can’t be reduced to factual propositions.

According to his own words he was “pretty devout” as a kid, used to pray etc. Maybe he somehow got the wrong impression of what the CoE was trying to teach him. But it’s interesting that you are so confident that Dawkins doesn’t know what Anglicans believe.

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James Kroeger 05.08.09 at 3:41 pm

John Quiggin:

James, DD is right, and Hazlitt had your number on this two centuries ago.

You must be joking… Hazlitt ‘had my number’ when he offered his guess that the “self” exists only in the imagination? When he guessed that any Self’s imagination is actually indifferent to any of the future Self’s we could possibly be in the future? If you want to stand by your assertions, John, you have one hell of a lot of explaining to do.

Let me help to orient you a bit more with respect to the facts. My position is not that human beings do not possess a free will; I readily agree that we do. The ONLY reason why I am 100% confident that we actually have a free will is because humans have repeatedly demonstrated that they can say NO to the most insistent of instinctive urges. We can refuse food during a hunger strike to the point of death and we can willingly expose our bodies to machinegun fire IF we believe that a higher/superior satisfaction can be obtained (or a worse pain could be avoided) that would make the sacrifice worth the pain/loss. (Or if we have convinced ourselves that demonstrating our power to refuse need-satisfaction will impress others in a way that will give us a lot of satisfaction.)

This mental ‘freedom’ to say no to the most demanding of instinctive urges is the only irrefutable evidence we can point to that establishes the human will’s ‘freedom.’ I actually agree with Hazlitt that it is ridiculous to say that humans have ‘no choice’ but to satisfy the most simplistically perceived urges. But his fanciful ‘solution’ to the problem is no solution at all.

Worse, you now need new words like “smart-selfish” and “stupid-selfish” . And you need another term for things you do because you judge them to be right regardless of whether other people will know of and approve them (in the light of the above post, I guess you could go for karma-selfish). And, when all this is over, you will just have some new and complex synonyms for the original terms.

(eyes rolling) Really now, John, are you actually unable to see the distinction I am making? I am not just swapping synonyms. You are suggesting that I am proposing a distinction without a difference, but in order for you to make that assertion, you need to willfully ignore the fact that my construction emphasizes the point that all [willful] human actions are motivated by intentions that are ultimately self-serving.

Do you really insist that this conceptualization is no different from the taxonomy I am challenging?

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engels 05.08.09 at 3:42 pm

I naively think of mathematics as a language, and I think that’s a pretty popular viewpoint. Sets and morphisms are a bit like words, I guess; they denote. I might break from the mainstream with this corollary: asking if a mathematical object “exists” is a lot like asking if a word “exists” and the answer to both questions, whatever that answer is, ought to be the same.

I think you are confused. Sets and isomorphisms don’t ‘denote’, they are (or appear to be) objects denoted by mathematical expressions. Asking if a mathematical object exists isn’t like asking if a word exists, it is like asking if the object for which the word stands exists.

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Matt Heath 05.08.09 at 3:47 pm

Examples of mathematical Platonists? … Hilbert

Really? Hilbert is usually held up as the archetypal formalist, viewing mathematics as a game of meaningless symbols.

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Phil 05.08.09 at 4:34 pm

According to his own words he was “pretty devout” as a kid, used to pray etc. Maybe he somehow got the wrong impression of what the CoE was trying to teach him.

There are Christians, in just about all denominations, who believe the relationship between God and the world is straightforward – everything happens for a reason, God will look after the good people and if you pray for a pony you will eventually get a pony. You could call that devout, or you could call it turning your brain off. For most people that kind of belief doesn’t survive childhood.

it’s interesting that you are so confident that Dawkins doesn’t know what Anglicans believe

I’ve known a lot of Anglicans; I’ve been one myself. It’s not so much that Dawkins doesn’t know as that he doesn’t understand what Anglicans believe – he thinks of religious belief in terms of believing six impossible things before breakfast, and when he comes up against believers who don’t fit the model he essentially calls them dishonest (Step 5: That’s just a lot of verbiage – they really believe $RIDICULOUS_IDEA, we know they do!).

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CJColucci 05.08.09 at 5:12 pm

There are Christians, in just about all denominations, who believe the relationship between God and the world is straightforward – everything happens for a reason, God will look after the good people and if you pray for a pony you will eventually get a pony. You could call that devout, or you could call it turning your brain off. For most people that kind of belief doesn’t survive childhood.

This appears to be an empirical proposition subject to confirmation or disconfirmation based on evidence of what large numbers of people, in fact, believe. Now, maybe, we can get somewhere.

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koan0215 05.08.09 at 5:24 pm

Phil, I’m a bit confused about what you have been saying here, and it may be that I am simply missing your point. Are you saying that most believing Christians don’t believe in the supernatural bits of Christian theology (physical resurrection of Christ, virgin birth, various miracles, etc.)? Or are you simply saying most Anglicans don’t believe this? I ask because this flies in the face of my experience with professed Christians. The vast majority of the ones I interact with believe most of the supernatural claims that the Christian creed makes.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 5:50 pm

it is like asking if the object for which the word stands exists.

Well, okay, then a ‘group’ exists much the same way a ‘unicorn’ does. I wasn’t intending to be especially precise with that statement.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 5:53 pm

I fail to see your point.

Well, it’s not my point. You had asked (I think) why any contemplation of mathematics was intruding on this thread; I tried to address that.

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windy 05.08.09 at 5:58 pm

There are Christians, in just about all denominations, who believe the relationship between God and the world is straightforward – everything happens for a reason, God will look after the good people and if you pray for a pony you will eventually get a pony.

Is that “unusually rationalist”, I wonder? Again, there is nothing but your confident assertion that this is what Dawkins’ childhood faith was like. From what Dawkins says it seems more like he was drawn to the spiritual side of faith even as he doubted the factual assertions about original sin etc.

In contrast, I was the kind of child who really did treat the existence of God as a testable hypothesis (very briefly and half-heartedly), and Dawkins’ experience does not sound similar at all.

You could call that devout, or you could call it turning your brain off. For most people that kind of belief doesn’t survive childhood.

“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” ;)

That’s just a lot of verbiage – they really believe $RIDICULOUS_IDEA, we know they do!

No matter how much you repeat it, looks like it has not been established to everyone else’s satisfaction that God having created the universe is a ridiculous idea that no True Anglican really believes.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 6:02 pm

all [willful] human actions are motivated by intentions that are ultimately self-serving.

But that’s not a true statement. Well, maybe if you allow the meaning of “willful” or “ultimately” to stretch far beyond what I’d consider the bounds of reasonable usage. I hate to argue by straw-man example, but [trigger warning] for a very basic example, if a non-religious person commits suicide, how is that self-serving?

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 6:11 pm

Okay, I’ve have a little break here and this just fascinates me. And I think it relates to scientific criticism of religion.

Hilbert’s formalism didn’t resolve the question of the ontological status of mathematics, and I would like to read any evidence that Hilbert thought it did. The philosophy of mathematical formalism ignores the question, and in essence transfers it to what is now called the “symbol grounding problem.” If we attempt to suffice it by supposing that mathematics and logic are just languages, generated by material brains, then here is the issue: mathematics and logic can be run on different platforms. (Paper and pencil, computer, abacus, pebbles as Dsquared points out.) I think it may have been John A. Wheeler who first argued (in our own times) that computation is therefore not reducible to physics.

I would go further and say that symbolization, language in general, is non-physical, at least by any useful definitions we have of matter and of meaning. Becoming a formalist, an operationalist, a conventionalist, a “superventionist” doesn’t remove the metaphysics (nor the dualism, in my opinion.)

So Engels, what I should have written was: all philosophers of mathematics hold the metaphysical view of mathematics, with the exception of the ones who politely ignore it or cleverly displace it to another realm.

What is the point of all this, here for me at least? Recall John Quiggin’s original post, which I take to be:

“What is to be done, about the opiate of the masses?”

In reply, the position of some scientists appears to be: “No matter what is done, religion should NOT make originary truth claims, because we have learned that our OWN metaphysics (i.e., numbers and arithmetic; the assumption that the cosmos consists of space with material particles with forces or fields in between, etc.) gives us excellent results operationally, WITHOUT having to make any truth claims about the underlying metaphysical existence status of those objects.

(As you may suspect, one of the first people bothered by this was Isaac Newton.)

What is crucially missing in this scientific position with regard to religious belief is the recognition that the metaphysical truth claims of religion have a DIFFERENT relationship to the intentional operations in its domain. And those intentional operations are primary. For example, you must sacrifice your ego and accept a higher power, to overcome alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Or, to reprint the quote from Wittgenstein above, ““Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For “consciousness of sin” is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.”

The Buddha’s original metaphysics does not include a supernatural being (here there can be confusion because higher consciousness, so rarely experienced, is widely misunderstood.) But, as Patrick S. O’Donnell described it above, it requires much more than the concept of karma. There is a full, coherent, and necessarily interlocking propadeutics for the redirection of intentionality contained in its combined doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, etc.

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Salient 05.08.09 at 6:41 pm

If we attempt to suffice it by supposing that mathematics and logic are just languages, generated by material brains, then here is the issue: mathematics and logic can be run on different platforms. (Paper and pencil, computer, abacus, pebbles as Dsquared points out.)

I don’t see the issue. We’ve developed some words that accurately describe a broad range of phenomena. We could denote “horse” by those five letters or by a drawing or by any variety of agreed-upon symbols — we could go get a horse and point to it.

Maybe this is a wondering over whether, in the absence of living things to perceive them, the five pretty red pebbles sitting on my desk right now are really five, whether “five” exists in the universe. I’d say that’s about the same as wondering if there really do exist “red” pebbles or “pretty” pebbles, whether redness or prettiness really exist in the universe. To ask the question, I think we’d need to first be very clear about what we mean by “really” and “exist” in the first place.

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Phil 05.08.09 at 7:05 pm

Are you saying that most believing Christians don’t believe in the supernatural bits of Christian theology (physical resurrection of Christ, virgin birth, various miracles, etc.)? Or are you simply saying most Anglicans don’t believe this?

Neither. I’m saying there’s a difference between thinking that a story is worth believing in and thinking it’s factually accurate. A lot of 20th and 21st-century Christians refuse to hold these two ideas separate, insisting that the truth of the Bible is indistinguishable from the truth of a witness statement sworn on it; Dawkins is on firm ground talking to them, and as far as I’m concerned he can give them hell. But I think most Anglicans do hold those ideas separate (I learned to do so from my own Anglican upbringing), and that doing so has a long and respectable history within Christianity.

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koan0215 05.08.09 at 7:12 pm

Ah, now I get it. Thanks! That basically describes my personal way of thinking (though I am not a Christian) so I suppose I agree with you.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 7:35 pm

I’m saying there’s a difference between thinking that a story is worth believing in and thinking it’s factually accurate.

How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction? If it isn’t, are those who prize, say, L’education sentimentale, adherents of a religion of “Moreauism”? If it is, precisely what is the “cash value” (to use that horrid philosophical catchphrase for want of time to come up with a better one), of the difference?

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Salient 05.08.09 at 7:43 pm

How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction?

There’s a big difference. One can believe the general idea that the world was divinely created by an omnipotent entity, and at the same time believe that most of the concrete ideas or written stories about that deity are probably wrong in the details.

In this respect, it’s a little like paleontology: you can believe that whales are likely to be the descendants of an otter-like creature, and still believe that most of the current hypotheses about specific lineages are wrong. Ooh, even better example – Suppose for a moment we live in the time of Haeckel and Owen. In our time, macroevolution is a model of the universe worth adopting (or “believing in”) even if you believe the specific things Haeckel is currently saying about it are wrong.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 7:46 pm

One can believe the general idea that the world was divinely created by an omnipotent entity…

I understand that. But I read Phil to be denying the need for ANY ontological commitment at all, not just saying that one doesn’t need to commit to all the details. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that I misunderstood him, of course. I hope he’ll clarify his position.

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koan0215 05.08.09 at 7:56 pm

“How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction?”

From my perspective I would say that there isn’t too much of a difference. One can find lots of value in the myth of the life of Christ, his crucifiction and resurrection without accepting the idea of virgin birth or the fact of physical resurrection. Your mileage may vary though. The reason why you wouldn’t want to say that there exists a religion called “Moreauism” is that people who prize L’education setimentale are not going to root their life in meanings and symbols that they find in that book.

Dawkins and other militant atheists basically talk past people who view religion like this but I personally don’t see that as a problem as they aren’t really the intended audience.

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Bruce Baugh 05.08.09 at 7:58 pm

I’m wondering the same thing as Steve. If the point of a religious tradition is to work on your sympathies, emotions, sense of possibilities, and moral sentiment (all of which I think are important can be useful in supporting our impulses toward good behavior), then it seems like this is all work that could be done much better by avowed art, which doesn’t have the legacy of truth claims to discard.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 8:09 pm

Bruce- exactly. My life, for example, has been deeply enriched by the Commedia (appreciation of which is one thing that my Catholic upbringning is useful for, I have to say) but I do not feel called upon as a result to declare that in some highly exiguous sense I am a “Catholic” despite believing absolutely nothing of Catholic doctrine. What would be the point of that? The (frankly misappropriated) label would add nothing to the actual experience.

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CJColucci 05.08.09 at 8:12 pm

Neither. I’m saying there’s a difference between thinking that a story is worth believing in and thinking it’s factually accurate. A lot of 20th and 21st-century Christians refuse to hold these two ideas separate, insisting that the truth of the Bible is indistinguishable from the truth of a witness statement sworn on it; Dawkins is on firm ground talking to them, and as far as I’m concerned he can give them hell.

Then what, pray tell, have people been disagreeing about?

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Righteous Bubba 05.08.09 at 8:14 pm

then it seems like this is all work that could be done much better by avowed art

Enter Atlas Shrugged!

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koan0215 05.08.09 at 8:20 pm

Steve of course you don’t feel “called upon” to declare yourself Catholic because of appreciation for the literary artifacts of religious belief. Like I said earlier, one’s mileage may vary. But there are people who find moral value in the Catholic mythos, feel rooted in Catholic tradition, attend mass, but don’t take any of the supernatural doctrines literally. And it is perfectly fair for those people to call themselves Catholic, isn’t it? I admit, these people aren’t the majority, but they are certainly real.

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Phil 05.08.09 at 9:01 pm

How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction?

The answer’s social and institutional, ultimately: a sacred text is a work of literature with an army and navy interpreters and ritual. (What’s the difference between the Co$ and Hubbard fandom?)

Short of that cut-off point, I think there’s a continuum. There’s being moved by a book of fiction; then there’s believing that a book expresses important truths about the world; then there’s believing that a book expresses truths about the world which people could usefully try and live by; then, finally, there’s believing that the book expresses the truth which people should live by. Avowed works of fiction very rarely reach that last stage, or not for any large number of people; ‘fiction’ indicates ‘some guy making stuff up’, after all. But some examples would be fans of Castaneda and Kahlil Gibran, or the more extreme Tolkien devotees, or people citing their religion as “Jedi Knight”. What’s interesting from my point of view is the way that fictions seem to sprout ontological commitments after the fact, at the point where people start committing to their “truth” in moral or ethical terms. There are people out there who manage to believe that there is a Force, or even that this is a historically accurate map – but they believe those things (I think) because they’ve bought into the stories as the kind of thing it’s good to believe in.

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dsquared 05.08.09 at 9:34 pm

How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction?

basically, the difference between the US dollar and the Zimbabwean dollar.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 9:49 pm

How is the former, without the latter, different from being moved by a work of fiction? basically, the difference between the US dollar and the Zimbabwean dollar.

So you assert. But that leaves me with my original question: where is the added value? In the community (which seems to be Phil’s answer)? I can see that, to some extent. I used to attend Unitarian Universalist churches for that reason, and might well do so again in the future. But I can easily do so without taking Eagletosh’s kind of umbrage at Dawkins.

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Steve LaBonne 05.08.09 at 9:54 pm

(Not to mention that equating the value one’s reaction to works of art with the Zimbabwean dollar seems, well, a bit philistine.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.08.09 at 10:08 pm

Hey, calm down. According to Dawkins any communication is merely “manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender”. Science, religions, arts, blog comments – same shit.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 10:09 pm

Yes but the 100-trillion note has rocks balanced on it, so at least it’s got METAPHOR working for the fiction:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zimbabwe_$100_trillion_2009_Obverse.jpg

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 10:12 pm

Salient: “I think we’d need to first be very clear about what we mean by “really” and “exist” in the first place.”

Metaphysics, exactly.

But following Wittgenstein, let’s say we’re not going to do it the old way, we’re not going to build abstract and aery theories — instead we’re going to look to the usage of the words, and then we’re going to leave it there.

The usages show that the referents are different:

(1) We point to a horse and say “horse,” to teach a child the meaning, the referent of that symbol. No arguments there.

(2) We point to different sets of things, each set containing two objects, and say “two,” and the child understands. But philosophers will argue about where THAT concept exists: “it’s a logical class,” “it’s a Platonic ideal,” whatever. (In my own opinion it will always be irredeemably dualist, and I don’t care.) Number is metaphysical, but we give this particular metaphysics a “get out of jail free” card, because the operations we use it for are fruitful in science.

(3) Further on: How do we point to being, and how do we point to a set of instructions to bring about a change in being? What is a proper language for this?

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windy 05.09.09 at 2:23 am

basically, the difference between the US dollar and the Zimbabwean dollar.

Which one is which?

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Hidari 05.09.09 at 10:42 am

Incidentally, without going into the ‘is mathematics Platonic’ debate (I suspect many mathematicians are covert Platonists, actually, even if they might deny this), but I was thinking about this and I remembered an anecdote from Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. W. was discussing Catholicism with Anscombe and was stunned to discover that in order to convert (W. was drawn to Catholic ritual) one had to assert one’s belief in the literal truth of the idea that when one ate the communion wafer, it had literally been turned into physical body of Christ. W. wrote later in a notebook that he could simply never bring himself to assent to such a statement, although he still respected people that could.

So: other statements notwithstanding, this indicates, I think that W. was aware that there was a truth component to at least some aspects of Christianity, that many/most of these truth statements were incompatible with modern science, and that, for that reason, he,W., could not bring himself in good faith (!) to agree with them.

It also occurs to me, as I stated above that this arguments apply particularly to the Big Three religions and only dubiously, if at all,to other religions (Eastern ‘religions’ for example). But one could go further. One could argue that Dawkins’ real point is aimed specifically at Christianity, and that Judaism and Islam are much less exposed. I’m not an expert here, but my understanding is that Judaism and Islam are much more to be understood as forms of life, and ethical and political affiliations that Christianity. Judaism to an extent and Islam, much more so, are also much less hierarchical than, say Catholicism, which has a Pope, who is ‘infallible’ and who defines Truth (scientific and otherwise) for the faithful. Moreover, as I pointed out above, Christianity, much more than the other two, is bound to a scientific type truth claim, NOT that God created the Heavens and the Earth (which can easily be understood in a metaphorical or metaphysical way) but that, 2000 years ago, a man rose from the dead. Neither Islam nor Judaism are tied to a claim like that in such a specific sense. Moreover, my understanding is that the ‘aesthetic’ argument (which is, you might recall, where we came in) doesn’t really apply to Christianity, but DOES apply to Islam: many Muslims argue (apparently) that the aesthetic aspects of the Koran that are almost as important as any other aspect of it: indeed, some have converted (apparently) because the beauty of the poetry convinced them that this really was the word of God (which is a truth claim, but not an ersatz scientific one).

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James Kroeger 05.09.09 at 11:47 am

John Quiggin:

You are not giving empirical evidence that the set of unselfish actions is empty, you are defining terms so that this is tautologically true.

Something you need to keep in mind is that it is not possible to prove empirically [or in any other way] assumptions of a metaphysical nature. Nearly all metaphysical theory is pure speculation. That is to say, metaphysical statements are essentially…guesses. There is very little that a philosopher can say about virtually any metaphysical subject that she or anyone else can embrace with absolute certainty.

As an empiricist-by-identity, you might wonder how it is possible for philosophers to discuss any subject under the heading of Metaphysics while entertaining any sort of hope of advancing their understanding of The Truth. There are actually two things they can rely on to help improve the accuracy of their guesses: (1) Logic, and (2) the existence of Other Minds.

When I share my [metaphysical] guesses with others who are philosophically inclined, they will either say, “I see things the same way” or “that doesn’t make any sense.” Validation of your guesses by another mind is not proof that your conceptualization is 100% accurate, but it is helpful. If the majority of other minds that hear of your conceptualization agree that it is ‘useful’, then you will develop a greater degree of confidence in your speculation. Absolute certainty is not something you can realistically hope to obtain through philosophical musings.

Logic is not quite as useful in metaphysics as we would like it to be. After all, logic can be flawlessly used by two different individuals to justify two completely opposite conclusions (think politics/economics). They embrace opposite conclusions not because one or the other of them [or both] is using faulty logic, but simply because they differ in the initial premises they have embraced.. What logic can do for us in metaphysics is point out when some of the assumptions we are advancing are logically inconsistent with other assumptions that we also claim to embrace, or because they contradict certain observable facts.

Ultimately, in the absence of absolute certainty, we have no choice but to rely on our guesses re: many metaphysical questions. Because this is true, I assert that ALL guesses re: the existence of God, the possibility of an Afterlife, etc., are equally legitimate as long as we are not embracing logical contradictions or a guess that is inconsistent with observable fact. Go ahead and criticize someone’s metaphysical speculations for being logically inconsistent with other un-provable assumptions, but do not make the mistake of criticizing a philosopher’s ‘guess’ for not being a fact.

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engels 05.09.09 at 12:56 pm

Wow, there must really be something about this topic that brings out the bullshitters…

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virgil xenophon 05.09.09 at 7:46 pm

As an agnostic who is basically a hedonistic philistine who lives in New Orleans for that very reason, I have never bothered myself overly much with the detailed study of the philosophical niceties of the metaphysics of religion. Be that as it may, having followed this discussion from beginning to end, may I be allowed to make a few observations and to ask a couple of genuine questions if I may?

Observation/comment: I find it intriguing that only the Hindu religion has a concept of the age of the universe that roughly approximates what the scientific “consensus” holds it to be.

Strangely, I didn’t find much discussion of “intelligent design” here on this thread. My view is that while I full well realize why creationists seize upon the concept (intelligent design with the big “I”) and conflate it as being congruent with creationism to further their own agenda, I am somewhat amazed at the virulence with which the original concept (intelligent design with a small”i”) it is attacked by the scientific community. From what little I have read of the movement it’s original proponents have come mainly from the medical and scientific community with some very specific questions that evolutionists have not always handled well as far as I can see–although I will frankly admit I have not kept up with all the literature in the running debate. As such it seems to me they are saying that “ID” is not a paradigm that seeks to replace/supplant evolution, so much as modify it in the same way that Einstein’s physics did not supplant Newton’s, but only provided an alternate understanding for alternate situations, i.e., Newtonian physics seen as operating quite comfortable within the larger envelope of E=MCsqrd. (e.g., If I want to fire a missile from one point on the globe and successfully hit a target on another, the calculations that allow me to do that successfully are all Newton’s physics–not Einstein’s–and we won’t even get into the Quantum world). Even Darwin believed that religion had a role to play.

Seen in the above light, is the reason that so many are violently hostile to even discuss any aspect intelligent design with a small “i” with their questioning counterparts within the scientific community simply the fact they believe that the mere existence of any version of this concept unduly aides and abets Creationists and Creationism–or is it a hypersensitive reaction of some to criticisms they have trouble addressing? I am “agnostic” on this subject, myself, so am eliciting views.

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Righteous Bubba 05.09.09 at 8:28 pm

I am somewhat amazed at the virulence with which the original concept (intelligent design with a small”i”) it is attacked by the scientific community. From what little I have read of the movement it’s original proponents have come mainly from the medical and scientific community

It came from the Christian community, so aiding and abetting Creationism isn’t really a question. It has never had anything useful to say from a scientific perspective, so why consider it at all? Not that it wouldn’t be cool to be a science experiment of Bug-Eyed Monsters.

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Steve LaBonne 05.09.09 at 9:13 pm

I am somewhat amazed at the virulence with which the original concept (intelligent design with a small”i…

I’m amazed that you’re amazed at something that’s purely a figment of your imagination. Intelligent design, regardless of capitalization, has never been anything but a top-down movement, the latest Trojan Horse, designed in hope of getting around the First Amendment, brought to you by the same people who previously peddled “Creation Science”. (Consult the Dover trial record for more details.)

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Dan S. 05.09.09 at 9:31 pm

From what little I have read of the [*ntelligent *esign] movement . . .

That’s a very honest admission, and I hope you’ll take the logical next step, if interested (or at least planning to discuss it frequently). Some (slightly aged) suggestions: Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against The New Creationism, by Robert Pennock, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barabara Forrest and Paul Gross, the first half of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth Miller, pretty much anything about the Dover trial, including a google search for cdesign proponentsists, and of course, the infamous Wedge document, written by Discovery Institute staff and leaked over 10 years ago.

Basic idea: there’s no there there. There is no legitimate intelligent design movement apart from creationism (there may have been the occasional philosophical or theological musing being published in exceedingly arcane journals, but if so they were basically parasitized, hollowed out, and discarded by the ID movement). It’s basically a strategy that evolved to get around the legal and social defeats dealt creationism in the 80s, and funded by a number of wealthy right-wing cranks.

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Dan S. 05.09.09 at 9:34 pm

While my comment with links is in moderation:

From what little I have read of the [*ntelligent *esign] movement . . .

That’s a very honest admission, and I hope you’ll take the logical next step, if interested (or at least planning to discuss it frequently). Some (slightly aged) suggestions: Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against The New Creationism, by Robert Pennock, <Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barabara Forrest and Paul Gross, the first half of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth Miller, pretty much anything about the Dover trial, including a google search for “cdesign proponentsists”, and of course, the infamous “Wedge document”, written by Discovery Institute staff and leaked over 10 years ago.

Basic idea: there’s no there there. There is no legitimate intelligent design movement apart from creationism (there may have been the occasional philosophical or theological musing being published in exceedingly arcane journals, but if so they were basically parasitized, hollowed out, and discarded by the ID movement). It’s actually a strategy that evolved to get around the (especially) legal and social defeats dealt out to creationism in the 80s, and funded by a number of wealthy right-wing cranks.

Sorry.

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Hidari 05.10.09 at 12:11 pm

‘Even Darwin believed that religion had a role to play.’

Er…no he didn’t.

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