Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief

by niamh on October 7, 2012

Fans of Red Plenty, of whom there clearly are many in view of the online seminar we had here recently, will be interested to know that Francis Spufford has a new book out: entitled Unapologetic, this time it’s about Christianity.(1) The style as well as the content is different from his previous writings. There is some subtle and often quite beautiful writing in parts, but the tone is mostly conversational, unbuttoned, colloquial. It is also witty, funny even, and the book is in my view a highly engaging read.

There’s a lot of new interest in what religion can bring to public discourse, whether in the context of the human costs of rising inequality, the fundamental questions about economic organization raised by the current crisis, or our catastrophic despoliation of the natural world itself. For example, INET (the Institute for New Economic Thinking) is initiating a series of conversations between economists and theologians ‘designed to provoke creative thinking about money and markets in light of the world’s pressing economic challenges’. Keynes himself thought that we’d sooner or later have to face the question of what growth was actually for and what the purpose of a good life should be, and although not religious himself, he thought religious values would be important as a guide.

But Spufford’s book starts a few steps prior to these kinds of debates: he wants us to see what it means to take religion seriously on its own terms. It is in part a counter-blast at what he sees as over-simplification by atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. This doesn’t take the form of a point-by-point argument, nor is it a combative riposte such as, for example, Terry Eagleton’s. But mostly it’s an extended personal account of what it feels like to commit to a view of the world that is religious. If you’d like a flavour of how he goes about this, you can read the first chapter here.

There is a quite widely held view, I think, that religious ideas must be either a category error which science can put right, or an unfortunate leftover from childhood that has decayed into mere superstition in adults. Spufford argues that this gets things the wrong way round. Rather, ‘science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and powerful as it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor… The world cannot be disenchanted, and the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments’ p.222). As the historian Eamon Duffy has noted somewhere in a similar vein, if we strip our common discourse of all but utilitarian words and discourse, it’s ‘as if we put out our eyes, and then insist that the sun is a fiction of the poets’.

Spufford tells us a good deal about what he sees as the inescapable ‘human potential to fuck things up’, or HPtFtU, as he abbreviates it throughout the book. He notes that the traditional attributes of ‘the God of everything’ seem a bit remote from these messy human realities. The sub-title of his book – ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’ – gives an indication of what his own approach is.

Spufford isn’t trying to establish theological foundations, and he is briskly dismissive of the usual theodicies, or attempts to justify the ways of God to human beings. Rather, he describes what religious belief is like by developing two broad themes. The first is experiential: he evokes what it feels like to have glimpses of the ‘all-at-once perspective of the God of everything’ behind ordinary life, the brightness that sustains everything, a presence in silence. The second is the importance of narrative and imagery in expressing these intimations and what they mean. And because Spufford’s exploration is located within the Christian tradition, he says that ‘when I pray, I don’t look up but across, at a man in a crowd…’, that is, at Jesus, made newly unfamiliar here as Yeshua, whose life unfolds in an everyday provincial corner of a great empire. The narrative here gives rein to a talent for story-telling that is also vividly seen in Red Plenty. Spufford goes on to provide a lively and often quite funny account of what it’s like to live out the implications of his religious commitments as a member of the Anglican church.

In order for religious discourse to contribute to public deliberation, there must be people who take religion seriously, not only as an intellectual construct, but also as a lived experience. But the plurality of opinion and debate will continue. Some will be broadly sympathetic to Spufford’s world-view (as I am myself). Some may dislike the book because their own religious experiences and perhaps the political implications they derive from them are different. People who approach religion from materialist or rationalist premises won’t find much need to change their views, having read this book. Then again, Spufford is not trying to argue or persuade. What he does offer is an insight into and an enlarged understanding of what it means to have religious belief, and a coherent account of why this should be taken seriously. Whether or not this might stimulate further interest or indeed empathy is entirely up to the reader.

(1) This doesn’t seem to be published yet in the US, though a Kindle edition might come sooner than the print version.

{ 481 comments }

1

J. Otto Pohl 10.07.12 at 7:11 pm

Outside of the very narrow world of intellectuals largely isolated from the real world I think that most people do take religion seriously. Certainly there are few people who dismiss it completely like the late Hitchens.

2

Emma in Sydney 10.07.12 at 7:20 pm

J. Otto, in my country, 22.3 per cent of people reported ‘no religion’ in the 2011 Census. This is not ‘very few’. Perhaps you should stick to specifics.

3

Phil 10.07.12 at 7:25 pm

A White Crow Writes: I reported “no religion” in our last census, and I most definitely take religion seriously.

4

Scott Martens 10.07.12 at 7:41 pm

Outside of the very narrow world of intellectuals largely isolated from the real world…

Wait a minute, aren’t you one of those people? An ivory tower academic who’s been in and around schools all his life? Or do I have the wrong J. Otto Pohl?

Try living on TV-L-13 if you think an academic life is insulated from the real world. I make less than the assistant manager at the local hardware store and I shop at Aldi because I can’t afford to get groceries anywhere else.

On topic, I have a lot more respect for Spufford for writing about the USSR as something that failed for comprehensible reasons, despite the genuine belief of so many who worked to establish it. It is far too easy for religious people – and especially Christians – to construct Manaechian worldviews about the Soviet Union. Or maybe that’s just my Midwestern roots showing.

His point here resonates for me:

The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.

There is something very smarmy and self-assured about the New Atheism (a.k.a. Dawkins and his lot) that bugs the hell out of me. A failure to recognize that the social forces that support belief aren’t absent from the lives of unbelievers, and aren’t without effect either.

5

Staircaseghost 10.07.12 at 7:48 pm

He writes in Chapter 1, “I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions.”

I’m unfamiliar with his writings beyond the excerpted chapter. Can anyone confirm or deny whether he believes it is literally true that a corpse can be reanimated after three days; and if so, whether he is explicit about whether things like “emotional assurance that there is a mercy” function as epistemic support which can and does outweigh the evidence accumulated by the medical community to the effect that corpses cannot be so reanimated; and if so, what general criteria or methodology he recommends we adopt to distinguish which empirical claims we are or are not entitled to dismiss when they conflict with such emotional experiences?

6

Ben Alpers 10.07.12 at 7:48 pm

Would it be possible to specify what it means to “take religion seriously”? Because it seems to me that the New Atheists, whatever their faults and however much they might misunderstand religion, seem to me to take it very, very seriously as a force in the world.

7

Phil 10.07.12 at 7:53 pm

Ben – I think Scott’s just summed it up, his last sentence in particular.

8

Emma in Sydney 10.07.12 at 7:56 pm

As a second-generation atheist, brought up utterly without religion of any kind, I managed to get to my forties without prolonged exposure to religious people of any kind, until I joined a choir, which met at the local Anglcan church, and included some of the congregation. I discovered that people I respected for their politics, their musicianship and their commitment to social justice, also sincerely believed what to me was a self-evidently ludicrous bunch of folk tales. It was hard to come to terms with, and I’m not sure I ever have. In the end, it was an ‘agree-to-disagree’ situation, and none of them were the proselytizing type, so that worked. But it remains quite incomprehensible to me, which I am happy to accept is my own limitation. Real atheists do exist. We aren’t just pretending to vex the faithful.

9

Ben Alpers 10.07.12 at 8:04 pm

So, Phil, all we’re talking about is having a robust grasp of what leads people–psychologically and sociologically–to believe? Who doesn’t think this is a good idea? Even the New Atheists, whose understanding of the psychology / sociology of religious belief, I agree, is inadequate, have an account of this.

The dispute, then, seems to me less about “taking religions seriously” (or not), than a disagreement about what a robust account of the psychological / sociological grounds of religious belief should look like.

(And, yes, I think the OP is pretty clear on this. But can we put aside the “taking religion seriously” meme, which muddies the water here, especially if Niamh, and perhaps Spufford, isn’t making any theological or metaphysical claims.)

10

Watson Ladd 10.07.12 at 8:17 pm

Religion is not equal to Christianity, even in Europe. What it means to take Islam seriously is very different from taking Judaism seriously (and what Judaism?) Confucius is a very different lawgiver from Moshe.

The danger of religion is its private nature. An argument about virtue ethics carries much more weight for a Catholic then anyone else, while any exhortation against the death penalty on the basis of human fallibility rooted in halakhah is unlikely to be comprehensible by many. (This isn’t to say the arguments cannot be secularized, but rather that there are nonsecular arguments that are specific)

Public reason is atheistic because it is public: accesible to all, and inherently biased towards none.

11

Bloix 10.07.12 at 8:54 pm

I want to second Emma’s comment and add a few thoughts.
I’ve often thought that if I – that is, the person that I am, who could never be George Clooney or Derek Jeter – but if I could be any person in the world, I would like to be Garry Wills, who is in every way a better person than me. And he’s a believing Catholic.

And I’ve met many, many religious believers who are better people than I am – smarter, more talented, harder working, braver, more successful, happier, more generous, better spouses, better parents, better friends and colleagues, more socially engaged.

Yet I can’t help but continue to think that what these people believe to be the most important facts about life and the world is utter claptrap.

It’s a genuine problem and it has made me think very hard about what it means to know something and how what we know can so very different from what other people know.

12

bianca steele 10.07.12 at 8:55 pm

I enjoyed this post.

One thing that sounds interesting about the book is the focus on theology, at least compared to other recent books on religion. It seems like Anglicans and some other Protestant groups think a whole lot more about theology than Jews or Catholics do (this has been my experience trying to talk about Protestant writers with Catholics, anyway). There’s a whole range of things that fall under the category of religion: ethics, theology, mysticism, psychology, social theories, etc., etc. American mid-20th century ecumenicism of the sort that you most often see (e.g. cited or in public libraries) tends to focus largely on ethics, responsibilities to other people and to society, as does Unitarian style (for example) multiculturalism–maybe also with the question where ethics comes from–so it might be interesting to read a different point of view.

13

Izzy 10.07.12 at 8:58 pm

Rather, ‘science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and powerful as it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor… The world cannot be disenchanted, and the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments’ p.222).

Fortunately for those of us not particularly “enchanted” with religion, there is another avenue available for those aspects of experience best understood through metaphor: art.

I’ve read many accounts of the “emotional sense” of religion, and none have made persuaded me that religion has anything to offer in this regard that art doesn’t.

14

John Quiggin 10.07.12 at 8:58 pm

I became an atheist in my teens, precisely because the experiential thing never happened for me.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with people who have that experience and use the name “God” to describe it, but I do have a problem when that experience is used to justify belief in a creed. If you truly believe some particular creed, based on your own experience, doesn’t that imply that other creeds are false, and therefore invalidate the experiences of those who hold those creeds?

15

William Timberman 10.07.12 at 9:16 pm

God as lawgiver, God as nuclear weapon of the faithful, God as designer of the platypus…is it really necessary to believe in such things to be considered religious? Is every atheist, who presumably finds such things silly at best, and pernicious at worst, also insensitive to what might otherwise be defined as the religious impulse?. Somehow, I doubt it. And even if I’m wrong, I don’t see what difference it makes. Frankly, I’d sooner trust my immortal soul to Richard Dawkins, however strongly he believes that I don’t have one, to any of our latter-day Torquemadas.

16

indian 10.07.12 at 9:27 pm

@14,
exactly, and that is precisely why Islam always veers towards intolerance, with its “there is no god but Allah.” i.e., it starts off hostile to Hinduism from the very.

17

Matt 10.07.12 at 9:29 pm

Emma said,
I discovered that people I respected for their politics, their musicianship and their commitment to social justice, also sincerely believed what to me was a self-evidently ludicrous bunch of folk tales.

Let me just assure you that it’s quite possible to grow up in a religious home, going to church every Sunday and the like, and still have this feeling.

I’ve been slowly reading Bart Schultz’s biography of the great Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, and Schultz reports that Sidgwick’s guiding need in much of his life was a desire to see the universe as a “friendly” place, in some importance sense of that idea. I’ll admit that this idea is both completely absent in me and something I find baffling, at best (and usually much worse than that.)

18

Both Sides Do It 10.07.12 at 9:40 pm

One of the things I liked best about Red Plenty is that it treats the need for and process of creating visions about human nature / society / the future as a force within the narrative. Each vignette is either driven by characters grappling with that need or engaging in that process or reacting to what just happened through that lens. There are lots of works that are about this kind of stuff, but Spufford dives deeper into the nuts and bolts of these processes, and in a way that’s more narratively satisfying, than is typical.

The new book looks to be in a very similar vein. Probably less about issues like “public reason” and justifying empirical questions in the public square than the stuff Scott Martens talks about: identifying and exploring the personal needs and social factors that result in religious belief, and the consequences of that belief compared to other responses to those needs and factors. Which would indeed treat the subject differently than the New Atheists, as one expression of human drives interacting with the social environment which provides different shadings to living and seeing the world, rather than a childish and immature viewpoint which results from personal weakness or archaic and authoritarian institutions.

Either way, I’m glad Spufford seems to be concerned with the same kinds of things he tackled in RP. Can’t wait until it comes out stateside.

19

Phil 10.07.12 at 10:18 pm

Izzy: I’ve read many accounts of the “emotional sense” of religion, and none have made persuaded me that religion has anything to offer in this regard that art doesn’t.

JQ: If you truly believe some particular creed, based on your own experience, doesn’t that imply that other creeds are false, and therefore invalidate the experiences of those who hold those creeds?

WT: God as lawgiver, God as nuclear weapon of the faithful, God as designer of the platypus…is it really necessary to believe in such things to be considered religious?

Oddly enough I’ve just been writing about both of these questions – faith vs creed and the art/religion crossover – in a long post on my blog.

Ben @9, meet Both Sides Do It @18, re treating religious impulses as one expression of human drives interacting with the social environment which provides different shadings to living and seeing the world, rather than a childish and immature viewpoint which results from personal weakness or archaic and authoritarian institutions. In other words, the point is not to treat those other people’s religious beliefs as quaint superstitions, but to acknowledge that religious faith and practice are an expression of something we non-believers share with them.

20

kiwanda 10.07.12 at 11:17 pm

Spufford does some throat-clearing with a pre-emptive litany of the kinds of attacks that non-believers make on religion.

He then attacks the atheistic bus slogan “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life”, as revealing a rather limited view supposedly taken by atheists of what life should be like.

He finishes by describing the consolation, inspiration, and/or epiphany he found in a piece by Mozart, giving him a sense that there is a kind of mercy inherent in the world. This feeling, and a broader range of feelings about the world, are what he builds his faith on.

It seems very unfair to characterize the attitudes of atheists using an eleven-word slogan; it would be very difficult to come up with a slogan intended for a broad audience that could not be attacked as superficial.

It also seems very unfair and inaccurate to assume that atheists discount the mystery, humor, beauty, and wonder of the universe: it is a kind of denial of their humanity. There is no need to suppose that these perceptions have anything other than a natural basis; indeed, they are only compounded by a belief in their natural basis: what a strange and wonderful thing that there is such a thing as humor, which feels like an utterly fundamental property of the universe, and yet at the same time is entirely “unnecessary”. The cheap shortcut of using a particular set of folk tales to avoid considering such apparent paradoxes has no emotional resonance, to me at least.

Many (possibly most) scientists are atheists. Does Spufford suppose that someone who devotes their life to understanding the universe has an appreciation for its beauty that is second to an appreciation founded not on that general feeling of wonder, nor more particularly on a sense of the presence of a divine nature, nor more particularly on a belief in the emotionally bizarre tenets of Christianity, but finally on the very particular beliefs and rituals of the Anglican church? Where is the logic, in particular the emotional logic, in that?

21

Consumatopia 10.07.12 at 11:20 pm

My problem is that the “usual theodicies” are inseparable from my emotions and perspective on the world. The idea that this is a world that was created by a benevolent, omnipotent God can’t help but color how I see everything–either this world itself is somehow the best world, or the next world is so good that it makes this world inconsequential. Believing that tempts us to deny, justify or disregard evil.

Spufford’s right that the “enjoy life” message on that atheist bus is total crap. But I’m more disturbed by funerals I’ve been to in which it’s cheerfully explained to me that the deceased is enjoying themselves in heaven and if only I follow Jesus I may do the same.

22

John Quiggin 10.07.12 at 11:24 pm

On the other side of the divide, the rise of the Atheism+ movement (atheists who think they should stand for human rights, against misogynistic bullies and so on) might be worth talking about. It seems that there is a pretty high (not total) overlap between the set of those opposed to A+ and that of aggressive New Atheists.

23

David J. Littleboy 10.07.12 at 11:32 pm

“to acknowledge that religious faith and practice are an expression of something we non-believers share with them.”

I find that a lot easier in Japan than in the US. Over here, although the proseletizers are visible (and audible) on the streets, one rarely meets one in real life, and even the Cristians one does meet seem to get it that what they believe is off the wall for non-believers. The (vast non-Xtian majority of) Japanese are quite laissez faire about their religion: Buddhism is for dying, Shintoism is for family and community, and Christianity is an excuse for partying with friends (here, New Years is the religious event where families get together so Xmass is for taking your SO out).

As another second generation athiest, I find Xtian dogma off the wall in the extreme. They can’t be serious, can they? Apparently they are, though. Whatever. In theory, that ought to be their problem, not mine*. But Xtian dogma is in your face 24/7 in the US. It’s really ugly over there. Living here, one can forget about it for years at a stretch. It’s truly wonderful.

*: Religion itself is obnoxious in the sense that before one posits “religion” (which is, after all, a completely artificial, purely human, creation which has no relation whatsoever to physical reality), that physical reality is all you get would be tautologically obvious. But invent religion, and it isn’t any more. Sigh.

24

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

25

Alex SL 10.07.12 at 11:44 pm

I consider myself one of those “new atheists” (whether the “new” in that term is really justified or not), and for me this post reads terribly mushy and apologetic. Narrative, enchanted, emotional sense? And science is like plucking out my eyes? I find that a bit disappointing and, as a career scientist, a bit offensive.

What exactly does it mean for something to make emotional sense to somebody? Should the real questions not be, what do you believe, why do you believe it, and are your reasons actually sound? I do not claim that science is the only way of generating knowledge – mathematics and deductive logic come to mind, for example – but surely there has to be some justification for believing something beyond personal preference?

And surely it must be obvious at some point that it is problematic to believe things without justification? This is actually hidden in plain sight here: “Some may dislike the book because their own religious experiences and perhaps the political implications they derive from them are different.” This very nearly explicitly gives the game away: because religion is not based on any objectively, universally demonstrable and testable knowledge (as science, history and math are, for example), everybody can arrive at whatever religion they like, and there is simply no way of discriminating between better and worse religions:

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned. If you bring some objective, universal stance to bear against the latter conclusion, it would be inconsistent not to apply the same to your own nicer beliefs. (And this complete absence of any justification or foundation couplet with the arbitrariness of belief also makes me recoil in horror at the idea that theologians should be consulted about economic policy, for example. What exactly is the qualification of a priest or theologian to pronounce on, well, any topic whatsoever? There just isn’t any, it is all make-believe.)

Really, for me it all comes down to intellectual consistency. Except for the tiny minority of the downright insane, everybody, even very religious people, accepts the scientific approach in all areas of life except the ones they arbitrarily fence off because they are religiously important to them. They generally at least try to apply reason, logic, empiricism and parsimony to questions such as why does the car not work anymore, does my spouse still love me, how do I solve this problem at work, does Bigfoot exist, etc., and they do so because this approach demonstrably works. And the important thing is, if you do not arbitrarily fence off religious beliefs because… well, just because, really… then applying the same approach to them results in atheism. End of story.

You may call that over-simplification; I ask what the justification would be for applying reason and demanding evidence everywhere but arbitrarily not in religion. And far from being a special egg-head enterprise, science is merely the formalization and professionalization of what everybody does every day when they really need to get it right. If you need to figure out where you lost your keys, you develop hypotheses and test them (“maybe they are in the driveway?”) instead of waxing about emotional sense and narratives.

26

gordon 10.07.12 at 11:49 pm

So, it’s time to get my old copy of Aldous Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy” out of the back bookshelf again, is it?

27

Omega Centauri 10.07.12 at 11:56 pm

That first chapter was really fine writing. But, I guess I’ll have to wait a while before being able to get the book.
The awkwardness for me in reading it was that Spufford has the British perspective, which comes from a place where religion has largely faded in importance, and perhaps is seen as one of those quaint personality traits that make life interesting. Here is the US, it feels like I’m living through a sort of religious war, with the traditionalist wielding politics, to obtain advantage over the rest of us. And most of their opponents are also Xtians, but Xtians of a different sort, who are quite tolerant of differences of beliefs -or even of non belief. I long to be in a European type society, where unbelief is assumed, and nothing to hide, lest you be judges to be a amoral lower for of life. Most of all I think Europeans know their history, and want nothing to do with religious warring because of it.

David talks about a similar experience (to Europe) in Japan. Interestingly I’ve been both an atheist, and a Nicheren Shoshu Buddhist, he must be familiar with them as Japan was something like 20million of them, and they take acquiring new members quite seriously.

28

Steve LaBonne 10.07.12 at 11:56 pm

People who are addicted to bullshit will always find specious justifications for their addiction as well as tired insults to hurl at non-addicts. What else is new?

29

Omega Centauri 10.08.12 at 12:10 am

Oddly I find myself unsympathetic to Alex’s post. I think he misses the fact the humans by default are not logical creatures. I think most peoples beliefs tend towards a sort of weighted average of the beliefs that they are exposed to everyday. And those brought up in a religious society -as even atheists in the US are, can confirm that millions around them believe -or at least talk like they do, in certain sorts of mythical explanations of things. We can’t escape it, its a major part of our language and of our literature. And the way our emotional associative brains work, they are unconsciously programmed by our surroundings, so it is a part of our mental scaffolding as well. So we had better try to gain some sort of at least partly sympathetic understanding of it, at least sympathetic in the way a historian or ethnographer has to cultivate empathy for his subjects, if he is to gain any deeper understanding of them.

30

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 12:10 am

You folks almost convinced me that this wasn’t available in the U.S., but when I checked Apple’s iBooks store, there it was, with a price in USD. So….

31

Alex SL 10.08.12 at 12:20 am

Omega Centauri,

You are right, of course, that we cannot completely escape superstition and irrationality.

In related news, because humans will never be entirely honest about everything, everybody who considers lying and cheating to be behaviours we should minimize and penalize at least in matters of importance is lacking empathy and a deeper understanding, right?

32

PeterC 10.08.12 at 12:24 am

Religion is a comfort object like Linus van Pelt’s security blanket. If only a security blanket, religion might be harmless, or even mildly beneficial to the poor fools that have some deep seated need for it. And we could simply snigger courteously behind our hands as they pass by.

But religion and the religious are a clear and present danger to the rest of us not so deluded, and their threat goes far beyond the considerable tax revenue the steal from the rest of us on an annual basis, or the considerable wealth they have accumulated through theft and fraud. As well as their organised and militant delusions having considerable influence at the domestic and international level on all sorts of issues, more disconcertingly they have a long and continuing history of mayhem, murder and mischief.

For example, the conflicts between the so-called Abrahamic religions continue to rack up casualties like the high score on a pinball machine. Similar the conflicits in Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent, throughout Asia and Africa, greatly sourced in religious differences, continue to add to a staggering death toll.

Consequently, this clear and present danger makes it imperative that those not so afflicted by religious memes organize against those who are, simply for their own protection.

Some individuals with religious delusions are good people despite their affliction. That is true. But so what?

These good souls are in the minority, and anyway, suffering their affliction are at risk of turning dangerous at any time.

33

L2P 10.08.12 at 12:24 am

“If you truly believe some particular creed, based on your own experience, doesn’t that imply that other creeds are false, and therefore invalidate the experiences of those who hold those creeds?”

Not necessarily. Spufford’s an Anglican. We have room to acknowledge that other people have different experiences and so are going to have different beliefs even though we might not agree with them. Some Episcopalians think you should just directly look to experience to inform your faith, and so have no problem with any of it. Not everyone believes in an inerrant bible or the words of an inerrant modern prophet.

However, Episcopal thinking has been called muddy, and we’re more interested in toleration than parsing out exactly what our specific interpretation of the bible means right this second. So maybe you’re not talking about us.

34

bianca steele 10.08.12 at 12:27 am

It also seems very unfair and inaccurate to assume that atheists discount the mystery, humor, beauty, and wonder of the universe: it is a kind of denial of their humanity.

It does seem that some versions of Christianity, having decided not to attack one another, have decided to Other “atheism” instead–those in nominally Christian societies who haven’t, or haven’t yet, accepted Christianity; those who are more educated or worldly than ordinary believers and may have slightly different beliefs; those who don’t use exactly the same vocabulary and narratives to describe the world (it isn’t obvious to me how this could be sustainable without lots of epicycles, or at least lots of mental anguish for lots of people). It seems not quite fair to say to an outsider, “You don’t describe your experience the same way I do, therefore you are incapable of having these wonderful experiences I have,” or even, “You say you don’t understand what it could mean to describe an experience as I do, and would never yourself describe your experience in the same way, therefore you are attacking me and my way of life.” If there’s anything I’m bothered by (beyond the casual dehumanizing of the scientific worldview), it’s the trumpeting of an essentially pagan reaction to art–filtered, granted, through a Christian, largely monastic tradition–as something only a Christian (of a particular sort) could understand.

35

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 12:44 am

I used to wonder how Eliot could be a Catholic and still write The Four Quartets. (Well, no, not really. What I actually thought was more like: Since all religion gently threatens the hubris that humanists from time to time fall victim to, one set of ritual obeisances is probably as good as another. So despite me scratching my head, maybe it’s okay for Eliot to be a Catholic. But why couldn’t he have found a religion without so much claptrap? Wasn’t the claptrap that came with re-inventing himself as an Englishman enough for him?

Well, I downloaded Unapologetic, and read the first 30 pages or so. Spufford is just as much the genius writer on this subject as he was on Soviet aspirations in Red Plenty. If anyone can explain why it has to be religion and not something else that comforts us in our despair, or kicks us in the pants when we forget that there are other people in the world with a claim on our time, effort and attention, I’ll bet Spufford is that person. This should be fun.

36

Alex SL 10.08.12 at 12:56 am

Steve LaBonne,

Very succinct summary of the situation, but this is not how one wins hearts and minds…

37

straightwood 10.08.12 at 1:05 am

The main difficulty faced by defenders of conventional religions is that serving the childish hunger for the miraculous is what sustains organized churches, and this is an implicit assault on reason. One cannot hold orthodox religious beliefs and be a fully rational person.

38

Herschel 10.08.12 at 1:05 am

I wasn’t brought up in any religious tradition, and have been an atheist by default for my entire life. But I take religion very seriously, which I think most atheists do, whether out of contempt for the superstition it involves, or in recognition of the incomparably powerful role it plays in human history and culture, or out of respect for the way it informs the understanding of the majority of the human race who are actually believers, or engages the imagination or the philosophical sense of the most thorough unbelievers like me. Generally, I think, all of the above.

I think the place where I intersect with religion most significantly is where I rather envy believers, especially believing Catholics. At, or at least near, the center of Catholic theology is the remarkable notion that no matter what fucked-up shit you’ve been guilty of, you can say you’re sorry and ask to be forgiven, and you will be forgiven by the only forgiver that matters in the whole universe, and that forgiveness will confer eternal grace upon you. I wish I could have that, even though in the grand scheme of things I’ve done very little that really needs forgiving. Of course Catholics are also called upon to believe some seriously stupid shit, and nowadays to hate queers more than they love orphans and cripples, so I haven’t gone all soft on the Whore of Babylon.

39

PJW 10.08.12 at 1:08 am

Spufford’s experience with the Mozart reminds me of Rolland’s Oceanic Feeling, about which Freud had much to say and take issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oceanic_feeling

40

Jonathan Dresner 10.08.12 at 1:09 am

it would be very difficult to come up with a slogan intended for a broad audience that could not be attacked as superficial.

Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

It’s 14 words, not 11….

41

indian 10.08.12 at 1:19 am

@32,
Sri Lankan conflict was ethno-linguistic in origins and in terms of the rebel demands.

42

rootless_e 10.08.12 at 1:32 am

I find it odd that people will dismiss the beliefs that motivated MLK, Dorothy Day, Phil Berrigan, and others as obvious trash. Perhaps a little more humility is in order.

On the other hand, I still think this is the best summary of the meaning of life ever written: http://krebscycle.tumblr.com/post/31283660734/the-ultimate-philosophy-text and the second best refutation of theodicy ever. The first, of course, being Job.

43

James Reffell 10.08.12 at 1:39 am

Herschel @ 38

I don’t think “contempt” is compatible with “being taken seriously”, and it’s a trait I dislike in the capital-A Atheists who display it. You can disbelieve things without having contempt for them or the people who believe them. Your other modes of taking religion seriously make sense to me, and I share them. I’m looking forward to reading the book in question.

44

Wax Banks 10.08.12 at 1:40 am

Does Spufford’s book deal at all with the cognitive science of religion and (say) ‘dual-process’ thinking?

Informal ideas about deities serve one set of purposes, rational ‘theological’ conceptions quite another, and I’m curious to know whether a reasonable person can choose to go on ‘believing in’ the existence of gods while knowing that such belief is (valuable precisely in that it is) a kinda free-floating cognitive phenomenon, and doesn’t require in any way that gods be ‘real’ (like this bag of baby wipes is real). I’m also curious to hear how any non-lunatics justify ‘theology’ when there’s, say, historiography to be done.

45

PeterC 10.08.12 at 1:42 am

Herschel

Great point about Roman Catholicism. I too have always thought that in that religion “Sorry” is the ultimate get out of jail free card. When you have an inexhaustible supply of those cards in your back pocket you really have to be a saint to be a halfway decent person. Also annoying about some in that and some other religions is their belief that they do not need to seek any forgiveness from those they do wrong to. All they need is their God’s forgiveness, readily provided, and then if their victim’s forgiveness is not forthcoming, suddenly their victim, by withholding, is in a state of sin. This pathological thinking is quite evident in the Roman Catholic church hierarchy’s treatment of its numerous victims. The attitude is “How dare you not forgive me when God did long ago!”

46

Wax Banks 10.08.12 at 1:46 am

J. Otto Pohl @1 –

Outside of the very narrow world of intellectuals largely isolated from the real world I think that most people do take religion seriously. Certainly there are few people who dismiss it completely like the late Hitchens.

‘Dismiss’ is absolutely the wrong word. Hitchens specifically rejected religious claims (e.g. ‘Jesus rose up to Heaven’) as both factually incorrect and (crucially) bad for you, or at best largely harmless lies that could easily be swapped out for largely helpful likely-not-lies.

Many, many, many strong believers keep two sets of books when it comes to things like the Resurrection; as they do with, say, Tolkien. It’s true when you’re in it. What the ‘Nü Atheists’ seem to miss is that this provisional truth can be beautiful, and that’s good enough. But they don’t ‘dismiss’ the depth of the experience of belief. They just prefer their own, y’know, odours.

47

Wax Banks 10.08.12 at 1:48 am

@Herschel –

But I take religion very seriously, which I think most atheists do, whether out of contempt for the superstition it involves…

This contempt is a childish weakness to be overcome. There are more grownup attitudes toward superstition. Empathy, for one.

48

PeterC 10.08.12 at 1:50 am

Have to agree with Herschel. Contempt is the only serious response. And I, for one, do take seriously those who have contempt for those adults who believe adults who have sex with children are doing nothing wrong. So the logic of your argument I also have contempt for. Anyway, so-called A Atheist are hardly going to be concerned that you, individually, don’t take them seriously.

49

js. 10.08.12 at 1:57 am

I half suspect this thread might end up making the recent voting-related dust-ups look pretty. Please don’t make it so!

Anyway, as another 2nd generation atheist (by half), I find it fairly difficult to get worked up about religious belief. I.e. with respect to the epistemic standing of religious belief. I mean, it is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, otherwise normally intelligent adults believing in indestructible souls or transmigration or something equally bonkers?

On the other hand, I would find it utterly bizarre to entirely dismiss sets of beliefs and practices that have been and continue to be incredibly fundamental to those who hold them and take part in them. I certainly wouldn’t “condemn” them (as per Herschel’s 36), and I also certainly wouldn’t “organize against them” for my own protection (as per PeterC’s rather bizarre suggestion at 32). More than anything else, when I think about sincere and deeply felt religious belief, I find myself feeling like an alien visitor trying to understand some obscure native practice and failing to make either heads or tails of it.

50

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 1:57 am

Re the Mozart bit: I thought immediately of Salieri’s sour response to the divine warblings of the Mozartean clarinet in Amadeus. His Grazie, Signore, was as heartfelt as Spufford’s, but by no means as curative. Like I said, I look forward to the rest of the book.

51

John Quiggin 10.08.12 at 2:04 am

Chapter 1 is certainly a great piece of writing, as you would expect. Thanks, Niamh, for pointing us to it. I hope we can keep this discussion at the level Spufford’s work justifies. For that purpose, I think we can take the standard criticisms of religion as read, and unlikely to gain any additional force from restatement.

52

Alex SL 10.08.12 at 2:07 am

rootless_e,

I don’t even know who the last two are (not an American), but seriously, what is the problem here? If somebody was motivated to give suffrage to woman because their indefensibly cherry-picking interpretation of Aymara mythology, I will applaud that decision, but does that mean I suddenly have to take seriously the notion that we should sacrifice coca leaves to El Tio in exchange for the minerals we mine from the ground?

Respecting somebody for being a nice person on one issue is entirely compatible with considering them twee on another issue.

53

elbrucce 10.08.12 at 2:10 am

isn’t the problem with religion that too many mistake metaphor for history?

54

js. 10.08.12 at 2:13 am

Scott Martens @4:

There is something very smarmy and self-assured about the New Atheism (a.k.a. Dawkins and his lot) that bugs the hell out of me. A failure to recognize that the social forces that support belief aren’t absent from the lives of unbelievers, and aren’t without effect either.

I’m inclined to be extremely sympathetic to this, but I was curious about the use of “social forces” here, which if I’m reading correctly is supposed to be a gloss on “emotions that sustain religious belief”. I’ll even go with the latter formulation, but either way, as I’d understand the emotions or social forces in question—rather different beasts, to my mind—there’s something still entirely alchemical about coming out with indestructible souls, etc., at the other end, and to maintain that belief in the light of all else we know. (E.g., the Whiggish view of history is an entirely more comprehensible response.)

55

bianca steele 10.08.12 at 2:13 am

The last two were American leftists whose religious beliefs impelled them to help the poor and to engage in civil disobedience in order to change the culture, and to speak up to encourage all Americans to do what they could to change the culture themselves.

56

bianca steele 10.08.12 at 2:13 am

That addressed to Alex SL.

57

PeterC 10.08.12 at 2:16 am

I would have a much more benign view of believers if I was just on an excursion from another plant. What I care about is not what they believe but what those beliefs seem to make them do. Or at least the bad acts they then seem more prone to.

58

rootless_e 10.08.12 at 2:25 am

Alex SL:
It’s one thing to say “I find your religion unappealing and illogical” and it’s something else to say that belief in that religion is evidence of stupidity and/or superstitious ignorance. What a MLK or Desmond Tutu finds in their religion is not something other people can sneer at without looking foolish.

59

Cranky Observer 10.08.12 at 2:48 am

= = = What a MLK or Desmond Tutu finds in their religion is not something other people can sneer at without looking foolish. = = =

How about James Dobson & Jim Daly?

Cranky

60

js. 10.08.12 at 2:51 am

I would have a much more benign view of believers if I was just on an excursion from another plant. What I care about is not what they believe but what those beliefs seem to make them do. Or at least the bad acts they then seem more prone to.

Well, what does it make them do, though? I’m happy to agree that organized religion is overall a force of reaction. But I would argue, and in fact do, that if you look at actual politically active groups that have explicit religious affiliations, or at conflicts where one or more of the opponents cites religious inspiration, the conflicts, political stances and actions, etc., in question are much better explained in non-religious terms—geopolitical ones, say. (A group like Hezbollah, say, is a perfect example of this. Is bare mention of Hezbollah okay?)

Equally importantly, the vast majority of people that would identify as religious are not especially politically. They stand for reaction, if or to the extent that they do, simply because this is part and parcel of a standard sort of traditionalism, or subservience to authority, or whatever else. I’m not sure that either the fact or the content of religious belief is particularly explanatory here.

(N.B.: The point about discounting explicitly religious motivation cuts both ways, so it holds for MLK and Desmond Tutu just as much as for Hezbollah or the Shiv Sena.)

61

Herschel 10.08.12 at 2:52 am

James Reffell @43

I thought I made pretty clear that my contempt is not for religious belief, but for that aspect of religious belief that consists of superstition; I don’t think that precludes taking it seriously. To use an obvious, if suspect and overworked, analogy, the humanist or democrat or socialist who had contempt for the Fascist ideology ascendent in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s probably took it very seriously indeed.

62

JJPerry 10.08.12 at 3:13 am

I always think that the complaint that religion is untrue or illogical is kind of misplaced. I don’t see any reason to think that truth and reason are the highest calling of humanity. The scientific enterprise’s systematic scepticism has its place – it is useful for finding out about our world, and applying that knowledge in useful ways, but there’s no need to insist on applying that scepticism to every human activity – certainly I don’t approach most of my everyday life in anything like a scientific manner. I don’t think the question we should be asking is whether religion is true, but whether it’s useful, either for the individual practicing it or for society as a whole. And it’s here where we should be applying scientific reasoning – not to the claims of religion but to its value. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much scientific practice on either side of the religion ‘debate’ as it stands – mostly a handful of anecdotes and prejudices.

63

gordon 10.08.12 at 3:19 am

Wm. Timberman (at 35) -

“…maybe it’s okay for Eliot to be a Catholic. But why couldn’t he have found a religion without so much claptrap?”

T.S.Eliot converted to Anglicanism, not Catholicism. But apparently he converted to the High Church version, which is as close to Catholicism as you can get while still remaining at least technically Protestant. Still…

64

Omega Centauri 10.08.12 at 3:26 am

We all know that the meme-cluster cum supporting human institutions can at times be dangerous. Although I think they often get more blame for conflict than in warranted. Religion is also a strong element of group identity, so any conflict pitting two or more human groups with different religious identities is likely to take on religious overtones, even when religion had little to no role in generating the conflict.

I’d also point out that the strongly aggressive political evangelicism we’ve seen recently in the US, is considered by many, including myself to be at least partly a response of the participants to a sense of threat towards their meme-cluster. They see modernization as a threat to their way of life. They’ve how in for example western Europe religious belief has receded and figure they must take strong action to prevent that from happening here. Cultural war, and battles among religions, or between religion and secularism is a strong form cultural war. Expect that either or both sides may escalate the conflict rather than give in. This is why I think simplistic tactics such as contempt are ill advised.

65

kiwanda 10.08.12 at 3:34 am

Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

It’s a good slogan, no question, and many atheists probably accept it, but it wouldn’t be useful for them to put it on the side of a bus. That is, I didn’t intend to claim that all short statements are superficial.

(And: aren’t you misquoting Hillel?)

66

Alex SL 10.08.12 at 3:37 am

rootless_e,

Oh, I don’t know, people can be stupid about some things and clever about others…

***

At a meta-level, I find it fascinating how these discussions work. The (new) atheist side generally says something on the lines of “believers are wrong, here’s why”, “believers are deluding themselves, here’s why”, or, admittedly, “believers are idiots, here’s why”.

The rejoinders, also on evidence in this thread, are all too often on these lines:

1. You outspoken atheists don’t sufficiently respect religious beliefs and religious believers.

2. People at least in my country (myself excluded, obviously) are so (insert euphemism for intellectual immaturity) that they cannot live without religion, just accept that and shut up (e.g., 29, 49).

3. Your atheist insistence on applying rationality to everything is (not just wrong but) non-human, with the implication that being an atheist means to be either an incomplete, emotionally stunted human or an ivory tower egg-head who has lost touch with what it means to be human (e.g., the original post).

Quite apart from the question whether the first one is applied inconsistently by people who would have no problem with being equally disrespectful towards, say, conservatives or libertarians, one just has to wonder if the second and third really carry more respect towards believers and non-believers, respectively, and towards the very issue under discussion than a clear and honest “your beliefs are mistaken”.

67

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 3:47 am

gordon, I stand corrected. I suspect my Cardinal Newman memory neurons got tangled up with my Eliot ones, and convinced me I didn’t need to google. (Once in a grade school essay, I turned G.B. Shaw into a Scot. Of course we didn’t have Google then, and I was only 11 at the time, so I did eventually hear the end of it.) Ah, well, my apologies to the commenters from the UK, who must be giggling (not googling) up their sleeves. Mea culpa, in short.

If I may be permitted another bash at this, I think I’ll have to concede that Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism was part of his re-creation as an Englishman, and not the lily-gilding that my faulty memory took it to be.

Still, I think my main point remains more or less valid. Anyone who can write how it’ll all turn out all right When the tongues of flame are infolded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one. doesn’t strike me as someone who’d need to rise from his pew and sing All Things Bright and Beautiful any more than the St. Teresa depicted by Bernini would.

68

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 3:58 am

One additional clarification: in the universe of belief embodied in organized religion, the immanent god and the transcendent one have always circled one another somewhat warily. The church and the mosque, being governed more by the fear of temporal chaos than they admit to be, have always favored the latter. I think that this is a mistake, and leads to largely unnecessary conflicts between men of intelligence and good will like those I sense brewing between the Dawkins and Spufford camps. Nietzsche would probably thumb his nose at both of them, I think for good reason, even though I’m willing to admit what a pain in the ass Nietzsche could be when sneering at the folks who’re just trying to get on with things.

69

Tony Lynch 10.08.12 at 4:20 am

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So spread your narcissism around…

“All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

And then, of course, be a Know All.

70

js. 10.08.12 at 4:21 am

Alex SL @64:

People at least in my country (myself excluded, obviously) are so (insert euphemism for intellectual immaturity) that they cannot live without religion, just accept that and shut up (e.g., 29, 49).

I can see how my 49 would seem to be saying something like this, but it wasn’t meant that way at all. I actually agree with a lot of what you’ve been saying. I suppose it’s just that my vaguely historical-materialist predilections (let’s just say) incline me to think that direct rationalist attacks on religious on religion, the content of which I’m quite sympathetic with, are mostly useless with respect to their intended target. Also, I find a lot of the politics of Dawkins, etc., but esp. Dawkins, to be pretty seriously uncongenial. (Also, um, Kant! No seriously, the limits of what rational argument can establish cuts both ways.)

The point being: I’m all for less religious belief, and I think this is a social and political goal we should pursue. For the reasons given above though, I’m not at all convinced that rationalist attacks on the epistemic credentials of religious belief is the way to go.

71

Substance McGravitas 10.08.12 at 4:26 am

The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks?

The implication is not that enjoyment is a natural state but that you can give enjoyment a shot, which can be hard if you’re worried about hellfire or the end times. That’s obviously not what Spufford is worried about as he seems to be the kind of person who’s not agonizing over the stuff – although he’s taken the trouble to write a book about it – but I can recall quite a few sleepless nights when I was young worried about hellfire. Not everybody has a finely-tuned metaphor appreciator, and those people can make their own lives and the lives of others difficult, and it’s over nothing. If Spufford had grown up in Karachi the emotions he’s defending would be specifically Muslim rather than specifically Christian.

72

djw 10.08.12 at 4:55 am

Nietzsche would probably thumb his nose at both of them, I think for good reason, even though I’m willing to admit what a pain in the ass Nietzsche could be when sneering at the folks who’re just trying to get on with things.

Couldn’t this observation be appended to a consideration of virtually any contemporary theoretical discussion?

73

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 5:12 am

djw @ 72

Possibly, but I wasn’t talking about the trivial, guilty pleasure we sometimes take in promoting abstractions which we’ve elaborated at least in part because some people can’t follow them. I was thinking specifically about Nietzsche’s contempt for what Spufford thinks is one of the great consolations of Christianity — the privilege of belonging to the human community of self-admitted fuck-ups. I’m not done reading Spufford’s presentation, but at this point I’d have to say that both he and the ecstatic German have a point.

The human tragicomedy is real enough, and serious enough, but my own take on it is that if we try to employ religion as its exclusive remedy, we may be — as Nietzsche rather arrogantly asserted — trading our birthright for a mess of pottage. I’m not certain either way, but I can’t honestly see why a peaceful co-existence between the two views should be dismissed out of hand. There’s plenty to applaud — or condemn — in both.

74

JW Mason 10.08.12 at 5:32 am

This looks like a book I want to read; thanks.

Reminds me a bit of William James. Also of Perry Miller, The New England Mind in the 17th Century:

The ultimate reason of all things they called God, the dream of a possible harmony between man and his environment they named Eden, the actual fact of disharmony they denominated sin, the moment of illumination was to them divine grace, the effort to live in the strength of that illumination was faith, and the failure to abide by it was reprobation.

It seems obvious to me that there are moral facts as well as material facts. (For instance, all beliefs, considered as material states of the brain, arise by the same processes, but everyone in this discussion attributes the additional non-material quality to these states of being true or false.) It seems obvious that we need a specialized language for talking about moral facts, and specialized settings and practices to maintain their salience and to share them. And it seems obvious that when (mis)understood as statements about material facts, these languages and practices will look like superstition. It seems to me (as to Durkheim) that “religion” is really just that domain of culture in which we are conscious of ourselves as conscious, rational beings existing in a moral universe.

I suspect that a lot of the genuinely objectionable aspects of “religion” as it concretely exists are really just the flipside of the materialism of capitalism. If you organize society to treat people as things, their assertion of their status as free moral brings may be violent, and is likely to involve a rejection even of materialism as appropriately applied to the material world. This is very clearly the case with e.g. Creationism. If w tell people, “you are worthless, you don’t count, nothing you say or do matters,” then it’s only natural that they will look for the reply that God loves them and created them specially, and that a story of the world in which they have no different moral status than tools or raw materials must be wrong. (And they are right to do so.) Treating this as just bad geology is missing the whole point.

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bad Jim 10.08.12 at 6:14 am

This sounds like another edition of “other ways of knowing”, an attempt to give epistemological status to treasured emotions. Spufford somehow knows that “the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.” Much alike is the notion that the universe was finely tuned to produce beings like us.

Such notions offer us comfort and a satisfyingly privileged position in a sweeping narrative, at least if we accord negligible status to hundreds of millions of years of ancestors and billions of contemporary non-humans.

The universality of mercy is not an attribute of the universe but a potential of our fellow humans. The same is true of justice or morality or beauty. One test of belief is to substitute another creature as either the subject or object of a proposition and see whether it still makes sense. Mockingbirds probably don’t enjoy their songs the way that we do. Mozart definitely didn’t experience his music the way we do (for one thing, we play it a half-tone higher).

The problem with emotional truth is that it tends not to be held tentatively. It doesn’t come with error bars. Instead, faith is proclaimed a virtue, and the very emotion it provokes is taken as proof of its truth, as is its popularity and its antiquity, criteria which would be risible in most practical domains.

76

PeterC 10.08.12 at 6:22 am

” … “

And all the rest is commentary. (In other words, interpretation. Most religions are so flexible they admit believers any interpretation, and therefore any bad behaviour. Tutu shows that in some cases religion does not preclude a good person behaving well.)

77

anon 10.08.12 at 6:44 am

Alex@25: Do you think any moral statements amount to “universally demonstrable and testable knowledge”? How about the idea that we can know only those claims that are universally demonstrable and testable? What empirical confirmation has been found for that bit of philosophy? And how’s that justification of induction working out? And a non-circular demonstration of memory’s reliability? You rationalists wouldn’t survive if you tried to live by your credo. But you won’t, because (like some other products of evolution) you’ll live largely on the grounds of instinct, hunches and habits. Reason is good for pruning those natural grounds but can’t fully replace or undergird them with any firmer foundation.

78

Phil 10.08.12 at 6:56 am

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

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gordon 10.08.12 at 7:47 am

Wm. Timberman (at 68): “…the immanent god and the transcendent one have always circled one another somewhat warily.”

If you haven’t already, you might enjoy reading Basil Willey’s “The Seventeenth Century Background” (1934) on the Gods of the world and of revelation.

80

PeterC 10.08.12 at 7:47 am

Not religious enough? The toll at the existing level of religiousity not high enough? Problem is, even if followers of one religious belief manage to eliminate those who follow other religions, the mayhem is not ended, because the one belief would quickly fragment into many and turmoil between those different faiths would start anew.

Religious belief has been around for a long time. So like murder, rape, war and other afflictions that show no signs of disappearing soon, expect religiousity to afflict us for centuries to come.

81

Scott Martens 10.08.12 at 7:47 am

This sounds like another edition of “other ways of knowing”, an attempt to give epistemological status to treasured emotions.

Every person I know who claims to be a scientist believes – and indeed treasures – the notion that all phenomena in the universe obey fixed, material, causal, absolute laws that account for them. This notion is practically doctrine in physics, and is implied in most methodologies that qualify as scientific. Scientists do not know those laws and admit it, although they might claim they possess approximations by some definition.

Yet, not one shred of evidence for this claim exists, nor, in all likelihood, can it. Indeed, the actual behavior of scientists – the way they behave in their everyday lives where random and unexpected events are expected at every turn – makes far more sense if you deny that claim. But denying that core belief would indeed undermine everything scientists consider science.

You can justify science by other means, i.e. pointing out that whatever epistemological status you grant to the core scientific belief in an ordered universe, you have to acknowledge that science actually works. But doing that opens the door to claims that whatever epistemological status you give to religious beliefs, magical thinking, spirituality, or other extra-material beliefs, you have to acknowledge that they seem to work for a lot of people much of the time.

I deny that what is going on here is “other ways of knowing”. It’s the same very human way of knowing, and of being inaccurate, unsure and wrong.

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 8:05 am

Phil,

You have evaded the issue: How can a liberal Christian demonstrate to a fundie Muslim that the latter is wrong (or vice versa) if both consider “my holy book says so” or “I feel in my heart that I am right” to be valid arguments? That approach – the approach of affording religious propositions a respect that is for good reasons not granted any other propositions – atomizes humanity into up to six billion epistemic islands. The only way around that conundrum is to insist on what is available to everybody as a basis for inferring truth, no matter what background they have: evidence and reason.

Scott Martens,

You must have a very strange definition of “working for a lot of people”. Science works universally, objectively, to allow us to fight diseases, put a man onto the moon, predict solar eclipses, blow up cities or conserve endangered species. Religion and spirituality can, at best, be said to “work” in the sense of making people happy who are too immature to face an unpleasant reality. (Well, so would heroin.) These are two very different concepts of working, and only the first has any connection to epistemology.

And as I argued above, science is simply a formalization and professionalization of what everybody does to generate knowledge in their daily lives; it is the religious or magical thinker who arbitrarily excludes some beliefs from being examined with the same cognitive tools that they would use to search for their lost keys or to figure out if unicorns exist. The atheist scientist is consistent; the magical thinker (or the religious scientist) commits the fallacy of special pleading.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 8:25 am

I’m really interested by Zora’s comment @24. I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third . First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.

The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 8:33 am

That approach – the approach of affording religious propositions a respect that is for good reasons not granted any other propositions – atomizes humanity into up to six billion epistemic islands.

And yet, in practice, it patently doesn’t. I’ve “evaded the issue” as you put it by referring to the Christians who live in this world, who quite plainly do argue about what their faith requires. Arguing between different faiths is trickier, for obvious reasons – an argument between a Pragmatist and a Neo-Kantian is also quite hard to stage. But it can be done.

Can I second JQ’s appeal above:

“I hope we can keep this discussion at the level Spufford’s work justifies. For that purpose, I think we can take the standard criticisms of religion as read, and unlikely to gain any additional force from restatement.”

Stuff like this
Religion and spirituality can, at best, be said to “work” in the sense of making people happy who are too immature to face an unpleasant reality.
can be dispensed with, I think – it’s not really likely to advance debate.

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Scott Martens 10.08.12 at 8:50 am

Science works universally, objectively, to allow us to fight diseases, put a man onto the moon, predict solar eclipses, blow up cities or conserve endangered species.

Alex, science has a history. It’s very weird to me how people resist understanding that. The history of science is full of claims to universality and objectivity that didn’t pan out, so much so that in some cases current theories are known or presumed to be incorrect in some substantial respect and are expected to be replaced. Taking that approach forces you to either conclude that the theory of caloric is not science – which is bad history – or that scientific claims are neither universal nor objective in fact.

Religion and spirituality can, at best, be said to “work” in the sense of making people happy who are too immature to face an unpleasant reality. [...] it is the religious or magical thinker who arbitrarily excludes some beliefs from being examined with the same cognitive tools that they would use to search for their lost keys or to figure out if unicorns exist.

I believe the kids these days call that line of argument the “strawman fallacy”. You are showing exactly the kind of glib thinking about religion that I hate: Religion is not really always a drug for creating contentment or even minimizing pain. I know lots and lots of religious people who hurt like hell and some who do so because of their religion.

I get that “the opium of the people” is the one fashionable thing from Marx people still say, but it’s one of Marx’ many of-the-cuff, quotable lines that really should not be taken as well-thought-out social science. And really, even if taken at face value, would you want to live a world without anesthetics or pain-killers? No, you wouldn’t. You would collapse the first time you got a cavity. Anesthetics work, and you need them as badly as anyone else. Calling yourself an atheist doesn’t take that need away, but it does make it a lot harder for you to discuss or analyze what you really do believe in and why. And you do like to look down your nose at people and pretend you’re tougher than they are. You are aware that Jesus has some pretty strong words about how Unchristian a thing it is to do that?

As for what it means to “work”, religion has a long history of working quite successfully as a basis for law, public morality and social order. It has a long history of providing advice and justifications for people when making decisions about concrete acts, and informs them pretty well a lot of time. Even token faith – a bit of lip service and a vague notion of trying not to piss God off too much – has often been a prerequisite for social success in any form of commerce, government, or position of social authority, ensuring that in many contexts those beliefs work quite a lot better than the alternatives. If you want to be President of the United States, you absolutely need to adopt religion.

People who use scientific claims to build airplanes, build airplanes that usually (but not always, because science is not that universal) fly. People who believe in Jesus and the Trinity in a reasonably orthodox way get customers in their car dealerships, are invited to join the Chamber of Commerce, and might even win an election if they run for office, or at least they do more often than if they didn’t. I put my trust in science because I’ve been in lots of airplanes and so far they’ve all gotten me where I wanted to go. I can’t claim that people who put their trust in God because it makes important things work in their lives are doing something fundamentally different.

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 8:53 am

Phil,

I do not really understand the first part of your answer. You argue that real-life Christians are held together in various sects by a kind of tribalism and authoritarianism, and that the various sects argue – and nobody denies that. What I deny is that somebody who thinks in narratives and the making of emotional sense in lieu of evidence and reason has any intellectual tools at their disposal to actually resolve said arguments between the various sects. In contrast, while any particular real-life scientist can happen to be personally irrational, science, math, philosophy, history, etc. have ways of resolving their disputes with reference to reason and evidence, precisely because “it makes emotional sense to me that phlogiston exists” is not considered a valid argument.

And all this is highly relevant to the original post, which, after all, appears to advocate the position that “religious discourse [can] contribute to public deliberation” and uncritically mentions requests for theologians to provide input on economic policy. If I understand you correctly, you would like to exclude the patently obvious problems from discussion: What reasonably qualifies a theologian to pronounce on any real world issue whatsoever? Is their any foundation for religious discourse, like, at all? In other words, is there any reason to assume that there is a benefit to having religious discourse contribute to public deliberation, if there is no way of demonstrating that it is based on anything but wishful thinking? And perhaps, what theologians would you ask to contribute – Christians, Muslims, Jews… Pastafarians, Discordians, Neo-Pagans? And if one of them not, then again, on what basis? — But if these questions are excluded, what is left to discuss?

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bad Jim 10.08.12 at 9:07 am

Scott Maartens, the believers are the ones who insist there are “other ways of knowing”. The rest of us have difficulty with that claim.

Bertrand Russell was no fan of pragmatism, and wrote that the idea of Santa Claus works for most people. It doesn’t actually work for a parent who can’t afford gifts for her kids, though. Prayer has a lousy track record. Faith healing is acknowledged as malpractice. So, no, faith doesn’t actually work for very many people if you take the trouble to record the results.

The belief in universal laws is strongest in the physical sciences, where the results can be compactly expressed mathematically. In other areas of study, about the most that can be said is that one thing happened after another, that this is the result of that. It’s hard to generalize about life forms from the example of a single planet. Moreover, it isn’t generally assumed that the particular course taken by life on earth was inevitable.

As to the question of whether God intervenes to keep the planets in their orbits, we can agree with Laplace: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (I didn’t have no need of that there hypothesis). As far as we can tell there is no sign of divine caprice in anything we observe systematically, which allows us to draw certain conclusions.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 9:09 am

You argue that real-life Christians are held together in various sects by a kind of tribalism and authoritarianism, and that the various sects argue – and nobody denies that.

I didn’t say that at all. I said that Christians who recognise one another as Christians, argue among themselves – passionately – about what their shared Christian faith requires. Which they do, and which they wouldn’t – or couldn’t – do if your idea of religion were accurate.

What I deny is that somebody who thinks in narratives and the making of emotional sense in lieu of evidence and reason has any intellectual tools at their disposal to actually resolve said arguments between the various sects. In contrast, while any particular real-life scientist can happen to be personally irrational, science, math, philosophy, history, etc. have ways of resolving their disputes with reference to reason and evidence, precisely because “it makes emotional sense to me that phlogiston exists” is not considered a valid argument.

In other news, physics isn’t philosophy.

There are lots of ways of arguing which don’t depend on the scientific method but also don’t rely on “it makes emotional sense to me”. Religious believers use all of them. So do many other people (philosophers, politicians, lawyers etc).

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Scott Martens 10.08.12 at 9:29 am

Scott Maartens, the believers are the ones who insist there are “other ways of knowing”. The rest of us have difficulty with that claim.

bad Jim, that strikes me as another strawman. I know lots of people who don’t claim to know how God works and don’t claim to know how an airplane flies. I don’t think their faith in either seems to them like it follows from some different way of knowing. An aircraft engineer might not see it that way, but then you have to make an argument for why I should privilege an engineer’s worldview.

I am aware that “other ways of knowing” occasionally gets tossed around here and there, but it’s never appeared in any apologetic I’ve read. It’s something I associate much more strongly with Native American and Australian Aboriginal cultural claims. Otherwise, I am not sure who these “believers” are that insist on such a thing, but you won’t find it anywhere in Thomas Aquinas, or Tertullian, or Cornelius van Til, or C. S. Lewis, or Swami Prabhupada, or Sogoyewapha or any other apologist whose works I know. C. S. Lewis especially denied it: He made the claim that as soon as you acknowledge the truth of electrons that you can’t see, you’re well on your way to acknowledging the truth of a God you can’t see either.

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Greg 10.08.12 at 9:45 am

I will dive into this as soon as I have time, which will probably be when my 6-month old son reaches puberty. You folk who read books for a living don’t know how lucky you are. Or I dunno, maybe you do.

After working in a couple of conflict zones supposedly fuelled by religious intolerance – Sri Lanka and now Israel / Palestine – I get very tired of atheists using them as evidence that religion is an excuse for conflict.

Firstly because religion is only involved in as much as it forms a part of one group or another’s ethnic and political identity. I can’t deny that faith is often recruited to aid political causes but at heart these are always still political causes, usually involving land or other resources.

And secondly because there is no way to count the number of conflicts, major or minor, that never even started because religion successfully suppressed both intra- and inter-communal discord and promoted harmony.

Either way, for good or ill, religion does not really “do” anything of its own accord, it’s just a powerful way of expressing and asserting already existing social preferences. It can be as radical as it can reactionary. Slap the next lefty who mocks a Hare Krishna.

Faith of course is a different question, and this is where it gets more interesting. Seems to me that the leap of faith is a strange and wonderful thing, and I kind of envy those who can do it. But even secular people believe in plenty of abstract concepts that do not, in fact, exist in some shared plane where we all have access to them through our individual windows of language, even though we behave every day as though this is the case.

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dexitroboper 10.08.12 at 9:52 am

He made the claim that as soon as you acknowledge the truth of electrons that you can’t see, you’re well on your way to acknowledging the truth of a God you can’t see either.

Well, that’s bullshit of the highest order. Build me a god=meter in the same way I can build an ammeter and then we’ll talk.

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Mao Cheng Ji 10.08.12 at 9:52 am

Most human beings have the ability to perceive, and the need for, a higher purpose, meaning to their lives, and so on. Militant atheism denies it, organized religion exploits it.

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 9:58 am

Phil: There are lots of ways of arguing which don’t depend on the scientific method but also don’t rely on “it makes emotional sense to me”.

I agreed to that right from the start: math, deductive logic, etc. However, we are going in circles. First, the claim in the original post and by Spufford was definitely that things like making emotional sense are a reasonable basis for taking religious claims seriously. Second, you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible.

You say that my view of religion does not fit real world religion; but note that there is only one science, and only one mathematics, practiced by Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Germans and Peruvians alike, but there are literally thousands of religious sects and spiritual movements making many mutually incompatible claims about what constitutes a good and moral life, the creation of the world and what happens in the afterlife, if any. Likewise, if we were to nuke ourselves back to the stone age, and our descendants were to rebuild industrial civilization and all that comes with it, they would in due course be guaranteed to discover again the approximate value of Pi, the benefits of fertilizers for agriculture, the use of antibiotics, the existence of black holes, the reality of evolution and, to take something philosophical for a change, the problem of induction. They would be just as guaranteed NOT to “discover” (really, this would need ca. three sets of scare quotes) again that, say, God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son (who is also himself) to be sacrificed to himself so that he could forgive us a rather minor transgression committed by a distant ancestor. They would likely not even arrive at the concept of sin in the first place!

There are reasons for everything I listed in the previous paragraph, the most important being that religion is not based on anything more than fantasy, and that is also the reason why it is by definition unable of “informing”, say, economic policy. If you have no information, you simply cannot inform. Instead, we have people who are actually qualified to do that, e.g. psychologists, historians, moral philosophers, statisticians, and the assorted interest groups representing everybody whose life is impacted by such policies in various ways.

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bad Jim 10.08.12 at 9:59 am

Electrons are a refutation of the claim that science doesn’t use metaphors. Science is an ongoing production of metaphors which has grudgingly learned to let go of the ones that don’t work. Phlogiston, the ether, transmutation.

Electrons are everywhere and nowhere, both waves and particles, a probability distribution. On the other side of a certain energy barrier, there will be, like cannibals in the British Navy, absolutely none, which is to say, there will be a certain amount. Thus transistors, integrated circuits, microprocessors, the Internet.

Do electrons exist? Sure, for all practical purposes, but maybe someday we’ll find a better way to explain what goes on.

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dexitroboper 10.08.12 at 10:10 am

Do electrons exist? Sure, for all practical purposes

“For all practical purposes” and “as best we can tell” are the best standards we have for knowing what is real. That’s what makes electrons real. Their behaviour is counterintuitive, but that’s not an argument against their existence when we build transistors/lasers/the internet out of understanding the nature of electrons.

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Katherine 10.08.12 at 10:13 am

that is precisely why Islam always veers towards intolerance, with its “there is no god but Allah.”

I just flicked through the comments and I couldn’t see that anyone had responded to this, but apologies if I’m repeating anyone.

The very first commandment of Christianity is:

“I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not have other gods besides me.”

I don’t think that’s noticeably more tolerant than “there is no God but Allah”. It’s the same, in fact.

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chris y 10.08.12 at 10:18 am

How about James Dobson & Jim Daly?

What is the formal name of the logical fallacy I used to encounter daily when I was a lefty activist, which goes:

Me: The US government should be condemned for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua.

Them: Well the Russians are occupying Afghanistan. Why don’t you condemn them?

Me: Cheerfully I will, but I won’t go into it now because this is a meeting about Nicaragua.

Them: [Perfectly convinced that they've delivered a zinger.]

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Dave 10.08.12 at 10:22 am

I’m an atheist, and I deeply admire the Puritans who destroyed absolutism in England.

I also think most of their beliefs were utterly crazy.

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Scott Martens 10.08.12 at 10:24 am

Katherine, there is a long tradition of seeing the same statement of Islamic faith in the opposite way: There is one God, who is omnipotent and indescribable, and consequently, any monotheist or more-or-less-monotheist-enough is merely guilty of worshiping God in an alternative way or thinking God has attributes he may or may not have, a relatively minor offense that God is on the record as being reasonably understanding about.

Islamic history and faith have plenty of examples of both: the missionary zeal that can lead to violence and intolerance, and the practice-oriented, not-too-demanding faith in a mystery God that leads to tolerance and a focus on just acts over orthodox thinking. I don’t see why, as an unbeliever, I should think either one is more Islamic than the other.

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John Hough 10.08.12 at 10:27 am

Ok, here’s where I have a problem with Spufford in this first chapter. Where it’s not knocking down strawman atheists, the chapter is talking about mercy. Of which he says: “It does not only mean some tyrant’s capacity to suspend a punishment he has himself inflicted. It can mean – and does mean in this case – getting something kind instead of the sensible consequences of an action, or as well as the sensible consequences of an action.”

And here we have a problem. Because while the experience of mercy he talks about is part of the religious experience, so is the need for mercy. Spufford has an argument with his wife, it seems, about the sort of common, hurtful, mistakes everybody makes. What is the naturalistic response to this? Feel sad. Try to make amends. Try to be a better person in the future. Try to be worthy of forgiveness from the person you have hurt. The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced. (True, some nonbelievers often feel this sort of guilt too. But we have psychotherapy for that.)

So, yes, stop worrying and enjoy life. Or that’s the billboard version anyway. If we wanted to be totally honest about it, we’d say: “The aim of [atheism] is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy.”

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chris y 10.08.12 at 10:29 am

I once had a brief exchange over the intertubes with a New Atheist who put forward the proposition that atheists should not ally themselves with theistic evolutionists under any circumstance whatsoever. I tentatively suggested that the most important goal was to inculcate students with a good understanding of evolutionary biology, and that if somebody who believed in god was teaching good science, then that was a result, and the rest could wait until we were all in the pub.

My interlocutor hotly denied this and said that it was far more important to challenge their superstition than to support their pedagogy. I was left wondering what the University administrators who paid the guy’s salary thought about it.

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dexitroboper 10.08.12 at 10:38 am

I was left wondering what the University administrators who paid the guy’s salary thought about it.

Why didn’t you ask him, instead of looking to insult his integrity?

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Phil 10.08.12 at 11:10 am

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

Before I say anything else, I’d just like to point out that this exchange wasn’t initiated by me offering to “show” you anything. I pointed out a flaw – an error, really – in a comment you made, and suggested that you’d made it because you were thinking in terms of an abstract idea of religious belief rather than the version people actually practice.

In response to the comment above, I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.

Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

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chris y 10.08.12 at 11:11 am

Why didn’t you ask him, instead of looking to insult his integrity?

Whatever for? The guy had made his own position perfectly plain in a public forum. I was mildly curious as to how those views played with his colleagues, but even in the unlikely event that my curiosity tempted me to find out, I wouldn’t regard him as the go to source for other people’s opinions. And I’m not trying to insult his integrity. His views were entirely consistent and, as I said, he made no secret of them. His integrity was fine.

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Niall McAuley 10.08.12 at 11:13 am

Spufford: This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity

I am reminded of the philosopher Bill Murray in his seminal work Groundhog Day: “[laughing] What a waste of time!”

Get back to us when you can establish some link between these intelligible, grown-up, dignified emotions and the truth of your religious beliefs.

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Matt 10.08.12 at 11:22 am

I have a relative who went through a succession of increasingly fundamentalist churches and then an ultimately-failed marriage to a fundamentalist woman, because he was homosexual and trying to “cure” it so he could live in harmony with his faith. In the end he couldn’t go straight or accept his sexuality, so he escaped into a liquor bottle.

My mother lives in joyful certainty that she will see her mother’s parents again in heaven one day. She also lives in dreadful certainty that her father’s parents will endure an eternity of torture for their unbelief.

In high school I had a friend whose father seemed perfectly normal and sociable in most respects, but he also threatened violence against abortion providers because God gave him that mission.

It seems unlikely to me that the prominent New Atheists would have found such large audiences if malignant examples of faith weren’t still common.

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Katherine 10.08.12 at 11:24 am

I don’t see why, as an unbeliever, I should think either one is more Islamic than the other.

I don’t either as it happens. I was responding to a claim above that the phrase “there is no God but Allah” leads inevitably to intolerance. I was saying the same could be said of Christianity.

For the record, I am another one of those second generation atheists that have popped up. The whole thing just seems daft to me, although I have known good and intelligent people who have strong beliefs.

But I’m am atheist from the Christian tradition, if you know what I mean. Various members of my family are Christian, I know roughly how to conduct myself in a church and I know various bits of the bible. My direct religious criticisms tend to be more therefore directed at Christianity, since that is (a) what I know a bit about and (b) what impacts my life more directly.

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dexitroboper 10.08.12 at 11:28 am

I wouldn’t regard him as the go to source for other people’s opinions. And I’m not trying to insult his integrity.

I’m afraid you are. The first sentence is a perfect example.

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PeterC 10.08.12 at 11:36 am

Muslims I know think their God is exactly the same God that Jews and Christians believe in. Obviously they don’t believe that all three groups believe the same things. But they believe they are all worshiping the one same God. I have heard Christians says that they believe that Muslims are not worship their God. I don’t find that view helpful. But I find none of the inter-faith squabbles helpful. Just dangerous.

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chris y 10.08.12 at 11:38 am

I’m afraid you are. The first sentence is a perfect example.

You are either an idiot or a troll or both. The go to source for somebody’s opinions is that person, not a colleague or an employee or employer of that person. To suppose otherwise is actually conducive to the disruption of relationships and organisations, because in the demotic it’s called rumour mongering. I shall not respond to you any further.

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dexitroboper 10.08.12 at 11:43 am

Actually “chris y” you are the troll. The views of administrators (who do not actually pay the persons salary but, as the name implies, administer it) are simply irrelevant to the argument you were having with the new atheist. The only reason to bring them up is to imply the new theist is not doing his job properly, and thereby insult his integrity.

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 11:53 am

Phil: This is getting to some serious hair-splitting now, especially about meaning of words; but I should maybe have expected so much after the difficulty of getting “arguing about” and “resolving arguments” sorted out…

I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual.

Of course you can be a scientist and religious. You can also be married and cheat on your spouse; you can be a police officer and deal drugs in your free time; you can campaign against abortions and have one yourself. For certain definitions of can, in all cases, definitions that do not include intellectual consistency.

Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”

And now we can argue at length about the word “show” (or prove, or demonstrate, or infer…), and depending on your tastes, which I am ignorant of, we could explore solipsism, postmodernism, the problem of induction, perhaps simply the fact, of which as a scientist I am happily aware, that scientific knowledge is only ever tentative, or perhaps something more surprising. I doubt that that would lead anywhere in a reasonable time, so I will cut it short in the same way as above: intellectual consistency.

Nobody is, in their daily life, for practical purposes, in any doubt about the ability of evidence and reason to demonstrate truths about the world around us. Nobody except the dangerously insane are really, on a practical, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is level, solipsists, postmodernists, or in any way doubtful enough about the ability of science to show things to be true that they would be unsurprised if gravity suddenly reversed itself, their car spontaneously melted at 20°C, or items repeatedly failed to remain at the spots where they last placed them – and in all these cases they would first search for a materialist explanation, because those are the ones that work. A real solipsist or postmodernist could not live because they would be unable to formulate any expectation about how their environment would behave, or even be, at any point in the future.

So my rationalism does not do any heavy lifting that the other six billion people on this planet don’t routinely use it for either – not any more but not any less. The only thing standing between the religious and weak atheism is special pleading: “Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is. That’s why it is called religion, to show you that you should not use reason there. Stop being so disrespectful.” — “Yes, I disbelieve in unicorns because there is no reliable evidence for them, but I believe in god – your point?” — It is really that easy, as sad as it is.

*) Which may, of course, also be non-religious, as in the case of medicinal woo.

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Cranky Observer 10.08.12 at 11:53 am

= = = chrisy: “What is the formal name of the logical fallacy I used to encounter daily when I was a lefty activist, which goes:” = = =

I’m afraid you’ll have to provide a little more evidence of a “fallacy” there, chrisy; you don’t get to proclaim one by fiat. rootless_e offered examples of two civil rights leaders whose actions were infused by their Christian beliefs, which I’ll acknowledge (module Gandhi’s {possibly apocryphal} observation) and stated “What a MLK or Desmond Tutu finds in their religion is not something other people can sneer at without looking foolish.”

I then offered examples of two prominent US Christians who are deeply influential in the high councils of the Republican Party and the Romney campaign who are doing incredible damage to civil rights (not to mention the health of children, with an estimated 30 million copies of Dobson’s book on print). Are you willing then to back the equivalent statement “What a James Dobson or Jim Daly finds in their religion is not something other people can sneer at without looking foolish”? Because in case you haven’t noticed Dobson and MLK professed the same religion. We’re allowed to sneer at the latter but not the former? Why? What principle (non-fallacious, to be sure) is informs that choice?

Cranky

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Z 10.08.12 at 12:02 pm

@Katherine: I think, note think it’s hard to tell on the Internet, that the comment at 14 was a joke (why specifically anti-Hindu, it could be anti-Horus or anti-Thor). If I am right, it was a pretty good one.

I have no trouble with “religion as emotion” creed, and Francis Spufford does write beautifully. However, accepting the theist hypothesis as a defect that it shares with accepting any other unnecessary hypothesis: soon, holding on to it impairs reasoning faculties. You can see it right in Spufford’s essay when he writes:

I don’t know if there’s a God. ([...]. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable item

Whether there is a supreme being that created the Universe and rules it and which is the source of all moral authority or not seems to me to be an eminently knowable item. Personally, I’d be even inclined to take the scriptures at face value: show me people suddenly learning new tongues, drinking poisons without getting harmed and curing sick people by touching them, and I’d be kind of convinced that I might have missed something. But I am not holding my breath, and I fully expect to live my whole life without ever witnessing a situation or, yes, experiencing an emotion that would require me to make the hypothesis “that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love. I think that love keeps it in being” to quote Spufford’s nice words.

And nice words there are. Surely, there are things kept in being by continual and infinitely patient acts of love, both given and received. And that is us. Isn’t that enough?

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Hogan 10.08.12 at 12:07 pm

@39: As I recall, what Freud had to say was “I’ve never experienced this feeling, therefore it can’t be a real thing, so let’s determine of what specific regression neurosis this feeling is a symptom.” Was there more to it than that?

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Phil 10.08.12 at 12:11 pm

For certain definitions of can, in all cases, definitions that do not include intellectual consistency.

And round we go again. You’ve assumed that “Christian intellectual” is inherently inconsistent, like (say) “superstitious statistician”. But it’s only inherently inconsistent if you start from the position that all beliefs not grounded in scientific inquiry are self-consoling fantasy. You haven’t given me any reason why I should adopt that position.

“Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 12:11 pm

Phil: I forgot that another word one could hair-split about is “religion”. If religion is defined in a way that allows it to be entirely devoid of any normative or factual claims, then there is clearly no way to show it to be mistaken or unfounded – granted. That, however, is definitely a view of religion that is held by only a tiny group of liberal theologians and does not square with how the vast, vast majority of the religious themselves understand the term.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 12:12 pm

in case you haven’t noticed Dobson and MLK professed the same religion. We’re allowed to sneer at the latter but not the former? Why?

Cranky – if you want to sneer at Martin Luther King, do go ahead. (I think the point is that you might not want to.)

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Henry 10.08.12 at 12:23 pm

I am somewhat astonished that we have discovered a topic that is more reliable at bringing out CT commenters’ inner arseholes than US electoral politics. The degeneration of our comments sections over the last couple of weeks really makes me wonder whether we need to start doing things differently. A bare minimum of respect for people who profoundly disagree with your opinions is a necessary enabling condition for debate. Even if you don’t actually respect what people think, you should pretend to ad arguendo. Don’t think of this blog as a deluxe hotel suite in the mid 1970s, and yourself as the drummer for Pink Floyd, trying to live up to the self-imposed challenge of shitting all over the place as creatively as possible. Instead, think of it as being a party, hosted by people who are reasonably tolerant of a diverse range of views, but not even faintly enthusiastic about guests who want to take random punches at others, tell them that their beliefs mean that they are complete fucking idiots etc. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you’re right, and that they are fucking idiots, you aren’t under any obligation to tell them so at every possible occasion, and really, this is one of those occasions on which we’d all be much better off if you either moderated your rhetoric to make it socially acceptable, or, if you don’t think you can do that, just refrained from commenting altogher.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 12:25 pm

If religion is defined in a way that allows it to be entirely devoid of any normative or factual claims

Not sure where ‘normative’ comes from there. Restricting it to factual claims, my argument (as at #83) is that factual claims are very much secondary; it’s not that you’re a Christian because you believe in the Resurrection, it’s more that you believe in the Resurrection because that’s what Christians do. And, for many (most?) believers, it’s more a case of trying to believe in the factual claims – which you may not even take literally.

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Niall McAuley 10.08.12 at 12:33 pm

Actually, Alex, I think all modern religions are entirely devoid of normative or factual claims except the ones that are demonstrably wrong like Young Earth Creationism.

You could account for the behaviour of every particle in the Universe from the Big Bang onwards up to the appearance of life on Earth and its subsequent evolution into us in a completely materialistic way, and it wouldn’t affect a catholic theologian a bit. Their religion has long ago retreated from any sphere in which it might bump into science and be refuted.

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Walt 10.08.12 at 12:34 pm

Henry, you’re surprised? Really?

123

Alex SL 10.08.12 at 12:36 pm

Phil: Our previous comments crossed in mid-air.

I deliberately did not say anything about “Christian intellectual” but about “religious scientist”, as it is not entirely clear to me how to even define the concept of an intellectual. To some this might merely be a celebrity that is able to use long words, but it does not necessarily indicate a commitment to rationality in the way that “scholar” or “scientist” does.

Interestingly, while you used the weak word “intellectual” to argue against my claim that one cannot be an intellectually consistent religious scientist or scholar, you use the much more narrowly defined “scientist”, “scientific method” and, so help me, even an ammeter to characterize what I supposedly think all belief should be based on. I consider this a straw man, and I hope you will also find it to be so if you read through my earlier comments.

I explicitly wrote that beliefs need some justification and basis, and I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc., although if pressed I would tend to define science in a broad sense to include all parts of the humanities* that use empirical evidence anyway (history: archaeology), and although it is clear that it is much harder to decisively falsify a position in some areas (economics) than in others (mathematics).

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong. So there are all these legitimate ways of generating knowledge, but “my holy book says so”, “I feel it in my heart”, “you cannot prove that god doesn’t exist, so there” or Spufford’s “it makes emotional sense” are still not among them.

As for political thinkers – well, to the degree that they are moral philosophers, historians, economists or sociologists, and are careful not to let their preconceptions cloud their conclusions, they also generate knowledge, and that would include the concept of class consciousness to the degree that it is a useful concept for describing reality (which I happen to think it is).

*) In my native language, the word for this is, by the way, “Geisteswissenschaften”, or sciences of the mind, which implies that they aren’t that different from the natural sciences after all. I find the English terminology of humanities vs. science a rather unfortunate one.

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 12:48 pm

Henry,

I did not consider this discussion uncivilized, actually enjoyed it, and hope I have not come across as arseholeish. As indicated above, I fear that part of the issue is that many people consider “your views about religion are wrong” to be deeply offensive even if they would cheerfully write, and read without taking offense, “your views about politics are wrong”, and there is really no logical reason to make that difference.

Phil, Niall,

Again, that might be true for a highly sophisticated theologian, but it is certainly not true for the vast majority of believers. And if Christians only believe the resurrection because of peer pressure, all the worse!

Really, I think one can hardly define Christianity, for example, in a way that excludes factual claims. At an absolute minimum, a Christian would have to believe that Jesus was an exceptional moral teacher and role model (an idea of which an attentive reader of the gospels should be disabused quite quickly, by the way). Otherwise, you could just as well accept that somebody self-describes as a communist while advocating a Randian utopia. To be useful for communication, words need to have meanings.

Good night for now.

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reason 10.08.12 at 12:50 pm

Alex SL @25
“recoil in horror at the idea that theologians should be consulted about economic policy”

cough, cough,

Um there is a hot debate going on whether or not a lot of the people we do consult about economic policy aren’t really theologians – just that we call them economists. John Quiggin excepted of course.

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Niall McAuley 10.08.12 at 12:59 pm

“To be useful for communication, words need to have meanings.”

Several nested layers of meanings, so that you can recite the Credo on Sundays as if you believe it, and retreat to discussions of your emotional experience of the mercy you perceive in the inner workings of the Universe from Monday to Saturday.

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reason 10.08.12 at 1:01 pm

Johnathon Dresner @40

I should point out that what you quoted is of course a humanist slogan.

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niamh 10.08.12 at 1:15 pm

More comments than I expected here. Henry, thank you for your request for a modicum of good manners – some comments are definitely too much on the personal abuse end of the spectrum. More than that, the point about Spufford’s book is that it’s an invitation to expand your understanding of something even if you don’t agree with it, which you can’t do if you dismiss the whole activity a priori. And I don’t welcome grandstanding for the sake of it in this comments thread.

I cannot speak for Spufford and I can only ask people to read what he has himself written.
But I should state that he is pretty clear that he is speaking from a British and European context in which unbelief, whether based on indifference or antipathy to religious discourse, is pretty well the norm. This is the context in which he’s saying that religion is actually about rather different things than the standard put-downs might lead you to think.His local situation is obviously rather different from the US context. Besides, while he does have some things to say about Judaism and Islam, he doesn’t know them from the inside and so forbears from saying much, and of course any exploration of a different religious tradition would be, well, different…

AlexSL wants to make points about the grounds of knowledge of any sort. I think part of Spufford’s point is that not the ‘bad science’ case that there are privileged sources of knowledge. It’s that we think about various areas of human activity differently – our relationships, for example, are not susceptible to knowledge and analysis in the same way as scientific activity is normally conducted; same goes for, as some have noted, our engagement with art and literature. But we do have some ways of thinking and talking ‘about’ all these kinds of activities. There’s ordinary human discourse based on empathy, understanding, interest, grounded in ordinary street-level epistemology. And there’s psychology, aesthetics, and yes, theology, in which there are standards of discourse, conditions of coherence, and so on. The epistemological grounding for our knowledge is itself the product of discourse, evaluation, and so on, and authors interested in religious discourse have themselves contributed to such debates (Pannenberg, or Kolakowski, for example).

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Random Lurker 10.08.12 at 1:24 pm

First of all, I’ll say that JW Mason 74 and Phil 83 really say something important and interesting (and quite linked).
Second, my personal “experiential” opinion:
For a certain part of my life I was a firm Roman Catholic believer, then in a few months I changed my beliefs from RC to simply Christian to Theist to agnostic to atheist. This took some serious soul searching from me, and as a consequence I’ve always being annoyed by the attitude of some atheans of treating religion as a sort of “bad science”.
The hearth of religion is, IMHO, moral, that is about what one should do and about the “real value” of things, not about whether the sun circles the earth or the opposite.
The “value” of things is not something that can be controlled “scientifically” (at least in the usual meaning of the word), but is something that we assess through our inner perceptions, that can easily be contradictory both whithin ourselves and whith other people’s inner perceptions. Religions and religious dogmas are mostly a way to make order among those moral perceptions and relate them to the world (hence religious cosmologies).
In this sense, the idea that ancient people didn’t understand what is a lightning and believed that a blonde guy whith a hammer created it, and this is the root of religion, couldn’t be farther from thruth.
However morality is by definition a social thing (since it mostly deals about our relationship whith others), and so is religion which in pratice mostly expresses the believer’s belonging to a group, and this is the reason rituals and dogmas become so important (and often so linked whith temporal power). From this point of view I think that there is some thruth to the idea that religion is inherently divisive.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 1:40 pm

Much of the New Atheist argument reduces to “your favorite band sucks”. If I claim to find deep spiritual meaning in George Clinton’s oeuvre, the rejoinder that the lyrics suck the tunes are repetitious, and often Bootsy does not make it back on the 4, is besides the point. The argument that some other fans are loutish is also irrelevant.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 1:50 pm

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not being a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 1:51 pm

Oops – entails that a belief in God is not being a good way

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reason 10.08.12 at 1:52 pm

rootless_e @130
Well truly if you think that, you must think they are just offereing an alternative band, but they are not. They are questioning the entire concept of band fandom.

P.S. This doesn’t mean I think their approach is always right, just that you clearly don’t get it.

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bianca steele 10.08.12 at 1:59 pm

Couldn’t this observation be appended to a consideration of virtually any contemporary theoretical discussion?

No. Discussion should be an annoyance-free zone, and anyone who intruded annoyance into it is clearly a religious zealot (or conversely an atheistic mechanistic materialist).

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Phil 10.08.12 at 1:59 pm

I fear that part of the issue is that many people consider “your views about religion are wrong” to be deeply offensive even if they would cheerfully write, and read without taking offense, “your views about politics are wrong”

I think the problem’s almost the exact opposite – that people who would never go public with an aggressively contemptuous dismissal of people’s politics will cheerfully churn it out when the topic’s religion. I mean, I don’t think anybody here would write

Your political beliefs can, at best, be said to “work” in the sense of making people happy who are too immature to face an unpleasant reality. (Well, so would heroin.)

136

Barry Lyons 10.08.12 at 2:02 pm

Dawkins and Hitchens never over-simplified their approach toward religion. I can sum up their views in one sentence: religions consistently makes claims about the world that are not true — or as Sam Harris once noted, religions are failed sciences. Exactly. Earth is the center of the universe? Nope, got that wrong. The sun revolves around the earth? Nope. Got that one wrong, too. Human beings appeared out of the blue one day because they were created in some kind of sudden cosmic flash? Nope. And so on and on and on…

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reason 10.08.12 at 2:09 pm

Random Lurker, @129
I enjoyed your post. Following your recommendation I looked at JW Mason @74 but was really annoyed by this:
“It seems to me (as to Durkheim) that “religion” is really just that domain of culture in which we are conscious of ourselves as conscious, rational beings existing in a moral universe. “

This seems to me completely wrong way around. Surely we are moral creatures (not always rational) living in an amoral universe.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 2:12 pm

reason 10.08.12 at 1:52 pm

Why would it matter? The argument that the Buzzcocks or Elgar offer a much superior musical experience carries no more logical force than the one that all music is tedious and rational men and women should not get emotional about sounds. The claim that “I draw enjoyment or spirituality or moral strength from X” is not refutable by “I don’t like X” or “X is logically contradictory” or similar critiques.

139

Phil 10.08.12 at 2:13 pm

Just one more…

John Hough @100: The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

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reason 10.08.12 at 2:19 pm

The more I think about it @136, the more I think this is the issue here! Thoughts anyone?

141

reason 10.08.12 at 2:21 pm

rootless-e @137

If that was really all it was about, nobody would care about it. But LOTS of people have been killed about this. It matters. You can’t be serious!

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chris y 10.08.12 at 2:21 pm

Well truly if you think that, you must think they are just offereing an alternative band, but they are not.

But that’s not strictly so. I, and I’m prepared to bet rootless_e, muddled along contentedly being atheist for decades without any encouragement from the “New” kind. We shut the door on occasional Mormons and Adventists, went to church every couple of years if we happened to be in a town with a particularly coochie Cathedral, to admire the stained glass, donated to secular charities and otherwise gave no thought to the whole issue.

And then suddenly our living room is invaded by a bunch of yahoos with vuvuzelas, who demand that we put our lives on hold and join the Movement. Well, if I’m going to join a movement it’ll be one for disability rights, thank you. I fully recognise that people who campaign for very important things like equality for women and gay people often find themselves having to take on bigots who are religious, but in the context, that’s an epiphenomenon of bigotry. I’m simply not interested, per se, in what origin stories people choose to believe in, even though I’m perfectly convinced that mine, via cosmology and evolutionary biology, is right.

The problem with the Dawkins set is that they go to immense lengths to make it as hard as possible to distinguish between themselves and the Adventists on whom I shut the door. They ought to go right back to the beginning and rethink what they want and how thye want to bring it about.

143

William Timberman 10.08.12 at 2:22 pm

I don’t think that this other ways of knowing business as as trivial as some would have us believe. Music — as Spufford implies about the Mozart concerto — does seem to me to be another way of knowing, as demonstrated by the many music critics who struggle unsuccessfully to make more sense of a piece than can be grasped by simply listening to it in the right frame of mind. Musicians who write about music always seem to me to be more successful in this value-added sense, I suspect largely because they stick to the technical aspects of a composition, which is the kind of knowledge moderns are more attuned to recognize as such.

Why, and more importantly how we are in the universe can’t at this point be explained satisfactorily by dissecting either us or the universe. Spufford gets this, no matter what flaws one can point to in his journey across the gulf between the individual and the universal. He’s been persuaded by experiences that are deeply personal, and he seems to be completely honest in trying to reveal how he came to be persuaded. If nothing else, this is a very courageous thing to do. That it adds up to a convincing defense of religion is, for me, much more doubtful.

He goes into an empty church and feels himself surrounded and penetrated by a universe which is very real, and very much not him. This consoles him. I go into an empty church, and I feel clammy and somehow put upon. I am not consoled, and would be even less so if the church were full. Yet in reading his description of what sitting in an empty church does for him, I recognize a kindred spirit. I know those feelings, although they come to me in much different surroundings. I wonder, based on what little I know of Zen Buddhism, whether a person who’s sat in zazen meditation, isn’t also familiar with them.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 2:24 pm

1. You outspoken atheists don’t sufficiently respect religious beliefs and religious believers.

But that “or” marks the difference. It’s one thing to say, Albert Einstein’s ideas on spirituality make no sense to me, and something completely other to say Einstein’s stupid spirituality is an indication of childish ignorance.

For my part, if someone who does good things ascribes her moral strength to her faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church or the Diamond Sutra, I am only too happy to congratulate her and admire her faith. And I’d find sneering at that faith to be both shallow and ill-mannered.

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reason 10.08.12 at 2:32 pm

Chris y @141
You get annoyed by athiest missionaries. Seriously?
Where do you live?

Oh come on. Look the reason these “new” athiest are loud and aggressive is because of the attack on science by YEC in the US. If you can’t where they are coming from, I think you are bit naive.

146

rootless_e 10.08.12 at 2:41 pm

My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong’d me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another free-thinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.

Benjamin Franklin.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 2:41 pm

You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either.

I am not sure that this is true – at least with regard to class consciousness. You are saying that it’s logically impossible to find actual evidence of class consciousness? Maybe not with an ammeter, true, but surely it’s as open to objective study and disproof as any other statement about popular attitudes? A quick google seems to suggest that a lot of sociologists are quite ready to make factual statements about levels of class consciousness in different groups at different points in history.

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chris y 10.08.12 at 2:42 pm

reason, yes of course I understand that. What I fail to understand, and find extremely unsympathetic, is why they are so hostile to believers in various supernatural systems who also accept the science.

I find it unsympathetic, because to me the key objective is the defense of the science. I don’t understand how people manage to do both at the same time any more than you do, but if people can, and they want to be on my team in this fight, I welcome them, and I don’t want to sit by while other people mock them to no purpose but their own amusement.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 2:43 pm

And then suddenly our living room is invaded by a bunch of yahoos with vuvuzelas, who demand that we put our lives on hold and join the Movement… The problem with the Dawkins set is that they go to immense lengths to make it as hard as possible to distinguish between themselves and the Adventists on whom I shut the door.

I think what this actually means is “some people have written things in the newspapers suggesting that other people should maybe do stuff”. Chris y’s living room remains uninvaded and his doorstep untrodden.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 2:44 pm

Oh come on. Look the reason these “new” athiest are loud and aggressive is because of the attack on science by YEC in the US. If you can’t where they are coming from, I think you are bit naive

I don’t know what YEC is, but I can assure you that the atheist Neo-cons have no more respect for science than do the most God-struck fundamentalists.

151

ajay 10.08.12 at 2:48 pm

I don’t know what YEC is, but I can assure you that the atheist Neo-cons have no more respect for science than do the most God-struck fundamentalists.

Most neocons are not atheists and most atheists are not neocons. Most of the leading neocons were avowed Christians – many of the exceptions, like Joe Lieberman, were devout followers of other faiths.
I think neo-con is being used in the Orwellian sense of “person I disagree with” in which case I would love to read an example of, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins showing the kind of disrespect for science that the fundamentalists of every sect display on a daily basis.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 2:49 pm

And if you don’t know that YEC is a Young Earth Creationist, you may not be well-placed to engage in this discussion…

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reason 10.08.12 at 2:54 pm

Maybe I should expand on the idea above @136.

I think that is the crux. My own problems with religions, came about not just because I rebelled against it’s moral strictures being too constricting, but because I found its particular moral strictures wrong. (I grew up Catholic – so this was easy and obvious, I claim no particularly great insight for my teenage self.) It seemed to me the idea of morality coming from an external authority (whether that was directly from God or as interpreted by the Church is somewhat irrelevant), seemed to me a dangerous precedent. Firstly, it was not verifiable. Secondly, it allowed a greater good (outside of human values) to just great evil.

So I developed a philosophy based on human beings creating as just a world, as they could, from a universe that cared nothing about their values. It seemed to me impossible to believe that the creater of (now) 7 billion humans was anything but indifferent to the fate of any one of them.

And here in a sentence, is that problem clearly enunciated. Surely we are the moral creatures and the universe is amoral. Clearly some people want to believe that the universe is moral. But I see no reason whatever to believe it (otherwise actuaries would be out of business). The morality has to come from us.

And this is a great divide. It reminds me of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. What seems on the surface, like a small difference in approach, can if you pick at it, open up into a huge chasm.

154

reason 10.08.12 at 2:55 pm

oops
…. to JUSTIFY great evil. (End of first paragraph).

155

Random Lurker 10.08.12 at 2:59 pm

@Reason

“[It seems to me (as to Durkheim) that “religion” is really just that domain of culture in which we are conscious of ourselves as conscious, rational beings existing in a moral universe. -JW Mason]

This seems to me completely wrong way around. Surely we are moral creatures (not always rational) living in an amoral universe.”

Well I agree whith you, but then I’m an atheist now. A real religious guy lives in a world that is created by a God, hence he lives in a moral universe, where for example bad things happen but are a sort of trial after which you get ethernal life in communion whith God.
BTW I think that both JW Mason and Durkheim meant that people perceive a “moral universe” beyond materiality, not that the material universe is moral.

I suppose that, this being Crooked Timber, everybody knows Feuerbach, but I read it at high school while I was still a believer and found it quite interesting, so I point to the “abstract” of his “Essence of Christianity” on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Essence_of_Christianity

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 3:00 pm

Most neocons are not atheists and most atheists are not neocons. Most of the leading neocons were avowed Christians – many of the exceptions, like Joe Lieberman, were devout followers of other faiths.

Sorry, but the intellectual leaders of the neocon movement, from Strauss, to Podhoretz to Kristol to Kirkpatrick were far from avowed Christians. Wolfowitz, Cheney, etc. – the same. Here you can even find it in the Holy Source (Wikipedia):

In the late 1990s Irving Kristol and other writers in neoconservative magazines began touting anti-Darwinist views, in support of intelligent design. Since these neoconservatives were largely of secular backgrounds, a few commentators have speculated that this – along with support for religion generally – may have been a case of a “noble lie”, intended to protect public morality, or even tactical politics, to attract religious supporters

Irving Kristol was no Christian and certainly not a believing Jew either. What you are missing is that YEC’ers are not making a point about belief – they are making a point about authority.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 3:01 pm

And if you don’t know that YEC is a Young Earth Creationist, you may not be well-placed to engage in this discussion…

Because if one is not Bathed in the Holy Acronyms ….

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Phil 10.08.12 at 3:07 pm

Look the reason these “new” athiest are loud and aggressive is because of the attack on science by YEC in the US.

Three words: Stephen Jay Gould.

ajay: You are saying that it’s logically impossible to find actual evidence of class consciousness?

I’m saying it’s logically impossible to find evidence that’ll reliably persuade people who don’t believe in class consciousness.

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reason 10.08.12 at 3:16 pm

Random Lurker, @154
a ha, the physical universe is amoral but their is a (n invisible, unverifiable) moral spiritual universe which makes everything OK in the end. First, the old testament at least made claims about the physical universe, and secondly, this sounds too good to be true (so it probably isn’t). Cynical aren’t I?

But I think the key point is the sense of who is responsible for making the world just. This is a huge divide and creates enormous problems. I hope intelligent theists will acknowledge this.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.08.12 at 3:21 pm

As my formal training is in the study of religions, I should have something to say about all of this but for now I just want to address the remark that “science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor” which is absolutely false:

“[E]ven the most austerely ‘scientific’ models operate through analogy and metaphor. The Rutherford-Bohr model depicts the hydrogen atom as a miniature solar system. Darwin’s concept of ‘natural selection’ is analogous to the ‘artificial selection’ practised by animal breeders. ‘Plate tectonics’ is about thin, flat, rigid areas of ‘crust’ floating on a highly viscous but fluid ‘mantle.’ Linguists talk of the ‘brain mechanism’ by which grammatical language is generated. And so on. Scientific theories are unavoidably metaphorical. [….] Sometimes a ready-made model can be taken over from another branch of science—for example Fresnel’s model of light as the vibration of an elastic medium. Sometimes the key elements come out of everyday life, as in von Neumann’s model of economic behaviour as a ‘game,’ or the molecular-biological model of DNA as a genetic ‘code.’ This heterogeneity is not a serious defect. The scientific value of a theoretical model, as with all metaphors, does not require it to be literally equivalent to the system it represents. It resides in the variety of phenomena that it makes plain, or suggests. This understanding seldom comes through elaborate formal analysis. [….] Indeed, analogy and metaphor cannot be driven out of scientific reasoning. Scientific ideas cannot be communicated through the ‘literal’ medium of formal logic. [….] [In fact], the history of a scientific discipline can be traced through its changing repertoire of models and metaphors—what Gerald Holton calls its themata. Modern physics, for example, deals in ‘forces’ and ‘fields,’ or ‘waves’ and ‘particles,’ and has no place for pre-modern themata such as ‘sympathies,’ and ‘attractions,’ or ‘essences’ and ‘effluvia.’ [….] It is clear that scientific maps, models, metaphors, themata and other analogies are not just tools of thought, or figures of speech. They are the very substance of scientific theory. As sources of meaning and understanding, they stand on equal footing with explicit verbal and symbolic representations.”—John Ziman

Several other papers and books might be cited on indispensable role of metaphor in scientific reasoning, for example, Brown, Theodore L. Brown’s Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.08.12 at 3:22 pm

ooops: sorry for the redundancy in the Brown reference.

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Random Lurker 10.08.12 at 3:25 pm

@Reason
To be clearer, I can’t speak for Mason, but I think that Durkheim didn’t claim that there was a “moral universe” in the religious sense, just that the people who praticed religion felt that way.

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reason 10.08.12 at 3:33 pm

rootless-e @155
Here was I thinking you were just a stirrer trying to threadjack this blog, but then you made an interesting statement:

“What you are missing is that YEC’ers are not making a point about belief– they are making a point about authority”

I’m thinking, this is not enough, because it seems to me, that for YEC, the two concepts (perhaps mistakely) are not different. They have the belief that their interpretation of the bible is the absolute truth. i.e. They believe that knowledge (which to them is belief) COMES from authority.

I wonder how less dogmatic sects view these concepts (belief, knowledge, authority) and how that differs from the views of free thinkers. How you know things, is difficult isn’t it? Even as children we were confronted with different ways of obtaining knowledge – having it told to us, and observing it first hand.

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djw 10.08.12 at 3:35 pm

The problem with the Dawkins set is that they go to immense lengths to make it as hard as possible to distinguish between themselves and the Adventists on whom I shut the door.

Yes, exactly this. I can’t take seriously people who say they want to leave religion behind, while retaining religion’s single most obnoxious feature–a belief-based belligerent identity politics.

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bexley 10.08.12 at 3:37 pm

Most neocons are not atheists and most atheists are not neocons. Most of the leading neocons were avowed Christians – many of the exceptions, like Joe Lieberman, were devout followers of other faiths.

Maybe its a reference to the new atheists that favoured recent military interventions in the middle east. eg Hitch definitely did, Harris’ End of Faith certainly seemed to favour military interventionism and Dawkins might have done too (I can’t remember). I’m not sure these guys share much else with neo-cons. They are/were more Decent Leftish types.

Obviously this isn’t something universal among new atheists (PZ Myers doesn’t seem to have backed the US invasion of Iraq for example).

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.08.12 at 3:43 pm

Regarding John Q. @ 14:

“If you truly believe some particular creed, based on your own experience, doesn’t that imply that other creeds are false, and therefore invalidate the experiences of those who hold those creeds?”

This is not necessarily the case in non-Abrahamic traditions like Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. For example, in the Advaita Vedanta tradition, one might reason in a way in which epistemological and even in some measure ethical pluralism is perfectly compatible with a Putnam-like version of scientific realism:

“To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not…necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world. Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality—a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth. The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.” (Nandini Iyer, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So,’ in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson, 2005, p. 123)

Similarly, consider the Jains:

http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/09/jaina-propaedeutic-for-metaphysical.html

Philosophical examinations of some forms of mystical experience (as involving states of ‘pure consciousness’ or an ‘empty mind’) also discourage creedal exclusivity, as seen in the work of Robert K.C. Forman, such experience said to be common across several religio-philosophical traditions.

On the complex role between beliefs, creeds, and religious experience or praxis, see John Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy, and Human Value (2005).

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Salem 10.08.12 at 3:45 pm

“I’m saying it’s logically impossible to find evidence that’ll reliably persuade people who don’t believe in class consciousness.”

I don’t know if this is true. But if it is true, then that is excellent evidence that class consciousness is not “real,”** and you ought to abandon your belief in class consciousness.

**which in this context would mean something like “does not have explanatory power.”

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dbk 10.08.12 at 3:48 pm

Henry@119: To me it seems a toss-up

I puzzle over why some of the commenters dismiss the possibility of there perhaps existing “other ways of knowing” apart from scientific hypothesis-testing-confirmation, which is based on a very specific mode of thought (“rational”, “scientific”, “Enlightenment”). Isn’t it conceivable that just as there are multiple forms of intelligence, there might be multiple forms of coming-to-know? (As an aside, neuroscientists are now investigating the neurophysiological bases of the emotions and even of religious experience, though the latter is in its infancy – the fact that we do not understand what happens in the human brain during the religious experience does not mean that nothing occurs, only that we don’t yet understand it.)

I have never been visited by the sense of “numinosity”, but cannot in good conscience deny the possibility of others’ being visited by such a sense; there may very well be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt by [my own, Western Enlightenment Protestant American rationally-grounded] philosophy”.

While admitting that historically, depredations have been/are being committed in the ostensible name of religion, I never understood the justification for such in the actual texts of the religion in which I was raised, which seemed to me very much oriented to a love of one’s neighbor [note to @69: I don't understand this as an invitation to narcissim, but rather as an exhortation to grant the same human worth and dignity to others that we assign ourselves as living, sentient, moral beings], toleration of our own and others’ inevitable weaknesses and imperfections, forgiveness, and mercy.

I deeply respect those individuals/groups whose religious beliefs inform their actions on behalf of interfaith tolerance and harmonious coexistence, social justice, and human rights – for example, the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue and the American Society of Friends, to name two organizations of whose initiatives I am marginally aware.

Niamh (and Henry), I am trying to follow your example (advice), and engage in dialogue with the OP (I read Spufford’s Introduction and found it compelling) and with some of what earlier commenters have noted. A classically-trained humanist, I am neither a practicing scientist nor a theologian; however, I happen at the moment to be translating a book on how harmonious coexistence can come into being – it is achievable, and imho will need to be sought on a global scale if our species is to survive. A friend of mine, an ethicist by training, once suggested that humankind’s moral evolution lags behind its rational evolution – let us hope this gap might be remediated while there is still time.

Having said this, I’m afraid that commenting on CT reminds me a lot less of going to a big party of people reasonably tolerant of others’ views than of a viva where you know that numerous professors have it in for you from the get-go.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 3:52 pm

164: Whether or not the war has nominally ended by the time you read this, it will not be the end. The Islamic world will be plunged into a seething stew of humiliated resentment, from which generations of ‘martyrs’ will rise, led by new Osamas. The scars of enmity between Britain and her erstwhile friends in Europe may take years to heal. NATO may never recover. As for the UN, quite apart from the corrupt spectacle of the world’s leading power bribing and bullying small countries to hand over their votes, it is mortally wounded. The fragile semblance of a rule-of-law in international affairs, painstakingly built up since World War II, is collapsing. A precedent is set for any country to attack any other country they happen to dislike and are strong enough to defeat.
Written by Richard Dawkins on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I have never written or spoken in support of the war in Iraq. The truth is, I have never known what to think about this war, apart from the obvious: 1) prospectively, it seemed like a very dangerous distraction from the ongoing war in Afghanistan; 2) retrospectively, it has been a disaster.
Sam Harris, 2009.

even a war initiated with just intentions can be betrayed by conduct of war that violates principles of morality.
It is this, more than anything else, that utterly disqualifies the fiasco in Iraq as a candidate for just war. Saddam Hussein was an extraordinarily evil dictator, and the world is well rid of him, but the steps taken by the USA to accomplish this – unilateral, arrogant, and shockingly ignorant about local conditions – have brought shame on the nation.
They have also been stunningly counterproductive. Respect for America has plummeted worldwide, a dangerous development both for us in America and for those around the world whose well-being and security is partially protected by American support for principles of freedom and equality.

Daniel Dennett, 2007.

So maybe it was a reference to the one (1) New Atheist who favoured it.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 3:56 pm

@ 164: Whatever one thınks about Nuatheists they unquestıonably veer to the Rıght. Dawkıns dıdn’t support the Iraq War but some of hıs more recent statements undoubtedly veer ınto rıght wıng LoopyLand. Jerry Coyne is a right wing ‘liberal’ (ın the Amerıcan sense) and Daniel Dennett a ‘centrist’ (ın the Amerıcan sense, whıch makes hım a ‘not centrist at all’ ın the European sense). If one remembers that the Natheıst movement ıs closely assocıated wıth the Amerıcan “skeptıc” movement then the assocıatıon becomes clearer; Mıchael Shermer appears to be a lıbertarıan as, of course, do Penn and Teller, and James Randi has made antıi-“collectıvıst” statements. Hıtchens was notorıous for hıs rıght wıng sub-Amis-esque splutterıng and Sam Harrıs would appear to be some kınd of a quasi-fascıst sociopath.

In terms of the company he keeps, PZ Myers ıs very definitely out on a limb, politically speakıng.

The iınterestıng questıon ıs, why should thıs be the case? Most prevıous atheıst movements were overtly or covertly assocıated wıth the Left. But the Natheists hold fast to the old Amerıcan mantra of Poverty at Home, Bombs Abroad.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 3:56 pm

@ 164: Whatever one thınks about Nuatheists they unquestıonably veer to the Rıght. Dawkıns dıdn’t support the Iraq War but some of hıs more recent statements undoubtedly veer ınto rıght wıng LoopyLand. Jerry Coyne is a right wing ‘liberal’ (ın the Amerıcan sense) and Daniel Dennett a ‘centrist’ (ın the Amerıcan sense, whıch makes hım a ‘not centrist at all’ ın the European sense). If one remembers that the Natheıst movement ıs closely assocıated wıth the Amerıcan “skeptıc” movement then the assocıatıon becomes clearer; Mıchael Shermer appears to be a lıbertarıan as, of course, do Penn and Teller, and James Randi has made antıi-“collectıvıst” statements. Hıtchens was notorıous for hıs rıght wıng sub-Amis-esque splutterıng and Sam Harrıs would appear to be some kınd of a quasi-fascıst sociopath.

In terms of the company he keeps, PZ Myers ıs very definitely out on a limb, politically speakıng.

The iınterestıng questıon ıs, why should thıs be the case? Most prevıous atheıst movements were overtly or covertly assocıated wıth the Left. But the Natheists hold fast to the old Amerıcan mantra of Poverty at Home, Bombs Abroad.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 3:56 pm

And agreed on 166: why should it be logically impossible? You can’t find, I don’t know, union membership rolls, or political voting patterns, or petition signatories, and say “Look, in 1850s Bavaria people weren’t lining up on this issue along class lines. But look at this data from 1910 – there’s a definite class correlation. Look at these speeches by political leaders that refer to the concept of class. Bavarians in 1910 were conscious of themselves as members of a class in a way that just wasn’t true in 1850.”?

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ajay 10.08.12 at 3:57 pm

You can say it twice if you like, Hidari, but it won’t make it true.

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reason 10.08.12 at 3:59 pm

dbk @167

I don’t think people dispute that their might be “other ways of knowing”, but I think it might be correct to dispute their reliability. Tests have been made you know. It is well known that strength of emotion is no evidence of correctness.

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Steve LaBonne 10.08.12 at 4:08 pm

It’s also well known that “numinous” states can readily be induced chemically or electrically.

176

Jeffrey Davis 10.08.12 at 4:10 pm

Mozart wrote beautiful music, therefore Hell.

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John Hough 10.08.12 at 4:17 pm

Phil @ 138:

Yes, sure, I’m talking about the Jewish tradition I was raised in, as well as the Christian tradition of the surrounding culture. But I can certainly address the point Spufford makes, which is firmly grounded in that Christian tradition. And I find it really disturbing how the value he finds in his religion is in the relief it offers him from the very problem it imposes upon him. His glib dismissal of the meaningful life experiences of atheists reads to me like a person suffering from major depression saying, “I feel pity for all you neurotypical people, who don’t experince the crushing despair that fills my life. Sure, it makes me miserable, but it’s important. And it feels so good those times when the depression goes away for a bit.”

And, yes, repentance can be a psychologically powerful experience. So, I hear, are fake executions. That doesn’t mean that either experience is valuable or a good thing for people to experience. I feel as though the main value in repentance comes from a relief from the crushing weight of guilt that comes from buying into a Christian or Jewish idea of sin.

I’ll also grant that it can be hard to leave that conception of sin behind when leaving the church. Western culture has been so influenced by Christian ideas that secular ideas of wrongdoing also tend to carry the idea of sin and guilt. But there are people who, leaving the church behind, struggle to leave that sense of sin behind as well. There are also people who, feeling that that sense of sin is wrong, never get the point of church in the first place. And what happens to them, when they’ve wronged someone who won’t or can’t forgive? Well, it sucks, and they feel bad, but it’s not awful, the way it would be if they bought into the abusive Christian idea of sin. And so they get on with their lives, a little sadder, but able to cope. Without the overwhelming guilt from that religious conception of sin, there’s no need for a merciful forgiveness you feel like you don’t deserve.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 4:17 pm

@ 172

You’re rıght Ajay: once was enough to make ıt true.

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Barry Freed 10.08.12 at 4:18 pm

Iraq war aside, Sam Harris is a bigot who has written in support of torture. He’s a fear monger who buys into the racial profiling and ticking-time bomb clap-trap. That seems pretty right wing to me.

180

Phil 10.08.12 at 4:19 pm

ajay – the point is that lots of people don’t think there’s any such thing as “class consciousness”, whatever the data say. If you do believe it’s a useful category, then it makes sense to say that all of those things are signs of it. If you don’t, they’re just signs of a variety of other processes which can be explained in different ways.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 4:22 pm

reason 10.08.12 at 3:59 pm

There is no relationship between “correctness” in the way you are using it and morality. There is no objective grounds for preferring kindness to cruelty or peace to war. So you are essentially arguing that “my illogical leap of faith motivated by some stew of genetic programming, social conditioning, and chemical balance, is somehow more rational than your leap of faith that you attribute to a spiritual force”.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 4:32 pm

179: then your statement’s just a tautology. “It’s impossible to find evidence that will persuade people to believe in class consciousness if the people you are trying to persuade are the sort of person who doesn’t believe in class consciousness whatever the evidence says”. Well, yes.

177: New Atheists are right-wing and believe in “poverty at home and bombs abroad”, despite their public statements to the contrary, and you just know this. OK then, I guess you learned it through some numinous process or something.

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dbk 10.08.12 at 4:33 pm

reason@173: True, they are not subject to proof that involves rational/scientific hypothesis-formation-testing-confirmation; but then, such experiences are by definition outside the realm of such forms of confirmation.

W/r/t “strength of emotion” being no evidence of (rational) correctness, what recent psychological investigation is demonstrating is that in numerous realms of human behavior (e.g. political beliefs) rational reasoning is called into service in the wake of emotional reasoning, i.e. to support “scientifically” what are in essence deeply, often sub- or pre-consciously held, emotional beliefs.

Steven LaBonne@174: Very true. Such states can also be induced through meditation, as well as spontaneously, through what is colloquially called the moment of enlightenment/ leap of faith.

I wonder, is it possible to imagine (as a thought experiment) a realm of knowledge for which scientific reasoning is not (yet?) able to offer any testable hypotheses? I think it is possible to imagine such a type of knowledge, but as a rationally-trained Westerner, I cannot envision the next step.

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Salem 10.08.12 at 4:41 pm

“ajay – the point is that lots of people don’t think there’s any such thing as “class consciousness”, whatever the data say. If you do believe it’s a useful category, then it makes sense to say that all of those things are signs of it. If you don’t, they’re just signs of a variety of other processes which can be explained in different ways.”

But there are competing theories in every branch of science (and history is definitely science). This is why we (*gasp*) test our theories against the evidence, make falsifiable predictions, etc. Class consciousness is a rather numinous concept, so you probably start by pinning down the nature of your disagreement. If you both have the exact same model of the world, but you’re calling it class consciousness and she’s calling it something else, then there’s no substantive disagreement. But if you do have differing models of the world, then your models are making different predictions. Then you gather evidence about those predictions, and see which model holds up better. That process may be difficult, but it’s by no means logically impossible.

If, on the other hand, the concept of class consciousness has been reduced to a cipher by successive defeats, such that it makes no predictions compared to a model without it, and its defenders are reduced to “I believe in class consciousness because it gives me nice emotions”… well, then you’ve strayed into the realm of self-deluding nonsense religion.

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 4:41 pm

I wonder, is it possible to imagine (as a thought experiment) a realm of knowledge for which scientific reasoning is not (yet?) able to offer any testable hypotheses? I think it is possible to imagine such a type of knowledge, but as a rationally-trained Westerner, I cannot envision the next step.
—-

ZF set theory is consistent.

186

Phil 10.08.12 at 4:42 pm

ajay – the point is that this is the case for lots of concepts in the social sciences, and nobody cares. Marxists make sense to Marxists, conservatives make sense to conservatives, post-modernists boldly refuse to make sense to anyone (to a room full of post-modernists). If religious people can’t find evidence of the existence of God which is good enough to persuade people who don’t want to believe it, well, so what?

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ajay 10.08.12 at 4:49 pm

185: inasmuch as that is true – and I don’t know howasmuch that is – that would be a sign of the social sciences not being a serious area of academic investigation.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 4:49 pm

Class consciousness is a rather numinous concept, so you probably start by pinning down the nature of your disagreement.

Except that in practice you don’t, and why on earth would you? It’s far more productive to pursue disagreements with people who share the same mental universe as you. If somebody tells me that the key question of our age is the free-floating hybridity of post-human identity, I don’t ask them to justify what they’re saying in terms that will make sense to a Marxist who’s never read Derrida – I just accept that I’m going to have more productive discussions with somebody else.

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JJ 10.08.12 at 4:50 pm

js@49:
” I mean, it is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, otherwise normally intelligent adults believing in indestructible souls or transmigration or something equally bonkers?”

js@54:
“…there’s something still entirely alchemical about coming out with indestructible souls, etc., at the other end, and to maintain that belief in the light of all else we know.”

Sorry, but I don’t see what’s so specially “bonkers” or “alchemical ” about believing in an immortal soul, or even God, for that matter. If you make the crucial distinction that “God ” is the proxy placeholder for a “god-like” social organization that is effectively immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, etc., in that the organization usually outlives the individual mortality of its individual membership, that its combined knowledge base is greater than those of its individual members, that its power to persuade or force other people to obedience is magnified by the individual power of its individual membership, etc., then even an organization as benign as the Girl Scouts of America is divine. As for the “indestructibility” (immortality) of the individual soul, the purpose of any god-like organization is to coordinate the activities (work) of its individual members. The “soul” of any individual rests in the work that the individual performs, and usually lasts beyond the lifetime of the individual who performs it. In fact, it lasts as long as the organization which “organizes” it does, and often long after its demise. Not quite immortal, but certainly less mortal than the person who produced it. The soul of the bricklayer lies in the bricks he lays to produce the building that stands for decades or centuries after his death. The soul of the architect or the engineer lies in the building she designed before she died. Unfortunately, the building, or the the bricks that produced it, are not identified with the architect or the engineer or the bricklayer who produced them, but usually with the asshole(s) who paid for it all, or the other asshole(s) to whom it was dedicated.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 4:51 pm

“77: New Atheists are right-wing and believe in “poverty at home and bombs abroad”, despite their public statements to the contrary, and you just know this”.

Ok Ajay let’s take ıt from another angle. I wıll ıgnore your statement that they have (always wıth the exceptıon of PZ Myers) made such statements because they haven’t. However; point me ın the dırectıon of the statements made by any of the New Atheists that they are socialists, or communists, or socıal democrats. Or that they approve of the the polıtics of, say, Ralph Nader. Or Noam Chomsky. Or Hugo Chavez.

I do find thıs whole thing extremely bizarre ıncidentally. I mean Hıtchens and Harris at least never made their rıght wıng leanıngs any sort of a secret (and Harris ıs an extreme rıght winger at that). Shermer has written a book defendıng “free markets”. Dawkins was recently assocıated wıth A.C. Grayling’s attempt to set up some kınd of a prıvate academy. It’s not as if I am makıng any kınd of a controversial claim here.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 4:53 pm

that would be a sign of the social sciences not being a serious area of academic investigation

It’s an area of a different kind of academic investigation – one involving more talking and fewer controlled experiments. It’s none the less ‘serious’ for that. (Where’s Chris when you need him?)

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J. Otto Pohl 10.08.12 at 4:55 pm

no. 2

Emma not having a religion and taking it seriously are not the same. While there are fairly large numbers of people with no religion in industrialized white majority countries, although I am surprised it is so low in Australia, not even a quarter, militant atheists with membership cards in the ‘League of Godless’ are fairly rare. But, perhaps I did not express myself well.

no. 4

I have only been an academic for a short period of time. The total percentage of my life in which I have been an employee of an academic institution is only about 11%. Or less than five years out of a life span of a few years over 40. Even if you add the three years it took me to get an MA and PhD from SOAS it is still less than the years in my adult life I spent outside of academia. I spent a lot more time either being unemployed, doing various freelance work, and doing menial jobs like making lattes or sandwiches then I have teaching university students. Also I think since almost none of my students have been white that a term other than Ivory Tower would apply to me. Maybe Ebony Tower?

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JJ 10.08.12 at 5:05 pm

But the God to whom we refer is universally evident in the social organization which our ancestors created for our collective benefit, and is anthropomorphic precisely because it is an organization of humans, and not an organization of quarks, or atoms, or molecules, or whatever.

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bexley 10.08.12 at 5:05 pm

@168

Interesting. I’m slightly surprised Harris wasn’t in favour of the Iraq war. (Based solely on how bellicose he seems in End of Faith.) My estimation of him has moved up slightly.

195

niamh 10.08.12 at 5:11 pm

Hmm. Perhaps time for a small tweak of the discussion again, back to the original post.

John Hough (176), I don’t think Spufford is talking at all about guilt induced by ideas of sin that you only picked up by being socialized inside a particular tradition; he isn’t talking about a culturally induced depressive condition that can be sloughed off by liberating yourself from religious strictures.
Au contraire.
This is precisely what he thinks is wrong with the conception of religion reflected in the atheism bus he sees round London.

JJ, js, and a number of others: I really don’t think that you are writing about what Spufford means by religion, or God, at all, even if you wish he did. Or didn’t.

He’s talking about the trials of living that come to everyone in one form or another, including really tough experiences that test you to your limits and beyond. He’s saying that it just won’t do to deny that these things are inescapable (his HPtFtU). That would be what he calls (with Augustine) a kind of cruel optimism.
Alternatively, it’s certainly one philosophical option to say, in response to all those aspects of suffering that are embedded in the human condition (and that even if social services were better and inequality less crushing), that you just have to bloody well get on with it. God? ‘He doesn’t exist, the bastard’.
But seems to me that what Spufford is interested in is the ways in which the possibility of obtaining help, forgiveness, comfort, courage and so on, from (as it were) outside your own resources, are continuous with other central features of human experience.
‘Grace is forgiveness we can’t earn. Grace is tragedy accepted with open arms, and somehow turned to good’. ‘Grace makes us better readers of each other’. And so on.

Talking about these topics needs metaphorical language. As Patrick S. O’Donnell has helpfully noted (155), scientific models also need metaphors to convey meaning. But there isn’t an effectiveness or efficiency test for religious language. To the contrary: what Spufford is interested in is, it seems to me, a pretty central element of the Christian tradition: it’s a way of living that calls on you to give of yourself without caution or fear, and that is inspired by the vision of a vision of a world of fullness and kindness beyond our limits (all that imagery of ‘the kingdom of God’. Or of ‘the republic’ if you prefer…).
The fact that your efforts are always going to fall short doesn’t mean you give up or change your working model. How you behave doesn’t depend on there being discernible results; rather, in this worldview, you just try to do good for its own sake.

You can do the theology to support this; you can build an ethical system on this if you wish.
What Spufford’s particular contribution here is to invite both interest and empathy through techniques that draw on autobiographical resources on the one hand and narrative drive on the other.

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reason 10.08.12 at 5:14 pm

dbk @182
Huh?

I think you missed my point. More and more, research is showing that our brains have certain biases that lead us to misinterpret the world around us. Your holding up the possibility of “other ways of knowing”, doesn’t invalidate this. If we misinterpret the physical world around us, we can also misinterpret the non-physical world. I’m arguing that we need to be more skeptical about “knowing” in general. If this leads to more tolerance of other view points, well and good, but there is a danger it goes the other way, and people claim knowledge which can’t be independently verified and then act on it. In a shared society, this is potentially dangerous.

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Steve LaBonne 10.08.12 at 5:16 pm

If you make the crucial distinction that “God ” is the proxy placeholder for a “god-like” social organization that is effectively immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, etc., in that the organization usually outlives the individual mortality of its individual membership, that its combined knowledge base is greater than those of its individual members, that its power to persuade or force other people to obedience is magnified by the individual power of its individual membership, etc., then even an organization as benign as the Girl Scouts of America is divine.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

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reason 10.08.12 at 5:19 pm

niamh @194
This may make sense to you, but it is just a lot of words to me. I haven’t a clue what you are on about. Maybe I’m missing the religious gene. I wonder how other people feel about this?

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Niall McAuley 10.08.12 at 5:21 pm

niamh: do you think it matters to the kind of religion Spufford is talking about whether God exists or not? I think the language and metaphors work equally with or without an actually existing God.

Which is what we might expect if God does not exist, or God does exist but in such a way that no-one can ever know that he does.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 5:32 pm

I wıll ıgnore your statement that they have (always wıth the exceptıon of PZ Myers) made such statements because they haven’t.

Once again, your numinous sense has led you astray…

“…there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian).”
– Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is also a republican, an opponent of capital punishment, an opponent of the Iraq war, and a Labour supporter (in the 1970s) turned Lib Dem (after the invasion of Iraq). That’s… not your typical right-wing history.

They hide all this stuff in a place called “The Internet”.

However; point me ın the dırectıon of the statements made by any of the New Atheists that they are socialists, or communists, or socıal democrats. Or that they approve of the the polıtics of, say, Ralph Nader. Or Noam Chomsky. Or Hugo Chavez.

I found a rather good explanation of the “Fallacy of the Excluded Middle” there as well.

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andthenyoufall 10.08.12 at 5:37 pm

Once we begin to admit this and that into the circle of “things that must be taken seriously and accorded respect, even though they don’t make sense, and no one is going to bother to explain or justify them, and they certainly aren’t compatible with reason or matter”, why not grant every aspect of social reaction the same dignity? Religion, xenophobia, patriarchy, hierarchy… you could talk about the “lived experience” of each of these; and the powerful emotions they produce; and how we can’t be rude when so many salt-of-the-earth folk simply adore their oppressive traditions; and sometimes they accidentally produce unexpected good consequences like sinfonias and Czechoslovakian independence, so they must really be for the best, right?

If you don’t experience a sublime, oceanic feeling while old men are wearing funny hats or women are baking little cakes in the kitchen, you simply need to be quiet. It’s not like we were trying to persuade you, anyway.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.08.12 at 5:44 pm

(niamh @ 194): “a pretty central element of the Christian tradition: it’s a way of living that calls on you to give of yourself without caution or fear, and that is inspired by the vision of a vision of a world of fullness and kindness beyond our limits (all that imagery of ‘the kingdom of God’. Or of ‘the republic’ if you prefer…).”

I think that’s true. Compare John Cottingham, a philosopher in the “analytic” tradition, and a Catholic:

“Current attitudes to religion among philosophers are highly polarized, some impatient to see it buried, others insisting on its defensibility. But as long as the debate is conducted at the level of abstract argumentation alone, what is really important about our allegiance to, or rejection of, religion, is likely to elude us. There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief, a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these claims in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of reality. “ (reference above in earlier comment)

And consider the reasons that motivate Linda Zagzebski’s “direct reference” theory of “the good:” According to Zagzebski, the “concept of good person arises from exemplars:” “We do not have criteria for goodness in advance of identifying the exemplars of goodness.” Thus, the phronimos, that is, the person who exhibits practical wisdom, “can be defined, roughly, as a person like that, where we make a demonstrative reference to a paradigmatically good person.” The late Robert Nozick wrote about such practically wise and good persons in perhaps his best work, Philosophical Explanations (1981):
“We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”

It may very well be the case that we don’t intimately know such people as Nozick describes, or our encounters with them are few and far between. In such instances we can turn to literature as a substitute for live moral exemplars, for “if all the concepts in a formal ethical theory are rooted in a person, then narratives and descriptions of that person are morally significant [as in the narrative accounts, say, of the Buddha or Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist or Stoic sage, Jesus and Christian saints, Gandhi, Sufi saints…].” Narratives are given a priority in an exemplarist virtue ethics, for they’re capable of providing us with “detailed and temporally extended observations of persons.” Of course we need not simply have recourse to the narratives of perfectly good persons of the sort we often encounter in religious literature. Less-than-perfect narrative exemplars found in many novels can model the sort of virtue required “in the messy situations that ordinary, less-than-virtuous persons encounter in modern life….” As Zagzebski reminds us, cultures have traditionally “enshrine[d] the wisdom of exemplars in myths, legends, the lives of saints and heroes, and in sacred literature,” while today we more often turn to personal acquaintances and literature (or even films) for our moral exemplars, although we’re faced, alas, with the unfortunate fact that the post-modern novel represents a “notable decline in the depiction of individuals who are morally better than the ordinary, [as] art no longer has the function of representing moral exemplars.” The primary task of (ethical) literary criticism in the contemporary world might therefore be one of identifying those works of literature, in particular perhaps novels, distinctive for their narrative depictions in the broadest sense of moral exemplars (as well as their converse). In Love’s Knowledge Nussbaum invokes works by Henry James, Dickens, and Proust (among others), although we can well imagine other writers perfectly suited to this task: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Pablo Neruda (a poet), Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, J.M. Coetzee, Ursula Le Guin, Nadine Gordimer, and Margaret Atwood, for example.

And I think it may be possible to have a “non-religious” or philosophical spirituality (as a ‘way of life’) as well, but only if it’s part of a tradition or traditions of praxis in some manner, say, like that of the Stoic tradition (the reasons for this have to do with the cultivation of pedagogical methods, of specific forms of spiritual praxis, and the nature of the student/teacher relationship found in these traditions). On this, see here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2010/02/religion-spirituality-and-philosophy.html

here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2010/02/religion-spirituality-and-philosophy.html

and here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2012/06/the-therapeutic-model-of-philosophy-philosophy-as-applied-philosophy.html

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ajay 10.08.12 at 5:45 pm

200: quite. The trouble with these suffragettes is that they’re so strident and aggressive. And don’t forget that a lot of them are quite right-wing. (Eugenics, etc.)

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Omega Centauri 10.08.12 at 5:55 pm

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with statements like “recoil in horror at the idea that theologians should be consulted about economic policy”. I’ve held a conjecture that the more successful religions mostly became so because they appeared to convey some positive social lifestyle benefits. I also think that the founders and major pholosophers of such religions put effort into determining what sort of legal framewirks seemed to deliver better benefits socialwise. In an utilitarian sense, these observations then get bundled into doctrine and attributed to a devine being. Now, clearly there was not a developed social science in the ancient world so the observors were not infallible, and the social problems are not the same today as then, but as a first approximation to creating a stable and reasonably just society they aren’t a bad starting point. And of course, we have the salability of the morality, which is usually enhanced if it can be attributed to a god that many believe in.

So in terms of economic matters, our relationship to debt has been an issue for thousands of years. The accumulation of debt burden over time, and its role in creating a class of unfortunates, who because their debt is unpayable tend to become serfs, was a major social problem in the societies from which these religions sprang, and some of the solutions regarding stuff like debt jubilees still have salence today.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 5:56 pm

I wonder ıf one of the problems wıth the New Atheist movement both politically and otherwise wise, is given ın the origiınal post where Niamh states; ” People who approach religion from materialist or rationalist premises won’t find much need to change their views, having read this book. “

I wonder if this ısn’t the latest the latest in a much older Western battle, between Classicism and Romanticism, or, to put it in more modern terms, between Rationalism and anti or post or non-Rationalism?

Certainly if one compares the Natheists wıth their anti-Christian forebears (Sartre. the post-modernists, Nietzsche) the Nuatheist’s more or less un-ironic upholding of the scıentıfıc method and “ratıonalısm” is what stands out. For example, one can ımagıne Sartre attackıng Chrıstıanity wıth Dawkıns’ ferocıty but never hıs praising scıence ın such unambıguous terms. Indeed that sort of vıew of scıence was pretty unfashıonable ın the 20th century. In the mid 19th though….quıte a bıt more.

FWIW I thınk that rationalısm vs anti-rationalism ıs much more of a divide here than materialısm vs anti-materialism. Certaınly I see the New Atheısts as havıng more ın common wıth Rationalist Christians (e.g. Descartes, Newton) than wıth anti-rationalist materialists (Sartre, Nietzsche).

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John Hough 10.08.12 at 6:01 pm

niamh @ 194:

I think Spufford doesn’t think he’s talking about this. But then he stats talking about why I’m a “plastic being” whose life is meaningless, and his justification for it is that he experiences divine mercy and I don’t. Which divine mercy he basically describes as a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card which lets you feel ok when things are too awful to bear. But here’s the thing: I’ve had a hard life. I’ve experienced at least my fair share of hard times, often caused by my own HPtFtU. So I’ve experienced sadness, and anger, and yes, guilt and shame as well. And it seems to me that, as much as life can suck, without some kind of cognitive distortions messing things up, things can be bad, but they don’t get too awful to bear. So I don’t need his divine mercy, and I resent him telling me I’m a shallow person for not wanting to need it.

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Barry Freed 10.08.12 at 6:08 pm

O my people! God has spoken to me and He has revealed to me that you are all commanded to vote for Nader – that is if he’s running this year – but definitely not for that guy with the drones – no not him; and furthermore that your navies are hateful and an abomination in His sight and lastly that your sacrament shall be Budweiser: The King of Beers – those craft beers are simply unacceptable. This I say unto you.

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dbk 10.08.12 at 6:08 pm

reason@195: Thank you, I think I understand your point a little better.

Certainly some degree of skepticism is appropriate to many forms of knowing , including both rationality and emotionality, to name the two modes we were both referring to. The question that remains for me is whether skepticism (rational doubt and analysis of logical fallacies) is ultimately the appropriate tool of verification for religious experience; here, I must remain skeptical.

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ajay 10.08.12 at 6:13 pm

Certaınly I see the New Atheısts as havıng more ın common wıth Rationalist Christians (e.g. Descartes, Newton) than wıth anti-rationalist materialists (Sartre, Nietzsche).

Now that sounds like good company to be in. Sign me up!

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ajay 10.08.12 at 6:13 pm

O my people! God has spoken to me and He has revealed to me that you are all commanded to vote for Nader – that is if he’s running this year – but definitely not for that guy with the drones – no not him; and furthermore that your navies are hateful and an abomination in His sight and lastly that your sacrament shall be Budweiser: The King of Beers – those craft beers are simply unacceptable. This I say unto you.

Hallelujahgobble! Hallelujahgobble!

211

Substance McGravitas 10.08.12 at 6:16 pm

do you think it matters to the kind of religion Spufford is talking about whether God exists or not? I think the language and metaphors work equally with or without an actually existing God.

Yes. By this formulation Christianity is a tool in the psychological toolbox. While hammers are a good and valuable thing some people can’t be trusted with them.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.08.12 at 6:26 pm

Rationality also has big, big problems.

First off, you have to say where you are coming from, because that allows others to evaluate. I had a full-blown mystical experience, outside of any theology, many decades ago, but I am not able to understand whether this was a waking-up from psychological illness as an abreaction of trauma, or whether it also had independent correlates to some greater awareness in the universe, or both. I simply don’t know, and there is no real yardstick to sort it out.

Next, you have to separate anyone’s personal experience from the institutional structure of religion, and perhaps the local institutional structure they have encountered, which padlocks the theology to gain newcomers.

Then, rationality has big problems, which appear to reassert themselves in new dress forms, in each new historical era. This category goes far beyond the simple “cognitive biases” in the application of rationality, difficult or impossible to correct as some of them are (Daniel Kahneman’s new book is a terrific, essential overview of the scientific evidence on cognitive biases). Rationality itself (Kahneman’s “System 2″) also has systematic failures:

There are fundamental sources of uncertainty coming from our current science. Murray Gell-Mann’s list is: the coarse-graining of the maximal realm, the probabilistic character of its branching accidents into the future, the ignorance of the observer of the outcomes of most accidents that have already occurred in the universe, and the approximations and limitations on accuracy imposed by our computational tools.

Than there is an astonishingly short list of the basic kinds of distinctions we can make between things: Same/different, equals/unequals, more/less, numbers, negatives, opposites, subject/predicate, before/after, cause and effect, foreground/background, left/right, whole/part etc.

Yet the contexts of these distinctions appear to be infinite. How we come to them, how we find them, and how we combine them or link them together, appear to be infinite. Yet the formation of these contexts are beyond simple logic from the distinctions, coming from outside the logical equation, as the later Wittgenstein pointed out (from many different avenues of approach).

We are unable to build, even by computer algorithm, any general way to contextualize our ideas up to the Absolute (whether the absolute is real or not, that is not the point), and we must re-enter the semantics ourselves into the computer programs, at almost every new level, as we do in expert systems. (This sort of concern led the later Kurt Gödel to theism.)

Finally, we don’t know what consciousness is, or where it comes from. The current scientific guess, as best I can make out, is that consciousness is a certain level of the complexity of matter. This is pretty much gibberish — really it is a belief, only this time, it is the belief of some scientists.

When we combine all the questions about this area, from personal need and experience, to systematic failure in the rationality underneath the opposing scientific explanations, and the reappearance of this dilemma in each new historical era, then the only logical, scientific position is agnosticism: that it is not possible, or may not be possible, to know.

213

Hidari 10.08.12 at 6:32 pm

@211

“You can’t be rational in an irrational world: it’s not rational.”

(John Cage)

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Salem 10.08.12 at 6:32 pm

Phil started with a strong, bold claim – that it’s “logically impossible” to find (dis)confirmatory evidence of many true and useful things. This has now been pared back to a weak and shaky claim – that it’s more congenial to hang out with people who share our unchallenged assumptions than to check whether the outside world matches our theorising.

I find the parallels with religious arguments amusing. The only reason religious people claim this stuff is a “metaphor” is because it’s been debunked. If Jesus came down from heaven tomorrow and started healing the sick and raising the dead for real, Christians would not be saying that this disproves Christianity because it’s only meant to be a metaphor! It’s the Two-Step of Triviality all over again.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 6:40 pm

Just thinking aloud here: I wonder ıf there are more lınks between Red Plenty and Spufford’s Chrıstıanıty than one mıght thınk at fırst glance. After all wasn’t the theme of Red Plenty about the faılure of a Ratıonalıst, Enlıghtenment attempt to rearrange and reorder socıety?

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Lee A. Arnold 10.08.12 at 6:45 pm

@212

“You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.”

–Dr. Rance, in
Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw (1969)

217

Hidari 10.08.12 at 6:48 pm

Ha! I always thought ıt was Cage. Oh well….. Orton…….better still.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.08.12 at 6:50 pm

@ 213 “The only reason religious people claim this stuff is a ‘metaphor’ is because it’s been debunked.”

No, it’s because religious truths are often best expressed in figurative and evocative language much like poetry and other forms of “knowing” and “seeing.” This is one reason some philosophers, for example, turn to literature and the arts, believing there to be “truths” that are not well-expressed or conveyed with literal language or in the terms of conventional philosophical discourse. Metaphors may also help us see the “limits” of reason and appreciate precisely why Pascal said “the heart has its reasons….” Indeed, metaphors may persuade and compel with regard to their topical domain in a way that syllogisms and deductions rarely do (nor perhaps were ever meant to do). Moreover, metaphorical discourse is open to various levels or layers of interpretation and meaning and thus can show some sensitivity to the experiential, cognitive, and affective capacities and differences among its readers or listeners, closer to the spoken word in intimate settings. For more on metaphor (and analogy too!), see here (the second half of the paper): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1804987

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Lee A. Arnold 10.08.12 at 7:09 pm

@217 I was hoping Cage said it too! His solution is much more germane!

220

Lee A. Arnold 10.08.12 at 7:11 pm

Why is Cage’s solution germane? Because something very interesting may be happening, in part of the method of science.

I have to start with a formal identity: Contexts-over-distinctions are formally equivalent to institutions-over-transactions. (I tried to show this graphically in New Chart, for Descartes.)

In other words institutions are social contexts that are invented to cover one thing or another. But if the creation of new contexts is free and non-algorithmic in nature, then it will sometimes look like a new belief, or a social agreement upon belief.

So then, let’s take a real-world problem: At the same time, on the other hand, some problems in the real world, such as climate change, are evermore threatening, yet precisely unpredictable for scientific reasons or failures in rationality (e.g. due to the fact that n-compartment systems or n-body systems are not deterministically predictive; there are non-linear equations and the results depend upon where you start the calculations, etc., plus problems in modeling, variable measurement, experimental repetition to verify the models, etc.)

Yet we know that some things are inductively true about complex systems such as the climate. We just can’t quite predict the occurences accurately: (1) systems oscillate within parameters; (2) after brief perturbations they usually return to within parameters; (3) they occasionally change violently, a catastrophe; (4) the probability of catastrophe INCREASES with continuous forcing or introduced exotics. Etc. This is science, but it remains at the level of inductive observations.

It may be true, therefore, that the scientifically-required and scientifically-proper response to the danger of climate change is the free creation of a new institution by which everyone agrees (or mostly everyone agrees, by a vote) to take precautionary action. A non-algorithmic response. I think Murray Gell-Mann called for “the moral equivalent of belief” in his book The Quark and the Jaguar.

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Emma in Sydney 10.08.12 at 8:08 pm

Hidari @ 217, you found a dot for your last ‘i’! Thank goodness, because your dotless ‘i’s have been making me queasy (it’s occupational, I am an editor).

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Katherine 10.08.12 at 8:11 pm

I find it interesting that very few of the defences of Christianity I’ve come across actually require God to exist.

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Hidari 10.08.12 at 8:14 pm

@221 It’s not my fault it’s this keyboard but I was hoping it would make it look as if I was writing from the future.

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J. Otto Pohl 10.08.12 at 8:28 pm

220

The i without a dot is a different letter than the i with a dot in Turkish. It has a different sound. It is also considered a different letter by e-mail. I had to change my password in 2000 in Ankara so that I could access my e-mail. I couldn’t figure out how to get an i with a dot.

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Barry Freed 10.08.12 at 8:48 pm

I find it interesting that very few of the defences of Christianity I’ve come across actually require God to exist.

It’s not a defense per se, but the most compelling Christian theology I’ve ever encountered actually requires God to not exist. That would be Thomas J.J. Altizer’s radical death of God theology. His first book was entitled the Gospel of Christian Atheism. To simplify, God the Father, the God of the Old Testament, the giver of the Law, (Blake’s white-bearded Urizen), became human and in doing so and dying as a such emptied himself completely of verything that was divine and transcendent ergo oppressive (the kenotic moment) and we now live in completly new world of radical immanence.

Sure it’s metaphor (and see Patrick O’Donnell above), but it’s damn heady stuff and the only way Christianity ever really made any sense to me. So if I were a Christian, I’d be a Christian Atheist.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 8:49 pm

Phil started with a strong, bold claim – that it’s “logically impossible” to find (dis)confirmatory evidence of many true and useful things.

Actually Phil started out by saying

“You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either.”

It was ajay who introduced the “logically impossible”, and I’m still not sure what work the ‘logically’ is doing.

That aside, I don’t believe I’ve backed down or changed my argument. My point all along has been that God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

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Phil 10.08.12 at 8:56 pm

I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides

What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.

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Niall McAuley 10.08.12 at 9:00 pm

In fact, common ground is found every single day between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless Universe, given no particular work or good will on either side, as long as what we are talking about is the price of fish, or the best economic policy, or what’s wrong with that software package.

Anything, basically, except God (or the experience of mercy in the workings of the Universe as perceived through internal emotional reflection etc. etc.)

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Seth 10.08.12 at 10:21 pm

@74 (JW Mason)

“This is very clearly the case with e.g. Creationism. If w tell people, “you are worthless, you don’t count, nothing you say or do matters,” then it’s only natural that they will look for the reply that God loves them and created them specially, and that a story of the world in which they have no different moral status than tools or raw materials must be wrong. (And they are right to do so.) Treating this as just bad geology is missing the whole point.

Especially appreciated the last line. Creationism isn’t exclusively about ‘bad geology’. I had a somewhat similar thought recently, while driving behind a truck with one of those ‘ichthus’ fish. The motivation behind slapping one of those magnets on your vehicle seems pretty remote from factual assertions about the prehistory of planet earth. A lot more to do with a social (and political) identity than with ‘bad geology’.

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Consumatopia 10.08.12 at 10:41 pm

@rootless_e , 156

Since these neoconservatives were largely of secular backgrounds, a few commentators have speculated that this – along with support for religion generally – may have been a case of a “noble lie”, intended to protect public morality, or even tactical politics, to attract religious supporters

The way some people here are talking about religion makes it sound like a noble lie one tells oneself. If you’ve already decided what actions and emotions would be the right ones to do and feel, then you try to believe something that makes you feel the emotions that cause you perform those actions. You start saying and doing your best to mean the whole of your new creed.

Which I suppose is reasonable–as they say, “would you rather be right or happy?” Still, I wish advanced practioners in this form of mind-rewiring were more careful in asking others to follow them. Christianity is a dangerous tool for amateurs–the experience of Substance McGravitas@71 is familiar to me. And the professional advice one gets in this industry isn’t particularly trustworthy, either.

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Seth 10.08.12 at 10:53 pm

May I suggest that some of the controversy about the New Atheism might be clarified a bit by contrasting two types of Christianity: the Jeffersonian, and the Fundamentalist flavors.

One the one hand, Jefferson’s flavor of deism seemed to embrace Jesus the moral philosopher, while rejecting the supernatural aspects of the Gospels. I’m thinking specifically of the Jefferson Bible and the motivation behind it. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tried to ‘forbid’ us from accepting this demystified version of Jesus, arguing (for example in Mere Christianity, quoted here) that Jesus was either a crazy liar or the “Son of God” (whatever precisely that meant to Lewis).

A lot of the hostility to Christianity from the more secular folks these days, I think stems from the way the most vocal Christians largely follow C.S. Lewis’ rather arbitrary dictation about what the religion has to mean to a believer. They are aggressively reading anyone out of the church who has a problem with the supernatural. I don’t think a scientifically literate person could possibly be an ‘unproblematic’ Christian by Lewis’ standard. But I can certainly relate to a compromise in which the ethical teachings of Jesus can retain a high moral authority without a heavy-handed rejection of any scientific arguments that call Biblical literalism into question.

I guess the problem is that “high moral authority” just isn’t exalted — or exclusive — enough for some. It’s gotta be DA TRUTH! And thundering, pompous rhetoric somehow helps to establish the absoluteness of Jesus’ truth …

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rootless_e 10.08.12 at 11:11 pm

Consumatopia 10.08.12 at 10:41 pm

The “noble lie” is from Strauss’s doctrine of why it is ok to lie to the marks. (someone said the ex-Trot Neocons went from “Religion is the opium of the people” to “Religion is the opium of the people, let’s get them stoned and sell them into slavery”. ) One can find a very similar doctrine about lying among the right wing religious nuts covered in Sharlett’s brilliant book The Family.

In my experience neither charlatanism nor sales based on fear are specific to religion. However I am sympathetic to the hostility that cult escapists feel towards religion.

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Meredith 10.08.12 at 11:12 pm

Let me recommend (in addition to the Eagleton link in OP):

http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Maimed-by-Chris-Hedges-121008-605.html

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Alex SL 10.08.12 at 11:59 pm

Way too much here, and too many discussions going on in parallel, to be able to address even just 10% of everything.

Hidari @205:

I think that rationalism vs anti-rationalism is much more of a divide here than materialism vs anti-materialism. Certainly I see the New Atheists as having more in common with Rationalist Christians (e.g. Descartes, Newton) than with anti-rationalist materialists (Sartre, Nietzsche).

And I think that is actually a very good observation. Yes, the major problems the New Atheists have with religion is that it is actively anti-rational by design. If presented with unassailable evidence for the existence of god, most of them would concede the existence of god, because that would be the rational thing to do.

(With the following caveats: They still would not consider such a god to be worthy of worship – it did create a reality that is abhorrently cruel and wasteful, after all. And at least PZ Myers has publicly declared that there is nothing that would convince him of the existence of gods because they cannot possibly exist. The argument runs, simplified, like this: Can your god do logically impossible things? Yes – that is not logically possible, try again. No – well, then your god cannot do anything that a sufficiently advanced alien civilization could not also do, in principle. In fact, your god probably is just a sufficiently advanced alien lifeform, and thus does not deserve the name god.)

But what bugs me about this whole discussion thread is that the insistence on rationality is somehow considered by many to be unreasonable, intolerant, oppressive, naive, etc., instead of (please take the time to think that through for a moment) the absolute minimum requirement for having any productive dialogue at all.

Which brings me to this weird side discussion about how the new atheists are all rightists. First, that is simply incorrect – spend an hour on freethoughtblogs and judge for yourself. Second, even if it were true, so what? If all warmongering conservatives believed that the sky is blue, and all nice and friendly progressives insisted that it is yellow, would Hidari claim that blue is now suspect as the correct answer? Tribalism at its best. Third, as for the observation that atheists a few decades back used to be leftist, and now there is an increasing number of self-declared rationalists that don’t identify as leftist, maybe the possibility should be considered that it is the left that has changed, and not the rationalists.

Certainly traditional Marxists had their ideological blinders, but they at least claimed that they were rational and that their claims about history and the economy were objectively and demonstrably true. Notably, Marx did not sit down and write about narratives and deconstruction, but he marshalled historical and economic data to support his propositions, whatever we may think about them. Some traditional leftists had the all too human tendency to cherry pick the science they liked and reject the one they didn’t (Lysenko is particularly nasty example), but they were very much in favour of scientific and technological progress as such. There was never any doubt to them that human rights are universal, and that people are humans first, and females or Sikhs or Americans second. And, of course, they promoted atheism.

These days? Not so much, and my interpretation is that this is a holdover from postmodernism. As beautifully in evidence in this thread, it is now very easy indeed to find a self-declared leftist who will proclaim that we cannot really know anything (how do you know that then?), that rationality has failed (how can you defend that claim without referring to rationality?), that progress is an arrogant Western concept (yes, because nobody outside of Western civilization ever wanted to figure out how to heal diseases, produce more food or achieve the same work in less time), and that it is a-okay to sell the opiate of the masses if it just makes the masses happy with their lot. And then there is this, the most nauseating consequence of this stance taken to its logical conclusion.

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rootless_e 10.09.12 at 12:39 am

And I think that is actually a very good observation. Yes, the major problems the New Atheists have with religion is that it is actively anti-rational by design.

That seems a naive take on the world. What is the rational argument for wanting to do good? There are perfectly reasonable theist and non-theist explanations, but all of them rely on an initial leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one).

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UserGoogol 10.09.12 at 12:40 am

I guess a point is that many religions (in particular the ones New Atheists most concerned with) sure seem to be making fairly concrete non-metaphorical claims about the nature of reality which seem like the sort of thing which seem entirely within the realm of reason to address. For instance, the idea that there was a guy two thousand years ago who preached and attracted a small following of devotees, who would periodically go around performing miraculous feats, until finally he topped it all off by returning from the dead after he was crucified and then ascended into heaven. This isn’t some abstract statement about the nature of morality and meaning in the universe, this is very concrete: either the guy did these things or he didn’t. And then it seems to make sense for rationalistic atheists to pop up and say “no, he probably didn’t.”

Of course, squishy metaphor is mixed up with this, in one sense since people who believe Jesus did these things think it represents more ineffable truths about the nature of existence than merely some peculiar events that happened in Roman Judea, and in another sense that some Christians are willing to say that these things may not have literally happened at all, but that the metaphor itself what really matters. But to the extent that religions do seem to be dealing in the world of the concrete and the natural, then New Atheists seem to be trying to focus on that side of religion. (Although they have a habit of sloppily conflating the concrete and metaphorical sides of religion often.)

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rootless_e 10.09.12 at 12:56 am

Some traditional leftists had the all too human tendency to cherry pick the science they liked and reject the one they didn’t (Lysenko is particularly nasty example), but they were very much in favour of scientific and technological progress as such. There was never any doubt to them that human rights are universal, and that people are humans first, and females or Sikhs or Americans second. And, of course, they promoted atheism.

The motto of the South African Communist Party in the 1920s was “White Workers of the World Unite”.

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Watson Ladd 10.09.12 at 1:39 am

So to all the people defending religion as a collection of stories of moral behaviours, why is it that John Milton, Rashi, the Pope, and probably half the defenders of Christianity on this blog all disagree about Genesis and the lessons it holds about human nature? Doesn’t this suggest that we need a bit more then stories? What about the role of religious practice? Does psychotherapy now replace religion, Woody Allen the new Mother Theresa?

Or is it a bit like Ren Faire and other cultural preservation activities?

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Alex SL 10.09.12 at 2:05 am

rootless_e,

You could easily find more nits to pick and point at christian communists or misogynist union leaders. That does not change the observation that the traditional left was a very different thing than the left’s brain on half-digested postmodernism.

That seems a naive take on the world. What is the rational argument for wanting to do good? There are perfectly reasonable theist and non-theist explanations, but all of them rely on an initial leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one).

To this and all the other arguments along the lines of rationalism fails to provide this or that with 100% certainty: Okay, maybe that is so in some of the cases. But then the conclusion should be, “we don’t know because nobody knows because there is no way to know”, and not, “now let’s listen to what the theologian of this arbitrarily privileged sect claims to know based on his metaphorical interpretation of a bronze age myth.”

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JW Mason 10.09.12 at 2:08 am

Scott Martens:

Every person I know who claims to be a scientist believes – and indeed treasures – the notion that all phenomena in the universe obey fixed, material, causal, absolute laws that account for them. … Yet, not one shred of evidence for this claim exists, nor, in all likelihood, can it. Indeed, the actual behavior of scientists – the way they behave in their everyday lives where random and unexpected events are expected at every turn – makes far more sense if you deny that claim.

Right, exactly. The statement “You should accept scientific claims about material reality” is not, itself, a scientific claim about material reality.

Me:

“religion” is really just that domain of culture in which we are conscious of ourselves as conscious, rational beings existing in a moral universe.

reason:

This seems to me completely wrong way around. Surely we are moral creatures (not always rational) living in an amoral universe.

Well, the thing is, both are true. Before there were human beings — presumably before there were any rational beings — there was a physical universe evolving according to physical law. And, before you or I are capable of holding or asserting any belief about the physical universe, we exist as conscious beings in a discursive universe. It might be nice if the world — that is, the totality of facts, not things — was arranged in a clear logical hierarchy so that the relationship of “more fundamental” was strictly transitive. But the topology of truths is more complex than that. Facts about the physical world don’t reduce to facts about our existence as free, conscious beings; and facts about our existence as free conscious beings don’t reduce to facts about the physical world. Or perhaps better, each reduces to the other.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

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Watson Ladd 10.09.12 at 2:23 am

JW Mason: It seems to me that statements about anything my senses experience, including your words, have to be considered statements about the physical world.

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LFC 10.09.12 at 2:54 am

Going through some of this thread reminded me of
this obit of Wm Hamilton from last March.

Seth @231 — To make a sociological observation (for lack of a better phrase), I think there’s a lot of room on the spectrum between Jeffersonian deism and Biblical literalism.

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john c. halasz 10.09.12 at 3:11 am

@241:

” It seems to me that statements about anything my senses experience, including your words, have to be considered statements about the physical world.”

Now that’s what you call real philosophical talent!

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Henry Farrell 10.09.12 at 3:28 am

One the one hand, Jefferson’s flavor of deism seemed to embrace Jesus the moral philosopher, while rejecting the supernatural aspects of the Gospels. I’m thinking specifically of the Jefferson Bible and the motivation behind it. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tried to ‘forbid’ us from accepting this demystified version of Jesus, arguing (for example in Mere Christianity, quoted here) that Jesus was either a crazy liar or the “Son of God” (whatever precisely that meant to Lewis).

A lot of the hostility to Christianity from the more secular folks these days, I think stems from the way the most vocal Christians largely follow C.S. Lewis’ rather arbitrary dictation about what the religion has to mean to a believer. They are aggressively reading anyone out of the church who has a problem with the supernatural. I don’t think a scientifically literate person could possibly be an ‘unproblematic’ Christian by Lewis’ standard. But I can certainly relate to a compromise in which the ethical teachings of Jesus can retain a high moral authority without a heavy-handed rejection of any scientific arguments that call Biblical literalism into question.

Spufford calls this argument by CSL one of the most ridiculous that has ever been advanced, if my memory serves me correctly.

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Hidari 10.09.12 at 3:41 am

@ 234

There was a previous discussıons of rationality at CT here;

http://crookedtimber.org/2011/09/24/the-poverty-of-rationality/

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Alex SL 10.09.12 at 4:03 am

Hidari,

Now I don’t have the time to go through that entire thread with a comb, but this looks like equivocation. One is about the belief that humans are, actually, already and in real life, rational agents in the economic sphere, the other is about whether humans should aspire to exclusively use evidence and reason to infer what the world is like and to inform their decisions.

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Hidari 10.09.12 at 4:28 am

“One is about the belief that humans are, actually, already and in real life, rational agents in the economic sphere, the other is about whether humans should aspire to exclusively use evidence and reason to infer what the world is like and to inform their decisions.”

Point 1: Yes but everything is, implicitly or explicitly, in the economic sphere.

Point 2: This idea that somethıng isn’t “true” but that we should all pretend that ıt ıs (or “aspire”) to act as ıf it is, puzzles me. Compare: “Obviously we can’t flap our wıngs and fly lıke bırds but that’s no reason to conclude that we shouldn’t flap our arms as much as possıble and aspire towards lift off, whıch would be a noble goal.”

And note the word “exclusively” in your second sentence.

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QB 10.09.12 at 4:35 am

But I can certainly relate to a compromise in which the ethical teachings of Jesus can retain a high moral authority without a heavy-handed rejection of any scientific arguments that call Biblical literalism into question.

Russell: “Then you come to moral questions. There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates…”

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Alex SL 10.09.12 at 4:41 am

Hidari,

To paraphrase from above, you are right, of course, that we cannot completely escape superstition and irrationality. And following your “logic”, because humans will never be entirely honest about everything, we should not aspire to minimize lying and cheating either, correct?

I am starting to suspect that you are just trolling. Surely nobody in their right mind can argue that basing our worldview and communal decisions on superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings is something to be promoted or welcomed?

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js. 10.09.12 at 5:14 am

Re Niamh:

Fair points all, and sorry for getting way off-track. I still think I just don’t get it though. I get the inescapable trials of living, the inability to confront them with one’s own individual resources; I entirely and completely agree with the “possibility [and necessity--js.] of obtaining help, forgiveness, comfort, courage” from others. I still think there’s some sort of giant jump when one starts talking about getting these things from a completely supernatural source, rather than, say, other human beings, a reasoned faith (in the sense of trust) in various human endeavors, etc. I guess I simply fail to see why acknowledging the possibility and necessity of relying on the help and forgiveness, etc., of others would so to speak automatically incline one to look beyond the world we actually inhabit.

And just to be clear, I’m with JW Mason in holding that the world we actually inhabit is utterly rife with moral facts that are irreducible to the language or methods of science. (Frankly, meta-ethics is one of my AOS’s, as they say in the trade, so I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about these questions.) But acknowledging the existence of these irreducible moral facts (also, other non-moral but irreducibly normative facts) still isn’t getting me any closer at all to acknowledging anything outside the human world.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 5:56 am

The problem is that there is a specific, real process of transformation, but no good expression to put it in, because the experience is beyond rational description. Wittgenstein nailed it:

“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.”

“…are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put upon it.”

So the next question is, what framework do you offer instead, to replace this “Christianity” (read: “a religious experience of some genuine type”, read: Buddhism or Judaism or Islam or whatever, a thing that perhaps YOU don’t like or need so much), to help people who still need help? If you insist that religion is not the answer, you had better have an alternative ready. Could you even identify these people and select them for treatment efficiently? I rather doubt it. Are you going to pay for everyone in despair to go see a psychoanalyst? (I.e., someone using a different set of ontological categories which are themselves partial and inaccurate and open to revision? “Freudianism”, anyone?) Which doesn’t always work, either?

Our problem is to put this very real process of grave moral choice and self-sacrifice and self-transcendence into a useful, understandable language. Religion is founded upon a change in being that occurs in this life. It is NOT founded upon an increase in rational knowledge. Jumping outside yourself, leaving your ego behind, is not a rational thing to do.

Perhaps you are simply complaining about the institutionalized, exoteric chatter that passes for organized religion, though it has just as little connection to this real transformation, as some pop-science books about quantum physics have to the real science. Here, I have no objection.

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Alex SL 10.09.12 at 6:21 am

Lee,

Have you tried that “religion is not a doctrine” approach where actual beliefs and commandments don’t matter on your average American mega-church, during a Friday prayer in Pakistan, at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, with Korean missionaries or during a mass in Sao Paolo? In some of these cases, you may want to position yourself next to a handy escape route before you start to make your pitch. And pretending that these billions of people don’t have the real religion but you and a few hundred liberal theologians have it… that is just defies description.

And still with the dehumanization of atheists. I do not have any need of religion, perhaps because my parents never indoctrinated one into me – am I therefore irrational, have I jumped outside of myself, whatever that means? I am just as human as you, and my feelings are not shallower than yours.

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Phil 10.09.12 at 6:55 am

I am starting to suspect that you are just trolling. Surely nobody in their right mind can argue that basing our worldview and communal decisions on superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings is something to be promoted or welcomed?

Since nobody has said any such thing, and since all of the above are offensive caricatures of religious belief, I’m not sure you’re in the best position to accuse others of trolling.

what bugs me about this whole discussion thread is that the insistence on rationality is somehow considered by many to be unreasonable, intolerant, oppressive, naive, etc.,

I really wish you’d spend a bit more time to reading the comments you’re responding to and a bit less composing the devastating replies, because an awful lot of the time you’re delivering knock-out blows to strawmen.

Anyway, here’s my reply from the last time you made this point:

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

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Phil 10.09.12 at 7:04 am

Have you tried that “religion is not a doctrine” approach where actual beliefs and commandments don’t matter on your average American mega-church, during a Friday prayer in Pakistan, at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, with Korean missionaries or during a mass in Sao Paolo?

Have you tried your “superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings” approach? It seems to me that Lee’s approach would be a hell of a lot more acceptable – it would only require a couple of tweaks (“Brothers, I say to you that the most important part of being a Christian is the experience of something that actually takes place in human life…”).

And pretending that these billions of people don’t have the real religion but you and a few hundred liberal theologians have it…

Of course, Lee didn’t say they didn’t – nor did he dismiss billions of people as simple-minded unreflective rote-believers – but let that pass. How is that more arrogant than claiming that both the billions and the liberal theologians are flat wrong? You’re applying reason, of course – but so was Lee, and indeed Wittgenstein.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 7:08 am

@252 –Actually my experience of long discussions with a couple of Catholic priests, several Protestant ministers, at least one rabbi, and a very nice Muslim couple now hawking the Koran at the local farmers market, is that there are lots and lots of people on the same page. One of the priests averred that the Catholic tradition up to the early modern period took the Bible as largely metaphorical, something I had not realized, although I knew they had names for various interpretive traditions. Times are different now, of course. But the idea that the existence of dangerous true believers in various institutions (like in The Crusades and all the other religious wars and horrors) invalidates the underlying psychological mechanism of their faiths, seems unjustified. It’s like saying that the use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima invalidates nuclear physics.

I imagine that Wittgenstein’s “religion is not a doctrine” approach would NOT claim that “actual beliefs and commandments don’t matter”. Propaedeutics are essential.

I am not sure how you get to the “dehumanization” of atheists, nor to the misunderstanding of who is doing the jumping (that is about the religious experience), nor to the imputation that you have shallower feelings. We are talking about something that is very much like going to see a psychoanalyst. Does a person who goes to a psychoanalyst have “deeper” feelings than someone who does not?

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hellblazer 10.09.12 at 7:08 am

Alex SL:

on your average American mega-church, during a Friday prayer in Pakistan, at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, with Korean missionaries or during a mass in Sao Paolo

What about the average non-mega-church in Chorley? Or Norwich? Or South Shields? (Just naming places I’ve been to; I defer to everyone else’s greater experience with the US, the Middle East, The Middle East, some place with Koreans, and Brazil.)

Surely nobody in their right mind can argue that basing our worldview and communal decisions on superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings is something to be promoted or welcomed?

I’m an academic in a STEM discipline in a run of the mill “Western” university. There’s rather a lot of all of those visible from where I’m standing…

(To forestall one tiresome line of riposte: though it depresses me to have to say this, I’m an atheist raised in a family of atheists. I’ve also worked briefly in a shelter run out of a church basement. There’s more to religion than epistemology or ontology… )

Phil:
People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life.

This seems an eminently sensible reading of things to me. I don’t think religion is synonymous with evangelism, otherwise the Muslims a few offices down the corridor would be bothering me with pamphlets, presumably, as would the local Church organizer at the far end of the corridor.

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Guido Nius 10.09.12 at 7:09 am

Religion is as irrational as believing Belgium will win the next World Cup in soccer.

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John Quiggin 10.09.12 at 7:22 am

It looks as if the US is becoming more like Europe, at least in the places CTers are likely to hang out. The most striking finding in a recent Pew study is that “no affiliation” is now the largest single religious group in the Democratic support base, and that around 30 per cent of all 18-30s are in this group. So, if you’re a young liberal Democrat, it’s likely that you and most of your friends are unaffiliated, as would certainly be the case elsewhere in the world

http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

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John Quiggin 10.09.12 at 7:30 am

Following from Henry, I’ve always found the CSL argument amazingly silly.

To spell out the refutation a bit further: there are a bunch of stories about Jesus, and churches have approved some of these as canonical. In some of the stories, Jesus offers great moral teachings. In others, he performs miracles, declares himself the Son of God and so on. According to CSL, if you believe the first kind of story, you also have to believe the second. There’s a related genre (I recall from my youth a book called Who Moved the Stone) in which you are supposed to accept as fact everything about the Easter story that isn’t obviously miraculous, then come up with a non-miraculous explanation for why the tomb was empty etc.

Relating to another thread, I suppose it might be claimed by Star Wars fans that, if you believe in the possibility of space flight, the existence of Jedis and the Force must follow.

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Phil 10.09.12 at 8:15 am

Yes – if you believe that the subset of stories about Jesus preserved in the canonical Gospels (including John) are all true and accurate, except when they’re inconsistent with one another, and if you believe that there’s no possibility that Jesus was at any point speaking metaphorically, talking for effect or honestly mistaken, then the only possibilities that remain are that he was either insane or telling the truth. That’s what I call hermeneutics! Another form of the same argument I’ve come across was The Gospel writers all seem to think he was divine – are you saying they were all liars?

But that kind of point-blank literalism seems to find its mirror-image in some “new atheist” arguments, which start with a “category dismissal” and, inevitably, end there too. Can you persuade me your religion isn’t an irrational superstition? Only don’t bother me with the details of your religion, I already know it’s an irrational superstition.

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Alex SL 10.09.12 at 8:40 am

Phil,

I really wish you’d spend a bit more time to reading the comments you’re responding to and a bit less composing the devastating replies, because an awful lot of the time you’re delivering knock-out blows to strawmen.

This goes both ways; I have stopped counting the times I had to point out that I never actually claimed that science was the only way of generating knowledge. Indeed we are going so much in circles that I have resolved to bow out after this.

Have you tried your “superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings” approach? It seems to me that Lee’s approach would be a hell of a lot more acceptable – it would only require a couple of tweaks (“Brothers, I say to you that the most important part of being a Christian is the experience of something that actually takes place in human life…”).

It is worth a try, but here again the argument that is also being completely ignored whoever often I make it: The liberal believer who accepts that belief (e.g. in the mercifulness of the universe) can be based on pure faith in the face of contrary evidence has already thrown away all argumentative tools that would enable one to convince a fundamentalist believer that their pure faith-based conviction that god wants homosexuals to die is wrong. Perhaps more importantly, once the nice believer has raised their child to form their beliefs based on a holy book containing atrocities, on faith, on following the authority of the nice neighborhood mullah, etc., they have raised them to be easy prey for less benign authorities.

How is that more arrogant than claiming that both the billions and the liberal theologians are flat wrong?

We all tentatively believe we are right about any opinion we hold at a given time, by definition, otherwise we would not hold it. I apparently have misunderstood Lee, considering her own reaction. But more generally, yes, there is a difference between believing that many people have wrong beliefs (and, considering that all religions are mutually incompatible and no religion has even just 50% of the world population as followers, this would be a logical necessity even if one religion were right) on the one hand and believing, for example, that I and my sect are the select of the creator of the entire cosmos, that I and my sect alone know what said creator wants, or even just that this entire cosmos in all its size, age and deep evolutionary history has been created with humans in mind. In a race for the greatest arrogance and hubris it is not the rationalists you want to put your money on.

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Niall McAuley 10.09.12 at 8:43 am

Eagleton likewise uses a category dismissal on Dawkins: Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration.

And Eagleton says that this is an error since it ignores faith and transcendence and the Loch Ness monster.

Or something like that.

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Greg 10.09.12 at 9:16 am

Alex SL, I don’t want to speak for Lee but I don’t think you’re reading him very well. It’s a blog comment section, it happens.

Firstly, I think the point about claiming religion is not a doctrine is to try to emphasise that these emotional / psychological / whatever transformations actually do take place in people, and religion is what we have ended up with as a language to talk about these things. It may or may not be a crappy language, but the challenge is to find something better. Explaining these transformations away does not work and is not going to cut it.

Your point is that this is not what most religious people actually believe, that doctrine is alive and well and running people’s lives. That’s true of course, but we have to make the distinction between the subject of people’s belief and the belief itself: its nature and function (the OP is after all about “the inner life of belief”).

Secondly, this is not to say that these transformations take place in everybody, or that anybody is less human for not experiencing them. Nobody is being dehumanised here as far as I can see (the reference to jumping out of oneself was clearly a description of what theists do, not atheists).

Elsewhere you have characterised the practice of religion as “superstition, wishful thinking, blind allegiance to authority and tradition, herd mentality and gut feelings.” To this list I would argue you need to add belief; I think it is categorically different from those things you have listed and has much more positive aspects.

This has been a great, productive and interesting thread that has totally hijacked my afternoon and the next morning, thanks to everybody for getting stuck in.

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Greg 10.09.12 at 9:36 am

“[by supporting faith you have] …thrown away any argumentative tools that would enable one to convince a fundamentalist believer that their pure faith-based conviction that god wants homosexuals to die is wrong.”

If god doesn’t exist, whether or not homosexuals (or anyone else) should live or die is still up for grabs. In other words, you haven’t thrown anything away: you have to make the moral case whether or not you refer to god in your arguments.

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Phil 10.09.12 at 10:09 am

yes, there is a difference between believing that many people have wrong beliefs (and, considering that all religions are mutually incompatible and no religion has even just 50% of the world population as followers, this would be a logical necessity even if one religion were right) on the one hand and believing, for example, that I and my sect are the select of the creator of the entire cosmos, that I and my sect alone know what said creator wants, or even just that this entire cosmos in all its size, age and deep evolutionary history has been created with humans in mind.

Which, again, is a nice (and rather lengthy) knock-down argument against something nobody’s said, complete with negative stereotyping of religion. (When did this idea that ostentatious hostility is a good debating tactic get about?)

But we clearly are talking past each other, because I’m convinced I’ve answered “the argument that is also being completely ignored whoever often I make it” at least once already. Here goes again:

The liberal believer who accepts that belief (e.g. in the mercifulness of the universe) can be based on pure faith in the face of contrary evidence has already thrown away all argumentative tools that would enable one to convince a fundamentalist believer that their pure faith-based conviction that god wants homosexuals to die is wrong.

Simply: the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

L: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
H: No, he didn’t.
L: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

Niall – Eagleton isn’t dismissing scientific enquiry, merely the possibility of dismissing theological knowledge on the basis of scientific enquiry. It’s not so much a category dismissal as a categorical category dismissal dismissal.

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reason 10.09.12 at 10:11 am

Phil @226
“My point all along has been that God isn’t an empirically testable proposition,”

I’m sort of curious about this view. What God are you talking about here – is it by definition not testable? Or is it just that it exists outside the physical world and never systematically interferes with the real world. (So you are assuming a non-physical world exists). I mean there have been empirically tests made (for instance if prayer helps the sick – I think the answer is only if the sick no about it – so it is indistinguishable from human support).

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reason 10.09.12 at 10:17 am

I think I need help from believers here – I have trouble with the concept of “belief” itself. When I talk about “belief” as a non-religious type, I mean something I hold to be likely true OR I mean a sort of base confidence (like a losing tennis player who believes he can get back into the match). In both cases, I accept fundamentally that I might be wrong – but are still willing to act in the hope that my “faith” is justified.

Is this what you mean too?

Or is it as I fear, a fundamental mixing up of the words “idea” and “identity”, where part of your identity is bound up in the acceptance of a particular idea. And you have to give up your identity to reject the idea?

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Phil 10.09.12 at 10:42 am

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.

As for what faith is, as I said at 83 I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

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faustusnotes 10.09.12 at 10:48 am

It’s worth bearing in mind that much of the debate here is deeply entangled with western ideas about reason and faith, and the history of the western churches rather than the content of their teachings. I think some of my Japanese friends would look on this debate with a kind of confused wonder, because the terms of the debate are so completely alien to their approach to “belief” and reason.

For example I had a long discussion with a friend – a pharmacologist – about her annual pilgrimage to her family’s grave (ohakamairi). This pilgrimage is intimately connected with Japanese notions of cultural continuity, custodianship of land, and ancestral responsibilities, and she is quite serious about it. But when I asked her what would happen if she pissed off her ancestors by not engaging in these practices, she looked at me like I was completely stupid for thinking her ancestor’s ghosts were real – and pretty much said so. The idea that her “belief” requires acceptance of fantasies is not something she’s familiar with, but she doesn’t analyze her religious practices in terms of cultural continuity or any of that bunk either. It’s just something she does.

On the other hand, I have friends who describe themselves as “not religious” but who would never dream of disrespecting a shrine, buy Shinto talismans for their cars, always pray at temples, go on temple tours, and always visit a shrine at new year. When I point this out to them they find the idea that they might be religious quite strange and surprising – almost quaint.

I guess much of the debate in the West about religion is really just a cover for posturing about religion’s historical wrongs, and doesn’t really reflect any genuine horror people have that someone might actually believe in an invisible sky fairy. Such belief doesn’t say anything about one’s critical faculties or maturity, but provides a very convenient hook for the New Atheists to attack the institution of the church – and, I would say, to try and pry followers away from the church by insulting their intellect (which isn’t going to work). Indeed, I’d feel much safer letting my kids hang around someone who cleans their parents’ grave lest they infuriate their ancestors, than around an atheist who doesn’t vaccinate their children…

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reason 10.09.12 at 11:06 am

Phil, @268
I’m not sure whether your answer represents your own, or your interpretation of other people’s views, but for an intellectual it seems odd. Look at John Quiggin’s response to the CSL argument.

Think about for instance acupuncture. I might think acupuncture works without accepting all the mumbo jumbo (and proven mumbo-jumbo) about meridians. Because things are packaged together doesn’t mean that if one part is true all of it must be.

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reason 10.09.12 at 11:17 am

faustusnotes,
a lot of religions “historical wrongs” are very much present. Hence the anger. Don’t pretend that the religious right in America (not to mention the middle East) doesn’t represent a great and present danger.

Yes, I agree a lot written by “new” atheists comes across as immature. But read this:
http://www.monbiot.com/2004/04/20/apocalypse-please/

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Phil 10.09.12 at 11:34 am

reason – it’s not my own way of thinking, but I think it could be; I think it’s a legitimate way of proceeding. But no, it doesn’t entail pulling a lever and switching from reasoned scepticism to unquestioning belief – far from it. CS Lewis’s argument is absurd (as I said myself up above) because he’s trying to use logic to substitute for a leap of faith, while also specifying how far the leap needs to reach. I much prefer the Bishop of Durham’s comments, cited above, that belief in a physical resurrection isn’t fundamental, because the resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”.

As for the acupuncture example, I think there’s a big difference between dipping into a social practice and committing to it. I suspect that anyone using traditional Chinese medicine on a regular basis and mixing with fellow users would rapidly start thinking there was something going on there. (Wrongly, AFAICS, but there you go.)

On the religious right, what I still don’t understand is why people who oppose them don’t concentrate on attacking them instead of attacking religion tout court. Broadening the fight like this seems like a distraction at best and counter-productive at worst – Gould was a Christian and a militant opponent of creationism, remember.

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reason 10.09.12 at 11:47 am

Phil,
are you sure Steven Jay Gould was a Christian. I can find no evidence of it on the web.

But I did find this:
http://www.celebatheists.com/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould

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bob mcmanus 10.09.12 at 1:10 pm

269:This. And my feeling is that much, if not most paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were ritual and “practice religions” for most of their history. And remain so for most people. In some cases, profession (confession) of dogma is part of the practice.

Let’s say I throw salt over my left shoulder after spilling it. When asked, I say it prevents bad luck. When asked if I “really believe that” I say no. When asked again why I do it, I say it prevents bad luck. Poor rationalists are spinning like tops but I’m ok fine.

Historicizing when religion and “faith” as what, some kind of personal individual self-perception as a subject in relation to a proposition or set of propositions would be interesting, since I think it is an early modern phenomenon and precisely coincident with the rise of “science.”

The question from me for the fervent is “Why so serious?” And I am something of a Nietzschean, existentialist, and yes nihilist in that the justifications of actions are nearly irrelevant compared to the actions themselves. People waste so much time justifying, as if some Nobodaddy was grading them on their consequentialist arguments instead of on their kindness.

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Consumatopia 10.09.12 at 1:24 pm

I’m not a materialist at all–I believe in immaterial qualia. I can’t rule out that other people might have experiences that reveal the truth of something I can’t know. I also don’t think it’s crazy to believe something because other people you trust believe it. Personal experience and social heuristics aren’t necessarily anti-rational. I think that most religious believers reach their faith by one of these two processes.

And I can’t refute the idea that it makes sense to believe a “noble lie” because it makes you feel or act better, even if I think that’s dangerous[1].

But, this passage by Lee A. Arnold really irritates me.

So the next question is, what framework do you offer instead, to replace this “Christianity” (read: “a religious experience of some genuine type”, read: Buddhism or Judaism or Islam or whatever, a thing that perhaps YOU don’t like or need so much), to help people who still need help? If you insist that religion is not the answer, you had better have an alternative ready. Could you even identify these people and select them for treatment efficiently? I rather doubt it. Are you going to pay for everyone in despair to go see a psychoanalyst? (I.e., someone using a different set of ontological categories which are themselves partial and inaccurate and open to revision? “Freudianism”, anyone?) Which doesn’t always work, either?

We don’t have the resources to identify everyone who would be psychologically worse off if they were never brought up as children to believe their particular religious truths and practices. Nor do we have the resources to identify everyone who would be better off. Since I suspect I fall into the latter category, I resent that your concern is so asymmetric.

re: the right-wing. If you hand impressionable people copies of a book you claim is the word of God, and that book contains the first chapter of Romans, then it’s not entirely their fault that they believe bigoted things towards homosexuals. I can’t know whether the world would be better or worse off without the Bible, but I wish that book came with warning labels, and people singing the praises of Christianity would speed read the fine print of possible side-effects like American pharmaceutical commercials.

[1] I can’t refute the idea, but I also don’t think it’s particularly common–most believers I’ve met, and I come from a religious background so I know some believers very closely, genuinely do think that there’s at least a good chance that their religious creeds are literally true. They are not just rituals or practices disconnected from beliefs about what the world is and isn’t, and the practitioners would take offense at anyone suggesting that they were. At the very least, people are hedging their bets-acting as if something is true because it might be true. The world isn’t England and Japan, and most of the world’s faith is unlike that described in this thread.

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rootless_e 10.09.12 at 1:43 pm

To this and all the other arguments along the lines of rationalism fails to provide this or that with 100% certainty: Okay, maybe that is so in some of the cases. But then the conclusion should be, “we don’t know because nobody knows because there is no way to know”, and not, “now let’s listen to what the theologian of this arbitrarily privileged sect claims to know based on his metaphorical interpretation of a bronze age myth.”

Nobody is asking you to listen to anyone’s theology. We’re simply objecting to your Victorian Era misunderstanding of science and your philistine mockery of other people’s beliefs. I’m particularly appalled by the crassness of this repeated “bronze age myth” gibberish. You may not be able to appreciate the sexual poetry of the Song of Solomon or grasp the moral insights about power in Isaiah or Judges, or even appreciate Handel’s Messiah, or Gilgamesh, or the Chronicles of the Han Historian, but that seems like illiteracy, not evidence of enlightenment.

BTW: since the 1850s, science has become a lot less enamored of the simple clockwork universe beloved by some Victorians. We know know that mathematics can’t be completely formalized, that big parts of physics seem to be knowable only via probabilities, that individual consciousness is not an atomic complete thing, and that the way we think is often far from rational. This is not mysticism or “post-modernism”, it’s science.

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bob mcmanus 10.09.12 at 1:46 pm

276:They are not just rituals or practices disconnected from beliefs

Sure they are. That consciousness determines behavior requires a pretty big leap of faith.

Hey, as a Nietzschean and Freudian, my first step is to say I do not know why people do the things they do, but that it is highly unlikely that people do what they do because (necessary and sufficient) they believe what they say they believe. It is much more likely that people believe what they say in order to disguise (even from themselves) the “real” reasons they do what they do. Whew.

Consciousness is a disease. The “will” is misperceived in representation.

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Earwig 10.09.12 at 1:58 pm

“Iraq war aside..”

Well, perhaps not completely aside:

“Saddam Hussein was, both as a secularist and a tyrant, widely despised in the Muslim world prior to the American invasion; and yet the reactions of most Muslims revealed that no matter what his crimes against the Iraqi people, against the Kuwaitis, and against the Iranians, the idea of an army of infidels occupying Baghdad simply could not be countenanced, no matter what humanitarian purpose it might serve.

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Consumatopia 10.09.12 at 2:03 pm

278: Hey, as a Nietzschean and Freudian, my first step is to say I do not know why people do the things they do, but that it is highly unlikely that people do what they do because (necessary and sufficient) they believe what they say they believe.

That’s not an unreasonable position. It’s worth noting, though, that quite a few of the believers I grew up with held Freud in particular disdain for exactly that. A friend of mine got a psychology degree from a Christian college. They weren’t very fond of Freud there.

280

Steve LaBonne 10.09.12 at 2:04 pm

You may not be able to appreciate the sexual poetry of the Song of Solomon or grasp the moral insights about power in Isaiah or Judges, or even appreciate Handel’s Messiah, or Gilgamesh, or the Chronicles of the Han Historian, but that seems like illiteracy, not evidence of enlightenment.

Look, this is plain horseshit. You’re talking here about appreciation of art, not of religion, and there is plenty of it among those do not countenance the kinds of claims for religion that you’ve been making.. Christ, there’s even been great religious art created by known unbelievers, eg. the Requiem Masses of Berlioz, Brahms, and Verdi.

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Steve LaBonne 10.09.12 at 2:08 pm

“I don’t care how much harm the Church has done as long as I can make use of its symbols in my poetry.” -Goethe

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bexley 10.09.12 at 2:24 pm

We know know that mathematics can’t be completely formalized…

nitpick
You mean there are true mathematical statements that can’t be proven under powerful enough systems of arithmetic.
/nitpick

… that individual consciousness is not an atomic complete thing

Not sure what you’re saying here.

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Guido Nius 10.09.12 at 2:39 pm

276: “They are not just rituals or practices disconnected from beliefs.”

The people who start from a belief typically found a new religion.

Following is a rather core concept of religion.

Nothing wrong with that. I’m atheistic and I have my rituals where I follow others. It is the sane thing to do to go with the flow on 99% of the cases. However, it is insane to get to a position where following is a requirement regardless of context and content.

284

faustusnotes 10.09.12 at 2:49 pm

Perhaps a different situation the CT crowd can better relate to … I know a lot of role-players from perfectly rational scientific backgrounds – scientists, engineers, programmers, economists – who still subscribe to the gambler’s fallacy, have lucky dice, have particular dice they cling to, or change dice when they’re having a bad run. This would be bad enough if the game were purely random, but it’s not: I’m the GM and anyone with any sense knows that I’m fudging shit left, right and centre. But they still put all those superstitions into play. This is cross-cultural too: Japanese gamers do it too, even though they’re actually quite sophisticated gamblers (at least, my mob were).

Yet another example: I’ve met almost zero people in my life who can properly balance risk. During Japan’s triple disaster, almost every foreigner in Tokyo did a runner, heading west or heading overseas, out of fear of radiation. A significant proportion of those people fleeing were either a) driving, or b) smokers. I recently had a friend ask me if the sea south of Tokyo was safe for surfing – but he drives to the coast. Yet he’s worried about radiation 300km from the nuclear plant.

Do we judge these people to be immature or incapable of basic analysis? If you go onto any leftwing blog you’ll have difficulty convincing a sizable proportion of its atheists that the risk assessments described above are wrong – because ooooo, radiation.

Pretty much everyone on earth is loaded down with superstitions. The reason that Xtianity is special is not its belief system, but its particularly fucked history of abuse of temporal power. But that history isn’t, first and foremost, due to the religion itself. And atheist aggro about the religion needs to recognize that.

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faustusnotes 10.09.12 at 2:51 pm

Guido Nuis, following is not a “core concept of religion.” It’s a core concept of christianity. In a lot of other religions, there are a wide range of choices of doctrine, and it’s acceptable to pick and choose between them. Don’t confuse “religion” and “fucked up christian shit.”

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Niall McAuley 10.09.12 at 2:53 pm

I think rootless_e is proposing a sort of God of the Gaps: There are true mathematical statements that can’t be proven, therefore Jesus. Physics is only knowable via probabilities, so the Council of Trent. Individual consciousness is not atomic, which leaves room for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

How cool would it be if individual consciousness was atomic, though, and I was the first one to learn to control it and shoot Gamma ray lasers out my ears?

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Steve LaBonne 10.09.12 at 2:58 pm

Steve LaBonne,
there are any number of arch atheists who are opposed to art, calling it. “an enemy of the people” etc

I have no idea what this gibberish is supposed to signify, but I’m pretty sure Savonarola wasn’t an atheist.

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rootless_e 10.09.12 at 3:01 pm

nitpick! Complain to David Hilbert, not me.

I mean that the Descartian notion of a conscious being has been shown to be a mythological construct, and that what we think we are thinking and why is often (most likely) some wrong post-hoc excuse. Our lives are careening pub crawls from delusion to delusion between brief moments of logic while all the elements we think of as “self” evolve without conscious control or knowledge. At least that’s what it feels like this morning.

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Seth 10.09.12 at 3:03 pm

I think it’s interesting that Dawkins is so often chosen as the foil for arguments against the New Atheists. Probably because he’s the most condescending of the leading figures. But I wonder if folks commenting here are equally familiar with Daniel Dennett’s views? For example, Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Henry Farrell, @244, John Quiggen, @259:

Sure CSL’s “liar or god” argument is silly. But it might be useful to think of it as the key ‘mutation’ in the viral meme-cluster called Christianity which accounts for its recent virulence. Not that Lewis necessarily was original or that every Christian somehow endorses that argument. But Lewis articulated a line of defense against the encroaching secular world which has been widely adopted at a population level.

The Gospels (at least in the King James translation) include a fascinating pair of “alleles” — two different versions of what purports to be similar remarks from Jesus. In Mark 9:40, we’re told “… he that is not against us is for us”, while Luke 11:23 has “He that is not with me is against me…”. A seemingly minor difference, and its plausible that both could be accurate accounts of what Jesus said (assuming Jesus existed, memories were accurate, etc.) But they express rather different ideas about how to approach the “undecideds”. Imagine presidential candidates who took each of these two attitudes towards ‘independent’ voters. The CSL ‘liar or god’ binary alternative is an expression of hostility toward the wishy-washiness of non-fundamentalists. Both attitudes have scriptural support, but how people behave — how they express Christianity — can go either way on a daily basis.

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Mao Cheng Ji 10.09.12 at 3:03 pm

278 “Consciousness is a disease. “

Galápagos!

“It is hard to believe nowadays that people could ever have been as brilliantly duplicitous as James Wait–until I remind myself that just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.

So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogram brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?

A second query: What source was there back then, save for our overelaborate nervous circuitry, for the evils we were seeing or hearing about simply everywhere?

My answer: There was no other source. This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos

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JW Mason 10.09.12 at 3:34 pm

I think that Durkheim didn’t claim that there was a “moral universe” in the religious sense, just that the people who praticed religion felt that way.

It’s a bit stronger than this — the point is that we exist as social beings as well as physical beings, and religion is a language for talking about this. As JJ says, it is simply true that we live in a world of powerful agencies that act according to choice and criteria of right and wrong, and not just mechanical causation; that have some qualities of persons but are not material and are in principle immortal; whose commands we treat as having moral force; and which we become conscious of at moments of deep feeling and in ritual settings. To think of this dimension of the world in terms of God or gods rather than society certainly distorts it, but that seems like a smaller error than not acknowledging it at all.

This, for what it’s worth, is one of Marx’s main points in the passage that includes the famous line about religion being the opium of the people:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. … Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

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JW Mason 10.09.12 at 3:50 pm

Niamh:

JJ, js, and a number of others: I really don’t think that you are writing about what Spufford means by religion, or God, at all, even if you wish he did.

I suppose I should be included in the “others” here. With due respect, I disagree. I think those of us taking the Durkheim-Weber-Marx-William James view of religion do have essentially the same conception of that Spufford does. Which I would summarize as: (1) Our existence as moral and social beings poses real, profound and unavoidable questions, which cannot be answered in terms of material reality and by science; (2) religion is a valid attempt to answer those questions, as opposed to an invalid attempt to answer questions about the material world (to the extent it seems to be the latter, it’s because metaphorical language has been misinterpreted, or because the religion has degenerated into superstition); and (3) religion is not only or mainly a set of propositions, but practices, collective identity, and feelings or experiences.

There’s a difference in language that comes from the fact that Spufford is looking at religion from the inside, while most (all?) of us on this thread are looking at it from the outside. But I don’t think the difference matters much. In AA, they like to say that “god” means “group of drunks.” That’s purely Durkeimian language. But it doesn’t in any way conflict with an awareness of the “trials of living that come to everyone in one form or another, including really tough experiences that test you to your limits and beyond,” still less with “the possibility of obtaining help, forgiveness, comfort, courage and so on, from outside your own resources.”

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 3:51 pm

Consumatopia #276: “We don’t have the resources to identify everyone who would be psychologically worse off if they were never brought up as children to believe their particular religious truths and practices. Nor do we have the resources to identify everyone who would be better off. Since I suspect I fall into the latter category, I resent that your concern is so asymmetric.”

I did not write that. I wrote that we don’t have the resources (nor the knowledge) to do anything like present an alternative, steady framework for people seeking succor or salvation from despair or consciousness of sin. What a religion may ALSO do, to children brought up in it, because it is an organized as an institutional way of life that may mislead its adherents, is a very different question. (And if you read all the way to the end of my comment, you will find I have no objection to criticizing it, and I frequently do criticize it… I was just talking to a very smart young gay man, happy to have escaped the hell-hole of his family in the Midwest US and come to Los Angeles to begin a life as a landscape architect, who fears his own mother. Imagine.) The discussion always has to separate the effects of organized religion, which can be horrible, from the genuine experience that some people need, and have, by applying the teaching of the religion to their own lives. I have no idea how to square that circle. (Except to advise rational scientists here, and elsewhere, to do a bit better in the observation and distinction department: it is, after all, their calling.)

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William Timberman 10.09.12 at 4:02 pm

JW Mason @ 294

I’m getting close to the end of Unapologetic — not all the way through, mind, so maybe I should state this provisionally: As far as I can tell, Spufford’s account of the purpose his religious faith serves for him, and Marx’s description of the purpose religious faith serves for people-in-general are virtually identical. All that’s different is the plus or minus sign accorded them by their authors. (I smell a little Nietzsche in the quote by Marx, too, which I suspect Spufford would consider arrogance. It would be nice if Spufford himself would drop by and set us all straight — or at least try to. Even if a significant number of commenters would still slink away muttering, I myself would like to hear from him.)

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JW Mason 10.09.12 at 4:18 pm

As far as I can tell, Spufford’s account of the purpose his religious faith serves for him, and Marx’s description of the purpose religious faith serves for people-in-general are virtually identical. All that’s different is the plus or minus sign accorded them by their authors.

Thanks. I’m glad to see my sense of him, based on the excerpt, was not completely off.

I might disagree a little on the idea that Marx sees religion as purely negative. I think, on the contrary, he sees it as absolutely necessary until we replace it with positive alternative practices for reconciling our life as autonomous moral beings with our existence in society. As long as we live under a system that treats human beings as things, and as long as social requirements seem to impinge on us as external, alien forces, something like religion is unavoidable. “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower,” etc.

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Consumatopia 10.09.12 at 4:45 pm

Lee A. Arnold, you wrote “If you insist that religion is not the answer, you had better have an alternative ready. ” You did not present any demand symmetric to this for those who insist that religion is the answer–that they deal with the problems created by religion.

Other than that. I don’t disagree with what you wrote @296. Only the asymmetry–if you believe that an institution makes the world worse more often than it makes things better then you need not present an alternative.

(Note that I personally am not asserting that religion makes the world worse or better).

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William Timberman 10.09.12 at 4:51 pm

JW Mason @ 298

This may be a bit provocative, but it seems to me I remember in one of the Hannibal Lecter stories, the author has him say: If you want to be as God is, you have to do as God does. In the context of Lecter’s predilections generally, this is as clever and chilling an inversion of the Imitatio Christi as one could possibly imagine.

Religion may indeed keep people unnecessarily passive in the face of arbitrarily imposed suffering (as opposed to suffering which is inherent in the human condition) but the Marxian (or Nietzschean) alternative — to live up to our potential, and accept responsibility for the things that we, rather than God, have now declared our power over, is a daunting prospect indeed. From now on, we’ll be the ones charged with making sure that the earth remains fruitful, the lion lies down with the lamb, the widows and orphans are succored, and justice annealed with mercy are dispensed. Ecstatic freedom from an oppressive concept of God is one thing, keeping all the balls in the air forever quite another thing entirely.

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Random Lurker 10.09.12 at 4:52 pm

@hannah 299
“The choice is between that and pure mechanism.”

The choice is between a concept of morals and rights, and a concept of mechanics. There is no inherent reason that the concept of moral and rights should be religious; in facts, I think that “religion” is a way to muddle the descriptive approach to the world [mechanichs] whith the normative/moral one.

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JanieM 10.09.12 at 4:59 pm

William @ 301 (4:51 pm) — you reminded me of this:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

How long ago and far away that seems! I need an infusion of…something.

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Seth 10.09.12 at 5:25 pm

LFC @242

“…I think there’s a lot of room on the spectrum between Jeffersonian deism and Biblical literalism.”

Yes they are ‘poles’ or endpoints on a spectrum. But I don’t know that there are a lot of logically consistent points along it. What would such a point be? “Yes I believe Jesus walked on water, but not that he turned water into wine?” Or do we distinguish among various metaphorical interpretations of the supernatural incidents? So where Jefferson was extreme by literally cutting them out of the text, a more moderate position would provide clever metaphorical readings of each such incident. Would each interpretation constitute a really different position? (Maybe so, if they started using those distinctions as pretexts for political fights — think homoousian v. homoiousian.)

Politically, of course, there are many intermediate positions. Just like there are lots of Republican anti-feminists who would take umbrage if any of the rights that strident feminists in earlier generations earned for them were about to be taken away (except perhaps abortion rights). People who ought logically to take Jefferson’s view might “deny him” (taking after St Peter) because they don’t want to take the heat for openly defending the real implications of a non-literal reading.

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Random Lurker 10.09.12 at 5:33 pm

@hannah 304
“Who says morality is based on rights?”

In facts, I would say that rights (and religions) are based on moralities (plural), and that moralities are based on the sense of belonging to a particular community.

Whether this can lead to a “absolute” morality or not is maybe a bit too much of a question for me, but this is a question which doesn’t necessariously need the belief in the supernatural to be solved.

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reason 10.09.12 at 5:47 pm

Seth
“Just like there are lots of Republican anti-feminists who would take umbrage if any of the rights that strident feminists in earlier generations earned for them were about to be taken away (except perhaps abortion rights).”

So long as it isn’t their daughter with an unwanted pregnancy.

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JW Mason 10.09.12 at 5:48 pm

Religion may indeed keep people unnecessarily passive in the face of arbitrarily imposed suffering (as opposed to suffering which is inherent in the human condition) but the Marxian (or Nietzschean) alternative — to live up to our potential, and accept responsibility for the things that we, rather than God, have now declared our power over, is a daunting prospect indeed. From now on, we’ll be the ones charged with making sure that the earth remains fruitful, the lion lies down with the lamb, the widows and orphans are succored, and justice annealed with mercy are dispensed.

This is very well put. Yes, that’s what’s at stake: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” (To quote a rather different revolutionary.)

I suppose, as someone suggested upthread, a negative answer to this question could be a link between this book and Red Plenty. But I sort of suspect the connection goes the other way — that Spufford was (imaginatively) drawn to the Soviet project for the same kinds of reasons he’s drawn to Christianity. Both are alternatives to the “cruel optimism” of liberalism; both speak to our sense of ourselves as conscious actors rather than animals or human capital.

It’s a funny shift — while Marxists and other anti-capitalist radicals used to share liberalism’s hostility toward religion, today they tend to be more sympathetic to it. (This is not just a Western phenomenon — see for instance Indian Marxist Achin Vanaik, who is a fierce critic of communalism, but who writes respectfully about the “ontological dilemma” that religion addresses and says that Marxists, while rejecting the religious answer, must openly admit that we do not yet have a satisfactory answer of our own.) It may be connected with doubts about the extent to which capitalism really fosters broader consciousness and solidarity, and a corresponding interest in pre-capitalist forms of solidarity as a basis for mass politics. But this is wandering far from the topic.

Possibly connected, I like JanieM’s quote and suspect that if we had more of that kind of utopian counterculture today, we’d have less religion and also less anti-religion. It may be that both religious obscurantism and dogmatic materialism are reactions to a world where the domain of conscious, collective choice has dwindled.

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reason 10.09.12 at 5:51 pm

faustusnotes @285
It is well known that people have problems with probabilistic events. It seems our brains are causality seeking machines. The point being we should in this day and age have learnt to be skeptical of our natural tendencies, intelligent people like Spufford more than anybody.

But this explaination of superstition being the result of our causality bias, IS exactly what the new atheists are saying. It seems odd for a critic of them pointing it out.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 5:53 pm

Consumatopia @300: “You did not present any demand symmetric to this for those who insist that religion is the answer–that they deal with the problems created by religion.”

Name a problem. There are ecumenical outreaches, movements in Protestant churches to accept gays, reformed Judaism is enormously inclusive of everybody, Buddhism of course is entirely equanimous, the Vatican accepts the results of modern science and consistently warns of the dangers of capitalism and inequality, Hindus may war with Muslims but inside the religion there are so many different styles, sects, avatars and beliefs that it is hard not to think of Hinduism as the mother religion that already has all forms of experience within it.

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William Timberman 10.09.12 at 6:06 pm

JW Mason @ 308

Agree with you completely about the workings of Spufford’s humane intelligence. And what a miraculous writer he is into the bargain! I consider both of the books of his that I’ve read a real blessing, and I’m grateful to CT for pulling my coat to him. Also, JanieM’s reminder of Stewart Brand and the WEC brings back a lot of memories. Although I was always more of a Marxist (informal, non-Stalinist, in case any of DeLong’s liberal shock troops are listening in) than a back-to-the-land Utopian, I, and the friends of my misspent youth, used to read the WEC the way Nebraska sodbusters probably once read the Sears Roebuck catalog. A pleasant memory.

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Substance McGravitas 10.09.12 at 6:15 pm

Name a problem.

!!!

It’s easy to agree that a lot of religions answer a lot of things (to go back to Debt Graeber posits that various religions got interested in equitable financial arrangements in opposition to the predation of lenders and that Islam in particular was a social safety net for the poor that worked as well as anything else at the time) but where they create problems it is, again, on the basis of nothing. It’s fine for a relative of mine to have an AA-aided squishy belief in a higher power: it helps keep him off the sauce. It’s less fine when parents won’t let their kid get a blood transfusion because GOD or maybe they kill them during an exorcism or something. Also, war.

Hindus may war with Muslims but inside the religion there are so many different styles, sects, avatars and beliefs that it is hard not to think of Hinduism as the mother religion that already has all forms of experience within it.

Including godmen who convince villagers they have enough power to cure them of snakebites. Surprise! They don’t.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 6:53 pm

@312–We already know all this stuff, and we didn’t even have to read this thread! Try it the other way, since that is the basis of the complaint: 1) Name a way in which modern science is proposing to replace the functions of religion in any comprehensive manner. 2) Then, defend it. Address things like: Writing prescriptions for psych drugs like candy. Assumption of no long-term effects. Over-diagnosing attention deficit disorder among children. Requirements, competence, and monitoring of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. What the intellectual scientific framework of shrinkage really consists of. Location of ecstatic or transcendent experience in the discipline. How you propose to pay for it all.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 6:55 pm

J.W. Mason #308: “It’s a funny shift — while Marxists and other anti-capitalist radicals used to share liberalism’s hostility toward religion, today they tend to be more sympathetic to it.”

This reminds me of an interesting comment by Gregory Bateson, mentor to Stewart Brand and the WEC among many others, and perhaps apropos in more ways than one:

“Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions. It differs, however, from most other branches of human activity in that not only are the pathways of scientific thought determined by the presuppositions of the scientists but their goals are the testing and revision of old presuppositions and the creation of new.

“In the latter activity, it is clearly desirable (but not absolutely necessary) for the scientist to know consciously and be able to state his own presuppositions. It is also convenient and necessary to know the presuppositions of colleagues working in the same field. Above all, it is necessary for the reader of scientific matter to know the presuppositions of the writer.

“I have taught various branches of behavioral biology and cultural anthropology to American students, ranging from college freshmen to psychiatric residents, in various schools and teaching hospitals, and I have encountered a very strange gap in their thinking that springs from a lack of certain tools of thought. This lack is rather equally distributed at all levels of education, among students of both sexes and among humanists as well as scientists. Specifically, it is a lack of knowledge of the presuppositions not only of science but also of everyday life.

“That gap is, strangely, less conspicuous in two groups of students that might have been expected to contrast strongly with each other: the Catholics and the Marxists. Both groups have thought about or have been told a little about the last 2,500 years of human thought, and both groups have some recognition of the importance of philosophic, scientific, and epistemological presuppositions. Both groups are difficult to teach because they attach such great importance to “right” ["correct"] premises and presuppositions that heresy becomes for them a threat of excommunication. Naturally, anybody who feels excommunication to be a danger will devote some care to being conscious of his or her own presuppositions and will develop a sort of connoisseurship in these matters.

“Those who lack all idea that it is possible to be wrong can learn nothing except know-how.

“The subject matter of this book is notably close to the core of religion and to the core of scientific orthodoxy. The presuppositions–and most students need some instruction in what a presupposition looks like–are matters to be brought out into the open.

“There is however another difficulty, almost peculiar to the American scene. Americans are, no doubt, as rigid in their presuppositions as any other people (and as rigid in these matters as the writer of this book), but they have a strange response to any articulate statement of presupposition. Such statement is commonly assumed to be hostile or mocking or–and this is the most serious–is heard to be authoritarian.

“It thus happens that in this land founded for the freedom of religion, the teaching of religion is outlawed in the state educational system. Members of weakly religious families get, of course, no religious training from any source outside the family.

“Consequently, to make any statement of premise or presupposition in a formal and articulate way is to challenge the rather subtle resistance, not of contradiction, because the hearers do not know the contradictory premises nor how to state them, but of the cultivated deafness that children use to keep out the pronouncements of parents, teachers, and religious authorities.

“Be all that as it may, I believe in the importance of scientific presuppositions, in the notion that there are better and worse ways of constructing scientific theories, and insisting on the articulate statement of presuppositions so they may be improved…”

–Mind and Nature, a Necessary Unity, chapter 2.

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Substance McGravitas 10.09.12 at 7:14 pm

Try it the other way, since that is the basis of the complaint: 1) Name a way in which modern science is proposing to replace the functions of religion in any comprehensive manner.

Okay: it isn’t and it doesn’t matter, especially where people have enough security to do the things they like to do. Where I live fewer and fewer people believe and…they do other things, although I have to say faith in the local team is also a problem.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 7:41 pm

317: “…it doesn’t matter, especially where people have enough security to do the things they like to do. Where I live fewer and fewer people believe…”

You know that religion has proceeded along strongly in other geographic areas with “enough security”, for all sorts of reasons, for hundreds of years. I imagine that one of the reasons is that not all insecurity is caused outside of oneself. In the US, organized religious affiliation has tipped down in the polls, but “spirituality” and belief in angels still rocks along with about a 70% approval rating, and economic figures don’t much change it.

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niamh 10.09.12 at 7:56 pm

I think it’s great so many people have found this thread to be interesting and have been willing to contribute to it. I’m glad that, on the whole, it’s been really positive, across the variety of views and opinions that’ve been expressed.
Quite a few people have wanted to talk about faith and reason, or faith vs reason, and have raised questions about the nature of truth claims, and what the different kinds of judgment might be that we bring to bear to bear on different kinds of experiences and activities. I have really enjoyed the range of ideas expressed here, from those wishing to assert the primacy of scientific method in establishing sound knowledge, to those who raise questions about the starting point of any form of understanding.
But I was thinking about JW Mason’s point about convergences in explanation of religious ideas (295), and I imagine Spufford would think that it makes a big difference whether you view them from the outside or the inside.
After all, the point of his book is about the ‘emotional sense’ that Christianity can make.
I thought of saying something about the connection between ideas and what they mean in how a life is actually lived, but sure Wittgenstein says it better than I could, so why would I even try? I have no idea if Spufford would like this quote, but it seems quite relevant to me:

‘… one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life)… It says that wisdom is all cold; and that you can no more use it for setting your life to rights than you can forge iron when it is cold. The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you: you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. –But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction… Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a passion.’

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Substance McGravitas 10.09.12 at 8:09 pm

You know that religion has proceeded along strongly

Well, as opposed to the time when everyone was religious of necessity? The counterexample of replacement with whatever is out there and is also strong. I’m not a person who thinks religion is going away – those that need the itch scratched will scratch it I suppose and I hope they do it without hurting others – but it should be obvious to everyone that many many many people seem to do perfectly well without religion. In a way Spufford’s mushy C of E is an ideal replacement for a lot of religious practice: there’s a lot of giving in to social pressures, so sure, let’s have a C of E in every hamlet. That’s a political solution though, and not a scientific one, and maybe it’s not practical anyway: church attendance is about 2%, and it’s hard to think all the attendees believe.

In the US, organized religious affiliation has tipped down in the polls, but “spirituality” and belief in angels still rocks along with about a 70% approval rating, and economic figures don’t much change it.

The US is a fascinating place. I’ll never understand it, but I guess being from somewhere boring is a privilege.

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John Quiggin 10.09.12 at 8:39 pm

@Hannah “Art”, not “art”.

The claims about Art criticised in Art, an Enemy of The People, are very similar to those made by most religions, namely that there is a special category of people (prophets or artists) and a special category of activities (Religion or Art) which yield transcendent insights into the human condition, and which should be accorded special privileges over other people and other ways of finding meaning and enjoyment in life.

As I said above, I don’t have a problem with people finding meaning in an experience they call God, or if they find it in Mozart. But if they find it in cooking, I’m cool with that too.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.09.12 at 9:04 pm

@320 –About 2/3rds of Canadians still say they believe in God, so I’m not sure how rational you guys really are… Maybe if the US gets universal healthcare, the percentage will drop from over 90%.

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Substance McGravitas 10.09.12 at 9:31 pm

About 2/3rds of Canadians

It varies from place to place. My province has the highest percentage of nonbelievers, my city’s percentage is higher. But still, if even 33% of the people have no religion and we aren’t, uh, going crazy except for hockey games I’d say that the example of non-religion being fine is pretty strong. There’s a church for sale near my house, another beautiful one got turned into condos, and I don’t see a whole lot of replacing going on. (Obviously people can still be religious without those structures, but…I bet the meaning of that changes.)

My mom goes to a squishy church like Spufford and my daughter was an angel in the Christmas play there and had a great time. When that church stops being what it is – it’s not so full and there’s a lot of grey hair – there will be something else for people to do.

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LFC 10.09.12 at 9:41 pm

Seth @305

Re your reply to my remark at 242: you may be right. Unfortunately I don’t have the time or inclination [or knowledge, but this being the interwebs I guess we can put that to one side] to get into a discussion about Deism and Christianity, etc., so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it at that.

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Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

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Phil 10.09.12 at 11:15 pm

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) -

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. (And we’re back in the world of Red Plenty, or not far from it.)

The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

(Yes, it’s late and I’m tired, but that last statement is less nonsensical than it might appear.)

320

Malloy 10.09.12 at 11:38 pm

The “emotional sense” Spufford is speaking of is this is the only real power religion has to “persuade” anyone that there is “personal or benign” meaning in the universe. Why we modern humans are throwing out the “emotional sense” of religion along with its obvious historical baggage is what I think Spufford is giving a good hard look at. And if we do throw this out, is there something fundamental we are missing that a belief in science cant provide ? I look forward to reading his book and would hope the new atheists would read the book and ask themselves what “emotional sense” can we provide to our believers.

321

Omega Centauri 10.10.12 at 2:35 am

I’ve started mulling over a framework for religion, as a roleplaying game that we choose to join. We get together with a group of people, and agree on some set of rules (theology, which we pretend is true) for how our particular universe within a universe works. Then we start living life, as if those arbitrary rules are real. We used to play mini games like this as kids. Then if we like the lifestyle this particular game engendered better than what we had before, we stick with it. I know its incomplete, but as a different framework from which to view the subject, perhaps there’s some merit in exploring it.

322

Man Kay 10.10.12 at 2:41 am

Shorter Spufford: “I, like everyone else, find it psychologically healthy — nay, unavoidable– to use metaphors when reviewing and dealing with many parts of my everyday life. Like everyone, I use metaphors in concrete ways when trying to apply them. I, and many, many others, select some of my metaphors from one of those loose bundles of same called religions. Here’s how that works for me.”

Shorter Crooked Timber commentariat: [comprehensively misses the point.] Most take Spufford’s book for a dog whistle. Psychological public health, alternate ways and means of ensuring, are undiscussed. (Yes, I saw the mention of drugs.) “The pragmatic case for religious belief … seems … difficult to put.” Sheesh! Epistemic closure anyone?

323

GiT 10.10.12 at 4:05 am

In religion you forget you’re playing pretend?

324

GiT 10.10.12 at 4:23 am

I posted this earlier but I don’t think the post went through.

It’s a rather serendipitous blog post from NewApps (I blame divine intervention) on religious beliefs as facts vs as preferences.

Surprise surprise, we actually have *facts* about how people tend to view religious beliefs.

I’ll quote:

“In sum, concerning matters of religion, the participants were not entirely subjectivist or entirely objectivist, but intuitively regarded such beliefs to fall somewhere in between subjective preference and objective knowledge of facts. These results conform well with Paul Harris’ earlier research on how children regard religious testimony. Even young children (age 5) seem to think that religious testimony is different from factual testimony. They are, for instance, more confident that germs exist than that angels exist (even religious children), despite the fact that both are invisible, and that both are learned about through testimony.”

Some other relevant speculative points:

“Attempts to incorporate fictionalism into religious practice, such as the Anglican Sea of Faith, have met only with limited success.”

“It would be interesting to replicate Heiphetz et al.’s study with people from rather isolated, religious communities, like the Amish. My prediction is that people from such communities would regard religious beliefs as more fact-like than preference-like.”

“I think that this understanding of religious beliefs as not entirely fact-like is a recent development in western culture, of say, the past 200-300 years.”

http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/10/religious-beliefs-matter-of-fact-or-of-preference.html

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garymar 10.10.12 at 4:26 am

“Spufford’s mushy C of E”
“goes to squishy church like Spufford”
“inflatable Stonehenge”

It won’t fit into this thread, but I’d really like to see some discussions firmly anchored on the religious life as it is lived in the C of E, with actual Anglicans — oh never mind, Google is my friend. Found lots.

326

GiT 10.10.12 at 4:39 am

And a tackle in football still hurts.

One does plenty of real things while participating in fictions.

327

GiT 10.10.12 at 4:52 am

And what exactly is inappropriate about it? I wasn’t making an analogy about severity. What is your point?

328

Meredith 10.10.12 at 4:53 am

Feels like this post invokes (provokes) a lifetime of reading to do (good thing). Might I suggest Kenneth Burke? (god-terms as omni-present, the condition of thinking/knowing/being)
I’d just go for lots of “literary” texts, but I don’t want to seem to be invoking ART. Rational engineers marrying “intuitive” women. All that. Tedious.
Now, having set aside Horace, to return to Carl Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. (Which is what matters. We’re all always already fielding, aren’t we? When we’re not at the plate.)
I also love the smell of waxed pews. Go figure. Play ball.

329

Bruce Wilder 10.10.12 at 5:19 am

GiT @ 331

Historically, in the course of the Enlightenment, there actually was a moment of enlightenment, in which the common and shared understanding of causality and the relationship of fact to meaning, and meaning to the landscape, so to speak, changed, markedly. Before that moment of enlightenment, people seemed to find the notion of miracles plausible, but more than that, they found the notion of powerful witches doing Satan’s work, plausible enough to motivate legal proceedings and lethal penalties. They found the idea of going to war over theological distinctions, “reasonable” or, I guess you could say, plausible. Blasphemy could so arouse people, that it seemed reasonable to hang someone for it — really, for something we would regard, perhaps, as a joke in questionable taste. Reputable scientists found astrology plausible. Stephen Jay Gould told an anecdote about students playing a practical joke on a professor, by faking a “fossil” inscription and letting him discover it; the older generation found the idea of a fossil inscription — literally a meaningful phrase — plausible, because they expected to find meaning in nature, literally. And, they took such meanings so seriously, as to hang witches and blasphemers. And, then, they didn’t. In less than a single generation, enlightenment arrived, and people revised their consensus reality, radically, from a religious to a secular standard.

A “real” religious understanding of “facts” and of meanings in the world, of the sort held as late as the 17th century, is simply not available to us, I think. Even religious people can not exempt themselves from the enlightenment of the Enlightenment; it affects consensus reality even for the deeply pious.

For many religious people, today, the pragmatic grounds of community, shared identity, tradition, righteous and moral purpose, matter more than the fact-like theological tenets of the faith, and few know, let alone care about the latter. Religion is about self-consciously preserving a sub-culture.

I wouldn’t say that the modern European Enlightenment was entirely a novelty in human cultural history. The fascination with what we have of the ancient Greek and Roman world rests in large part on the echoes we hear of a secular, disenchanted understanding of the world. And, the major religions of South and East Asia have an entirely different character from the Judaic-Christian-Islamic traditions. Whatever this religious thing is, it is not some immutable tendency written deep in the genetic code.

Even if surveys show seemingly overwhelming majorities professing some religious faith, that faith is a thin, homeopathic soup, distilled from the historic shadow of religious faith, which ceased to grip the population, nearly 300 years ago. Many may wish, say, that the world really was like it is in Left Behind novels, but, however fervent the effort, it is not possible to bake in the belief, now that the kiln has been broken.

330

Hidari 10.10.12 at 5:28 am

I don’t know what relevance this has to the specıfıcs of the debate, although there are obvıous lınks to the Wittgenstein quote and the debate about whether relıgıon ıs best seen as a belıef system or a “famıly” of shared socıal practıces, but I should poınt out that there ıs a bıg debate about what the word “faıth” actually means ın Chrıstıanıty. It’s certaınly true that one ınterpretatıon ıs what one mıght term the “orthodox” vıew ıe “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”; ıe for that whıch we don’t have logıcal or scıentıfıc evıdence, we ‘have’ faıth. And thıs ıs generally how the New Atheısts ınterpret ıt.

But another vıew ıs that the actual Greek word “pi’stis” ıs best translated as “faithfulness” ınstead. In other words ıt has stronger connotatıons of commıtment and a socıal bond. Sımılar to when your husband-wıfe asks you “have you been faıthful to me” s/he ıs not askıng whether s/he belıeves s/he exısts or not. It’s a statement of a socıal bond or commıtment. And obvıously dıfferent schools of Chrıstıanıty have dıfferent vıews about thıs.

So the seemıng antınomy between faıth and reason mıght not be as strong as people thınk.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_in_Christianity

331

Hidari 10.10.12 at 5:29 am

“Sımılar to when your husband-wıfe asks you “have you been faıthful to me” s/he ıs not askıng whether you belıeve s/he exısts or not.”

That sentence should read.

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JW Mason 10.10.12 at 6:19 am

they found the notion of powerful witches doing Satan’s work, plausible enough to motivate legal proceedings and lethal penalties.

I read an account of the witchcraft hysteria ago that I found quite compelling, which unfortunately I can’t now track down. Anyway, the argument was that the rational core of witchcraft trials was the breakdown of village solidarity.

Traditionally, people had felt a strong obligation to support members of the community unable to provide for themselves, typically meaning elderly widows. In the early modern period, the opening-up of village economies and spread of acquisitive individualism made it harder to sustain these norms. But people’s actual behavior and sense of how they ought to behave did not change in sync, and so even as people now found good reason not to share their harvest with the widow down the road, on some level they still “knew” they ought to. The resulting feelings of discomfort and guilt they very reasonably attributed tot the widow, since after all if she weren’t doing *something* (even just sitting around being hungry) the feelings wouldn’t exist. It is then a very short step from “because of some real but invisible tie between me and this old woman, I am experiencing something bad” to “this old woman is invisibly doing something bad to me.” And then to accuse her of witchcraft.

This has the ring of truth to me. There’s no one we hate as much as the person we know we have wronged, and it’s the most natural thing int he world to hypostatize that knowledge into an attack by them on us.

On the other hand, if you look at the Malleus Maleficarum (time-sink warning: it’s weirdly fascinating) you will find lots of scenarios like, I realized my daughter was a witch when I couldn’t stop having sexual thoughts about her. So while I feel confident that much if not all of historical belief in witchcraft was based on assigning moral responsibility for men’s emotional responses to women to those women, and then treating their responsibility as criminal, and, superstitiously, as a material fact, the emotions involved were evidently broader than village solidarity.

What I don’t believe is that people were more irrational in 1600 and are less irrational today. After all, it’s barely 20 years since we in the US were arresting and imprisoning people on hardly more plausible charges of satanic rituals.

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William Timberman 10.10.12 at 6:24 am

Bruce Wilder @ 338

Your description of the reduced state of religion since the Enlightenment pried us loose from its grasp threw up two memories, the first from Lawrence of Arabia.

Prince Feisal to Lawrence:

I think you are another of these desert-loving English. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.

The second comes from I’m not sure where, as Google is being uncooperative tonight. It was something about the English garden signifying that it isn’t until we emancipate ourselves from Nature, and in fact subdue it, that it appears reincarnated as a concept, and, of course, forever after haunts us. This sounds like Foucault, but it might have been Ruskin, for all I know. I honestly can’t remember. Maybe you or someone else here can identify the source. (Or maybe tell me that no such observation or source exists, and I dreamed it, who knows?)

Anyway, religion these days does often seem to be either a nostalgic art form, or as practiced by Spufford, a sort of therapy, or, conversely a frenzied attempt to recreate a reality that’s been lost, as in the resurrection of the Sun Dance, or of Hebrew. Frankly, I don’t think this sort of thing ever works. The longer human beings are around, and continue to remember things, the more human consciousness becomes like a kind of layer cake. We emerge from something, celebrate our release, and then immediately turn and put the thing back in our pocket for future, as yet to be determined uses. Which makes us very weird animals indeed, I think.

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Rob 10.10.12 at 6:29 am

Hidari, your comment:

“It’s certaınly true that one ınterpretatıon ıs what one mıght term the “orthodox” vıew ıe “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”; ıe for that whıch we don’t have logıcal or scıentıfıc evıdence, we ‘have’ faıth. And thıs ıs generally how the New Atheısts ınterpret ıt.”

I would not characterize the “orthodox” view of Hebrews 11:1 as a commitment to non-rational, science-defying hope. It’s not as if orthodoxy retroactively defined itself to accomodate the Enlightenment’s territorialization of Reason. Most believers have a reason or two for believing what they do, even if they aren’t formalized for others to debate. And orthodoxy doesn’t throw Aquinas out the window.

That said, I agree with your second definition and it’d be good if people incorporated it into their discussions more. Thank you.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 6:29 am

“Spufford’s mushy C of E”
“goes to squishy church like Spufford”
“inflatable Stonehenge”

One of these things is not like the others.

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William Timberman 10.10.12 at 6:36 am

Addendum: Another metaphor suggests itself, oddly enough a biblical one. We have indeed eaten from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Ain’t no going back after that, I think. Not really, and no amount of sound and fury can make it otherwise, although a general amnesia might.

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garymar 10.10.12 at 7:31 am

One of these things is not like the other.

Well, a mad Christian like Bruce Charlton might argue that they are alike: Religious Entities, Slowly Losing Air.

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Niall McAuley 10.10.12 at 7:59 am

GiT @#331 quotes (from somewhere): “I think that this understanding of religious beliefs as not entirely fact-like is a recent development in western culture, of say, the past 200-300 years.”

In some parts of western culture, such as my brain, it never developed at all.

Back when I was “religious”, I believed in God in exactly same way I believed in Australia and Santy Claus, and for the same reason: people I had reason to trust told me they existed. I later decided they were wrong about God, right about Australia and kidding about Santy.

But it never occurred to me to wonder if Australia was really just a facet of my existential reaction to the law of gravity and emotional engagement with kangaroos as a symbol that gravity can be (very temporarily) overcome by going “boingggg!”.

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GiT 10.10.12 at 8:04 am

The quote is from the link at the base of the post.

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Random Lurker 10.10.12 at 8:52 am

@Bruce Wilder 338, JW Mason 341

Some time ago I read “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe”, by B. Levack.
Some interesting notions I got from the book are that:

a) the actual witch-hunts happened mostly during the wars between Catholics and Protestants, and mostly in those part of Europe where there was a patchwork of Protestants and Catholics. Spain, for example, was fully Catholic, and had no witch-hunt. Italy had only one witch-hunt, and during the repression of the Waldensians (or some other heresy, I don’t remember). In central Europe, between France and Germany, there was a patchwork of Protestants, witch-hunting was a bipartisan common hobby.

b) “witches” were not usually seen as single pratictioners, but as groups of tens of pratictioners, a sort of satanist church.

c) (also known from other books) the notion of the old lady who hexes people is older than the witch-hunts, but during the high middle ages the Church assas dogma that witches had no powers (though Satan could persuade them that they had). Thus witch killing was a civil occupation not supported by the Church. In this stage there were (civil) witch trials, but no widespread witch huts. Later Catholic dogma (and, I suppose, Protestant doctrine) changed, and the witch was seen to have real powers – but at that point we are speaking of the idea of groups of witches, not of the old lady with hexes.

From this, it seems to me that witch-hunts were a projection of the wars between Catholics and Protestants, and that witchcraft was seen as a sort of “satanist heresy”.
It seems also to me that the wars between Catholics and Protestants were a lot about self perception, group affiliation, and the perception of “justice” (since the state at the time was quite theocratic, obviously for the Cathoclics but IMHO implicitly also for the Protestants).

I think that the idea that moral, state, and church are three different things is quite recent, and that the “normal” state of things is a sort of theocracy, so that religion, moral and law are quite the same thing.
So when we are speaking of religion in the modern sense, we are speaking of a rather different beast than “religion” in general, and that the modern private form of religion is a very frail act of balance, so that we have often returns of the older religion-whith-positive-law (fundamentalism) or a derive to atheism.

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ajay 10.10.12 at 9:22 am

the actual witch-hunts happened mostly during the wars between Catholics and Protestants, and mostly in those part of Europe where there was a patchwork of Protestants and Catholics. Spain, for example, was fully Catholic, and had no witch-hunt.

Probably too busy dealing with the true threat to King and Church, the terrifying menace of “people who looked as though they might be a bit Jewish”.

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Peter T 10.10.12 at 10:20 am

Just a note:
I have met two “saints” – people of whom you could not conceive doing a bad thing – as wholly good as a cat is wholly a cat. Their state of grace was immediately obvious, and impossible not to respond to. Both were religious (on a Buddhist, the other a Hindu). Whatever had enabled them to reach this state, it was not just a subjective, inner experience – it radiated to those around them. But I would not seek to explain it “rationally”; that would be like explaining one’s response to a piece of music.

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Random Lurker 10.10.12 at 10:21 am

@ajay 352
Yes.
I wasn’t trying to imply that the Spanish Catholic Church was in some way morally superior to witch-hunts.

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lurker 10.10.12 at 10:52 am

‘mostly in those part of Europe where there was a patchwork of Protestants and Catholics. Spain, for example, was fully Catholic, and had no witch-hunt.’ (Random Lurker, 351)
IIRC the Spanish Inquisition found (after one unfortunate outbreak in Basque country) that if you allowed torture, anonymous denunciations and denunciations by the already accused witches, you got a runaway witch-hunt. So they disallowed all of those in cases of alleged witchcraft in order to focus on real enemies like heretics, Jews and Muslims. They were rational professionals.
A patchwork equals a weak government that could not enforce its favourite religion. A strong government could both suppress heresy and control its population, no matter how hysterical they got.

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Katherine 10.10.12 at 10:52 am

I’m curious, does Spufford say anywhere in his book that he believes the existence of an all mighty, all powerful etc God, as roughly outlined in the Bible, and that Jesus was the son of God etc etc?

The descriptions of the functions of religion I’m reading here seem to posit religion as a sort of social club. I’m all for social clubs, but one doesn’t have to believe in something extraordinary to be a part of one. Nor does one have to believe all other social clubs are wrong wrong wrong to be part of one.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 11:06 am

Nor does one have to believe all other social clubs are wrong wrong wrong to be part of one.

Nor does one have to believe that all other religions are wrong wrong wrong to be a Christian. Some Christians do, admittedly, but I wouldn’t blame the religion – some members of non-religious social clubs (political parties, football clubs etc) have fairly strong views about members of other social clubs.

does Spufford say anywhere in his book that he believes the existence of an all mighty, all powerful etc God, as roughly outlined in the Bible

I don’t know, not having read it, but he does say

“I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions.”

Emphasis added. Which sounds to me as if religion for Spufford is primarily about the community and the sense of the numinous, and secondarily about truth-claims. See also my comment #83 and this long post which I know I’ve linked to several times already, but which I really do recommend to anyone still reading this thread, as it goes into all this stuff at some length, with added jokes and musical interludes and contemporary art and astrophysics.

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mds 10.10.12 at 1:14 pm

“Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed,”

Well, then, unless he’s attending an extremely unusual Anglican congregation which repudiates the First Council of Nicaea, that pretty much indicates he does his best to mean that there is an all mighty, all powerful etc God, as roughly outlined in the Bible, and that Jesus was the son of God etc etc. Because if one doesn’t believe that, why is one an “orthodox” Christian at all? A branch of the Britain Yearly Meeting is that-a-way, and presumably there is Unitarian Universalism available. This wouldn’t necessarily mean that he could worship in his local community, but then that goes back to the “social club” element. The fellowship provided by coffee hour, hymn singing and the like comes wrapped in religious observance primarily by historical default.

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reason 10.10.12 at 1:40 pm

Omega Centauri @329
At last a comment I can relate to! Yes your on the right track.

On this tack, then of course the problems arise when people forget that it is a game, and that they can choose to stop playing. Somehow, that seems strangely reminiscent of the theme of a lot of modern movies.

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reason 10.10.12 at 1:47 pm

Talking about football, I suppose the closest I can come to religious experience is the experience of being in a crowd at a football (soccer) game (I’ve also been to rugby and aussie rules – but its not the same). The thing is goals are very rare, and they seem often to come pretty much from nowhere (it is easy to blink and miss it). But the instanteous reaction of the crowd and the way it goes through you is pretty impressive. That is really being moved in a way you can’t be by solitary activities. I imagine some sorts of religion plays on this sort of crowd energy (not the C of E in England I wouldn’t think).

But everybody knows its just football and you can forget it afterwards – or do they? I suppose it is the same argument. Harris’s argument about moderates fostering extremists could also be made about football and hooligans.

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Niall McAuley 10.10.12 at 1:49 pm

Spufford’s God is by definition unknowable. A “meddling sky-fairy” as he puts it, an interventionist god who answers prayers, smites enemies and blesses stuff would not be this unknowable entity in which he has faith.

Which is odd, since someone with Spufford’s ideas in Palestine around the year 30 CE would not have been able to accept the Jesus of the New Testament as his saviour and become a Christian.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 2:24 pm

mds – I addressed all of this in comment #83, but I guess that’s a long time ago now. Here’s an edited version.

Perhaps religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices. Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you learn to experience a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe.

The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)
[endquote]

As for why Spufford’s an Anglican and not a Quaker, you’d have to ask him (or read the book). Presumably he’s found that Anglican practice works for him. But I’m 100% sure that it’s the practice that drew him in and led him to the beliefs, not vice versa.

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reason 10.10.12 at 2:50 pm

Phil,
maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get around the concept of “trying to believe”. That is not reconciliable with what “believe” means for me. It is much more common that I have to make an effort not to believe something (because the evidence is against it, no matter how much sense it makes intuitively). If on the other other hand, the evidence if “for” something, that I don’t particularly feel comfortable with, I don’t try to believe, I tend to keep a jaundiced eye on it, regarding it as tentatively “the best explaination we have at the moment”. I can’t ever really remember being able to believe something by trying.

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reason 10.10.12 at 2:52 pm

Besides which Phil, if your explaination were correct – how can you explain Schisms?

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bianca steele 10.10.12 at 3:00 pm

Man Kay @ 330 is interesting. Spufford, it seems, has written a very personal statement (taking what the OP and others have said, I have only read the intro). Is the complaint about missing the point that he ought to be allowed to express his individual opinions without, as it were, bringing down the wrath of God? That might be ironic.

W/r/t witchcraft, I’ve read things that suggest it was seen to be associated with local customs that were disliked by (as it were) centralizing forces. E.g. midwifery versus “medicine.” That might be interesting. Not something foreign, exactly, something people were likely to be familiar with themselves.

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Katherine 10.10.12 at 3:12 pm

Nor does one have to believe that all other religions are wrong wrong wrong to be a Christian.

Well, hang on – I’m sure that are ritual bits and pieces and bits of details and doctrine that may people will accept are a matter of practice and tradition rather than God-given, but there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect. Otherwise you go way beyond mushy and into uncertain soup.

You have to presumably believe that there is a God. You have to believe that Jesus Christ was his son who came to earth. That’s a bare minimum right there I’d have thought. If you’re not quite sure about the Christ bit, then I think most people would have difficulty saying you’re a Christian. And by implication, like it or not, people who do not believe the whole Christ bit are wrong.

I don’t have any problem being a member of a political party and saying that I agree with some bits of their platform, but not others, because no one has claimed that the policies are handed down from on high by an infallible Creator-being, but religion is more than that, surely, otherwise you’re definitely in the category of social club.

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Afu 10.10.12 at 3:45 pm

JW Mason 297 “I suppose I should be included in the “others” here. With due respect, I disagree. I think those of us taking the Durkheim-Weber-Marx-William James view of religion do have essentially the same conception of that Spufford does. Which I would summarize as: (1) Our existence as moral and social beings poses real, profound and unavoidable questions, which cannot be answered in terms of material reality and by science; (2) religion is a valid attempt to answer those questions, as opposed to an invalid attempt to answer questions about the material world (to the extent it seems to be the latter, it’s because metaphorical language has been misinterpreted, or because the religion has degenerated into superstition); and (3) religion is not only or mainly a set of propositions, but practices, collective identity, and feelings or experiences.”

I haven’t thought about it in those words, but I think I agree with you. But if people need religion, then the question is what religion should that be? This is were Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”. As a post enlightenment society we are in the position to make this decision for ourselves. To me the answer is obviously a sort of critical atheism that combines in a deep faith in the importance of truth with a strong belief in the moral value of other human beings.

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JJ 10.10.12 at 3:51 pm

All this controversy generated by competing claims concerning the decline of religious belief is hilarious, given that all of us currently worship at the altar of Democracy, the state religion of an industrial state. Just as the clerics of the Middle Ages described themselves as the representatives of God, so also do the secular clerics of the secular state describe themselves as the representatives of The People: the mystical body of Christ transformed into the material body of the democratic state, the transformation of a spiritual Utopian ideal into a material Utopian ideal. Let us pray (and don’t forget to vote).

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reason 10.10.12 at 4:24 pm

JJ @368
Worship? – the worst system of government – apart from all the others?

I think it is a pretty thin analogy.

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reason 10.10.12 at 4:34 pm

To expand on my reply to Phil at @363, I guess as the son of a scientist and practicing catholic father, I was always aware of the conflict between the essential skepticism of the scientific approach and the insistance on “faith” in the Catholic tradition. As my father lived both, I never understood how he reconciled them. I ended up coming down on the side of skepticism. Doubting Thomas was RIGHT!

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Staircaseghost 10.10.12 at 6:00 pm

It’s generally taken as a warning sign when a culture’s intellectuals start privileging what they feel instead of what they think.

Would anyone defending the “emotions first, beliefs third” approach to life care to apply a similar analysis to libertarian with a visceral emotive disgust for state regulation leveraging that into the factual claim that global warming is a hoax? After all, global warming would obviously require international cooperation between governments to solve, and since that would be bad, it follows that it cannot possibly be true. And the notion that scientists might fabricate data is infinitely more plausible than the notion that a virgin-born corpse can return to life.

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Substance McGravitas 10.10.12 at 6:48 pm

maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get around the concept of “trying to believe”.

I recommend “The Little Engine That Could”.

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GiT 10.10.12 at 6:58 pm

See also: Pascal’s Wager.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 7:31 pm

reason:

I can’t get around the concept of “trying to believe”. That is not reconciliable with what “believe” means for me.

Have you ever joined a political party, or studied a subject whose founding assumptions you didn’t share? Something very similar to what Spufford’s talking about happens in those situations – “that concept sounds ridiculous and empty, but I want to stay with this subject and/or these people, so let’s see what happens if I take it seriously…

if your explaination were correct – how can you explain Schisms?

I don’t think I ever undertook to explain everything about religion – but for what it’s worth I suspect an awful lot of schisms are about practice as much as doctrine, if not more so. That’s true in spades of the English Reformation, frex.

Katherine:

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Afu:

This is were Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

Staircaseghost:

Would anyone defending the “emotions first, beliefs third” approach to life care to apply a similar analysis to libertarian with a visceral emotive disgust for state regulation leveraging that into the factual claim that global warming is a hoax?

I have to say (again) that I’d be more kindly disposed to this request if it wasn’t wrapped around a hostile caricature (see bolded words). Flies, vinegar, honey. But never mind.

Anyway, I think that’s probably exactly how it happens – you could think of it in terms of differential association if you’re into sociology. I tend to think that the religious version of this process is generally benign, particularly if entered on as an adult, but not invariably so by any means. I don’t deny for a moment that the experience of community plus the experience of reverence for the sacred can lead the unwary into some strange belief commitments, and dark places generally.

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Consumatopia 10.10.12 at 8:09 pm

Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal.

Those people aren’t damned–but they are wrong. Aslan can excuse them only because their failures were caused by their religion, not by their individual will. If you won’t blame the religion–in this case, the death-god Tash–then you must blame each of the followers.

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JJ 10.10.12 at 8:46 pm

No, not worship of “the worst system of government-apart from all the others”, but worship of The People, the justifying principle which legitimates a democratic system of government, just as worship of the Lord once legitimated a feudal system of government that, given the available technology of the time-agriculture , was the most efficient method of producing and distributing the resources required for the continued existence of feudal society.

What’s even more amazing than this is analogous recognition that the politician is the secular analogue of the priest as the representative of The People, the person consecrated by the people to petition the Lord with prayer.

Hilarious.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 9:21 pm

Aslan can excuse them only because their failures were caused by their religion, not by their individual will.

I don’t really see the problem. Either way the upshot is that Aslan judges some of them – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”.

In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

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Consumatopia 10.10.12 at 9:40 pm

It’s only a problem if your refrain is “don’t blame the religion”. If the holy text itself contains evil (e.g. the first chapter of Romans) and a person grows up in a community that endorses that text as the word of God, it’s only fair that the community and the holy text in question share some (not all) of that person’s guilt should he end up following that evil.

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Bruce Wilder 10.10.12 at 9:48 pm

JW Mason: “What I don’t believe is that people were more irrational in 1600 and are less irrational today.”

Of course, you are free to define rational/irrational as a constant, if you like, but, then, you have to construct some other set of terms to describe what has changed. And, in describing what has changed, you may, indeed, wish to be scrupulous about skirting notions of “progress”.

I was trying to draw attention to the ways in which Western cultures have changed, in ways that prevent people from giving the same credence to religious propositions, as “beliefs”, that people often did, in eras prior to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. I think that there’s abundant evidence that people today are far more “rational” than they generally were in 1600. Some kind of tipping point was reached in the late 17th and early 18th century, which amounted to almost a phase-change, and, yet, it is apparent that in individual propensities to believe or to reason in rational/irrational ways, it was only a relatively small and statistically irregular shift, at best, and an inflection point on a centuries-long process of relentless rationalization of institutions, which encompassed medieval scholasticism, the Renaissance, Gutenberg, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reform, the Scientific Revolution, Hobbes and the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution(s), the French Revolution, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Nietzche, Weber’s (or Chandler’s) political bureaucracy running on fossil fuel, . . . . If, after all those centuries of rationalizing, we were not more rational, in some important senses, it would be curious, indeed.

It’s certainly not my wish to exaggerate the extent to which all that rationalizing has actually improved human behavior or welfare, any more than I would want to make exaggerated claims for the success of Christianity in its parallel and competing project to improve human ethics, though I think it fair to say that the Enlightenment did cause the Christians to step up their game, considerably, even as it made their game more difficult to play.

The hysteria over the McMartin Preschool molestation case probably does give us some sense of how crazy things can get. It’s easy to use Freudian concepts to project back into the 17th century a rationalized explanation for events with a thin documentary record; not so easy for more recent events. Civilization remains a thin veneer on an East African Plains Ape, which has had only a few millenia of trying to live amid massive groups of strangers.

No one with an interest in economics, can fail to note the de-generation of policy economics into scholasticism and worse, credentialing a priesthood to preside over pious calls for the sacrifice of millions, amid deep-voiced assurances that austerity will call forth the confidence fairy, assurances so incredible that they would embarass a cargo cult or the Temple of Baal. Stupid remains the loyal servant of the stubborn self-interest and corrupt irresponsibility of the powerful, despite all the efforts to circumscribe both power and stupid with rationalized institutions.

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peterv 10.10.12 at 10:08 pm

Emma in Sydney #8 wrote:

“As a second-generation atheist, brought up utterly without religion of any kind, I managed to get to my forties without prolonged exposure to religious people of any kind, until I joined a choir, which met at the local Anglcan church, and included some of the congregation. I discovered that people I respected for their politics, their musicianship and their commitment to social justice, also sincerely believed what to me was a self-evidently ludicrous bunch of folk tales. It was hard to come to terms with, and I’m not sure I ever have. ”

As someone who has had numerous personal experiences involving spiritual entities, I find it very difficult to believe that there are some people who have not had such experiences. It is possible of course that they have indeed had such experiences, but, for one reason or another, refuse to accept these experiences for what they are, and delude themselves. It is as if they are deaf to sounds that I can hear clearly. Of course, it may be I who is deluded. But the fact that some people have tinnitus does not mean that the cosmos is really silent.

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Phil 10.10.12 at 10:37 pm

It’s only a problem if your refrain is “don’t blame the religion”.

My refrain is “don’t dismiss religion as a force for good in some people’s lives, and don’t dismiss all religious believers as deluded, stupid, or reactionary”. Horrible things have been done & defended in the name of religion. (That’s also true of Marxism, and I’m still a Marxist.)

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Random lurker 10.10.12 at 10:40 pm

@Starircaseghost
Ok but then, how do you proceed in morals if not through feelings?
For example if someone says “heretics should be burned alive” I know that this is wrong because I feel it. I could deduce that it is wrong from some abstract concept of natural right to life, but I should first feel that this natural right is good.
There is space for rational arguments in ethics, but it is mostly an affair of organizing different feelings.
Basically the only empiric imput to ethics we have is feelings, or “ethic intuition ” if you prefer.

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chris 10.10.12 at 10:50 pm

More than that, the point about Spufford’s book is that it’s an invitation to expand your understanding of something even if you don’t agree with it

Coming late to a long thread, but doesn’t this contain the extremely condescending assumption that if you disagree with Spufford’s beliefs it *must* be because you don’t understand them?

ISTM that what Spufford calls “taking religion seriously” is what Dennett called “belief in belief” — the idea that nonbelievers must abase themselves and declare that there must be something wrong with them since they don’t believe, and aspire to believing in something (that they don’t have good evidence for — obviously those things don’t count), and then they can become more complete human beings.

Thanks, but no thanks. How I experience the numinous is none of Spufford’s goddamn business, but I reserve the right to not take it at face value, AND to think less of people who do, because there are awfully good reasons to distrust the idea of taking numinous experiences at face value.

For example: many different people believe many different things on the basis of tradition and/or intuition. Many of those beliefs are incompatible; therefore many of them are wrong (even if we don’t necessarily know which ones). Therefore, tradition and/or intuition are unreliable indicators of truth, and any belief with no support outside those areas doesn’t really deserve to be taken seriously until it comes up with one.

P.S. Historical note: what started the New Atheism and distinguishes it from the Old has nothing to do with YECs or neocons; it was founded by an essay by Dawkins that appeared in the Guardian on September 12, 2001. Somehow I doubt it was a mystic vision that inspired Dawkins to reexamine the previously common (among atheists) belief that religion was a harmless indulgence of human foolishness, and specifically, drop the “harmless” part. Not because Dawkins is incapable of having mystic visions, or even because I expect that if he did he would take them with large grains of salt, but because then-current events provide a much more convincing cause.

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Consumatopia 10.10.12 at 11:37 pm

My refrain is “don’t dismiss religion as a force for good in some people’s lives, and don’t dismiss all religious believers as deluded, stupid, or reactionary”. Horrible things have been done & defended in the name of religion.

I would second this, except for reservations with “in the name of”. If a particular religion’s holy text or doctrine says X, and people do X because of that, they didn’t just do it in the name of the religion, they did because that’s what the religion said to do.

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Staircaseghost 10.11.12 at 12:09 am

@phil #374

I call them like I see them. And what I see in Spufford’s writing is an encomium to a textbook description of the psychological dynamics of denialism — evolution, global warming, 9/11, you name it. I object in the most strenuous possible terms to any double standard that demands I “respect” the intellectual inegrity of one process but not the other.

“I tend to think that the religious version of this process is generally benign, particularly if entered on as an adult, but not invariably so by any means.”

I’m not even particularly inclined to dispute that in most people, most of the time, most of their fruity religious beliefs are benign or even emotionally healthy.

But modus tollens is, last I checked, still a valid argument form. We (and by “we” I mean Western secular liberals generally) should have a real, open, honest conversation about the place of a/para/non-rational activity in human affairs. But the very first thing about honesty is a respect for truth. Unless I missed it, none of the 300+ replies have come forward to defend the truth of a virgin-born corpse returning to life. So I take it as read that Spufford believes something that is not true. What’s dismaying to “militant atheists” like myself is the apparent willful indifference of belief-in-beliefers to what should be the single most obvious fact in the discussion. From there, the modus tollens practically completes itself.

We can and should argue about when, where, and how aggressively we should direct our energy against irrationalism in the public sphere. Does it really matter if my neighbor doesn’t believe birds are descended from dinosaurs, or that a cracker becomes human flesh? Let’s talk about it! But first let’s agree that birds are descended from dinosaurs, and crackers don’t become human flesh.

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JW Mason 10.11.12 at 1:17 am

Phil’s comment @374 is very good. I especially like this:

Have you ever joined a political party, or studied a subject whose founding assumptions you didn’t share? Something very similar to what Spufford’s talking about happens in those situations – “that concept sounds ridiculous and empty, but I want to stay with this subject and/or these people, so let’s see what happens if I take it seriously…”

Staircaseghost:

Unless I missed it, none of the 300+ replies have come forward to defend the truth of a virgin-born corpse returning to life. So I take it as read that Spufford believes something that is not true.

It would certainly be false if it occurred in a medical textbook, or a history of Roman Palestine. But it might not be false if it occurs in a Christian religious service. One thing religious fundamentalists and militant atheists have in common is a predilection for insisting that there must be one single, universal, context-independent truth — for writing “true” in boldface, as it were.

Stephen J. Gould’s essay on nonoverlapping magisteria is a good explanation of how someone who is personally secular — even a working scientist — can still recognize the validity of religious claims within their own domain.

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Kiwanda 10.11.12 at 1:25 am

Regarding the view of religion as “Practices, then maybe community, then maybe supernatural doctrine”, I’m reminded of the much-maligned Alain de Botton, who proposes to keep the first two and skip the last entirely; I have sympathy with his goals, if not his specific ideas to achieve those goals. I envy the church-goers their baptisms, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, etc.: atheists should mark major life events, in addition to weddings and deaths, in a communal way. (Which is not to say we could not, and for all I know some do, but it doesn’t come naturally, it seems.) I think for many people membership in the community of faith actually comes first as a motivation for religious practice and belief. I think that before atheism can become the commonplace thing it ought to be, there will need to be replacements for filling these human needs. However, I cannot regard the current system of filling these needs by giving at least lip-service to a particular set of falsehoods as more than a historical accident.

Regarding the “emotional sense” of Christianity, I have to say that much of it eludes me, and this is setting aside the truth claims, and accepting for argument’s sake Spufford’s “God of the Metaphorical Mush”. That is, I don’t quite understand what makes some aspects of Christian belief emotionally attractive. Besides the emotional incoherence of an all-knowing, all-powerful god who created us to suffer so much, in what way does it make emotional sense that Jesus “died for our sins”? What kind of god whose opinion I could respect would regard such a scheme of self-abuse as significant? What sensible god would command a sort of ritual cannabilism (or maybe theophagy)? In what way is “because God says so” an emotionally satisfying reason to be a good person? I don’t get it.

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Kiwanda 10.11.12 at 1:50 am

JW Mason:

It would certainly be false if it occurred in a medical textbook, or a history of Roman Palestine. But it might not be false if it occurs in a Christian religious service.

Stephen J. Gould’s essay on nonoverlapping magisteria is a good explanation of how someone who is personally secular — even a working scientist — can still recognize the validity of religious claims within their own domain.

Reading that essay again, I see a relief that some Christians can accept evolution, and an acceptance of certain supernatural phenomena, like souls, whose existence has no material implications. What I do not see is an acceptance of specific historical claims as outside the scientific magisterium, and so “true on Sunday morning, except not really, and anyway, who cares?”

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

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William Timberman 10.11.12 at 2:16 am

The part of Unapologetic that I found myself calling The Gospel of Francis is about as compelling a modern retelling of the core Christian story as I’ve ever read, and I’d urge everyone to read it who wants to know why Jesus is still a big deal regardless of everything else we know (or think we know.)

Full disclaimer: I’m not a Christian, I’m an atheist, but Spufford’s version of the story is mine as well. That, and A. Lincoln’s second inaugural address, are why I once described myself to an outraged fundamentalist, who was beating up on me for my quotes from the New Testament, as an atheist d’expression Chrétienne.

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JJ 10.11.12 at 4:44 am

I wish you people would stop denigrating the immateriality of the souls of the billions of people who precede us. In fact, aside from the immateriality of the concept of a soul, the soul is the present product of the historical efforts of our ancestors to produce the civilization that all of us inhabit, year by year and layer upon layer, over the history of the human race. Nothing as real and so palpably concrete as the congregation of souls who reside in the aggregate material manifestation of human society can ever be so reasonably regarded as “immaterial”.

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GiT 10.11.12 at 5:19 am

So we should stop denigrating the immateriality of souls because they’re material?

I’m not sure that parses.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 7:02 am

Unless I missed it, none of the 300+ replies have come forward to defend the truth of a virgin-born corpse returning to life. So I take it as read that Spufford believes something that is not true.

I think you missed something else. Here are a couple of edited highlights from my earlier comments:

The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step (believing what your church asks you to believe, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Also:

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.

So what’s a ‘religious proposition’? Of the examples of ‘Christian’ beliefs which you gave (couched in ostentatiously offensive language, as ever; anyone would think you didn’t actually want to have a debate) one is very much not like the others. Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’t how the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

When it comes to factual propositions about the world – that it’s 6000 years old, that pi is rational, whatever – people can be and are led into believing them through differential association with Christians, but it’s not core to Christianity, as witness the fact that lots of Christians don’t hold those beliefs. What is core to Christian faith is believing that something impossible happened once despite being impossible. (This is a correction to my earlier reply, which didn’t grasp this distinction.)

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Phil 10.11.12 at 7:31 am

Kiwanda:
I think for many people membership in the community of faith actually comes first as a motivation for religious practice and belief. I think that before atheism can become the commonplace thing it ought to be, there will need to be replacements for filling these human needs. However, I cannot regard the current system of filling these needs by giving at least lip-service to a particular set of falsehoods as more than a historical accident.

Personally I think that’s fair enough. As I said in that post I keep linking to, if I ever get religion it’ll almost certainly be one religion in particular, i.e. the one I grew up in. Having been brought up an Anglican, it would take years for me to commit properly to Catholicism and decades to become a Buddhist, and I haven’t really got that kind of time. That’s not to say that Anglicanism is the best way – or even a particularly good way – to have religious experiences in company with others, just that it’s there.

I don’t quite understand what makes some aspects of Christian belief emotionally attractive. Besides the emotional incoherence of an all-knowing, all-powerful god who created us to suffer so much, in what way does it make emotional sense that Jesus “died for our sins”?

Reminds me a bit of Father Dougal admitting his doubts:

Father Dougal: Well, you know the way God made us all, right? And he’s looking down at us from heaven and everything? And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that? And when we die we’re all going to go to heaven?
Bishop Facks: Yes. What about it?
Father Dougal: Well, that’s the bit I have trouble with.

There are lots of aspects of Xtian belief, even the more ‘mythical’ parts, that I find very resonant – the idea of God becoming a human being, dying and rising again is an incredibly powerful image (and not only a Xtian one), and I do think that anyone who looks at it, says “Bronze Age folk tale” and moves on is missing out. But the whole “He died for our sins” bit – I could never believe that even when I was a Christian.

But I can’t agree with this:

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, as I said in my previous comment, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?” I think this is what’s distinctive about the New Atheists, if anything is – they don’t understand religion because they don’t want to.

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Christian Hiebaum 10.11.12 at 8:42 am

Phil @392 (and before):
“Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.”

I’d just like to add that, as far as Christian faith is concerned, the inevitability of doubt is explicitly referred to in the passage where Jesus on the cross cries out “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me!”. According to Chesterton, this makes Christian faith particularly fascinating. For God is supposed to have, for a second, lost faith in himself. As a quite secular left-winger (with no desire for membership in a religious community), I agree. (To be sure, others might think of it as just one of many annoying absurdities.)

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reason 10.11.12 at 9:38 am

chris @383
Thanks for your very eloquent contribution.

Not only do I agree with every sentiment exactly – I am really envious of with how well you expressed it.

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reason 10.11.12 at 9:45 am

Phil @392
“Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith…”

I’m missing something here – the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly? I don’t see any justification for faith here, it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation), but the exact value escapes me (particular if as you claim it is not really at core important).

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Niall McAuley 10.11.12 at 9:50 am

Phil @ #392Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge

Meanwhile, scientists will say (if pressed) that certain knowledge is also subject to doubt; that even things we routinely call knowledge are subject to doubt and challenge in the light of new evidence or theories.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 10:13 am

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer (developed more fully in that long blog post of mine, please do check it out) is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

I know what you mean, but really, believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day.

In which context, I like Hidari’s idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

PS I’ve put some serious thinking into this post, so if anyone’s thinking of responding along the lines of “but what if there is no invisible sky fairy huh? huh?”, I’d appreciate if if they’d think again.

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Rmj 10.11.12 at 12:28 pm

I’m unfamiliar with his writings beyond the excerpted chapter. Can anyone confirm or deny whether he believes it is literally true that a corpse can be reanimated after three days; and if so, whether he is explicit about whether things like “emotional assurance that there is a mercy” function as epistemic support which can and does outweigh the evidence accumulated by the medical community to the effect that corpses cannot be so reanimated; and if so, what general criteria or methodology he recommends we adopt to distinguish which empirical claims we are or are not entitled to dismiss when they conflict with such emotional experiences?

Even agnostic/atheist Biblical scholars would point out the resurrection stories of the Gospels don’t point to a “reanimated corpse.” There is no resurrected Jesus in the shorter ending to Mark, and in Luke he appears on the road to Emmaus but they don’t recognize him, then Jesus vanishes at the table the moment they do. Doubting Thomas touches the wounds of the risen Jesus, but he appears in a locked room and then vanishes from it.

I know to a strictly positivistic mind (and really, can we abandon a completely shredded and disproven philosophy by now?) this isn’t helping, but the fact is there is no Gospel account of a reanimated corpse. Some believers might even think it happened, but it’s not what is recorded in the scriptures.

As many Biblical scholars point out (not all of them religious believers at all), the gospels indicate something happened, some experience occurred, to some people. Which is perfectly in line with Spufford’s thesis, at least as I gather it from this post.

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Rmj 10.11.12 at 12:31 pm

The koine Greek word from the New Testament texts usually translated as “faith” is, many scholars argue, better translated as “trust.”

There’s really quite a lot of literature on the issue, not least of which is William James’ fascinating essay on the varieties of religious experience. Which, again, is (as far as I can tell), at least somewhat in line with Spufford’s thesis.

I suppose I should read this book as soon as I can, huh?

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reason 10.11.12 at 12:56 pm

rmj
Using trust instead of faith makes it worse. We should trust a probably non-existant being? Or a probably false set of ideas? Making a leap of faith about such things seems more reasonable to me.

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reason 10.11.12 at 12:58 pm

Phil @399
“I know what you mean, but really, believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day.”

Yes agree entirely – which is why paying attention to evidence and probabilities is important.

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reason 10.11.12 at 1:01 pm

“But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.”
1. I dispute they are real (they might FEEL real – which is something else).
2. Maybe they aren’t “borne” by religion, just “exploited” by religion.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 1:31 pm

reason @402 – I don’t see the relevance of the weighing of evidence & probabilities to, say, trusting one’s partner, unless trust has already broken down. What I called earlier “an orientation of trustful commitment” is more usual, hopefully.

On #403,
1. If people believe things to be real, they are real in their consequences (old sociological maxim). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
2. You misunderstand – I’m saying that these things happen in & through religious practices (as well as some others).

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Katherine 10.11.12 at 2:01 pm

The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers

This is simply swimming in mushy soup now. Unless we’re the realms of quantum divinity, with Christ stuck in a box and us calculating the probability of the God particle decaying, then Jesus is either the son of God, or another prophet (but not the most recent), or just a Jewish heretic with some nifty moral philosophy to sell us. There is no way for all three of those things to be simultaneously true.

Now, I can see that a believer might think that believers of other things or non-believers are not necessarily going to hell simply for that, but this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

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reason 10.11.12 at 2:13 pm

Phil, @404
“I don’t see the relevance of the weighing of evidence & probabilities to, say, trusting one’s partner”
Oh come on. I thought we were all older than that. We trust people because they have shown they are trustworthy, if they haven’t then somewhere along the line we will stop trusting them. Or do you really believe not only that “love IS blind” but that it SHOULD be.

Look this is getting tiresome now. Lets just say, I find the arguments very weak, it sounds to me a bit like the arguments for rule by royalty, which nobody these days would take seriously.

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Rmj 10.11.12 at 2:26 pm

Using trust instead of faith makes it worse. We should trust a probably non-existant being? Or a probably false set of ideas? Making a leap of faith about such things seems more reasonable to me.

A) “Leap of faith” is a crap notion. Not even valid in the original (Kierkegaard), at least as it is usually understood. Nor, for that matter, as S.K.’s pseudonym used it. Let’s leave it aside and stick more closely to William James’ conclusion:

The freedom to ‘ believe what we will ‘ you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, ” Faith is when you believe something that you know ain’t true.” I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.

b) don’t get me started on the question of “existence” unless you are willing to prove your own. For all I know, in this context, you’re just a Turing test. (No, seriously). Kierkegaard covered that rather handily, too.

It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists–worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.

Probably a false set of ideas? So we’re back to positivism or empiricism. As Hume left us, we can discuss two categories of statements: analytic, and synthetic. The former state the obvious, the latter state what cannot be proven empirically (“This flower is beautiful.”) So we can’t really say anything, and we’re back to proving nothing about anything.

Unless we’re going to establish a criteria for falsity that doesn’t run into Godel’s problem of incompleteness, and which would require appeal to another formal system to answer (which formal system itself is incomplete).

In the end, trust is all you’ve got, if you want to get anywhere at all; or at least think you have.

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William Timberman 10.11.12 at 2:29 pm

From a logical standpoint, Katherine, you’re right, but mushy, is one of those eye-of-the-beholder things. Spufford’s book does seem logically inconsistent in several ways to me, but mushy is just about the last word I’d use to describe it. Religion describes things for people that they would otherwise find indescribable, expresses things that they would otherwise find inexpressable. I don’t see any real problem with this.

If using a metaphor embarrasses us, it seems to me that we’re awfully uncomfortable with being human to begin with. What’s more, I would say that the demand that the claims of religion be taken literally is a demand that most believers would find downright silly. Perhaps, as Bruce Wilder says, not once upon a time, but certainly now. Trying to force that demand on them seems more than a little mean-spirited to me (although, I admit that here in the U.S., when I see the remaining literalists out in numbers to threaten Planned Parenthood clinics, I’m willing to tolerate a little mean-spiritedness in fending them off.)

And in the meantime, of course, we have a story to tell about ourselves that neither Carl Sagan nor Richard Dawkins was/is more equipped to tell than Jesus was, or Mohammad, or even Billy Graham. Unless, of course we believe that we really are masters of our own destiny, in which case, maybe we ought to start acting like it.

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AB 10.11.12 at 2:32 pm

Now yet another term in need of explanation, “the sacred”, has been introduced as an explanans.

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Jeffrey Davis 10.11.12 at 2:56 pm

Jesus found a Roman centurion to be his model of Faith: the centurion recognized in Jesus someone with charismatic authority. For me that throws out most of accumulated detritus of religion from St. Paul to our current collection of horrors (and you know who you are).

A Big Explanation that supposes an omnipotent Deity who not only hides but who intends to torture people for eternity for not figuring out and hewing to his private plans seems to me to be as grimly comic as determinism, madness, and pain.

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Katherine 10.11.12 at 2:58 pm

William, I have no problem with the idea of metaphor, at all. But there are certain foundational beliefs that simply cannot be taken as metaphor. Things like the existence of God. And, if you’re Christian, that Jesus Christ was the son of God. I’d call that a bare minimum, wouldn’t you? Otherwise you’re an atheist who goes to church.

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William Timberman 10.11.12 at 3:13 pm

Katherine, you have a point, but your statement of it seems unnecessarily arbitrary to me, and depends entirely too much on what Blake would have called single vision and Newton’s sleep. What goes on in the world of religion and people’s beliefs seems to me to be far more ambiguous, and I don’t think any of us has a complete handle on it. If x, then necesarily y just doesn’t cut it for me, not here, anyway.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 3:28 pm

reason: We trust people because they have shown they are trustworthy, if they haven’t then somewhere along the line we will stop trusting them. Or do you really believe not only that “love IS blind” but that it SHOULD be.

No, I believe that my trust in my partner is a commitment that I’ve made, which makes demands of me as well as of her. If my partner lets me down, I ask myself if I’ve misinterpreted something or if I’m expecting too much. Then I ask her. Then we talk some more. If my bank lets me down I change banks. The word ‘trust’ is doing two completely different jobs here.

Katherine: this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

May I apologise on behalf of Christians everywhere for being insufficiently consistent to live up to the exacting standards of Christian belief set by, um, atheists.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.

Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. Biblical literalists and self-styled fundamentalists patched up and smoothed over the gaps in the text, and imported a lot of highly contemporary assumptions which aren’t actually there – see rmj’s comment #399 for a rather glaring example. But the Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 3:30 pm

The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories

Actually three versions of selections from two sets of stories, but I thought that sentence was complicated enough as it was.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 3:34 pm

A Big Explanation that supposes an omnipotent Deity who not only hides but who intends to torture people for eternity for not figuring out and hewing to his private plans seems to me to be as grimly comic as determinism, madness, and pain.

I was thinking about that on my blog the other day. (Inflatable Stonehenge included.)

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Katherine 10.11.12 at 3:41 pm

Basically, all I’m asking is confirmation that if you call yourself a Christian then you believe that God exists and believe that Jesus Christ was his son. This does not seem spectacularly ambiguous to me. Nor is it requiring rigorous consistency, which is clearly not possible from the Bible.

What is arbitrary about seeking confirmation that the foundational beliefs of Christianity are what Christians actually believe?

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Katherine 10.11.12 at 3:50 pm

Katherine: this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it…. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.

And by the way Phil, I note that you missed out the first half of my sentence, which was “I can see that a believer might think that believers of other things or non-believers are not necessarily going to hell simply for that”

If you sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, then by definition people who don’t believe this are, in fact, wrong, whatever their other attributes. There’s no getting around it. I’m not quite sure why there is a need to deny this inevitable fact.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 4:03 pm

And by the way Phil, I note that you missed out the first half of my sentence, which was “I can see that a believer might think that believers of other things or non-believers are not necessarily going to hell simply for that”

Maybe I’m the one being excessively logical, but it seems to me that – for believers in both destinations – if you’re not going to Hell, you’re going to Heaven. And a life that lets you go to Heaven is one that’s been genuinely oriented towards God to a significant extent. IOW, you can see that a believer might think that… there are many ways to God. Not trying to catch you out here, just wondering whether you’re actually disagreeing with me at all.

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Niall McAuley 10.11.12 at 4:03 pm

Katherine, I find it hard to imagine Spufford condemning anyone as a heretic or an unbeliever:

“My metaphorical description of my feelings about unknowable stuff doesn’t seem to line up word for word with your metaphorical description of your feelings about unknowable stuff! Infidel!”

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Peter Erwin 10.11.12 at 4:37 pm

Phil @ 412:
Biblical literalists and self-styled fundamentalists patched up and smoothed over the gaps in the text, and imported a lot of highly contemporary assumptions which aren’t actually there – see rmj’s comment #399 for a rather glaring example.

These aren’t all “highly contemporary assumptions” — belief in the resurrection of the dead in living, bodily form, for example, was rather widespread from the time of the early Church onwards, and not just among Christians (e.g.,
Maimonides acknowledged it as one of the cores of Jewish belief). One of the main medieval objections to the anatomical dissections of corpses was the fear that it would impeded the future resurrection of the bodies being dissected. This was not just a matter of metaphors.

(And it seems to me that rmj was suggesting that it was contemporary “Biblical scholars” (some of them “agnostic/atheist”) who were downplaying the idea of a literal bodily resurrection in the specific case of Jesus.)

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Substance McGravitas 10.11.12 at 5:06 pm

Katherine, I find it hard to imagine Spufford condemning anyone as a heretic or an unbeliever

He’s got another guy to leave that to.

Wasn’t there something in some book somewhere about washing hands?

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Katherine 10.11.12 at 5:21 pm

Katherine, I find it hard to imagine Spufford condemning anyone as a heretic or an unbeliever:

And if you read what I wrote you’ll find that don’t imagine so either. Like I said, I’m sure there are plenty of believers in Christ-the-son-of-God who don’t think people should go to hell for not believing, or who wouldn’t “condemn” someone for being a non-believer.

Nevertheless, if you believe one thing, it is an inevitable logical progression that someone who believes a different thing is wrong in their belief. I do not think there is a God. Someone who does think there is a God thinks I am wrong, as I do they.

Of course, the trouble here is that religion, including Christianity, has a nasty habit historically of condemning non-believers and attempting to send them to hell in extremely nasty ways. Hence the defensive, milquetoast “I believe but, y’know, there are lots of other things that other people might believe that doesn’t make them bad people” sort of belief being discussed. Which doesn’t even have the strength of its own convictions enough for anyone to say “yes, I believe in God, I believe Jesus was the son of God and that you are wrong.”

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Lee A. Arnold 10.11.12 at 6:02 pm

Up until 325 AD, half of the Christians didn’t think Jesus was divine; to them, he was just a great rabbi. “A” son of God, not “the” son of God–as if you might say, “we are all sons and daughters of God.” This led to much blood in the streets, bishops’ thugs bashing each other over their opposing beliefs, until the Roman emperor Constantine, a convert, called the Council of Nicaea to decide things once and for all, and put an end to the strife, and that council decided that Jesus was god (thus the Nicene Creed). It was a POLITICAL decision. Arius’ writings were destroyed, so we don’t know what the non-trinitarians believed, in detail. The story is nicely told in a charming book that anyone will enjoy, When Jesus Became God, by Richard E. Rubenstein.

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CJColucci 10.11.12 at 6:37 pm

Much ado about not much. And certainly nothing new. Is there anyone who doesn’t get that a belief that, despite the obvious horrors of earthly life, things will work out in the great by-and-by is a great comfort, and might influence people’s actions in a positive way? (If we reduce the Abrahamic 3-O diety to a well-meaning, pretty smart, and powerful, but not all-powerful, being — Superman on steroids — we can avoid some obvious theological and philosophical problems.) Wouldn’t most of us want it to be true? I don’t believe it is true, but I deeply feel its attraction when I come across my late, lamented dog’s collar. The notion that non-believers need to be instructed in this obvious emotional fact would be insulting if we were not already inured to it
It may be that for lots of people religion is practice first and belief in propositions about the world comes well down the line. I’m sure it’s true that many religious folk actually belong to a social club and recite the club’s doctrines and truth claims without any real commitment to their non-metaphorical truth, or to the superiority of their club’s doctrine’s to those of other clubs. And there are obvious natural reasons that belonging to such a social club may be beneficial. I believe a lot of stupid shit myself — don’t get me started on how Bobby Grich belongs in the Hall of Fame — and am not inclined to be bothered by anyone who belongs to such a social club and holds his or her beliefs in such a fashion merely because they seem to me wrong.
But it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry, but the blame belongs with those who make truth claims and try to impose on others, not with those who resist.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 7:00 pm

Which doesn’t even have the strength of its own convictions enough for anyone to say “yes, I believe in God, I believe Jesus was the son of God and that you are wrong.”

So you can’t stand religious people because they’re all deluded and bigoted, but what you really can’t stand is those religious people who aren’t deluded and bigoted, because that’s what religious people should be like…

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 7:01 pm

Peter – rmj can speak for him/herself, but I read that comment as saying that nowhere in the Gospels is the risen Christ described as acting like a physical human being who has died and been brought back to life. Lazarus yes, Jesus no.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 7:02 pm

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

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Malloy 10.11.12 at 7:33 pm

Plato deduced from ideals; Aristole looked at the world around him came up with his conclusions.
So I’d say Plato is the one of the two responsible for the ancient poetry

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reason 10.11.12 at 7:41 pm

“Unless, of course we believe that we really are masters of our own destiny, in which case, maybe we ought to start acting like it.”

Didn’t I come in here. @153 @159

P.S. In case people get the wrong idea my argument is perhaps on another level than may have been clear. I’m mainly arguing that I think the content of the religion is far more important to adherents than he is admitting. In fact, I find his view of what people like Spufford may see in religion a bit insulting. I guess they think more deeply about it than that. Maybe I’m wrong.

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reason 10.11.12 at 7:42 pm

P.P.S. That P.S. was directed towards my extended conversation with Phil.

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reason 10.11.12 at 7:45 pm

rmj @407
I’m sorry I guess you misunderstand. I’m not defending a leap of faith, I’m condemning blind trust.

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reason 10.11.12 at 7:51 pm

Phil
“No, I believe that my trust in my partner is a commitment that I’ve made”

I don’t quite understand this – surely this is the other way around, (you’ve made a commitment as a sign of trust).

I’ll just ask you – if this was coming from a woman, would you be tempted to think she had a victim complex?

I’m pretty sure biological studies shows that trust is extended but the reaction to that trust being abused is fierce anger. And the amount of trust builds over time when it is not abused.

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William Timberman 10.11.12 at 7:52 pm

Reason, my apologies. I concede your prior art, but would like to point out in my defense that I really wasn’t seeking a patent on the idea.

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CJColucci 10.11.12 at 7:55 pm

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

Speaking only for myself, I haven’t the slightest interest in fighting against the NCM’s, as I thought I had made clear enough. Whether I can get them on my side is a different question. How would one do that? Is it enough to be polite and respectful to the NCMs themselves, or do we also have to pull our punches against the other guys for fear that the NCMs will be offended by, for example, arguments that the factual claims they may not “really” believe in themselves are, indeed, false and silly? And more fundamentally, whose side are they on when push comes to shove? I am unconvinced that some tactical shift or strategic move, or some change in “tone,” will cause them to enter the fight at all, let alone against their nominal co-religionists.

.

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reason 10.11.12 at 8:02 pm

Phil
“All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?” I think this is what’s distinctive about the New Atheists, if anything is – they don’t understand religion because they don’t want to.”

This suggests to me that you don’t read much of the New Atheists at all, because that particular story is one of the more believable ones (not the way it is presented, but plenty of people who were believed dead revived). The bit that really gets them going is the contradictory nature of the relationship of the “creater” and the world (does he interfere or doesn’t he – and why is he so obsessed with sex), and the entire anthropocentrism of the story. Intelligent apes in an unimportant remote corner of the universe think the universe was created just for them, sort of thing.

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reason 10.11.12 at 8:07 pm

William Timbermann,

please I wasn’t playing apple to your samsung – I just wanted to point out that I raised this point before and it went nowhere. I think it is a big issue, and has been swept under the carpet. With wishy-washy liberalish Christianity it is perhaps not so clear. But point to tendency to fatalism (if Allah wills it) in Islamic countries and what it does and the issue is clearer.

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GiT 10.11.12 at 8:18 pm

Instead of simply assuming that ‘many’ Christians treat their religious beliefs as “mushy”, or true, or whatever, we could at some point look at research on the topic.

There, one might find that, for example, nearly 50% of white evangelical Protestants regard their faith is the one true faith and nearly 50% of evangelical Christians believe there is only one correct way to interpret the Christian faith. These results are cited in the paper “Reasoning About Beliefs” discussed in the blog post on religious beliefs as facts, ideologies, or preferences I linked to above.

link: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~larisa/Heiphetz_Spelke_Harris_Banaji_JESP.pdf

I presume there is more research out there about how people conceive of their own religious preferences. This might be more useful than anecdata.

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Peter Erwin 10.11.12 at 8:25 pm

Phil @ 425:

Yes, Rmj was responding to Staircaseghost’s reference to the resurrection of Christ, so I was expanding (or digressing) a bit by pointing out that the literal “resurrection of the dead” in general was a pretty common part of Christian doctrine over most of its history. (For what it’s worth, the Latin version of the Nicene Crede uses the same term to refer to both Christ’s own return from the dead and to the resurrection of all dead bodies in the future, which kind of suggests that Rmj’s “Some believers might even think it happened” is a bit of an understatement for much of Christianity in the past.)

Nonetheless, as Rmj kind of concedes, a physical being claiming to be the same as a recently dead person whose corpse has somewhat mysteriously disappeared, exhibiting the same wounds on his body, who can in addition teleport into and out of locked rooms, is not exactly an improvement in terms of empirical plausibility. (“Look, none of the original accounts claim it was a glowing, fire-breathing, levitating unicorn who could speak both French and Italian — there’s actually no mention of a horn in its forehead at all.”)

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JJ 10.11.12 at 8:42 pm

GiT@391:
” So we should stop denigrating the immateriality of souls because they’re material?

I’m not sure that parses.”

No, we should stop denigrating the immateriality of souls because they represent the temporal presence of people whose work represents the aggregate temporal and material production of our civilization.

Geez, GiT, gimme a break.

I’m just trying to establish the proposition that the industrial ideology of material salvation is isomorphic to the agricultural ideology of spiritual salvation.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 8:48 pm

Peter: not exactly an improvement in terms of empirical plausibility

But that was precisely my point – it’s not asking to be read as an account of a literal dead body literally reanimated.

CJColucci: Is it enough to be polite and respectful to the NCMs themselves, or do we also have to pull our punches against the other guys for fear that the NCMs will be offended by, for example, arguments that the factual claims they may not “really” believe in themselves are, indeed, false and silly?

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

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Substance McGravitas 10.11.12 at 9:24 pm

If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Because people who believe stuff like that can also believe that Pat Robertson cures their cancer by reading their postcard on TV and then die as a result, and fewer suckers are better. “Then fight faith-healing” isn’t really a good enough answer if you’re gonna ignore X miracles – including the spell of prayer – for the sake of sensitivity.

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JJ 10.11.12 at 9:26 pm

Corollary to previous Proposition : If the ideology is isomorphic and the conclusions that theists derive from the spiritual ideology are flawed, then the conclusions that atheists derive from the material ideology are also flawed.

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CJColucci 10.11.12 at 9:41 pm

If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

That’s a matter I leave to believers to sort out. Trouble is, when someone wants to do something, and says in justification that God wrote a holy book that commands it, your suggestion amounts to unilateral disarmament. We can’t say — however politely — no, if there is a God, which there isn’t, he didn’t write your holy book; what else have you got. Perhaps we could learn enough about the doctrines of his particular sect or sub-sect to try to convince him that he’s wrong by his own lights, but that’s a mug’s game — and what if, by his own lights, he isn’t wrong? As, in all likelihood, he isn’t?

.

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Anderson 10.11.12 at 9:52 pm

Aristotle looked at the world around him came up with his conclusions.

Which is how he figured out women have fewer teeth than men do.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 10:09 pm

when someone wants to do something, and says in justification that God wrote a holy book that commands it, your suggestion amounts to unilateral disarmament

I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about now, and I suspect you haven’t got anything specific in mind. Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches.

Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

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Phil 10.11.12 at 10:11 pm

“Then fight faith-healing” isn’t really a good enough answer if you’re gonna ignore X miracles – including the spell of prayer – for the sake of sensitivity.

Nothing to do with sensitivity, just picking your fights and your enemies. If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

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JJ 10.11.12 at 10:20 pm

Which is exactly what happens when atheists conclude that the material resources of the world are effectively infinite, and require only the conquest and conversion of the people who possess them to reproduce the operation of an industrial society.

Just as the theists once concluded that the spiritual resources of the world (other people and the work they represented) were equally infinite, and required only their conquest and conversion to reproduce the operation of an agricultural society.

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john c. halasz 10.11.12 at 10:33 pm

These recurrent arguments between basically secular, non-religious people over the status and warranting of religious beliefs are odd and rather tedious. Granted the credibility of traditional religious beliefs has been eroding for a long time now, at least in the educated West, and the holistic claims of religious doctrine fail to pass muster in terms of the modern differentiation of validity-claims. But what these arguments boil down to ISTM is an argument over hermeneutic “charity” (or the lack thereof). Or IOW: can religious beliefs be at all (any more) authentically held.

That said, some hermeneutic pointers.

Those doxological superlatives, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good, are markers of the transcendence of God, not necessarily concepts from which logical deductions are to be derived. God is beyond all finite human knowledge, power, and justice or the capacity thereof. And God is what holds such worldly powers to account beyond and over against them. (And since the wages of sin is death, one doesn’t attain any afterlife, except by passing through the finality of the veil of death and the judgment that awaits. Salvation, in a strictly orthodox, Xian conception is not instantaneous, nor assured).

As to the question of God’s existence, the Scholastics already caught that one: God can not be said to “exist” in the same sense as the world, His creation. (He is transcendent to the world, not an empirical object within it). The usual solution was to appeal to Aristotles’ “unity of analogy”. But proofs or disproofs of God’s existence are probably the least interesting aspect of the matter, since no one’s belief or unbelief is actually based on such secondary elaborations.

As for hell and damnation, it is defined in orthodox terms as eternal separation from the presence of God. It is less God that consigns to damnation that the self-will of the unrepentant sinner. (Has anyone here read Dante?) IOW hell is where one is burned up and consumed by one’s own rage.

As for the propositional contents of religious doctrine, two co-religionists can hold to the identical tenet, yet their actual belief is modally different. Say, the resurrection of Jesus Christ: for one person the belief in that tenet might amount to a kind of supernatural rocket science, whereas for another it might be held to precisely because for all the world, it is impossible, (and not necessarily as a sacrifice of the intellect to its absurdity, but in the sober recognition the the consciousness of sin and the need for redemption are without counterpart, indeed, entirely meaningless, in a purely physical world. IOW one can really evaluate the quality of a belief in terms of propositional contents alone, without considering its “stage-setting” and its inferential range and concomitants.

Further, belief and knowledge are two different words with different ranges of usage and only partial overlap. (That knowledge is “justified true belief” is an attempt to translate the Platonic doxa/logos distinction into Analytic philosophy). So it is something of a category mistake to cash out “faith” as a kind of knowledge, (though one both theologians and ordinary religionists themselves have often tended to make). The sort of “truth” testified to in “faith” is not necessarily and simply a cognitive referential claim about the world, but rather more an adoption of a certain sort of “spiritual” attitude toward the world as a whole and one’s existence in it, (as God’s creation toward which on is obligated in certain ways, etc.). At any rate, one of the most basic functions of “belief” refers to persons, (since most of what one understands or knows about the world comes from what one has been told by others, however indirectly). Hence the connection mentioned by others above between the notion of “faith” and trust and loyalty. And there is a real sense in which if one knows something, one doesn’t have to believe it. I would be inclined, though too peremptorily, to say that one knows facts, but believes norms.

Religious belief, as others have suggested above, amounts to an existential choice of how one is to live out one’s life in the world. It concerns bios and not zoon. What is obnoxious about militant “new” atheists is how they seem to want to preclude any existential choice in others, which mirrors the prosthelytizing of church militants. (Also, they aren’t just peddling unbelief, but also a kind of neo-neo-positivism, with the oddly historicist projection that one day everything will be fully explained). I personally think that the old atheism, rooted in an anthropological ad hominem critique of religion as a human creation and projection of unmet needs and wish-fulfillments gets about 99% of the way, but it can’t close that last gap (or gasp) of possibility. But that critical tack requires some tact and some actual knowledge of the contents and ways of religion. Which is why it tends to have some ironical sympathy with religious belief and believers. (And for those Marxist inclined among us, I’ll point out that Marx didn’t actually have a critique of religion, but rather a critique of the critique of religion). I myself am an atheist of an indifferentist sort: it’s the same world and the same human existence for believers and unbelievers alike and no one gets a leg up. And their is a difference, however slight one may judge it, between religious belief per say, (which can be a potential critique of worldly power), and its ideological instrumentalization for the sake of prevailing political power. At least, that should be the basis of respectful, yet critical dialogue.

As for the metaphorical status of religious propositional contents, Wittgenstein compares religious tenets to analogies or metaphors that one can’t quite fill out. So he says, by way of analogy, it’s O.K. to regard bees as kindly creatures that provide us with the gift of honey, but watch out, because you might get stung.

I once got into trouble on the tubz with a “new atheist” Anaytical philosopher when I replied to his demonstration of the logical invalidity of the ontological proof, that Anselm’s original “proof” was meant more in a hortatory than a logically dispositive way. “God is that than which no greater can be conceived”- think of that as a riddle and however you would answer that riddle, then that for you is “God”. On thinking about it some more, I did realize that Anselm probably held to a Neo-Platonic ontology, wherein ideas are already wrapped in things, emanating from them, before he rounded on me with paranoiac anger, but the main point still not that the idea of perfection implies its necessary existence, (since, as Kant replied to Descartes’ and Leibniz’ rationalist versions, existence is not a predicate), but rather to distinguish between levels and qualities of belief, based on the critique of idolatry.

Following one that I would be inclined to define “religion”, in a logically neutral sense, as concerned with the justification of one’s existence in the world, since, as embodied, rather than just bodily, beings in the world and in the face of others, we all maintain personal identities, which are normative-symbolic constructs, and not physical existences, and thus we all feel a compulsion to justify our selves, in how we think and behave in the world, which, if nothing else, is at least a rich source of black comedy. Whatever projects or endeavors one undertakes in the world, to maintain a sense of living a “justified” life, be it in science, art, politics, etc., as well as religious observances or faith, that is one’s “religion”. And care should be taken in how one criticizes rather than attacks, without presumptuousness, such precarious identities and their “justifications”.

We entirely secular unbelievers nonetheless inherit a cultural tradition in which religious conceptions are deeply embedded, and we ourselves partake of residues of those background traditions in our own beliefs and intuitions, without being able to fully justify them. The Western sense of history as forward directed and thus the notion of historical progress is itself just a secularization of Christian eschatology, and has only dubious evidence to “justify” it. And the Marxian critique of ideology and commodity-fetishism itself owes much to the religious critique of idolatry. Even our inherited conceptions of “reason” , (as a sort of supreme court before which all things must be “justified”), partake of the notion of a “logos” the unifies the world. The horizon of human transcendence may well be null, but that doesn’t obviate the need and movement of transcendence, nor underwrite a forgetfulness of our limits and finitude.

Finally, as I have just been guilty of myself, too often these discussions of religion focus too exclusively on Christianity and especially its formalized theology. Judaism is a religion of a much different complexion, which is too readily subsumed by Christians, even unbelieving ones. And, of course, there are many other religions and a vast variety of religious beliefs, practices and modes of experience. Simply defining what “religion” is, is a notorious problem in social science. What I don’t understand about the “new atheists” is at once their proud ignorance of actual religious contents and their over-confidence in reductive explanations of it. Even for assured unbelievers, religion should be of basic anthropological interest, in terms of how we define ourselves.

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Staircaseghost 10.11.12 at 11:36 pm

I see we are now over 400+ posts and no one is willing defend the actual truth of any of the Credal claims Spufford chides nooatheists on for their lack of sophistication.

JW Mason @386 concedes, if only indirectly, that there was no historical event in Roman Palestine accurately described as a corpse returning to life, leaving us to wonder what percentage of believers would accept a description of their faith as only being “true” (scare quotes) in the sense that The Berenstein Bears or The Cat in the Hat teach our children important “truths” (in scare quotes). But this is not, as far as I can tell, Spufford’s view.

And forgive me, but I cannot even understand how Phil’s reply @382 even takes the form of a marshalling of evidence and inference tending to increase the probability of a resurrected corpse. Only talk of “grappling” with the idea of a resurrected corpse, or “making sense of” the idea of a resurrected corpse, concluded with a naked contradiction to the effect that some things might be both impossible and yet still possible. (One wonders, why the need to argue the impossible is possible when only a few paragraphs earlier I’m told that (true?) believers don’t really believe the alleged possible-impossible event was even actual!)

A thinner-skinned interneter would find the further assertion @393 that I not only “don’t understand” religion, but that my ignorance is deliberate and willful, to be insulting in light of the nearly two decades I spent as both a born again christian and later a confirmed catholic — but honestly I just find it funny. Not as funny as the implication that it never occurred to any Christians whether it was literally true that a man was raised form the dead, or to any number of animists whether witches can literally ruin one’s sexual potency through curses and spells, until “unsophisticated” nooatheists came along and asked them. A sort of Schrodinger’s Cat theory of literalism.

It is not true that regressive tax cuts for millionaires always pay for themselves. It is not true that urban heat islands account for the data of global warming. It is not true that WMDs were found in Iraq. And yet for some reason, I am never accused of “hamfisted positivism” for pointing any of these things out.

Look, if some liberal intellectual wants to go to church and say “it’s all a metaphor”, I have no problem. But first he has to agree, clearly and explicitly, that it’s all a metaphor. If he is going to obfuscate and equivocate about what he really believes, then I reserve the right to call him out on his obscurantism.

People wonder why anyone would have a problem with admittedly benign silly beliefs like virgin births whose connection to harmful behavior is more attenuated than those pertaining to the virgins one allegedly gets in paradise for murdering people in office buildings. Here it is: I think people should try to believe true things and disbelieve false things. That is my secret agenda. And the thing about special pleading — even when the silly beliefs are benign or even helpful — is that you can’t meta-special meta-plead for why special pleading is really OK in just this one case.

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Substance McGravitas 10.11.12 at 11:37 pm

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

“A” is the issue in faith healing, and of course they’re not enemies, they’re just wrong.

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CJColucci 10.12.12 at 12:51 am

Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

We’re going around in circles. Of course Christians will not join in an attack on Christianity — something I am not the least bit interested in doing. But when someone wants to impose on me and claims some authority that, for what seems to me to be good reasons, is not an authority at all, is it really your advice that I not dispute whether what he claims is a holy book dictated by some deity is, in fact a holy book dictated by some deity? Must I restrict myself to arguing with him over the proper understanding of his own religion — rather arrogant thing for a non-communicant to do, I should think, and probably futile because the guy is probably right about what his own religion commands. Should I so handicap myself just to avoid offending nice, largely blameless people who are, nevertheless, very likely to become discombobulated simply upon learning that someone who seemed like such a nice person actually disbelieves in holy books and deities?
Large numbers of us unbelievers have no interest in converting believers as long as they leave us to our own particular delusions. Sometimes, however, the question comes up. Usually because some believer brings it up, either explicitly or by trying to use my tax money to impose upon the rest of us, or by reacting in horror at the very thought of unbelief, wondering why unbelievers aren’t axe-murderers and rapists.
Two true stories from my own life, since some folks prefer anecdotes to arguments. First, I never doubted the existence of God until somebody with a serious background in theology and philosophy said he could prove it. He tried, he failed — and he caused me to look at a variety of arguments and evidence, none of which made much sense. Second, the question rarely comes up in real life. I was married 17 years when my wife said she didn’t know any atheists. She was startled when she learned that she knew at least two, including her husband. I don’t go out of my way to take on believers. I attend religious services for events that are significant to people I care about, even though most of them know I do not share their creeds. I have a lively interest in the customs and beliefs of various religions; one of my dog-park friends is a free-lance rabbi and we often have stimulating, friendly discussions about Judaism. It doesn’t matter to him that, interesting as I find the subject, I no more believe in the non-metaphorical truth of his stories about Yahweh and the ancient Hebrews than I believe in the non-metaphorical truth of Homer’s epics. If everyone were reasonable like that, we could all get along. But not everybody is, and if a large group of people gets upset at the very idea of non-believers, and resents them for that fact itself, apart from whether they are nice and polite or arrogant jerks — ask yourself if someone even suspected of being an atheist, however blemish-free his or her character and manners, could be elected President of the United States — what is to be done?

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Meredith 10.12.12 at 5:49 am

Some commenters here might share my recent interest in a 12th century inscription (an amazing bit of Latin) that a colleague (in Art) recently asked me (in Classics) about, and that has prompted a wonderful exchange between me and another colleague (in Jewish Studies and Comp Lit as well as Classics). From the cathedral in Cefalu, Sicily:

Factus homo factor hominis factique redemptor iudico corporeus corpora corda deus

Every word simultaneously is an assertion and raises a question, and the interlocking effects (can’t go into that here — just read out loud and listen, for a start, even if you don’t know a word of Latin) raise the questions to a new level. It is all supremely beautiful. (The mosaic is also worth checking out, too!)

As some have been observing here, not only are notions like “belief” or “trust” or “knowledge” often elided in translation. Even when you sort them out okay across languages and cultures, they’re not easy to distinguish, one from the other.

Humility, anyone?

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john c. halasz 10.12.12 at 6:29 am

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reason 10.12.12 at 7:43 am

CJCollucci @452

Well put. Yes exactly!

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Phil 10.12.12 at 8:10 am

if a large group of people gets upset at the very idea of non-believers, and resents them for that fact itself, apart from whether they are nice and polite or arrogant jerks — ask yourself if someone even suspected of being an atheist, however blemish-free his or her character and manners, could be elected President of the United States — what is to be done?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, campaign against intolerance of atheism. You know what? Tons of Christians will be on your side.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 8:27 am

staircaseghost – this really isn’t complicated (ask your past self some time).

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I described in those posts.

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 8:44 am

john c. halasz at #449 writes: But proofs or disproofs of God’s existence are probably the least interesting aspect of the matter, since no one’s belief or unbelief is actually based on such secondary elaborations.

I used to believe; now I don’t, and it is precisely because of evidence, arguments and proofs about God’s existence. Back when I used to believe, my belief was also based on evidence, and was logical (as far as I could tell) although it turned out to be unsound on close examination. Lots of atheists are in the same position: used to believe, and now don’t, based on what you call secondary elaborations.

It does appear to be the case that no ones religious belief is based on evidence, proofs or logical arguments (apart from naive examples like my own pre-teen beliefs), and that the spectacular cathedrals of spoofery constructed by people like Spufford to defend their beliefs are built on some foundational belief held for other reasons.

I think there is a simple explanation for this asymmetry, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 9:08 am

So you can’t stand religious people because they’re all deluded and bigoted, but what you really can’t stand is those religious people who aren’t deluded and bigoted, because that’s what religious people should be like…

I’d just love it if you could point out where on earth I said that I couldn’t stand religious people because they’re all deluded and bigoted. You won’t be able to of course, because nowhere have I said that, nor do I think that. In an earlier comment, I in fact alluded to kn0wing several lovely and intelligent people who were believers.

People seem to assume that affirming that they believe something and that therefore other people are wrong necessarily means they are therefore bigoted. I didn’t say that either. I think people are wrong all the time. I’m frequently wrong myself, and I’m quite happy to admit that. Doesn’t mean I’m bigoted. Bigotry is an entirely different phenomenon.

I am not in fact trying to trip people up here. I’m not playing gotcha. I originally just asked if Spufford had said “I believe that God exists and that Jesus Christ is his son”. I’ve said that I perceive this to be a basic foundational necessity for someone to be called Christian. I don’t think this is controversial. No one has claimed that this is controversial.

I haven’t challenged anyone to say they believe in a virgin birth, or the resurrection, or miracles or anything else. I’m fully aware of the concept of metaphor, and I’m entirely at ease with the idea of the Bible as a book of metaphor to prescribe a way of life/moral philosophy, whatever else, should anyone care. But “religion” goes beyond this. Otherwise it would be called a moral philosophy. It requires believe. Faith. Does it not?

And yet there has been comment after comment basically not being willing to commit to a belief. And now I’m finding that more fascinating than the original question (still unanswered) that I asked.

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 10:59 am

As to why we should address the existence of God instead of just opposing obnoxious behaviour by believers (and hoping to enlist less obnoxious believers on our side), there is the problem of authority. Mushy CofE types like Spufford aren’t likely to try and use the authority of their God on us (Spufford even sneers at the New Atheists for thinking the CofE is oppressing them), but there are other, larger and more combative branches of Christianity.

The catholic Bishop of Down and Connor is in the news in Ireland today, condemning the opening of a Marie Stopes private clinic in Belfast which will provide (legal) abortion service. In his statement, he doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 11:01 am

I originally just asked if Spufford had said “I believe that God exists and that Jesus Christ is his son”. I’ve said that I perceive this to be a basic foundational necessity for someone to be called Christian. I don’t think this is controversial. No one has claimed that this is controversial.

I don’t think it is. As far as I know all Christians believe this, Spufford presumably included.

And yet there has been comment after comment basically not being willing to commit to a belief.

I’m not willing to commit to Christian belief for the simple reason that I’m not a Christian. Perhaps we should wait until the Christians get here.

But it seems to me that we were disagreeing over something not addressed in this comment, which is the question of how Christians perceive non-Christians. And it seems to me that you were stating that for anyone who believed in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ it was, or should be seen as, logically necessary that anyone who didn’t have that faith was damned. My argument was simply that lots of Christians in practice don’t believe this, and that they can make a perfectly good argument for not believing it. That’s not “not being willing to commit to a belief”, that’s “believing something different from what you assumed Christians to believe”.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 11:09 am

In his statement, he doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.”

Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience?

It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

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Peter Erwin 10.12.12 at 11:21 am

Phil @ 457:
Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.

I wonder if you’re not in danger of wandering into “no true Scotsman” territory here.

It’s absolutely clear that many people who have considered themselves Christian have believed this, and continue to believe this. Even aside from the issue of the future resurrection of the dead[*], there are canonically accepted stories of saints raising people from the dead (even in the New Testament itself); I can, with five seconds’ worth of googling, find a web page enthusing about a book called Saints Who Raised the Dead, which recounts all sorts of resurrections attributed to historical saints like St. Francis Xavier. (Also, there’s this nifty bit in Matthew 27 about what happens when Jesus dies on the cross: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”)

If you want to argue that not all Christians believe this, sure, no problem. Personally, I’m happy to accept a fuzzy, semi-sociological definition of Christianity, not the least because I find religious history interesting and have read enough about various heresies and doctrinal struggles to look skeptically on blanket statements about religions. So some Christians do believe in bodily resurrections, and other Christians see it as just an inspiring metaphor, and I’m not really interested in trying to identify which of those are the “real” Christians. (Many Christians have similarly fuzzy/tolerant ideas about who can be considered a Christian; some have very narrow, strict ideas.) But you seem to be veering towards an argument along the lines of “Don’t be silly, no true Christian would believe that!” Which is, well, kind of silly.

[*] What may be true is that majority Christian belief has, in the last couple of centuries, shifted away from an emphasis on bodily resurrection at the End of Days and more towards a popular belief in souls ascending permanently to heaven (or down to hell) upon death, ignoring any subsequent stage of bodily resurrection. Which is an interesting change. However, one can certainly find contemporary religious sources like The Catholic Encyclopedia which will assert that “The creeds and professions of faith and conciliar definitions do not leave it doubtful that the resurrection of the body is a dogma or an article of faith” and warn that “the heretical contention of Hymeneus and Philitus that the Scriptures denote by resurrection not the return to life of the body, but the rising of the soul from the death of sin to the life of grace, must be excluded.”

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 12:08 pm

Phil writes (of Katherine): And it seems to me that you were stating that for anyone who believed in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ it was, or should be seen as, logically necessary that anyone who didn’t have that faith was damned.

Hmm, that’s not how I read Katherine. I thought she was saying that if you believe Jesus is the son of God, then you believe all the religious folks who believe otherwise are wrong, not that they are necessarily damned. Wrong about an issue of fact.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 12:09 pm

And it seems to me that you were stating that for anyone who believed in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ it was, or should be seen as, logically necessary that anyone who didn’t have that faith was damned.

That was not even slightly what I said. I said that if someone believed that Christ was the son of god, then logically they’d have to believe anyone who didn’t believe that was wrong. I never used the word “damned” or “condemned” (a word someone else attributed to me), I said “wrong”.

That other people then infer from that that a Christian saying someone is wrong means they are therefore damned or condemned says more about Christianity than I ever did.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 12:10 pm

Shorter version – what Niall said.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 12:13 pm

All this came out of comments I made roughly wondering why a fluffy, mushy Christian who didn’t have the strength of their own commitment to actually believe the basic, fundamental facts of their own religion (ie God exists, Christ was the son of God) bothered calling themselves members of a religion at all, and not just members of a social club.

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 12:14 pm

I think the CofE uses the Apostle’s creed, right? If so one of the assertions Spufford tries to mean every Sunday is: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

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chris 10.12.12 at 12:44 pm

Trouble is, when someone wants to do something, and says in justification that God wrote a holy book that commands it, your suggestion amounts to unilateral disarmament.

And “do something” can include torturing or killing people, in rare cases *lots* of people, so the stakes are high.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 12:51 pm

So some Christians do believe in bodily resurrections, and other Christians see it as just an inspiring metaphor, and I’m not really interested in trying to identify which of those are the “real” Christians.

Fair enough. I’ve never believed (or even, when I was a Christian, tried very hard to believe) in the bodily resurrection at the end of days, so it wasn’t even in my mind when I wrote that comment. I don’t think it materially changes my argument, though – the point is that Christians believe (along with everyone else) that when somebody dies here and now they aren’t going to come back three days later, however hard you pray (and indeed that anyone who did pray for a loved one to come back wouldn’t deserve respect for the depth of their faith, they’d deserve professional help).

Katherine – leaving salvation out of it, it’s entirely possible to believe that Jesus was the son of God, and at the same time to believe that the beliefs held by other people (although they appear to be mistaken) may in reality be just as good (in the sense of making it possible to live just as saintly a life, leading to just as many hungry people being fed, or whatever your metric for ‘good’ may be). There may be more things in heaven and earth than we’ve dreamt of. Come to that, if God’s omniscient and we’re not, presumably he knows things we don’t.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 12:56 pm

“do something” can include torturing or killing people, in rare cases *lots* of people, so the stakes are high.

Statement: “We must do this evil thing because our holy book says so!”
Response 1: “I’m not an authority on your holy book, but this evil thing is evil. Let me describe to you how evil it is. Do you really think we should do this evil thing?”
Response 2: “Your holy book is telling you to do an evil thing. That just shows that you should never do things because of what it says in your holy book, which isn’t holy anyway.”

Response 1 may not always work, but I’d bet on it working better than Response 2 every time.

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 1:05 pm

Phil writes: whatever your metric for ‘good’ may be

What if your metric for ‘good’ is ‘true’?

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bianca steele 10.12.12 at 1:09 pm

@462
So take a poll, for Pete’s sake. Talk about trolling.

If religious statements are metaphors, what in the world are they metaphors for? If Genesis is a metaphor, and Christianity and Judaism both have accepted this almost a thousand years, why in the world do we have to have Creationism?

Some religions are happy to say people from other religions have no obligation to accept the beliefs of their own religion (usually as long as they’re nice people). Some groups are prejudiced against outsiders but don’t attribute this to religious beliefs. Some religions put everything on the surface. Some don’t. I assume Christianity, throughout history, has been huge enough to encompass groups of all those types.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 1:14 pm

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 1:18 pm

it’s entirely possible to believe that Jesus was the son of God, and at the same time to believe that the beliefs held by other people (although they appear to be mistaken) may in reality be just as good (in the sense of making it possible to live just as saintly a life, leading to just as many hungry people being fed, or whatever your metric for ‘good’ may be).

For goodness sake, I feel as if I’m going round in circles here. Yes indeed, I agree. I have said that myself, on more than one occasion, in comments above, if you’d care to check.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 1:23 pm

Niall (also Katherine) – believe me when I say that some of the most devout Christians I’ve known, some of the people most deeply and passionately committed to their faith, would be deeply, deeply reluctant to answer that question with either a Yes or a No. I think the people I’m thinking of wouldn’t want to go any further than “mistaken”, or preferably “apparently mistaken”. This has nothing to do with being woolly or uncommitted. Christians know what they believe to be true, but to say that other beliefs are false you’d need to know the mind of God.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 1:28 pm

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong.

Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? You don’t dissent from “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or from “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

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Niall McAuley 10.12.12 at 1:33 pm

There’s no room for mind-of-god waffle here: if the Jews or the Moslems are right about Jesus, there is no Mind-of-the-Christian-God, because Jesus-the-god, one third of the trinity, doesn’t exist and never did.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 1:37 pm

Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? You don’t dissent from “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or from “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

Those three sentences are not equivalent. The first two are about the moral/spiritual worthiness of non-believers; the last one is about their factual correctness or not.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 1:39 pm

Christians know what they believe to be true, but to say that other beliefs are false you’d need to know the mind of God.

So we are back at quantum divinity, where there is a third state between “true” and “false”.

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bianca steele 10.12.12 at 1:39 pm

believe me when I say that some of the most devout Christians I’ve known, some of the people most deeply and passionately committed to their faith, would be . . .

. . . likely to know a lot about sophisticated theology concerning the issues it had occurred to them to ask a clergyperson about, or that it had occurred to someone to put into a sermon, or into a classroom lecture. Other people, equally devout Christians, are likely to know a lot about different things. What about the ordinary believers, who may not be among “the most devout” from one perspective, but who were raised in the religion and adhere to it for good religious reasons? You’re assuming that you, as an outsider (and someone who was raised in one small corner of one version of Christianity) can speak for all Christians. I’d bet some Christians would be kind of offended by the way you’re describing their beliefs, no matter how generous you feel you’re being.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 1:48 pm

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

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bianca steele 10.12.12 at 1:49 pm

@Niall
I’ve never been one of those ultra-sophisticated Jewish thinkers, to be sure, and my education has been scattered, but “the second person of the Trinity doesn’t exist” just doesn’t parse in Judaism, ISTM. God is indivisible, incorporal, thus can’t have a son, and a human being cannot be God: these would be more appropriate reasons, I think. Jesus can still be a great teacher, Christianity can still be the extension of the revelation of the law of God to Moses to the gentile world. Metaphors and narratives are probably okay (not for Jews, of course ). (With caveats, about the present way the temporal world is now ruled, from a God’s-eye perspective.) Not that this thread should be sidetracked onto non-Christian theology.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 1:51 pm

You’re assuming that you, as an outsider (and someone who was raised in one small corner of one version of Christianity) can speak for all Christians.

No, I believe that I can speak for some Christians – and reasonable numbers of ordinary Christians, not just “a couple of hundred liberal theologians” or whatever the phrase was. To disprove that “all X are Y” you don’t need to show that all X are not-Y.

Katherine – the third state between “we know it’s true” and “we know it’s false” is “we don’t know for sure”.

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bianca steele 10.12.12 at 1:59 pm

Phil:
It seems like you’re saying, “From the Christians I’ve known, I’ve concluded these things about what they believe and so on, and the best way to deal with them.” Other people are saying, “What you say doesn’t make sense (given the Christians) I’ve known, or other things I know.” Your response is to say something like, “Yes, it does make sense (given the Christians you’ve known).” They’re actually not required to answer you in full, on the grounds you chose, or else admit they’re totally wrong. You’re not actually at risk of conceding, “nothing is true,” by allowing them their own opinion.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 2:15 pm

Katherine – the third state between “we know it’s true” and “we know it’s false” is “we don’t know for sure”.

Except it’s not “know” is it? It’s “believe”.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 2:16 pm

And I believe that the half way between “I believe” and “I don’t believe” is a thing called agnosticism.

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William Timberman 10.12.12 at 2:49 pm

So we are back at quantum divinity, where there is a third state between “true” and “false”.

Katherine, I probably think much as you do myself, which is to say that if this religion business is all metaphor, what’s the point of all the very specific demands on our (or at least their) credibility that its adherents make? This is why I’m an atheist despite the obvious appeal of the stories religions tell about the divine and the human and what governs the relationship between the two. Still, they do have a point, and as I’ve said, it isn’t a mushy one. It points to something fundamental that you’re overlooking here, in your attempt to trap Spufford in a logical cul-de-sac.

Look at your statement above. If you consider the insistence on such a principle to be evidence of lousy logic, then presumably you don’t believe in electrons either. The problem here, as most believers realize, and you seem not to, is that what’s at issue isn’t the mind of God, it’s the mind of Man. We came up with electrons based on a very simple model, which at the time we thought represented an observable and experimentally demonstrable description of something we’d discovered by legitimate means. Then, through improved measuring equipment, and more exact observations, we began to encounter some very odd occasions when this model failed to explain what we’d thought it had explained. Suddenly we had something best described as a wavicle</i, I suppose and the word electron became a metaphor, which five minutes before we discovered its somewhat disturbing non-particle property had presumably been nothing of the kind. Very like the evolution of religion, I would say, yet, in all modesty, still nowhere near capable of replacing it. So castigate Christians if you will, for all sorts of reasons, but really, you should stop already with the mushy, and the fluffy. It makes you sound as though you’re wearing a pince-nez.

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CJColucci 10.12.12 at 3:11 pm

I think I have finally figured out Phil’s position on when it’s appropriate to call into question the factual claims of those religious folk who make factual claims: STFU.

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Phil 10.12.12 at 3:17 pm

Katherine – no, that’s precisely the point. It’s “we believe, but we don’t know“.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God?

Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

(Islam is much better at dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in this respect – There is no god but Allah and Mohamed is his prophet. That’s that, job done.)

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Phil 10.12.12 at 3:21 pm

I think I have finally figured out Phil’s position on when it’s appropriate to call into question the factual claims of those religious folk who make factual claims: STFU

This would be the same Phil who expressed strong support for campaigning against Creationism and homophobia with bullshit Biblical backing, would it?

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niamh 10.12.12 at 3:28 pm

This has been a long and diverse thread, and it’s gone way beyond the quite modest point of my original post, so I think it’s time to draw things to a close now. Thanks everyone.

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Bruce Wilder 10.12.12 at 3:45 pm

Is “true/false” the relevant pole? Or, “good/evil”?

The latter, it seems to me, belongs to a domain of knowledge potentially foreign to either the logical or the factual. To believe, “God Loves Me”, isn’t really akin to believing, say, “Humans, as a species, descend from an ancestor in common with the apes.” If Christians are confused on this point, it is because, in Christian doctrine, certain mythical narratives, meant to convey belief about the value of humans, the meaning of human lives and suffering, etc., are presented as factual reporting, and it would seem that the “truth” of the posited values and imperatives depends on the factual truth of the story.

The story of the Christ — of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, teaching, persecution, death and resurrection — is a powerful myth, with deep resonance in the human imagination. It has some interesting things to say about the nature of evil, as well as good, and about power and temptation and corruption, and suffering. At least in Catholic dogma, it is asserted that the myth contains revelation from God about the nature of the divine, and that revealed knowledge goes beyond what can be known from the reporting of observable fact. The assertion of Jesus’s divine nature, as the Son of God, belongs to that revealed Truth, which would not be knowable by the ordinary means of shared observation or logical deduction. That knowledge is available only through faith, in the acceptance of revelation, the same faith, which gives hope of salvation through the grace of God and the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of humans from a sinful nature born of free will and knowledge of good and evil.

Something like Pascal’s wager, and its superficial preoccupation with the factual existence of a personal God, seems to me to miss the point, to bypass the deep and mystical contemplation of existential responsibility and suffering at the center of Christian faith, which is, ultimately about the nature of good and evil and the meaning of life. Catholic doctrine, tellingly, calls these the “mysteries” of faith, not the facts of faith (– “facts of faith” would be a kind of contradiction in terms, as I understand it).

I am not a Christian, though I suppose that I accept Christian instruction on a number of points, concerning what is good and ethical conduct. I’m really not sure why I think there is, or should be, some moral order; perhaps, I imagine moral order is founded in human nature and human society as a product of that nature, even though human nature seems to give birth to more Republican than saints. Maybe, I just haven’t suffered much in my life; maybe there’s just a lot I will never know about humans, society, and life.

The facts of nature, as we discover them by shared observation and logical analysis, are lost as a ground for myth. It is a foolish Christian, who doesn’t cheerfully acknowledge and accept the loss for what it is — not a loss of moral meaning in myth and mythical understanding, per se, but a gain in an ultimately vain power, which only increases the need for moral understanding. Christian faith should not be confused with a property interest in astronomy, biology or psychology, by either believers or un-believers. By the same token, un-believers should not be confusing Christian faith with some set of merely factual propositions, equivalent to the discoveries of science.

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