Vocational hazards


Barbara J King at NPR is repeating her mantra that it’s wrongwrongwrong bad awful reprehensible to say that absurd beliefs are absurd.

Last Thursday, I spoke with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a recorded interview at the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. That meeting was suggested by the American arm of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in the wake of a post I wrote here at 13.7 last month.

In my original post, I questioned whether Dawkins was the best choice to be headline speaker at the March 24 Reason Rally in Washington, given that one of its goals was to change negative stereotypes about atheists.

Yes she did. She wondered if Dawkins was “the best man for the job” of giving the keynote speech at the Reason Rally, given its aim to “combat negative stereotypes about nonreligious Americans.”

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

I disputed her claim, and especially her way of making it, at the time.

She isolates the core issue clearly this time.

In insisting that he does not insult people who believe in God, only their beliefs, Dawkins tries for a distinction I find problematic.

On his blog last year, Dawkins called a person named Minor Vidal a “fool” for his expression of thanks to God after surviving a deadly plane crash. (To be fair, Dawkins called “billions” of other people fools, too, in the same post.)

Dawkins told me that if he insulted any person, he regrets it. But this example shows how hard it is, in practice rather than theory, to aim harsh language only at a person’s belief, and not at the person.

How much does that distinction matter? When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?

Why use demeaning terms, and urge others to use them, for either the belief or the person?

Because many beliefs are absurd, and if everyone everywhere is deferential about them at all times, then it becomes a lot harder to get rid of them. That’s why. It seems so obvious. Many beliefs one just expects people to shed as they grow out of childhood, because of their obvious absurdity. It’s cute when a child thinks maybe her toys come to life when she’s asleep; it’s worrying if an adult thinks her car has a mind.

Check out Richard’s post about Minor Vidal. He wasn’t just calling him a fool, and he wasn’t just being randomly obnoxious – he was making a point (and a good one). Minor Vidal was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Bolivia that killed eight people, and he was found after three days by a rescue team.

And when he was eventually found, did he thank Captain Bustos and the rescue team? Did he thank the boy scout teachers who had taught him vital survival skills? We aren’t told. But what we are told is that he knelt down and thanked God.  God who, he presumably must have believed, allowed the plane crash to happen in the first place and allowed his eight fellow passengers to die. He knelt down and thanked God. And billions of people, all around the world, will think that was a perfectly natural thing to do. They would have done the same. Does religion manufacture fools, or do fools gravitate towards religion?

Now on the one hand it’s perfectly understandable that Vidal felt enormous relief at being rescued, and thanking god may be just a way of expressing that – but still – on calm reflection one remembers the other eight, and the survival skills, and the hard work of the rescue team. It really is an ugly belief, that god drowned thousands but saved precious Me. It really is an ungrateful belief, that surgeons worked all night but it was god who saved My life. Richard really isn’t just being a big meanie to point that out.

Maybe because King is an anthropologist she has a vocational aversion to thinking that absurd beliefs are absurd.

 

 

Comments

  1. peterh says

    No, no . . . mustn’t use hurtful words. See elsewhere on FTB New York ninnies attempting to protect impressionable youth from hurtful words.

  2. Michael Fugate says

    So typical of those who disagree but have no answer – they pick on some minor fault and run with it. I see this all of the time when people complain about misspellings. You know they think this somehow destroys the logic of the argument without them ever having to engage the argument.

    I disagree with your argument’s conclusions.
    You misspelled a word or made some other minor grammatical error.
    Your argument is wrong. QED

  3. says

    How much does that distinction matter? When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?

    Note that she says herself she doesn’t respect the beliefs of YECs (on the audio), so apparently it’s OK for her to do the demeaning.

  4. says

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this issue after a guest poster at The Friendly Atheist said:

    When Hemant talked about religion having the market cornered on empathy, I think he is on to something. It’s not that this criticism is limited only to atheists, nor do I think that all atheists are guilty of it, but it’s a somewhat troubling trend that illustrates a broader undercurrent in our movement: to discredit believers for their gullible natures, or their stupidity, or for their lack of commitment to the truth. This, I think, is a trend that needs to stop…

    Basically, I responded by saying that empathy and calling out someone for being stupid were not mutually exclusive, and that some people respond positively to having their foolishness ridiculed. There’s plenty else wrong with Amanda’s position, but let’s leave it there.

    Anyway, it’s got me thinking about this whole tone argument/pearl clutching trend. What are these people scared of? Why is it permissible to say racism is wrong (both immoral and scientifically groundless) and people who adhere to racist positions are condemned in the strongest possible terms, but it’s not okay to say religion is wrong (both harmful and scientifically groundless) or call those who adhere to it fools? Even when that’s what we really believe to be true (presumably). Do we worry that the racists’ feelings might be hurt? Do we worry that some people might get the impression that anti-racists feel superior to the racists who also think they’re superior? In fact, we do the opposite: we try to put as much social pressure as we can to influence people to cease the harmful behaviour.

  5. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The number of people who have a dislike if not a hatred for Dawkins is quite amazing. You’d think he was killing Christians and eating their livers with fava beans on television the way some folks complain about him.

    I have my problems with Dawkins. I do hold the “Dear Muslima” letter against him. But he is an effective speaker and writer for atheism. Possibly that’s why so many goddists are upset with him.

  6. Sastra says

    “When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?”

    Why “when it comes to religion?” Why doesn’t demeaning a person’s belief about science or history or politics also demean the person? Why the special significance given to religious beliefs?

    Because of the special epistemology the religious beliefs use, that’s why. When you hold a view on science, history, or politics you consider your viewpoint a reflection of the evidence behind it. You drew a conclusion. And you assume –or hope — that any reasonable person coming from a position of neutrality would or should arrive at the very same place. It’s about the facts.

    But when you hold a view on religion, you consider your viewpoint a reflection of who you are. You drew a conclusion from evidence, sure — but you were motivated. You opened up. You reached out. You committed yourself in a way that no neutral person would commit themselves. You choose to have faith. It’s all about you and your relationship with the divine.

    And that is a problem. It’s not a benefit which religion gives the world — this ability to divide people by the facts they choose to put their faith in. It’s the reason atheists are against religion per se, instead of just being against the “mean” ones or the “extremists.”

    Faith is not a virtue; it’s a vice. The existence of God is not a value; it’s a hypothesis. Religion is not an identity; it’s a set of conclusions about reality. And you can change your mind without losing who you are, or abandoning every noble feeling and principle you hold. It’s just a bunch of explanations. Wrong explanations, as it turns out. You can do better.

    When it comes to religion, we want people to STOP thinking that they are their beliefs. We want them to stop thinking that demeaning a person’s belief means that they’re being personally attacked.

    And it seems terribly counterproductive to try to get this message across by acting as if it’s true — by being deferential and respectful and careful and gentle when religion comes up because these beliefs are so terribly sensitive an area and we really don’t want anyone to feel worried or alarmed that we might try to get them to change who they are. We don’t want them to think we want them to become like us.

    No. Let’s lose the whole identification with belief and stop this nonsense where you believe in things because you want to be the kind of person who believes in that thing and don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t. Take your views seriously for a change. Stop making it all about you.

  7. says

    I thought Dawkins came of very well in the interview, and that King revealed herself more interested in grilling him on these issues than in a real discussion. she hardly ever responded to anything he said. Score one for the right to criticize absurd and dangerous beliefs.

  8. Kirth Gersen says

    @ Micheal Fugate,

    “I see this all of the time when people complain about misspellings. You know they think this somehow destroys the logic of the argument without them ever having to engage the argument.”

    I’m often guilty of pointing out gramatical and spelling errors, but that is orthagonal to addressing the main point. The only connection is that a lot of people whose points are complete rot (e.g., most Creationists) are the same people who insist on communicating like illiterate 3-year-olds — as if being “folksy” somehow obviates the need to make a defensible point. In that respect, a bit of grammar-nazi-ism can be seen as a backlash against the “I’s not a elitist book-learnin’ type so i must be right” thing that we see so much of.

  9. says

    Sastra:

    “Faith is not a virtue; it’s a vice. The existence of God is not a value; it’s a hypothesis. Religion is not an identity; it’s a set of conclusions about reality. And you can change your mind without losing who you are, or abandoning every noble feeling and principle you hold. It’s just a bunch of explanations. Wrong explanations, as it turns out. You can do better.”

    If the existence of anyone’s god was just their personal hypothesis, that hypothesis could be attacked and dismissed on many grounds: unprovable, untestable; no rational way of choosing within the variety of unprovable untestables; etc.

    Fact of the matter is that most of the world’s faithful carry on the faith of their immediate ancestors. And because religion is about more than ‘conclusions about reality’ and because it is so closely bound up with having a tribe to identify with, it is stubbornly defended by people like Barbara J King. I put it to you that the Reason Rally and such are at least in part about giving atheists a tribal identity of their own.

    Accordingly, I offer you this substitute statement:

    Tribal identity is not a virtue; it’s a vice. The existence of the tribal identifier is not a value; it’s a hypothesis. Tribal identity is not an identity; it’s a set of conclusions about reality…

  10. F says

    How much does that distinction matter? When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?

    So she is saying that Love the sinner, hate the sin is utter bullshit. Won’t her Christian friends and consumers who subscribe to that bit of wisdom be offended? Or are they incapable of recognizing the exact same distinction used elsewhere, or perhaps subject to special pleading that “It’s not the same”?

  11. Stacy says

    Ian, tribal identity is neither an hypothesis nor a set of conclusions about reality.

    We’re born into our tribes. Or we believe/enjoy/identify with things and then seek out like-minded others, who then become our “tribe”.

    There is no hypothesis. A tribe is a category, not a proposed explanation.

    “A set of conclusions about reality” may be an aspect of some tribes–in particular, religious ones–but it is not a necessary ingredient of tribal identity.

    I’m an American. Yes, yes, I know–the U.S.A., conceived as a monolith, does promote its own version of reality. Nevertheless, even us native USAians are not required to believe it in order to retain our identity as Americans.

    On the other hand, if someone doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or (for some liberal denominations) at least the overarching moral importance of certain of his supposed teachings, there would be no sense in them identifying as a Christian.

  12. says

    Ah, we’ve begged her. We’ve implored and importuned. She doesn’t want to.

    So we get her wealth in comments, which from our point of view is a good deal. But for the good of the world…another story.

  13. machintelligence says

    Fact of the matter is that most of the world’s faithful carry on the faith of their immediate ancestors.

    So this is a case of “are you calling my daddy a liar?”
    I think the appropriate response is “I doubt he’s a liar, he’s most likely an ignorant doofus just like you!”

  14. Rieux says

    It didn’t work last time and no doubt won’t work this time, but here are the two comments (the forum length limit requires me to split ’em up) I’m in the process of submitting over there:

    (1)

    “When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?”

    No, very obviously not. That King clearly believes otherwise is a blatant indication of her overwhelming investment in religious privilege, and indeed her fundamental opposition to atheists’ human rights.

    The notion that religion and religion alone (as King bizarrely emphasizes: “When it comes to religion…”) must be insulated from challenge and criticism obliterates any chance that theocracy can ever be opposed—and, given the oppression of atheists and other heretical religious minorities that King flatly ignores in her rush to pathologize open critique of religion, it ensures that atheists can only exist bound, gagged, and shoved into closets—the unavoidable consequence of King’s demands.

    It’s a deep embarrassment that King is able to use her platform as an atheist to shove a dagger into the collective back of her fellow members of a minority that is by several measures the most despised in the United States. King’s declaration that religious believers’ privilege never to have their ideas questioned is more important than the human rights of atheist people is a stain on NPR, not to mention on public discourse more broadly. Despicable.

    (2)

    “Why use demeaning terms, and urge others to use them, for either the belief or the person?”

    Well, self-evidently, because a large number of *beliefs* are both overwhelmingly widespread and obscenely destructive to human rights in the world we all live in. Clearly you consider yourself far too superior even to stoop to address that point (one made repeatedly by Reason Rally speakers), but that does nothing to rebut it; it merely provides further demonstration of your privileged and willfully blind arrogance.

    “Surely it’s not adequate justification that some religious people are guilty of the same….”

    Of course not, which is why no one is actually making that point; it’s a strawman created by your own bigoted imagination.

    Atheists attack religious ideas for the same reason anyone else in the world attacks any ideas: because we believe those ideas to be wrong and harmful. Your attempts to declare the very exercise unethical—but *only* when it’s addressed at religious ideas—can have no other effect but empowerment of theocrats and atheophobes. It is *you*, Ms. King, and not Richard Dawkins, who are cementing bigoted stereotypes of atheists in the public consciousness.

    Stop the privilege. Stop the hate.

    I’ve submitted the first, and the npr.org system is making me “wait a minute or two” to submit the second. We’ll see if either one of them gets through.

  15. Rieux says

    (By “didn’t work and won’t work,” I mean that it’s not going to change King’s mind. I did get some comments of the above variety through the review process last time; in that sense, “it” did “work.” Apologies to James for pirating his verb.)

  16. says

    Sastra’s statement:

    “Faith is not a virtue; it’s a vice. The existence of God is not a value; it’s a hypothesis. Religion is not an identity; it’s a set of conclusions about reality. And you can change your mind without losing who you are, or abandoning every noble feeling and principle you hold. It’s just a bunch of explanations. Wrong explanations, as it turns out…”

    Can be transformed into the following:

    “Tribal identity is not a virtue; it’s a vice. The existence of the tribal identifier is not a value; it’s a hypothesis. Tribal identity is not an identity; it’s a set of conclusions about reality….” by making a few consistent substitutions.

    Traditional religious identity involves picking up the faith and values of one’s immediate ancestors. Or at least paying lip service to them. So though you say: “…if someone doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or (for some liberal denominations) at least the overarching moral importance of certain of his supposed teachings, there would be no sense in them identifying as a Christian.”

    Yet some do. Even priests. They identify as Christians because in their family, social or other context, it is easier to do so than not.

    I put it to you that believing, or at least not denying belief, is a means to belonging. That is why the form of the belief, of whatever sect or denomination, is not as important as everyone holding to the same one.

    Thus in only a limited sense is religion about beliefs. It is more about human loyalties to kith and kin.

  17. Sastra says

    Ian MacDougall #30 wrote:

    I put it to you that believing, or at least not denying belief, is a means to belonging. That is why the form of the belief, of whatever sect or denomination, is not as important as everyone holding to the same one.
    Thus in only a limited sense is religion about beliefs. It is more about human loyalties to kith and kin.

    Yes. This is pretty much what I’m trying to say. In religion, people conflate factual beliefs (“God exists”) with their identity — their tribe, their character, their values, their culture, etc. The religious beliefs are hypotheses. The tribal identity is not a hypothesis.

    They ought to pry those two apart, and we should help them. Until and unless they do, nobody can approach religious claims with any honesty. And everyone is divided along fixed lines.

    From our perspective, we don’t believe in God because the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion. From the faith perspective, we atheists refuse to believe because we are the wrong kind of people. We reject God, and fail to connect with the sacred. We are lower. We don’t belong.

    If we want to fix that, we can’t just keep telling them that we really respect their tribal identities — and how they formed them.

  18. Rieux says

    Very interesting stuff, Ian and Sastra.

    I think that the elements of religion that aren’t strictly about belief—tribal identification and subjective religious experience being two big ones—are seriously neglected topics in gnu atheist circles. So keep talking about this, please.

  19. bad Jim says

    This is exactly why an ad reading simply “Atheists” is rejected as controversial, because our unapologetic existence itself can be considered a personal affront.

    To the extent that religion is part of one’s identity, it’s more than just a matter of illegitimate privilege. Religion might only be central to the identity of a third of the American population, but most of the remainder are at least weakly religious or spiritual, and they typically regard spirituality and virtue as inextricably intertwined.

    Both the true believers and those who are uncomfortably aware of the flimsiness of their beliefs find someone as blunt and uncompromising as Dawkins to be rude and even personally offensive because he calls their virtue into question.

    Maybe we should try an oblique pitch:
    WE DON’T BELIEVE IN ZOMBIES OR GHOSTS
    or angels and demons or saints and sinners

  20. says

    Stacy:

    Sorry, my post at #20 was addressed to you. But the draft of the whole thing, somehow minus your name at the start, was what got posted. In between writing the sentences of it, I was involved in manhandling a 29,000 L rainwater tank off a truck and into position next to the house.

    Oh yes, and shovelling a couple of tonnes of sand from one pile to another.

    My apologies.

    Rieux @ #22: You’re welcome. I’ve been commenting here at B&W for 10 years (?). Ever since I first got access to the Internet.

    I first got interest in the functional aspects of religion through reading Emile Durkheim. I also have a lot of religious relatives and friends, and I get a lot of ideas from talking to them.

  21. Sastra says

    Rieux #22 wrote:

    I think that the elements of religion that aren’t strictly about belief—tribal identification and subjective religious experience being two big ones—are seriously neglected topics in gnu atheist circles.

    You know, I’ve heard this claim a lot — that the gnu atheists don’t examine or pay enough attention to the fact that “religion” is motivated by tribalism and subjective experience — and I don’t think I buy it. On the contrary, when I consider what I’ve read coming out of gnus, major and minor, this seems to be one of the main themes. We’re always deconstructing the many reasons behind religious belief, analyzing the mechanisms and motivations and mysticism behind what appear, on the surface, to be objective claims of fact. We do it all the time.

    What’s different I think is what we then do with the information. The gnus don’t look at the elements of religion which have nothing to do with beliefs and immediately go into Therapist Mode, or Anthropologist Mode. “Ah, I understand. Bob is a Christian not because he believes Jesus is the son of God and came to save us from damnation — he’s really a Christian because he was raised that way and he thinks morality is connected to it and he thinks being Christian is his basic identity. And, because I understand this — and am a good therapist and a sensitive anthropologist — my hands are off. I will wisely and tactfully remove myself from the insignificant debate over whether or not Christianity is technically true. That doesn’t really matter to Bob.”

    Except that Bob thinks it really DOES matter to Bob. In fact, Bob thinks it is central. And the reason Bob can’t get over his outrage over atheists speaking up is because Bob himself hasn’t figured out that he’s mixed up his identity with an empirical belief.

    Doing that is a bad thing. It’s not something where, once we understand, we must forgive and let go. Not unless Bob is some sort of emotional wreck or object of study and we really are a therapist or an anthropologist, that is.

  22. says

    Sastra:

    “‘Bob is a Christian not because he believes Jesus is the son of God and came to save us from damnation — he’s really a Christian because he was raised that way and he thinks morality is connected to it and he thinks being Christian is his basic identity.'”

    With a few provisos, I would actually be in the market for that.

    The present religious map of the world is the way it is largely because the above has been the operating principle. Some religions have grown, and at the expense of others, by a combination of force of documented and influential argument, force of arms, and ancestral influence.

    In the spread of science on the other hand, only the first has been worth anything. Otherwise the scientific map of the world would mirror the religious one, with vast areas still in the grip of the priests of Aristotle, and most of it totally ignorant of Einstein and anything post-Einstein, and with clerics determined to keep it that way.

    “‘I will wisely and tactfully remove myself from the insignificant debate over whether or not Christianity is technically true. That doesn’t really matter to Bob.’”

    I personally do not go around challenging the beliefs of my Christian wife, relatives and friends precisely because it DOES matter to them. A great deal. Likewise, they know what my views are, and do not challenge them, even though evangelical Christianity teaches them that they should, for the sake of my immortal soul.

    Old and new atheists would probably disagree amongst themselves as to what I should or should not do on this personal level, as both hypothetical and categorical imperatives. What B&W (read Ophelia) does, and IMHO quite brilliantly, is to take fatuous public claims made by religious proselytisers and tear them apart. That has to be done regardless of concern for the proselytisers’ sensibilities, because they and outfits like Heartland are about trying to make the scientific outlook conform to their own narrow religious one, the latter largely through a well-funded effort to influence science education.

    However, most Christians of my experience are not into conversion of all and sundry to their view, though some missionisers resent the missionary activities of rivals like Dawkins.

    If Bob’s hard drive is running on an antiquated operating system, it is well to remember that it may be all he has got, or is ready for. Junking the OS may entail junking loyalty to ancestors, relatives and friends.

    I personally scrapped the Christian OS in my teens (which is a few years back now) partly because I ceased to believe that the Universe ran on Biblical lines. For me, as I was then, it was not an easy thing to do.

  23. Rieux says

    Sastra:

    You know, I’ve heard this claim a lot….

    Sure; I hope, though, that it’s clear I’m making the claim much less fervently, and presenting it as a case of Gnus Doing It Rong on a vastly smaller scale, than others making comparable points (say, Julian Baggini or Philip Kitcher) are. The issue I’ve raised is one that I find much less problematic than Baggini et al. do.

    …that the gnu atheists don’t examine or pay enough attention to the fact that “religion” is motivated by tribalism and subjective experience….

    Rather than “motivated,” I think I’d describe it as the way religious adherents experience their own religion and religious identity.

    There are unquestionably millions if not billions of religious people for whom the contents of religious beliefs/doctrines/etc. are utterly central to their own experience of their religion. And those beliefs, in innumerable instances, are both deeply flawed and horrifically destructive. That is, indeed, why the mud Baggini et al. sling at gnus on this general topic is unjust: critics of religion certainly ought to concentrate significant resources on religious belief, because religious belief is demonstrably (1) really, really important to a huge number of religious people and (2) vastly consequential in the world.

    The only caveat I want to argue for is that, in addition to the millions-if-not-billions of religious people for whom belief-as-such is a major element of their conception of their religion, there is a non-negligible minority who regard doctrine as far less important than community identification, subjective religious experience, and other not-all-that-beliefy things. Providing an account of religion that treats it as (say) 99% belief and 1% other stuff inevitably comes across to such people as severely inaccurate. It clearly doesn’t match their own conception of what their religion means to them.

    Again, I don’t think this is a Horrific Problem. One response to the objection I’ve just detailed is “Piss off; there are so few of you ‘religious’ people who don’t care about believing in personal gods and whatnot, in contrast to the billions of believers who do care and whose beliefs have massive consequences in the world, that it’s not worth taking the time to address your marginal and inconsequential notions.” In certain contexts—say, the online exchange Richard Dawkins had with Karen Armstrong on the WSJ site in 2009, in which he dismissed her “theology” as de facto atheism—that seems to me a perfectly legitimate response.

    I do think there are important gnu atheist points to be made about other-than-beliefy elements of being religious, though. As you and Ian have noted on this thread, for example, tribal affiliation is hardly an unadulturated good. And even recognizing that some non-beliefy elements of religious institutions exist and can sometimes have positive value (say, the community connections that lead to higher levels of charitable giving) is a far cry from conceding that those elements justify or provide a sufficient excuse for religion.

    I suspect this is the nub of our disagreement, though:

    [W]hen I consider what I’ve read coming out of gnus, major and minor, this seems to be one of the main themes.

    That’s definitely not my experience. If one digs deeply enough, one can find gnu analysis that recognizes the existence of non-beliefy elements of religion, but in my experience the far more frequent presentation we make is that Religion Is Belief, that “religious adherent” and “believer in religious doctrine” are self-evidently exactly the same thing.

    Thus we find Greta Christina arguing that “Religion is a hypothesis about the world,” and Dawkins calling religious adherents “faith-heads” (note that I’m not complaining that that’s unkind; I’m just pointing out that it’s very belief-centric), and so on. The gnu account of religion (including when it’s me doing the accounting!) just seems to me to constantly emphasize the centrality of belief. I don’t see other aspects of religion being a “main theme” of our presentation at all; we do talk about them, but in my experience one has to dig to find it.

    And that, I want to repeat, is not a Massive Mistake. Beliefs are important, overwhelmingly so, to a huge number of religious adherents. It’s just that there exists a noticeable minority of other adherents for whom beliefs really aren’t important at all, and another (I think somewhat larger) group who do care about beliefs, but for whom other elements of religion are nearly as important. Criticisms of religion that are overwhelmingly belief-centered risk missing the target with such folks—which is not the end of the world, or a fatal flaw in gnu atheism, but it does seem to me sub-optimal.

    “And, because I understand this — and am a good therapist and a sensitive anthropologist — my hands are off. I will wisely and tactfully remove myself from the insignificant debate over whether or not Christianity is technically true.”

    Oh, hells no. Recognizing that there’s more to religion than belief counsels neither (1) treating belief with kid gloves nor (2) treating the non-beliefy aspects of religion deferentially. That’s why I’m arguing that there are gnu atheist points—critical, even harsh ones—to be made about the latter. (You and Ian have made a few of them on this thread, which is why my previous comment was a happy one.)

    I have no truck with the notion that gnus should “tactfully remov[e them]sel[ves]” from any debate about religion whatsoever.

    For gnu-ish folks Doing It Right, I’d offer Dan Barker, in the autobiographical portions of his books (in which he details his life as a fundamentalist Christian, culminating in ministry and then apostasy), and Julia Sweeney, in her monologue “Letting Go of God” (in which she describes her life as an enthusiastic Catholic). Both of them put all kinds of emphasis on the experiential and community elements of their religious lives, which were clearly deeply important to them… and then segue into nicely hard-hitting critiques of religion, not entirely limited to but very much including religious belief. That’s what I’d like to see more of. (For my money, “LGoG” is quite possibly the best piece of religious criticism on offer.)

    Except that Bob thinks it really DOES matter to Bob.

    Well, fine. Then for the purposes of making our case to Bob, concentrating on belief is exactly what we should do. And there are a hell of a lot of Bobs with a hell of a lot of power in the real world, which makes the Anthropologist/Therapist approach you justifiably mock a very bad idea.

    But there are also a non-negligible number of Karens and Genes and Johns and Peters—liberal Episcopalians and UCCers and MCCers and UUs and “cultural Catholics” and deists and “religious but not organized-religious” folks and whatnot—who basically wave their hands apathetically at the actual contents of religious doctrine. Attacking religious belief isn’t going to do much good with those folks, though pointing out why other elements of religion and religion-in-society are problematic and destructive might. I think it’d be worthwhile to tweak the focus of gnu critiques a small amount to make such critiques accessible to the non-Bobs; that’s all I’m saying.

  24. Sastra says

    Ian MacDougall #26 wrote:

    However, most Christians of my experience are not into conversion of all and sundry to their view, though some missionisers resent the missionary activities of rivals like Dawkins.

    Most of the religious people I know — Christian or not — aren’t into conversion either, so like you I tend to soft-peddle my atheism in that I don’t start up a debate just to start up a debate.

    But I am working on trying to bring arguments against religious/spiritual/pseudoscience beliefs up when THEY bring religious/spiritual/pseudoscience beliefs up — especially when it’s overt. Not “I’m going to a pagan get-together next week” (ok, let it pass) but “my naturopath told me about a wonderful new diagnostic technique called Live Blood Analysis, let me tell you about it!” Or “I believe all reality is a consciousness which we change through our expectations.”

    Of course, the net result is that they’ve learned to stay away from bringing up any topics I’m not going to be “open-minded” about.

  25. Sastra says

    Rieux #27 wrote:

    The only caveat I want to argue for is that, in addition to the millions-if-not-billions of religious people for whom belief-as-such is a major element of their conception of their religion, there is a non-negligible minority who regard doctrine as far less important than community identification, subjective religious experience, and other not-all-that-beliefy things. Providing an account of religion that treats it as (say) 99% belief and 1% other stuff inevitably comes across to such people as severely inaccurate. It clearly doesn’t match their own conception of what their religion means to them.

    I think the misunderstanding here is that the gnu atheist definition of religion as “supernatural beliefs” is not supposed to be descriptive: it’s stipulative. What we’re trying to do is isolate those factors of religion which are unique and specific to religion in order to critique it.

    Community identification, subjective religious experiences, charity work, aesthetic practices, soothing rituals, and so on and so forth are considered secular aspects of religion because they make sense and have value even to atheists. That’s not cheating — that’s pretty much logically entailed, if you think about it. We therefore classify them under humanism and consider them the humanist elements and don’t see them as part of the conflict.

    It doesn’t matter that they’re deeply imbedded into the religion as practiced. Yes. We know that. But they’re not defining properties — and that’s what we’re focused on. Because that’s where the problem is, and where the problems with religion AS religion all arise.

    Consider an analogy: alternative and complementary medicine. Proponents can often deflect criticism of the unscientific nature of alt med by pointing out that there are a lot of good, reasonable, science-based things in alternative medicine. Nutrition, exercise, herbal remedies, stress relief, massage, yoga, taking a patient’s full history, being caring and concerned, and so forth and so on.

    To which the science-based critics reply: that’s not unique to alternative medicine, so you don’t get to count it as “alternative medicine” when defending the entire category. You’re co-opting reasonable things that we’re already okay with and trying to distract us from the entire reason you HAVE a category called “alternative medicine.” Bait ‘n switch.

    But there are also a non-negligible number of Karens and Genes and Johns and Peters—liberal Episcopalians and UCCers and MCCers and UUs and “cultural Catholics” and deists and “religious but not organized-religious” folks and whatnot—who basically wave their hands apathetically at the actual contents of religious doctrine. Attacking religious belief isn’t going to do much good with those folks, though pointing out why other elements of religion and religion-in-society are problematic and destructive might.

    I don’t know. I think attacking religious belief might do a lot of good for this group — because I suspect that the only reason they consider themselves religious is because they think there is something special and noble about being religious. They believe in belief. If they really do “wave their hands apathetically at the actual content of religious doctrine” then they’re humanists and atheists … the same way that a “holistic” massage therapist who rejects all the woo is just a massage therapist.

    What we’re doing with this group isn’t trying to change their minds: we’re offering them clarity from a new perspective.

  26. says

    Sastra @ 28:

    “Of course, the net result is that they’ve learned to stay away from bringing up any topics I’m not going to be “open-minded” about.”

    But none the less, you are there for them should they want to consult you, though the older they are the less likely they will probably be to do so.

    Thus the real battleground, IMHO, is for the minds of the young, or should I say, preventing the closure of those minds by indoctrination and the withdrawl of opportunities to find out views different from (usually fundamentalist) religion.

    That after all is why fundamentalists of all kinds go after the youth.

    However, that being said, I have known in my time some clerical offspring who were the living proof of the old saying “wild as a parson’s son”.

    A lot of them get where they incline to go, despite all obstacles.

  27. Dave Ricks says

    About Greta Christina, I’ve seen her argue in this form: Q) How is religion bad, if it’s just a personal belief, like believing chocolate is better than vanilla? A) It’s bad because religion is [among other things] a hypothesis about how the world works, and a dysfunctional model of how the world works leads to bad things.

    I always assumed the phrase I inserted […] to be understood (that something “is” more than one thing), and I took her statement, “Religion is a hypothesis about the world” (Rieux #27) in the context of answering a question (“How is religion bad?”). I never took her use of “is” to mean religion “is primarily” or “is fundamentally” a hypothesis about the world.

    I mention all this because when I take Christina’s argument as a whole (Q/A), I find it’s consistent with what Sastra wants (#6), to separate belief from identity. Christina introduces the concept of “hypothesis” (and I added “model”), which could give a religious believer a perspective — instead of taking their religious belief to be reality, they can realize their belief is just one possible hypothesis or model of reality, and work out from there.

  28. Rieux says

    No, Christina does overtly recognize, including in the same piece that contains the line I quoted, that religion involves more than just a hypothesis about the world. That seems to me to directly contradict the meaning of the quoted line, but at least the context Christina usually provides with said line does clarify what she actually means by it. (E.g., “Religion is many other things, of course. It’s communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies and philosophies. But those things aren’t what make religion unique. What makes religion unique, among all other communities/philosophies, etc., is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one.”)

    As an attorney, I’m not a big fan of written descriptions like that. Reducing her claim to “Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is” makes that claim clearer, and it makes Christina’s argument easier to understand (a major strength of her writing overall)… but it also renders the claim literally false.

    As an admittedly inadequate response to Sastra @29 (maybe I’ll find more time later—sorry), I hadn’t heard of the term “stipulative definition” before reading it in that comment; now that I’ve wikied it… ugh. I can’t say that I like stipulative definition as an argumentative tactic at all; it sounds to me like a straight euphemism for “strawman.” The use of that tactic is a major objection I have to the way Unitarian Universalists deal with—or, better, convince themselves they don’t need to deal with—objections to their treatment of religion. Religion is a real thing in the world, not a theoretical entity subject to any meaning that the imaginations of atheists, or UUs, can impose on it.

    I’d say “Religion is” what it demonstrably, verifiably is in the world around us—not just the aspects of that real-world thing that are “unique” to it or the ones that are specifically relevant to our criticisms of it.

  29. Dave Ricks says

    Rieux, thank you for the link to Christina’s original argument. I was working from memory, and now I see what you mean about how she worded the rest of her post.

    As an exercise, I could ask myself to reword her argument to support her overall point: that criticism of religion is justified, versus objections that such criticism is against diversity. Your perspective as an attorney helped me pose this exercise.

  30. Rieux says

    As an exercise, I could ask myself to reword her argument to support her overall point: that criticism of religion is justified, versus objections that such criticism is against diversity.

    Oh, certainly. I don’t disagree with Christina’s broader argument in that essay (or almost any other) a bit.

    I would definitely have worded the specific claim I’ve objected to differently than Christina did—but, as a tradeoff, I don’t think my reworded version would be as clear, simple, or probably memorable as Christina’s original. Which is a notable drawback to what I’m advocating… but to my (all-too-lawyerly) mind, I think it’s a justified cost.

  31. Stacy says

    Reducing her claim to “Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is” makes that claim clearer, and it makes Christina’s argument easier to understand (a major strength of her writing overall)… but it also renders the claim literally false

    It does?

    Claiming that religion is more about belonging than belief doesn’t account for evangelicalism or missionary work. It certainly doesn’t account for theology or apologetics. It doesn’t account for the content of religious belief. Which has had and continues to have some pernicious effects in the world.And surely fundamentalists–by and large the people whose beliefs have the most pernicious effects in the world–would be the first to say that their faith is not about belonging, it is about real facts in the real world.

    Yes, some nominal believers don’t give the details of their faith’s claims much thought. I don’t know what the percentage is. But others do. They may pick and choose which doctrines to believe, but the tendency then is to choose to embrace belief overall because, as Sastra said,

    they think there is something special and noble about being religious

    That is certainly the impression I’ve gotten, over the years, from my religious friends.

    Sastra again:

    What we’re doing with this group isn’t trying to change their minds: we’re offering them clarity from a new perspective.

    This.

  32. says

    Stacy. A meaty post there:

    “Claiming that religion is more about belonging than belief doesn’t account for evangelicalism or missionary work. It certainly doesn’t account for theology or apologetics. It doesn’t account for the content of religious belief. Which has had and continues to have some pernicious effects in the world…”

    If all of us souls inside here have got the One True Way, and all of those souls outside there are lost, we can grow our organisation, our influence and political/economic power by recruiting as many as we can. We either grow or we shrink. As for corporations, so for congregations.

    “And surely fundamentalists–by and large the people whose beliefs have the most pernicious effects in the world–would be the first to say that their faith is not about belonging, it is about real facts in the real world.” Bearing in mind the old Marxist caveat: what people say they’re about, and think they’re about, is not necessarily what they actually are about.

    “Yes, some nominal believers don’t give the details of their faith’s claims much thought. I don’t know what the percentage is. But others do. They may pick and choose which doctrines to believe, but the tendency then is to choose to embrace belief overall…”

    It’s what those in the pay TV business call the ‘churn rate': people switching from supplier to supplier for whatever reason. But most religious people I know are of the religion and denomination of their parents. I know one woman who was raised in a fervent Presbyterian family, and who is now an equally fervent Catholic. I think it is because she found a group more to her liking in the local Catholic congregation.

    I think it was awareness of that factor that motivated my old Anglican parson to warn us all against turning up at any of the other local denominational churches: even just out of curiosity.

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