Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions


Is the mere act of questioning religion an attack on it?

God_delusionThere are religious believers who seem to think so. An increasingly common refrain among religious writers and leaders is that the recent surge of atheist writing is unacceptably offensive and insulting. Intolerant, even.

I’m not going to say atheists are never rude. But much of the time, atheists get accused of offensiveness and intolerance for saying things like:

“I don’t agree with you.”

‘I don’t think you’ve made your case.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What evidence do you have to support that?”

LiesAs Richard Dawkins pointed out in a recent Free Inquiry article, the kind of critical language that’s considered shockingly offensive when it’s applied to religion isn’t even blinked at when it’s applied to, say, political discourse or restaurant reviews.

StalinBut many believers are very serious about this. Example: A recent visitor to my blog accused me of trying to force my atheism down everyone’s throat. When I challenged him to find one place — just one — on my blog where I advocated forcing atheism on anyone, he replied that I was “trying to cow others into your restrictive view” and “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God.”

TheatheistRight. The act of stating my opinion in public is the same as forcing that view onto others. I don’t, in fact, claim that I know there is no God, but never mind that now. I am cowing people into my narrow view through the awesome power of my blog. Which is read by hundreds of people every day! HUNDREDS, I tell you! Flee before me, puny earthlings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! I will cow you with the force of my opinions! Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated into my materialist Godless view; for while you may have the infinite power of the Almighty God on your side… I WIELD THE BLOG!

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

That’s the modern atheist movement, all right. Trying to destroy all that is holy by, you know, arguing. By trying to convince people that religion is mistaken. By writing books, and blogging, and going on TV, and such.

Genocideportallogoesr2Of course, this was the same guy who later tried to defend biblical atrocities by arguing that genocide and the infanticide of one’s enemies were, in some cases, morally defensible. Thus earning him our household nickname “Senor McGenocide Pants.” So it’s a little hard to take him seriously.

But Senor McGenocide Pants isn’t alone. A lot of religious believers are very angry and very upset over the fact that atheists are starting to speak out: not just expressing our own opinions and theories, but seriously criticizing theirs.

And while I don’t think they’re at all right to be morally outraged, I do think they’re right to be afraid.

Origin_of_species_2I think the act of looking at religion as just another hypothesis about the way the world works — and asking it to defend itself with evidence and logic just like any other hypothesis — is a radical act. All by itself, completely apart from any of the specific arguments against religion’s accuracy and morality. The mere act of shoving religion into the marketplace of ideas, and expecting it to fight it out with all the other ideas about why things are the way they are… I think people who are deeply attached to religion have every reason to be afraid of that. I think that act has more potential to eventually dismantle religious beliefs than any of the specific arguments leveled against those beliefs.

*****

Armor_1The thing is this. When you start examining religion closely, you realize that it has a large number of very effective protective layers: tropes and memes that not only perpetuate it but that defend it, and that defend it not just against criticism but against the very idea that criticism is legitimate. When non-believers talk about religion getting a free ride in our society and in the marketplace of ideas, these tropes are a big part of what we’re talking about.

A few examples:

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_31. Religious faith — i.e., believing in God despite the lack of evidence supporting the idea, despite the idea being inherently and by definition undemonstrable — is not only acceptable, but virtuous. Faith makes you a good person.

1a. A subset of that one: Holding strong, passionate religious beliefs is by itself a good thing, and being a “person of faith” is an admirable trait, one you have to give at least grudging respect to… regardless of what those beliefs are, regardless of whether they’re demonstrably untrue or demonstrably harmful.

1b. And a converse of that one: People with less spiritual faith — or who deny spirituality altogether — are cynical, untrusting, selfish, and/or lost. After all, a person’s soul or spirit is the most central and important part of them, the part that makes them who they are, and denying it means denying your truest self.

Hand2. Letting go of doubts and questions about your faith is an act of love and trust that will make your life easier — and again, an act that makes you a virtuous person.

Trinitysvg3. The more apparently paradoxical or irrational a religious belief is, the more special it is to accept and believe it. (The mysteriousness and paradoxy of the Trinity is, for many believers in it, one of the things that makes it magnificent; and for some observant Jews, the very irrationality of dietary laws is what makes them a serious test of faith.)

Prayer_sassoferrato__jungfrun_i_bn4. Faith is just a different way of knowing, separate from evidence or reason.

4a. Religion and science operate in different realms. The spiritual realm is by its very nature beyond questions of evidence, and expecting it to stand up to inquiries based on evidence and reason is absurd.

Pope5. Religious leaders and teachers, such as priests, ministers, rabbis, etc., should be given an extra level of social respect and deference. (We see how well this one worked out in the Catholic priesthood pedophilia scandal…)

Bible_old6. The objects connected with religion — books, relics, devotional items, etc. — should be given an extra level of respect and deference, greater than that of other historical or art objects.

Satanic_verses7. Questioning people’s religion, and pointing out inaccuracies/ inconsistencies/ immoralities with it, is a heretical crime, punishable by exile, imprisonment, torture, or death.

God_is_not_great8. Questioning people’s religion, and pointing out inaccuracies/ inconsistencies/ immoralities with it, is rude and intolerant, whether it’s done at the dinner table or in the op ed columns.

Letter_to_a_christian_nation9. Being tolerant of other people’s religion requires that you not criticize it.

And that’s not even a complete list. That’s just what I came up with in an hour on a Saturday night.

Feet_walkingIf you accept and practice a religion, many of these ideas may seem self-evident. But if you are a believer, I’d like to ask you to step back from the tropes for a moment and see them from the outside, the way a non-believer would, or even simply someone who’s not sure what they believe.

Armor_3Because if you don’t already start with the premise that God exists and religion is true, these tropes don’t look like self-evident truths. They look like self-perpetuating protective layers that exist to shield religion from the necessity of defending itself against inquiries into its accuracy, consistency, and/or morality. Look at them carefully. The tropes aren’t arguments for why religion is right. They’re rationalizations for why religion shouldn’t have to prove that it’s right, escape hatches for when it’s backed into a corner.

Escher_handsThese tropes are, as you may have noticed, extremely circular. And while that circularity is excruciatingly frustrating for anyone engaging in debate with a believer
 well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The circular, self-justifying nature of these protective layers, while it makes them logically absurd, also makes them extremely resistant to logic, or to evidence.

And that’s why the very act of questioning religion — of saying, “Okay, if you’re such a great and true idea, prove yourself” — may be the single most important thing atheists are doing. The act of asking —

Emperors_new_clothes“Is the emperor wearing any clothes?”

“It sure doesn’t look like he’s wearing any clothes — can you show me some evidence that he is?”

“Invisible clothes — that doesn’t seem to make sense. Can you give me a good argument for why it does?”

– is, I think, even more powerful and more radical than simply saying, “The emperor has no clothes!”

Emperors_new_clothes_2After all, if all atheists are saying is, “The emperor has no clothes!”… that’s just another opinion. Another belief, in the great tapestry of beliefs about the magnificent and ultimately unknowable mystery of the emperor’s invisible garments. And thus, it’s a lot easier to ignore.

Question_mark_brainBut if what we’re saying is, “Is the emperor wearing any clothes? Can you show me some evidence that he’s wearing clothes? Can you give me a rational argument supporting the idea of invisible clothes?”… that changes the entire conversation. It seriously chips away at the self-protective tropes to ask questions like these:

Question_mark_3svgWhy is faith — believing in a supernatural entity for which there’s no evidence — a good thing? Why is it a good thing to let go of questions and doubts about the supernatural entity? Why do the paradoxes and irrationalities in supernatural beliefs make those beliefs more special, when paradoxes and irrationalities in any other opinions undercut them? If people are really knowing and perceiving a real supernatural entity, how does that work — and why do different people perceive that entity in such radically different and contradictory ways? If the supernatural entity acts on and interacts with the physical world, why shouldn’t that be an observable phenomenon with results we can rationally investigate? Why should books and objects connected with a supernatural belief — and people whose job it is to explain their supernatural belief to others — deserve any more respect and deference than anybody or anything else?

Question_mark_2And why is asking questions and expressing disagreement with opinions about the supernatural entity any more rude or intolerant than asking questions and expressing disagreement with political or artistic opinions?

Armor_2All of these questions weaken the armor — the automatic deference, the “get out of jail free” cards, the exemption from the rules that everyone else has to play by — and bring religion back down to earth, to the level of any other hypothesis about why the world is the way it is, with the same rules of what constitutes evidence and morality and a good argument.

Where it doesn’t stand a chance.

DiosWithout all this protective shielding and special privileging, religion comes down to a hypothesis that an invisible supernatural entity brought all of the physical world into existence by magic; shapes the progress of that world in invisible magical ways we can’t perceive; cares deeply about people but nevertheless fails to protect us from terrible suffering and often brings about that suffering on his/her/its own; and will let us live forever in a state of bliss after we die, as long as we act according to the right set of wildly differing opinions about him/her/it. And the only evidence we have for any of this is the evidence inside our own brains, and inside other people’s brains, and in the brains of people who wrote down their opinions in books hundreds or thousands of years ago.

It doesn’t stand a chance.

Heaven_south_parkI could be wrong about that. After thousands of years, you’d think some convincing evidence for God would have come up by now… but maybe it still will, and if it does, I’ll accept it. And maybe the “you get to live forever if you do the right thing” trope is compelling enough to survive even without any evidence supporting it. But I tend to doubt it. I think that, if atheists succeed in stripping it of its self-protective armor, the God hypothesis will eventually dwindle into memory and history.

Throat_diagramsvgThat’s not to say Senor McGenocide Pants is right. Questioning religion and expressing disagreement with it doesn’t force atheism down anyone’s throat. But it does force religion to stand on its own feet and prove itself.

What I don’t understand is why that’s a bad thing.

Thanks to Daylight Atheism, in whose comment thread I developed these ideas (as well as the “puny earthlings” rant). And thanks to Daniel Dennet, who write a lot about religion’s self-protective tropes in “Breaking the Spell.”

Comments

  1. Brandon says

    Nice post, I especially enjoy your posts on religion.
    The most common (coherent) response I’ve heard about why religion shouldn’t be questioned is that you shouldn’t take away a person’s hope – religion may be the only thing giving them a sense of meaning, and making them doubt that could cast them into some sort of existential despair, which would be cruel.
    Of course this is usually from someone who thinks that atheist=hopeless nihilist.

  2. says

    That’s an interesting point, Brandon. My uncharitable response would be that many religious believers don’t seem to care that their religion is casting, say, queers, or young people with strong sexual desires, into despair and self-hatred. But while there is some truth to that response — it’s not like religion is a universal anti-depressant — it’s not very charitable.
    My charitable response is that, as you point out, godlessness doesn’t equal hopeless nihilism. And it doesn’t equal the dissolution of the social contract. Much of Europe, for instance, is becoming increasingly secular (Ingrid was just reading that in France, about a third of the population is atheist and another third is agnostic — Ingrid, do I have that right?), and while they certainly have their problems, they seem on the whole to be a reasonably happy and functional society (more so than America, in many ways) that isn’t populated by despairing nihilists and that dissolving into chaos.

  3. says

    Brandon,
    “you shouldn’t take away a person’s hope – religion may be the only thing giving them a sense of meaning, and making them doubt that could cast them into some sort of existential despair, which would be cruel.”
    As Dawkins has said, that may be true — but it doesn’t make religion true, and it doesn’t make god exist.
    In addition, I think people on the whole deserve a bit more respect than that. Once someone realizes that that hope is false hope based on a fairy story, I really do think that most people will be able to stand up, square their shoulders, and find hope and meaning in life as it is, not as they wished it was. But that’s just me.

  4. says

    Actually, there was just a great comment on this very topic in a comment thread at Daylight Atheism:
    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2007/08/mother-teresas-loss-of-faith.html#comment-26461
    The gist: Faith doesn’t always act as a comfort in times of despair — it can actually make it worse, by making you feel like it’s your own fault. If your faith were stronger, you wouldn’t be so depressed.
    And Ethyl, I totally agree that religion making people feel better (when it does) doesn’t make it true. But I think Brandon is asking a different question: Is it right to try weaken someone’s faith when that faith helps them through life — regardless of whether that faith is true?

  5. Brandon says

    Just to clarify, I don’t actually buy this argument, but it’s the best I’ve heard.
    I don’t think it could ever to apply to something like Dawkins writing a book, but on an individual level it’s something to think about.
    Assuming someone is following a tolerant, liberal religion that does more good than harm, and they get a lot of their emotional comfort from it, trying to show them its falsehood could be akin to trying to show a person in a happy relationship that their spouse cheated on them once: it comes down to how important you think it is for everyone to know the truth, regardless of the consequences.

  6. Brandon says

    Actually now that I think of it the metaphor of the cheating spouse works on more than one level. There are many ideas and standards in place to prevent the truth from being revealed:
    1. Questioning your spouse or having suspicions means you don’t really love them or trust them.
    2. Telling someone that their spouse is cheating on them (even if you have proof) is meddling in something that isn’t your business.
    3. Confessing an affair is putting unneccessary pain on your spouse and punishing them for your mistake, you should keep it to yourself and never let it happen again.
    So again, it comes down to how important truth is when weighed against consequences.

  7. says

    That’s a really interesting analogy, Brandon. I’d like to tweak it a little.
    I think a closer analogy isn’t so much the friend whose partner cheated on them once. I think a better analogy is a friend whose partner is cheating on them regularly and frequently, as a matter of course.
    After all, it’s not as if God betrayed his believers once by winking out of existence, and then came back. If atheists are right, God doesn’t exist AT ALL. It’s not that believers had their trust betrayed once. Trust in someone that doesn’t deserve it (in the case of God, because he doesn’t exist) is the ongoing condition of their life.
    And when that’s the case, I do think that the painful revelation is usually the right choice.
    It’s not a perfect analogy, obviously. For one thing, if Mary were cheating on Joe, I’d be discussing it with Joe privately rather than blogging about it. But I don’t actually think this is an easy question to answer, and I think it’s worth chewing over.

  8. says

    Wonderful post, Greta. :)
    As far as the circularity of religious belief goes, there are many examples – like the recent revelations of Mother Teresa’s loss of faith. Her church superiors told her that her depression and despair over her seeming inability to feel God’s presence was actually a sign of God’s blessing, because it meant he was letting her share in the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. So if you feel God’s presence, that proves he’s there, and if you don’t feel his presence, that also proves he’s there!
    Frustrating as we may find this, I don’t think this circularity is a consciously adopted defense mechanism. More likely, it’s because these theists have gotten used to taking their religion for granted, assuming that it’s true and unquestionable, so that they unconsciously find ways to interpret everything that happens in line with their beliefs. But when some troublemaking, loudmouth atheists are around to point out that fallacy, they naturally get rattled. All of a sudden, they can’t take the truth of their beliefs for granted any more, because people are proposing other explanations. I think it’s that feeling of shifting ground underfoot – the shocking realization that they can’t expect to have it all their own way anymore – that leads to such outrage and accusations of rudeness against atheists. We’re making it hard for them to believe, the poor dears. Doubtless, many believers wish we’d just go away and let them return to the state of comfortable complacency they were enjoying before we showed up to prick their bubbles.

  9. stephen says

    Greta, please take this in the best possible way.
    You have been attacking religion.
    The very most fundamental basis of religion relies on two very basic factors.
    1) blind faith
    2) humans are special just because
    if you tell someone that their faith is misplaced, or merely postulate the idea that it might be, you have rendered a personal attack on that individual. you have said “god does not love you or care about you, because god does not exist.” what the religion junkie hears is “god does not love you” so you have told someone that the one individual in the cosmos who would allways love them and cuddle them even if they get drunk and beat up their kids, or if they are impotent, or sterile, or whatever, DOES NOT LOVE THEM AFTER ALL!
    Blind faith. god requires faith without a shred of hard evidence. if you challenge that faith, the faithful are forced to look at the very real possibility that they have been wasting their lives on a complete load of crap. Nobody likes to hear that. therefore the crocodile part of our brain tells them to defend their blind faith.
    I had an argument with a jesus freak who repeatedly accosted those around her with her biblical rants. I told her if she could argue with me, I would argue back and listen to her. I told her to attack my atheism logically and I would attack her faith religiously. she continued to use scripture as evidence until I clarified I did not accept it as evidence at all, while I used scripture to attack her “moral, christian values” she failed to understand what I meant by evidence. she simply could not grasp the fundamental idea that I could not believe in the bible. I think that I am right, she still believes that she is. it is the difference between thought and belief.
    so, you have been attacking religion, and faith, not to mention all religious persons in particular. please do not stop. EVER.

  10. says

    “And Ethyl, I totally agree that religion making people feel better (when it does) doesn’t make it true. But I think Brandon is asking a different question: Is it right to try weaken someone’s faith when that faith helps them through life — regardless of whether that faith is true?”
    I know, I was just sayin’. But the question doesn’t make any sense to me, because IMO, their coping mechanisms are unavoidably flawed, and if they knew the truth, could find better ones. Does that make sense? So, going back to the cheating spouse analogy, if Joe is cheating on Mary consistently and over a long time period (which I agree is a much better analogy!), then Mary might be coping with feeling neglected by her husband by overeating, or drinking, or cheating on Joe herself. On the other hand, if she knew what the score was, she could dump his lousy ass and find herself something better.
    Just because something is working for now, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to do it.
    I also agree that faith is not neccessarily a comfort in times of hardship. I might have commented on this here before, but when my boyfriend’s mum died, his born-again Baptist grandmother had no way of coping with it, because she couldn’t understand why something so bad had happened, because she kept the faith and prayed and she STILL died. I don’t know for sure if she thinks it’s her fault, but I can tell you, this attitude is getting in the way of her grieving properly and coming to terms with the death of her daughter in any meaningful way that will allow her to get on with life. And just look at the people who died on that bridge, whose families have to listen to people claiming that they were saved because of some sort of miracle. Eurgh. What kind of comfort is that? Is taking that “comfort” away really that problematic?

  11. says

    Hi Greta just readin’ yer blog before work…Love this:
    “I think the act of looking at religion as just another hypothesis about the way the world works — and asking it to defend itself with evidence and logic just like any other hypothesis — is a radical act. All by itself, completely apart from any of the specific arguments against religion’s accuracy and morality.”
    I often wonder why more believers or people of faith don’t realize this. Especially in the example of the Bible which claims for itself to be the Word of God. Any religion must be true in both the divine and mundane. If a book can be found to contain error on history or basic geography, shouldn’t we take it’s religious inscriptions with a subsequent grain of salt?
    Not so sure about this though:
    “Religious faith — i.e., believing in God despite the lack of evidence supporting the idea, despite the idea being inherently and by definition undemonstrable — is not only acceptable, but virtuous.”
    Elsewhere you define faith as “believing in a supernatural entity for which there’s no evidence.”
    Those may be your definitions of faith, but they might not be somebody else’s. They certainly aren’t mine. On another interesting point though, if those were my definitions of faith, I certainly would not be a believer! :)
    In many cases, the true enemies of religion occupy religious positions of power. What might be the reasoning in that? From a false flag that person can misrepresent their enemy and take actions that work to its detriment. If I owned Joe’s Market and Bill opened up Bill’s Quickie Store just down the block, I’d bring bait into the store and hide it near the heater vents. Pretty soon when them little suckers start heatin’ up no one will wanna be in Bill’s Quickie Store that’s for sure! It’s an age-old technique and it works in politics and diplomacy too.
    My views are somewhat of a paradox with religion; from the outset, modernized religion looks like this big, twisted mess of unquestioning, subservient rubbish – and it is – but there is also an ultimate question of truth that unfortunately gets ignored because people can’t make it past the gates of the church or whatever.
    And always remember – the whole world is pink through rose colored glasses right? One person looks at everything and declares atheism, another looks at everything and declares God. I myself find atheism scientifically and logically untenable, but in general I find the atheist approach to life to be much more rooted in critical thought and empiricism.
    thanks as always for a good read – I’ve got a lot to think and say about the rest of your paragraph beginning “Why is it a good thing to let go of questions and doubts…” Maybe later.
    btw, love the little diddy on the Pope (#5).
    CL

  12. Brandon says

    “In many cases, the true enemies of religion occupy religious positions of power…”
    The analogy in that paragraph makes it look like you’re suggesting that people intentionally undermine religion from the inside. I’ve never heard of any examples of that happening. I just hear of people using religion for their own selfish ends.
    One thing that kind of annoys me is that whenever there’s a discussion of religion, many atheists and believers will say something along the lines of: “The real enemies of religion are the corrupt preachers, etc.” Always dismissing those who openly and straightforwardly oppose religious belief as radicals. In my experience this isn’t the case, I’ve heard of more people losing faith because of arguments or reasoning than being disgusted with corrupt televangelists.

  13. says

    chris: “Elsewhere you define faith as ‘believing in a supernatural entity for which there’s no evidence.’
    “Those may be your definitions of faith, but they might not be somebody else’s. They certainly aren’t mine. On another interesting point though, if those were my definitions of faith, I certainly would not be a believer! :)”
    Indeed. That reminds me of a recent argument thread where I pointed this out from a Ship-of-Fools review of TGD (http://ship-of-fools.com/Features/2006/dawkins.html ):
    “‘Faith is evil,’ Dawkins tells us, ‘precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.’ Whose faith? Not many I know. There are 12,000 members of the Ship of Fools discussion boards, where Christians are constantly probing the bases of their faith and revelling in, let alone brooking, argument. Is there evidence for Dawkins’s statement, or are we just expected to take it on you-know-what?”
    Trouble is, “faith” is one of those fuzzy terms that Christians unpack in different ways. Now one can argue that within all that fuzziness, the common denominator is trust, and not only do the religious put their trust in the wrong things, but there is a tendency to let self-justifying biases run amok and put forth all sorts of kludgey explanations to shore up beliefs.
    That’s a bit more long-winded than the “faith is belief without evidence,” but it has the advantages of not being vulnerable to a particular definition of “faith” and of emphasizing that self-justifying biases are a human thing rather than the particular province of religion.

  14. says

    Well, I’m not going to argue for Dawkins’s definition of faith, since, while it’s similar to what I’ve seen in religious believers, I think it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head (although the version he describes is depressingly common). I’m actually currently working on an entire piece on faith (the differences between secular and religious faith, etc.), but in the meantime, let me try to briefly clarify.
    I don’t think all religious believers are mindless Godbots. I get that. I get that many religious believers are very intelligent, and I get that in many traditions (such as the Jesuits), debate and intellect are prized.
    Here’s what I mean.
    1. In my experience and observation (which admittedly isn’t universal), many religious believers feel that their belief in God *is* based on evidence and reason, and they want to debate that faith with non-believers to prove this point. But in these debates, they succumb to a wide variety of common logical errors (example: “You can’t 100% disprove it, therefore it’s reasonable to believe it”). And the evidence they cite inevitably comes down to either Scripture or personal experience (or the argument from design, which is essentially the same as personal experience) — none of which, as I’ve pointed out many times, is sufficient evidence for anything.
    And more to the point, when they’re backed into a logical corner, they inevitably cite faith as their final fallback position. “That’s just what I believe.” “I choose faith.”
    That’s what I’m talking about. It’s not that believers don’t value reason and evidence. It’s that their pursuit of evidence and reason starts with an assumption that they’re not willing to let go of, and when evidence and reason lead them to paradoxes and inconsistencies in their assumption, they’ll contort their logic, redefine their terms, or just say “This is where I take a leap of faith,” rather than let go of the assumption.
    Which leads me to:
    2. There’s a difference between asking questions about your faith, and questioning the foundations of your faith in a serious way. I have yet to encounter a religious believer who would take Ebon Musing’s challenge, and answer the question, “What would convince you that you were mistaken? What would persuade you to leave your religion and become an atheist?” (So far only one person to Ebon’s knowledge has taken this challenge, and that response was riddles with logical impossibilities.) It’s not that there are no arguments and debates about faith; it’s that there are some propositions that are not up for debate.
    So my question for believers is the one I just asked of Rev. Cawley in another thread: If there is the possibility of evidence that would persuade you that your faith in God is wrong — what would that be? What — specifically — could happen in the world that would make you change your mind?
    If the answer is “Nothing — I have faith in my God, that’s what faith means,” then you’ve proven Ebon’s point and my point. If you do have a positive answer, I would absolutely love to hear it.
    BTW, I didn’t actually say that religious faith was belief without evidence. That’s too simplistic, and can apply to secular situations as well. I said that religious faith was “believing in God despite the lack of evidence supporting the idea, despite the idea being inherently and by definition undemonstrable.” The second part is important. Religious faith isn’t just unsupported by evidence — it’s by definition undemonstrable by evidence.
    If that’s wrong, then give me another definition. It just seems a little unfair to say “That’s not what faith is” without then saying what you think it is. If I’m wrong about what faith is — then what is it?

  15. says

    Greta said: “I get that many religious believers are very intelligent, and I get that in many traditions (such as the Jesuits), debate and intellect are prized.”
    My problem with waving around stuff like the Jesuits or other traditions where “debate and intellect are prized” is all I can hear is “Courtier’s Reply!” If you’re debating and thinking deep thoughts about things that you just assume are true, you’re really just making shit up as you go along.
    Did you ever listen to Catholic talk radio? One of my friends was listening to this call in show, where people would ask the host what Catholic dogma had to say about various situations they found themselves in. He said these apologists came up with extremely elegant responses for the most part (you know, considering their official teachings are still stalled several centuries back and don’t have any official policy on your teenager watching transgendered dwarf scat porn) (not that there’s anything wrong with that, provided it’s all SSC), but it reminded him of playing D&D, and coming up with reasons why your character can or can’t do something, or how certain powers work. It sounded, not to put to fine a point on it, made up. So that’s what I hear when people shout at me about these great theologic thinkers and debaters.

  16. says

    Greta Christina: “I don’t think all religious believers are mindless Godbots. I get that.”
    I noticed, which is why I was surprised that you seemed to be flirting with the canards from which you tend to stay away. Looking forward to your article on faith, though.

  17. says

    I agree, Ethyl. That’s sort of my point, although you made it a lot more succinctly than I did (one of the problems with a writing format that gives me essentially limitless space is that I do tend to go on and on and on, and did I ever tell you about this one time in Minneapolis when…)
    Anyway, that is kind of the point I’m making. I do think some atheists have a tendency to see all believers as unthinking Godbots and faith as a form of zombie hypnotism, and I want to acknowledge that this isn’t the case. I know many believers are thoughtful and do ask questions (although the unthinking, faith fish eating the Darwin fish, “Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it” kind of faith is depressingly common).
    The problem is that the assumption they’re starting with is leading them into contradictions, paradoxes, logical contortions, fuzzy thinking, redefining of terms in the middle of the argument, and in some cases outright denial of reality — and yet they won’t let go of the assumption. I get that even in a reason and evidence based life you have to make assumptions… but you’re supposed to let go of them when they prove untenable, not twist everything around so you can hang on to them.
    The contortions are, as you say, often elegant and impressive — but you’re right, they do sound like the elaborate explanations people come up with for their D&D powers, or why on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” vampires can smoke when they don’t breathe.

  18. says

    Just found this from Evolutionblog. According to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
    “When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.”
    So please, please, please: Stop telling me that religion is not about holding onto faith in spite of the lack of evidence supporting it, or indeed the existence evidence contradicting it. At the very least, for a huge number of believers, that is exactly and precisely what it means.
    If you’re a religious believer and that definition isn’t true for you, I’d be very interested to hear what it does mean for you. But for large, large numbers of believers, “trumping evidence” is what faith means.

  19. says

    Greta Christina: “But for large, large numbers of believers, ‘trumping evidence’ is what faith means.”
    It is probably more accurate to say that ‘trumping evidence’ is what faith all too often *does*. Bear in mind that believers probably see the evidence for evolution as pseudoevidence that isn’t all that it is cracked up to be, and they probably don’t even know a fraction of that evidence. Their position is arguably similar to that of someone who won’t believe one’s spouse is cheating because the evidence that he/she has seen is circumstantial. The Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on self-deception (http://skepdic.com/selfdeception.html ) seems pertinent:
    “A common example [of self-deception] would be that of a parent who believes his child is telling the truth even though the objective evidence strongly supports the claim that the child is lying. …
    “However, it is possible that the parent in the above example believes the child because he or she has intimate and extensive experience with the child but not with the child’s accusers. The parent may be unaffected by unconscious desires and be reasoning on the basis of what he or she knows about the child but does not know about the others involved. The parent may have very good reasons for trusting the child and not trusting the accusers. In short, an apparent act of self-deception may be explicable in purely cognitive terms without any reference to unconscious motivations or irrationality. The self-deception may be neither a moral nor an intellectual flaw. It may be the inevitable existential outcome of a basically honest and intelligent person who has extremely good knowledge of his or her child, knows that things are not always as they appear to be, has little or no knowledge of the child’s accusers, and thus has not sufficient reason for doubting the child. It may be the case that an independent party could examine the situation and agree that the evidence is overwhelming that the child is lying, but if he or she were wrong we would say that he or she was mistaken, not self-deceived. We consider the parent to be self-deceived because we assume that he or she is not simply mistaken, but is being irrational.”

  20. SteveC says

    Nice post. I was not familiar with the word “tropes”, but I had noticed the vast armory the rather obvious (to an outsider) defense mechanisms religions had incorporated. My word for them was “barbs”, since once religion hooks you, it is these “barbs” which make it difficult to remove the hook.

  21. says

    “1. Religious faith — i.e., believing in God despite the lack of evidence supporting the idea, despite the idea being inherently and by definition undemonstrable …”
    This definition of faith, what I call the Douglas Adams definition, is *extremely* new – within the last 25 years – and virtually unknown within mature religious groups. Indeed, even Webster’s is unaware of this definition except as a secondary one;
    “1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
    2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
    3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs ”
    The traditional Judeo-Christian definition of “faith” is the one listed first in Webster’s – loyalty to God and belief that God will keep His promises. This has been what the concept of ‘faith’ means in a religious context for about 5,000 years.
    And as a Christian I am not upset when Dawkins questions my faith, I am upset when he calls me ignorant, irrational, and dangerous. I am upset when he announces that teaching my children what I believe should be considered child abuse.

  22. Penny says

    “So my question for believers is the one I just asked of Rev. Cawley in another thread: If there is the possibility of evidence that would persuade you that your faith in God is wrong — what would that be? What — specifically — could happen in the world that would make you change your mind?”
    That is a very difficult question for most believers, including myself, to answer. It would probably take days of thinking. One of the problems is that a lot of the time I’m not really sure what, exactly, I believe. Before I answer the question about what would convince me that there is no God, I have to define God for myself and go from there, and that is a very, very hard thing to do. At the moment, I’m sticking with my religion because of the community I’m part of (who are the most diverse, intellectually curious, and unsure people about God I know), and because of the wonderful feeling I get when participating in services. I haven’t got an opinion on God and so for now there really isn’t anything that can convince me that It does or doesn’t exist.
    If other religious people/believers are like me, then asking questions isn’t nearly as destructive a force as you’d like it to be. Because we’ve been asking questions, too, and pending an answer, we’re choosing to stick with religion.

  23. says

    Brandon:
    “The most common (coherent) response I’ve heard about why religion shouldn’t be questioned is that you shouldn’t take away a person’s hope – religion may be the only thing giving them a sense of meaning, and making them doubt that could cast them into some sort of existential despair, which would be cruel.”
    As I see it, this is analogous to asking, “Is it okay to take away a person’s Prozac, when you know that that’ll make them depressed?”
    No, I wouldn’t take away Granny’s Prozac, not when she’s been taking it for fifty years, is comfortable with it, would suffer if it were taken away, and isn’t hurting anyone.
    At the same time, I wouldn’t tell people that they should take antidepressants on general principle, whether you suffer from depression or not.
    It may be that there are people who need religion, the same way that others need antidepressants. Okay, fine. If that’s what it takes for them to live a normal life, fine. But like drugs, irrational beliefs should be something you resort to, not something you aspire to.

  24. Jacob Litoff says

    Once my mom had some minor health problem. She went to her doctor and he gave her some medicine. It didn’t work. He increased the dosage. It still didn’t work. He tried something else It still didn’t work. So she went to some voodoo doctor(or someone outside of western medicine). He gave her something to take and she was cured instantly. When she showed the pills to her regular doctor he said there was almost nothing in them. She’d have had to take 1000 of them daily to equal what he gave her. But heck it worked. So with religion it is the same thing. What works for someone is good so let them use it as long as it does nothing harmful for others.

  25. Joel Shimberg says

    I liked a lot of this, but I think somewhat differently. I believe that you conflate ‘religion’ with a belief in God. Major Jewish theologians, such as Maimonides and Elijah Gaon of Vilna are agreed that atheism is quite compatible with Judaism; the Buddha repeatedly denied his divinity, and Buddhists do not believe in God; 20% of Quakers who practice silent worship do not believe in God. These people question the idea of ‘salvation’ and practice a religion based on what one does, not what one believes (performance-based rather than faith-based).
    Joel Shimberg
    One more of the dangerous hundreds

  26. says

    a day starts wit so much promise…
    even when its rainin,
    even when its dark.
    its still a new beginning.
    a night ends wit so much promise.
    as its the ending of the old.
    and in between the darkness n the light lies thoughts untold.
    a child hurt at night,
    still wakes up with new vigor,with renewed excitement.
    showing us wat it is to really sleep.
    to really live for the day.the very moment !
    But as v GROW UP, night and day lose their charm.
    their excitement…lose…us…
    is it that the days r on our shoulders ,
    tht v carry too much???
    tht life…with so much promise ,now feels like prolonged muck.
    tht the love v share wit so precious few,
    is tentative n quite scary.
    tht the money v earn by workin even harder
    (& v’ve been promised by parents & society tht v WILL be happier with more of it)
    is not really helping us enjoy to be freer,and more at ease.
    n now v’r very weary.
    Grown up have v?
    seen life…
    become practical.
    So how come it is tht practicality seems to have its bitter SHARP edge…
    tht wats termed reality has blinds on.
    tht v’r all the emperor…with those fabled clothes on.
    Our kingdom – our life insurance,based on death.
    insured r u?
    v give full refund & 100 % more on death, but do please collect it in person.
    listen to ur elders.
    they DO know what it is to FUCK UP..
    and will teach it to u.
    there is no need to beware of the devil – there never was.
    there never will be.
    go for confession, the one stop shop for redemption.
    3 sins for 5 virtues -, TODAYS SPECIAL – apologies to god…
    did the god tht banished Adam n eve from eden,
    the god tht didnt like them having knowledge,
    the god tht didnt like the fact tht they had shame or understanding of their differences…
    tht they somehow obtained fig leaves (bless Canada) to cover themselves.
    did this god wear clothes when he told them not to…
    haha…nice na?
    taught a two faced truth.
    taught morals…at least unto others.
    taught tht all are the same
    have u ever met same ? ever ?
    look, im not sayin anything against u or ur beliefs.im not putting u or anyone else down.
    im just asking a few interesting questions.cause they interest me.
    cause i want to know.
    know more than tht which has been taught.
    know more than which is seen.
    which is said in our politeness.
    in our life of learning of how not to step on toes…even our own.
    of evading all small traps…only to be caught by the big one..
    but the thing is – v cant see wats so close.
    the hardest thing to see is what is in front of ur face , aa the saying goes.
    SO… … 
 NOW
 
 … what do u see ???

  27. jinglehopper says

    I love your writing half for all these perfectly succinct explanations for entire libraries of ideas in my head, and half for the quoting of that line of Ozymandias.

  28. Donald says

    I am waiting to see a true miracle – such as the army veteran that lost three limbs in the Vietnam war – suddenly regaining his three limbs and walking away from his wheel chair!

  29. Donald says

    Another thing that I could accept as a miracle would be the restoration of Haiti and its people to their pre earthquake conditions overnight!

  30. says

    that beleivers say that questions are an attack on faith is essentially an admission that religion is nonsense.
    if it cannot withstand rigourous scrutnity, then it can’t be anything to base our lives or society upon – especially without consent in deomcratic countries were there’s allegedly separation of church and state

  31. Sensemaker says

    You call Dawkins confrontational. Well, I have read and seen quite a bit of his material and I do not believe he has ever been as sarcastic as this:
    “Right. The act of stating my opinion in public is the same as forcing that view onto others. I don’t, in fact, claim that I know there is no God, but never mind that now. I am cowing people into my narrow view through the awesome power of my blog. Which is read by hundreds of people every day! HUNDREDS, I tell you! Flee before me, puny earthlings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! I will cow you with the force of my opinions! Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated into my materialist Godless view; for while you may have the infinite power of the Almighty God on your side… I WIELD THE BLOG!
    Bwa ha ha ha ha!”
    Sensemaker

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