The end of god-13: The new apologetics, same as the old

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Religion has always had its own defenders, called religious apologists, who have tried to find ways to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable and at least somewhat consistent with advances in knowledge in science and other areas. In response to the recent onslaughts on their faith by the new atheists, there has arisen in response what one might call the ‘new apologetics’, attempts to combat the arguments of the new atheists. But in examining these arguments one is startled to discover that there is really nothing new.

While this series of posts has demonstrated that developments in science over the last two centuries have resulted in powerful new evidence and arguments against religion and god emerging thick and fast, religious apologists are still appealing to the arguments of Saint Augustine of Hippo (4th century), Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and William Paley (19th century), and even Paley is just revamping the arguments of his predecessors.

As Sam Harris says in his book The End of Faith (2004):

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach. (p. 21-22)

The only thing that is new about the new apologetics is that the new apologists have taken those very same old arguments and tried to redefine terms and adjust their meanings to respond to the genuinely new arguments and evidence of modern science and the new atheists.

Recall that there are still two major unanswered questions in science: the origin of the universe and the origin of life. The new apologetics, as I said earlier, has seized on these to create a God of the Ultimate Gaps as an ‘explanation’ for these questions.

But when we say these two questions are as yet unsolved by science, it has to be realized that it is not that scientists have no idea whatsoever about how the two major events occurred, but that the suggested solutions are as yet somewhat speculative. In the case of the origin of the universe, one suggestion is that our universe may not be unique but just one of many possible ‘multiverses’. There has been more substantive progress in the area of the origin of life, suggesting that a credible model is not far off. (I have discussed some of the possible candidate models in an earlier post.) But in both cases, we do not have the level of evidentiary support and predictive capabilities that would elevate these speculations to the level of scientific theories and so scientists would likely label these two problems as yet unsolved.

Religious apologists, perhaps sensing that the origin of life is a problem that may be solved fairly soon and thus shying away from depending too much on that being inexplicable, have focused more on the origin of universe as an argument for god and even argued that big-bang cosmology suggests the existence of god. They argue that the anthropic principle (the idea that the properties of the universe seem to be fine-tuned in just the right way for life as we know it to exist) is evidence for god, although that argument makes no sense.

John Lennox (in his The God Delusion Debate with Richard Dawkins) even suggests that since the story of Genesis postulates that there was a beginning to the world, this means that the Bible predicted the big bang theory! Dinesh D’Souza in his debate with Daniel Dennett suggests something similar, that Saint Augustine anticipated the big-bang theory and thus this must somehow be seen as a ‘win’ for religion and evidence for god.

D’Souza is correct that Augustine’s cosmology

“affirms that the world was created by God from nothing, through a free act of His will. With regard to the manner in which creation was effected by God, Augustine is inclined to admit that the creation of the world was instantaneous, but not entirely as it exists at present.

In the beginning there were created a few species of beings which, by virtue of intrinsic principles of reproduction, gave origin to the other species down to the present state of the existing world. Thus it seems that Augustine is not contrary to a moderate evolution, but that such a moderate evolution has nothing in common with modern materialistic evolutionist teaching.
. . .
For Augustine, God is immutable, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely devoid of potentiality or composition, a pure spirit, a personal, intelligent being.

But Augustine provides no evidence in support of his belief. He is merely guessing, based on what the Bible says. As Dawkins points out in response to Lennox and which applies equally well to D’Souza, there are only two possible options: either the universe had a definite beginning or it did not and thus anyone has a fifty-fifty chance of guessing it right, which hardly makes it a daring prediction.

Furthermore this kind of retrospective elevation of people like Augustine is hardly proof of the validity of religion and clearly demonstrates how desperate religious apologists are. If the scientific evidence that emerged in the mid twentieth century had provided support for an alternative model of the origin of the universe as one that had no beginning (say a static universe or the steady state theory), then Augustine’s guess would have been ignored and some other medieval cleric who happened to make the opposite guess would have been hailed as their champion prophet, and the Genesis story would have been reinterpreted in some way to be consistent with that model.

The chances are that one can always find some cleric from ancient times who has said something that could be vaguely interpreted as being in favor of some modern scientific theory. To argue that this should count as proof of prophecy and thus of evidence for the existence of god is a real stretch.

POST SCRIPT: Equal rights for gays gets a boost

The California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. California thus joins Massachusetts in legalizing such marriages. But this decision has greater implications since opponents of gay marriages in Massachusetts were able to invoke an old law that restricted the practice only to residents. California has no such restriction which means that people from all over the country can go to California and get married.

Of course, anti-gay groups are angry and are planning to try and overturn this by putting a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If this challenge can be beaten back and the amendment defeated, this might mark a sea change in attitudes towards gays.

I find the opposition to gay marriage really baffling. Why would anyone care if other people get married? It seems to based on nothing more than religion-based prejudice.

The end of god-12: God and natural disasters

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, we saw how religious believer try to absolve god for his failure to stop wars and genocide by arguing that god gives us free will and that it is therefore our fault when things like that happens. This is a weak argument at best but it does not address another problem of theodicy: how to explain away the massive suffering caused by natural disasters and disease, where no human agency is involved.

Just this week we have immense death and destruction due to the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. A few years ago we had the Asian tsunami. And we have had hundreds of millions of deaths over the centuries due to diseases like the plague, malaria, and typhoid. We have horrible diseases even now, afflicting all kinds of people down to the youngest children.

Why does an all-powerful and loving god allow such cruel things to happen? No convincing answer has ever been given for this, though some radical clerics like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are quick to say that these calamities are deliberate punishments by god for people’s sins. Of course they mean the sins of people they disapprove of (like gays) and not their own.

But such weird attitudes do not come just from well-known crackpots like Robertson. Even high dignitaries of so-called mainstream liberal churches like the Church of England are not immune from this kind of childish thinking. Take for example the remarks of some Church of England bishops after floods devastated large parts of England a little over a year ago.

The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God’s judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.

One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless.
. . .
The bishop [of Carlisle], who is a leading evangelical, said that people should heed the stories of the Bible, which described the downfall of the Roman empire as a result of its immorality.

“We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate,” he said.

“In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want,” he said, adding that the introduction of recent pro-gay laws highlighted its determination to undermine marriage.

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

In some sense, radical clerics like Robertson and Falwell and the bishop of Carlisle are only following to their logical conclusion where a belief in an all-powerful god leads them. If god is omnipotent, then he can prevent any natural disaster and if he does not do so, he must have a reason. The only reason they can think of is that this must be an act of retributive justice. Of course, earthquake, tsunamis, and floods that kill vast numbers of people indiscriminately do not look like the acts of a loving god, but these people tend to favor ‘tough love’ doctrines, as long as that tough love is applied to other people and not to them. Jerry Falwell died suddenly while in his office last year but I did not hear his good buddy Robertson suggesting that god had killed him because he thought Falwell was a major sinner in addition to being an annoying pest.

While one can think of many possible social and economic reasons why god might get mad, for some reason radical clerics tend to get really worked up by the thought of sexual (particularly homosexual) activities, and this is usually the reason they bring forward to explain any natural disaster.

Those people for whom the god-is-love idea is more important than the god-is-just idea have a harder time explaining natural catastrophes. They tend to have to resort to saying that god must be having some plan that we mere mortals cannot comprehend. When confronted with the problem of explaining massive numbers of deaths of even infants, believers shrug their shoulders and say the equivalent of “Well, stuff happens, and we don’t know why. We have to just assume god has a good reason for letting it happen even though he could prevent it.”

Some resort to saying that god created the universe and its laws and has simply decided to allow events to unfold according to those laws whatever the consequences (i.e., they invoke the God of the Ultimate Gaps when it is convenient to do so), and that the reasons for his leave-alone policy are inscrutable. This is the infamous ‘mysterious ways clause’, the get-out-jail-free card that religious people play when they are faced with something they cannot explain away.

They do not seem to realize that such a statement of ignorance of god’s intent is in direct contrast to their assured statements at other times: that they know that god is loving and just, cares for each one of us, wants us to be good and join him in heaven, and that it pains him when we stray from the path of righteousness. How could they know all that about the mind of god and yet not know why he allows droughts and floods and earthquakes?

In other words, popular religious apologists try to sidestep the theodicy problem by shifting between the contradictory beliefs of saying they know and understand the mind of god and god’s intentions and nature, while at the same time saying that the reasons for his actions are utterly inscrutable.

One cannot avoid the conclusion that these are the justifications of people who desperately want to believe. Some people have a deep emotional need to believe that there is a mysterious, invisible, father figure looking out for just them, and they will make up any story that allows them to cling to that, however irrational it may be.

Although the model of god-as-loving-father may look superficially more sophisticated than the god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer believed by the woman in Kansas, they both ultimately spring from the same source. First you decide what you want or need to believe, and then you make up some story that allows you to believe just that.

The only way that such people will abandon their beliefs is if they realize for themselves that their beliefs are divorced from reality and that a reality-based belief structure can be far more satisfying.

Next: What the more sophisticated apologists are saying.

POST SCRIPT: Colbert and O’Reilly

Blog junkies have probably seen the clip of Bill O’Reilly (on his former show) letting loose a profanity-laced tirade at his off-camera show producers. Stephen Colbert comes to his defense and reveals a dark secret from his own past.

The end of god-11: Trying to find reasons to believe in god

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In response to the powerful new evidence and arguments against the existence of god brought forward by the new atheists, the defenders of religion have had to regroup and respond. The next series of posts will look at some of these developments on the pro-religion side.

Today I will look at the popular arguments in favor of god, those advanced by regular people who are not professional theologians or academics. These people are simply trying to figure out for themselves why it is reasonable to still believe in god while living in a world that seems to be functioning as if there is no god at all.

Such people must yearn to return to the days when god would routinely demonstrate his existence and power by burning bushes without them being reduced to ashes, turning water into wine, stopping the sun in its tracks, raising people from the dead, and so on. Alas, those days seem to be permanently gone. The only miracles that seem to occur these days are the occasional reports of a crying statue or an image of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, hardly the kinds of things to fire the imagination of the devotee. God even passed up the chance to provide evidence for his existence by winning a NASCAR race.

At one extreme of the popular arguments are the religious fundamentalists. Their approach is illustrated by what happened to me after I debated the intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates in Kansas in 2002. A very earnest woman came to talk to me after the session. She was clearly disturbed by my challenge to the IDC members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that since they had failed to do so, IDC did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have god as part of science, so she had carefully written out on a piece of paper what she felt was a definition of science that would not contradict the existence of god. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur in the future was directly due to god and so everything in the world was due to god’s actions and thus science could never refute god’s existence.

She had made god’s actions synonymous with everything that happens. And she was absolutely right that science cannot provide evidence against such a definition of god. How could it?

But more sophisticated people shy away from such an extreme, and one might even say childish, view of god as it seems to deny the existence of any form of human agency. According to that model of god, we are all just puppets following a rigid script written long ago by an authoritarian puppeteer. The idea of good and evil and free will are casualties of such a model and it is not very flattering to the human self-image as thinking persons.

In order to preserve the concept of morality and that we are agents who can choose how we act, other religious believers replace the model of god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer with that of a god who has given us free will to choose how we act. People also like to think of their god as a loving god who is also all-powerful.

The catch is that with this new model, you immediately run up against the problem of theodicy: why a loving and all-powerful god allows awful things to happen.

When I was growing up as a Christian and struggling with this particularly difficult question, the answer that was offered and that satisfied me at that time (and coincidentally was repeated just this week in a private communication from a reader of this blog) was that while god wants us to do good, he has given us free will and allows us to exercise it to choose whether we do good or evil and some people pick the latter. The lesson we learn from our bad decisions is that we must do better in future.

This model of god is that of a parent who can if he wishes dictate to his child what to do but does not do so because that would be stifling to the child’s growth to adulthood. Instead god lets people learn for themselves from their own actions and mistakes, even if the short-term consequences are appalling. In such a model, the evil acts caused by humans (like the genocides of Native Americans, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans, etc.) are not the will of god but due to people making bad choices.

In other words, gods don’t kill people, people kill people.

The model of god-as-loving-parent is not without its own serious problems. It assumes that while god has the power to stop this kind of slaughter at any time, he allows massive acts of evil to occur because he views them as learning experiences. Is this argument really credible to anyone except those who want to believe at any cost? If a parent let his child slaughter the neighborhood children in a playground with a machine gun, we would hardly accept his explanation that he was allowing his child to exercise his free will so that he could grow and learn from his mistakes that guns are dangerous and that it is wrong to kill, and thus become a better person in the future.

An interesting feature of this model of god is how such religious apologists are quite confident that they know what god’s intentions are, and they seem sure that he is loving, cares for each one of us personally, that he wants us to use our free will wisely and in good ways, and that it pains him when we stray and do bad things. This is quite an extraordinary level of knowledge of the mind of an omnipotent deity. Of course, they have no evidence for any of these assertions. All the awful events named above can be explained as well (or even better) by saying that god is a vindictive and cruel entity who enjoys pitting one group against another, and seeing the suffering that ensues.

Next: Explaining away natural disasters

POST SCRIPT: Einstein’s views on religion

Given his well-deserved reputation as a deep thinker and thoughtful and humane person, Einstein’s views on religion have always been a source of great interest and his varying statements have been interpreted as being both supportive and dismissive of a belief in god.

In a little known letter written in 1954, he seems quite unequivocal in his contempt for religion:

In the letter, he states: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

Einstein, who was Jewish and who declined an offer to be the state of Israel’s second president, also rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s favoured people.

“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

The end of god-10: When vinegar is better than honey

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The previous post in this series raised the question of, given a conviction that religion is a negative influence in almost every area of life, what is the best strategy to persuade people to abandon their religious beliefs? Should we suggest that their religious beliefs are reasonable but that atheism is better (the honey approach)? Or should we come right out and say that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and should be abandoned by any thinking person (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)? Or should we just do nothing at all and let events take their natural course?

The last option (doing nothing at all) is probably the most appealing to atheists on an intellectual level and has been suggested by some commenters to the previous post. After all, if you think that belief in god is silly and without any foundation, then why be concerned if others believe it? But doing nothing has resulted in religion continuing to be pervasive and if, as I have argued before, religion leads to bad results, then surely we should try and change things, just as we would for any other belief structure that has negative social consequences, such as racism or sexism or homophobia.

I think that in the private sphere, in a face-to-face encounter with a religious believer, directly telling them that their beliefs are silly is not a good thing to do. People tend to respond to direct challenges to their beliefs by finding reasons, however irrational, to support those beliefs. In other words, they dig themselves in even deeper, commit themselves even more strongly, merely in order to save face in an argument. So a honey approach is called for here. One should try to gently point out why atheism provides a far more satisfying approach to life than belief in a god.

But the situation is quite different in the public sphere. Then most people are merely third-party observers, watching other people argue, and thus they themselves are not being personally confronted, although their views are.

When the new atheists in public discourse, in a debate or in the media, demonstrate that the views of their religious opponents are silly and irrational, this will likely not cause their immediate opponent to back down for all the reasons given above. But the debate opponent is not the real audience for their remarks. It is the viewing or listening or reading audience that is the target. Religious believers who watch the debate, when they see that the views of the person representing their own religious views being subject to withering criticism and unable to respond adequately, may come to realize that such beliefs are truly irrational. But since they are not being directly challenged, they do not have to immediately and publicly acknowledge this and can quietly think it over and slowly change their minds on their own without suffering a loss of face.

In some cases, ridicule may be the most effective weapon in countering preposterous claims, since it may persuade the observer that holding such views is embarrassing. In fact, some religious propositions cannot be countered without appearing to ridicule them, and this may not be an altogether bad thing. Take for example the widely held belief in the US that the world is just 6,000 years old. If someone asserts this, the honey approach would be to give them all the evidence from physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology that are all inextricably linked and point towards the conclusion that the world is billions of years old. This is hardly feasible in a limited time.

The vinegar approach is to say that to believe such a thing is to reject all of modern science and to regress to the Middle Ages. Richard Dawkins says in public that believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old and not 4.5 billion years old is not a minor disagreement about a factual detail. It is an error on the scale of asserting that the distance from New York to California is about 20 feet. That kind of argument can be seen as dismissive and ridiculing the beliefs of young Earth creationists, but I think it is more effective in cases like this. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”

Just as no thinking person today will publicly acknowledge a belief in astrology or witchcraft because it reveals one to be positively medieval in one’s thinking and puts one so beyond the pale of science and rationality that it is positively embarrassing, so the new atheists are making the case that to believe in god and religion is no better than holding on to those other beliefs that we now view as pure superstitions.

Even if people realize that it embarrassing to hold on their beliefs in god and religion because of the strong criticisms made in the public sphere by the new atheists, and decide to abandon them, there is still some difficulty in having to explain to the people they know personally why they switched. For some time, these people will likely still pay lip service to their prior religious beliefs while slowly distancing themselves from them. But at some point, they will feel confident in repudiating their former beliefs and this is made easier because they worked it out for themselves on their own, in their own minds.

I suspect that this process is happening right now in the minds of many people. As a result of the strong arguments put out by the new atheists, many people are probably coming to the private realization that the religious beliefs they have been subscribing to for so long are really rather ridiculous and embarrassing for any rational, scientifically-minded person to hold on to. They may stay silent now, or try to find some intermediate position that is not a total renunciation, but at some point they will repudiate religion altogether and do so publicly.

Their path will be made easier the more people adopt the new atheists’ approach.

Next: But enough about the new atheism, what’s new on the pro-religion side?

POST SCRIPT: Batman and the Penguin discuss the American electorate

(Thanks to This Modern World)

The end of god-9: Honey and vinegar

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

An argument that is often made against the new atheists is that their strong rhetoric (such as labeling god a delusion) can alienate people and not win them over to the atheist side. Thus one finds even those who concede that the new atheists are right and that they have all the science and evidence and logic and rationality on their side, still suggesting that the atheists may be losing the bigger public relations war even as they win individual battles. Such people, retrieving the old saying that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, suggest that a softer approach may yield better results.
[Read more…]

The end of god-8: Why even ‘good’ religion is not worth saving

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When all else fails, religious people sometimes resort to utilitarian arguments in favor of god, such as that some people would act worse if they did not believe in a god who would punish them for doing bad things. Other alleged benefits of ‘good’ religion are that it helps people cope with the stresses of life and deal with the fear of death, that it encourages people to do good acts, and to summon up courage in the face of adversity.
[Read more…]

The end of god-7: How ‘good religion’ corrupts people

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One major problem with religion is that it tends to dull the moral sensibilities of otherwise decent people, causing them to justify acts by ‘their’ people that they would unhesitatingly condemn if done by anyone else. The process starts in childhood. Take for example the study of Israeli children done by George Tamarin. When told the Biblical story of how Joshua and the Israelites ruthlessly massacred every living thing (men, women, young, old, animals) in a battle against their enemies, the children justified this atrocity using appallingly racist reasoning. When the same story was modified to make the perpetrator of the outrages be an obscure ancient Chinese warlord, the children responded the way that one would hope they would do, saying that the massacre was wrong.

As Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p. 255) says:

[W]hen their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

Another example can be seen in the PBS Frontline documentary on the Mormons, available online. Episode #9 deals with the 1857 massacre by Mormons of 120 men, women and children from Arkansas who were passing through Mormon territory in southern Utah, at a place called Mountain Meadows, on their way to California.

Judith Freeman (who is a descendent of the Mormons) says that she is sympathetic to the 75 Mormon men who committed the massacre. “I think I became more sympathetic to their plight because of this idea, this Mormon principle of perfect obedience. These men were ordered to appear at Mountain Meadows, so in a way they were victims of their own devotion and obedience.”

This highlights perfectly the danger of religion. It causes people to sympathize with and even excuse appalling actions simply because the people who committ them sincerely believe they are doing god’s work. The idea that one should view the perpetrators of atrocities as somehow victims of their own upbringing and conditioning is not, in principle, an unreasonable proposition. The problem is that people tend to extend this charitable view only to people who share their own faith, and refuse to consider this for actions done by others against them, thus leading to an endless downward spiral of self-righteous justifications of actions done by one’s own tribe and condemnations of the actions of the perceived enemy, even though both actions are objectively the same.

As Richard Dawkins says:

Religion changes, for people, the definition of good. Atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad deeds in terms of the welfare and suffering of others. Murder, torture, and cruelty are bad because they cause people to suffer. Most religious people think them bad, too, but some religions (for example the religion of the Taliban) sanction all of them under some circumstances. For non-religious people, the behavior of consenting adults in a private bedroom is the business of nobody else, and is not bad unless it causes suffering – for example by breaking up a happy family. But many religions arrogate to themselves the right to decide that certain kinds of sexual behavior, even if they do no harm to anyone, are wrong.

The actions of the Taliban, their vile bullying of women, their sanctimonious hatred of all that might lead to enjoyment, their violence, their ignorant bigotry, their hatred of education, their cruelty, seem to me to be as close to pure evil as anything I can imagine. Yet, by the lights of their own religion they are supremely righteous – really good people.
. . .
It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds. There is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds.

While Dawkins gives the example of Islam and the Taliban, the same kinds of examples can be multiplied many times over for any of the other religions. The problem is not any particular religion, or version of religion, it is belief in god that is the problem. The danger is, as Freeman says, “If you can get people to believe they are doing god’s will, you can get them to do anything.”

The sad truth that emerges from the rise of religious extremism is that once you have got people to accept the existence of god, it seems all too easy to convince them that they should do evil actions as part of god’s mandate. Or as Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

I think it is time for the so-called ‘moderate’ religious people to abandon their belief in god and join the atheists. That would be the best way to combat the negative effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Pat Condell on the curse of faith

He talks about the evil of indoctrinating children in religious faith when they are too young to realize what is going on.

The end of god-6: The biggest menace of religion: faith

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The most basic problem with almost any religion is the fact that they raise ‘faith’, which is the irrational acceptance of things in the absence of, or even counter to, credible evidence and reason, to the level of a virtue. This is simply asking for trouble. Once you have said that you believe something just because some book says so or some inner voice tells you to do so, you have lost all standing to condemn others whose own inner voices (or the voices of their priests, rabbis, or imams) tell them to do unspeakable acts in the name of obeying god’s will.

As Daniel Dennett says:

If religion isn’t the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress, what is? Perhaps alcohol, or television, or addictive video games. But although each of these scourges – mixed blessings, in fact – has the power to overwhelm our best judgment and cloud our critical faculties, religion has a feature of that none of them can boast: it doesn’t just disable, it honours the disability. People are revered for their capacity to live in a dream world, to shield their minds from factual knowledge and make the major decisions of their lives by consulting voices in their heads that they call forth by rituals designed to intoxicate them.
. . .
Not just rationality and scientific progress, but just about everything else we hold dear could be laid waste by a single massively deluded “sacramental” act. True, you don’t have to be religious to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are religious, you don’t have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things. And – this is the worst of it – religious faith can give people a sort of hyperbolic confidence, an utter unconcern about whether they might be making a mistake, that enables acts of inhumanity that would otherwise be unthinkable.

This imperviousness to reason is, I think, the property that we should most fear in religion. Other institutions or traditions may encourage a certain amount of irrationality – think of the wild abandon that is often appreciated in sports or art – but only religion demands it as a sacred duty.

In his Letter to A Christian Nation (p. 66-68) Sam Harris says:

The conflict between science and religion is reducible to simple fact of human cognition and discourse; either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still has immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.

As a footnote, Poseidon-worshippers (yes, they exist!) were incensed at Harris’s apparent slight towards them. Harris adds that “Truth be told, I now receive e-mails of protest from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods from Greek mythology are real.” Poseidon worshippers have a point. Why should their belief be accorded any less respect than belief in Jesus or Yahweh or Allah, just because their numbers are smaller? Once you have opened the gates of such irrationality, all bets are off.

The idea that religions are fundamentally good and that those who do evil in its name are misguided and have misinterpreted their respective religious texts simply cannot be sustained. The new atheists might concede that while certain versions of religion might inspire people to do good things, the overall influence of religion is so bad that it is not worth salvaging.

Even ‘good’ religion is bad in that it allows the enabling of bad religion. Once you have allowed irrationality to go unchallenged, you have lost the main argument against fanatics who think that murdering and otherwise acting against commonly accepted human values is doing the work of their god. In many ways, those whom we label as ‘religious fanatics’ are those who have taken their religious texts and doctrines seriously, at their face value, and have obediently sought to follow them.

For example, people whose children die because they prayed for them instead of taking them to the doctor are those who took seriously their religion’s claim that if they had faith, god would heal them. After all, it was Jesus who gave this promise (Mark 16:17-18):

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Most mainstream religious people cynically hedge their bets by seeking medical treatment when they fall ill, in addition to praying. But according to Jesus, it is those whom we would consider to be religious fanatics, the exorcists, the hallucinators, the snake handlers, the poison drinkers, and the faith healers who should be considered truly religious.

It is precisely because religious people bring up children to believe unquestioningly in absurd religious dogmas that some of those children grow up taking such things more seriously than their parents might like. It is then disingenuous to argue that they have gone too far. The people who do evil things in the name of religion are presumably convinced that they are doing god’s work. Bin Laden holds himself up as a true Muslim, upholding his religion’s highest traditions. John Hagee and Pat Robertson are similarly convinced that they are the true Christians. And one can find similar examples in other religions.

The best way to counter them is to argue that there is no god and that their holy books are merely the work of human minds that carry no more intrinsic authority than today’s newspaper. At least that is a position that can be backed up overwhelmingly by evidence, science, and reason.

To argue instead, as ‘good’ religionists try to do, that your idea of god is better than their idea of god is a proposition that is purely religious-text based and can be easily countered by pointing to different sections of the same religious texts. As such, it can never be conclusive and can be easily dismissed by those whom we usually label as ‘fanatics’ but are better described as ‘true believers’.

Next: How ‘good religion’ corrupts people.

POST SCRIPT: Those weird Arabs

As Matthew Yglesias points out:

It’s really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it’s not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don’t like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.

It takes the Onion to really parody this way of thinking.

The end of god-5: The politics of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Perhaps the biggest storm raised by the new atheists, and which has even caused a split within the atheist community about strategy, is that they have decided to ignore the polite fiction that there is ‘good’ religion and there is ‘bad’ religion. Supporters of this split (which includes even many non-religious people) believe that what should be done is to support the good religionists by aligning with them to combat the bad.

This has to be understood as being essentially a political strategy, designed to marginalize the so-called religious extremists and fundamentalists, the people whose religious beliefs lead them to reject all of modern science and to harbor repugnant views on issues of morality and social justice.

But while this strategy may generate some political benefits in the short term, its adoption has also resulted in religious beliefs as a whole being treated with kid gloves, by not subjecting them to the same close and withering scrutiny that is applied to other evidence-defying beliefs such as astrology and witchcraft. Although religious beliefs are as irrational as any of those things, this political strategy required that this inconvenient truth not be pointed out, and to maintain the façade that there is a ‘true’ religion which is essentially good, and that the evils committed in religion’s name arise from distortions of the true religion by misguided or evil people.

This gentle treatment of mainstream religion was no doubt aided by the fact that many people that atheists were likely to know, even within their close circle of family and friends, are people who are otherwise rational and yet also believe in these religion-related absurdities. It is hard to criticize religion in a fundamental way without implicitly suggesting that belief in it is an irrational act. The desire not to ruffle feathers serves to muffle fundamental criticisms of religion as a whole and resulted in many atheists of previous generations carefully tailoring their arguments to only condemn those whose religion resulted in abhorrent views and actions. The views of such people were said to not represent ‘true’ religion, though why that is so is never made clear.

It is undoubtedly true that there are very many religious people who are decent and humane, even inspirational. It is also true that there are very many religious people who are bigoted, racist, and murderous. But the idea that the good that some religious people do is evidence of a loving god at work while the evil that other religious people do is not evidence of a vicious and hateful god is an argument that is highly self-serving and lacks coherence.

Take for example, evangelical (and John McCain supporter) John Hagee, who explains some of his beliefs below:

He quotes the Bible to justify his weird views and who has the standing to say he is wrong in his understanding? ‘Good’ religious believers have the unenviable task of trying to explain why their choice of Biblical passages and their interpretation should be given more weight than Hagee’s. (For more of Hagee’s ravings, courtesy of Matt Taibbi’s new book The Great Derangement, see this excerpt (courtesy of Tbogg).)

The argument of mainstream religions that ‘true’ religion (i.e., the religious doctrines that they happen to subscribe to) is a force for good simply cannot be sustained. What the new atheists are saying is that rather than there being bad and good religion, there is only bad religion (that which makes people commit acts that go against accepted standards of morality and decency and justice) and the enabling of bad religion. After all, those religious extremists who commit appalling acts in the name of religion are as justified in arguing that they represent ‘true’ religion as anyone else. Religious texts and the history of religion are all over the place when it comes to prescriptions for behavior and one can pick and choose passages to justify almost anything.

The very fact that the ‘good’ religious people feel justified in dismissing or ignoring those parts of the Bible that support evil acts shows that they are not deriving their morality from the Bible but are instead imposing a morality derived elsewhere, from secular humanist values, onto the Bible.

The new atheists have a far more consistent argument. They say that it is far more coherent to argue that there is no god at all, that it is pointless to ascribe the actions of people to a god, and that we should reject the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text as authoritative documents in their entirety.

In their rejection of the concept of a ‘good’ religion worth saving or even promoting, the new atheists have split with some scientists who argue for an alliance with the followers of ‘good’ religion and seek to find an accommodation of science with that religion. I call this latter group of scientists ‘Templeton scientists’ because the Templeton Foundation has for a long time tried to woo scientists to try and find ways to make religion and belief in god compatible with science. This is, in my view, a hopeless task but by dangling huge rewards, (the annual Templeton prize is larger than the Nobel prize) the foundation has tried to lure some scientists into trying to find ways of doing so.

Those who assert that the new atheists are pursuing a bad strategy say that by taking a tack that will antagonize those people who believe in ‘good’ religion, they are harming the common struggle against those whose religion drives them to words and actions that are manifestly evil by almost any yardstick.

This argument reveals a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together on one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the ‘good religion’ group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the ‘bad religion’ group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether the concept of ‘good religion’ is valid at all.

Asking the new atheists to not debunk the concept of ‘good religion’ for the sake of political expediency makes as little sense as asking the members of the ‘good religion’ group to stop talking about their belief in god in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of ‘bad’ religion) while retaining the right to disagree on other issues.

The reason that this fairly obvious aspect of coalition politics is not understood is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated ‘respect for religion’, which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by ‘good’ people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore. But religion, which is no better, still retains its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in.

The new atheists have ended that tradition and it is a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: Silly Superstitions

Sri Lanka is a country that is riddled with superstitions with many people, including political leaders, not doing anything significant until they have consulted their astrological charts and gotten the green light. It always seemed bizarre to me.

Now it appears that Republican presidential candidate John McCain is also extremely superstitious.

The reason that superstitions flourish is because we tolerate, even venerate, the biggest superstition of all, the belief in supernatural powers like god.

The end of god-4: The death of god due to other causes

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While developments in science have provided the most powerful arguments against the existence of god in any form, it is not only science that has led to the undermining of traditional religious beliefs. As far as Christianity and Judaism are concerned, other areas of scholarly work, such as modern textual scholarship in the form of the so-called ‘higher criticism’, coupled with careful archeological studies, have shown that the Bible is very much a human-created document and that there is little or no evidence for the validity of any of the knowledge contained in it.
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