The end of god-17: The god who loves playing peek-a-boo

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

There used to be a time when religion and belief in god reigned supreme and science was secondary. It was believed to be incontrovertibly true that god existed, and one did not really need to argue in favor of that proposition. Scientists of the period earlier than (say) the 18th century took the existence of god for granted and saw their research as shedding light on how god worked. True knowledge was believed to be derived from god. Some religious apologists use the views of religious scientists of that time (like Newton) to support the contention that science supports the existence of god, since those scientists believed in god.

But all that has changed dramatically. Scientific knowledge has advanced greatly since that time while religious knowledge has remained static and this has resulted in the link between science and religion being severed. Beginning with the theory of evolution, science first shed its role of being subservient to religion and later abandoned even the pretence of trying to show that the two knowledge structures were consistent with each other. This liberation from the constraints of religious dogma has led to the dramatic advances in science and of our knowledge of how things really work. And what has become clear is that the concept of god is totally irrelevant to understanding anything about the world. Science has made god obsolete and redundant.

It is now the knowledge created by science that is supreme. Although this knowledge is not infallible and is constantly subject to change and revision, there is nothing else that comes close to it in terms of reliability and usefulness. The achievements of science are unquestionable. Science is also truly universal. Its principles transcend narrow sectarian divisions of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Anyone who rejects modern science and its methods of evidence and reason to create new knowledge is increasingly being seen as someone who is living in the past.

As a result, religion and belief in god is being increasingly revealed as little more than an irrelevancy, a bunch of superstitions, belief structures that children are taught and might find credible while they are still young but which are childish to cling on to when one has reached adulthood.

Faced with this new reality, and not having any new evidence to produce in their favor, what religious apologists have done is try and reframe the debate. One approach that is taken by advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) is to argue that science is dogmatically burying its head in the sand and deliberately avoiding, ignoring, or suppressing evidence for the existence of god. The second approach is to argue that science is just like religion because they are both faith-based, and that thus they are equivalent knowledge structures that each person can accept or reject on the basis of which faith they prefer.

In the first approach, believers try to elevate religion to the level of science while in the second approach, they try to bring science down to the level of religion. Both approaches try to equate science with religion.

The first argument, that scientists, because of a dogmatic commitment to materialistic explanations for phenomena, are deliberately ignoring the evidence for god, is really rather ridiculous. The reason that scientists seek materialistic explanations is not because they have received an edict that they must do so but simply because such an approach has been extraordinarily successful for doing research

It is undoubtedly true that scientists can be and have been dogmatic. There have undoubtedly been instances where individual scientists who have been the passionate originators or supporters of some theory have ignored or even suppressed evidence for alternative theories. Scientists are all too human and can fall prey to the same kinds of failings as other people. A scientist may well suppress evidence of a rival theory that challenges his or her own work out of petty ambition or jealousy or fear of failure.

But to extend this to saying that the community as a whole is suppressing evidence of the existence of god is preposterous. After all, this is god we are talking about. You know, lord of the universe, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, etc. A scientist who suspected that he or she had evidence of such a being would be mad to try and suppress it. After all, god could presumably easily thwart the pathetic attempts of any mere mortal to throw a cloak over him. Besides which, a scientist who tried to do that would presumably be inviting everlasting torments in hell. Scientists may be dogmatic but they are not that stupid.

It is far-fetched to think that a scientist would not reveal evidence that is unearthed for the existence of god or even the supernatural and the paranormal. After all, such a thing would be the biggest discovery in the history of the world. We live in a world so steeped in religious superstition that there are billions of people who so desperately seek a sign from god that they are even willing to accept as evidence pieces of burnt toast that seem to show an image of Jesus, despite the fact that no one knows what Jesus looked like, assuming he even existed. A scientist who revealed convincing evidence for god would be guaranteed to receive fame and fortune beyond imagination. The scientist would be even bigger than Oprah, if you can imagine that. Why would they not reveal the evidence for god? It makes no sense.

To counter this objection, religious apologists have a variant of this scientific dogma argument and that is to argue that perhaps the evidence that some scientists have for god is not definitive enough but at present is somewhat tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. The scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs. This is the premise of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

In the next post I will examine the plausibility of this argument.

POST SCRIPT: More religious craziness

As if his other views were not problematic enough, new audio clips of his sermons have emerged where John McCain’s buddy John Hagee claims that Hitler was used by god as a ‘hunter’ to hunt the Jews in order to encourage them to go to Israel.

And of course, this craziness has to be true because Hagee says he got it from the Bible. You wonder how the Bible can say that since it was written before Hitler? You are ignoring the magic interpretive glasses that all deeply religious people have that enables them to see precisely what they want to see in their religious texts.

The Hitler sermon was apparently too much for McCain who has now rejected Hagee’s endorsement.

The kind of thinking that religious people like Hagee exhibit has its own weird logic. They believe in a god who is a micromanager. Hence any major event (hurricane, genocide, war) had to be planned and implemented by god. They also believe that the Bible is the blueprint for god’s plans for the world. Once you accept those premises, then it’s off to the races, trying to infer the reasons for god’s actions by combing through the Bible.

Meanwhile, another McCain backer, a major evangelical pastor Rod Parsley has been preaching violently anti-Muslim sermons.

So now that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have been targeted, McCain only needs to add anti-Hindu and anti-Buddhist backers to his roster to have the Grand Slam.

The end of god-16: The tortured reasoning of the new apologetics

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

In the previous post I discussed the fact that the new religious apologists start by arguing that a God of the Ultimate Gaps cannot be ruled out as a logical possibility and then simply assert that this means one can believe in a Personal God as well.

This raises an interesting question. Why do religious apologists take this tortured style of bait and switch arguing? Why not, right from the start, argue for the existence of a Personal God, the way that religious fundamentalists do? After all, the same logical arguments used in favor of the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps can also be used to argue for the existence of a Personal God. In fact, such an argument can be used for the existence of anything you like, however preposterous, as was emphatically pointed out by Hermione Granger in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007, p. 411) when she says, “But that’s – I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove [the Resurrection Stone] doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of – of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

In order to logically argue this way for the existence of a Personal God, all you have to do is add the feature that this god, for inscrutable reasons, has decided to hide all evidence of his existence and has made his presence so undetectable that his existence is evidence-free (except for a few clues here and there) and requires unquestioning faith to accept that he exists. This is a logically impeccable stance to take since we cannot prove such a negative. We cannot logically exclude such a possibility any more than we can logically exclude the possibility of fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Of course, such arguments for the existence of god are pretty much free of any content. They do not really add anything to our knowledge and such reasoning is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, as George Orwell so pithily put it in his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. But since belief in god means abandoning belief in reason and evidence, this lack of content should not bother apologists.

So why is it that when you ask more sophisticated religious people why they believe in god, they will initially resort to something like that there must have been someone who initiated the big bang or first created life or the anthropic principle? This is a far cry from the kind of god they actually believe in, a Personal God. Why not simply start with the latter god and say that we cannot logically rule any type of god we wish to believe in?

I think that there are two reasons for this tortured argumentation route.

The first is that this argument is so obviously self-serving, so obviously tailored to support a pre-determined conclusion, that it invites ridicule.

The second is that sophisticated religious people are embarrassed by those religious people whom they themselves look down upon as anti-science extremists, such as religious fundamentalists and young Earth creationists, and seek to find ways to differentiate themselves from them. These latter groups people believe in a Very Personal God who micromanages everything down to the last detail, to the extent of whether they recover from an illness, whether they win the lottery, whether they get a new job or a promotion, and so on. But what is worse is that many also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that every event recorded in it is historically accurate, and reject all of science in order to cling on to their idea that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, Adam and Eve were real people, Noah’s flood actually happened, and so forth. They also reject the theory of evolution almost in its entirety, believing that god created each species individually.

Such fundamentalist believers in a Personal God are an embarrassment to the sophisticated religious apologists because the latter like to think of themselves as children of the Enlightenment, supporters of science and reason, while the former are seen as ignorant prisoners of medieval thinking. So in order to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists, the new apologists need to resort to using the God of the Ultimate Gaps to try and establish a kind of respectable intellectual beachhead, and then sneak in a watered down version of the Personal God behind it, hoping that no one will notice the switch.

Just like people put out the good china when guests are visiting while using plastic plates in everyday life, the God of the Ultimate Gaps has become the god that sophisticated religious believers trot out for formal public occasions where the existence of god needs to be defended, while the Personal God is the one secretly believed by them in everyday life.

Next: A god who plays peek-a-boo.

POST SCRIPT: The O’Reilly gift that keeps on giving

I mentioned recently that a video clip had surfaced of Bill O’Reilly letting loose an obscenity-filled tirade at an off-camera producer on his former show Inside Edition. O’Reilly has apparently sanctimoniously chastised celebrities for using obscenities, so this example of his hypocrisy did not go unnoticed.

I showed this clip earlier of Stephen Colbert coming to the defense of his hero by revealing his own meltdown many years ago.

Perhaps you were wondering how the producer at the receiving end of O’Reilly’s anger reacted. Now someone has managed to obtain video of the producer’s reaction. (Very strong language advisory)

You can now even dance to this remix of O’Reilly. (Very strong language advisory)

The lesson is that in the internet age, be very careful if there is a camera anywhere near you.

The end of god-15: Switching gods in mid-argument

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

In my previous post in this series, I argued that sophisticated religious apologists know that the only kind of god that they can argue for that can co-exist with our current state of knowledge is a God of the Ultimate Gaps, who created at one instant the universe and its laws and at a later instant created the very first form of life, and then did nothing else at all after that

But they also know that this god lacks broad appeal. After all, most people want to believe in the Personal God, an entity that has human attributes, who cares about them as individuals, listens to their prayers, and is willing and able to violate all the laws of nature to do them a personal favor. In other words, people seem to have a deep emotional need for a combination of a father figure and a powerful best buddy. It simply will not do for sophisticated religious apologists to tell them that their Personal God is dead and that all they have is an austere, aloof, retired, God of the Ultimate Gaps. Religion as we know it, a multibillion dollar international business, would quickly lose all support. People would rapidly desert their religious institutions (and more importantly not give money to them) if their Personal God is taken away from them.

So what we see in debates is that sophisticated religious apologists, after arguing for the logical possibility of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, then do a swift about-face and argue that this means they are also justified in believing in a Personal God. While this may be a somewhat watered down version of the Personal God believed in by religious fundamentalists, perhaps requiring a stated belief in just a few basic tenets such as that Jesus rose from the dead, it serves the purpose of opening the door for the entry of each and every variety of traditional and popular Personal Gods. After all, if you allow that Jesus rose from the dead, then it is not a stretch to believe that he did other miracles and from there, it becomes simple to believe that he is all around you all the time and listens to your every word.

In other words, apologists seem to believe that allowing for the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps allows for the possibility of existence of a watered-down Personal God which in turn allows for the existence of a full-blown Personal God which in turn allows for every superstitious belief that people have in the supernatural, all the way down to the cults and fanatics. This is how ‘moderate’ religion serves to provide intellectual cover for the beliefs of fundamentalists and extremists, even as they deplore their actions.

After spending the whole evening arguing for the possibility of the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, in his final closing statement at the very end of the The God Delusion Debate, religious apologist John Lennox pulled off this classic bait-and switch by simply asserting, without any evidence or argument whatsoever, that he believed in the whole story of Jesus and his divinity and his actual physical resurrection. In other words, that he accepted as true the whole Christian god belief complex, miracles and all. He seemed to think that the logical possibility that a God of the Ultimate Gaps existed gave him the license to believe in anything he wanted.

His debate opponent Richard Dawkins had, of course, seen this happen before, though he seemed a little surprised that someone of the intellectual stature of Lennox would attempt such a crude rhetorical ploy. He wearily responded that it always seemed to come down to this: that religious apologists start by saying that they accept science and begin with sophisticated arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. It is kind of sad.

I too see this same kind of argumentation all the time. After making the trite point that it is logically impossible, at present, to exclude the possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, people then seem to think that gives them the license to believe in any and all gods and still have that considered a rational belief. It seems like they think that if atheists can be made to concede the possibility of a powerful god who can create the universe, then they must concede the possibility that this god can be a Personal God capable of doing anything, including being born of a virgin, doing miracles, rising form the dead, listening to and answering each person’s prayers, revealing his likeness on toast and on highway overpasses, etc.

It is to avoid falling prey to such a bait and switch argument that one has to, when talking to religious people, establish right at the beginning exactly what kind of god they believe in: a Personal God, a God of the Gaps, or the God of the Ultimate Gaps, so that they don’t later shift between the various gods.

Next: Why do sophisticated apologists resort to this tortured style of reasoning?

POST SCRIPT: Flying fish

This remarkable video captures a fish flying for 45 seconds. It is an amazing sight.

The end of god-14: Sleight-of-hand arguments for god

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

When religious apologists like D’Souza appeal to Augustine’s statement that the universe had a beginning as evidence that Christianity is right, they do not spell out the full implications of what they are saying because that would show the ridiculousness of the argument. If they really believe that Augustine’s ‘prediction’ is not just a lucky guess but is really an argument in favor of god, that must mean they are saying that god whispered this revelation in his ear.
[Read more…]

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these ‘new atheists’ are now so ‘militant’. I do not think ‘militant’ is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to ‘respect’ that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like “Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?” So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes (“I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.”).

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that ‘respect’ can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new ‘new atheists’ are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the ‘respect for religion’ trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don’t believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don’t believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of ‘lack of respect’ comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some ‘moderates’ fear is that people’s attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty’s essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion — keeping it out of what Carter calls “the public square,” making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson’s compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience — a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, “I would never have an abortion” or, “Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days.” In these examples, as in Carter’s, the ensuing silence masks the group’s inclination to say, “So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.”

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don’t think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we’ll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let’s see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, “Gee! I’m impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith”? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced ‘to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented’ in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like “But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….”) when discussing public policy, and that “this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty.” He goes on that this requirement “is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience.”

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity’s role giving meaning to his own life.”

So when atheists (of the ‘new’ variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that “a speaker’s depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color.”

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion

It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called ‘fringe’ beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called ‘shrill’ or having ‘no respect for religion.’
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Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called ‘hate crimes’ legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would “provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes” involving “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”
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Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the ‘new atheists’. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means that one must not point this out.
In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a ‘respectable’ religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don’t pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world’s only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn’t? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush’s home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.


The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): “On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against.”

Barash summarizes the various suggestions that have been put forth to overcome this problem of how religion could have originated.

Other, related hypotheses of religion include the anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s grandly titled Religion Explained, which argues that natural selection would have favored a mechanism for detecting “agency” in nature, enabling its possessor to predict who is about to do what (and, often, to whom). Since false positives would be much less fitness-reducing than false negatives (i.e., better to attribute malign intent to a tornado and take cover than to assume it is benign and suffer as a result), selection would promote hypersensitivity, or “overdetection,” essentially a hair-trigger system whereby motive is attributed not only to other people and mastodons, but also to trees, hurricanes, or the sun. Add, next, the benefit of “decoupling” such predictions from the actual presence of the being in question (“What might my rival be planning right now?”), and the stage is set for attributing causation to “agents” whose agency might well be entirely imagined.

Boyer’s work, in turn, converges on that of Stewart Guthrie, whose 1993 book, Faces in the Clouds, made a powerful case for the potency of anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see human (or humanlike) images in natural phenomena. This inclination has morphed into a more specific, named phenomenon: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, “real” examples: Jesus’ face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary’s outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa’s profile in a cinnamon bun).

The same kinds of ideas are invoked to explain the origins of morality but here the work has advanced a lot more. The idea that morality comes only from religion has no validity, given that natural selection provides alternative explanations. As Barash says: “Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain “Moral Law.””

This is not to say that the question of the biological origins of morality has been completely solved.

In Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson explored the possibility that religious belief is advantageous for its practitioners because it contributes to solidarity — including but not limited to moral codes — that benefits the group and wouldn’t otherwise be within reach. That notion, appealing as it might be, is actually a logical and mathematical stretch for most biologists, relying as it does upon group selection. The problem is that even if groups displaying a particular trait do better than groups lacking it, selection acting within such groups should favor individuals who “cheat.” Mathematical models have shown that group selection can work in theory, but only if the differential survival of religious groups more than compensates for any disadvantage suffered by individuals within each group. It is at least possible that human beings meet this requirement, especially when it comes to religion, since within-group self-policing could maintain religiosity; it certainly did during the Inquisition.

So where do things stand? The status of the game is that while there have been major advances in understanding the biological origins (based on natural selection) in the propagation and evolution of religious ideas, and the origins of morality, there still needs a lot more work to be done, especially on the question of the origin of religion. As Barash says:

We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

But the goal can never be to change the minds of people about the lack of necessity of god by direct arguments. That rarely succeeds for reasons to be discussed in a future posting. In fact, although I have written many posts on why belief in god is irrational, I basically agree with Charles Darwin’s approach when he said “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science.”

The reasons for my posts are not to persuade the determined believers to change their minds but to add to the universe of ideas, so that people who are not particularly committed to religion will find that their musings are not the dangerous thoughts of an apostate that will be punished by an angry god, but the perfectly rational doubts that arise in the minds of anyone who values the role of evidence and the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the recent developments is that questions of religion and morality are now being investigated using scientific tools and methods, and those are bound to result in greater detailed understanding of those phenomena.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Apparently ABC News has decided to stage a science-religion debate. Who suggested this idea and offered to represent religion? None other than Ray “Banana Man” Comfort and his sidekick, Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron.

Apparently Comfort requested the debate in order to counter The Blasphemy Challenge. Comfort says: “I am amazed at how many people think that God’s existence is a matter of faith. It’s not, and I will prove it at the debate – once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists.”

Right. Frankly, if I was a religious person, I would be really worried about letting Comfort be my standard bearer. But who knows, maybe he has found a proof more powerful than the banana. (Scroll down to see the video if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps he has managed to find god’s designing hand in the avocado also. Maybe he will bring along Peanut Butter Man to clinch the case.

The debate will occur on May 5, 2007 and apparently will be streamed live on the ABC website and later be shown on Nightline.

Of course, what Comfort and people like him really yearn for is media exposure and he probably doesn’t care if people hoot with laughter at his “proofs” of god.