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Discussion in 'Spirituality & Religion' started by Sakatei, Sep 28, 2010.
Ugh. That shit is awful.
I think part of the problem with atheists losing their humility is being confronted with a lot of "you're wrong, God's obviously real" arguments. It tends to get very frustrating. That being said, I thought taking out ads that say "There is no God" in the UK was the height of silliness. In a country like the UK, which is decidedly secular (apparently the new Labour leader is an atheist Jew living in sin with the mother of his child), it was even more pointless - no one cares if you're an atheist or an Anglican. Religion should be private - as should atheism.
Other than on these boards, of course.
If atheism is a big business, religion is a mega-conglomerate...
Some, but there isn't one cohesive movement... atheists are not unified either. There are differing opinions amongst atheists. I myself have found myself at disagreement with some.
When people are open minded they can consider other viewpoints. I have considered other viewpoints in my life. I was once a Catholic, but I turned atheist. I even went to sunday school and church. At any rate, some people can look at other cultures and be open minded. Some people really aren't pinned down by cultural, biological and personal biases and prejudices.
I feel better living by that instead of being wishy-washy.
Well, these blogs need to to a bit more reading. Leaving aside the fact that "theology" is relatively unimportant in religious life, there are plenty of people doing some sophisticated thinking about religion, and I don't recall any of them winding up in Dawkins or Hitchens books (or at least, not being seriously considered therein) or in Bill Maher's movie Religious.
For general studies of religion written for wide consumption, the soon-to-be late Huston Smith has a lifetime of accessible work, starting with his The World's Religions. He also has a collection of interviews that are worth checking out (The Way Things Are: Conversations on the Spiritual Life). His book on psychedelics is pretty interesting, too:
Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. He has a book on Native American religions based on his experience with peyote, but I can't remember the title. Along the same lines of accessibility, there's Karen Armstrong. She has two recent books that get bogged down in details, but only because they are ambitious as all get out. The are The Great Transformation: subtitle of which I can't remember and The Case for God, both of which cover the emergence of the religions that are with us today from about 4000-6000 years ago to the present. More accessible is her most recent autobiography, which I think is the one called The Spiral Staircase.
Closer to theology... well again off the top of my head there's an Italian philosopher Gianni Vitamo, who has a ton of works dealing with Religion in the public sphere and in intellectual life since Nietzsche. He is frequently translated by, and collaborates with, and American scholar named John Caputo. Caputo has a book (which I haven't read yet) called What Would Jesus Deconstruct: Good News for the Postmodern Church (I think). Both of these guys are influenced by the likes of Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari. Which means they're not as easy to read as, say, Smith and Armstrong.
These are just a few people off the top of my head. The main reason the bloggers you refer to may not have heard of them is that most discussion of religion in the US takes place at the 3rd grade level (to paraphrase Huston Smith), and given the typical results of the survey we're talking about, it's not hard to understand why. And if they're reading Hitchens... well, that Eagleton article I linked to earlier says
Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, Eagleton insists, are playing to the high-minded liberal-humanist prejudices of their elite audience and, in the process, are displaying a shocking ignorance of their supposed subject, one that would be deemed unacceptable in almost any other intellectual forum. Would anyone be permitted to write a book about courtly love in the Middle Ages based on several visits to a Renaissance Faire, or a book about Nazism based on episodes of "Hogan's Heroes"?
Of course, the fact that the general level of discussion about religion is so low is about 80% the fault of religious people and 17% the fault of an intellectually slothful fourth estate, IMO, but that's for another bloated post.
So what are the arguments out there that prove the existence of God? There are none? OK then.
That may sound arrogant but it's the question we would ask of any other discipline. What proves evolution is true? Gravity? What about this or that particular religious concept? Why should we listen to a chemist or a physicist or a theologian? This is what I mean by kid gloves approach to religion. Religion does not receive the same scrutiny other areas of thought do.
Dennett for one is very aware of the benefits of religion. He questions whether they outweigh the negatives and he often examines these independent of whether the religion is true or not. Harris too is aware and I'd say Hitchens is as well but they take a more conclusive approach to the question of whether the benefits outweigh the harm. Dawkins on the other hand simply finds it irrelevant I think.
None of these men are ignorant of the arguments for the existence of God and are also quite capable of dealing with arguments about whether religion is good or not regardless of God's existence. So what are they missing?
This Eagleton quote is a fair representation I think of the problem a lot of these atheists blogs have commented on recently. They've complained about accommodationists and wondered what arguments for the existence of god we're not hearing. What has been put forward is a series of assertions like Eagleton's that new atheists aren't qualified to discuss religion. His approach requires giving religion special dispensation though - why does religion get to skip the verifiability part of its claims and start from "let's assume god exists"? (Again, I think it's safe to assume there is no convincing argument for the existence of God by any independently verifiable means).
I think my replies will indicate that I disagree - they do concede some points (religion has benefits - Dennett, other people do biology and are religious - Dawkins, spirituality is a worthy pursuit - Harris).
Now don't get me wrong, I acknowledge that there are huge gaps in communication - including here between you and I for example. Watching a Hitchens vs. apologist debate can be extremely frustrating because both sides are simply saying the same thing you've heard before.
In the end I really think it comes down to a sort of protective barrier that religion has been granted by society though. These debates are frustrating because both sides are on a different footing - if an atheist ends up in this debate they tend to want proof. Those who defend religion (including atheists sometimes) often end up with arguments that boil down to "you don't understand what our side is saying".
So progress isn't made because you go from "We don't buy your arguments for the existence of god" to "Well religion does all these other things too" to "Yes but you can do those things without believing in god" to "well you don't really understand us". How do we get past that?
I think what people need to realize is that we can't do a direct comparison of religion and science, and require the same kind of evidence or apply the same kind of rigor to a religion and its claims, as we do to scientific hypotheses.
Francis Collins expounds a little more on this point in this article:
That's nonsense though. Religion asserts that it deals with a different realm, but you can't simply let that assertion stand without taking it to task.
The Francis Collins post you linked to has also been taken to task. In particular: "The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm. Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that those aren't scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?" the answer to this is, no, that's not clear at all and the claim that religion helps answer these questions in away way cannot simply be asserted without question.
You can argue that religion proposes answers and that having answers, even if they are clearly false or simply unverifiable, is a good thing. Dennett does as much. You can't claim that religion actually succeeds in answering these questions though and simply ask that it not be subjected to the same scrutiny.
I agree with you. in fact, I posted that same article on my FB page and provided this further commentary on the subject:
so one could argue that without the ability to know for sure the answers to such questions, is there any point in even philosophizing about them. perhaps there is a point to philosophizing and debating them, but certainly not shedding blood over them.
The problem in this discussion is that detailed theology is utterly useless to an atheist.
Personally, I do have an interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular. So I kinda like getting informed about theology (although I'm usually more interested in the historical context and its connection to theology). However, that's a personal thing. I can't blame anyone for thinking that this is an utter waste of time.
Christian theology is of course a very complex subject (unless you're a literalist). In the middle ages and really up to maybe the 18th century, the theological faculties were the place where the brightest minds of Europe gathered. So of course a very complex structure has emerged over the millennia. People like Thomas Aquinas weren't stupid, they were extremely smart, so we wouldn't expect that any atheist could just click on Thomas's Wikipedia page and immediately understand what his theology was all about.
However, that's also not what most atheists want or even need to know. No matter how sophisticated your personal theology may be, from the simple Biblical literalist on the one hand who doesn't have any concept beyond "the Bible is absolutely true" to the Catholic Church which has almost 2 millennia during which many great thinkers were working on its theology, all these theologies hinge on a single point: The existence of god, or more specifically, the existence of the particular god you believe in.
Without the existence of your god, the most sophisticated theology won't help you, it all falls apart. And that is the big difference to everything else in our lives.
Religion is based on authority: Statement X is true because prophet/messiah Y who is (in contact with) god Z told us so.
So what theology does is not trying to justify X, it's trying to square X with reality. In theology, you start with the desired result and construct the world around it accordingly. The Bible says that Jesus was born by a virgin, so Christian theologians have come up with a metaphysical idea of the world that agrees with that statement.
Had instead the Koran said the same thing about Muhammad, the Christian theologian would have just dismissed this out of hand.
On the other hand, think about Socrates for a second. We only know of him through Plato's works. So what if Socrates actually never existed? What if Socrates was partially or completely the result of Plato's imagination? Would that change anything?
The answer is no! Socrates's teachings are not dependent upon his authority, but on their content. It doesn't matter who said it, Socrates, Plato or anybody else.
Now look at a famous example in the Bible, the ten commandments. First of all a Christian (or Jew) has to take it on the authority of the Bible (or more specifically the person who wrote that chapter) that it's telling the truth. Should that be the case, they have to take it on Moses's authority, that he actually got the ten commandments from YHWH. Next they have to take it on
YHWH's authority that he is indeed god and the one and only one at that. Finally they have to take it on god's authority that he's telling us the truth.
So the believer has to take several leaps here, none of which can be justified and theology only sets in once we accept all these leaps as true. Philosophy on the other hand needs nothing of that sort, it simply looks at the teachings of Socrates and works with that, possibly accepting or rejecting parts of it.
So theology might be very sophisticated, internally it might be very logical and make a lot of sense, but it's always exclusively based upon presuppositions, the most important of which is the presupposition that god exists. Without god, all these great constructs are rendered meaningless. So for an atheist, theology is likely to appear like mental masturbation: It's a great game of "what if".
What if god exists?
Well, then the world has to have the following properties...
But if I don't believe in god, this is a waste of time and completely irrelevant. Just like Christians are probably not interested to envision the metaphysics of a world in which pigs can fly, most atheists are not interested in Christian theology. And why should they be? When atheists argue with Christians, Muslims, etc. about the premises a believer has to have, they don't need to know anything about the metaphysical implications such a premise would have. The only things that would matter to the atheist are physical implications as they could provide a tool to verify the presupposition. But at that point, the "sophisticated" theologian usually weasels out and says: "Well, that is not the kind of god I believe in."
The answer by those atheists who don't care for theology (for the reasons given above) would be: "Fine then, go on with your mental masturbation, but don't say that I don't get what you're believing in because I know all I need to know in order to justify my disbelief in your god."
What are they missing? The fact that this sort of thinking is like faulting a Bach cantata or Mozart's Clarinet quintet for not being logically sound. It's not about argument. It's about a sense of mystery in and to life. It takes work to cultivate that sense, and a result of the cultivation should be a better, more complete life.
But since our culture seems to assume the merits and demerits of religion are limited to the format of a syllogism, our cultural discourse takes place mostly at a rather juvenile level.
Whatever. This may sound arrogant, but again, it's like sharing an appreciation of Bach with someone who thinks Barney the Dinosaur provides the epitome of aesthetic experience.
The difference is that you won't find many People willing to fly a plane into a building in the name of the Brandenburg Concertos. If religion was indeed private, not only in theory but also in fact, you might have a point.
And you might have a better point if most religious people were flying planes into buildings. But they're not. In any case, earlier I said responsibility for the problem of religious discourse being at such a low level rests mostly with religious people. Those idiots are among the ones I was thinking of.
This seems like a concern over science as reductionism and a fear that science removes the mystery in life. I don't think understanding things removes the "sense of mystery" in them, though it might re-categorize it as a "sense of awe" or something else. It also adds nothing in favor of your claim that theological arguments offer anything new or sophisticated.
Well you're going a step too far in assuming I don't appreciate anything from religion and the analogy is particularly bad because if extended it means I find young cults (the simple - relatively speaking) more interesting than older religions (the complex and multi-layered).
As a literature major I know that people who are not religious can appreciate religious literature. I'm sure philosophers who are not religious appreciate theological arguments (and I can confidently say that based on reading some of the new atheists). So it's not really about not appreciating anything, it's simply about seeing it on the level of literature or philosophy, and more precisely fiction and mythology and not being willing to give it a status it hasn't earned - that of providing real answers to tough questions.
As benztown points out, to an atheist the answers theology provides are rendered meaningless once you conclude that the god those answers try to prove or support or rely on does not exist. He also points out that theology is indeed complex and interesting, and states that he finds it interesting.
So you're entirely incorrect in claiming that I don't appreciate it on any level. I do however believe that it does not achieve what it claims to or intends to, and I think that is important when discussing these issues and the claims that atheists are poorly informed on theology.
I have to cut out: I'll try to pick this up tomorrow: this is a great post and I'm not blowing it off: Two quick points: 1) if someone is looking for cut and dried proof that God exists, and rejecting the value of religion without that cut and dried proof, then that person's sense of mystery is wanting (as it is with too many religious people). ,
2) Eagleton (for one) isn't claiming atheists are poorly informed about theology. Theology is one aspect of religion. He says --specifically Hitchens and Dawkins -- that they specifically are poorly informed about about the historical and cultural breadth of religion, of which includes theology, but that's not the most important aspect of religion -- They have no idea of the role mysticism plays in the church, for instance. Or ritual (save in the most reductive way where ritual = habit) and things like that.
In short, reducing the debate to matters of "argument" is missing the point. There's more to it than that.
What I was trying to say is that unlike music, religion is an ideology. Suicide attacks are just an extreme example of that.
A better comparison would therefore be politics. When you're a communist, you wouldn't defend your belief by comparing communism to Bach either, instead, you'd make your case.
So whenever a religious position doesn't square with the world view of an atheist, we get a problem, because the religious person can't defend himself.
Let's say a US politician would want to outlaw private gun ownership. He wouldn't just say that a ghost told him so, he'd justify his belief. He'd give you reasons that are based in the real world, like the number of deadly accidents that could be greatly reduced.
His political opponent would argue against it, pointing out that this would reduce personal freedom.
In the end, you can decide which arguments hold more weight for you personally.
On the other hand, when Christians want to outlaw gay marriage, their argument is not based on the real world, but on their personal theology.
As long as everybody cultivates their sense of mystery (whatever that means) privately, nobody has a problem with that. The problem arises once people put that mystery in the middle of the public arena and it becomes a problem long before we reach the extremes of suicide attacks.
if atheism is ONLY the holding that one has an absence of a particular belief/set of beliefs, then atheism is not a "faith", per se. however, many many many people who would identify themselves as atheists would respond to the question, "Does god exist?", by answering "No."
that response is based on the belief that lack of specific evidence of the existence of a god/gods or God -- the biblical deity -- means that there is no such being. but the lack of evidence can only be claimed as strongly suggestive, not probative.
many in the "believing" community understand that there is a difference between saying "I have no belief where the existence of a god/God is concerned" and saying "There is no God", but it is not always the case that the self-identified atheist apprehends the difference.
and i will readily concede that many "believers" assume that all atheists deny the existence of a god/God, regardless of how they present their position.
People are willing to fly planes into buildings (i.e. create pain, suffering, and kill their fellow man) for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are religious and sometimes they are not. There are just as many secular and atheist examples of people perpetuating great horrors.
Frankly, I don't think it really tells us anything about religion, or atheism or any ism. It tells us that people are very willing to kill their fellow man. And the reasons for doing that are probably very complex. I am fully convinced that even if the world was completely free of religion, people would still be flying planes into buildings and killing each other.
I think the bigger question is, why are people willing to commit such great evil? And why do we sense that this is a great evil?
Yes, and no.
The start of Christian thinking is based the mysterious and the un-proveable. But, frankly I don't know any thinking Christians who argue that way in the public sphere. Yeah, you have some folks on the fringes and the the hoi poloi who are saying, "God says it is so!" But, most Christian arguments against whatever are based on more tangible and frankly societal arguments. Christianity becomes very practical very quick.
Take gay marriage for instance (which I am in support of). There are number of fair and legitimate arguments against it, that actually have no religious connection, and I think which need to be fairly addressed. And if you read the more thoughtful Christian responses, you will see no one is actually arguing that God says no.
This is the case for almost every political/societal issue we have. I have a friend who is a scientist who gives talks and does debates with others about certain topics (abortion, for instance). He is always amazed that the secular/atheist folks he often debates, think he is going to just argue from faith and the Bible. But, none of his arguments are faith derived, and some are even lifted from other secularists and atheists. He had to start telling his opponents beforehand what his arguments were, because they would start out attacking the Bible and religion as not a source of truth, and then he would talk about abortion law, its history, and scientific advancements. The debates were all mangled up.
So in a sense I think that mainly because of a certain perception, non-religious people have a kind of misunderstanding of Christian thinking and theology, that is partially correct, but not totally.
Christians can have opinions based out of theological thinking but supported by actually the same epistemological arguments as everyone else.
Now obviously this is different when you get into actually theology: God, the resurrection, Trinity, etc.
There certainly is no reason to shed blood. Which would be the position of close to 90% or more of all religious people. Of course, you will find a percentage of non-religious people who were willing to shed blood. As I said, the problem is people and ideology.
Interestingly, this is why I am a Christian. "Love your enemies." There is absolutely no warrant for violence or coersion in Christianity, and those who have done that in the name Christ, are charlatans.
And yes, there is a point to thinking about these things. People ask these questions, why is that? Why are people concerned with beauty, meaning, and purpose? What is love? People have for ages been thinking and hypothesizing about these things. It is important to people, and regardless of what some atheists think, it brings about meaning, purpose, and hope to people's lives. This is almost the core basis of all cultures and societies. Do you realize how much art, music, literature, and generally significant culture we would lose if no one had been thinking about these things? Practically all of it.
That is not to say, that your post doesn't have point. I think science should answer questions of science, and religion well other questions. But, I think at some level that may be a bit impossible, since I think it would be a bit hard for some to truly stay in their sand box.
First of all, no matter how strong your atheism is, it's still no religion. It lacks everything that defines a religion: Belief in the supernatural, rituals, narratives, symbols, traditions, organized behaviors, a world view, etc.
Just like non-stamp-collecting is not a hobby, no matter how strongly you don't collect stamps.
Secondly, you're confusing positive belief with claims of knowledge. I don't know any atheist who would say: "I know for a fact that there exists no god."
In fact, it's usually believers who make ridiculous statements like these.
Most atheists I know do however positively state their disbelief: "I believe that there exists no god."
Really? I must have missed those. Seriously, I have never heard a non-religious argument against gay marriage, I can't even construct one myself.
I agree that the abortion issue is indeed more complicated, and I don't have a clear position on that myself. I guess I'm against it, but I still think that there should be a legal way to do it within certain boundaries. And that position is obviously not derived from any religious belief.
However, while I can see rational arguments for both sides on the abortion issue (as opposed to the gay marriage issue) pretty much every argument against abortion that I encounter in the public sphere is actually based on religion.
What?!?! Man, ten years of my life down the drain.
But, seriously, while atheism certainly isn't a religion, it does tend to organize and move towards at least an ideology or a philosophy. I mean no one is writing books about not-collecting stamps, or forming the Non-Stamp Collecting Association of America, or complaining about Stamp Collectors influence at Hobby Lobby. And while I think that there are certainly atheists who see themselves in such a light, it isn't fair to criticize Stamp Collectors and then retreat into the mental hiding space of Non-Stamp Collectors are somehow perfectly benign and non-existent.