Skip

Discobolus and The Thinker
April 27, 2012 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Study shows those who think analytically are less likely to be religious: Why are some people more religious than others? It may come down to whether they rely more heavily on an analytical or intuitive thinking process, at least according to a new study [abstract; supplementary materials] performed at the University of British Columbia and published in the journal “Science.”

The experiments are described in this Los Angeles Times article. Will Gervais, a co-author, has studied the psychology of religious belief extensively.
posted by troll (133 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
You don't say.
posted by LordSludge at 3:27 PM on April 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


Those who think analytically are less likely to let their ears be tickled by this article.
posted by michaelh at 3:28 PM on April 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


If I haven't read the article before commenting on this post but I don't believe in God, will divine retribution cause me to asslope?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:33 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Um, Jesuits are among the most analytical and logical of the Christian sects; if anything, analytical thinking strengthens their resolve to Believe.
posted by Renoroc at 3:36 PM on April 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


If bible publishers read the LA Times article, I bet they will start to use a reasonable size font.
posted by Monday at 3:37 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Um, Jesuits are among the most analytical and logical of the Christian sects; if anything, analytical thinking strengthens their resolve to Believe.

Really? I know an athiest Jesuit and I know of more secondhand. So...
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:37 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Bible's broken. Contradictions, false logistics... doesn't make sense."
posted by Nauip at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [15 favorites]


Why do I keep making the mistake of reading the comments on newspaper web stories? YouTube comments, too. Why? I inevitably feel angry, bitter, and cynical about my fellow citizens afterwards.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


You don't want to do that too often, Celsius. Studies show that reading comments on un-moderated or under-moderated sites kills brain cells.*

*This may not be true.
posted by Nauip at 3:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not surprising. One would expect shallow analysis to be more common than deep analysis.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the second phase, researchers primed participants in the experimental group to think more analytically using methods that included playing a word game in which they had to arrange words like “think,” “reason,” and “analyze” into a sentence, while the control group receive neutral phrases. Test subjects who had their analytic thinking processes prompted consistently reported a lower belief score.

Will word games turn YOUR children into atheists? Find out about the war on GOD going on in 3rd grade classrooms across the world. *dun dun dun*
posted by Winnemac at 3:51 PM on April 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


You don't want to do that too often, Celsius. Studies show that reading comments on un-moderated or under-moderated sites kills brain cells.

Yeah, I think you're right. It's the "never wrestle a pig" proverb in real life.

I feel like I need to gargle with some mouthwash. Maybe have a nap.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:51 PM on April 27, 2012


Really? I know an athiest Jesuit and I know of more secondhand. So...

My guess is that these atheist Jesuits would describe themselves as "religious."
posted by Wordwoman at 3:53 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are those who think analytically more or less likely to jump to conclusions based on news headlines about scientific studies?
posted by The World Famous at 3:55 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


(For the article under the fold, the new LA Times paywall sucks; but if you run into it, just try opening the article in a private browsing window.)

In the final experiment, students in the control group read text in a clear, legible font, while those in the other group were forced to squint at a font that was hard to read, a chore that has been shown to trigger analytic thinking. Sure enough, those who read the less legible font rated their belief in supernatural agents at 10.40 on a 3-to-21 scale, compared with 12.16 for those who read the clear font.

So, poor eyesight increases the chances of agnosticism and atheism? That ... empirically makes some sense to me. But I'm sure it's just confirmation bias or something.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:56 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do I keep making the mistake of reading the comments on newspaper web stories? YouTube comments, too. Why? I inevitably feel angry, bitter, and cynical about my fellow citizens afterwards.

I run noscript, which seems to kill most comment sections. The page loads and acts like there isn't a comment section at all, so I don't have to exercise any will power to avoid reading the comments. It's fantastic.
posted by rtha at 4:07 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read about this on Boing Boing, where the comment section was full of people who defensively proclaimed their atheism while admitting that they are bad at math. That made it worth reading.
posted by nickgb at 4:12 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Being "religious" has a modern taint to it. See Karen Armstrong's critique of modern belief:

The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity, and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves about the metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data.

Basically, some religion is more pseudo-science than religious, and it ends up being a fake religion and a fake science, and is often known as fundamentalism, which is typically a theocratic endeavor. How it came about was Armstrong's thesis for her book, The Battle for God.
posted by Brian B. at 4:14 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Are those who think analytically more or less likely to jump to conclusions based on news headlines about scientific studies?

You'd have to first jump away from a prior conclusion based on evidence other than news headlines, before you could jump back to it based on news headlines.

So, no? :)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:15 PM on April 27, 2012


Epicurus:

"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak - and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful - which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"

"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak - and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful - which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"

According to these studies, on average people will find the second passage to be more convincing than the first. It ain't just religious people who are irrational, folks. Human brains are quirky, kludged things.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those causation studies are hilarious. For those who not in it, Science is somewhat infamous for publishing Astonishing! studies which end up not replicating. Once you filter on "the article must be very surprising to get published" you end up with a lot of flukes. That the p-values reported are all quite marginal and the samples small further make me doubt that this will go anywhere.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:28 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


According to these studies, on average people will find the second passage to be more convincing than the first.

You're being charitable. Most people will go:
God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither... OMGWTF blahblahblah tl;dr How about I just go along with what my family & friends believe, okay??
posted by LordSludge at 4:30 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


LordSludge, let's not suggest that many religious haven't given serious consideration to their beliefs, just as we hope that they don't assume we haven't given serious consideration to our lack of belief. That's not the way forward, and moreover it's not true.
posted by gilrain at 4:34 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm suggesting exactly that. I don't mean to imply that anybody else is, nor that the lack of thoughtfulness is universal, merely common.
posted by LordSludge at 4:37 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Slude wasn't suggesting that, (even if he now thinks he was).
You just attacked one of these.
posted by clarknova at 4:39 PM on April 27, 2012


LordSludge: I'm suggesting exactly that. I don't mean to imply that anybody else is, nor that the lack of thoughtfulness is universal, merely common.

Well, at least you're straightforward! I view it as a poor way to engage in dialogue with the religious members of Mefi, to whom it'd be courteous to extend a little more credibility than you might normally.
posted by gilrain at 4:41 PM on April 27, 2012


My guess is that these atheist Jesuits would describe themselves as "religious."

No, they describe themselves as I described them, albeit quietly.

A lot of people become atheists while they are at seminary, too. It's a known thing.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:42 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sure, that's what scientists would say.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:42 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Crabby Appleton: "Not surprising. One would expect shallow analysis to be more common than deep analysis."

Sure one would, if one were doing a shallow analysis of the situation, however, upon further reflection and query, one could make the counterargument...
posted by symbioid at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2012


Why would anyone assume that a brain evolved primarily to extract marrow from leftover lion kill bones before the hyenas arrived would "intuitively" understand anything about the universe? Unless there's something about hyenas in the universe's basic truths.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I view it as a poor way to engage in dialogue with the religious members of Mefi, to whom it'd be courteous to extend a little more credibility than you might normally.

FWIW, the less thoughtful religious folk tend to avoid scenarios (and threads) that would challenge their faith, so... I'm probably not talking about anyone here.
posted by LordSludge at 4:55 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article convinced me that people confuse correlation with causation.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The analytical writings and intellectual brilliance of C.S. Lewis, Augustine, A.W. Tozer, John Stott, Phillip Yancey and many others could make one have grave doubts about the veracity of this new "study".
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 5:04 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Outliers don't disprove a tendency. As you can see I have a quote from C.S. Lewis on my profile.

There is also something to be said for the fact that being analytical is not necessarily always the best thing. Smart people tend to have a lot of ego wrapped up in something that is primarily the result of luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:07 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty skeptical about the idea that squinty fonts increase skepticism. Am I a bad non-analytic person if I don't believe it and want to see more evidence?
posted by nangar at 5:09 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW, the less thoughtful religious folk tend to avoid scenarios (and threads) that would challenge their faith, so... I'm probably not talking about anyone here.

While I am especially annoyed by people who witness to me, they have pretty much deliberately thrown themselves into a situation where their faith is going to be challenged.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:11 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Renoroc: Um, Jesuits are among the most analytical and logical of the Christian sects; if anything, analytical thinking strengthens their resolve to Believe.

Not sure why the "um". Do you think the existence of people who are both analytical and religious contradicts the conclusion that analytical people are less likely to be religious? That's a bit like disputing the claim "you're unlikely to beat a four-of-a-kind" on the basis that royal flushes exist.
posted by baf at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I know an athiest Jesuit

So...why? Do they just not want another job or what?
posted by adamdschneider at 5:15 PM on April 27, 2012


A lot of people become atheists while they are at seminary, too. It's a known thing.

As the minister of the Unitarian church that I attended as a child put it, "If you don't have a crisis of faith while you're at seminary, you're not taking it seriously enough."
posted by baf at 5:17 PM on April 27, 2012 [15 favorites]


Hmm, so they only asked three questions to determine the degree of the subject's analytic thinking? That seems error-prone, but for all I know it could be standard procedure.

Also, I don't know what to think about "priming" subjects to report lower levels of religious belief. I mean, are there really people out there who would have said they believed in a god, but because they recently saw the words "think", "reason", and "analyze", they say they don't?

Apparently these studies suggest that yes, those people exist, but that seems really weird to me. Am I misinterpreting the study's findings? Or do I just need to accept that there's a non-zero segment of the population that just doesn't really think about these issues at all?
posted by jcreigh at 5:18 PM on April 27, 2012


It may come as a surprise to some that the Christian tradition, at least, has not gone nineteen-hundred-odd years without engaging in the question at hand. At the heart of Christian faith is not a metaphysical construct, but a fundamentally historical assertion that Jesus of Nazareth died and three days later returned to life from death. People that didn't agree, well, they kept on being Jews.

If you saw your best friend got executed and buried and then you and all your buddies were hanging out in the basement and all of a sudden he came back and you all saw him, you too would be forced to reconsider your assumptions about death and God and everything, really.

Christians were well aware that this assertion was extraordinary, and spent a good deal of time trying to decide what it meant and how to reconcile it with ordinary assumptions about resurrection (i.e., that dead people stay dead). So I'm not sure how one can say that Christian faith is not reasonable -- Christians and non-Christians are just operating from a different set of historical facts.

And as for this study, I suspect that in our society atheists and agnostics are indeed more rigorously analytical than Christians, but I think that is more a function of Christians' dominance in North American culture. But there are plenty of woo-woo time-cubey psuedosciences out there that have nothing to do with traditional religions. Point being, poor analytical reasoning skills is not a religious-folks thing but a humans thing.
posted by tivalasvegas at 5:38 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wittgenstein believed in mystical truths that cannot be meaningfully expressed, but are of the utmost importance, but it is very difficult to conceive what these ‘truths’ might be. He said, "The symbolisms of Catholicism are wonderful beyond words. But any attempt to make it into a philosophical system is offensive."

He considered himself religious, from what I can find. I wouldn't want to go up against him in an analytical-thinking bake off.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, I would be much more interested in a study that explored the interrelationships between 'intuitive' and 'analytical' reasoning than this one which appears to oppose them. I'd imagine that the best and most paradigm-shifting scientists, thinkers, &c. are the ones who have been able to combine intuition and analysis.
posted by tivalasvegas at 5:40 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Meh, I didn't become atheist until my first, unrequited "heartbreak" a few months ago by a 39-year old, balding douche of a philosophy don. The only thing analytic about that decision was whether indulging in three boxes of gourmet chocolate was overkill. Days later, I stop attending services at the Trinity Chapel in order to spend more time reading stuff by Ayn Rand; months later, I can't recall what I liked about both him and Christianity in the first place.
posted by lotusmish at 5:46 PM on April 27, 2012


Um, Jesuits are among the most analytical and logical of the Christian sects; if anything, analytical thinking strengthens their resolve to Believe.

Are they analytical and logical enough to spot the fallacy in this argument?
posted by DU at 5:47 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


DU: “Are they analytical and logical enough to spot the fallacy in this argument?”

Well, they're probably analytical and logical enough to realize that the tendency of relatively analytical people not to be religious has absolutely nothing to do with whether religion is true.
posted by koeselitz at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Um, Jesuits are among the most analytical and logical of the Christian sects; if anything, analytical thinking strengthens their resolve to Believe."

DU: "Are they analytical and logical enough to spot the fallacy in this argument?
"

Why don't you point it out to us?

I see two statements,

One describes the uncontroversial historical fact of the analytical disposition displayed by the Society of Jesus as evidenced by their commitment to higher education, scientific research, and often inconveniently independent thinking.

The other is an accurate description of how faith can sometimes work.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:15 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't want to go up against him in an analytical-thinking bake off.

I'm picturing how this would work and I'm imagining a lot of pre-game debate on the working definition of "brownie" followed by a lot of furrowed brows and later - possibly much, much later - deliciousness.
posted by sonika at 6:46 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why don't you point it out to us?
The fact that there are religious people who are analytical has essentially zero bearing on the claim under discussion. If that isn't a "fallacy in the argument", then it wasn't an argument at all; it was just a non sequitur.
posted by Flunkie at 6:47 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why don't you point it out to us?

"most A of subset S" != "most A of superset"
posted by DU at 6:53 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


mm, deliciousness. Not a concept I ever juxtaposed with Wittgenstein, to be honest. I'll take it under consideration.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:56 PM on April 27, 2012


you too would be forced to reconsider your assumptions about death and God and everything, really.
No. I would be forced to consider that I'd been pranked. Jesus did not rise from the dead.
posted by smidgen at 7:00 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


> I don't know what to think about "priming" subjects to report lower levels of religious belief. I mean, are there really people out there who would have said they believed in a god, but because they recently saw the words "think", "reason", and "analyze", they say they don't?

They got slightly lower scores on a measure of belief. I don't know what questions were included, but getting a somewhat lower score is not remotely the same as converting a believer into a non-believer. It just means they gave more skeptical answers to some of the questions (probably things they would be on the fence about anyway).

Say you very strongly believe X, but, of course, you don't know X, you're just pretty confident about it. You're asked "Are you certain that X?" You might normally answer "yes", because you do believe that, and you are pretty certain about it. But if you're primed with words like "think", "reason", "analyze" (or a picture of The Thinker) you're more likely to answer "no", because after all you aren't absolutely certain of it.

If a reasonable number of people answer a few questions differently this way from what they would have without the prime, that will make their average different from the average of the group that didn't get the prime. As far as I know, that's basically what they got. There's no evidence that anyone actually changed their mind about anything as a result of participating in this experiment.
posted by nangar at 7:32 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


While it is not the case that all things classified as "religion" make you un-analytical, it is the case that you cannot reject the religion you grew up with without analyzing it somehow or other.

It needn't be a sophisticated analysis. "Analytical thinking" is a very low bar, really.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:34 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or do I just need to accept that there's a non-zero segment of the population that just doesn't really think about these issues at all?

I think for a large number of people (most maybe?), these types of questions aren't settled 100% yes or 100% no. Maybe most are at 70%, maybe 30%. Many are probably at 50% with a +-50% error factor. I'd compare it to quantum mechanics: just as a particle (in at least one in interpretation anyway) doesn't really have a position until you look, a person (most people?) don't really have a position on these issues until they look (think about it).

How valid these studies are seems to rest on at least 3 things:

1) Is the theory/assumption/position that there are 2 main modes of thought - analytic and intuitive valid?

2) You can "prime" which mode of thought to use (somewhat anyway) in the method they use - showing certain words (or whatever it was they did with the words).

3) They questions they asked were a valid method to use to determine which mode of thought was used.

I have no idea how valid those 3 things are.
Or on preview, what nangar said.

Also, I think it's awesome that the interviewed co-author of the paper is named Gervais.
posted by Bort at 7:40 PM on April 27, 2012


I'm a fairly analytical person (I'm a software analyst by profession). I am both not a believer and highly religious. In other words, I am a religious practicing Mormon, I go to church every Sunday and volunteer in my congregation (I'm a choir director and I play piano for the children's Sunday school), but I am also a non-believer in the strict sense that I'm agnostic on the traditional faith topics.

I see emotional, familial, and social value in being religious but I don't feel compelled to believe in the same things (or in the same way) as my compatriots. I'm sure there are many people like me in lots of religions.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:46 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


After Mother Teresa died it was revealed (diary?) that she was conflicted about faith, and was constantly in a very private, profound struggle about it. My interpretation is that her inner questioning informs a lot about why she was so successful at what she did in the exterior world, i.e. connecting with people, rallying attention and mobilizing resources. And as an atheist I find this intuitive skepticism of hers to really resonate, because it does generalize to each of our own attempts in trying to make sense of the world.
posted by polymodus at 7:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is interesting to stretch the QM analogy further. I can imagine that in a sense, after that issue is no longer looked at (measured, thought about), its position can begin to spread out again and be indefinite (or atleast less than 100% yes/no). Time goes by, you interact with the world, get new information - and that causes the uncertainty in the position to increase until it is examined again. Or, if you think about it a lot, or maybe make it part of your basic worldview, then that's like constantly looking at it or measuring its position, and that doesn't give it a chance to spread out and potentially change (go from yes to no, or vise-versa)

Again though, this is all analogy, not suggesting anything more.
posted by Bort at 7:49 PM on April 27, 2012


The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity,

I don't know the context of this, but I think it's very important. A lot of discussions about the worthiness, or lack thereof, of a religious persuasion are framed, by default, as questions of "belief." But, speaking as a person with a religion, I spend hardly any time concerned with what I "believe." I don't deal very often in fact-claims. I engage intellectually with a religious tradition of exploring certain texts for lessons and wisdom, but when pressed for "beliefs," I can only turn to the same things agnostics and athiests do - the world of evidence. People often take me (as a representative of religious people) to task for "what you believe" or "how can you believe that...."

This focus on belief is an interesting modern trope, and I like that this writer characterizes it as an "accident of history," because in all honestly, belief/nonbelief is not essential to the religious aspects of my life. I need only a practice. I also have convictions as part of my religious life, but fact-claim-style belief is not esential to having convictions such as "we should take care of the poor, sick and needy" or "it is incumbent upon each of us to behave as ethically as we can."

Thanks for posting that short excerpt. I would like to see this idea of "belief" interrogated and separated from the assumptions about making fact-claims, or holding unquestioning adherence, or not allowing for doubt, that usually accompany the use of the word. In my own experience, religious practice is not terribly focused on what most people would call " belief," and not absent from or exclusive of analytical thinking.
posted by Miko at 7:58 PM on April 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


No. I would be forced to consider that I'd been pranked. Jesus did not rise from the dead.

You got that right. He was in America hanging with the locals and the buffalo.
--

Maybe we should also take into account proportions - what percent of people are prone to think "intuitively" and what percent of people start to answer, pause, and think? Or forbid, think, then answer the question.

The Venn diagram for this and religious/spiritual vs atheist would be two huge overlapping circles and two much smaller overlapping ones. The statistical "significance" is a bit tenuous and indicates correlation far more than causation/direct-linkage.
posted by porpoise at 8:17 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


belief/nonbelief is not essential to the religious aspects of my life. I need only a practice.

So you don't believe God exists? Good. We agree. Let's move on.
posted by howfar at 8:30 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I see emotional, familial, and social value in being religious but I don't feel compelled to believe in the same things (or in the same way) as my compatriots. I'm sure there are many people like me in lots of religions.

Serious question: Let's say that, hypothetically, everybody in your church was like you. Everybody goes to the services and sings the songs, but nobody actually believes it. Would you see value in that?
posted by jcreigh at 8:36 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


This focus on belief is an interesting modern trope, and I like that this writer characterizes it as an "accident of history," because in all honestly, belief/nonbelief is not essential to the religious aspects of my life. I need only a practice.

Serious question here (and I ask this as an Atheist for whom the concept of belief in higher powers never really 'gelled'), then:
If all that is needed is a practice, why Christianity rather than any other system? Why not be a Satanist and acknowledge that ritual and symbolism are useful ways of accessing and dramatizing the collective human psyche and that no higher power is needed?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


After Mother Teresa died it was revealed (diary?) that she was conflicted about faith, and was constantly in a very private, profound struggle about it. My interpretation is that her inner questioning informs a lot about why she was so successful at what she did in the exterior world, i.e. connecting with people, rallying attention and mobilizing resources. And as an atheist I find this intuitive skepticism of hers to really resonate, because it does generalize to each of our own attempts in trying to make sense of the world.
posted by polymodus at 7:48 PM on April 27 [+] [!]


Yeah, I get that, but it really seems that from the theist perspective, respect for questioning and doubt can only be awarded if you ultimately reassert the belief.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grade A discussion so far MeFites. None of the usual Atheist reciprocal flagellation and Sophist/Relativist denialism!
posted by Chekhovian at 8:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


How's the food at satanist potluck dinners? Do they have a good subsidized church owned university? How about their social services and charity programs? If I'm going to seriously consider conversion based on the premise that satanism is equivalent to all other religions in its social and cultural aspects, I'm going to need to do some analysis.
posted by The World Famous at 8:52 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think snake-handling is the solution! Let's all be snake-handlers! Think of the parties! Don't know what the food would be like though...
posted by Chekhovian at 8:55 PM on April 27, 2012


The food is probably ultra-decadent and coated in gold-leaf.
Either that or hot dog casserole.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:56 PM on April 27, 2012


My comment refers to the Satanist potluck.
I'm going now.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:01 PM on April 27, 2012


Don't they eat the snakes? What a rip-off.
posted by The World Famous at 9:01 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


This focus on belief is an interesting modern trope

This does seem a most extraordinary claim and I'd like to see some support for it. Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham etc were all what one might call realist Christians. It is perhaps later thinkers like Newman and Wesley who start to reevaluate and emphasise the significance of practice, but I doubt you'll be able to find support for a non-literal belief in God in any of their writings. In all honesty, it seems to me that the avoidance of a focus on belief is an interesting modern trope of a certain kind of liberal Christianity. Historically, Christians were comfortable with saying they really believed in God because they really did.
posted by howfar at 9:03 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


How's the food at satanist potluck dinners?

Oh, it's great! This one guy always brings this awesome casserole that he refuses the share the recipe for. He calls it the "Jonathan Swift Special", for some reason.
posted by jcreigh at 9:05 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


So you don't believe God exists? Good. We agree. Let's move on.

Maybe there's something I'm missing here (wouldn't be the first time), but you seem to be basically dismissing miko's comment and/or trying to discourage such comments. Not only is the comment entirely in line with the post and the following thread discussion(s), but it was the type of comment I read Metafilter for. It makes me both angry and sad to see people trying to actively reduce such comments. Please don't do it.


I think snake-handling is the solution! Let's all be snake-handlers! Think of the parties! Don't know what the food would be like though...


Same goes for this kind of mocking BS.
posted by Bort at 9:16 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Certainly in many strains of contemporary Judaism, the common "belief" is that there is value in Jewish community, tradition, and practice. Fervent belief in a personal God varies widely and doesn't even play much into whether a Jew is regarded as "religious."
posted by Wordwoman at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Same goes for this kind of mocking BS.

One of my what-should-be-guilty-pleasures-but-I-don't-really-feel-guilty-for-it is hearing religious people mock other religions e.g. "How can that group A believe in that crazy god B? They must be CRAZY. Alright lets all go back to wandering in the desert while we wait for his approval to enter the promised land!"

Tee hee hee.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:29 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Religion sans theology is mere tribalism.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:42 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel comfortable with the idea of an unprovable God. It seems futile, backward, silly (greatly tempting of ridicule) to pursue a phenomenological divine, whether for proof or disproof.

I have to assume God, like an axiom. Like any axiom, what I assume about God has to be useful to me. Like any other belief it has to make some change in me, how I act and behave toward others. Thus, I feel I should expect to be judged by the uses I put my beliefs to.
posted by wobh at 9:51 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rat Spatula: Religion sans theology is mere tribalism.

"Mere" might be misplaced, considering that humans are by nature tribal creatures. The modern incarnations of our tribal nature are things like "culture," "community," and various other powerful ideas.
posted by gilrain at 9:53 PM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


wobh: "I feel comfortable with the idea of an unprovable God."

Likewise, and I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of a provable one.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:56 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Religion sans theology is mere tribalism.

You say that like it's a bad thing. We're a tribally-inclined species. Nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as we don't kill each other over it. (on preview: what gilrain said too).


Serious question: Let's say that, hypothetically, everybody in your church was like you. Everybody goes to the services and sings the songs, but nobody actually believes it. Would you see value in that?

Sure. I think there's a lot of value in fostering a community that expresses the importance of service, compassion, being a good citizen, and sharing jello salad recipes. In fact I daresay there'd be a great deal of benefit in continuing a religious community sand belief, because with the added skepticism we could do away with some of the dogmatic crap that sometimes plagues the ranks. It would become a more accepting, more open-minded kind of place. Freemasons tend to see a lot of value in their rituals and history, even though the vast majority of them are fully aware that the history is more or less made-up and silly. This is well known among freemasons, but they appreciate the fellowship and yes, the pageantry too. Is there something wrong with pageantry? With celebrating the myths and customs of our heritage?

I completely agree that religion has been a major cause of bad behavior on this planet, but I don't think we'd have to throw it all out even if/when we collectively stop believing. What's the actual value in that? Isn't more useful to change the meaning, change the perspective, keep the good parts and recognize the bad parts for what they were? And why would we be so eager to forget all that, even when we stopped believing in it? I don't see why it has to be an either/or situation.

So you don't believe God exists? Good. We agree. Let's move on.


I think the concept of God is our very human attempt to stitch together this beautiful and complex, but ultimately un-stitchable (on a human scale), universe. Our world is filled with so many amazing things: seeming coincidences and connections; an immensity of numbers and chances, odds and outcomes undulating hypnotically through the eyes of intelligent life.

We've all experienced strangeness, wonder, the vastness of time and space. Spend a day looking at Hubble Telescope images and let your mind be boggled. It's hard to deny the wonder, the awe.

It's tempting to enforce some order on all that. It's comforting to believe that someone is at the wheel. It makes a kind of "sense". Superficially it's a nice way to see the world.

It's kind of like when I took the taxi from the airport the other night in a freezing rain. Our driver was going waaaay too fast for my comfort, based on the conditions, and I had to look away from the windows to keep my heart from failing me. I closed my eyes and quietly gripped the seat. We got to the hotel with no incident and so of course now I believe that the driver must have known what he was doing all along, that he was just a really good driver. An expert, a master driver. A god of driving, perhaps. My wife might have believed it was actually God protecting me in some way. Maybe she would say a spirit or angel was involved.

But really, it was just a happy outcome. A touch of luck, if you will. Call it what you want. It's just a thing that happened and I landed on the right side of the odds.

The driver took a chance that his full-speed careening around on the half-frozen freeway wouldn't result in a horrific crash. He rolled the cosmic dice and won. This time. He'll have many other chances to play, I'm sure, and the odds may not always be in his favor. So it goes.

So what does that mean for me, for God?

For the sake of brevity (ha), God is math. There's no driver at the wheel, because there's no wheel. It's just the vastness of space, the barely fathomable propensity of cosmic numbers, weights, ratios, rules, timings, scales, points of light, particles and strings and waves. A billion trillion vibrating things existing in this thing we call reality, which is so wide and deep and seemingly endless that sometimes it drives us mad. Mad with a desire to know how it all works. Or mad with a desire to cram it into a comprehensible fashioned in our own image. Mad with fear, wonder, curiosity.

God is math, but we, we mere humans, we are love. Or we can be. We are patience and community and forgiveness. If we want to be. If we choose to be. We roll the dice every day. The odds are always shifting, but the bet, that's our choice. How high will I bet today? What chances will I take?

The only chance I want to take is the one that involves my friends, my loved ones, maybe my tribe. So God is math but it's what we do with the math that really counts.

So that is why I'm not a believer but I'm still religious.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:21 PM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Likewise, and I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of a provable one.

Why? I think it would be incredible if in my life time, some type of god actually, physically made their presence known and went around doing "god stuff." I think the risk of any such god being the type to punish me or make the world a bad place (Lovecraftian stuff) is pretty low and I'd take it just to experience such a world. Same goes for aliens.
posted by Bort at 10:28 PM on April 27, 2012


Rat Spatula: "Religion sans theology is mere tribalism."

That seems a bit hasty to me. For one thing, yeah, 'mere tribalism' is kind of reductive in a way that I'm not sure makes sense. But more to the point, no less an authority than Maimonides claimed that theology is impossible because God is unknowable. Does that mean Judaism is 'mere tribalism?' And I could name pretty important Christian and Muslim thinkers who believed the same thing. Does that reduce them to tribalists, too? I'm just not sure about this.

That's aside from the difficulties of actually saying God is knowable. Saint Aquinas made sense of that position, but I'd hardly say his stance is self-evident.
posted by koeselitz at 10:29 PM on April 27, 2012


why I'm not a believer but I'm still religious.

So is this the usual "spiritual atheist" thing? Calling yourself an atheist doesn't mean you can't enjoy art or music or have a "Sagan-esque" awe at the universe.

We need to eliminate this idea that you have to be "spiritual" to be a good person. It's just a linguistic anachronism.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:31 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


We're a tribally-inclined species.

You say that like it's a good thing.
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:46 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rat Spatula: You say that like it's a good thing.

Well, it's a human thing. Welcome to the only game in town.
posted by gilrain at 10:48 PM on April 27, 2012


So is this the usual "spiritual atheist" thing?

Seriously, are you trolling? I never even mentioned the word "spiritual". I don't even like that word. I did use words like "emotional" and "familial." Is it really so hard to accept the idea someone could be an atheist but still find practical value in religion because, hell, maybe that's where their wife and kids are on a Sunday morning? And being a part of their lives is way more important than winning an argument?

You say that like it's a good thing.

No, that is definitely NOT what I said. Here I'll refresh your memory:

Nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as we don't kill each other over it.

Like gilrain said. I didn't say it was a good thing. It's a thing, it can be good or bad. Personally I work in my tribe to make it good. Do you have a better option that we could start implementing right now?
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:57 PM on April 27, 2012


because maybe that's where their wife and kids are on a Sunday morning? And being a part of their lives is way more important than winning an argument?

So then "religious" to you means that you go to church say the words and sing the songs? But you don't believe in any of it in any real way, its just an easy vehicle for community participation and paying lip service to it smooths the waters of your home life?

I don't think that's what the word "religious" is generally taken to mean. I brought up the question because this seems to be a frequent sticking point in these debates. We frequently have self-proclaimed "atheists" that still believe in "something" and defend mainstream religion because of the vague value they attach to their vague spiritual somethings.

Now I think that the main reason they stake out this position is that "spiritual" has come to mean "having a concern for fuzzy qualities in life", not "believing in magic". I think spiritual is a poor choice in this regard, because it carries with it the baggage of centuries of religious thought and thus seems to cloud things up quite nastily.

So why do you have to call yourself "religious" when you don't seem to believe in any of the things associated with any religion? How about "community minded" or "laden with thoughtful concern" or "interested in culture"? There's lots of better possibilities.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:26 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


But we do kill each other over it, constantly.

My constructive suggestion would be that everyone abandon their quest for certainty and invite everyone to the next potluck, not just the people in their tribe. But then, I'm a naive romantic.

You hear 'tribe' and think 'community', but when I hear 'tribe' I think about chimpanzees stoning outsiders.
posted by Rat Spatula at 11:37 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


This does seem a most extraordinary claim and I'd like to see some support for it. Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham etc were all what one might call realist Christians. It is perhaps later thinkers like Newman and Wesley who start to reevaluate and emphasise the significance of practice, but I doubt you'll be able to find support for a non-literal belief in God in any of their writings.

There was a crisis of reason after the Renaissance, where reason could not adequately support God or explain religion, and not for lack of trying. The general attitude evolved that humans probably shouldn't be making any assertions about the divine realm. This might have set the stage for literalism and all kinds of reform movements, because in the end, if you can't understand God with the intellect, all that is left is the artifact, or the words themselves. Karen Armstrong correctly pointed out that fundamentalism is a modern mindset, trying to import an outdated mythos into the culturally dominant logos, which fills a need to explain the meaning of mortality against the impersonal logos (but which never stopped them from destroying paganism). I would also suggest it was a desperate attempt to establish religious literature as the source of fact, as a modern method of devotion. Contrast this with the early Christian habits of celibacy and self-castration; extreme frugality and poverty, no bathing at all; seeking opportunity to be persecuted as proof of righteousness. It's quite different than religious "knowledge" as a path to enlightened qualification.
posted by Brian B. at 11:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I feel that this topic produces such passionate arguments because those who hold the most polarized positions about it have experiences of religion that are so fundamentally different as to be almost irreconcilable. I think religion can be very valuable as an intellectual exercise, and the comfort of ritual and the communities based around it are very appealing to me. But I also feel that for me to defend religion would be disingenuous. That churches (Christian ones, at least) are primarily filled with thoughtful, well-meaning people who seek to improve their entire community and not merely the sufficiently and correctly religious parts of their community is not my experience at all. During my youth as a member of various Christian churches, I met few people who believed that others were deserving of help regardless of their creed or situation in life, and I met many people-- people of influence, often-- who thought it was their place to judge the unfortunate for their misfortune because of their immovable belief.

Ritual and religious community have the potential to beautiful, useful things, but to ask why some people are so eager to throw those traditions away strikes me as myopic. Beauty and utility are not the only things people take away from religion. Some took away instead a huge burden of internalized self-hatred that was nurtured in them from their earliest childhood by religious authority figures and family members. Some distrust or even hate the tendency toward religious belief because they were harmed by it, or know others who were. And people with that experience are going to feel that it is wrong and undesirable for their lives to be so deeply influenced by the actions of others who are driven by religious belief.

As an atheist who is no longer involved with the church, it is easy for me to see how it might be socially and emotionally useful to be "religious without belief". But to assert that most people attend church and raise their children in accordance with the laws of their religion without genuine belief is to deny the grimmer parts of the reality. It denies the hardship of those who were mistreated by adults who wronged them out of their own unshakeable-- and yes, sometimes unconsidered-- belief. Moral certitude justified by religion causes a great deal of emotional, physical and sexual violence. The more certain the belief, the less it tolerates consideration, and the more it reacts negatively to demands for consideration.

If religion as ritual could be divorced wholly from belief, or if more religious people were ethical, empathetic analytical thinkers, I feel much better about defending it as a healthy practice for the mind. But that is not my individual experience of religion. As it is, I can only encourage and appreciate the handful of thoughtful religious folk I meet, and hope that in the end it is possible for people to be good and to build functioning communities without being religious.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 11:45 PM on April 27, 2012 [20 favorites]


And it's not really a provable God I'm uncomfortable with, in fact I find Anselm's proof tidy enough. But any ironclad proof of His existence tells one nothing of His nature.

The discomfort comes when someone (or some tribe) starts 'proving' things about His intentions or desires.
posted by Rat Spatula at 11:46 PM on April 27, 2012


God is math, but we, we mere humans, we are love. Or we can be.

I know that religion fills a vaccuum, and in the absence of explanations for stuff, religion floods in, but I think I'd really struggle with Mormonism.

Do you think the Book of Mormon was the revealed word of the Angel/Prophet Moroni, or was Joseph Smith just a scam artist, out to enrich himself by starting his own religion a la L. Ron Hubbard?

My analytical atheist brain tells me the first proposition is enormously unlikely, and that there's no viable evidence for it whatsoever. Reformed Egyptian? WTF? And where are these Golden Plates? Does someone have them in a box somewhere? Lets see them?

In the absence of any supporting evidence for Smith's claims, it's impossible to me to do anything other than write the whole enterprise off as a scam. A precursor to L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. So then I'm left with the question, is it possible for something good to emerge out of a plan to decieve people for financial gain? And I'm just not seeing how that can be possible. Although people might get some sense of community and emotional sustainance, that's built upon a pack of lies and as such, is divisive, because it's antithetical to the truth. People who follow their rational human instinct and rather than taking these fantastic claims on faith, question the flimsy evidence for such belief, are shunned as doubters, and treated as hell-bound sinners.

And while I'm on the subject, I can't believe the number of my acquaintances who believe the complete guff touted in The Secret. Am I to also treat their nonsensical ramblings as worthy of respect because that too, is based on faith? These fools who believe people attract the consequences they deserve, and the reason that six million jews died was because they just weren't thinking positively enough?

Give me a break.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:19 AM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Am I to also treat their nonsensical ramblings as worthy of respect because that too, is based on faith?

Depends on the context and what you mean by respect. I'd say that someone presenting their beliefs in a discussion without trying to use those beliefs, in the context of the discussion, to defend a moral or ethical position should be respected in that they shouldn't be mocked or shouted down for doing so.

When someone tries to use those beliefs to justify any particular moral or ethical conclusion, then I'd say mockery and ridicule (and possibly much more extreme responses, like war) are justified.

So, anyone touting The Secret or Nazism are wide open for all the scorn you can muster.
posted by Bort at 4:06 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The discomfort comes when someone (or some tribe) starts 'proving' things about His intentions or desires.

I see. I'd have to agree then - in fact for me it can go from uncomfortable to downright scary pretty quickly.
posted by Bort at 4:09 AM on April 28, 2012


Maybe there's something I'm missing here (wouldn't be the first time), but you seem to be basically dismissing miko's comment and/or trying to discourage such comments.

Essentially, I am fundamentally(!) opposed to positions such as Miko's. I believe that the very modern attempt to repurpose religion into mere "communal spiritual practice" is both disingenuous and lacking in respect for religion. The reasonable alternative to atheism is faith, not fundamentalism or wooly pseudo-belief.

I suppose I am dismissive toward these positions, because they seem to me intellectually and spiritually hollow, reducing to "we can say what we like as long as it makes us feel comfortable". I don't think that relativism is the solution to the evils of absolutism, but rather an easy way of ignoring them. I find it fairly easy to respect all faiths, despite thinking that the people who hold them are wrong. After all, they think I'm wrong, and manage to treat me with respect. The position I find hard to respect is that which tries to excuse faith on the basis of it not really being faith, but something else that sorta looks like it. Sometimes this may manifest itself as a lack of respect toward those who hold that position, which is not acceptable and for which I apologise.
posted by howfar at 5:08 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Serious question here (and I ask this as an Atheist for whom the concept of belief in higher powers never really 'gelled'), then: If all that is needed is a practice, why Christianity rather than any other system?

First, I think you may have assumed I align with Christianity, though I didn't specify. You may know that from other threads, and it happens to be true, but just want to be careful about the assumptions. Second, in answer to the question, I would say that the choice (at least for me) comes down to life experience and cultural factors. I grew up with two freethinking parents, one athiest and one agnostic, each of whom had been raised in intensively dogmatic religious traditions (Catholicism and a brand of Biblical fundamentalism), and the intra-Christian religious diversity in the extended family was vast and continued to expand throughout my growing-up years as people split off the religions (or nonreligions) they were raised on and went different ways. Therefore, dinner table debates and family life-and-death decisions were always extremely detailed and interesting; it was like taking a decades-long class in comparitive Christian theology. As a result of all the discussing, challenging, resource-consulting, history-reading, arguing, and Bible-questioning, I grew up with a lot of literacy about the Christian Bible(s) and so it comes very naturally to me to use this text cycle as the basis for a religious perspective.

I have actually not always been someone who would describe myself with the term "Christian" - I identified as an athiest when I was younger, but found it unsatisfying, and moved to more of an agnostic view, and eventually sought out a denomination which is both steeped in long roots of Christian debate and questioning - so I feel quite at home with that - and allows for individual freedom of thought and the guidance of conscience, which is sometimes what is construed as the divine.

In addition to all that, I was raised observing a Christian holiday calendar, knowing Christian hymns and prayers, and generally being a participant/observer in lots of religious services of different Christian denominations. Of course, like some of my friends and family whom I've watched making life choices, I could have chosen to study Buddhism, or dabbled in Scientology, or converted to Judaism, or followed an Indian spiritual guru, or tried to learn Native American religions. Those choices just weren't of interest to me - though I am fascinated with the relative conceptions of the universe and human purpose in it that they put forward and love learning about them, they just didn't resonate with me enough as a set of practices which worked in my life. There is much that I value in being part of a continuing tradition that includes a lot of rebels, mavericks, activists, loving critics, and sympathetic fence-sitters as well as its far-better-known share of simplistic and reductive thinkers.

As an atheist who is no longer involved with the church, it is easy for me to see how it might be socially and emotionally useful to be "religious without belief". But to assert that most people attend church and raise their children in accordance with the laws of their religion without genuine belief is to deny the grimmer parts of the reality....The more certain the belief, the less it tolerates consideration, and the more it reacts negatively to demands for consideration.

This is why I think assumption of "belief" as the center of religion is a problem. But the problem is not with religion qua religion, but with this concept of certainty of "belief."

The rise of contemporary denominations and forms of practice that emphasize "belief" above all is, I think, a serious theological problem. Brian B. gave an excellent comment about the changes to dominant religions as a result of the Enlightenment (an era that gave birth to my denomination, not incidentally), but another important thing to include in that history is the late modern concept of an "inner life."

Earlier religious denominations emphasized practice, because practice is all that can be outwardly observed. In the Catholic tradition and also, now that I think about it, in many other traditions, it's acknowledged that thoughts in the mind can stray widely from accepted doctrine. It was never thoughts that mattered - it was ritual, showing up for regular services, doing the works, repeating the prayers and making the gestures. One participated in these as a constant attempt to re-focus and correct one's less desired behaviors through rituals that served as frequent reminders of the more desired path, and to clear the slate of non-desired behaviors and thoughts in the recent past. What went on in the mind and heart didn't so much matter - and that could include doubt, heresey, blasphemy, and so on - as much as what one showed a committment to through action. It was only in public refusals to participate in the rituals, recant heresies, etc. that premodern Christians got into trouble in their religious lives. The religious construct actually allowed for individual freedom of thought, counter to general thinking, even as its practice provided mechanisms for religious people to continually re-connect their thoughts back to a tradition that gave them some guidance. What it didn't allow for was the branching off of new streams of thought that ran counter to the religious leaders' convictions, because these were outwardly observable actions that undermined the power structures.

With the rise of modernity came an increasing assertion of the importance of the individual, and with the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries came the thinking that created a philosophy of mind and focused on the" inner life," a contemporary concept that has its roots in religious monasticism, but has extrapolated itself to secular life in a way that decribes the experience of internal thoughts, desires, and feelings, including reasoning. Our concern with "inner life," something that I think people of all persuasions in first-world culture tend to share to some degree, is, I think, part of what gives rise to a new obsession with "belief" as opposed to practice. It no longer matters - theologically or not - what you do and how you behave; it matters what you "believe". Constant interrogation about whether you "believe in God" or "believe the earth was created in 7 days" or "believe that gays are going to hell" and so on is symptomatic of this, as is religious instruction that emphasizes a set of right beliefs as the defining structure of individual religious participation. We are now concerned with beliefs because they are seen as anterior to actions, instead of as resulting from actions. This phenomenon expresses itself in interesting ways - for instance, it has contributed more than any one idea to the rise of right-leaning Christian denominations that de-empathize action-oriented values of compassion and charity and emphasize instead internally focused values of textual correctness, pursuit of personal prosperity and satisfaction, and individualism. IT's no longer important whether you follow the example of Christ or contribute to supporting the broader society in its needs; it's only important that you maintain correctness of belief, internally and consistently. And even when you inevitably stray, as witness the teen pregnancy rates in the Bible Belt, it's not the actions of religion or changed behavior which are seen as the corrective, but the maintenance of belief even in the face of actions that are counter to it. This, of course, results in tons and tons of religious hypocrisy.

Essentially, I am fundamentally(!) opposed to positions such as Miko's. I believe that the very modern attempt to repurpose religion into mere "communal spiritual practice" is both disingenuous and lacking in respect for religion. The reasonable alternative to atheism is faith, not fundamentalism or wooly pseudo-belief

The problem here is that you have a construct of what "religion" and "belief" are that I simply don't accept. It's a defining-of-terms problem. I'm not sure what position you think I'm embodying, but the idea that anyone who does not defend fact-claims about the Bible or what have you has a "lack of respect for religion" is already built on an extremely narrow definition of "religion" that more closely matches the literalist/fundamentalist position than it does the position of liberal thought, which underlies the activities of reason.

The truth is that religion is a huge cultural bucket containing many things, not one thing which only has something called "belief" as its constant hallmark. It is a major thought-stream in world culture, and it is quite possible to participate in many activities of and aspects of religion in a fully legitimate manner within a religious tradition without defending claims that are counter to the increasing knowledge of the physical universe. And even the word "belief" has many connotations. That's why I keep using "fact claim," because I think that's closer to what people who object to religion mean when they use the word "belief." But what religious people have in their heads is not only belief, and may not always even include that sort of belief, at least not as counter to material evidence. That set of religious ideas can range from moral convictions to theories to questions to ritual recitations to personal commitments to stories to concepts of shared activity to unsettling thoughts to applicable insights - in short, the same sorts of things nonreligious people have in their heads when thinking about how to conceive of and behave in the world, but focused on a separate set of inputs, which are not necessarily - not even often - assumed to be empirical fact.

The reasonable alternative to atheism is faith, not fundamentalism or wooly pseudo-belief...I suppose I am dismissive toward these positions, because they seem to me intellectually and spiritually hollow, reducing to "we can say what we like as long as it makes us feel comfortable

First of all, I don't consider my worldview an "alternative to atheism," and I don't accept the binary division. Where is agnosticism? There are many Christian agnostics, and agnosticism is a legitimate philosophical stance which simply states that we can't assert any claims about the nonmaterial because (obviously) there is no material evidence for the nonmaterial.

And secondly, I don't agree that all non-literalist, non-dogmatic religious people are looking to "say what we like as long as it makes us feel comfortable." In fact, one reason I pursue a religious practice is that it actually makes me fairly uncomfortable - for instance, with my own behavior, which, compared to ideal standards described in religious texts and stories, needs a lot of work. Uncomfortable with the state of the world, which, lacking in basic supports for people in need, requires more investment from people who care about others. Uncomfortable with my passivity in the face of these real needs. Uncomfortable with the difficulty of understanding the complexity of the universe and our place in it, which provokes me to investigate further the array of choices available to define what 'right existence' would look like for me. These kind of activities aren't "pseudo-beliefs," woolly or otherwise, because they're not even "beliefs." They're processes.

I understand that we all encounter people who say they're "spiritual" without having a clear picture what they themselves mean; it likely means they're to some greater or lesser degree engaged in the processes of forming a worldview and determining how it should influence their behavior, but who don't accept any views that have been fully formed and handed off to them by other thinkers, and sometimes admittedly haven't thought particularly deeply about it, and sometimes don't really intend to, or are just young and still working toward accumulating enough life experience to solidify their views. That's all perfectly okay and doesn't require anyone's respect or non-respect, being an incredibly common and increasingly frequent stance toward the question of religion. Unless these people are making fact claims, there's really no basis for argument with them and no reason to sit in judgment of their thoughts.

But that sort of a practice is also not equivalent to what is going on in a fairly intellectually rigorous denominational group or congregation that preserves freedom of thought and individual conscience within a historical theological context and does not insist on a dogma. It's a mistake to conflate the two.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Since "logical thinkers" are probably the only people inclined to question the beliefs they were brought up with, then even if logical thinkers chose completely at random whether or not to believe in God, they'd end up being proportionally less likely to be religious.
posted by straight at 8:53 AM on April 28, 2012


I don't agree that all non-literalist, non-dogmatic religious people are looking to "say what we like as long as it makes us feel comfortable."


This is not what I object to. You are the one conflating belief with dogmatism and literalism. What I object to is the notion that that religious practice does not involve the making of fact and value claims about the world. My own non-religious practice involves precisely such claims, for instance the factual claim that suffering is bad and the value claim that it is morally wrong to cause it. I am troubled by the relativism which says that such a claim has no truth value outside of a particular practice, not so much because of the technical issues, but because I don't think anyone actually believes it. I think people either believe those statements to be true or false, not the sort of things "we can't assert any claims about".
posted by howfar at 9:06 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


My own non-religious practice involves precisely such claims, for instance the factual claim that suffering is bad and the value claim that it is morally wrong to cause it. I am troubled by the relativism which says that such a claim has no truth value outside of a particular practice

I too would find such a claim troubling. I don't know any religious traditions that make it. There may be some, but it is by no means a universal or even common claim. In fact, Jewish tradition asserts quite the opposite. (I am not, by the way, pointing out the Noahide laws as having value "because God says so." I'm one of many Jewish agnostics that finds value in the texts and traditions.)
posted by Wordwoman at 9:33 AM on April 28, 2012


Doleful Creature, thanks for that.

In principle, I don't disagree about the value of a community with a focus on compassion and service, and of course I don't think there there's necessarily a problem with a religious community just because it's religious.

It's just that, for me personally, the type of church that I grew up in has certain beliefs and practices that I now find abhorrent, and that are not realistically going to change. So I left, and I haven't seen any reason to seek out another religious community.

Maybe if I had grown up in a different tradition, or maybe if I'd been in a relationship at the time, or maybe if my personality had been slightly different, I would have found a reason to stay. I suspect the main difference between us is one of initial conditions, not in how we reason.
posted by jcreigh at 9:39 AM on April 28, 2012


Well, you and I agree, I think, Wordwoman. I am not objecting to religious belief or practice here, but rather the relativistic account of them given by a certain form of modern religous apologia. I also think that the texts and traditions of religion are important. I am an atheist who attends church maybe once a month, for all kinds of reasons. I have read, and continue to read the Bible and other religous texts and commentaries. I'm probably a good example of what one might call a "cultural Christian", but that doesn't make me a religious person in any respect. Seeing the utility and importance of practice and ritual is not, to me, a reason to describe myself as "religious".
posted by howfar at 9:44 AM on April 28, 2012


howfar - thank you, I appreciate the responses. I appreciate it.

My own non-religious practice involves precisely such claims, for instance the factual claim that suffering is bad and the value claim that it is morally wrong to cause it. I am troubled by the relativism which says that such a claim has no truth value outside of a particular practice, not so much because of the technical issues, but because I don't think anyone actually believes it. I think people either believe those statements to be true or false, not the sort of things "we can't assert any claims about".

I'm curious what you base your decisions on with regard to the truth values of those statements. Here's where I'm coming from. I'm an atheist and have basically no religious practice at all. If pushed to choose, I'd probably say I fall into the strong atheist camp, in that a pretty much actively believe there is no god, but I do feel that I'd be open to evidence for god if it presented itself.

I think that I end up using a combination of intuitive and analytical methods subconsciously to determine my moral and ethical value judgements. I too believe that causing suffering is morally wrong (with certain qualifications- IE, I believe that certain actions can cause suffering but still be moral, I'm a relativist I guess). But when I try to justify that belief analytically, I can't come up with a better basis for it than to turn to my intuitive side and say that I think it is wrong because I feel it is wrong. I can imagine a world where I evolved to have different gut instincts with respect to morals, and I can't point to a logical argument to say that one of those sets of morals is more right than the other in the absolute sense.
posted by Bort at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people either believe those statements to be true or false, not the sort of things "we can't assert any claims about"

How about something like the value claim about whether abortion is legal? I am pro-choice, however I have limits - for example, 2 weeks before birth is too late to terminate to me morally (barring health of mother issues or the like). So I'm in favor on having term limits to a degree. I would always want the doctor to have final call for medical reasons I think, but in general, where the limits should be is probably sometime around the quickening. My point though is that I really don't have an "abortion is morally ok" == "true" or "abortion is morally wrong" == "true" position.
posted by Bort at 10:00 AM on April 28, 2012


whether abortion is legal moral
posted by Bort at 10:12 AM on April 28, 2012


I'm still thinking about how to address in useful terms my own reasons for rejecting relativism, or at least the relativist paradigm, Bort, but I'd like to clarify that I don't think moral realism necessitates moral absolutism. I'm pretty much a sort of consequentialist liberal (a bit like preference utilitarianism I suppose) as it goes. I don't have simple answer to moral problems, but I do believe that my answers are based on truth claims about the nature of morality. The abortion example is a good one because it is endlessly troubling, but finding your way out of a maze is easier if you have a good idea of where north is.
posted by howfar at 10:13 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


StickyCarpet: "Wittgenstein believed in mystical truths that cannot be meaningfully expressed, but are of the utmost importance, but it is very difficult to conceive what these ‘truths’ might be."

Wittgenstein's personal belief or lack thereof notwithstanding, I have known a hardline atheist materialist who used Wittgenstein's statements on belief to circumvent any attempt to talk about metaphysics.

"So what you are saying is that you are talking about something beyond normal understanding"
"yes, it is mystical"
"so it cannot be summed up in language, it is a pointing at rather than a description"
"exactly"
""what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.", I invite you to shut the fuck up"
posted by idiopath at 12:37 PM on April 28, 2012


Well, Wittgenstein was a shut the fuck upistquietist.

More seriously, I think that Wittgenstein was attempting to make space, in his therapeutic approach to language, for the ocean of experience and reality that is not articulated nor capable of articulation. While he had a mystical motivation for this, it's hardly useless thought. I don't think knuckleheaded logical positivism, like your experience idiopath, was quite what he had in mind, though.
posted by howfar at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the absence of any supporting evidence for Smith's claims, it's impossible to me to do anything other than write the whole enterprise off as a scam. A precursor to L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. So then I'm left with the question, is it possible for something good to emerge out of a plan to decieve people for financial gain? And I'm just not seeing how that can be possible. Although people might get some sense of community and emotional sustainance, that's built upon a pack of lies and as such, is divisive, because it's antithetical to the truth. People who follow their rational human instinct and rather than taking these fantastic claims on faith, question the flimsy evidence for such belief, are shunned as doubters, and treated as hell-bound sinners.

The modern lay-religious conversion model is probably the same framework that establishes acceptance of belief as the mainstream theory of religious expression. This is summed up as any belief which emotionally satisfies being the true or right belief because the spirit is witnessing to them. It contradicts itself by conveniently ignoring any force of soothing evil and deception, which are used later to keep the competition at bay. As a lifestyle, it cheerfully cooperates with fantastic claims and frauds in all aspects of life, which is a connection not well understood, but has a lot to do with the scam artist feeling morally superior to their victims. These groups naturally scoop up the grievers, the home-bound, and the depressed, and few dare to voice a concern on how vulnerable they must be, because we're talking about religious gangs and bullies after all, and weaker or newer cultures avoid confronting them. Inside such groups, there is never a shortage of contrived personal anecdotes to support the effort because their faith in belief is attuned to any signs. These stories are used as both a currency and information to be communicated through the chain. The story teller is deemed more worthy as a result, raising the demand for other worldly claims, and perpetuating the fraud, because the franchise is typically collecting a tax-exempt tithe through it.
posted by Brian B. at 2:41 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


What I object to is the notion that that religious practice does not involve the making of fact and value claims about the world. My own non-religious practice involves precisely such claims

You're extrapolating from your own experience, then. This is something true for you, but not generalizable to all people. My religious practice, for instance, necessarily has to stop pretty short of making fact and value claims about the [material] world. Asserting fact claims is outside the realm of my religious practice, and value claims are not about material reality, but about the world of what humans value.

For instance, you can't make the fact claim "suffering is bad" without assuming something about suffering and something about badness. Why would you assert that suffering is bad? Who cares? What does it matter in the grand scheme? What ultimate reality are you referencing to make your determination that suffering is bad? What defines "bad?" In relation to what is this "bad" defined? Some suffering is good, and some suffering by some produces good for others. What is "suffering?" Can it be observed? Measured? Is it quantifiable? Do the same actions cause the same degree of suffering for different entities or people? If there is a moral reason not to cause suffering, why? Could there also be moral reasons to cause it? Why not?
posted by Miko at 7:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


value claims are not about material reality, but about the world of what humans value.*

I should specify, this refers to your construct. Mine leaves open the possibility of a source of value other than human judgment.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2012


Miko,

You've..blown....my mind.
posted by howfar at 9:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's unclear what you mean.
posted by Miko at 9:31 PM on April 28, 2012


It's unclear what you mean.

Haha, and why exactly should anyone expect clarity from the statements of others? After all, anything you extrapolate from your own experience cannot be generalized to other people, so how can you expect anything you say to be comprehensible to them?

How can I even assume that the common words I use to speak to you mean the same thing to you as to me? "Bad" in my parlance could mean "good" in yours. "Suffering" by my definition might mean "ecstasy" for you. "Up" could be "down", "off" could be "on".

Honestly I don't know how relativists and sophists manage to make it through the day. The world feel like a vast maelstrom of confusion.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:21 PM on April 28, 2012


Haha, and why exactly should anyone expect clarity from the statements of others? After all, anything you extrapolate from your own experience cannot be generalized to other people, so how can you expect anything you say to be comprehensible to them?


"anything you extrapolate from your own experience cannot be generalized to other people" - that's a gross mischaracterization of miko's statements. howfar is saying (and this is all my summary/paraphrasing - could be wrong) that religion, or practice of religion, = abc. miko is saying: that is your experience or practice of religion, but for me, religion = abd. You seem to be saying that because they disagree on the definition of religion and/or what constitutes religious practice (or "true" religious practice), communication is impossible.

Miko is pointing out that statements like "suffering is bad" are very loaded. If you don't define exactly what you mean by "suffering" and "bad", then you don't know the bounds to place on your conclusions and their application, or in math terms, what domain and range are.

For some definitions of suffering and bad, the statement "suffering is bad" is basically a tautology. For others, it can be a statement with no truth-value assignment possible.

Put another way, saying "suffering is bad" and leaving it at that is question begging.


All of that explains my interpretation of what miko was saying. I think that is probably pretty accurate, because miko is being very articulate and taking a lot of time to explain what she means, what she believes, what she thinks.

And then that effort, time, consideration gets a 4/5 word reply of "You've blown my mind." Which basically says this: your view is wrong and unworthy of my even taking 2 minutes to put down more than 4 words to explain why that is.

Then on top of that, after this happens, miko asks for clarification. At the very least you must realize that when anyone responds to thousands of words of explanation of another persons views with only 4 words, it's understandable and even expected that elaboration would be asked for.

How can I even assume that the common words I use to speak to you mean the same thing to you as to me? "Bad" in my parlance could mean "good" in yours. "Suffering" by my definition might mean "ecstasy" for you. "Up" could be "down", "off" could be "on".

Honestly I don't know how relativists and sophists manage to make it through the day. The world feel like a vast maelstrom of confusion.


I'm going to assume you are being deliberately obtuse.
posted by Bort at 4:59 AM on April 29, 2012


Sorry for being unclear. I was taking the piss, not intentionally harshly, out of what appeared to be an invitation to reargue the entire history of epistemology. I have obviously encountered these problems and questions before, and to respond fully would take longer than we have hear. I was also surprised by Miko's apparent continued conflation of moral realism with moral absolutism, despite the fact that I have made it clear that I favour a form of preference utilitarianism, which allows "the good" to mean different things to different people while still maintaining that there is a real distinction between the good and the bad that holds true through those differences of perspective. So I was laughing at what appeared to be a suggestion that in order to be a realist (by and large) I must have not considered relativism properly. In fact, I have even been a relativist in the past, but abandoned the position because I found that I made, and had to make, moral claims that were not intelligible to me as simple accounts of a viewpoint. When I talk about the evils of foreign wars of aggression, am I really no more morally correct than the proponents of the Project for the New American Century? I have to think I am, that eliminating other people's ability to determine and achieve their desires is not just a relative wrong, but an absolute wrong. Relativism lacks the ethical tools to defend even its own value. My position became more nuanced. I am still not realist about single posits, I don't believe that the statement "there is an A" has a truth value in isolation, but only as part of a broader theoretical claim. I am somewhere along the Quinean continuum, at the moment, I think.

So, anyway, I wasn't laughing at or dismissing Miko, or even relativism (some of my best relatives are friends...ba dum), but rather the idea that this is an appropriate time to hold a ground up philosophical debate. My position, like everyone else's, is not a caricatured pose, but an ongoing problem to me. While we can discuss some of the implications of our different positions here, getting into dismantling everything and doing 'Realism v Relativism - The Showdown' seems like a very silly idea.

I should have contextualised, but it was very late. I thought I would be understood, but I plainly wasn't. My fault!
posted by howfar at 6:44 AM on April 29, 2012


How can I even assume that the common words I use to speak to you mean the same thing to you as to me? "Bad" in my parlance could mean "good" in yours. "Suffering" by my definition might mean "ecstasy" for you. "Up" could be "down", "off" could be "on".

That's entirely true. It's called value pluralism, and it's a legitimate issue in moral reasoning.

After all, anything you extrapolate from your own experience cannot be generalized to other people

You misunderstand there. You might try applying ideas from your own experience, but they can't be extrapolated and hold true just upon your will. They have to be tested. You posited ideas of "bad" and "suffering" using idiosyncratic definitions, or at least ones you assumed we were all using. But it's important to clarify your terms.Do you mean by saying "suffering is bad?" I suffer when training for races - muscles ache, injuries, exhaustion, sweat, misery. Yet the suffering, though unpleasant, isn't something I consider bad, because it yields a result which I value more than the suffering. The knowledge of the result reduces the "badness" of the suffering. My kid might suffer if I punish her for doing something dangerous, but I'm aiming to create a good greater than the suffering. These sufferings, having their hoped-for end in "good," are probably not "bad" as you define it. Then there's the question of what outcomes they actually create (my kid might become a lifelong criminal anyway), but let's set that aside.

A serious philosophical question underlies all of this: What is good? And if "good" can be identified, what is the source of this good? Does it exist outside of the human mind?

If not, isn't it possible that what we tend to call "good" or "value" is nothing more than aesthetics, taste, preference? And if so, should it be regarded with any higher moral weight than any other preference by any other thinker? If a dictator has a preference for reducing disorder and decreasing poverty in his country by controlling the economy and limiting freedoms, who's to say his preference is wrong? Upon what principle?

And if there is such a principle to appeal to, if there is a higher form of "good" than preference, then it must not be a preference - it mus exist independently somehow, outside the individual mind. So what's the nature of that existence? What creates it?

Bort described an experience I thought very observant and honest not far back:

I think that I end up using a combination of intuitive and analytical methods subconsciously to determine my moral and ethical value judgements....But when I try to justify [a] belief analytically, I can't come up with a better basis for it than to turn to my intuitive side and say that I think it is wrong because I feel it is wrong. I can imagine a world where I evolved to have different gut instincts with respect to morals, and I can't point to a logical argument to say that one of those sets of morals is more right than the other in the absolute sense.

This "gut" intuition toward the good is something that interacts with reason but is not born of reason. It's not rational, and it's not necessarily objective.

And it does vary. People of goodwill don't always identify the same actions as "good."

If good doesn't exist outside preference, it seems either relativism is required (acknowledging that individual preference in itself has no unusual claim to moral weight), or a simple majority consensus on right action has to rule the day (kind of where we are at a pragmatic level, as a world, sort of a weak strain of utilitarianism based on wide participation in a very general moral code). But utilitarianism can't and doesn't claim to consistently produce perfect good. If you say, for instance, that what is good is what maximizes welfare for the many, you trade off and accept that though the many benefit, you might also be causing suffering for the few. To those few who suffer, have we brought about "good?" Or if "good" is what feels most good to you, as an individual, can you demonstrate that an attempt to generalize that to others isn't just narcissism or solipsism? THat takes you back to good-as-preference.

But if good does exist independently of preference, if it's not just all "you say tomato, I say tomahto," then what is its source? There's a whole classical debate that deals with the source of good, the Euthyphro dilemma. That concerns more whether anything a/the god says is good, is therefore good only because god says so - in other words, is "good" only "good" because God endorses it, and God could as easily endorse things we generally think are evil, and we'd have to then support that stuff. Which is where you often find the dogmatic strain of believer hovering, willing to, say, support the oppression of gays, however cruelly, because god has defined it as not-good. Or alternatively, is "good" actually "good" because of something about the nature of "good" that is totally independent of God, and doesn't require God at all. Oddly enough, that is a frequent athiest stance, especially among those who resist relativism.

If there is a kind of good that is instinctual, obvious to humans, and somewhat absolute, bred into us from a time before there were institutions and religions and philosophies, what is the source of that good? Evolution, neuroscience, - a quirk of the meat that makes us live; this is widely accepted, though not yet offering a perfect explanation for all moral behavior, or indeed a good prescription for behavior we might desire as moral. It's not likely a utilitarian approach to charity, for instance, is going to increase my personal reproductive capacity and preserve my unique genes. I am sure that's a scientific problem to be solved. But if just a quirk of the meat that preserves genes, no matter how much we debate moral action, the larger context is amoral. It just doesn't matter what happens to us or to anyone. Things just inconvenience some organisms, aid others, and the sun blows up a few years down the road and that's all she wrote. Taking the reductive view, moral reasoning then should logically confine us to just maximizing the temporary experience of comfort. What makes us comfortable while we experience existence is then the highest good. The only knotty problem is who's included in "us."

So some people who adopt religious practice are willing to hold open the possibility that there may be another source of this intuition that drives us to our sense of what is good.
We can find biological reasons which are responsible for its existence, certainly, but biological activities aren't exclusive of concepts of the divine as an absolute form of good or as an agent or participant in promoting good, perhaps through creating this intuition, pushing beyond the level of comfort, toward compassion, avoidance of harm, etc. What some would call a gut sense, intuition, any source of morality external to taste, others identify as something divine, what Quakers call the inner light, conceived as the presence of the divine in every individual.
posted by Miko at 7:29 AM on April 29, 2012


My position, like everyone else's, is not a caricatured pose, but an ongoing problem to me.

Yeah, mine too, which is why it is lousy to sneer.

to respond fully would take longer than we have hear

We have all the time in the world. Thread stays open for what, 30 days?

I would say, though, that if you're unwilling to articulate your stance, you might not want to participate in these discussions. I'm not as trained in philosophy as you evidently are, and honestly, few people here are, so when you drop terms it would be generous to define them. But certainly, once you have your position defined down so tightly, you must know not only its logical strengths but also its critiques. It would be fair, and move the discussion along more speedily without rehashing the history of epistemology, to just acknowledge them.
posted by Miko at 7:33 AM on April 29, 2012


I thought I had articulated my stance, but if I'm being unclear, I will do a bit of unpacking. Essentially, my position is that theories, which is to say connected sets of axioms and posits, are holistically capable of proof or disproof. The individual elements of such theories do not, I think, have a truth value, but the combination of them does. This applies to all the claims we make about reality, not just moral claims. When I say "suffering is bad" I am, as you correctly point out, actually articulating an aspect of a complex claim about the world. The reason I think of myself as a realist about such claims is that is does not appear to me possible to produce a coherent account of the world without including this type of claim, or a close equivalent, in one's theory. I don't believe that such claims are mere quirks of evolution, but actually necessarily implied by the fact of being a conscious subject surrounded by other conscious subjects. If there is a such a thing as "suffering", it will not be possible to create a moral model of the world that does not regard it as bad.

I am anti-realist about morality talk to the extent that I believe it is possible to be amoral, and that if you have no moral theory of the world, there is no external scale judging you. I also have to acknowledge that there are some people who consider themselves to have coherent moral schemes who do not regard suffering as bad; certain serial killers spring to mind, as does the "morality" of nationalism. I would argue that their world-views are in fact incoherent, and do not in fact stand up to scrutiny. Such apparent moral schemes are, I think, excuses for wrong action, not justifications for right action.

The big weakness in such an account is that it relies on what are probably ultimately unverifiable claims about the kinds of conceptual schema it is possible to have. The fact that I cannot or have not conceived of a counter-example to my claim that "all coherent moral schemes of social subjects will include the claim 'suffering is bad' or a close analogue" is not proof that such an example does not or cannot exist. Indeed, my assessment of certain kinds of moral schemes as incoherent may reflect my own prejudice, rather than a fact about that scheme. Nonetheless, I find it very hard to seriously maintain a relativist position. I simply don't believe that there are intelligible moral schemes that eliminate structural reliance on the most basic utilitarian axioms.

I am sorry if I sneered. I get frustrated at times, and resort to sarcasm. That is my fault, and I shouldn't do it.
posted by howfar at 8:03 AM on April 29, 2012


I would argue that their world-views are in fact incoherent,

What makes their worldviews incoherent? It seems this should be a legitimate position, based on your other views.

Also, as a consequentialist (?) is suffering bad in and of itself, always? Or can suffering be warranted to produce a preferred outcome? Isn't it possible to construct a coherent moral scheme in which suffering can be purposeful, or can produce good, either as an intended or an unintended outcome?

my assessment of certain kinds of moral schemes as incoherent may reflect my own prejudice

I think that's my point.

I simply don't believe that there are intelligible moral schemes that eliminate structural reliance on the most basic utilitarian axioms.

I can see that they often intersect and overlap. I'm not sure that all morality requires utilitarian axioms, however.

The huge flaw I see in preference utilitarianism is that it is capable of producing a lot of outcomes which don't correlate to most understandings of "good." It may seem to produce a large degree of satisfaction, but one has to accept that satisfaction=good, consistently, in order to proceed, and I personally haven't seen that demonstrated, whereas history demonstrates the opposite (satisfaction=bad) readily.

if I can make that critique, I'm assuming some measure of good outside satisfaction, preference, personal prejudice.
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on April 29, 2012


Also, perhaps you can clear this up. How can you espouse preferentialism without being a relativist? Doesn't preferentialism recognize that tastes and preferences differ, and seek only to maximize preference for the many? If that's the case, relativism (there is no absolute good to agree on, other than only this one: satisfaction of preference is an absolute good) is essential to the practice of that philosophy.
posted by Miko at 8:38 AM on April 29, 2012


history demonstrates the opposite (satisfaction=bad) readily.

Having a hard time grasping what you mean here. Can you give an example?

More broadly, one consequence of moral realism is that it is possible for people to be mistaken about moral positions. If someone's moral argument does not follow from their moral premises, or is based on contradictor positions, I would say that their argument is incoherent, and hence a wrong one. The issue arises because most of the time, when we make apparent ethical arguments, we're actually doing something more complex, involving self-interest, social performance, personal identity forming etc.. If you strip those away, however, I'd argue that the underlying moral process is strikingly similar from person to person. I'm aware of the problem, which is the central problem you identify above, of how I can know that I'm not just begging the question (in the technical sense of the petitio principii fallacy)? I wonder if one might construct an empirical experiment to try to falsify my position. It would be difficult, I think, but possibly doable in a limited sense.

If that's the case, relativism (there is no absolute good to agree on, other than only this one: satisfaction of preference is an absolute good) is essential to the practice of that philosophy.

I think part of the problem we've been having in communication is that I would absolutely characterise this as a morally realist position. I see realism as a much broader set of beliefs than you, and so we have perhaps been talking at cross-purposes. I would also suggest that assuming satisfaction of preference as an absolute good actually has some quite far reaching consequences for the kind of morality it is possible to have. There are individuals and societies that ignore this to a greater extent than do others, but I would place them in the category of excusing wrong, not justifying right, action.
posted by howfar at 8:57 AM on April 29, 2012


I have many thoughts but am leaving for a day out. Hope to reply on my return.
posted by Miko at 9:01 AM on April 29, 2012


Fair enough. Have fun!
posted by howfar at 9:34 AM on April 29, 2012


I'd argue that the underlying moral process is strikingly similar from person to person

This, along with some other things I've read above, makes me feel like much of the argument (about realism and relativism) does indeed boil down to differences in definition. That's part of why I think it is important to either define the terms carefully and fully, or better yet, explain things in a way that doesn't use the term at all. The more abstract the term/concept, the more information it can contain, so the more detailed the definition needs to be - to insure non-ambiguity.

So, back to "I'd argue that the underlying moral process is strikingly similar from person to person." I'd agree. I'd even be surprised if there wasn't a similar brain structure that all people share in a certain area (prefrontal cortex?) that is responsible for this. I'll even grant that for the purposes of this discussion/argument, each person comes to the same moral conclusion about the same things as every other person does - or we can postulate that such a world exists. I think that situation or world also indicates that morals are relative. It is really an accident of nature and evolution that our brains evolved to have this set of morals and if we had a different past, we'd have a different set of morals. Those sets might, and probably would, intersect on 99.9% of things, but they'd have differences. Same thing for cultural effects.

I think a lot of the desire to snark comes from thinking miko and I subscribe to the common archetype of a relativist: Everything is relative, so you can't judge anything. For most things, I would probably line up with you and most other people on what is morally right and wrong, and have no problem judging people for things normally considered wrong. For example, murder.

Hope you all had a good day. Just got back from mine, weather was great!
posted by Bort at 4:28 PM on April 29, 2012


It is really an accident of nature and evolution that our brains evolved to have this set of morals and if we had a different past, we'd have a different set of morals. Those sets might, and probably would, intersect on 99.9% of things, but they'd have differences. Same thing for cultural effects.

This is where we differ, I think. I am dubious about the idea that the underlying similarities between moral systems are a product of evolutionary "chance". I don't think that our morality is an accidental product of how we came to be, but rather an necessary product of what we are. By "what we are" I mean, as I said above, something like "self-conscious reasoning subjects exposed to other self-conscious reasoning subjects". I doubt that any change in our DNA or cultural history would eliminate our strikingly similar underlying moralities, because I think they are things that come about as a necessary part of the process of discovering ourselves and other people, and the interdependence between the notions of "self" and "other".

I suppose that there is a notion of some sort of Hegelian dialectic underlying my position. I believe that we emerge as subjects in a manner that both depends on and necessitates the existence of other subjects. This, to me, seems to suggest a requirement to have regard to the needs of other subjects in the same way as we have regard to our own, because in a certain sense, those needs are the same needs as our own. I can only recognise myself as a subject to whom moral obligations can be owed in recognising that I owe moral obligations to other subjects. Something like this, anyway.

Maybe there is a difference in terminology, but I would characterise anyone who believes in an absolute moral truth as a moral realist. Like realism more generally, we all have different views of reality, mostly compatible ones. I can have certain beliefs about an object you and I look at, that differ from beliefs you have. Some of these beliefs will be incompatible, and in some cases that will be because one of us is wrong. But it is also possible for two people to hold incompatible belief that are equally true in their own context, without endangering the underlying possibility of realism. The obvious example is geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system. Either model can be made to work with sufficient effort, and in their own paradigm both models are "true", despite the fact that they are contradictory. Of course, there are good reasons to reject geocentrism, which becomes increasingly hard to support in a broader theoretic context, and which makes for incredibly difficult and convoluted calculations of motion. None of this suggests to me that we can't make claims about the world that have a truth value, just that we have to be careful to adjust for perspective when assess them.

I'm probably going on too long at this point.
posted by howfar at 5:14 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd even be surprised if there wasn't a similar brain structure that all people share in a certain area (prefrontal cortex?) that is responsible for this

There was some excitement over the role of "Mirror Neurons" as the biological basis of empathy, but it's all very cutting edge (uncertain) stuff.

It is really an accident of nature and evolution that our brains evolved to have this set of morals and if we had a different past, we'd have a different set of morals.

Here's where you're basically wrong. So what our current society represents is the cumulative effect of a huge period of biological evolution occurring along with cultural evolution, all acting toward increasing complexity. And the increases in complexity (both biological and cultural) that "work" ie survive and propagate forward in time, do so because they produce some net benefit e.g. many individual cells combine to form multi-cellular organisms, many small tribes combine to form a nation.

Those nations and those organisms do better than less complex rivals, so they continue into the future, and those simple forms fall by the wayside.

So what would be the optimum way to manage such complex systems? People have simulated these kind of systems using game-theoretic approaches, and you know what works best (is most effective at survival and propagation)?

The Golden Rule or Tit-for-Tat. If someone was good to you, be good to them, if someone was bad to you, be bad to them.

TL,DR;

The golden rule can be deduced as the optimum way to interact with other cells, with other people, other game entities, in that it produces the most success in its adherents. Therefore any system subject to selective pressure will yield a golden rule type sort of interaction.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:25 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]




history demonstrates the opposite (satisfaction=bad) readily.

Having a hard time grasping what you mean here. Can you give an example?


Most Americans prefer to command their own transportation, so they own a lot of cars per capita - more than two cars per household, on average. They also prefer to drive their cars, even for short distances of one to three milkes, rather than to walk.

That's a preference that has significant waterfall effects. It dictates urban design, diverts resources to building and maintaining roads, and requires a steady supply of fossil fuels. Gathering those fuels uses up a nonrenewable resource and influences foreign policy, up to and including decisions to go to war. It also influences domestic policy, affects real estate values, and impacts public lands.

One might say that if we consider everyone in the world's preference on this, we wouldn't create policies that encourage so much preference of Americans driving all the time. However, rather than deploring these policies, other people in the world share this preference and are increasingly adopting these habits. The results aren't especially "good" for communities, as they become ever more hostile to pedestrians and ever more distant from basic services; for public health, as increased exhaust fumes and reduced physical activity contribute to chronic health problems; or for conservation of resources which may have been helpful to future generations. Honoring these preferences creates a damaging situation which results in worse outcomes.

More broadly, one consequence of moral realism is that it is possible for people to be mistaken about moral positions.

Well, this looks like the Singerite axiom that though you can be wrong about your moral reasoning, you're never wrong about your preferences. But the thing is that I think they're equally prone to error. First of all, a moral position can be mistaken, but only if the position taken doesn't produce the outcome the thinker desires. Similarly, a preference can be stated based on a theory of what will be satisfying, but the thinker can easily find that the preference really doesn't result in feelings of satisfaction.

I see realism as a much broader set of beliefs than you, and so we have perhaps been talking at cross-purposes.

What confuses me there is that I don't understand it as a broad set of beliefs, but a simple set of statements from which to reason - as stating that there is some reality other than tat perceived by human beings that exists. I am sure there is a broad set of ruminations about what to do with that assertion, but does that really create cross purposes?

I can see where you might call it realism to say that satisfaction of preference is the only absolute good - and that an absolute good is morally realist. And yet there are no preferences without beings to have preferences, so I think it's dependent on subjectivity, ultimately.

And yet once you get down to the pluralism of the preferences themselves, there is nothing other than majority consensus to guide moral decisionmaking. This aspect of the applied philosophy seems necessarily to be pretty relativist - whatever satisfies most is the right moral condition.

much of the argument (about realism and relativism) does indeed boil down to differences in definition. That's part of why I think it is important to either define the terms carefully and fully, or better yet, explain things in a way that doesn't use the term at all.

Quite true, and in fact, people who are really excellent at talking philosophy often use them very sparingly, and rely more on things like reminding you of premises.

I would characterise anyone who believes in an absolute moral truth as a moral realist.

I just think the difference is in identifying whether that "absolute truth" exists only in, or ouside of, the individual perceiving it. If exists only in individuals, I don't think it's classically realist.

I think a lot of the desire to snark comes from thinking miko and I subscribe to the common archetype of a relativist: Everything is relative, so you can't judge anything.

And that definitely doesn't describe my worldview. One thing that's key to my thinking is recognizing the diversity of values and beliefs that human beings have. This is not likely to go away. Therefore I don't think the culturally biased, self-interested, etc etc theories of human beings about the nature of the world can produce a reliably solid guide to right and wrong. So I'm not really a relativist at all, and though I'm fascinated by, and recognize the existence of, tons and tons of truth claims, they are all equally worthy of skepticism. Or, as howfar put it:

it is also possible for two people to hold incompatible belief that are equally true in their own context, without endangering the underlying possibility of realism.
posted by Miko at 3:47 PM on April 30, 2012




I think that's interesting. In a utilitarian view, of course, it really doesn't matter what motivation for doing good is.

But this is something that I think about frequently:
"Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. "The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns."

...While the study examined the link between religion, compassion and generosity, it did not directly examine the reasons for why highly religious people are less compelled by compassion to help others. However, researchers hypothesize that deeply religious people may be more strongly guided by a sense of moral obligation than their more non-religious counterparts.
I think this one of the main arguments for a religious practice which talks in terms of obligation. Should doing the right thing rely on personal feelings of empathy? Or should personal feeling enter into it at all? Do we even trust it, knowing that empathy rises more readily for people most like us, and is harder to muster for people who are very different from us?
Saslow, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Francisco, said she was inspired to examine this question after an altruistic, nonreligious friend lamented that he had only donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching an emotionally stirring video of a woman being saved from the rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed
That's good and all, but is this our aim? It certainly underlies the fundraising appeal strategies organizations most often rely on, the personal "hook." But if his friend had never seen the video, would he have had his 'empathy' buttons pushed and donated to the cause? Would he have donated just on principle, immediately on hearing of the earthquake, if he were operating in a system that promoted 'disaster response' as an ideal action regardless of when or where the disaster or whether one had seen affecting pictures?

I think it's all interesting, but what the article calls "momentary compassion," the situational-only, stimulus-dependent approach to helping or giving, is a phenomenon that concerns me. I don't see this as superior to religious motivations for giving and helping, which at least some of the time exist to promote right action without requiring a visible, immediate, personally affecting hook.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on May 13, 2012


I suppose a rigidly organized moral system might permit more stable funding for important social activities, but it certainly permits the complete perversion of morality that's less compatible with compassion too. I'd imagine that compassion tempered by reason wins out overall.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:38 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just don't think there's any evidence to assert that.

I can't stand David Brooks normally, but I agree with him on the limits of empathy. It's notoriously subjective, spotty, and unreliable:
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments....People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty.
I believe that empathy is important and one aspect of my practice is to focus on developing empathy and compassion further. But I would not want to depend upon empathy as the best way to react to and better the world. I'm a prescriptive moralist, not a descriptive one. I understand that people are more motivated to give or help when they are in closer proximity to the need, when they experience it more personally, when they have their heartstrings struck. But that doesn't mean that this is the smartest way to give, or the way that does the most good for the greatest number overall. In fact, it kind of militates against that, since most people who are in a position to give or help live in relative isolation from those who are most in need. Without an intermediary, who knows about the problem, to create a situation which will promote an empathic response in a third party, there is virtually no chance that the problem will be solved.

And when that connection is made effectively, the empathic response certainly privileges some kinds of problems above others. People routinely feel more empathic for people with whom they can identify. We are less empathetic to people of different races, political views, ethnicities, economic classes. Cultural factors affect how much empathy we feel and express. They also vet the needy for blame factors - were you drinking or on drugs? Did you do everything you could to find a job? This process of reasoning can easily lead to a divestment of support.

Empathy is slushy, subjective, personal, cultural, unpredictable, emotional. I agree that it is Because it's so inconsistently observed, I would not say that it's capable of preventing moral perversion. Even if it did in theory, it doesn't seem to be working especially well in practice. If empathy is sufficient to meet world need, there's a broken link somewhere.

I personally appreciate the idea of relying on principle to produce charitable action rather than waiting for a tearjerker appeal to prompt action (or accepting that lack of such a prompt, or failure of the prompt to be sufficiently affecting, means an acceptable response of passivity). Even for those who embrace an ideal of pure reason, I think that it should be acknowledged that empathy can't be relied on as a producer of good in and of itself. It's nowhere near adequate to the actual needs of the world, and in fact very prone to the human perversions of racism, classism, sexism, tribalism, and sheer denial.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on May 13, 2012


Happy VelociRapture day!
posted by jeffburdges at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2012


« Older Enterprise Lands at JFK   |   One's man garbage (bin) is another man's art... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post