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'…makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann.'
October 25, 2006 12:23 AM   Subscribe

He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. -- Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion.
posted by shakespeherian (205 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
My name is Terry Eagleton, no one has ever heard of me.
My name is Richard Dawkins, my book is a bestseller.
posted by matkline at 12:27 AM on October 25, 2006


The God Delusion previously appeared as a Channel4 program discussed here.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:27 AM on October 25, 2006


Many people have heard of Terry Eagleton, don't display your ignorance like that.
posted by Falconetti at 12:46 AM on October 25, 2006


Because that makes all the difference in who's opinion counts and who's criticisms are valid, right matkline?

Just like that guy up on the internet named matkline criticizing a guy no one has heard of who criticized some famous guy.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:46 AM on October 25, 2006


Terry Eagleton has just as much claim to being a public intellectual, if not more, than Dawkins, matkline. Both are characters, to boot.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:47 AM on October 25, 2006


My name is Terry Eagleton, no one has ever heard of me.
My name is Richard Dawkins, my book is a bestseller.


Theodore Sturgeon wrote dozens and dozens of books and died impoverished.

Dean Koontz sells millions of books - at supermarket checkout stands.

Only one of these two writers is immortalized as a recurring character in other novels - Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. (And only one of these two writers can actually write.)
posted by loquacious at 12:52 AM on October 25, 2006


Breaking the Spell^ by Daniel Dennett^ is higher on my reading list.

Dawkins is coolness. However, I'm well aware that religion justifies was, bigotry, and xenophobia. Dawkins assertion that religion damages children's intellectual development is quite believable & very interesting, but its ultimately a question for developmental psychologists.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:57 AM on October 25, 2006


"It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself."

You know, this actually explains a lot. People are in love with the idea of God. Literally. So no matter what God says, no matter how evil the commands from the organization or the little voice in your head become, you mostly just DO them, because you love him/her/it.

Hmph, I'd never thought about it this way before. A large chunk of the world (half, maybe?) would appear to be in an abusive relationship with an imaginary being.
posted by Malor at 1:00 AM on October 25, 2006 [13 favorites]


Wait while I get my Uncle Bill, he's never seen a train wreck.
posted by Joeforking at 1:01 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'd be interested to read other critiques of the Dawkins book from people who've actually read it. But I'm afraid, shakespeherian, that this post will be deleted come the morn, as Dawkins cannot be discussed on MeFi due to admin fiat.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:06 AM on October 25, 2006


Spot on, Malor.

I enjoyed Dawkin's books and TV shows, but I've never heard of that other fellow. Judging by the fact that he's an English Prof I think it's safe to assume that he can't write worth a damn.

Seriously, though. Do we need another flamewar about theism/atheism?
posted by spazzm at 1:07 AM on October 25, 2006


Thanks for the post. Wow, that was quite a penetrating & forceful review.

I really wish the Dawkins crowd would read Kant & Wittgenstein. We shouldn't still be chasing our intellectual tails over this kind of thing 2 & quarter centuries after epistemology replaced metaphysics & nearly a century after Wittgenstein further clarified that the very notion of a rational proposition "about" metaphysical matters is a philosopher's fiction. Only fundamentalists (or scientists and/or philosophers setting up a strawman) would assert that God is a possible object of rational, empirical investigation.

My name is Terry Eagleton, no one has ever heard of me.
My name is Richard Dawkins, my book is a bestseller.


So, are you saying something like that fundamentalist t-shirt that goes: "'God is dead' - Nietzche; 'Nietzche is dead' - God"?

Anyhow, I'd heard of Terry Eagleton long before I'd heard of Dawkins. Guess it just depends on what your interests are.
posted by treepour at 1:11 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


You'd be unsafely wrong assuming Eagleton can't write, spazzm. But you're right about unnecessary flames, so I'll stop now.
posted by cgc373 at 1:12 AM on October 25, 2006


Have people really never heard of Terry Eagleton? I'm fairly certain he's sold many more books than Dawkins. I know this community will have its academic biases, but still, Eagleton is no chump.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:12 AM on October 25, 2006


Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.


Assigning human-like motivations to a dispassionate Nature is a sure sign this guy can't see past metaphor.

It may be that Dawkins hasn't read the various theologians mentioned in the article, but one wouldn't expect a modern chemist to be well-versed on alchemy either.
posted by starkeffect at 1:15 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


This is hopelessly naïve, but my thinking was that the nature of the review might preempt a flamewar.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:16 AM on October 25, 2006


Terry Eagleton (who I have heard) does make some interesting points but from the first line onwards (Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology) the review is shot through with clever anaologies masquerading as kick ass arguments.

Probably right not to discuss Dawkins here though. To use a perhaps unfortunate analogy, he's preaching to the choir.
posted by rhymer at 1:18 AM on October 25, 2006


"Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex..."

Casual? He said that it would be better to cut off your hand than to masturbate with it, and better to pluck out your eye than to lust after beauty. Is that casual?
posted by kid ichorous at 1:22 AM on October 25, 2006


starkeffect: Assigning human-like motivations to a dispassionate Nature is a sure sign this guy can't see past metaphor.

I think Eagleton is actually using a metaphor to try to give you a sense of what a non-naive theology might look like.
posted by treepour at 1:27 AM on October 25, 2006


cgc373, my generalization about English Professors was written in the deepest seriousness. Clever of you to point out that it was incorrect because some English Profs (including, quite possibly, Eagleton) can in fact write. I'm at a loss to explain how I missed this.

Duly chastened, I now retreat to my squalid burrow.
posted by spazzm at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2006


DELETED!

You come one faux pas (Dawkins on Metafilter), I'll commit another (Strong Bad references not on Fark).
posted by switchsonic at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2006


He said that it would be better to cut off your hand than to masturbate with it

Really? Where?
posted by bunglin jones at 1:31 AM on October 25, 2006


This won't end well.
posted by nightchrome at 1:44 AM on October 25, 2006


Really? Where?

I think kid ichorous might be reading into the whole "cut off the hand that sins" part, and assuming masturbation is a sin.

Which it ain't.

*fap*
posted by Jimbob at 1:46 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I was going to comment, "and that, my good sirs and madams, is how you tear someone to pieces," which I thought was a good summary of the review.

But apparently no one wants to actually discuss the merits of the review itself, and we're going to talk about how you haven't heard of Terry Eagleton (and you know what, neither had I, but it didn't affect my reading) and how it's impossible to talk about Richard Dawkins so we may as well all slide our pants down in this lovely foyer and unload a great pile of brown. All together now.

Whether or not it actually exists in practice, I admire and respect Mr Eagleton's writing about a Christianity based on thoughtfulness and understanding and all those good things that he explained twenty times more eloquently than I could hope to. If it was actually all like that in practice, sure, sign me up. Let's discuss the nature of the Original Cause. I want to have conversations like that. They are incomparably important questions to consider that Science is unable to address.

Yes, the major organized religions perverts what I, and, if I read correctly, Mr Eagleton, see as the foundational concepts that Christ and later Christian writers were developing and supporting, but that doesn't invalidate the entire thing, nor should it. Fundamentalist American evangelical Christianity is screwed up and fucked and needs to stop, but maybe we could talk about these things instead of just shitting all over the place.

If I wasn't so tired I would have tried to say that more tactfully, but really. This is an impressive piece of writing, whatever you think of the conclusions; can we not address it directly?

(On preview, which always gives me a chance to reflect: I suppose this is why we can't discuss Dawkins here. Someone says one thing and everyone, including myself, goes off in every direction. I honestly sincerely mean this comment to be constructive, my apologies for the scatalogy.)
posted by blacklite at 1:48 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


spazzm, you needn't stay in any burrow, squalid or otherwise; it's all my bad. I should have said something like, "Eagleton's a pretty good writer," instead of "unsafely wrong" blah blah, look at clever-pants-me, I'm a-writin' now, lookame go.
posted by cgc373 at 2:03 AM on October 25, 2006


What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

Has your average Christian ever heard of them? Please. Dawkins argues against the gross god because that's what the majority of people believe in.

Look, I don't know the intricate minutia of Astrology, but I still know its bullshit. What value is there in analyzing the detailed, intricate philosophical system built entirely on false premises? If you believe the premises are false, no value can be achieved by philosophizing upon them.

Dawkins, as far as I know, isn't exactly complaining about Deists or whatever, but against popular folk religions such as the Christian story about Jesus being God's son and rising from the dead. There's not much 'epistemological' about that.

If you're one of those people who think of the bible as one big metaphor or whatever, then I don't think Dawkins exactly cares, although I don't know. I'm using "Dawkins" as a stand in for "Generic Atheist" I don't know that much about his specific arguments either.
posted by delmoi at 2:05 AM on October 25, 2006 [4 favorites]


Seriously, though. Do we need another flamewar about theism/atheism?

Um, do you see any flames? A bunch of these threads have been deleted despite being almost entirely flame free. It's ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 2:14 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


If you're one of those people who think of the bible as one big metaphor or whatever, then I don't think Dawkins exactly cares, although I don't know. I'm using "Dawkins" as a stand in for "Generic Atheist" I don't know that much about his specific arguments either.

I confess to not having read his book. Press about him suggests that he does care -- e.g., the recent Wired article on the "New Atheism" indicates that what separates Dawkins from less "evangelical" atheists is that, for him, a contemporary theologian or even deist scientist deserves no more respect than the most unthinking fundamentalist. I find such a position absurd, ignorant, & arrogant. But I should, too, actually read him before saying anything more about what he thinks.
posted by treepour at 2:18 AM on October 25, 2006


cgc373, we cool?
posted by spazzm at 2:27 AM on October 25, 2006


Press about him suggests that he does care -- e.g., the recent Wired article on the "New Atheism" indicates that what separates Dawkins from less "evangelical" atheists is that, for him, a contemporary theologian or even deist scientist deserves no more respect than the most unthinking fundamentalist.

Hmm, yeah my impression is that Dawkins is a bit over the top on a lot of things. (enforcing the Atheist = "Bright" thing, for example)

Still, I don't really think the "rebuttals" makes much sense at all. The author seems to be arguing that god cannot be debated because it does not "exist"

Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster

What does "transcending universe" even mean? If he's not inside or outside of the universe, where is he? Does got exist only in our minds? If so how does he disagree with Dawkins?
posted by delmoi at 2:32 AM on October 25, 2006


England argues that educated christians believe more subtle things. Sure, educated people always believe subtle things. So what? Dawkins only cares about the harmful consequences.

Not sure if Dawkins set himself up by straying into theological discussions. But theology is clearly not relevant to his stated goals of demonstrating that religion is harmful.

And Amen starkeffect!
posted by jeffburdges at 2:38 AM on October 25, 2006


No matter how beautiful and intricate an ontological edifice you construct in defence of religion, it's still built on the quicksand of faith. And when you argue this toss with someone very clever, you invariably their vast reserves of intellectual firepower simply allow them to wrong for longer.

Although perhaps delmoi put it rather more pertly. I don't know the intricate minutia of Astrology, but I still know its bullshit. Ha.
posted by rhymer at 2:43 AM on October 25, 2006


Dawkins only cares about the harmful consequences.

Au contraire. See this interview [click 'Watch' button].
posted by matthewr at 2:44 AM on October 25, 2006


sorry should be a "find" in between inariably and their.
posted by rhymer at 2:44 AM on October 25, 2006


what separates Dawkins from less "evangelical" atheists is that, for him, a contemporary theologian or even deist scientist deserves no more respect than the most unthinking fundamentalist. I find such a position absurd, ignorant, & arrogant.

I'll agree with you on one of those three points: arrogance. Dawkins equates a belief in supernatural beings with, for example, a belief in the geocentric model of the universe. To the casual observer, it appears as though the sun goes around the earth, and from a medieval point of view that belief is appealing-- man is the most sublime of creations, so it is only fitting that the rest of Creation should literally revolve around him.

Lest you think this mere demagogy, consider this-- how do you know that the earth revolves around the sun (assuming you do)? Do you accept it as faith, or do you know the reasons?

The point where Dawkins becomes arrogant regards the effect of a belief in God on human emotion. Modern theology is all about psychology, not physics (strong anthropic principle notwithstanding), and since science has no firm or easily explainable answers about why we feel the way we do, the explanations that theology offers are competitive.
posted by starkeffect at 2:59 AM on October 25, 2006


Not a good review. Nothing torn to pieces.

I'll sum it up... "blah blah blah, my tooth fairy is special/different blah blah ontological."

The only good point he made (although it was irrelevant) was that science isn't perfect, and could stand with a bit of skepticism.

So, yeah, well, nicely put. Now, back to your delusional love with the divine imagined.
posted by ewkpates at 3:02 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Here's another interview. Colbert report.
posted by spazzm at 3:03 AM on October 25, 2006


treepour, "Evangelical atheists" object to "christian" being taken as synonymous with "moral" when the opposite is often true, just whipe off the teflon coating.

We object when religion's role in atrocities is conveniently forgotten and religion is then used to ellect the authors of future atrocities.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:06 AM on October 25, 2006


"What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?"

Richard Dawkins has shown that the domain and context for all these discussions, the realm of theology, is the realm of nonsense. He has shown that it is not necessary to demonstrate that a fairy's wing is not 6mmx9mm and that it is not composed of a green translucent silicone mesh, to show that the fairy does not exist. It must be extremely painful for theologians to be told that their life's work's domain, the joyous fairy's garden of minutae and debate they frolick in, is in fact less relevent to the nature of reality than the domain of a McDonalds staff member learning to efficiently sell fries.
posted by Arcaz Ino at 3:08 AM on October 25, 2006 [4 favorites]


A sentence in Eagleton's article took me back to my childhood

Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply.

When I was a child, three things struck me as odd about religious people (I was raised a Catholic): 1. they did not welcome death; 2. their religion did not seem to have a material impact on the way they lived their lives; and 3. they did not all become priests or nuns.

That was before I realised that most Christians were practicing atheists.
posted by bobbyelliott at 3:20 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


It's rather funny. I never really understood the point behind most atheists, spending so much time caring about how they were certain there was no deity to speak of. It just seemed rather pointless, although rather benign. Even if they were right, what did it really matter? Dawkins puts some rationality behind atheism, giving it purposes both practical and moral. In doing so, he truly does make atheism a religion and himself the head evangelist.

Give me the agnostics, the deists, and the Unitarians. Believe what you will, I'll believe what I will, and as long as you don't break my leg or pick my pocket, we're cool. Any discussion of those happening, I'll rather leave aside for the moment. I simply find it disheartening to think that people so generally intelligent as Dawkins could do no better than to adopt the tactics of that which he loathes so.

Not to mention that the man simply cannot measure the peace of mind which religious faith has brought to so many people. Treat religion as a foe, and its followers will certainly return in kind.
posted by Saydur at 3:26 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


So... to paraphrase, I think, the fact that Dawkins "puts some rationality behind atheism" makes it into a "religion", and it is "disheartening" that in this manner he "adopts the tactics of that which he loathes".

It is "disheartening" that he puts "rationality behind atheism".

Yes, I can see how that would be disheartening for you.

Not to mention that the man simply cannot measure the peace of mind which religious faith has brought to so many people.

Many things which are untrue have brought people peace of mind. When my milk-teeth were falling out, and all hope seemed lost, the tooth fairy carried me.
posted by Arcaz Ino at 3:32 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


If Dawkins had defined religion as organised systems of belief, then his views would stand up much better. An organised system of belief is dedicated to preserving not only the aims of the organisation but, over time, its own stability as an organisation, in other words its own self-interest. Dawkins is assuming that religion means a certain set of beliefs held, individually, by large numbers of people. It is not. It is a system of beliefs, promoted, like a brand, by people who's livelihood is and, whose sense of public significance and self-worth is, deeply bound to its promulgation. It functions in a way not dissimilar to Volkswagen selling its brand of cars.
posted by donfactor at 3:45 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I should have added at the end that it functions also very much like Dawkins who earns his living as as the official public voice of scientistic orthodoxy.
posted by donfactor at 3:48 AM on October 25, 2006


Saydur says: I never really understood the point behind most atheists, spending so much time caring about how they were certain there was no deity to speak of.

We care because the believers care. And the believers are busy fucking up the planet that we, too, live on. If the choice of religion were, in truth, no more important than the choice of favorite color, with no impact on the world, then I wouldn't care. Believe what you want. I care not that your favorite color is mauve. But when your religion begins to interfere with my life, my choices, my well being, and the future of the entire planet, then I care. I care alot.
posted by jaded at 3:48 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Dawkins is assuming that religion means a certain set of beliefs held, individually, by large numbers of people. It is not. It is a system of beliefs, promoted, like a brand, by people who's livelihood is and, whose sense of public significance and self-worth is, deeply bound to its promulgation

Like a meme? You know that word, "meme"? Richard Dawkins invented that word. It's true. Look it up.
posted by Arcaz Ino at 3:50 AM on October 25, 2006


Dawkins mentioned the Flying Spagetti Monster on the Colbert Report. I can now die complete.
posted by jb at 3:55 AM on October 25, 2006


Perhaps Saydur is saying that truth is not the ultimate good. Perhaps your happiness is more important than the truth. Who doesn't believe polite fictions that make life warmer and fuzzier? We believe our elected representatives are looking out for our interests. We believe we'll get rich with a lottery ticket. We believe animals don't feel pain, or at least don't care if they do. We believe our employees want to work hard. We believe we're a beautiful unique snowflake. Mothers believe their children don't masturbate. Children believe their grandparents don't have sex. Women believe their boyfriends don't ogle other women. Men believe their girlfriends want them for their wit and grace and manly physique.

Staying sane is a continual process of smearing over the cracks in our psyches with carefully selected bullshit. The fact is that the vast majority of the population is unable to face raw reality without crutches, and those that can are the ones who end up looking truly insane. If we force people to believe the raw truth, we're going to have a lot more snipers in clock towers.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 3:56 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


More seriously, I do find Dawkins to be an atheism fundamentalist. As the article points out, he is as blinkered about religion as any religious fundamentalist, only in the opposite direction.

Religion stunting intellectual development? And that explains why a millenia of brilliant thinkers were devoutly religious. Dogmatic religion, now there is something we can talk about as stagnating thought -- but that would include dogmatic irreligion as well.

Given the choice, I would take Erasmus over Dawkins any day (to set my moral compass, and as an open minded thinker. Not to do biology, of course).

That said, I'm glad he is correcting everyone about the evolution=accident mistake. If evolution were accidental, it wouldn't be any fun to study.
posted by jb at 4:07 AM on October 25, 2006


Religion can inspire hatred, bigotry and wars.

Religion can also create community, inspire charity (both in the modern sense and in the ancient meaning of love and caring for your fellow human being), inspire people to better themselves, bring comfort and joy, meaning about what science does not (and never will answer), and bring art and music and creative outlets to those who would not otherwise have them. How many people sing each week, if they don't go to church? How many people dedicate their lives to helping those less fortunate who are not driven/supported by religion? (Some, but not that many - there is a reason the Sally Ann is religious.)

I seriously miss the church I attended. It was a place with friends, young and old, white and black, poor and rich - and those differences didn't matter. (Actually, when those differences started to matter, that's when my family hightailed it out of that church). We sang every sunday and put on musicals, we made art, we fed each other amazing potluck dinners. We have fellowship - and we had the miracle of communion which unites everyone. My life has been so much lonlier since I've become agnostic. I would never go back to that church, because I don't believe the basic tenets of the faith, let alone certain dogmas (if they would accept drinking, dancing and gay marriage, I might change my mind), but that doesn't stop me from realising that I have also lost something in sticking by my own principles.

So I understand why other people, if they have a community in which they feel comfortable, would want that.
posted by jb at 4:19 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


Yes, I can see how that would be disheartening for you.

Thank you for your kind interpretation of my words. My disappointment in Dawkins is that he uses the "rationality" of the believer. He must spread his point of view to save the world, and those who do not believe as he does are evil. Even if he is 99% sure that there is no deity of any sort, even if he can tack on nines after the decimal, there remains that last chance which is discounted in what amounts to a leap of faith in a lack of a deity. In this, he appears no different to me than a militant missionary. If that is the option of atheism, that certianly is disheartening.

As for the idea of things untrue bringing peace of mind, consider this. Even with the hypothesis that all religion is false, some people simply need that peace of mind that belief in a higher being brings. You may not, but others do. To take that from them would be as disturbing to their mind than an unlikely mathematical proof of the Christian God as viewed by George W. Bush would be disturbing to the minds of most people here, as well as Dawkins himself.

So, if you care to attack the foundations of the beliefs of others, go right ahead. It makes you simply a missionary with a different reason. If you can accept that, then I can only hope such a struggle does more good than harm, although I fear it would only provoke extremity from both sides.

On preview- Thanks hoverboards, for a different perspective on the matter. Perhaps I too am wrong to interfere in this idea, perhaps militant atheism is the faith that brings peace of mind to many intellectuals. To call it on hypocricy would be the same as calling out religion on the same. I do apologize if anyone is offended by my distaste for Dawkins and his movement. I just hate to see extremism used as a tool to battle extremism.
posted by Saydur at 4:19 AM on October 25, 2006


Back to Eagleton: not a very good piece. Prospect did a better job. I think the problem is that, back in the day, Eagleton started out trying to blend the Catholicism of his childhood with Marxism. Hence the citing of Duns Scotus and Eriugena - replace with Hegel and Walter Benjamin and the reverence for elaborate systems is the same. Also, he's a lazy, repetitive writer these days. Try reading a few of his pieces while drinking a shot every time he makes a comic analogy. Have a double every time he does an alliterative riff along the lines of 'from Julia Kristeva to Kate Moss'.
posted by Mocata at 4:20 AM on October 25, 2006


from the review:
But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate.
this is the whole (weak) point of Eagleton's criticism. Dawkins was mean to Eagleton's buddies, and Eagleton doesn't like to be reminded that he -- and many others -- spent a lot of time putting massive intellectual effort in what, essentially, is fiction. the catch is, they think/thought/may have thought it wasn't fiction.

Shakespeare scholars do spend their lives studying fiction -- but they know Hamlet didn't really exist. many theologians aren't really aware that, say, YHWH is about as real as the fictional Hamlet (actually, less)

not to mention, very few people around the world kill in the name of Polonius

Dawkins has written a (long) pamphlet: it's a polemic, not a memoir or a treatise on how cool it is to quote St. Augustine while having tea at Oxford. its tone is certainly jarring, but the book is meant to be an attack. nonfundamentalist, polite, nice religious people are offended by Dawkins's book? they should be -- he argues that they're part of the problem, not of the solution. if it helps the conservative sensibilities, Dawkins is really mean to Islam, too -- he dismisses it quite quickly as essentially incompatible with modernity and the West.

(and it's hard to argue against Dawkins's point that it'd be surprising to see atheists crash hijacked planes into buildings, or settling on other people's lands because a 3,000+ year old, mostly fictional book, says so)

I'm not a biologist, I have no idea whether Dawkins's theory -- religion spreads through generations because of the evolutionary advantage of spawning naturally gullible children -- has any value. we need a biologist for that. Eagleton isn't a biologist -- he's just olffended that Dawkins is mean to nonfundamentalists, too. I say tough shit.

the problem I have with The God Delusion -- well, not a problem, but there are a few surprising lines. he misses his dead friend Douglas Adams a lot, and close to the end of the book Dawkins writes "I miss you Douglas". knowing full well that his friend is six feet under, and cannot hear him. that's the problem with enlightened, secular "brights" -- we all miss our dead loved ones like bastards. religion -- most of them, at least -- give you a way out, however improbable it might appear when you think hard about it. it'd be really awesome if Adams could really hear Dawkins moving words. science is awesome, but it cannot solve that -- in the atheist's world, Nazi war criminals who escaped human justice got away with it. forever.

a world without justice is a monstrous thought -- no wonder most people can't accept that. no matter how irrational the alternative.


Many people have heard of Terry Eagleton, don't display your ignorance like that.

speaking of ignorance, have you read The God Delusion? Some of us have. please share the wisdom.
posted by matteo at 4:20 AM on October 25, 2006 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: blah blah blah ontological.

Also, "kid ichorous" is one of the more awesome usernames I've seen in a while.
posted by loquacious at 4:32 AM on October 25, 2006


Although I'm much closer to Dawkins on theistic religion, I have to credit Eagleton on one point, that Dawkins may have failed to address the strongest version of the doctrine he purports to refute. Sophisticated theologies such as Eagleton's ultimately don't stand up any better than those which Dawkins shoots down, but Dawkins would have had to add a chapter or so to show this clearly.

Eagleton goes way too far in calling his own variation of Christianity mainstream. His version actually implies a specific political program. In fact Christianity is such a protean religion that there are as many variations as there are Christians. And popular versions are really closer to Dawkins' representation (or caricature as Eagleton would have it).

There is plenty of sophistry too. Equating knowledge of theology to knowledge of biology, for example, begs some questions rather laughably, and that's just in the first lines.

Also, what delmoi and matteo said.
posted by jam_pony at 4:35 AM on October 25, 2006


Adam Roberts on Eagleton on Dawkins.

("I've never heard of Adam Roberts...")
posted by ninebelow at 4:39 AM on October 25, 2006


Eagleton also lambasts Dawkins for being a biologist talking about theology. In fact, it is rather central to Dawkins' point that religion is a biological phenomenon and that it is Eagleton and his co-religionists who are not qualified to analyze it.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:42 AM on October 25, 2006


Speaking as someone who is a fan of Dawkins, I have to say I can't stand it when he goes on about religion. When he's writing about biology, I love reading him, but he displays a painful ignorance when writing about religion. He is remarkably uninformed about religious history, (and, ironically, the history of science) and even more uninformed about the reasons why people have faith. Language cannot hold up a mirror to nature, so Dawkins is shooting himself in the foot by making appeals to rationality and reality, etc.
So, for example, I take it on faith both that gravity, as it has been described to me, is the actual reason why stuff goes down, and I take it on faith that stuff always goes down, or that it doesn't go up in the southern hemisphere. I've never done extensive reasearch into gravity, and haven't the time, and the offered explanations seem reasonable to me, mostly because they match my personal experience (when I drop stuff, it goes down). This is what Richard Rorty calls "retail certainty".
In much the same way, because of my experiences, I take it on faith that human beings are spiritual in nature, and that there is a spiritual dimension to the universe, and that universe is grounded in something that, because the word is handy, I might call God. I believe both that God created the universe and in modern physics and evolution -- all three together offer a description of the universe that agrees with my personal experience.
Now, in both the case of gravity and God, should either: my experience change, or: a better explanation come along, the nature of my belief in either might change. But what will not change is that, in order to function, I need the faith, the "retail certainty."


But, of course, Dawkins isn't interested in actually persuading his opponents of his case; he's already ruled them to be insane. In short, like Rush Limbaugh or James Dobson, he preaches to the choir, and has no interest in an actual dialogue. So, read him on bilogy, and evolution, where he's brilliant, and ignore him on religion.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:42 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


People really need to stop describing atheism as a religion, philosophy, or ethos. It really, really isn't one. It is the rejection of certain broad categories of beliefs. As a group, atheists don't have any more in common then a-toothfairyists. In fact, we'd probably be about as vocal as them too, except that toothfairyists aren't terribly common, and I've never seen one group of toothfairyists crash planes into a building, while another group blames the nonbelievers.

I have a question for the crowd that's calling Dawkins a "militant atheist". What exactly qualifies him as militant? Is it simply saying that religion is wrong and harmful? Because that standard would make just about every christian I've ever met a militant theist. Nearly every christian that I've met believes in hell for nonbelievers. It's an integral part of their belief system that I will be (and deserve to be) tortured for eternity for the crime of disagreeing with them. I've never heard an atheist suggest anything nearly that awful, even as a joke. In the end, maybe that's what makes Dawkins a militant: some bastard who deserves to burn in hell dares to disagree...
posted by Humanzee at 4:53 AM on October 25, 2006 [4 favorites]


Belief in gravity is not faith. It is rational. This doesn't require rigorous proof, nor does it mean only deductive and than empirical reasoning. It simply means belief rationally based on sound reasons. The reasons for most people include consistent experience; ability to predict the results of experiments reliably; plausible explanations from people whom one trusts on the subject for other good reasons; experience that the explanations turn out to be consistent with everything else one knows; coherence of all the foregoing; and more.

Faith on the other hand is by definition an attempt to convince oneself in the absence of evidence, or contrary to the evidence. Religion absolutely depends on faith in this sense, and is supported by nothing else.

Many theists' arguments rely on merely using the same term for these fundamentally different mental phenomena - "belief" for both or "faith" for both. As soon as you sort one from the other, you can see that belief in gravity is nothing like faith in a god, and you can start distinguishing reality from nonsense.
posted by jam_pony at 4:58 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


See... religion is evil. That's the problem.

If I say that females have no soul, and so are made to serve, that's evil.

If I say that people can't raise their own children because the church knows better, and order all children into church nurseries, then that's evil.

If I say that God doesn't want people to enjoy sex or music or art, then that's evil.

It's evil because these things are irrational.


Evil=Irrational


So, in Dawkins' lexicon, religion, even one that worships science, is evil.

P.S. Tolerance is for people who don't know the difference between right and wrong.
posted by ewkpates at 4:58 AM on October 25, 2006


ewkpates, you give a few examples of silly things some religions have done, but that doesn't really demonstrate that all religions are necessarily irrational.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:18 AM on October 25, 2006


"Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean... [God] is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves."

My experience is that Christians do believe in a personal god. Well, Evangelical Christians anyway. It's part of their slogans, like, "You need a personal relationship with God!" Perhaps Eagleton is missing which audience Dawkins is addressing?
posted by xmattxfx at 5:20 AM on October 25, 2006


Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology...

...and you'll also have a pretty good approximation of the qualifications of the overwhelming majority of voices in the media who feel no hesitation in giving us their thoughts on science.

This is, by and large, a fairly poor review, one that consistently misses the point by a pretty wide margin. Which is a shame, because Dawkins' book is really, genuinely poor - and I say that as a lifelong Dawkins fanboy. It's incoherent, its objectives are muddled, it's dismissive when it should be considered and pedantic when it should be concise.

The one thing Eagleton gets right is slating Dawkins for his sheer incuriosity about religion, which is simply embarrassing from someone who presents themselves as a champion of considered, rational investigation. In some places, his research doesn't seem to have gone any further than the first page of a Google search.
posted by flashboy at 5:24 AM on October 25, 2006


Here's the original draft:

If you have a problem with religion, it's just because you don't understand it. And by understand it I mean, not simply having directly experienced a religious upbringing like billions of people of all kinds of social and cultural background have, including Mr Dawkins, but reading *and* accepting all the infinite subtleties of theological arguments before you start talking about some of the nefarious effects that religion in its fundamentalist form has on society, effects I'll glibly ignore for the next twenty five paragraphs, with the excuse that religion and religious fundamentalism are not just different things but exist in totally different universes, so those who have a problem with fundamentalism should never ever have a problem with religion.

But let's not talk about religion, let's talk about Christianity, because I'm a Christian, and because it is The Best Religion out there. Not like those other backward religions with their dietary prescriptions and ramadans and no alcohol and no pork and no shellfish, how lame and utterly irrational. Sure we're not supposed to eat meat on Fridays either but we're more developed, we don't actually follow that rule.

And ok, according to many theologians, and depending on your Christian denomination, but let's say roughly these are rules that are supposed to apply, in theory, to 1 billion people, we're also not supposed to have sex outside of marriage or use contraception or terminate unwanted pregnancies or divorce or allow stem cell research or let gays marry, which perhaps insofar as rules go have a little more impact and therefore would require a little more rational examination than dietary prescriptions, but let's not talk about that! Let's talk about how Christianity is the Best!

Christianity is The Best because of Jesus. Now watch me rewrite Jesus as a sex-positive anti-traditional-family queer-rights-advocate feminist revolutionary underground movement leader, which is *exactly* the kind of God worshipped by the kind of people Dawkins has a problem with.

Well not really, but I just want to talk some more about how great and modern and cool and hip Jesus is!

And woe to those Roman scum and their Jewish lapdogs who killed him because they did not tolerate political dissent and they had capital punishment, how backwards of them to be so undemocratic like 2000 years ago. Thank God today that doesn't happen anymore because we have religion.

Only God knows how many other they killed with the same pretext, but let's say they killed my friend Jesus just because they were evil and they were afraid of his message of Love, which proves it was indeed a great message of Love. Score one more for the subtleties of theology against hard, tangible, provincial middle-class English pedant reality!

Now let me go on some more about Christianity and all its coolness, how the God Jesus is great, and Dawkins is lame.

Social problems with religion in today's world? Well apart from a few crazy fundamentalist Christians in the former colonies, that backwards country full of rednecks, especially Texas, the nutters are all Islamic and so it's NOT MY PROBLEM because I'm in the cool religion. So why is Dawkins lumping us all in? really? what's HIS problem? Not enough Jesus love as a kid? Did I mention how Jesus is this loving, cool, hip figure that no one should have a problem with, and this makes religion itself cool?

If you think otherwise, no matter how much evidence you have of people and groups attributing to God exactly the opposite sentiments of vengeance and hate and using them to justify their actions and political demands, it's entirely their fault and they're satanic, and it's your fault and you're satanic for spoiling My God with association with that other one you criticise which is not The Real God anyway, because I say so.

See how much better than fundamentalists I am! My God is better than theirs, and you just can't argue with that.
posted by pleeker at 5:28 AM on October 25, 2006 [5 favorites]


So, for example, I take it on faith both that gravity, as it has been described to me, is the actual reason why stuff goes down,

That's odd, because gravity has never been described by anyone. All we've ever done is go from "stuff falls down" to "stuff falls towards other stuff at a rate f(t)"

and I take it on faith that stuff always goes down, or that it doesn't go up in the southern hemisphere. I've never done extensive reasearch into gravity, and haven't the time, and the offered explanations seem reasonable to me, mostly because they match my personal experience (when I drop stuff, it goes down). This is what Richard Rorty calls "retail certainty".

Well, there is no way to prove that just because X has always happened X will always happen in the future. It's one of the largest holes in philosophy. However, if you wanted too you could go down to the southern hemisphere yourself and try it. In other words, you can actually measure the effect of gravity yourself. Not so with religion or god.

In other words, there is a huge difference between having "faith" that people aren't lying to you about measurements they've taken and things that they've physically seen or heard or whatever, and having "faith" in something that has never been measured or seen or heard by anyone.
posted by delmoi at 5:28 AM on October 25, 2006


Ok, so I tried to read the whole thing.
Eagleton manages to suggest that, despite being "knocked about" by clerics as an integral part of his education, he was not thaught to have blind faith. Presumably, nothing encourages rational enquiry like a good whack upside the head.
He then goes on to suggest that relying on faith is the "sensitive, civilized" thing to do - without supporting that with anything beyond his own say-so.

That's where I gave up, I'm sorry to say. The article is drivel. Eloquent drivel, but drivel none the less.

While Eagleton has a supreme command of the English language, he has a rather tenous grasp on constructing a reasoned, rational argument.
But that, I guess, is why he's not a scientist.
posted by spazzm at 5:29 AM on October 25, 2006


delmoi: Still, I don't really think the "rebuttals" makes much sense at all. The author seems to be arguing that god cannot be debated because it does not "exist"

I didn't get that. What the author is arguing that Dawkins' ignorance or refusal to deal with the wide scope of religion and theology make his arguments not very convincing to people with a casual understanding of theology. Personally, I've not soiled myself by checking out The God Delusion, but after reading Dawkins monthly works on this issue over the years, it's clear to me that:

1: He doesn't know what the heck he's arguing against. Most of the times he's just waving at a vague target, and when he does argue in specifics, it's almost always a straw man.

2: His attempt to explain the human psychology and sociology of belief is not even wrong. Reading Dawkins on psychology is rather like reading Darwins ramblings built on bar tricks.

delmoi: What does "transcending universe" even mean? If he's not inside or outside of the universe, where is he? Does got exist only in our minds? If so how does he disagree with Dawkins?

The transcendental argument for god goes something like this: the universe has a predictable structure and order. This predictable structure and order can be called "god." You don't have to agree with this, but arguments about invisible pink unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster are not that effective against transcendental dieties. Modern theology has become something of a game of three-card monty in that regard.

This is perhaps one of the areas on which Bertrand Russell (and before him, Huxley) was wiser than Dawkins is. Rather than trying to disprove all the the permutations, Russell just made a strong argument for doubt rather than faith as a reasonable default position. Russell also was able to do it in a way that was well-written, witty and funny, features that are painful in Dawkins' writing.

Arcaz Ino: Like a meme? You know that word, "meme"? Richard Dawkins invented that word. It's true. Look it up.

I have trouble deciding which is worse, Dawkins' dabbling in philosophy, or Dawkins' dabbling in psychology. In both cases he appears to wade into a field in bold ignorance of history and stronger theories to hand down "revealed wisdom."

matteo: I'm not a biologist, I have no idea whether Dawkins's theory -- religion spreads through generations because of the evolutionary advantage of spawning naturally gullible children -- has any value. we need a biologist for that. Eagleton isn't a biologist -- he's just olffended that Dawkins is mean to nonfundamentalists, too. I say tough shit.

Oh dear, why am in not surprised that Dawkins has jumped feet first into the worst parts of Evolutionary Psychology (in a way that is likely to be neither grounded in evolution, or psychology?) No, he's not just offended that Dawkins is mean to nonfundamentalists. He's rather justly calling Dawkins out on being a hack who has become an authority on religion.

You don't have to be religious to dislike Dawkins as the pied piper of contemporary secular thought, you just have to have a lick of common sense, and a casual read of the many people who are his betters on this subject.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2006


The New York Times recently published a generally negative review of The God Delusion as well.
posted by Prospero at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2006


and having "faith" in something that has never been measured or seen or heard by anyone.

What? Are you seriously suggesting that no one in history has claimed to see/experience the divine in any way? Because that's the kind of ignorance of history I was talking about w/r/t Dawkins.

The mental process required to move from what I observe to accepting arguments about the kind of thing I have observed in other places and in other ways is the same w/r/t to gravity or God. In both cases I have my personal experiences; in both cases I have accounts of other people putting forth arguments based either on a system of logic (like math or philosophy) or based on their own personal observations. I accept or reject these arguments, in both cases, because of the soundness of the arguments.
I could easily go to the southern hemisphere and see how gravity works, but I could just as easily go there and see if what happens when I meditate stays the same as well.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:57 AM on October 25, 2006


Eagleton is exactly right. Dawkins' is a straw man argument that addresses the crudest possible version of theism.
posted by unSane at 6:03 AM on October 25, 2006


hoverboards don't work on water: Eagleton also lambasts Dawkins for being a biologist talking about theology. In fact, it is rather central to Dawkins' point that religion is a biological phenomenon and that it is Eagleton and his co-religionists who are not qualified to analyze it.

Which is, IMO, Dawkins' worst sin. He attempts to reduce everything to biology. A frequent problem with people who are brilliant in one field is the tendency to believe their brilliance automatically crosses domains. To read something that is similarly silly, try to find B.F. Skinner's attempt to construct a utopian political philosophy around radical behaviorism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:03 AM on October 25, 2006


I'm about one third of the way through The God Delusion, and it looks fine so far. Quite convincing. I don't agree 100% with his approach, but I must say he is consistent, and that his arguments have held water at least so far.

I haven't read Eagleston's review (and won't until I'm done with the book), but the Eagleton quote in the post, "He seems to imagine God" etc., is somewhat ironic. Very early in the book, in the first chapter IIRC, Dawkins specifically emphasizes that he's not talking about or attacking the idea of bearded men on clouds, to prevent quotes like that from popping up in reviews.

That being said, the fact that Eagleton writes something like the previous quote makes him look bad - on preview.

Anyhow, I'll be expecting replies from Dawkins to his critics eventually.
posted by lifeless at 6:19 AM on October 25, 2006


Religion stunting intellectual development? And that explains why a millenia of brilliant thinkers were devoutly religious.
posted by jb


Or it explains why out of a millenia of brilliant thinkers, only the religious were allowed to flourish.
posted by Happy Monkey at 6:19 AM on October 25, 2006 [3 favorites]


Sigh. Sensible, literate person dismantles ignorant book; passionate defenders of ignorant author leap in to defend ignorance. "We don't have to know nothin' 'bout no religion 'cause we know it's STOOPID!" Right, kiddies, sleep tight, atheism will protect you from all the bad things.
posted by languagehat at 6:24 AM on October 25, 2006


You don't have to be religious to dislike Dawkins as the pied piper of contemporary secular thought, you just have to have a lick of common sense, and a casual read of the many people who are his betters on this subject.

Yes, and they are doing a wonderful job in preventing the spread of religion.
posted by bobbyelliott at 6:24 AM on October 25, 2006


Pleeker, damn ... too much time on your hands, perhaps?

Dawkins has only one really good thing going for him. He's married to her.
posted by grabbingsand at 6:25 AM on October 25, 2006


hoverboards don't work on water: Eagleton also lambasts Dawkins for being a biologist talking about theology. In fact, it is rather central to Dawkins' point that religion is a biological phenomenon and that it is Eagleton and his co-religionists who are not qualified to analyze it.

KirkJobSluder: Which is, IMO, Dawkins' worst sin. He attempts to reduce everything to biology.


Everything? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. I do find the "memetic" framework a much more enlightening explanation of what religion is than the theological one, though.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 6:31 AM on October 25, 2006


This piece of psychological research seems to count heavily against Eagleton:

Barrett, J. L., and F. C. Keil (1996). "Conceptualising a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts." Cognitive Psychology, 31: 219-247 (can't find a link, sorry)

"In three story processing tasks, subjects often used an anthropomorphic God concept that is inconsistent with stated theological beliefs, and drastically distorted the narratives without any awareness of doing so."


KJS: "He attempts to reduce everything to biology"

This sort of comment makes me doubt if you've read the Dawkins argument you're criticising. In The Selfish Gene he points out the the Darwinian algorithm isn't specific to biology but applies to information in the abstract, which could include cultural phenomena. He offers that as an idea for further investigation, and Dennett and others have taken it forward.

Hoverboards dwow: "Dawkins' point that religion is a biological phenomenon"

Citation for this please? Is this what he claims in The God Delusion (which I haven't read)? It's unlike the argument he makes in The Selfish Gene (which I have). That something can be understood in terms of successful replication doesn't make it biological.

Eustacescribb: "Are you seriously suggesting that no one in history has claimed to see/experience the divine in any way?"

No, that's not what the text you are responding to says. You're attacking a straw man.
posted by infobomb at 6:31 AM on October 25, 2006


As a pretty instinctive atheist (as for most people, it's really, really hard for me to even start imaging how I would go about believing in God) I was really impressed with Terry Eagleton's review. His theology does seem to squirm about like a worm when you try to grab hold of it, because (as is the defining trait of religion) it must inevitably fall back on circular justifications. But reading the article has certainly helped me to understand how intelligent people can believe in God.
For one thing he writes an awful lot better than Richard Dawkins, and comes across as a more interesting person to have dinner with.
posted by silence at 6:32 AM on October 25, 2006


Right, kiddies, sleep tight, atheism will protect you from all the bad things

nah, religion will protect us. it has for millenia, after all, hasn't it
posted by matteo at 6:43 AM on October 25, 2006


Treepour: I really wish the Dawkins crowd would read Kant & Wittgenstein.

Ugh, that's horribly presumptive. Dawkins did a very thorough philosophy course and did read those authors, according to an article he wrote about his education in Oxford Today magazine (which I don't think is online).

Is your negativity about metaphysics really a disagreement with Dawkins? Either God is active in the world (answering prayers and so on) or not. If the former, then there is a rational proposition there to investigate (and find wanting). If not, then God's existence is a purely metaphysical and Dawkins agrees with your negativity about the purely metaphysical.
posted by infobomb at 6:48 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


(and by the way, from the megachurches of the USA to the megadioceses of Central and South America -- not to mention those America-loving mosques all around the world religion is indeed getting more radicalized. the quiet progressive Catholics or, say, Episcopalians around here might be well advised to consider the fact that their brand of religion is increasingly irrelevant and will probably have vanished in less than a century. if radical Islam scares you, well, Christianity circa 2100 CE will probably look exactly like that)

but keep blaming the messenger for the bad news -- maybe religion will indeed help the cause of reason, equal rights, and peace.

as it always has.
posted by matteo at 6:49 AM on October 25, 2006


Any review that starts by attacking the reviewee with the expression "card-carrying" should be taken with a grain several pounds of salt.
posted by clevershark at 6:53 AM on October 25, 2006


So we can't have a post about Dawkins anymore, but we can have a post about someone else talking shit about Dawkins?
posted by prostyle at 6:54 AM on October 25, 2006


MetaFilter never fails to disappoint in this area.
posted by hermitosis at 6:55 AM on October 25, 2006


hoverboards: Everything? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. I do find the "memetic" framework a much more enlightening explanation of what religion is than the theological one, though.

And those people who study how ideas work in human cultural contexts don't find memetics to be a very enlightening explanation for much of anything.

infobomb: This sort of comment makes me doubt if you've read the Dawkins argument you're criticising. In The Selfish Gene he points out the the Darwinian algorithm isn't specific to biology but applies to information in the abstract, which could include cultural phenomena. He offers that as an idea for further investigation, and Dennett and others have taken it forward.

Well, there is the problem. The fact that genes can be explained as elements in information theory does not mean that all of information theory can be explained in terms of Darwinian algorithms. Quantum Mechanics can be explained in terms of information theory, but I don't see advocacy of Darwinian algorithms as the replacement for Quantum Chromodynamics.

Darwinian evolution works as a powerful theory with a very strong mathematical grounding because of specific properties of genes. First, the primary mode of transmission is parent-offspring. Secord, that information is context-indepentent. Third, the information is reasonably resistant to change. (Melanin suddenly does not become green, or blue, or orange.)

All three of these assumptions are questionable in most areas of human communication and learning. It is doubtful that "ideas" really exist as distinct units of information in cognitive structures. There is quite a bit of evidence that much of what we "know" is repeatedly re-invented on an ad-hoc basis. Even identifying a "meme" as a distinct unit of information becomes difficult given what we know of cognitive psychology.

It might be worth further investigation if it were not for the existence of 150 years worth of more comprehensive, more powerful, and better supported theory which does not depend on strained analogies to radically different phenomena.

matteo: but keep blaming the messenger for the bad news -- maybe religion will indeed help the cause of reason, equal rights, and peace.

By all means, secularism needs its champions. Dawkins however is ill-equiped to be that champion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:56 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


The review's well-written, but it's a veneer on palpable nonsense. You can see when he gets all hand-wavy, because he descends into things like:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.

For whose Judeo-Christianity? Surely not the one that had God walking about a garden, or appearing as a burning bush?

"The condition of possibility of any entity"? Yes, I'm sure people are praying to Schroedinger's cat. He picks up steam after this, but his whole "dismantling" as languagehat puts it depends on his particular God being not really the sort of God Dawkins could criticise, like.

KJS described it as "This predictable structure and order can be called 'god.'", which is true, but is essentially without meaning for a god who plays any active part in the lives of human beings. Unless the order of atoms in my table can tell me to stop killing.

and it's hard to argue against Dawkins's point that it'd be surprising to see atheists crash hijacked planes into buildings, or settling on other people's lands because a 3,000+ year old, mostly fictional book, says so

It's not that hard: humans do terrible things at the drop of a hat. Look what atheists did because their reading of The Communist Manifesto said so.
posted by bonaldi at 6:58 AM on October 25, 2006


bonaldi writes "Look what atheists did because their reading of The Communist Manifesto said so."

I don't think that book "The Communist Manifesto" says what you think it says.
posted by clevershark at 7:04 AM on October 25, 2006


bonaldi: KJS described it as "This predictable structure and order can be called 'god.'", which is true, but is essentially without meaning for a god who plays any active part in the lives of human beings. Unless the order of atoms in my table can tell me to stop killing.

Well, yeah. I think Eagleton dances around the issue of the relevance of god. But I don't think that's Eagleton's point.

Rather, Eagleton's point is that Dawkins' failure (or inability) to address the complexities of theological thought makes him a less than effective critic of religion, unworthy of the fame and attention bestowed on him.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:07 AM on October 25, 2006


I was under the impression that Eagleton is a Marxist atheist professor of literature. Was I wrong?
posted by brownpau at 7:12 AM on October 25, 2006


clevershark: I don't think the quoted comment says what you assume it says. "Their reading" is there for a reason.

KJS: Yes, you could see that point in there. But as delmoi says: "What value is there in analyzing the detailed, intricate philosophical system built entirely on false premises?"
posted by bonaldi at 7:14 AM on October 25, 2006


"This is perhaps one of the areas on which Bertrand Russell (and before him, Huxley) was wiser than Dawkins is. Rather than trying to disprove all the the permutations, Russell just made a strong argument for doubt rather than faith as a reasonable default position. Russell also was able to do it in a way that was well-written, witty and funny, features that are painful in Dawkins' writing."

CHRIST YES!
While I'm not a Bertrand Russell fanboy, the virulent polemics against religion that so engorge the atheist public here on MeFi come across as the bleatings of a man dumped by God after a particularly ugly relationship, not the rational examination and rejection of God and faith of a thinker. Dawkins is to theology what that "Women are teh dumbxor" thread was to relationship advice.

And that the criticism of this review tends toward the snarky and glib reinforces my view that people like Matteo et al. just don't have any opinions on the matter worth listening to.

Oh, and something that seems to be missed is that the truly fundamentalist and active evangelicals are simply the loudest minority. As I assume that the atheist grackles here are as well (since I know many atheists, and most of them aren't assholes when it comes to faith. Perhaps it's something about the internet that emboldens them).
posted by klangklangston at 7:15 AM on October 25, 2006


I honestly don't think Dawkins is going to win any converts (sorry for the turn of phrase) with this book. If he thinks he will, he's a long way from understanding why some people are religious. They don't just give up their faith because someone tried to be rational about it in a book.

I also don't see why he needs to attack religion in order to "save the world". Once again, he doesn't seem to have the fundamentals of his argument down pat. Religion isn't the start of the problem, it's a step along the way. Religion exists because of liars, tricksters, and power-hungry charlatans. Religion exists because bored, rebellious need a cause to fight and die for. Religion exists because it returns good profits. Religion exists because it offers a useful explanation as to why we need to go kill the people over the ocean. Religion exists because it gives certain people control, wealth, power, respect. Religion exists because it can be a cold, scary world out there, and it makes a comfy security blanket.

Start from the beginning, and work your way up to religion as an unfortunate emergent property of human nature.

(*fap*)
posted by Jimbob at 7:18 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


"and by the way, from the megachurches of the USA to the megadioceses of Central and South America -- not to mention those America-loving mosques all around the world religion is indeed getting more radicalized. the quiet progressive Catholics or, say, Episcopalians around here might be well advised to consider the fact that their brand of religion is increasingly irrelevant and will probably have vanished in less than a century. if radical Islam scares you, well, Christianity circa 2100 CE will probably look exactly like that"

Oh, bullshit, Matteo. The reality is more complex than your Znet-fueled screeds.
posted by klangklangston at 7:19 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


"but keep blaming the messenger for the bad news -- maybe religion will indeed help the cause of reason, equal rights, and peace.

as it always has."

What, the implication is that it never has?
posted by klangklangston at 7:22 AM on October 25, 2006


Only fundamentalists (or scientists and/or philosophers setting up a strawman) would assert that God is a possible object of rational, empirical investigation.

Is that the theological version of "I'm rubber and you're glue?"

Seriously, that line is the perfect illustration of "begging the question" in the traditional sense.

If you accept that there are things that cannot be rationally investigated, then you have already conceded the argument to the superstitionalists.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:26 AM on October 25, 2006


KirkJobSluder: : He doesn't know what the heck he's arguing against. Most of the times he's just waving at a vague target, and when he does argue in specifics, it's almost always a straw man.

The first chapter of "The God Delusion" specifically addresses what type of 'god' Dawkins is discussing: a personal god. As seen by your comment, you are doing exactly what you deride Dawkins of.

languagehat: Sigh. Sensible, literate person dismantles ignorant book; passionate defenders of ignorant author leap in to defend ignorance. "We don't have to know nothin' 'bout no religion 'cause we know it's STOOPID!" Right, kiddies, sleep tight, atheism will protect you from all the bad things.

It's sad that you equate criticism of religion with being ignorant. Religion deserves no special protection from being criticized.
posted by jsonic at 7:29 AM on October 25, 2006


Oh look, evangelical atheists engaged in a spirited, intelligent, and edifying debate with evangelical Christians.

This is clearly the Best Of The Web. Just like freerepublic.com. Or an Ann Coulter column.
posted by dw at 7:29 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


The reality is more complex than your Znet-fueled screeds.

tell that to President Jim Wallis, who as we all know soundly defeated twice George W Bush -- progressive Christianity rules, I tell you.

and I guess all those madrassas are full of closet Voltaire readers -- good luck with that


Znet-fueled

don't project your bad taste on other people, really
posted by matteo at 7:35 AM on October 25, 2006


(and Cardinal Martini totally got elected Pope defeating Cardinal Ratzinger, of course -- those liberals totally rule religion)
posted by matteo at 7:37 AM on October 25, 2006


Take it this way then:

Does this book stand any chance of convincing religious people that they aren't rational?

No. So Dawkins is failing to inform anyone who doesn't already agree with him.

Is there any argument, any rational argument, that could convince a religious person that they, and their religion, aren't rational?

No. So maybe the point of the book is to inform those that aren't irrational about how religion is, and will continue to be, a problem for rational problem solvers. Did he do this?

Sounds like he did.
posted by ewkpates at 7:41 AM on October 25, 2006


"Is there any argument, any rational argument, that could convince a religious person that they, and their religion, aren't rational?"

Not only do many religious people recognize that faith isn't rational, the book you're looking for is Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard.
posted by klangklangston at 7:52 AM on October 25, 2006


Rather, Eagleton's point is that Dawkins' failure (or inability) to address the complexities of theological thought makes him a less than effective critic of religion, unworthy of the fame and attention bestowed on him.

This is the interesting thing about this whole story. Dawkins has taken up atheism as a cause, and he's received the fame and attention because he's a leading scientific mind embracing the casue of atheism. In other words, he's turning atheism into a positive thing (not positive meaning good, but positive meaning it a characteristic in an of itself, rather than merely being the lack of some other charateristic).

The problem that Dawkins and activist atheists have is that to the neutral observer, causes and religions are the same. They have their leading lights who espouse some idea, and they have followers who adopt it without much criticism or individual modification.

The arguments here about Dawkings not really understanding theology seem to me to be more about Dawkins complete lack of an alternative idea for those things that religion is really about - that which is not physical. All of you saying thinks like "Faith on the other hand is by definition an attempt to convince oneself in the absence of evidence, or contrary to the evidence" or echoes thereof are completely missing the point.

Faith is not about knowing or convincing. If I know something, I know it, the knowledge becomes something I no longer have to pursue. If I'm convinced of something, I have accepted something, and no longer need to debate or struggle with it. Once convinced, the debate ends, and again, you have achieved this steady state perspective on something.

What these philosophers and thoeologians are talking about is as much a criticism of christianity as practiced as it is an attempt to argue for God. I will get to Dawkins focus on Christian monotheism to the exclusion of other religions in a minute.

These guys were all saying that you are not allowed to achieve the steady-state stable mindset about God. Humans are incapable of knowing or understanding God, so stop trying to know God the way you know electricity or mechanics. If you think you know god, or you are convinced of him, you are wrong. It doesn't matter if every single christian living thinks this way, they are all wrong (according to theologians discussed here). You have to purse the question of God your whole life, and pursue the meaning of your life and the meaning of your non-life after you die for the entire course of your life. Paul Tillich is good here. Not the meaning of your life in the sense of what you have accomplished, but the meaning in the sense that at the moment of the heat death of the universe, what will your life mean in the face of that? What is existence in the face of non-existence?

Religion as truly practiced</em (you practice it because you can always get closer but never achieve full understanding, see also law, medicine) is pursuing a mystery that you know is unknowable to you but you pursue it anyway. Science has no analog to this. It's just a different intellectual discipline.

On the subject of Dawkins and Christianity's easy targets: Yes, we know that people who on one hand think the world was created 6000 years ago by a guy with a beard are stupid, that people who believe in aliens are stupid, and that people who need to accept God to stop drinking a fifth of gin every night are weak. We get it. I don't disagree. I disagree that they are somehow dangerous to society as Dawkins suggests, because stupid and weak people have been around forever and socisty has improved considerably, and furthermore stupid and weak people are easily led, so you just need a leader.

What is fascianting about Dawkins is his refusal to acknowledge the similarities between real christianity, buddhism, hinduisim and prechristian religions. For some reason, every culture on earth seems to have felt the need to ask big questions and to pursue the knowledge of god, independently of the shape their particular culture took. Secular, non secular, oppressive, open, etc. those things change the details, but not the fact that there's a pursuit of the mystery everywhere.

Dawkins instead is really arguing that faith is bad for scientists and making future scientists. I agree. But faith is great for artists and musicians, and it is great and very useful for putting science into context.

Let me put it another way: When (if) the universe ends, science will become an irrelevant fiction. There will be no way to prove how it once was that would make science relevant as a way of understanding the history of the universe, and there will be no present or future for science to enlighted. At the end of time and space, there is nothing left. The question is: Is something there? Something outside?

You can say no, absolutely nothing is there, there is no there there, no God, etc, but you can not prove it. It is scientifically and philosophically impossible to prove this.

You can say yes, there is something, an I-don't-know-what permeating the void. You cannot prove this either.

All you have left then, is the meaning. What does the first possibility mean? What does the second mean? Pursue the meaning.

posted by Pastabagel at 7:55 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


Is there any argument, any rational argument, that could convince a religious person that they, and their religion, aren't rational?

Is there any rational argument that could convince Dawkins that his views about religion aren't rational?

See, Dawkins and the fundie atheists that like his anti-religion screeds define "rational" to mean "not religious". Then they can accuse their interlocuters of being irrational and thus disqualify them from discussion.

But being rational just means being able to think critically and process information and make persuasive arguments founded on sound logic. Logic requires a priori premises to properly function, and two completely rational people can disagree because they hold different a priori foundations for their paradigms.

And, as someone noted above, Bertrand Russell's arguments are better-written, wittier, and more persuasive than Dawkins. Reading Dawkins made me understand evolution and like biology, but it never affected my faith. Reading Russell, on the other hand, was challenging and forced me to seriously rethink a lot of positions I had uncritically held. Seriously: skip Dawkins and read "Why I Am Not A Christian."
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:55 AM on October 25, 2006


It's sad that you equate criticism of religion with being ignorant.

No, I equate ignorant criticism of religion with being ignorant. Dawkins knows nothing about religion except that it involves believing in things he finds ridiculous, and he doesn't care to know more. Which is fine, nobody is required to know about everything, but he should STFU about it instead of presenting himself as an expert.
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on October 25, 2006


Arg. Sorry about the italics again. Only practice should be italicized. Ugh and arg.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:56 AM on October 25, 2006


Seriously: skip Dawkins and read "Why I Am Not A Christian."
posted by eustacescrubb at 10:55 AM EST on October 25


Does Russell exmplain why you shouldn't be anything else either, or is the argument unique to Christianity (genuinely curious here, I haven't read it).
posted by Pastabagel at 7:58 AM on October 25, 2006


jonsic: The first chapter of "The God Delusion" specifically addresses what type of 'god' Dawkins is discussing: a personal god. As seen by your comment, you are doing exactly what you deride Dawkins of.

And my post specifically says that I'm talking about the copious volume of materials that Dawkins has published on the subject in humanist and freethought journals. If he does finally address the type of god he is discussing, it might be worth checking out because it might be one of the few times he has actually done so.

It's sad that you equate criticism of religion with being ignorant. Religion deserves no special protection from being criticized.

Critiques of religion deserve no special protection either. I don't see anyone arguing that religion diserves special protection, only that Dawkins' is less than an effective critic of religion.

ewkpates: No. So maybe the point of the book is to inform those that aren't irrational about how religion is, and will continue to be, a problem for rational problem solvers. Did he do this?No. So maybe the point of the book is to inform those that aren't irrational about how religion is, and will continue to be, a problem for rational problem solvers. Did he do this?

Well... I see a real risk in the elevation of Dawkins on this subject because I don't really think that he understands what he critiques, either in terms of philosophy, sociology, or psychology.

Just in terms of philosophy, there is a broad scope of opinion as to what constitutes rationality, and what doesn't.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:02 AM on October 25, 2006


Pleeker, damn ... too much time on your hands, perhaps?

Damn, grabbingsand, that hurt!

Look, if I really had much time on my hands, I could get all serious and boring and explain all the things about that article that really really bother me, and they bother me not because I am a Dawkins worshipper or a militant atheist which I'm not but because what I read in there carries an echo of all the 'if you feel this religion is a tad too oppressive, it's your fault for not grasping its message of Love' that I had to hear as a girl, all along with 'you can't do this and that and that's it'.

And I wasn't even raised by fundamentalist nutters, go figure. Just ordinary decent people who simply had inherited a religious tradition and wanted to pass it on.

I don't resent that, I don't even resent all religion in principle, and I don't think being religious equals being stupid, and I don't really care what one believes personally, but we do have a problem at social and political level. In the whole world, it may take different local forms but there's some common trends and while I resist any apocalyptic view, it doesn't mean I'm not worried. Because we just don't know how to deal with it.

Why doesn't the review really address any of those issues? All Eagleton is doing here is 'hey don't get mad at me, I'm not one of the nutters you're talking about', which is great, fine, I believe him, good for him, but so what? Why does he think his own ideas of his own religion, or the sophisticated arguments of theologians he approves of, are more relevant than those very real problems our societies have to deal with?

Look, I don't think it's fair to lump in fundamentalists and religious 'moderates' in one big 'dangerous religious people/religion root of all evil' group, but if the best even progressives can do is get mad and go 'but I'm one of the good ones!', then well they just are doing the fundies a favour and I don't think it's very fair on everybody else either. (A favour that's already been abundantly exploited, by the way.)
posted by pleeker at 8:08 AM on October 25, 2006


Many people have heard of Terry Eagleton, don't display your ignorance like that.

speaking of ignorance, have you read The God Delusion? Some of us have. please share the wisdom.


I was merely pointing out that just because someone hasn't heard of Terry Eagleton, doesn't mean that Eagleton is ipso facto unimportant or unfit to criticize Dawkins. I was responding to a post. Are you implying that the original poster was correct, that the more famous or wellknown a commentator is, the more accurate or correct their pronunciations are? Because more people know about god than Dawkins.

PS I have read The God Delusion, yet I still remain ignorant in many things.
posted by Falconetti at 8:14 AM on October 25, 2006


languagehat: Dawkins knows nothing about religion except that it involves believing in things he finds ridiculous, and he doesn't care to know more.

Can you actually support this claim?

KirkJobSluder: I don't see anyone arguing that religion diserves special protection, only that Dawkins' is less than an effective critic of religion.

This seems to be the common approach to criticism of Dawkins: claim that he doesn't know what he's talking about, yet not provide any support for said claim.
posted by jsonic at 8:19 AM on October 25, 2006


Pastabagel: This is the interesting thing about this whole story. Dawkins has taken up atheism as a cause, and he's received the fame and attention because he's a leading scientific mind embracing the casue of atheism. In other words, he's turning atheism into a positive thing (not positive meaning good, but positive meaning it a characteristic in an of itself, rather than merely being the lack of some other charateristic).

Well, that's one of the things I find so bloody frustrating about reading Dawkins on this issue, he tends to be a one-trick pony. You read a journal like The Humanist or Free Inquiry and you will see dozens of articles going beyond just, "religion is bad" and describing educational expeirments, personal reactions to death, the role of atheists in the military, debates about the death penality and foreign policy. You might see an analysis of various forms of agnosticism, or claims about transhumanism. Not so with Dawkins.

In terms of reading works by atheists, I'd rather read Vonnegut, Sagan, Schermer, or Wilson who are more likely to talk about atheists in the world as opposed to atheists vs. theists. For that matter, I'd rather read Hitchins even though I find him infuriating. If I want polemic smackdown of irrationalism, I'll pick up The Skeptic and read Randi.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:20 AM on October 25, 2006


This makes me wonder about how deeply Dawkins buys in to his own "meme" concept. In Selfish Gene it seemed to me that he was just kind of tossing it out there, but I wonder if he's become so ideologically narcissistic that he believes all human behavior is the result of memes.

Memes are a great concept and I do think that certain types of ideas may be self-propagating through the vector of human communication. But it's essentially "Monkey see, monkey do" - human behaviors that are spread wholly through imitation and change only through copying errors, which aren't going to be a very large category in the whole spectrum of human behaviors.

If he thinks that things like appreciation of Sharespeare or love or Communism or religion are just memes, just really complex imitated behavior, then his clumsy and introverted attempts to proselytize atheism make sense. If a religionist is just a poor trapped meme-host, holding the pattern of Islam or Christianity or Buddhism like an Etch-a-Sketch, all it will take is a swift blow from Dawkin's Hammer of Truth to shake them out of it. No need for Dawkin to achieve any understanding of why they believe, because there isn't any deliberation or identity or humanity behind it, they've just been infected by a wrong idea. A few well-placed scientific facts, a bit of name-dropping of some eminent Nobel laureates, maybe some tough love in the form of letting them know just how contemptible they look in Dawkin's eyes, and they'll be cured.
posted by XMLicious at 8:27 AM on October 25, 2006


This is the maiden voyage of the comment I shall henceforth float on all religion threads. The vessel is unmanned and unmonitored.

There is no god.
posted by BoatMeme at 8:30 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


*smashes champagne bottle across BoatMeme's prow*

Bon Voyage!
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:33 AM on October 25, 2006


jsonic: Well, just as some critiques. I've not found that Dawkins has changed that much since this 1997 speech for example.

So to start with, I have yet to see any sign that Dawkins has explored the psychology of religion. In essay after essay he still tries to use the "mind virus" model. I don't think that is entirely metaphor or figurative for him. Memetics has had 30 years (20 years as of the date of that speech) to develop into a working research model. In contrast, both communities of practice and social networks theory have exploded over the same time period as useful models for dealing with the kinds of human behavior Dawkins claims to describe.

"Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."

Well, there is strike one right there. Both Buddhists and Christians argue that there is evidence for their perspective belief systems. If you start with a set of fairly reasonable axioms, the belief system is a logical conclusion. (Of course, as Huxley pointed out, changing those axioms makes the belief system a logical contradiction.)

"Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science; it's just bad science."

Which is a sweeping generalization, and also rather missing the point. For many religions origin myths are not especially relevant. (Hence the Big Bang theory came from the hands of a Catholic Priest.)

"Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion with their loved ones in the hereafter."

Which is not universally, (and probably not even predominantly true) of religion, or the belief in god. His overuse of these sweeping generalizations tends to undermine his criticism.

One of the issues is that he continually imposes his own definition of "religion" (fuzzy as it is) without looking at how religions define themselves. Generally religions define themselves as three components:
1: an system of belief
2: a way of life or practice
3: a community

This isn't very surprising because similar models have been useful for quite a bit of social psychology. (For variations, try Vygotsky and Leont'ev, a bit of Dewey, I think less Piaget but but definitely Lave and Wenger.)

Repeatedly he's pounded at the same question of "why are people religious?" with the wrong tools, and coming up with the sillyness of "gullible children." (Ignoring for a moment that religious claims are often not obviously wrong.) To a social psychologist, the advantages of conformity to a consensus worldview are fucking obvious, whether that worldview is "berries are in season early this year" or "Jesus loves us."

And this is where I think that Schermer has a huge edge on Dawkins, because Schermer understands the reality and power of subjective "mystical" events such as out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, and being hagged. He also understands folie a deux and the implications of research into the mutability of memory (see Loftus for example.)

Another huge factor is that I think Dawkins makes a mistake in trying to problematize religious belief as an irrational abberation of an otherwise rational animal. A better grounding in the behavioral sciences would reveal that humans are not rational animals, they are rationalizing animals, and a belief in "god" is no more irrational than your first memory. (The timing and content of your first memory is almost always delusional.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2006 [5 favorites]


Interesting review, although kind of pointless, considering.

Dawkins is like a person who argues the irrationality of the boogie monster and expects children to stop being afraid of the dark. Science is more like organized religion than rationalists are willing to rationally accept, and yet science will never replace religion. Some parts of human nature are simply irrational. Science and religion both attempt to explain nature, but arguments against the irrationality of human nature end up being irrelevant because arguing against nature does not explain nature. These arguments are not scientific. This is why I find Dawkins to be fundamentally hypocritical, despite the soundness of some of his reasoning.
posted by zennie at 9:40 AM on October 25, 2006


"Does Russell exmplain why you shouldn't be anything else either, or is the argument unique to Christianity (genuinely curious here, I haven't read it)."

It's actually really specific in many ways, boiling down to a refutation of a certain kind of Christian belief. It's got straw men aplenty too, but manages to avoid the Hurf Durf Communion Eaters attitude of Dawkins.
Russell also argues that religion is harmful to mankind.

(And we're leaving aside the fact that if we're looking for strictly positivist proof, science doesn't offer that either. Science offers the last not-disproven hypothetical model, and at its core operates on a series of axiomatic assumptions that have to go unquestioned for most work to proceed. The central assumption of consistent laws of physics is at its heart unprovable. But please do note that I'm not making the Creationist argument that because science can't actually prove anything that it's likely that dinosaurs walked with man or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. While possible, I tend to take on faith [in that I can't personally verify all of the data required to make the case convincingly] that it is exceedingly improbable that the Creationist view of history is correct).
posted by klangklangston at 9:58 AM on October 25, 2006


Let's make a deal: scientists and atheists will not talk about religion so long as theists will not talk about science or try to legislate it away. As I've said before, I would have no problem with theism if theists could keep their ignorant mouths shut about physics and biology. (And stop flying planes into buildings and blowing things up, of course.)

I'd also like to point out that house atheist languagehat has not read Dawkins's book but will gladly pretend to do so in order to cement his position as the token atheist lapdog for the religious.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:12 AM on October 25, 2006


Let's make a deal: scientists and atheists will not talk about religion so long as theists will not talk about science or try to legislate it away. As I've said before, I would have no problem with theism if theists could keep their ignorant mouths shut about physics and biology. (And stop flying planes into buildings and blowing things up, of course.)

I'd also like to point out that house atheist languagehat has not read Dawkins's book but will gladly pretend to do so in order to cement his position as the token atheist lapdog for the religious.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:13 AM on October 25, 2006


No matter how many times you say it, that's still dumb. Of course, if you'd rather try to come up with a functional set of physical laws without Newton, you're welcome to try.
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 AM on October 25, 2006


Dawkins knows nothing about religion except that it involves believing in things he finds ridiculous, and he doesn't care to know more.

I know that actual evidence is overrated around here because we don't want to upset people, but where's the evidence for your statement? reading the book's quotes from the Tanakh and the NT it seems to me that Dawkins has at least done some basic reading on the matter, and his comments on the historical Jesus, while generic, reveal a certain amount of research. he actually repeats several times, over different chapters, how his very low opinion of theology is one thing, but how he has the highest respect for textual criticism and history of religion and other religion-related fields. he just considers theology as dangerous fiction with, often, a political agenda.

it's very different from the picture you paint.


Which is fine, nobody is required to know about everything, but he should STFU about it instead of presenting himself as an expert.

no, this is false: he presents himself as an expert on science (and at least he has some peer-reviewed books and that Oxford job to back that up) not on religion. I hope you're not arguing that to discuss God one needs a degree from the Harvard Divinity School (I'm sure all those megachurches/mosque goers without a HDS degree would be seriously disappointed, then)
posted by matteo at 10:24 AM on October 25, 2006


What? Are you seriously suggesting that no one in history has claimed to see/experience the divine in any way? Because that's the kind of ignorance of history I was talking about w/r/t Dawkins.

I never said they didn't claim to see god, I said they hadn't.

I could easily go to the southern hemisphere and see how gravity works, but I could just as easily go there and see if what happens when I meditate stays the same as well.

What happens when you meditate is determined by your brain, not the universes or supernatural world. Meditation has been studied by science Meditation isn't proof of anything supernatural.

Sigh. Sensible, literate person dismantles ignorant book; passionate defenders of ignorant author leap in to defend ignorance.

Pff, the author maybe sensible and literate, but he didn't display any sensibility or reading comprehension in his review. His arguments are logically incoherent. And anyway "Appeal to authority!"

Right, kiddies, sleep tight, atheism will protect you from all the bad things.

What!? That is pretty much the exact opposite of what atheists believe. Talk about being "sensible and literate"
posted by delmoi at 10:29 AM on October 25, 2006


After the French Revolution, one of the first things Napoleon did was to reinstate the Church. He said, "The promise of rewards in the afterlife is the only thing that keeps the poor from slaughtering the rich in this life."

Regardless of what anyone says about religion being a "comfort" or a "guide", history shows that any religion's main purpose has been to control and distract the masses. Arguments about christians and other believers as individuals overlook this deeper and truer reason that all religions have managed to continue thru the ages.
posted by landis at 10:51 AM on October 25, 2006


klangklangston: It's actually really specific in many ways, boiling down to a refutation of a certain kind of Christian belief. It's got straw men aplenty too, but manages to avoid the Hurf Durf Communion Eaters attitude of Dawkins.
Russell also argues that religion is harmful to mankind.


I think Russell's more powerful argument is a general theory that in the absence of evidence, doubt is the most reasonable choice. Which when you get around to it, is the position of most atheists these days. (Frequently mis-understood by people who say, "prove god doesn't exist.")
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:58 AM on October 25, 2006


So I finally got around to last week's New Yorker (trying as usual to get at least most of it read before this week's shows up in the mailbox) and found this in Adam Gopnik's typically excellent article on Darwin:
He sensed that his account would end any intellectually credible idea of divine creation, and he wanted to break belief without harming the believer, particularly his wife, Emma, whom he loved devotedly and with whom he had shared, before he sat down to write, a private tragedy that seemed tolerable to her only through faith. The problem he faced was also a rhetorical one: how to say something that had never been said before in a way that made it sound like something everybody had always known—how to make an idea potentially scary and subversive sound as sane and straightforward as he believed it to be.
Dawkins, presumably, looks on Darwin as a coward who wasn't man enough to shove the truth down people's throats in manly, scientific fashion. And I expect if Darwin had posted an AskMe question about his wife, the Mini-Dawkinses around here would have chorused "If she's dumb enough to need a crutch like religion, you have nothing in common—divorce the bitch!"
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is the maiden voyage of the comment I shall henceforth float on all religion threads. The vessel is unmanned and unmonitored.

There is no god.
posted by BoatMeme at 11:30 AM EST on October 25


* sets it on fire and sends it to Valhalla.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:09 AM on October 25, 2006


I'm beginning to see why these sorts of posts are frowned upon. Yes, religious belief is irrational and one can never convince a believer otherwise. Yet people cannot resist the argument. As I tried to point out in my above comment, the real problem isn't the belief, but the ways and reasons belief is instilled.

Governments thruout time have realized that if you can't have a policeman on every corner, the next best thing is to have a policeman in every heart. And the easiest way to do that is religion.

Arguing with individual believers is useless. Criticizing them for beliefs that were (more likely than not) inculcated in them before they could read is silly. (Altho I do it myself sometimes). The problem of religion is one that must be dealt with from the top down, not the bottom up.

But its easier to pick the low hanging fruit than go after the Church and the State.
posted by landis at 11:22 AM on October 25, 2006


KirkJobSluder: "dawkins: Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."
Well, there is strike one right there. Both Buddhists and Christians argue that there is evidence for their perspective belief systems.


From what I've read, it appears that Dawkins mostly focuses on 'revealed' religions of the Abrahamic type. And from my understanding, faith is kind of antithetical to the core of buddhism. There's that famous buddhist quote about not accepting ideas simply because religious leaders or books proclaim them.

Also, I would love to see the Christian evidence that their beliefs actually represent reality.

"Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science; it's just bad science."

Which is a sweeping generalization, and also rather missing the point.


It doesn't seem too off to note that many religions attempt to explain how life started or that humans have a divine purpose in life. Modern takes on religion are starting to distance themselves from these ancient beliefs, but as one can see in the U.S., some quite popular ones are holding fast to these myths.

Repeatedly he's pounded at the same question of "why are people religious?" with the wrong tools, and coming up with the sillyness of "gullible children."

I've found that Dawkins' writing is more concerned with whether or not those religous beliefs match with reality. I haven't found him to dismiss the cutural influences that lead people to believe.

The first/intro chapter to "The God Delusion" is essentially Dawkins' explaining his position and responding to criticisms he has received over the years. It can be read easily without purchasing the book to clarify what Dawkins' arguments actually are.
posted by jsonic at 11:28 AM on October 25, 2006


Prospero writes: The New York Times recently published a generally negative review of The God Delusion as well.

For all that I'm wholly sympathetic to Dawkins' point of view, that is a remarkably well-written review, thank you. It avoids both pretention and condescension, is rigorous and (though I haven't read The God Delusion) apparently honest. A damn nice piece of writing for the Times and I'll look for this critic in future.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2006


Oh I get it, it's the indie wars of atheism and Dawkins is a sellout!

Let's just hope Channel 4 finds a more sophisticated, less annoying, less snobbish and less scientifically obsessed atheist polemicist to devote prime time to, someone still willing to praise progressive bishops and meet face to face with fundamentalists, but a little more sensitive to the intricate complexities of philosophy and theology and to the human needs to be part of a community and believe in an afterlife and find consolation for death, human longings he clearly doesn't get.


Let's hope they do, just so the more sophisticated atheists are spared the embarassment of being associated with this hack who has single-handedly made atheism so irrelevant in today's political landscape.

Dawkins, presumably,

Really, that's an interesting presumption...
You've criticized the idea of the afterlife. What do you see as the problem with a terminally ill cancer patient believing in an afterlife?

Oh, no problem at all. I would never wish to disabuse or disillusion somebody who believed that. I care about what's true for myself, but I don't want to go around telling people who are afraid of dying that their hopes are unreal.

If I could have a word with a would-be suicide bomber or plane hijacker who thinks he's going to paradise, I would like to disabuse him.
Such arrogance!
posted by pleeker at 11:53 AM on October 25, 2006


delmoi: What does "transcending universe" even mean? If he's not inside or outside of the universe, where is he? Does got exist only in our minds?

Well, I'd say your very questions bumps up against the horizon of what can be rationally comprehended about an object of faith. It means something like "outside" or "beyond" or "not a part of" space and time. But what does that mean? It's not something we can get our rational minds around -- it's as nonsensical as asking what there was "before" time or what there is "outside" of space.

Stop trying to make sense of it. It's a matter of faith, not reason. You just believe it on some level or you don't (and I don't care whether you do or not, and I hope that you don't care whether I do or not).

infobomb: Treepour: I really wish the Dawkins crowd would read Kant & Wittgenstein.

Ugh, that's horribly presumptive. Dawkins did a very thorough philosophy course and did read those authors, according to an article he wrote about his education in Oxford Today magazine (which I don't think is online).

Is your negativity about metaphysics really a disagreement with Dawkins? Either God is active in the world (answering prayers and so on) or not. If the former, then there is a rational proposition there to investigate (and find wanting). If not, then God's existence is a purely metaphysical and Dawkins agrees with your negativity about the purely metaphysical.


I'm not at all convinced Dawkins understands anything about Kant or Wittgenstein. Moreover, if by "negativity about the purely metaphysical" you mean that the purely metaphysical can't be a possible object of purely rational and/or empirical investigation, then I don't think Dawkin's grasps this at all. His very project presupposes that the purely metaphysical is such an object -- then, when he doesn't find it, he claims he's won "the argument". What argument? He's spewing out as much nonsense as a medieval theologian trying to prove the existence of God through logic alone.

bashos_frog: If you accept that there are things that cannot be rationally investigated, then you have already conceded the argument to the superstitionalists.

By "there are things" do you mean objects existing in space in time? Is so, yes, I would be foolishly superstitious if I believed that there are objects existing in space and time which cannot be rationally investigated. But "objects" of faith are traditionally defined as "transcending" space and time (see above).

There is no possible argument (or even conversation) possible between faith & reason. They have nothing to say to one another.

When faith tries to tell us about the empirical, faith is overstepping it's bounds. When science/reason tries to tell us about the metaphysical, science is overstepping its bounds. Needless to say, for the vast majority of human history, faith grossly, violently, ruthlessly overstepped its bounds (and it's continuing to continue to do so -- so, in that sense alone, I wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins that there is a serious battle to be fought).

Faith is faith. It's not rational. You believe or you don't (and I personally don't care one way or another). If you do, reason has nothing to say about what you have faith in. Similarly, if you're conductioning a rational inquiry into the empirical world, faith has absolutely zero relevance to the nature of your inquiry, how you conduct it, the conclusions you draw, etc.

Why does faith presume to tell us silly things about the emprical world that contradict what our senses & reason plainly show? I dunno, but then why does reason presume to tell us about the metaphysical? I'd venture hubris as the answer to both questions.
posted by treepour at 12:00 PM on October 25, 2006


That review was brilliant, and I savoured every word, despite Eagleton using a phrase which is usually an intellectual deal-breaker for me ("politically incorrect"-- just what the hell is that supposed to really mean, anyway? but I digress). Dawkins and his monoculor single-mindedness have bugged me for ages, but I've kept quiet in the related threads for the simple reason that I realize that in America, atheism is for many people (and I suspect many here) more a political stance than a philosophical/religious one.

But my, Dawkins doth preach his truth.

(I haven't had time to read this thread in its entirety as I'm at work, but the first twenty or so responses seem the standard, including some contempt for believers based on ill-informed understandings of the philosopical teachings of Western religion over the last two thousand years, etc.)
posted by jokeefe at 12:12 PM on October 25, 2006


>> "Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly
>> what this might mean... [God] is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever,
>> including ourselves."
>
> My experience is that Christians do believe in a personal god. Well, Evangelical Christians
> anyway.

It's not remotely necessary to believe in a personal God to be religious. Must we really repeat, yet again, that "Christian" is not the same as "religious?" And that, if you're going to attack religion in general it's not enough to show that the old man with the long white beard on the golden throne up in the clouds is a figment, or that there's probably no such actual entity as little blue Krishna with all the arms? There are many, many different ideas of God and spirituality--one might reasonably say there are infinitely many, since new ones are being invented all the time. Disposing of one of these ideas is not the same as disposing of all of them any more than, after one has disposed of the Tooth Fairy myth, one can then say "There! All members of all cultures everywhere who formerly believed any cultural myth will now see the error of their ways." But if your object is to defeat and eliminate religion in general you do have to take on and defeat all of them.

If the general elimination of religion is actually your project, William James' On the Varieties of Religious Experience is a useful starting point. (Who the fuck is William James? I hear the folks who never heard of Terry Eagleton cry.) Varieties is a classic and extensive collection, by a Harvard scientist, of spiritual experiences various persons have reported; and, since the source of religion (like everything else) is experiential and since raw experience is prior to interpretation, mistaken or otherwise, you'll be needing to argue not that these experience were misinterpreted but that they didn't happen, that the reports are all spurious, i.e. lies.*

I recall the moment I, reading a life of Descartes, learned that the French for "experiment" is les experiences. Wow, says I, how empirical! Anyone who claims to question the validity of religious experience empirically (and so many of you do claim that) will face the problem of the vast number of reported experiences, and have to confront the common expectation of empirical science that the reported results of others may not be summarily dismissed until one has made a serious attempt to replicate them oneself and failed. And there is a way, a very clear and clean way: one sits down for a regular daily interval; one clears one's mind of articulated (largely language based, but also behaviorally overtrained) discursive thought and distractions from being-here-now (using, initially, various beginner's disciplines such as counting breaths); one discovers how astonishingly difficult it is to resist distraction and remain focused, but one perseveres; and one waits patiently for It--the experience that so many, of all religions over so many centuries, have reported in such strikingly similar terms--to occur.

There it is. That's as clean and replicable a protocol as any that ever appeared in the methods section of any article in Science or Nature--in fact a good bit clearer than most. One has only two choices here, namely 1) to follow the protocol and actually examine the truth (or otherwise) of religious experience empirically, or 2) to skip the evidence-collection stage and jump directly to the preferred conclusion. Just observe that choosing the second option (as self-proclaimed atheists do at least as often as self-proclaimed theists, which is why the two seem so very similar) means that one has, as Dr. Johnson said of Hume, "been at no pains to enquire into the truth of religion," and so can have very little of interest to say on the subject.

-----

*If I say "Wow, what an overwhelming spiritual experience!" it makes no sense for you to reply "No it wasn't, you misinterpreted that experience as being of a spiritual nature" any more than it makes sense to claim I somehow misinterpreted my experience when I say "Wow, this water tasts salty." If you don't believe my reported experience, all you can say is "You really had no such experience, you're pulling my leg." The descriptive terms used to report primary experience are not challengeable, except on the grounds of untruth. (I note in passing that many will deny my claim that raw experience is prior to interpretation, saying instead that all experience is instantly interpreted as it happens. Fine, but that also is an empirical claim that must be tested, when so many have described the It of fundamental religious insight as being the direct grasp of immediate experience without interpretation, together with the profound alteration of the person caused by that moment of direct grasp. "When you see, just see." In the face of such a claim of replicable experience, it no longer washes to posit all-experience-is-interpretation as true a priori. Now that also has to be tested empirically.)
posted by jfuller at 12:40 PM on October 25, 2006


jsonic: Also, I would love to see the Christian evidence that their beliefs actually represent reality.

Back up a second there. I didn't say "represent reality." What I said was "evidence for their perspective belief systems." "Representing reality" is only one form of truth. Mathematics for example has no obligation that a theorem should describe entities that can exist in a physical spacetime. And law is concerned with whether an action or event matches a specific social construct (such as a statute), and wheer those constructs are consistent with other social constructs (such as the constitution). (Yes, I'm an atheist who does not accept science as the ultimate method for all knowledge, so sue me.)

Transcendental arguments for the Christian god say that if you grant certain starting axioms as true, you must be logically convinced that god exists. The same claim is made by Buddhism, if you grant certain starting axioms, the four noble truths are inevetable.

Now of course, you can say that you don't find that chain of argument convincing (I don't), or that you don't accept those starting axioms (I don't). I don't find it honest to deny those chains of evidence exist though.

In addition, as Schermer sometimes points out, we are often too quick and hasty to dismiss the power of subjective visions and mystical experiences. We are rationalizing animals that need to package events and experiences into some kind of schema, even if it's the wrong one.

It doesn't seem too off to note that many religions attempt to explain how life started or that humans have a divine purpose in life. Modern takes on religion are starting to distance themselves from these ancient beliefs, but as one can see in the U.S., some quite popular ones are holding fast to these myths.

I think that issues regarding the literal vs. figurative interpretation of natural history myths probably go back as far as those myths. I don't think that creation myths were always taken literally, and I don't think they've always been central to the belief system. The same thing applies to the concept of the afterlife, which sometimes is and sometimes is not a central focus of religious thought.

I've found that Dawkins' writing is more concerned with whether or not those religous beliefs match with reality. I haven't found him to dismiss the cutural influences that lead people to believe.

Well, I have seen him address the question of "why do people believe in god?" The problem is his theory of those cultural influences, ("memes" and "mind viruses") strikes me as worse than wrong.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:55 PM on October 25, 2006


Since I seem to be talking only to myself here, feel free to ignore this as well.

Religious people: you have been taught from an early age to believe what you are told over what is demonstrably true. Which is one explanation for Bushco's continued hold on power. (This is not just a republican thing; show me one democrat able to take the white house while proclaiming atheism).

Nonreligious people: your valiant efforts to disabuse the believer serves only to upset them and reinforce what they are told about "atheists". This fight, which you will not win, serves only to misdirect your anger and, in the end, sap your strength while reinforcing the religious person's stereotype of 'atheists'.

Which brings me again to my point: religion's main use is to either sooth or distract the masses. If you believe, religion soothes; if you don't, religion distracts (see entire thread).

Either way, those in control win; by setting the believers against the non-believers in a fight falsely seen to be important, the powers-that-be are free to go about their business.

Summing up: believers vs. non-believers is a red herring. Now feel free to continue with your meaningless arguments.
posted by landis at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2006


When a review copy of Dawkins' latest book arrived at our house, I had to laugh. The God Delusion is like a parody of Richard Dawkins... or maybe the latest philsophical blockbuster from Oolon Colluphid.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:24 PM on October 25, 2006


What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Nicolas de Cusa, Plato, Ibn Arabi, Nagarjuna, et al. are for grown-ups who take philsophy seriously. The metaphysical considerations of Kant, Wittgenstein, Comte, Marx, Ayn Rand, Daniel Dennett, and Dawkins are for people who haven't yet understood the (supraformal, ineffable) principle which distinguishes the philosophies of the two groups, and it ain't just historical. If it were effable, I'd eff it, but it's something one must come to be convinced of through contemplation and introspection.

:-x
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:48 PM on October 25, 2006


Back up a second there. I didn't say "represent reality." What I said was "evidence for their perspective belief systems."

I guess this is where definitions of common terms become important. Using your example, the Transcendental Argument is not evidence for the veracity of the Christian belief system. It simply states that if you accept certain religious assertions, then certain religious conclusions can be made. Your using 'evidence' in a non-standard way.

In addition, as Schermer sometimes points out, we are often too quick and hasty to dismiss the power of subjective visions and mystical experiences.

It's not a question of dismissing visions. It's simply that they don't imply the logical conclusion that believers want them to.
posted by jsonic at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2006


spazzm: we're cool.
posted by cgc373 at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2006


I'm not sure why Eagleton's review is being touted as if it were a deafening blow to Dawkins' book. While it certainly is more articulate than most reviews of the book ("If there's no God, we'd all be killing each other!") it is hardly a rebuttal of Dawkins' thesis.

Eagleton writes "Card carrying rationalists like Dawkins are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding."

In other words, "They can't understand it because they don't understand it." It's a bit like saying "Horses can't understand algebra because they don't understand algebra". Meaning, if only they were to bring their brains to bear on the question long enough, they might get what they, by definition, can't get. This is illogical nonsense and one of many ad hominem attacks on Dawkins in the review. Eagleton apparently does not perceive a difference between the words "understand" and "believe" and belief is central to Dawkins' argument. What he objects to is faith, which is defined as belief unsupported by any evidence.

Most of Eagleton's criticisms, when not extolling the virtues of theological literature, most of which is a fascinating and vast exercise in gibberish, not to mention willfully obscure, boil down to what Dawkins calls "Einsteinean religion". This is the sense of reverence and awe at the complexity of the universe and our fortune to be in it (very similar to Eagleton's "God is love" message which is hardly elucidating no matter how many times he repeats it in his review). Such questions as first causes and why there is something instead of nothing may seem unanswerable, and perhaps they are beyond the scope of our brains (just as horses will never understand algebra), but these are questions that should still be subject to rational thinking. The default of "God did it" is not any kind of an answer, its a dangerous dismissal that shows a craven lack of curiosity about the universe.

The question is one of methodology and dogmatism. Rationalist thinking requires evidence and logic, dogmatism (of any kind, political, religious, cultural) requires nothing (but self-righteousness). It's a child's argument that goes something like this: "I'm right, you're wrong." End of story. Believing something passionately, however, is not necessarily dogmatism. Before it gets repeated again, science is not a religion. It is a methodology, a set of tools for locating truth in the natural world as it is not how we'd like it to be. To be passionate about its capabilities is not to commit oneself to fundamentalism because fundamentalism prescribes beliefs that cannot be changed by new facts or evidence. As Dawkins himself repeats endlessly, if ever science were to discover evidence for the existence of a supernatural intelligence, he would be thrilled to change his mind. And that's the beauty of science and the key to its vitality: it is always being challenged and updated to better represent the reality of our universe.

A couple of more specific points.

Eagleton writes "They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you."

One's faith in another person is a reflection of their record of past experiences with that person. Thus, it is based on past evidence of a person's behavior. This should be so obvious as to not warrant stating.

"[God is] the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves." The height of psuedo-philosophical absurdity. Possibility is God? To quote Steven Weinberg,
"Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal."
"Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism."

What Dawkins actually says in his book is that moderate religious views should be ferociously contested because they shelter fanaticism from rational criticism.

"...the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of [science and technology] than the work of religion."

So the apocalypse is going to happen because of certain people's interest in constantly pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and knowing the truth of our universe, not because crazed religious zealots value human life so little that they would use technology to destroy the entire world and all of the people in it for the sake of their wonderful, love-centered faith in mysterious supernatural forces?

"He also holds, against a good deal of available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than politics."

If Islamic terrorism is inspired by politics, not religion, pray tell why the people of Central America, or any other devastatingly poor and terrible place to live on earth (which I assume are also touched by geopolitics) are not occasioned the daily sight of young educated men blowing themselves up in market places screaming "God is great!"? And what is this "good deal of available evidence" that Eagleton points to? The fact that media commentators repeatedly trumpet it to be so? That liberals queasy about appearing to be intolerant (of insanity) repeatedly discuss what a glorious, moderate, peaceful religion Islam is? The fact that the area has very real political problems is evidence that religion has nothing to do with it? Perhaps the answer lies in his next quote:

"...his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humilation that breed fundamentalism."

I know he's just raising his graniloquent lefty flag here and championing "the people", but again, if this were really the case, why aren't Nicaraguans (or Salvadorans, or Liberians, or...) hijacking airliners and flying them into our skyscrapers? Really. Has the global capitalist system not completely wrecked these countries too? Do these people not experience hatred, anxiety, insecurity, and humilation as a result of their poverty? It's the height of liberal ignorance (and I count myself as a leftist, by the way) to defend an insane, narrow, violent, bigoted religious faith as a token of "tolerance". That's not to say global capitalism and politics have not aggravated the situation immensely, but we are talking about a group of people who are still living in the seventh century in some important respects. Respect their insanity at your (and all of humanity's) peril.

Oh and the "Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don't actually know where he lives," bit toward the end? Classy and not at all conceding the argument.
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:05 PM on October 25, 2006 [3 favorites]


"politically incorrect"-- just what the hell is that supposed to really mean, anyway?

it means "populist"

(haven't read thread, or review)
posted by mr.marx at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2006


Religious people: you have been taught from an early age to believe what you are told over what is demonstrably true. Which is one explanation for Bushco's continued hold on power. (This is not just a republican thing; show me one democrat able to take the white house while proclaiming atheism).

Oh, please. Could you possibly be any more condescending? My religious beliefs, such as they might be (and I keep them private, thank you) have very little to do with what I've been told (I was raised in a semi-boho Unitarian household where there was a strong emphasis on making up our own minds, which is something for which I've always been grateful) and everything to do with thinking and reading and watching human beings go about their lives over the last thirty years. Your equation of religious belief and Bush's government shows not only American bias, but the blinkered rejection of hugely important philosophical traditions.

You are not necessarily guilty of this, landis, but just in general I will say once: I do get tired of the smug nihilism that shows itself here when the atheists get going on their "invisible friend in the sky" shtick.
posted by jokeefe at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2006


What I've never gotten about the increasingly technical and arbitrary atheist/agnostic/theist/religious/god debate is why on earth it is still argued once it passes the point of logic.

If I may elaborate, there are many posts in this thread that speak of an essentially ineffable god, a transcendant god, a nature of the universe that may be called 'god.' These arguments are, by definition inarguable because they are not, in fact, arguments. They are assumptions, ideas, or perhaps axioms but they are not things that can be analyzed and debated in a rational way, simply because they exist outside rationality.

If you stretched and prodded and distended the concept of god to be something like the elegence of the fabric of the universe, you could probably pull an agreement out of me, even though by any measure I am an atheist.

But by then, what's the point? Similarly to arguments that end up with god not being bound by the laws of logic; given that what is the purpose of using logical discourse to discuss an a-logical entity? A bit like trying to compile a zebra.

Once the discussion has passed the several trivially disprovable 'proofs' for the existence of a god, we are either agreeing to disagree about our axioms/faiths or we enter the domain of the insane.
posted by Skorgu at 2:19 PM on October 25, 2006


"politically incorrect"-- just what the hell is that supposed to really mean, anyway?

it means "populist"


Ah, okay, thank you, I'll try that on for size the next time I come across it.
posted by jokeefe at 2:20 PM on October 25, 2006


“I'd venture hubris as the answer to both questions.”
posted by treepour

“I don't find it honest to deny those chains of evidence exist though.” posted by KirkJobSluder

“In the face of such a claim of replicable experience, it no longer washes to posit all-experience-is-interpretation as true a priori. Now that also has to be tested empirically.)”
posted by jfuller

“If you believe, religion soothes; if you don't, religion distracts (see entire thread).” posted by landis

Some really good thinking throughout the thread here from various positions. I agree with all that’s been said from those comments above.
Not much I can add. I didn’t much care for the Eagleton piece - though it does have bits to admire.
Tangentially, I don’t know if there is any empirical test for logic or indeed mathmatics (at the fuzzy edges). Which is problematic, and seems to have been for some time. Something can be logical (even with valid premises) and yet empirically untestable directly.
Dawkins’ charges can be levied at any number of systems of thought (doesn’t invalidate the ones against religion of course). The French Revolution comes to mind as a secular counterpoint to the Napoleon quote. Religion has often been used, but some folks will use just about anything to screw the masses.
Given the current social trends, perhaps religion needs this kick in the ass (whether Dawkins is right or wrong or whatever). But I’d like to see politics subjected to the same skepticism.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2006


These arguments are, by definition inarguable because they are not, in fact, arguments. They are assumptions, ideas, or perhaps axioms but they are not things that can be analyzed and debated in a rational way, simply because they exist outside rationality.

Supra-rationality is not ir-rationality. This cannot be demonstrated online, since we can only communicate through discrete symbols. It has to be 'gotten' in a flash of insight. Once truly seen, it cannot be denied while remaining honest to one's self.

one waits patiently for It--the experience that so many, of all religions over so many centuries, have reported in such strikingly similar terms--to occur.

For the 'empiricists' (hah!) out there, pay close attention to jfuller's post. This may help your philosophical objections: quantitatively replicable experiences are a vanishingly small fraction of experiences.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:33 PM on October 25, 2006


I do get tired of the smug nihilism that shows itself here when the atheists get going on their "invisible friend in the sky" shtick.

It is not nihilism to point out that even the most popular god-concept is as unevidenced in reality as the intentionally over-the-top 'invisible-sky-god'.

It is simply a commentary that currently popular god-concepts are treated as special even though they are as unsupported as the other fantastical beings that we all regard as absurd.
posted by jsonic at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2006


Skorgu: Which is why most other writers on the subject move on to discussing living well rather than beating a dead horse.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2006


"Like a meme? You know that word, "meme"? Richard Dawkins invented that word. It's true. Look it up."

He should be crucified for this.
posted by vronsky at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2006


I agree with Smedleyman -- this thread completely belies the (on the face of it, reasonable) assertion that 'MeFi doesn't do religion well'.

Not that I'd suggest we need any more Dawkins FPPs anytime soon, but this one presented some strong arguments, a minimum of the more typical defensive complaining (though 'smug nihilism' certainly counts as such) and pointed out some fairly rigorous and intelligent critiques that command respectful attention even if you don't end up agreeing with them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2006


sonofsamiam not to be pedantic, but what are you using as a definition for supra-rationality? As I see it, either something fits inside the realm of rational, proper logical deductive reasoning or it doesn't.

What do quantitatively replicable experiences have to do with philosophy?
posted by Skorgu at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2006



“Once the discussion has passed the several trivially disprovable 'proofs' for the existence of a god, we are either agreeing to disagree about our axioms/faiths or we enter the domain of the insane.” -posted by Skorgu

I think that’s what some folks are saying. “God” is axiomatic. Not provable/disprovable. But some athiests develop an argument anyway (typically applied against the folks not saying God is axiomatic). Non-existance, it seems, is a similar concept. Is there such a thing? Can one prove non-existance? One can prove that there aren’t unicorns, but non-existance is only how we define their state. Is there literal non-existance? Empty “space” seems to be boiling with virtual particles and zero point energy last I heard, so there may be no observable state/frame in which there is nothing.
Similarly - it’s axiomatic that real numbers have the Archimedean property. Does .999(infinite) = 1? Depends on the system your using. But there are proofs. Are there empirical proofs of infinitesimals? Well, no. So, do they then exist?
Which gets back, I think, to Dawkins - his criticsms are valid from certain perspectives, but he seems not to recognize the usefulness of other systems of thinking and other perspectives.
Would he accept “God” as notational? I dunno. It’d probably cause the same sorts of problems anyway since there are schizms in Christianity, Islam, etc. etc. over definitions, so he’d probably stick by his condemnations anyway.
Not taking a position or refutation, just off the cuff observation/speculation there.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:47 PM on October 25, 2006


Wouldn't a possible flaw in Dawkin's argument be that societies and nations that are oficially atheist and suppress religion at every level such as China and Russia are much less free than the US and Europe? And there have been as many or more atrocities commited by such nations. Not a flame - just an argument that popped into my head.
posted by vronsky at 3:08 PM on October 25, 2006


sonofsamiam:

> quantitatively replicable experiences are a vanishingly small fraction of experiences.

We have to start somewhere, sos. Paleontology (to pick one of many examples) was still a bona-fide empirical science even when it just involved collecting specimens and describing them verbally, long before anyone did any measuring. Sure I can quote the ultra-hardcore Carnap-Bridgman criterion whereby an entity is only considered for promotion from mere intervening variable to hypothetical construct (i.e. something that might be independently real in nature) if it has been supplied with two logically independent methods of measurement. But that's physics, not life as she is lived. Les experiences are real if anything is real.
posted by jfuller at 3:09 PM on October 25, 2006


As I see it, either something fits inside the realm of rational, proper logical deductive reasoning or it doesn't.

I mean that which is transcendently rational, the true a priori, which could not be 'disproved' in any possible world and is ineffable. You are not required to accept such a thing, you're just ultimately wrong if you don't :) The people in my "greatest hits of philosophy" list above can all discourse authoritatively on the matter, although they call it by different names.

The supra-rational varies from the rational in that it is not subject to doubt or disproof. It has the character of instilling an absolute certainty, never previously imagined and literally ineffable, incommunicable.

When the supra-rational is taken into account, things make much more sense, as opposed to irrational propositions which, if provisionally accepted, reduce us to absurdity. See Nicolas de Cusa for some description of 'contradictory' statements that reflect super-rational principles rather than gibberish. The difference can only be experienced, not argued, per Plato's allegory of the cave.

What do quantitatively replicable experiences have to do with philosophy?

Restricting the domain of valid inquiry to experiences assumed to be quantitatively replicable is known as 'positivism' or less technically 'materialism', and is the view held, implicitly or explicitly, by Dawkins and similar thinkers. Modern conceptions of it can mostly be traced back to Kant.
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:16 PM on October 25, 2006


Wouldn't a possible flaw in Dawkin's argument be that societies and nations that are oficially atheist and suppress religion at every level

No, because correlation != causation.

And because theocracies are typically just as intolerant of every religion except the state religion.

What's more, in many respects the 'officially atheist' states you refer to are functionally equivalent to theocracies: a state religion which does not use the word god but which has every trapping and every mechanism, and often a substitute entity, such as the false term 'the people', which as often as not is a code word for a mystical entity which is not in any practical sense comprised of actual persons. They are not so much intolerant of religion as intolerant of competing religions.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:20 PM on October 25, 2006


vronsky: Dawkins would respond, I'm guessing, by citing that those nations that have sanctioned atheism as official "religion" are just as guilty of dogmatism as their religious counterparts. Hence the frequent "Hitler and Stalin were atheists and they were the biggest mass murderers in history!" said as if there mass murdering tendency were the direct consequence of their not being people of faith. A case could certainly be made that Hitler did consider himself a Christian, history is unclear about it, however their crimes were the consequence of their political dogmatism (which became their religion) not a tendency to reject supernaturalism.

Of interest to everybody in this debate might be Gregory S. Paul's somewhat recent study "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" in the Journal of Religion & Society which demonstrates some surprising facts regarding societal dysfunction and religiosity.
posted by inoculatedcities at 3:22 PM on October 25, 2006


From an article in Skeptic magazine re: the study mentioned above:

posted by inoculatedcities at 3:29 PM on October 25, 2006


sonofsamiam I fully concede that my formal philosophy is somewhat sparse, but to this programmer's mind you seem to be arguing a semantic.

If something is not subject to rational discussion, it is not rational. Whether we call it supra-rational, extra-rational, or a-rational or simply irrational, I don't see a distinction between whatever it is you're describing and an ineffable, a priori teapot in low earth orbit.

I don't mean to be snide here, It seems like you're agreeing with me. The axiomatic, a priori assumptions you describe cannot be reasonably addressed inside a logical framework and therefore are not a part of that framework. Hence, you seem to be describing faith which is squarely addressed by my previous comment.
posted by Skorgu at 3:30 PM on October 25, 2006


Argh! It won't let me link the image. Sorry about that. Anyway, refer to the article above for some nice graphs.
posted by inoculatedcities at 3:31 PM on October 25, 2006


No, because correlation != causation.

This is the scientific equivalent of a quick "Our Father" or "Allahu akbar," thrown in whenever it seems time for a quick statement of belief. If taken seriously, of course, it rules out any explanation for any human phenomenon beyond the biological (which is why so many geek/scientist types deny there is anything beyond the biological).

And because theocracies are typically just as intolerant of every religion except the state religion.

Ooh, the tu quoque argument! Very rational! Almost as rational as Anselm's argument for the existence of God!

What's more, in many respects the 'officially atheist' states you refer to are functionally equivalent to theocracies

I especially love this standard trope of the Dawkinsoid crowd: any atheist we don't like isn't really an atheist but a "functional theist." Just as Communists will deny that Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, etc. etc., pose a problem for his theory because they're not true Communist states! Except, of course, that that's a more defensible position than denying their atheism.

No, gentlemen, I'm afraid atheists can be just as shitty as believers, because we're all human, all too human. Can I get an Amen?
posted by languagehat at 3:34 PM on October 25, 2006


(Er, for "his theory" read "their theory"...)
posted by languagehat at 3:35 PM on October 25, 2006


No, because correlation != causation.

This is the scientific equivalent of a quick "Our Father" or "Allahu akbar," thrown in whenever it seems time for a quick statement of belief.


I'll skip the rest, languagehat. Try reading what I was responding to rather than simply the words of my response in isolation.

any atheist we don't like isn't really an atheist but a "functional theist."

Nope. Any claimed atheist state that sets up a substitute God, church, council of bishops, official dogma, priestly caste and thought police is not in any meaningful sense atheist. The word 'atheism' is in this case what is technically known as a 'lie'. Or would it surprise you to hear it suggested that totalitarian states rely heavily on large, official lies?
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:43 PM on October 25, 2006


And there have been as many or more atrocities commited by such nations.

While it's appears true that "athiest" nations have a habit of being less free, this may simply be a byproduct the fact that, to date, "athiest" nations have been "Communist-Totalitarian". That's the only variant that has been tried. I doubt a completely rational, libertarian (yuk) style of country would suppress freedom. As for atrocities, this is entirely debatable. I don't need to go listing them, but just wander your mind around Africa, South America. Go back in history a bit. Count wars as atrocities. Ponder the Inquisition. And consider if your statement is still true. On the other hand, I will admit that athiesm's lower score on the atrocities count may be a result of it having been around for less time than religious governance.
posted by Jimbob at 3:44 PM on October 25, 2006


Maybe not so much suprarational vs irrational but incommensurability. And unshakeability.
posted by xod at 3:50 PM on October 25, 2006


"Dawkins mentioned the Flying Spagetti Monster on the Colbert Report. I can now die complete."

I saw that when it aired. I immediately discounted everything he had to say. Spirituality, in whatever form it comes is about try to define the purpose of existance rather than it's nature. It's about the death, loss, hope, coping with mortality, etc... For him to be so glib about it was obnoxious.
posted by Shanachie at 3:51 PM on October 25, 2006


I never said they didn't claim to see god, I said they hadn't.

What happens when you meditate is determined by your brain, not the universes or supernatural world. Meditation has been studied by science Meditation isn't proof of anything supernatural.

Both of these statements are being presented as fact without any hint of actually back them up. How do you know they didn't see God?
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:55 PM on October 25, 2006


I think there is a strong argument to be made that atrocities are only partially about religion and ideology, and primarily about economics and political turmoil. I just saw Marie Antoinette and thought about the similarities between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. In both cases a rebel government took over a bankrupt country of starving people from reform-resistant rulers. There was the constant threat of terrorism and military action by counter-revolutionary forces with foreign funding. And in both cases you had regional and ethnic tensions that predated the revolution by centuries, and the dire threat of an external invasion. (The U.S. Revolution certainly wasn't entirely innocent of atrocity either.)

Which is why I find the atrocity-count to be a red herring in these discussions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:03 PM on October 25, 2006


If something is not subject to rational discussion, it is not rational. Whether we call it supra-rational, extra-rational, or a-rational or simply irrational, I don't see a distinction between whatever it is you're describing and an ineffable, a priori teapot in low earth orbit.

Skorgu: I think what what sonofsamiam was getting at is something like the axioms of logic. E.g., A=A, or A != not-A. There can be no proof of that, no deduction of it, no discussion about it, because it's self-evident. But it's also rational. (Or at least, I would venture, the horizon of rationality -- but that's my somewhat wonky terminology).

One could arguably extend this into other realms, e.g., mathematical propositions, but that's a very controversial matter.

(And, of course, I should let sonofsamiam speak for her/him self).
posted by treepour at 4:06 PM on October 25, 2006


George_Spiggott: "What's more, in many respects the 'officially atheist' states you refer to are functionally equivalent to theocracies: a state religion which does not use the word god but which has every trapping and every mechanism, and often a substitute entity, such as the false term 'the people', which as often as not is a code word for a mystical entity which is not in any practical sense comprised of actual persons."

Let's see: Communists were theocrats, Nazis were theocrats, the European Democracies (at least until very recently) were theocratic, the regimes of the Middle Ages were the classic definition of theocracies, the United States today is a theocracy, since even if you don't think it's predominantly Christian, we do tend to set up "liberty and equality" as public gods...

...so, in short, pretty much every nation that's ever existed is or was a theocracy. One begins to wonder: is a non-theocracy, a nation where there are no concepts or persons which are proposed as public subjects of worship and faith, even possible?
posted by koeselitz at 4:19 PM on October 25, 2006


Let's see: Communists were theocrats, Nazis [...] the United States today is a theocracy,

How do you get that? What false Gods does the U.S. set up? In what sense is it a theocracy? When you state that we set up "liberty and equality" as public gods, you haven't shown that they are for official purposes and obligatory public observance treated as gods. Here's one test: can you be obliged to make confession when you depart from official dogma, and/or imprisoned for heresy? The Constitution insists otherwise.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:25 PM on October 25, 2006


Religion stunting intellectual development? And that explains why a millenia of brilliant thinkers were devoutly religious.
posted by jb

Or it explains why out of a millenia of brilliant thinkers, only the religious were allowed to flourish.
posted by Happy Monkey at 2:19 PM GMT on October 25 [+ 1 favorite] [!]


Yes, and most women never had a room of their own. That doesn't mean that those devoutly religious men were any less great thinkers.

(and it's hard to argue against Dawkins's point that it'd be surprising to see atheists crash hijacked planes into buildings, or settling on other people's lands because a 3,000+ year old, mostly fictional book, says so)

And Stalin would never kill Orthodox priests because his atheist philosophy told him to attack religion.
posted by jb at 4:30 PM on October 25, 2006


Communists were/are theocrats? They are explicitly atheist and anti-religion. Great dogmatists, yes.
posted by jb at 4:32 PM on October 25, 2006


George_Spiggott: "What false Gods does the U.S. set up?"

I didn't say they were false.

"Here's one test: can you be obliged to make confession when you depart from official dogma, and/or imprisoned for heresy? The Constitution insists otherwise."

No, it doesn't. The Constitution, generally, insists that abrogating freedom or equality is punishable. The devotion to these two things, as codified by our laws, is mandated; while one is not required to utter certain phrases (in keeping with Freedom, the object of our chiefest devotion) we are certainly required not to violate it.

See, the difficulty of saying that "communists and nazis aren't really atheists" is that you wander into the difficult territory of admitting that you can have a "god" that's not called "god." I think that's true, but when you look around, you start to notice that people choose objects of worship and esteem constantly, and that this is true of antireligionists as well as religionists.

The difficulty of having a purely atheist, atheocratic, state is illustrated by the current situation in Europe, where leaders are finding it increasingly difficult not to insist to Muslims that certain kinds of religion are not to be tolerated.
posted by koeselitz at 4:37 PM on October 25, 2006


What religious writers and thinkers seem to miss is that you can get all the good they see in religious belief without the mumbo jumbo. The mumbo jumbo is just there for the pygmies who need to believe in supernatural beings.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:40 PM on October 25, 2006


The Constitution, generally, insists that abrogating freedom or equality is punishable.

This is accepted to be a limitation on government, or state power. And to answer my own question, a private citizen cannot under the Constitution be made to confess his heretical beliefs (a.k.a. testify against himself) nor be imprisoned for holding them. The Constitution specifically denies the state the power to do this. This combined with a few other provisions, if adhered to, makes an official state priesthood impossible, and it's in this respect that we differ from both quasi- and actual theocracies.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:43 PM on October 25, 2006


As a last aside, interesting that the NYT reviewer should compare Dawkins to Michael Moore! interesting in more ways than he meant.
posted by pleeker at 5:28 PM on October 25, 2006


Don't want to get into the discussion of Dawkins, but I happened to read a little about Eagelton recently and found him an interesting figure. He's not some reactionary, old prof as my skimming has appeared some people are arguing for in to attempt to denigrate his arguements. I have no dog in this fight whether his arguements hold water or he is an unfighting dog without water. Just some interesting background:

"Eagleton is probably the most well-known literary critic in Britain and the most frequently read expositor of literary theory in the world."

A Catholic turned Marxist from a working-class background, Terry Eagleton was an influential English don - and active militant - at the heart of the establishment in Oxford."
posted by superchris at 5:59 PM on October 25, 2006


george spiggott - it still seems like an awful big piece of evidence for a "scientist" to overlook.
posted by vronsky at 6:01 PM on October 25, 2006


It means something like "outside" or "beyond" or "not a part of" space and time. But what does that mean? It's not something we can get our rational minds around -- it's as nonsensical as asking what there was "before" time or what there is "outside" of space
...
Moreover, if by "negativity about the purely metaphysical" you mean that the purely metaphysical can't be a possible object of purely rational and/or empirical investigation, then I don't think Dawkin's grasps this at all. His very project presupposes that the purely metaphysical is such an object -- then, when he doesn't find it, he claims he's won "the argument".


Well, you're essentially arguing that god can't be argued about, which to me sounds as rational as a school kid saying "nya, nya, nya, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you." God "transcends" rational though, and therefore can't be reasoned about.

And I mean honestly, to me it just seems like a roundabout of saying "God does not exist" And if you say god does not exist, then you agree with Dawkins about the fundamental issue, it's just that you think you should still believe in him even though he doesn’t "exist".

And that may very well be how most "theologians" think of god, but I really don't think that's how the majority of believers think of god. I mean, you think the average evangelical would agree with the statement "God does not exist in the Universe, God cannot affect the rational world." You think your average suicide bomber thinks god can't be reasoned about? It's certainly not anything like mainstream Christianity, which says that Jesus is the Son of god, and a physical manifestation of a Diety, here and real and in the real world. He writes:

they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal.

Now obviously Jesus, prophet or diety or man, was a part of the real world, he could be seen and touch. So what I would argue against is the supernatural interaction between god and the real world.
posted by delmoi at 6:16 PM on October 25, 2006


Dawkins is a Reaganite ass, who has replaced, quite literally, 'God' with 'the Market' in his thinking. It's not always apparent, because his appealing anti-superstition jeremiads never go out of their way to examine his substitution act, and his celebrations of untrammeled Market Forces as the Hand of Reason Incarnate rarely waste time with distracting and perturbing analyses of why religion is the fool's practice.

He is Marx on his head, and despite the apparent lower body count, utterly unworthy of the collective fellations of the digerati.
posted by mwhybark at 6:44 PM on October 25, 2006


Metafilter: the collective fellations of the digerati.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:12 PM on October 25, 2006


The axiomatic, a priori assumptions you describe cannot be reasonably addressed inside a logical framework and therefore are not a part of that framework. Hence, you seem to be describing faith which is squarely addressed by my previous comment.

The a priori is not a set of assumptions or axioms, but is that which conditions any possible reasoning we might do, including inconsistent reasoning systems. There is a "hole" in any hierarchy of formal systems, consistent or not, as even the symbols of paraconsistent systems must be evaluated in a consistent way.

I think that the symmetries of math arise because we construct formal systems that reflect the symmetry of the a priori, which is not definable, but apprehendable by the mind. Kant explained it with his "transcendental aesthetic", but he did not go as far as it is possible to go when exploring this topic.

You might not accept that this concept is coherent, but I am confident that a serious investigation will convince an honest inquirer. (No need to settle things completely today!)

The topic is not at all unrelated to theology as it was more traditionally practiced: think "faith" in the sense of "faithfulness" or "fidelity", faith in the fundamental consonance of being.

And I mean honestly, to me it just seems like a roundabout of saying "God does not exist" And if you say god does not exist, then you agree with Dawkins about the fundamental issue, it's just that you think you should still believe in him even though he doesn’t "exist".

It does seem that way, but the conclusion you draw from that observation is not necessarily warranted, there is still the possibility that there is some thing that can be aptly described as "God", but which is sometimes better described by describing it as nothing. Laugh if you want, but do you think any truly "transcendent" thing could be encapsulated in yes and no?

Fundies have no conception of transcendance, and in this way Dawkins has basically a fundie mindset. If he can't conceive of it (yet, at least), it's gibberish, there is no chance that others have explored topics to a degree he hasn't. (Not really fair to call him a fundie, he at least considers empiricism a major goal, he just has not empirically determined everything he thinks he has. He has "blind faith" in the positivist worldview.)

And that may very well be how most "theologians" think of god, but I really don't think that's how the majority of believers think of god.

Nevertheless, that bears nothing on whatever spiritual reality might exist. I am a Christian, but I have as little in common theologically with most other American Christians as I do with atheists. (Just being honest, not trying to seem all special and uppity.) I am not going to be able to change anybody's mind with a post like this and do not want to try, but fwiw, I assert that there are reasons why religions use the crazy imagery they do, why someone came up with this "God" stuff in the first place. You can investigate the matter for yourself, if you feel compelled to. There is no other topic which has received as much human attention, and not for no reason.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:20 PM on October 25, 2006


Surprised that the WIRED cover story has only been mentioned once in this thread. I think it is interesting that all of this "scary" athiesm (to believers) gets trotted out in American media right before the U.S. elections. It's almost as if Rove orchestrates this stuff to mobilize his "religious" right base. If you want to alarm the church-going voters and get out the vote in a big way, just trot out Dawkin's quotes like those in the Wired article on the New Athiesm:
Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

"How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?" Dawkins asks. "It's one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"

I wonder if the New Atheists are so stupid that they don't realize that they are being played for such rank political purposes, or just so impractically idealistic to care?
posted by spock at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2006


Just as an aside, this line gave me a chuckle as being utterly classic Terry Eagleton (who I like a great deal):

...his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism.

Likewise, the discipline of mathematics is mute about the horrors it has wrought on the proletariat masses through the principles of ballistics and compound interest.

Picking up on what sonofsam was saying about his own beliefs not having much in common with those of most Americans, though, my biggest problem with Eagleton's critique is that after a fairly strong start, he starts making sweeping claims about God and Christianity that seem just as straw-man as Dawkins's. "God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it?" Surely for some people this is true, but it seems as though Eagleton is holding up one particular, non-universal theology to refute Dawkins's points about the maliciousness of other particular and non-congruent theologies.

Here, for example: "Dawkins’s Supreme Being is the God of those who seek to avert divine wrath by sacrificing animals, being choosy in their diet and being impeccably well behaved. They cannot accept the scandal that God loves them just as they are, in all their moral shabbiness."

Uh, well, whose interpretation of God loves them in that way? Certainly the God of the Pentateuch seems much closer to Dawkins's version than Eagleton's. And Eagleton, having a passing familiarity with literary theory, should know better than to push selective quotes from the vast and contradictory corpus of the bible to make his points (like the bit about the Hebrews' incense stinking in God's nostrils, which Google tells me is from Isaiah 1:13).

I guess the contradiction I'm sensing is that after he accuses Dawkins of using a selective version of God to argue against in his book (which seems plausible to me, and is a valid criticism), Eagleton then unveils his own, equally selective, version of God with which to counter Dawkins, and both versions seem much too specific to be able to say anything about religion (or even Christianity) writ large.
posted by whir at 9:39 PM on October 25, 2006


Richard Dawkins presented evidence to support The God Delusion in a Speech at The University of Kansas on October 16, 2006. It is a well documented intellectual adventure into many peoples' belief in God. The images he uses to defend his positions are just incredible. You can watch the streaming video here or download the torrent here.
posted by Healing One at 11:11 PM on October 25, 2006


sonofsamiam writes "...Kant, Wittgenstein, Comte, Marx, Ayn Rand, Daniel Dennett, and Dawkins..."

Oooooh... Fighting words.

As for the rest of this conversation, I'm gonna pass over it in silence.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:01 AM on October 26, 2006


Well, you're essentially arguing that god can't be argued about, which to me sounds as rational as a school kid saying "nya, nya, nya, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you." God "transcends" rational though, and therefore can't be reasoned about.

And I mean honestly, to me it just seems like a roundabout of saying "God does not exist" And if you say god does not exist, then you agree with Dawkins about the fundamental issue, it's just that you think you should still believe in him even though he doesn’t "exist".


I'm basically saying that reason has no business making claims about objects of faith, nor does faith have any business making claims about the objects of reason. It works both ways.

In a sense, you're right -- I do agree that God is not an existing being. But does saying "I believe" commit me to a belief in an existing being? I think this is where Dawkins gets it wrong.

My own faith, for instance, starts with a conviction that existence itself cannot be taken for granted. Why should there be something rather than nothing? What does it mean to exist? These are questions science can't answer because science, by definition, must take the existence of an empirical world as a simple given.

At the same time, I realize my conviction is just that -- a conviction, and nothing more. From the standpoint of reason alone, my questions aren't even meaningful. Yet they are meaningful to me, every bit as meaningful as the presence in my life of someone I love.

Moreover, there's no way anyone could ever prove, through emprical propositions & deductive argument, whether I'm right or wrong in holding this conviction. Hence the conviction remains exclusively a matter of faith. And whether others share my conviction is totally irrelevant -- even if I wanted to, how could I possibly convince someone to share my conviction when it lies outside the realm of what can be sensibly argued about? Either you share the conviction or you don't.

As far as the empirical world goes, I do in fact think science offers the best possible description of it. It must. Science is never-ending process of self-critique; it's constantly refining or even reorienting itself around whatever it discovers about reality. I have no trouble with the big bang, evolution, etc. Let science do its work in the emprical realm; I'll continue to be dazzled by its latest discoveries even while I continue discovering what it means for me to abide in the mystery of existence itself. Where's the contradiction? I don't see any.
posted by treepour at 12:25 AM on October 26, 2006


sonofsamiam: The metaphysical considerations of Kant, Wittgenstein, Comte, Marx, Ayn Rand, Daniel Dennett, and Dawkins

Are you suggesting that Kant & Wittgenstein are something like materialist positivists? I couldn't disagree more. And how on earth did Ayn Rand get in that list? And what's Dawkins doing in a list of (mostly) philosophers?
posted by treepour at 12:32 AM on October 26, 2006


The a priori is not a set of assumptions or axioms, but is that which conditions any possible reasoning we might do, including inconsistent reasoning systems. There is a "hole" in any hierarchy of formal systems, consistent or not, as even the symbols of paraconsistent systems must be evaluated in a consistent way.

Well, OK, any system is limited by its foundations. Science in a broad sense is all about acknowledging that we can't really evaluate the preconditions of our existence. Instead, we have to set up theories and predictions to reason around those axioms in an attempt to discover them.

Fundamentally, I think I'd agree with you about an a priori symmetry, but I'd disagree about its discoverability. I think if such a thing exists in a meaningful way it will be discoverable. That's one of the things I respect most about Dawkins (to bring this whole circus back around): his reduction of the impossibly complicated biological world to one simple, elegant and symmetric concept of genes. We're made up of genes and discovered them just fine, so I see no reason to ascribe some magical ineffability to other natural symmetries.

Epicurus made all of these arguments far more elegantly than I and I've yet to hear an argument that is not substantially covered by a trivial extension of his points.
posted by Skorgu at 9:04 AM on October 26, 2006


“The a priori is not a set of assumptions or axioms, but is that which conditions any possible reasoning we might do, including inconsistent reasoning systems. There is a "hole" in any hierarchy of formal systems, consistent or not, as even the symbols of paraconsistent systems must be evaluated in a consistent way.” posted by sonofsamiam

Damn fine comment there. Godel’s proof (and his reasons for keeping it relatively on the QT) comes to mind.

“In a sense, you're right -- I do agree that God is not an existing being. But does saying "I believe" commit me to a belief in an existing being?” - posted by treepour

This one too.
S’why I’m a non-theist. Arguing a property - even existance - of any given non-manifest thing seems pointless. Is “Justice” inherent in being? Is “Silly”? Even some otherwise empirically derivable answers to questions -will protons decay? Meaningless. (‘cause if it does happen it will be so long before you see it...and indeed, at that point in the void, is ‘seeing’ possible?) But useful in the ‘why’ realm. So long as that ‘why’ inference doesn’t occlude more objective experiance. Which, really, is what you’re deriving that ‘why’ question from in the first place. Even Descartes’ foundation (I think therefore I am) isn’t possible without the experiance of thinking. But certain peaks of reasoning are only possible as thought experiment (the aforementioned Godel’s ontological proof as example - also his incompleteness theorem seems to formalize Heidegger’s statement: “The world itself is not an entity within the world”).

“...so I see no reason to ascribe some magical ineffability to other natural symmetries.”

While I think that is indeed what some theists are doing, I think the gist of the argument isn’t the extra flange on the universe being “God” but "God"as an integral albeit experientially unknowable state of or foundation of being. And that goes to the question of whether knowlege of such a thing is trivial or not (that is - does knowledge that is independent of experience mean anything or not).
Dawkins seems to be arguing that it doesn’t have meaning.
But as has been pointed out, there are many kinds of knowlege systems we take for granted from which we derive empirical knowlege and can be used in the “real” world (maths, logic, etc).
Which seems to sidestep Buddha’s (et al.) refusal to delve into the issue because it’s not relevent to enlightenment. Could well be perfectly true - but the kind of thinking here (the inquiry into “God” absent “God” as a subject - the form(s) of the inquiry itself) could have some use. Indeed, we’ve seen some uses in computer science.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:09 PM on October 26, 2006


“God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it?”

Well...yeah. God, therefore, is Zorba the Greek.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:20 PM on October 26, 2006


"I'll continue to be dazzled by its latest discoveries even while I continue discovering what it means for me to abide in the mystery of existence itself. Where's the contradiction? I don't see any."

Nice.
posted by vronsky at 1:32 PM on October 26, 2006


Even Descartes’ foundation (I think therefore I am) isn’t possible without the experiance of thinking.

Exactly. We have to take certain facts as givens, use them as axioms in the foundation of rational thought. We have to assume that we exist as we seem to exist, that we think more-or-less rationally and that space and time exist more-or-less as we can observe them. Likewise we have to assume certain base definitions and facts in order to use language and symbols to represent concepts and perform those thought experiments.

But without some level of validation in the (axiomatically 'real') world, we're just wanking. That's where Occam comes in; we're already assuming a set of entities we can't objectively confirm, so why add more?

There might be an ineffable, experimentally unknowable state of or foundation of being. So? We might just as well be simulations in a post-singularity Matrioshka brain, or daydreams in a cosmic space turtle. The fact that these are all unknowable seems to preclude any value being present in knowledge of them. Once we've gone outside the realm of commonly accepted self-consistent axioms we can't use rationality, logic, or symbolic representations because we have no axioms upon which to base any exploration.

To sidetrack, this has been one of the most enlightening theological discussions I've had in a while. Even if no minds are changed it is fun to engage in a little intellectual masturbation once in a while.
posted by Skorgu at 2:06 PM on October 26, 2006


We have to assume that we exist as we seem to exist, that we think more-or-less rationally and that space and time exist more-or-less as we can observe them.

You don't 'have' to do any such thing, that's just the dominant intellectual tradition in our culture. Check out Nagarjuna for a coherent philosophy which denies all these things.

There might be an ineffable, experimentally unknowable state of or foundation of being.

It is not experimentally unknowable. It is quantitatively and symbolically inexpressible, it is unspeakable or should I say unspeechable. This doesn't mean knowledge of it cannot be gained or even that it can only be experienced indirectly. There is a very simple experiment described above which leads to a direct experience of the topic.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:21 PM on October 26, 2006


sonofsamiam Well, I'll grant you the space, time and existence ones, but nothing in my brief perusal of that Nagarjuna diverged from the dominant intellectual tradition as far as it relates to the fact that we are able to reason in roughly the way we appear to be able to reason.

I'm not really sure having a purely symbolic discussion about a symbollically inexpressable concept is such a good plan, but here goes.

Part of the reason our tradition is so firmly rooted in the formal and the symbolic is that any exploration of philosophy rapidly comes to the conclusion that we cannot truly trust our own minds. Since any knowledge in our minds is therefore subject we must look outside our minds to verify or falsify it. Hence symbolic representations which can be independently verified by anyone sharing the same frame of reference. Assuming they exist as external entities and not just imaginings.
If I say "Wow, what an overwhelming spiritual experience!" it makes no sense for you to reply "No it wasn't, you misinterpreted that experience as being of a spiritual nature" any more than it makes sense to claim I somehow misinterpreted my experience when I say "Wow, this water tasts salty." If you don't believe my reported experience, all you can say is "You really had no such experience, you're pulling my leg." The descriptive terms used to report primary experience are not challengeable, except on the grounds of untruth.
The problem with relying on this kind of evidence for non-philosophical discourse is that it is not externally verifiable. You can (and should) describe your experiences in whatever way you wish. What factual conclusions you draw from that, if any, are entirely up for debate. Put another way, you can say "that water tasted salty" all you like, that's an experience. Once you step beyond it to a statement of fact ("that water is salty", an argument you didn't make but many do), all of the machinery of the scientific process now comes to bear on that statement.

To return to the main thread, your statement of the spirituality of your experience is iron-clad, it's your experience. That experience, however, cannot necessarily be used to confirm or deny an external reality because it is the product of a fallable mind.
posted by Skorgu at 3:04 PM on October 26, 2006


I'm basically saying that reason has no business making claims about objects of faith, nor does faith have any business making claims about the objects of reason. It works both ways.

But it doesn't work like that, in reality. Let's take the three major religions by numbers: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. None of these avoids making a whole lot of claims about both areas of that are object of study for hard science (biology, physics, cosmology etc.) and areas of human activity that can be object of study of social sciences - ethics, morality, sexuality, community life, social organisation.

Those are all things we can develop and discuss without any religious basis, which doesn't mean they're dominated by 'reason', this reason vs. everything dichotomy is an abstraction. It's not like reason is this pure perfect thing that exists where no religion is.

But emotions, psychological, social factors, cultural symbolic constructions, patterns of social behaviour are still knowable and observable (and can be studied).

Religious metaphysical claims about transcendence aren't, they set themselves outside of the realm of human experience and knowledge -- God is unknowable and invisible and omnipotent, the alpha and omega, a being outside our physical concept of being -- and yet, they set themselves as the basis for claims on those areas that are well within the realm of human experience.

How could they not make those claims on real, pragmatic aspects of human life?

Religions offer a complete system of meaning and purpose to life, as well as guidance and moral precepts. Some more thoroughly so than others, but if they didn't attempt to bind together - religere, that's the etymology - all aspects of human experience and connect them to the metaphysical claims about its origins and purposes, they wouldn't be religions.

So let's not pretend all religions do is occupy themselves with philosophical/metaphysical disputes about the nature of being and knowing and divinity, and that's it.

99.99% of the billions of people who practice a religion on this planet never needed to read about the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope, etc. (nevermind how irrelevant to Islam or Hinduism the Christian theologians would be - I guess Eagleton forgot to wave his antimperialist credentials for a second there) in order to be religious.

It's just as obvious we don't need to take out those tomes from the library before we start talking about religion. We are all qualified to speak on religion by virtue on living on the same planet.

(Which is, incidentally, not the same planet where Jesus is this new Che Guevara meets Germaine Greer at the head of the Gay Parade. That planet has not yet been discovered and it is quite possible it exists only in Eagleton's mind, but maybe I shouldn't make this outlandish claim without reading Duns Scotus first, so, what do I know.).

So, no, you can't really expect religious faith to be exempt from observation, study, examination, and criticism - whether from philosophers, or hard scientists, or social scientists, or literary critics, or anyone really.

It is a major part of human history and society and it cannot go unexamined in any of its manifestations. Most of all in the social ones.

Otherwise 'reason has no business making claims about religion' is just another reiteration of the trick Eagleton plays in this review, the 'you can't argue about it if you don't understand' with, as inoculatedcities pointed out, that switch between understand/belief. Which is in turn a variation of the preacher's 'if you don't know why you should be praying, you just aren't praying the right way'. (Actually the closest he comes to that is 'if you think this god is a bastard, it's because you're not thinking of the right god').

If someone hasn't noticed where that demand of special exemption has already led, then they need to read more papers and less theology, maybe.

Even in Eagleton's homeland, so far from Texas and Iran, the 'it's a religious practice, not a cultural one' already passes as a valid defense from criticism. But he's too busy being offended to care about the implications of offense being used as shield by the very fanatics he claims to despise. Not exactly disproving Dawkins' point there, is he?
posted by pleeker at 3:45 PM on October 26, 2006


-- "I'm basically saying that reason has no business making claims about objects of faith, nor does faith have any business making claims about the objects of reason. It works both ways."

But it doesn't work like that, in reality. Let's take the three major religions by numbers: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. None of these avoids making a whole lot of claims about both areas of that are object of study for hard science (biology, physics, cosmology etc.) and areas of human activity that can be object of study of social sciences - ethics, morality, sexuality, community life, social organisation.


Yeah, and that's a problem. A big, big problem. Religion shouldn't be encroaching upon the proper domain of science (hard or "soft"). There is indeed a cultural battle to be fought, and the stakes are staggeringly high. I'm not disagreeing there. I just don't think we all need to rally ourselves under an atheist banner in order to fight that battle.

The Western enlightenment did a pretty good job of untangling the domain of faith from the domain of reason. Hence such wonderful notions as the separation of church & state. Kant knew fully well what was at stake when he wrote
Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such tutelage is self-imposed if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another.
Considering this, it at first seems odd that Kant's most famous work is the "Critique of Pure Reason," in which he finds it necessary to "annul knowledge in order to make room for faith." But the basic idea, I think, is to draw limits to the domains of both faith & reason so that each does what it does best & neither interferes with the other. In my opinion, we continue to ignore such lessons at our peril.


It's just as obvious we don't need to take out those tomes from the library before we start talking about religion. We are all qualified to speak on religion by virtue on living on the same planet.


Yes, we're all qualified to talk about religion. We're doing so right now, and I think it's a very valuable discussion. I'm just saying that science -- social or hard -- will never be able to answer certain questions & those questions are, to me, extraordinarily important, even if you & Dawkins think they're nonsense.

There are limits to what we can be thought via rational propositions. Or, if you will, there does exists a "horizon" beyond which can't think. I won't even attempt to sketch an argument for that notion here, because it's been done so well by philosophers like Kant & Wittgenstein. Whether there's anything "beyond" that horizon -- whether that question is important or has any meaning at all or even qualifies as a question -- is purely a matter of faith.

My belief that the question of this horizon is meaningful and important in no way sanctions the literally atrocious damage being done to the world -- and, if you will, the human "soul" -- in the name of religion.
posted by treepour at 5:34 PM on October 26, 2006


"But it doesn't work like that, in reality. Let's take the three major religions by numbers: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. None of these avoids making a whole lot of claims about both areas of that are object of study for hard science (biology, physics, cosmology etc.) and areas of human activity that can be object of study of social sciences - ethics, morality, sexuality, community life, social organisation."

If you've ever talked with a Jesuit you'd know that the crux of the faith issue is not whether or not to use reason, but what reasonable proceeds from the "assumption" of faith.
posted by klangklangston at 7:32 PM on October 26, 2006


“Let's take the three major religions by numbers: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism.”

Sometimes some big differences when you split from that program.
Buddha refused to deal in absolutes on existance/nonexistance, etc, f’rexample.
But that’s been the big problem with many folks in any religion - taking metaphors literally. (Point at the moon, and people will worship the finger doing the pointing instead of contemplating the moon - to paraphrase a Zen parable)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:02 PM on October 27, 2006


Hey I know it's a little late to come back to this but I feel I owe a few clarifications, even if no one may care at this point - treepour: first, just because I find Eagleton's piece a big pompous pile of rhetorical preachery tricks, avoidance and denial, doesn't mean it's 'dawkins & me'. I do like his polemical verve, I don't actually buy the Word of Dawkins lock stock and barrel.

I don't think the questions religions address are nonsense. (I'm not sure Dawkins does that either, he's more bothered by the answers, obviously). I sure don't think the feelings, emotions, longings that lead to religious beliefs are nonsense. They're very worthy. Religion is by far not the only way to approach them. And I do find there is symbolic, cultural, ethical and social value in some religious approaches/answers too.

Now, the problem I was pointing out is when the god-based answers are treated at social and political level as special, ie. all the bloody time.

You talk of should and shouldn't encroach, but my point was, there is simply no way we can tell religion what it shuold have a say on, confine religion to its own field - because its own field, its symbolic (real for believers) realm, is everything - life and death, here and there, now and before and after, below and above.

Translated in practical terms. Take even the most liberal religious organisation, and combine with, say, a debate on euthanasia laws - they're gonna have their say. There's nothing wrong with that. It's not encroaching so much as participating in a public debate. They are welcome to, just like anyone.

What they're not welcome to do is tie up even relatively reasonable argument with the 'because of God' premise as an exclusive demand for special political/social treatment, and as an excuse to avoid granting even normal consideration to other opposing views, like, for instance, those of an organisation of terminal patients in favour of euthanasia because they just can't take it anymore.

They're gonna advance that demand that anyway - it comes with the territory, more or less explicitly - but we're not supposed to accept it. (We - everyone - other religions/religious minorities, atheists, agnostics, secular-minded religious people, etc).

It's not religion that's supposed to not encroach - it can't avoid it - it's the rest of society that's supposed to react, instead of waiting around for all religions to become all lovely and progressive and open minded and self-critical.

That's what secular, church/state separation is supposed to mean, isn'it it? It means you're just a group like other social groups, and we have many of those, each with their own interests, and you're all going to be treated just the same.

Not sure this has ever been achieved really. Maybe that's a delusion in its own right.

Sure, we should be more aware of all differences between the many religious groups and attitudes, but, since we should be concerned more about where the big religions with the big money and the big social and political influence are going, perhaps it's also not such a retarded idea to keep in mind they do all have something in common and they do all tend to 'encroach' to some degree... and once one encroaches here and there and succeeds in having the special consideration they ask, others find it easier to encroach in their own possibly more dangerous ways... and most of all, they are all granted some special status by laws that apply regardless of those differing views and attitudes. Tax exemption, faith schools, special place in political debate no one else gets, other than corporations.

So the problem is how we deal with all that. Practical stuff.

That's the context in which I understand exactly why Dawkins is polemical also against non-fundamentalists. (Though maybe not as blindly polemical as suggested).

I don't even want to agree with him on that, and I don't in principle, but the facts tend to support the notion that, as long as we grant religions this special status to brandish the god-premise as a unique position we're invited to accept as a given even if we don't believe it (understand/believe...), we are indeed shielding all of religion from criticism, including the fundies.

Witness the strange alliances that pop up sometimes, the kind of rallying under one banner of 'threatened by secularists!!!' that even different religious groups do when one is busy protesting some perceived offense or other. Or the scarcity of outspoken, forceful, polemical voices against fundamentalists from within the non-fundamentalists camp.

I'm not talking of dealing with that by... rallying under one big 'threatened by Jesuits & Creationists & Unitarians & Jihadists & Wiccans alike!!!' atheist banner to go round bashing people on the head with the magic wand of Pure Reason and Rationality that would oh so dominate the world if only religion didn't exist.

I don't think there is any simple solution to deal with religious clashes and conflicts - inter-religious, or religious vs. secular. But everything that was taken for granted at some stage, and many still take for granted, is painfully not to be taken for granted anymore. Even in the more secularised societies. Nevermind where the fundies hold direct political power.

It's all a compromise, and a precarious balance, that much we should keep in mind, because there are some compromises worth accepting, and some that only bring disaster. Recent events have shown that sometimes the perception of that vital difference is being eroded.

In this very real context, not the context of academic debates, I do see the value in the presence within public debate of shrill-militant-atheists like Dawkins. It strikes me as rather unreal to argue about how much more sophisticated metaphysical arguments against the existance of God there are, as if that was the whole problem.
posted by pleeker at 1:54 PM on October 31, 2006


treepour: first, just because I find Eagleton's piece a big pompous pile of rhetorical preachery tricks, avoidance and denial, doesn't mean it's 'dawkins & me'.

You're quite right. My apologies.

I don't think the questions religions address are nonsense. (I'm not sure Dawkins does that either, he's more bothered by the answers, obviously). I sure don't think the feelings, emotions, longings that lead to religious beliefs are nonsense. They're very worthy. Religion is by far not the only way to approach them. And I do find there is symbolic, cultural, ethical and social value in some religious approaches/answers too.

Not sure what Dawkins's stance on this would be. Seems to me that he's fundamentally misunderstanding the questions. They're not necessarily just emotional longings. Western philosophy has been wrestling with versions of these questions for millennia.

Now, the problem I was pointing out is when the god-based answers are treated at social and political level as special, ie. all the bloody time.

You talk of should and shouldn't encroach, but my point was, there is simply no way we can tell religion what it shuold have a say on, confine religion to its own field - because its own field, its symbolic (real for believers) realm, is everything - life and death, here and there, now and before and after, below and above.

[ . . .]

It's not religion that's supposed to not encroach - it can't avoid it - it's the rest of society that's supposed to react, instead of waiting around for all religions to become all lovely and progressive and open minded and self-critical.

That's what secular, church/state separation is supposed to mean, isn'it it? It means you're just a group like other social groups, and we have many of those, each with their own interests, and you're all going to be treated just the same.


All great points, especially with regard to fundamentalist religions (and, as you point out, to some degree with "enlightened" religions as well). I'm not sure we disagree all that much here. The only point I would add is that separation of church & state is a notion that arose from the Enlightenment; and that, moreover, it doesn't seem coincidental to me that one of things the Enlightenment attempted to do was separate the proper sphere of faith from the proper sphere of reason.

It's all a compromise, and a precarious balance, that much we should keep in mind, because there are some compromises worth accepting, and some that only bring disaster. Recent events have shown that sometimes the perception of that vital difference is being eroded.

Yes, I completely agree.

In this very real context, not the context of academic debates, I do see the value in the presence within public debate of shrill-militant-atheists like Dawkins. It strikes me as rather unreal to argue about how much more sophisticated metaphysical arguments against the existance of God there are, as if that was the whole problem.

In my opinion, there are silly academic debates and there are meaningful ones. The debate(s) surrounding limitations of both reason and faith are, I think, incredibly important. Such debates inspired the thinkers of the Enlightenment -- among whom were the "framers of the constitution." Notions like separation of church & state seem obvious & practical considerations to us, but I don't think it can be taken for granted that they always seemed so. In a world that was still waking up from the stupor of the middle ages, feudalism, etc, I doubt such notions were obvious at all. Some so-called academic debates resound for centuries in the realm of practical politics. Not just the Enlightenment -- Plato's theory of forms, for instance, had tremendous influence on the theology of the early Catholic church, and Hegel's academic theorizing inspired Marx.

It seems to me that Dawkins's "militant atheism" just steamrolls over the complexities and ground gained by such debates; and that, in doing so, it paradoxically undermines the very condition of the possibility of science operating freely.

Put another way, I don't think you can draw the line-in-the-sand that Dawkins is drawing without tossing aside the whole history of Western thinking after Kant, a history which is largely responsible for notions like separation of church & state.
posted by treepour at 1:37 PM on November 1, 2006


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