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Beyond Belief
January 9, 2007 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Beyond Belief. Google Video of the complete proceedings of the conference Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival, which took place on November 5-7, 2006 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. (There are ten sessions, which average about two hours each.) Bios of the speakers who attended. A NYT article on the conference: "By the third day, the arguments were so heated that Dr. [Melvin] Konner was reminded of 'a den of vipers.' " Further conversation concerning the conference, in which Scott Atran writes, "I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist."
posted by Prospero (114 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, Scott Atran's comments in that last link are provocative and pointed. Must-reading.
posted by mediareport at 6:19 AM on January 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


This was an excellent conference - watched the entire thing last month and found the format to be perfect. They used to have the files for direct download, but google video is fine - only slightly lower quality than the files they originally released.

The person who I think showed the most intellectual integrity was Joan Roughgarden, a Christian. This was evident not so much in her presentation, but in the manner in which she engaged her opponents in dialogue.

Very smart and noble woman.
posted by spacediver at 6:21 AM on January 9, 2007


You know what's more annoying than religionists discussing science? Scientists discussing religion.

If you want to keep religion out of scientific discussions, a worthwhile goal, in my opinion, then scientists have to stop all the quasi-religious crap they spew to make science popular. Stop calling it the "god particle", stop trying to explain how the afterlife could be other dimensions, no more debates about what Einstein meant when he said "God doesn't play dice with the universe".

From the Times article:

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,”

Physicists like this entirely lack any credentials for discussing religion, because they have missed the point of religion. They all seem to think that a suitable stand-in for religion (btw, religion in these contexts is always Christianity) is some southern baptists creationist teacher. No major mainstream Christian religion that is at least 200 years old interprets the creation stories literally.

Physicsist also fail to appreciate that as science has pushed extended the limits of our understanding of the world, society has increasingly embraced religion. Maybe because the two things have absolutely nothing to do with one another???

A much better discussion would be between psychologists and theologians, because at least both are concerned with the emotional state of the person.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:23 AM on January 9, 2007 [4 favorites]


Scientists in general are aware that a relatively small subset of the religious go in for overly literal creation myths. But it's the relatively small subset that goes picking fights with us, so it's no wonder we go on about that.

As for society increasingly embracing religion? I don't see that happening at all. But then I'm a physicist, so that no doubt just confirms what you think.
posted by edd at 7:29 AM on January 9, 2007


Wow, Scott Atran's comments in that last link are provocative and pointed. Must-reading.

Enthusiastically seconded, and thanks for pointing them out.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on January 9, 2007


Yes, mediareport, Scott Atran's comments are indeed well worth reading.

But, doesn't he make some diabolically illogical points?

He writes: "As matters now stand, threats from terrorism in general, and religious terrorism in particular, are greatly exaggerated. A generation ago, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. had about 125,000 nuclear weapons that could annihilate most of the adversary's population in ninety minutes or so. Today's terrorists do not remotely pose such an existential threat. Even our darkest present fear, and the Department of Homeland Security's "worse case scenario" — the explosion of one or two 1-10 kiloton nuclear bombs by terrorists — pales by comparison. And the old Al Qaeda, which actually had an infrastructure that might have accomplished such a feat, is practically dead. Most of those close to Osama bin Laden are gone, in custody or in solitary hiding. "

Does anyone trust that because the "old Al Qaeda" infrastructure is "practically dead" that our worries are henceforth over?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:38 AM on January 9, 2007


I think for many people, there is an irrational desire for truth above all else. I think this is the case for many scientists, so for them, the idea of other people's heads being full of -- what they consider -- lies is deeply upsetting.

There is also a fear that if people believe things that are incorrect, that they may make bad choices. Those choices, being based on faulty premises, may have bad consequences for the fearer.
posted by delmoi at 7:40 AM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


... stop trying to explain how the afterlife could be other dimensions...

Whah!? I don't know any reputable scientists who say crap like that. Maybe all sorts of hacks, but it's not like scientists have control over them.
posted by delmoi at 7:42 AM on January 9, 2007


Does anyone trust that because the "old Al Qaeda" infrastructure is "practically dead" that our worries are henceforth over?

Um, I do. Not counting people stuck in Iraq, of course. Not that the bush administration hasn't tried it's damnedest to scare the population into voting for them, though.
posted by delmoi at 7:46 AM on January 9, 2007


As for society increasingly embracing religion? I don't see that happening at all...
posted by edd at 10:29 AM EST on January 9


Then what is the point of this conference? There must be some perceived mounting threat against science to justify all this discussion. Otherwise, they are beating a dying horse.

The fact is that in the US, religion is on the rise - the fastest growing religions are Mormonism and evangelical Christianity, but all religions are growing. In the US people very often change their religions, but very infrequently drop out entirely.

The middle east is become more Islamic, not less so. Russian orthodoxy is flourishing despite having been buried underground for 70 years.

But then I'm a physicist, so that no doubt just confirms what you think.
posted by edd at 10:29 AM EST on January 9


No offense, but it confirms that as a physicist, you are actually less qualified to discuss religion than a theologian, just as the theologian is less qualified to discuss physics than you. Because your extensive knowledge and thorough understanding of the intricate workings of the physical universe has absolutely no bearing on the subject whatsoever. And vice versa.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:51 AM on January 9, 2007


Watch this:

... stop trying to explain how the afterlife could be other dimensions God created man...

Whah!? I don't know any reputable scientists
religious people who say crap like that. Maybe all sorts of hacks, but it's not like scientists religious people have control over them.
posted by delmoi at 10:42 AM EST on January 9

posted by Pastabagel at 7:54 AM on January 9, 2007


From Sam Harris's essay in the last link:

The point is this: intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc.) than dogmatism.

Better at what? If we are irrational beings at the core, then it seems to me an open question what the best method of dealing with this irrationality would be. Which is to say that the true and the good seem to be conflated here—science is not by being rational automatically less dangerous than religious belief when it comes to how we live our lives. More enlightened? Perhaps. More useful? Debatable. More in touch with reality? If you define reality as subatomic interactions, sure; if you consider what is taken for real by human beings, not so much. Even if religious beliefs are false, it doesn't make them irrelevant to morality, statecraft, etc. So long as they are taken for reality, the scientific viewpoing is emphatically not in touch with what that reality is. Perhaps we are all drives and molecules and that is REALITY, but when it comes to morality, ideology, etc., to reduce human beings to that substructure is to ignore multiple aspects that we take for real and which dictate our behavior.

Intellectual honesty may be a scientific virtue, but calling it virtue, full stop, seems to me a dangerous dogma unto itself.

(Insert something about the blind man and the right road here.)
posted by felix grundy at 8:11 AM on January 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


There is also a fear that if people believe things that are incorrect, that they may make bad choices. Those choices, being based on faulty premises, may have bad consequences for the fearer.

Yes. You know, there are a lot of countries where people don't even give a damn about what their kids believe re: the creation of the universe. They're too busy teaching them economics, or engineering, or medicine.

This whole preoccupation with orthodoxy, whether scientist or fundamentalist, is still a relic of Christianity, any way you slice it.
posted by Laugh_track at 8:25 AM on January 9, 2007


The problem with these types of conferences is you have highly intelligent and fiercely independent minded people trying to come to some type of consensus, unlike religion where everyone is all too happy to listen to fables and believe in Poseidon... whoops, I meant Jesus, Allah, Shiva, Krishna, Elvis...
posted by disgruntled at 8:30 AM on January 9, 2007


For those who claim that religion and science should not mix (er, I guess it's just Pastabagel, but it's a common meme):

Either God (pick yer flavor) participates in the world, or He doesn't. Which is it?

If He does, then religion should be included in models of the universe -- aka, "physics". If not, then God is irrelevant to our existence and the concept should be discarded.

I suppose there's a third option -- that God is indeed irrelevant to our existence, but that lots of people think that He is relevant. Then, this becomes a sociological field -- how does this belief affect the political, social, and military world?

Is there a name for this field of study? It's sorta-kinda Theology, except it would focus on understanding how religion affects people... a subset of Sociology. It would directly address this problem: "I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based." Note that the field would implicitly (or explicitly!) address such ugliness as how to use religion to control people...

Jody Tresidder: Does anyone trust that because the "old Al Qaeda" infrastructure is "practically dead" that our worries are henceforth over?

Scott Atran never said that terrorism poses no threat. He said, "...threats from terrorism in general, and religious terrorism in particular, are greatly exaggerated." ...which, unless somebody (you?) can show that terrorists have roughly 125,000 nuclear weapons, he's correct. I mean, many Americans were building fucking bomb shelters in their backyards!!
posted by LordSludge at 8:36 AM on January 9, 2007


I'm familiar with some of these authors, and there seem to be two outstanding philosophical issues that really bug some scientists. The first is the mind/brain problem, and just that it is still fascinating and mind-boggling that a chunk of physical cells is able to 'produce' conscious thought. The second is that, among scientists who have jumped ship and take the problem seriously, there does seem to be some evidence of parapsychological phenomonon. Or, more accurately, physical phenomenon that are outside our current scientific framework of understanding.

Taken together, it's like cavemen trying to figure out what the shiny bright thing in the sky is, why the magic rock always points north, or why the evil radioactive rock makes things sick.
posted by Nquire at 8:42 AM on January 9, 2007


Religion is a political discussion, not a religious versus scientific one. It is religious freedom versus dogma, because dogma puts people in power who would otherwise be in power without one religion dictating reality to all the others. If science can do us any favors, it is to lessen the contamination of religion in public schools where it hopes to germinate its power base, because mentally healthy people just don't care, but they can be brainwashed to accept it as normal for everyone else.
posted by Brian B. at 9:49 AM on January 9, 2007


Lordsludge: Look up cognitive religious studies, or cognitive neurology in religious studies. It's a budding field - I have at least two friends who are suplimenting their Psych studies with comp rel degrees.


Someday scientists will no longer be able to uncover novel data regarding the inner workings of the universe without including God and the hidden architecture in their algorithms. Of course, I am a theologian and should not speculate about things scientific in nature.

You know, theology used to be the Queen of the sciences. That should count for something.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:02 AM on January 9, 2007


Pastabagel, saying that a theologian is best qualified to discuss religion is like saying a bacterium is best qualified to discuss microbiology.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:04 AM on January 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


"I mean, many Americans were building fucking bomb shelters in their backyards!!"
posted by LordSludge

Great link - but what's your point?

That bomb shelters were dumb because they were never going to be effective if the Cold War went nuclear?
That bomb shelters were dumb because the bombs never fell?

Or - what?

Sure, I don't know if the threat of terrorism is cynically over-stated. I imagine it is in many respects.

But I also don't have much confidence that we can predict exactly what wicked thing comes this way next.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:08 AM on January 9, 2007


Pastabagel said:
No offense, but it confirms that as a physicist, you are actually less qualified to discuss religion than a theologian, just as the theologian is less qualified to discuss physics than you. Because your extensive knowledge and thorough understanding of the intricate workings of the physical universe has absolutely no bearing on the subject whatsoever. And vice versa.

I mentioned that I was a physicist mainly as a joke, as obviously if you think that
Physicsist also fail to appreciate that as science has pushed extended the limits of our understanding of the world, society has increasingly embraced religion
then you'll never believe me if I believe that society is not increasingly embracing religion, because you've arrived with a probably unjustified belief that I'm failing to appreciate something.

What does make me think that society is not increasingly embracing religion is not my understanding of the universe at large from years of training, but rather the fact that I live in the same society as everyone else and read the same newspaper reports as everybody else. Which pretty much show that here at least, religion's in decline.
posted by edd at 10:23 AM on January 9, 2007


Jody, I think he's saying you're more likely to choke to death on peanut-butter toast than be killed by a terrorist.

George_Spiggott, I'm afraid I don't follow your logic.
Certainly, if I was interested in discussing physics, I would approach a physicist.
Saying that a physicist is best qualified to discuss science is like saying a bacterium is best qualified to discuss microbiology.

Yeah. Doesn't wash.

Unless you're being an asshole. I may not have picked up on that... I just finished lunch and I'm a little sleepy. I know at least two or three theologians who know a goodly deal about religion.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:26 AM on January 9, 2007


Jody, I think he's saying you're more likely to choke to death on peanut-butter toast than be killed by a terrorist...
posted by Baby_Balrog

You are perfectly correct putting it like that:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:56 AM on January 9, 2007


Either God (pick yer flavor) participates in the world, or He doesn't. Which is it?

It's not germane to the pursuit of science. Physics begins from the assumption that the universe can be entirely understood through logic, reason, and observation - God has been assumed out. It would be silly to reintroduce God into physics (read: any science) now, because physics has not reached a point where given its own assumptions it cannot advance further.

Assuming that it will inevitably reach that point (there's no reason to think this must be so, but let's assume), there is still the business of defining what God is.

Pastabagel, saying that a theologian is best qualified to discuss religion is like saying a bacterium is best qualified to discuss microbiology.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:04 PM EST on January 9


This is silly - bacteria do not study microbiology. If I had used "religious people" in place of "theologians" then the analogy would make sense.

Also, do not make the mistake of assuming all theologians believe in God. I've met many (some who are ministers) who believe God is a necessary fiction. Theologians are simply people who study religion (usu. Western monotheistic religions).
posted by Pastabagel at 10:57 AM on January 9, 2007


When I read this post I thought, great, I can go read about how this sober discussion amongst learned luminaries devolved into rhetorical bitch slaps and bickering past one another's points, and then I can come back to the blue and watch the same thing happen in real time. As a theist who's a big fan of atheism (huge fan, honestly, I'd say definitely would be my second choice for a primary ideology) I think it is significant that these recent champions of the cause, Dawkins and Harris, seem to reserve a special kind of vitriol for the nonbeliever who refuses to espouse, or indeed actively rejects, their uniform contention that religion is a consistently negative thing and the only rational outcome to proselytize it its elimination. Despite all they say it is a kind of dogmatism and what's more it keeps atheism politically weak.

Of course we religious moderates/unorthodox make ourselves politically weak in all sorts of other ways. Sigh, sigh, and the bad guys are still winning.
posted by nanojath at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, theology used to be the Queen of the sciences. That should count for something.

You used to shit yourself when you were 6 months old. Should that count for something too?
posted by fleetmouse at 11:08 AM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


felix grundy - If we are irrational beings at the core,... Even if religious beliefs are false, it doesn't make them irrelevant to morality, statecraft, etc.

Given that we're innately irrational, why is it incompatible with vying to become more than we are and try to adopt as rational a view of the world as we can?

Morality, to me, is what some organization tells us how to behave. Ethics, again to me, is the practice of rationally assessing a situation and choosing a course of action that will yield the least harm/most good. I believe that ethical behavior poses a greater potential to resolve situations more satisfactorily to the most agents than moral behavior.

So long as they are taken for reality, the scientific viewpoing is emphatically not in touch with what that reality is. Perhaps we are all drives and molecules and that is REALITY, but when it comes to morality, ideology, etc., to reduce human beings to that substructure is to ignore multiple aspects that we take for real and which dictate our behavior.

I think that the preoccupation with equating science and theoretical and practical quantum physics is distilling the situation down too far.

Science also comprises the social sciences (how groups of people behave) and biology (how organisms behave). The findings from sociology and biology is just as real as quantum physics and findings from these fields that are reproducible and have predictive capabilities should be applied to determining what our behavior should be.
posted by porpoise at 11:22 AM on January 9, 2007


oh, jeez fleetmouse. your cunning use of logic has completely destroyed the foundation of my argument.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2007


Scott Atran has basically won this discussion on all fronts, from pointing out that other participants proposals were dumb to fairly pantsing Dawkins by showing that religion is not only not memetic in nature, but is pat of a group of folk beliefs with positive effects.

The problem, though is that although this particular manifestation of the Third Culture cult has all kinds of doctorates attached to it, it is really a gathering for superstitious, irrational intellectual cowards. The fact that their superstitions (about a computable universe and many unwarranted assumprions about consciousness) are trendy is of no consequence.

Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in God -- he believes in another non-falsifiable bullshit metaphor called memes instead. One cannot find a more "ultimate 747" than the concept that ideas follow genetic rules despite lacking any essential physical substance, and that these rules happen to be those held dear by Dawkins himself. Never have so many nerds so rabidly condoned the obvious solipsism of one man before.

Other boosters of this cult believe that we will meet godlike aliens or become immortal through transhuman means, even though this is really choosing some new, fashionable bullshit to replace the tired rhetoric of religion, as the justofication for cool borgs and spacemen are about as specious as your average proof for the existence of God.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is that since organized religion and atheism seem to be composed of dishonest, vainglorious hacks, what should an average person think?

Well, whatever he wants to, as long as it doesn't unduly burden common public life. Really, is that so difficult, theist and atheist-jihad dorks?
posted by mobunited at 11:33 AM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Dawkins and Harris, seem to reserve a special kind of vitriol for the nonbeliever who refuses to espouse, or indeed actively rejects, their uniform contention that religion is a consistently negative thing and the only rational outcome to proselytize it its elimination. Despite all they say it is a kind of dogmatism and what's more it keeps atheism politically weak.

I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I've come to the conclusion that religion is, in the main, a consistently negative thing... and when you have a consistently negative thing, what are the rational responses to it? Proselytizing for its elimination is certainly one of them, just as trying for compromise is. Maybe Dawkins and Harris could be nicer about it, but then again, I think history shows that minority movements need to have a Malcolm X as well as an MLK, and Quit India freedom fighters as well as Gandhi.

The fact that the mainstream American public is even talking about atheism is very much due to the inflammatory efforts of people like Dawkins. Not so long ago, it was possible for people to pretend as if there were no atheists in America; now they can't. Now there's room for someone else (like, say, Scott Atran) to begin a new sort of discussion about it. Atran thinks Dawkins' vicious approach doesn't work to convince religious people to change, and he's right... but his approach won't work unless someone like Dawkins yells loud enough to get religious people listening in the first place. I think that atheism needs both types of argument.
posted by vorfeed at 11:51 AM on January 9, 2007 [4 favorites]


Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in God -- he believes in another non-falsifiable bullshit metaphor called memes instead.

Oh for the love of Benji. What kind of deranged thinking is going on here? How can someone "believe" in a metaphor they're using? How can a metaphor be "bullshit" or "falsifiable"?

The difference between God and a meme is that Dawkins was perfectly aware that he was constructing an analogy to illustrate a point(*). Theists, not so much.

This is the primary difference between a scientific outlook and a religious one - the person doing the modeling is very much aware of his role in constructing the model.

All this postmodern politically correct gibberish about how science is just another religion or just another form of, ehhh, epistemological bigotry, completely misses that point. And it's an important point. You never see physicists flying planes into buildings in the name of string theory.

(* "Next question might be, does the information have to be molecular at all? Memes. This is not something that I’ve ever wanted to push as a theory of human culture, but I originally proposed it as a kind of… almost an anti-gene, to make the point that Darwinism requires accurate replicators with phenotypic power, but they don’t necessarily have to be genes. What if they were computer viruses? They hadn’t been invented when I wrote The Selfish Gene so I went straight for memes, units of cultural inheritance.")
posted by fleetmouse at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


oh, jeez fleetmouse. your cunning use of logic has completely destroyed the foundation of my argument.

What argument? That we used to think that witches float in water, therefore there is some merit to it? K, let me put on my thinking cap and furrow my brow over that one for a few yonks. I'll get back to you.
posted by fleetmouse at 12:04 PM on January 9, 2007


One highlight of the conference (on ID).
posted by vertriebskonzept at 12:12 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


A religious scientist is a contradiction in terms.
posted by bobbyelliott at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2007


Does anyone trust that because the "old Al Qaeda" infrastructure is "practically dead" that our worries are henceforth over?

I do. And what delmoi and the others said.

Not that there is no more threat, but that I personally don't worry about it any more than I worry about getting hit by a bus - quite a bit less, in fact.
posted by bashos_frog at 12:17 PM on January 9, 2007


there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society

I just wanted to let you all know, I was thinking about this problem (the basic irrationality of human life and society, etc. and so on) a little while ago and discovered a truly marvelous solution to it. But unfortunately this MetaFilter comment submission area is too small to contain it.
posted by flug at 12:32 PM on January 9, 2007


One highlight of the conference (on ID).

That was great.
posted by disgruntled at 12:32 PM on January 9, 2007


Theologians are simply people who study religion

How can you study a subject that has no falsifiable hypotheses?

I mean, sure you can discuss it to death, write papers and such, but can you really say that is 'study'?
posted by bashos_frog at 12:39 PM on January 9, 2007


How can you study a subject that has no falsifiable hypotheses?

Aesthetically, comparatively, historically, socioculturally, anthropologically, normatively. As art, as literature, as politics, as social history, as philosophy.

I mean, sure you can discuss it to death, write papers and such, but can you really say that is 'study'?


If I ever find myself needing a single representative example of why the scientific method (and its single-minded proponents) ought to stay out of the big questions of existence and its meaning, I just might use this. Thanks.
posted by gompa at 12:57 PM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


Jody Tresidder: Great link - but what's your point?
That bomb shelters were dumb because they were never going to be effective if the Cold War went nuclear?
That bomb shelters were dumb because the bombs never fell?

Or - what?


I didn't suggest that they were "dumb" at all. Rather, I was using them as a viceral illustration that the Soviet nuclear threat was an actual threat to America's existence -- as opposed to the threat of terrorism, which is minor by comparison.

This is hardly a "diabolically illogical point", as you suggest. And it is not equivalent to saying that terrorism is NO threat, as you also suggest.

(Wow, I go to one meeting, and see what I miss...)
posted by LordSludge at 1:01 PM on January 9, 2007


Aesthetically, comparatively, historically, socioculturally, anthropologically, normatively. As art, as literature, as politics, as social history, as philosophy.

Theology originally meant the study of God, not the study of theologians and associated social and historical issues. And statements about God, unless they are self contradictory, are unfalsifiable. Having debated with some diabolically clever theists I'd go so far as to call them tactically unfalsifiable.

Comparisons to art or literature are flawed. Literature is not taught with the idea that there is one true literary work that makes objectively true claims about man's place in the universe and so forth.
posted by fleetmouse at 1:14 PM on January 9, 2007


Aesthetically: A religion may be beautiful without being true.

comparatively: You are not studying the thing in itself, you are study the relationship(s) between it and something else.

historically: Something happened, or it didn't. Falsifiability.

socioculturally/anthropologically: Experiments with falsifiable hypotheses abound.

normatively: would be rather circular, don't you think?

art and literature do not pretend to be sciences. Theology does.

as politics, social history or philosophy: Well, yes religion may be studied like that, but that is not theology.
theologia : "an account of the gods"

After 2000 or so years of Christian theology what do we know about the Christian god that we did not know at the beginning? What have we learned from that theology?
posted by bashos_frog at 1:22 PM on January 9, 2007


Or what fleetmouse said.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2007


“Either God (pick yer flavor) participates in the world, or He doesn't. Which is it?”

The enlightened man is one with causation.

(Just thought I’d throw some Eastern nontheism into the Western theistic dualism.)

Odd how “‘atheist’ ‘scientists’” continue to assert only one form of thought (theistic dualism) as “religious thinking.”
Reminds me of martial arts teachers - “attack me like this....no, you attacked me wrong”

I wouldn’t argue human society is irrational per se. Merely that the symbols and concepts are in flux depending on a variety of things such as context. Like humor.
(Which is why I disagree with f’rinstance Atran’s sentence on Socrates “meekly” drinking his poison. That was a big big “fuck you” to Athenian society)

And certainly there should be far more evidentiary and reason based decision making in society. But one can’t force context. That’s similar to the above “either/or” forced dichotomy. (Indeed, you can’t force people to laugh).
posted by Smedleyman at 1:41 PM on January 9, 2007


historically: Something happened, or it didn't. Falsifiability.

I'll speak to this one, since it's what my degree's in. History - at least at a post-secondary level - isn't the study of whether something happened or not. An historian, for example, might spend a career studying the nature of fascism in 1930s America (as my thesis adviser did). In so doing, he uses whatever hard data exists to develop defensible theses. This isn't the same thing as a falsifiable hypothesis. "Father Coughlin's radio broadcasts represented the apotheosis of Depression-era nativism in America" is not empirically falsifiable; it is, however, an excellent area of study to deepen one's understanding of the pop culture of its time.

Certain schools and certain non-scientific disciplines have been sufficiently cowed by the science gang over the years to make often ridiculous pretensions to objective "scientific" study of the humanities - sociology, I'm looking in your general direction - but these are not the only ways of studying these topics (nor, in my opinion, anywhere near the most useful). I assume this to be the case with most modern theological studies, and at any rate I was mainly responding to the assumption that the scientific method of hypothesis-data-conclusion was the only real way to "study" something.
posted by gompa at 1:44 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes your example hypothesis is not empirically falsifiable. But I would assume that much of the evidence to support that case *is* falsifiable.

There is evidence Father Coughlin existed.
There is evidence that he had a very popular radio show.
There is evidence that he accused the government of treason.
And so on.

Whether or not I agree with your thesis, I come away from your paper/lecture/etc. most likely having learned a thing or two.

Theology, on the other hand has no such premises on which to build, and therefore you come away without learning anything new (about the subject - the gods, although you do learn how theologists think about them)

Study without learning is not study, at best it is contemplation, that is to say, mere religious musing.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:09 PM on January 9, 2007


And because not religion thread is complete without mentioning His Noodliness - I pose a serious theological question:

Is the flying spaghetti monster semolina based as they believe in the West, or is he in fact made of buckwheat noodles (or soba) as the Eastern proponents of his religion believe?

I could contemplate this issue for the rest of my life, becoming a serious theologian in the process, referring to arguments made by other theologians, referencing ancient and obscure texts, and having epiphanies, but in the end, regardless of the change in my beliefs, my knowledge would be as incomplete as when I started.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


“Theology, on the other hand has no such premises on which to build, and therefore you come away without learning anything new”


“The core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty,” said Sam Harris...These are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality.” ”

I think he’s right, but I think that’s where everything gets bound up. The question is not one of supernatural being, but rather, off being itself and meaning.
To paraphrase Jung - it could be that man’s purpose is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness.
Well, that’s tautological isn’t it? But it’s also poignant.
Science is a technique of perception, interpretation is a matter for mankind. And if one does glean a higher kind of knowlege or revelation in meaning from art, literature or faith, that isn’t mutually exclusive from the peception of reality brought by science.
One need not provide evidence of an actual birth by a virgin to understand - as a new concept - the metaphor for man’s state of self-consciousness or being or “spirit” in the world.
As Bromden says in “One Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest” - these things didn’t happen, but they’re still true.
But certainly science should be the exclusive technique for perceiving reality. One must experience and discover things first before ascribing any meaning. The contemplation of meaning does have value however. And there are a variety of ways, other than purely perceptual, to apprehend them.

I’m reminded of the bit where they’re looking at the grandeur of Saturn and Earth is just a tiny speck and such.
I think there’s an unspoken understanding here, by some scientists, that some religion is in part about the scary bit of the endless black going on and on forever. And their embracing of it, whilst the religious folks cloak themselves in comforting ignorance and metaphor, makes them tougher, smarter, etc.

And there’s a truth to that, lots of people don’t like to think about that huge space, they seem to develop an intellectual agoraphobia.
But really, life is far more complex and interesting and more challenging than any grandeur no matter how vast or perception no matter the depth.
The Why of something is always going to be more compelling to humans than the How. Even, or perhaps especially if there is no why. Because then we generally ask why there isn’t a why and/or how people feel about that.
It’s why we have drama and how changes in modern context allows us to look at, say, Hamlet, with new eyes.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:24 PM on January 9, 2007


Theology, on the other hand has no such premises on which to build, and therefore you come away without learning anything new (about the subject - the gods, although you do learn how theologists think about them)

Well, I'm no theologian, and maybe Jeff Tweedy's got it right and they don't know nothin' about my soul, but anyway I think the premise is that we have souls, and that examining what they are and the meaning of their existence and thus ours in the context of an infinite and ultimately unknowable universe that may or may not be divinely ordained is a worthy subject of study. Particularly if you use a loose definition of soul to mean whatever makes us essentially individuals, and human, and whether or not it connects us in any important way to the cosmos.

YMMV, as they say in these parts. Me, I find that "mere religious musing" to sometimes touch upon many of the most important questions of existence. And as others have noted, that postscript by Scott Atran felt to me like the most significant part of this post.

On preview, w/r/t to His Noodliness: None of the above. He's rice vermicelli, tucked under a pile of grilled pork, Vietnamese style. Well, I felt the presence of the divine the first time I tried it done proper in Hanoi, anyway.
posted by gompa at 2:29 PM on January 9, 2007


I may be a bit pedantic when I say this, but theology is not about "being itself and meaning."

Theology is the study of the supernatural in the same way that science is a study of the natural.

"Why am I here?" is a religious/philosophical question.

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is a (famous) theological question.

Theology is the biggest waste of human mental effort since religious belief was invented. It purports to study that which, almost by definition, cannot be known.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:38 PM on January 9, 2007


...I think the premise is that we have souls, and that examining what they are and the meaning of their existence...

Okay, then tell me what knowledge about our souls has been gleaned from those examinations of the last several centuries.

Do we know where they come from, what they are made of, how they work, how much they weigh, if we can lose them, if they are immortal, or anything at all?

What knowledge has several hundred years of examination yielded?

How can you discuss the meaning of the existence of something that cannot even be proven to exist?

What is the meaning of the Lamborghini in my garage? And does it contain therein a Playboy Playmate, or a Penthouse Pet? I suppose I shall have to ponder that question for a very long time, since the existence and location of that garage has yet to be established.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:46 PM on January 9, 2007


What Atran said. Thanks for posting this.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2007


Smedleyman, your post is causing me actual physical pain. I think you left out the part about kittens and rainbows.

Keep in mind what you're cozying up to.
posted by fleetmouse at 3:10 PM on January 9, 2007


“I think you left out the part about kittens and rainbows.”

Yeah, well, I’m not winning any pulizer any time soon. I think folks like Paul at Teens for Christ like to twist cogent (albeit in apperance contrary to “science”) arguments to meet their positions. But I’m not talking rainbows and unicorns. And I’m not arguing that the map is not the territory.
There are solid methods of percieving and thinking about reality and those are - and should be - purely empirical. Anything else is distortion.
End of story.
There are however other non-experience based methods of thinking we use to discern meaning. Logic is one of those. As is Zen (not the new-age crystal, undisciplined version).

But very rarely do I find anyone steeped in western thought willing to give up their attachments (negative or positive) to the whole “God” question.
It’s simply not relevant. To my mind arguing against “God” or theism props it up.

My argument is that there are useful non-metaphysical perspectives and unfortunately atheists are too attached to “no-God” to see past the form. Indeed, some woman I recall from the article argued that science should take up religious ritual and method to spread scientific thought.
If that’s not a dead giveaway I don’t know what is.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:59 PM on January 9, 2007


(The ‘atheists’ in question here, not atheists in general.)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2007


Also, do not make the mistake of assuming all theologians believe in God. I've met many (some who are ministers) who believe God is a necessary fiction.

These ministers, were they up front about this belief with their flocks? If so, how did they (the flocks) take it? If not, it's a bizarre sort of calling if not only do you not believe anyone called you to it but it involves lying every day. And if they don't have flocks and they don't believe in God, why are they ministers?

I'd be prepared to believe that there are some theologians who are to Theology as criminologists are to Criminology; to wit: they study crime without any requirement they be criminals themselves, but I have to believe, absent data to the contrary, that they're in the minority, even to the point of being outliers.

I'd have every respect for a theologian who was involved in the honest study of the phenomenon of belief (which is actually a fascinating subject) without being himself immersed in that belief. My microbiology/bacterium simile was meant to indicate that -- if you want to consult a student of a thing, do you really want to consult one who is -- typically if not inevitably -- a prime example of that thing?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:23 PM on January 9, 2007


The problem for me, and my closest friend is a hardcore atheist, is that atheism, in my experience, is not atheism, but scientism. And has any one else noticed that many atheists have one hell of a persecution complex.
posted by vronsky at 6:45 PM on January 9, 2007


Just popping back after work to note that I don't enthusiastically endorse everything Scott Atran said; he particularly lost me with, "the subordination of women has relatively little to do with religion per se and much more to do with the kinship structure of Arab society" which I thought glossed over the way Islam oppresses women in *non-Arab* societies. But he really nails a certain knee-jerk anti-"belief" stance which seems to have been prominent at the conference, challenges the atheist position in point #2 to show some data underlying its own most cherished myths, and in point #6 goes after Sam Harris for decidedly un-anthropological statements about the feelings of families of certain suicide bombers, among other misrepresentations.

Provocative and pointed, like I said.
posted by mediareport at 6:53 PM on January 9, 2007


Hell fleetmouse, Atran sed the same damn thing I did (well, better, but still):
“...reason in the sense of consistent argumentation from evidence and logic is only one of several cognitive tools that humans are endowed with in order to navigate the physical and social world they live in — very good for finding the hidden springs and causes of the world around us but pretty bad for morally deciding what to do about what we find.”

(Albeit without the caviat that when fact is related into symbol (word, picture, what have you) you miss the naked reality of experiance...but still.)
posted by Smedleyman at 6:58 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Particularly if you use a loose definition of soul to mean whatever makes us essentially individuals, and human, and whether or not it connects us in any important way to the cosmos."

OK, gompa. That's not a bad definition, really. But consider:

We currently do not have sufficient tools to completely measure and record (or simulate to a sufficient degree of accuracy... or is it precision?) the information processing of the human brain. Thus, we have not the ability to really define and understand the brain's workings as regards our human individuality.

However, given the continual improvement of sensory technology, computing power and data storage, it is highly likely that at some future point we will indeed be able to fully and accurately "image" the complete data structure and processing pathways of the brain.

What if, in doing so, we (I should say our scientists) discover that everything that makes a human being a human being, all the personality, emotion, everything, is in fact completely contained within the human brain? What if they prove it is possible to create a "software" version of You or Me, running in an artificial data processing system, or just a complete recording of You or Me that, in the event of a serious brain-damaging injury, could be used to rebuild a brain - or even reproduce You in a cloned body if, say, you fell under an asphalt roller?

Many SF writers have explored this, and I'm sure there are many scientists who believe this is actually the case, and are working to see if is a falsifiable hypothesis. I personally suspect it's true, but of course I'm no scientist.

What will people do if it's discovered that there's no "magic" to it, that the process of evolution itself has created us and all that we are? What will you think if it's determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that Individual Humanity is in fact the same exact thing as Software running via an Operating System on a Processor with Memory?

What if the Soul, at least by your loose definition, turns out to be completely quantifiable? It's a very distinct possibility.

How would you react to that?
posted by zoogleplex at 7:07 PM on January 9, 2007


why is evolution not magic? and i say this with a degree in evolutionary biology (if that matters). why does evolution rule out a soul?
posted by unknowncommand at 7:45 PM on January 9, 2007


I see what you're getting at, Smedley - our response to the world and our moral decisions and choices as to what our lives mean, what we do with them, etc., transcend the scientific method - which is, in a best case scenario, merely a tool and not an ideology.

But our moral decisions are made mostly on the basis not of what we think but of what we are - of what nature and nurture have built us to desire - and the commonality of human ethics springs from that human essence and from the practical necessity of bunches of us having to get along and live together.

Now we can look at that and try to understand why we are what we are from a reality based perspective, which recognizes and honors what humanity is, or we can continue to spin the same old yarns about Gods we've spun since the neolithic and before, and take them as literal truth.

So I guess what I'm saying is, take your pick: reality or fantasy. They're mutually incompatible. Religion is not seen by the religious as illuminating literature, art and myth. It's seen as truth. And the big anthropomorphic sky daddy tends to get smuggled back into even the most sophisticated, subtle understandings of God held by "advanced" theists.(*)

There's this tendency for intelligent, liberal atheists and agnostics to reach out to the religious in the spirit of ecumenicism (for lack of a better term), hoping that we can find some common ground in seeing things in a figurative way - that what they call God we call nature, to put a Spinozistic spin on it. But they're not speaking the language of metaphor. Even the Christians who don't think Genesis is literal believe that there's a sentient God who sent his only son to die on the cross to atone for man's sins and all that jazz.

And we do ourselves and them a disservice when we try to gloss over and ignore that difference. Because eventually we're going to come to a decision making time - on abortion, on stem cells, on foreign policy as it relates to prophecy - where we want to make decisions based on reality and they want to make decisions based on fantasy. The differences we swept under the rug are going to come back to haunt us.

(* there are of course placebo theists who don't literally believe but who think belief is good - for other people. Many of them are ministers. It's hard getting through the seminary without realizing there's no God, I've heard.)
posted by fleetmouse at 7:56 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


why is evolution not magic?

Because for the most part we can see how the trick is done.

why does evolution rule out a soul?

It doesn't, any more than relativity rules out leprechauns in the Andromeda galaxy.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:10 PM on January 9, 2007


We have different definitions of magic and soul.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:15 PM on January 9, 2007


mobunited: Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in God -- he believes in another non-falsifiable bullshit metaphor called memes instead. One cannot find a more "ultimate 747" than the concept that ideas follow genetic rules despite lacking any essential physical substance, and that these rules happen to be those held dear by Dawkins himself. Never have so many nerds so rabidly condoned the obvious solipsism of one man before.

fleetmouse: Oh for the love of Benji. What kind of deranged thinking is going on here? How can someone "believe" in a metaphor they're using? How can a metaphor be "bullshit" or "falsifiable"?

Well, technically speaking, theories are metaphors. And hypotheses derived from memetics certainly are falsifiable. The side of evolutionary theory that doesn't get talked about in high school or even in lower-level college classes is quantitative genetics which permits you to make predictions about gene frequencies and phenotype expression over periods of time. There is even a quantitative hypothesis that predicts kin altruism as a function of relatedness.

So if memetics is a good theory, quantitative genetics should provide reasonably good models of information exchange between humans.

Of course, this is where a social scientist like me points out that theories with better predictive power were developed before memetics was coined.

bashos_frog: How can you study a subject that has no falsifiable hypotheses?

I mean, sure you can discuss it to death, write papers and such, but can you really say that is 'study'?


Well, to me that sounds a heck of a lot like a naive quantitative/qualitative debate. Which is one of those things that social scientists engage in excessive angst about, while biologists just shrug since descriptive and qualitative research isn't a big deal for them.

I'm going to drop a lot of names and terms here, because I don't think you are an idiot and might be interested in further information. One of the problems that advocates of the scientific method take for granted is where do those falsifiable hypothesis come from? So you have Grounded Theory by Strauss & Corbin which is a methodology for looking at a big chunk of unsorted descriptive data about a complex events and identifying features that might be used for later hypothesis testing.

A second problem with the scientific method is that its power is built on collecting a large number of examples and minimizing the undesired variance between them. This doesn't work that well when you are dealing with extremely rare phenomena, or phenomena which are extremely expensive or ethically problematic. So you have methods that deal with unique or ephemeral phenomena such as case studies (Stake or Yin provide different views) or ethnography. Historical events are a particular problem because historians can't replicate events, and have to rely on other people's views of events. Hexter's History Primer opened up my eyes to the validity of historical historical methods beyond scientific hypothesis testing.

Issues of validity and reliability are one of those things that get tossed back and forth between the quantitative and qualitative camps. Qualitative studies tend to rely on having multiple people review the collection process and triangulation of multiple sources of information pointing to similar results. Qualitative researchers also tend to point out that quantitative methods are not as unimpeachable as many would like to pretend.

And of course, both qualitative and quantitative research are primarily concerned with creating abstract principles from concrete events. Other fields such as art, law, and ethics are more open to evaluating whether a concrete event is consistent with some stated theoretical principles. In astronomy, observations inconsistent with the Einstein's theories have forced consideration of "dark energy." In law, known violations of due process rights force revaluation of the defendant's legal status, not the theory of due process.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:17 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


What if the Soul, at least by your loose definition, turns out to be completely quantifiable? It's a very distinct possibility.

How would you react to that?


I guess I'd probably have to reconsider some of my most deeply held beliefs, though I'm not sure it'd really alter them in any fundamental way.

A computer running Mandelbrot equations to graph a tree and its leaves and branches - even one creating a 3D holographic photorealistic simulation of one in Sensarround and Smell-o-Vision - is not a stand of giant cedars after a rain. And it's nowhere near the wonder of standing among them. And I'm as close to certain as I am about anything it never will be.
posted by gompa at 8:36 PM on January 9, 2007


elaine pagels wrote a book called beyond belief btw, in which she advocates faith thru experience and discovery (as opposed to submission and subjugation).

wow 'Stuart Hameroff, V.S. Ramachandran' :D cf. thanks!
posted by kliuless at 8:42 PM on January 9, 2007


fleetmouse: And we do ourselves and them a disservice when we try to gloss over and ignore that difference. Because eventually we're going to come to a decision making time - on abortion, on stem cells, on foreign policy as it relates to prophecy - where we want to make decisions based on reality and they want to make decisions based on fantasy. The differences we swept under the rug are going to come back to haunt us.

In reality, I have to admit that after decision-making time, I'm outnumbered 10-1 by people of faith out here on my little wing of the radical peacenik, pro-gay, pro-feminist left.

Why do you automatically assume that your allies on those political issues are not people of faith?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:42 PM on January 9, 2007


When you say people of faith do you mean Christians or do you mean self-styled Buddhists? Are we talking about Unitarian Universalists here? Are we talking about political activists who have appropriated this and that bit of religion from the multicultural buffet as lifestyle accessories?

Because, you know, I've seen lots of folks who have a particular outlook on life, society, politics etc. and manage to bend some kind of blanket of spirituality around themselves as a comfort and support - I mean, it's awfully craven of them, but there you go - sorry if that sounds like a no true Scotsman fallacy.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:13 PM on January 9, 2007


"why is evolution not magic? and i say this with a degree in evolutionary biology (if that matters)."

I only use the term "magic" in relation to "created out of nothingness by some superior being who transcends material reality." I think evolution is a wonderfully magical thing, in other senses!

"why does evolution rule out a soul?"

It doesn't, nor did I state that it did. :)

"I guess I'd probably have to reconsider some of my most deeply held beliefs, though I'm not sure it'd really alter them in any fundamental way."

Well, I probably would too, though it might alter mine in fundamental ways - no matter which way things were discovered to be. I'd think it was wonderful either way, though.

"And it's nowhere near the wonder of standing among them. And I'm as close to certain as I am about anything it never will be."

A digitally reproduced You would feel the exact same wonder. I'm not talking about a 3D simulation of the cedars; I'm talking about a replication of your entire humanity, perhaps even "installed" in as identical a body to the one you're in now, standing among the cedars and appreciating them as you would. Duplicating the totality of you and your ability to experience that exact same feeling is quite a step beyond some present-day computer crunching Mandelbrot.

Of course, as soon as the replicated You actually started running and experiencing sensory input, he (I'm assuming, so please forgive if in error) would cease being You and start being Him - two different individuals with different experiences. But that's a whole 'nother can o' worms... :)
posted by zoogleplex at 9:19 PM on January 9, 2007


Oh for the love of Benji. What kind of deranged thinking is going on here? How can someone "believe" in a metaphor they're using? How can a metaphor be "bullshit" or "falsifiable"?

Others have explained this well.


The difference between God and a meme is that Dawkins was perfectly aware that he was constructing an analogy to illustrate a point(*). Theists, not so much.


Dawkins has said that religion is a collection of memes in order to explain it in a way he considers valid, in contrast to divine truth, which he thinks is garbage. Basically, he does give memes a superior truth value, and that does constitute a form of irrational faith bound up in the fact that as a geneticist, he thinks genetics are really keen.


This is the primary difference between a scientific outlook and a religious one - the person doing the modeling is very much aware of his role in constructing the model.


Actually, that's not how religious thought works, except in the case of some kind of divine revelation. In most religions, revelation is something that happened in the history of the religion. When people claim revelation in the present day, most religious folks think they're insane. Not every religion uses Koresh-like theology.

All this postmodern politically correct gibberish about how science is just another religion or just another form of, ehhh, epistemological bigotry, completely misses that point. And it's an important point. You never see physicists flying planes into buildings in the name of string theory.

You don't see Imams flying planes into buildings in the name of Allah either. Stooges do it. Stooges for atheist or non-theistic projects have proven themselves capable of murdering large numbers of people from at least the Mongols (who were a secular empire) onward. And of course, science's material influence is well represented by the charred, mutilated and diseased flesh provided by modern weaponry, which cannot exist without the collusion of the scientific community. Here, the defense of "pure research" is rhetoric in the style of "collateral damage." Not every scientist indulges in this bullshit, but refusing to confront this as part of an argument about science's role in moral guidance compared to religion's certainly *is* intellectually dishonest.

But of course, that isn't the point. Religious leaders don't have some kind of siezure and then rant about the Great Satan for no reason, and scientists don't develop cool new chemicals that can burn your children just because they think it'd be fuckin' rad. They do it for the money or prestige. And the idea that scientists, who are now the academic group most dependent on corporate and national power, can somehow say their hands are clean of the vile projects comitted by their partners, is like saying that the Papacy had nothing to do with the Crusades.

It has nothing to do with treating since as a religion or blindly obeying that community's values, and everything to do with seeing that scientists have not proven that they won't help the bastards who *really* cause problems whenever it suits them. There is no proof that the institutions of scientists and engineers are capable of providing people with any guidance beyond their narrow, technical specialties. Attempts to redefine these fields to introduce such breadth have led to laughable, conceited intellectual constructs like evolutionary psychology, bad poetry, shitty art, and a pseudoreligion founded on turning yourself into a computer after a miracle happens.

The folk ideas that people use to navigate life are contrary to the whole project of science, and there's no indication that divesting people of these notions is either desireable or practical.

None of this should be construed as letting religion off the hook.
posted by mobunited at 9:27 PM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


"or we can continue to spin the same old yarns about Gods we've spun since the neolithic and before, and take them as literal truth."

Yeah, we agree that should stop. Method is where it gets socio-political, so for purposes here, let's table that.

"So I guess what I'm saying is, take your pick: reality or fantasy."

I have to go off on a slight tangent and say that's a false dichotomy in the sense I used before regarding the
enlightened man being one with causation.
BUT! given your (and general) terms, yes, the big bearded man in the clouds is incompatible with any philosophy of discovery. I agree.

"Religion is not seen by the religious as illuminating literature, art and myth. It's seen as truth."

Again, slight tangent on 'truth.' From a Zen perspective of direct experiential apprehension even the most cogent symbol is self-negating.
But in terms of truth as useful, practical knowledge - agreed.

"And we do ourselves and them a disservice when we try to gloss over and ignore that difference. Because eventually we're going to come to a decision making time - on abortion, on stem cells, on foreign policy as it relates to prophecy - where we want to make decisions based on reality and they want to make decisions based on fantasy."

Agreed. But recognize that as a social statement and (potential) agenda in and of itself and the attachment to
religion - NOT in your term fantasy, which I think is appropriate given our particular discussion - by the atheists in question creates an isomorphic situation.
The terms might differ but the question remains "who dictates reality?"

You might have the objection that I'm creating a false dichotomy there (and you'd be right) but as with your
proposition in picking reality or fantasy - it's a similar circumstance.
You see, someone will always express the symbol the metaphor, etc. and that symbol (even with the best intent) will be misunderstood or (at worst) perverted by those who receive it or distribute it.

Thus: non-theism. The question of the supernatural has no bearing on any empirical inquiry.
(I consider the term "God" equal to "everything" or "nothing" and just as practical. Counterarguments generally run thus: "Well, so what?" to which I generally reply "Exactly" - The Tao is unknown...And you need not know it.)

(Ah, but what if someone's forcing theism on you, you say?)
Well, where this gets bound up is in application. I think Atran is on to something asking how scientists advance reason - but I think he's creating several assumptions and avoiding the more important issue.
To avoid reiterating the assumptions I'll dodge them - but the core issue is not advancing reason...
See, to me this is playing out like Lisa Simpson shouting at people not to do whatever damn fool thing they're doing and some of the scientists are Lisa Simpsons trying to figure out how to make them listen.

It's not "advancing reason" - the more important issue is how to make reason a practical necessity.
Not how to negate the supernatural or discussion of it, but how to render it impractical as a concept to lug around.

People currently have the luxury of believing in the man in the clouds. Other people can sell Jesus to them because there's no tangible downside to not doing so.
And some folks use deity as comfort concept - that's a somewhat practical use they'll pay money for.

And right now there's no reason not to utilize that concept as - whatever. And if people buy books on JC and the boys or Mohammad - well, people will sell them.

The key, therefore, would be - as in economics - disincentivisation.
F'rinstance I don't really buy the "blame the troops" thing as a practical method to prevent war or people enlisting in the (U.S.) military.
(I'm not going to stop anyone from expressing a preference of course)
And it's the same thing here - I don't buy calling religious folks ideas stupid as practical disincentivisation.
I don't particularly disagree or agree (again - non-theism, it's a moot point) but I know you catch more flies with honey.

But, really, honey isn't going to work either.
My apologies for the speculation here...
It'd have to be some fundamental real world application. A serious paradigm shift. The kind that make investing in something (buggy whips, say) no longer feasible.

Damned if I know how to make that work with ideas. I know it has happened on smaller scales.
I suspect life on Mars or other planets would be a very serious blow to fundie thinking. But that'd be more stick and carrot, it wouldn't be a real lever.

But hey, I'm walking that walk myself. My wife and I had an in-vitro baby and just last week I refrained from seriously injuring someone who was talking all kindsa crap on stem cells.

I dunno man, at some point people stopped selling snake oil.
(I know some wit is going to fixate on how specifically snake oil was stopped as opposed to taking the meaning of the general concept)

It can't be a matter of getting the 'right' people in power...

...y'know what would do it? Telepathy. Something on the order of telepathy. Mind to mind transmission with clarity and no lying possible. (Yes I mean some technological method not new age blah blah).

Short of that hucksters, of whatever stripe, abound and abide. (And you just KNOW everyone who would fight/demonize/criminalize/ etc. telepathy and why and what they'd say to fight it, don'tcha? :-)

Putting the socio-political back on the table...
I suspect constant and rigorous demands for intellectual honesty in education is the best method right now. It's instructive that this whole "intelligent design" crap is being pushed on the educational system.
You don't get an 'A' in physics if your answer is "Jesus."

Somewhere someone's profiting from religious thought in some way. Find out how and disable the method of profiting.

The social stuff I'd go easy on and let change easy over time. It's tough to say "be patient" to all the evils addressed, but I'd rather not confront the stem cell idiots too directly myself. I can be impolite sometimes.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:37 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


"You don't see Imams flying planes into buildings in the name of Allah either. Stooges do it."

Say numbskull, put the flaps down so we can crash into the towers, see?
SOITENLY! Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
*bong* *dink!*

(missing the image tags)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:39 PM on January 9, 2007


fleetmouse: When you say people of faith do you mean Christians or do you mean self-styled Buddhists? Are we talking about Unitarian Universalists here? Are we talking about political activists who have appropriated this and that bit of religion from the multicultural buffet as lifestyle accessories?

Well, it does sound like a no true scotsman. And I'll just use the same standard you defined earlier. Basing one's ethical or political decisions on something that we would consider to be a "fantasy" such as the existence of a soul or god.

But my political bedfellows include the wide spectrum of faith from people who "lifestyle accessorize" to Quakers, Catholics, and Jews whose liberalism is grounded in some very conservative notions about religious faith. Politically, I don't think in terms of faith/not-faith, but in terms of commitments. As a result, I trust people who consider social justice a sacred duty more than I trust secular progressives who would play games with lives to win elections.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:07 PM on January 9, 2007


Well, it does sound like a no true scotsman. And I'll just use the same standard you defined earlier. Basing one's ethical or political decisions on something that we would consider to be a "fantasy" such as the existence of a soul or god.

Okay, but what makes it not a no true scotsman is that some people are guided by religious at their core whereas others are guided by their own ideas and bend a religion to fit. I know when I'm talking to a real zealot because it feels much like talking to a mental patient.

But my political bedfellows include the wide spectrum of faith from people who "lifestyle accessorize" to Quakers, Catholics, and Jews whose liberalism is grounded in some very conservative notions about religious faith.

But would they become non-liberals if they lost their faith? And does everyone who shares their faith share their social and political convictions? I would say a probable no to the first question and a definite no to the second.

As a result, I trust people who consider social justice a sacred duty

Pfffft, sacred duty, eh? Deontology means never having to say you're sorry - after all, you were only following orders.

more than I trust secular progressives who would play games with lives to win elections.

Ha ha! Almost got me there. Nice try, troll.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:38 PM on January 9, 2007


And of course, both qualitative and quantitative research are primarily concerned with creating abstract principles from concrete events. Other fields such as art, law, and ethics are more open to evaluating whether a concrete event is consistent with some stated theoretical principles.

I am really not all that concerned with method, scientific or otherwise. And I am aware of the differences between quantitative and qualitative research.

I guess what I am trying to say, in a clumsy manner, is that l do not think either can be applied to theology in it's classic sense of the study of God, as opposed to the study of religion, or the study of belief.

With theology where are the concrete events (related to God) that one can draw abstract principles (about God) from?
Quantitative approach:
Theological Question - Does God exist?
There is no data to support the existence of God. Further, by definition, there can be no data to support it, because God by most definitions is omnipotent to affect the data and the observation. What knowledge can be gained by endless 'study' of this question?

Qualitative approach:
Theological Question - Why does God allow evil to exist?
Here, the existence of evil is the concrete observation. (Let's leave aside the digression into the definition of evil.) However, we cannot establish any principles firmly enough to evaluate whether the event is consistent with them? Again, we know nothing more at the end of our study than at the beginning.

Quantitatively, theology is like research with imaginary data.
Qualitatively, it is like looking for a black cat in a dark room in which there is no cat and someone yells, "I got it!"
(which makes it remarkably similar to systems engineering )
posted by bashos_frog at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: Okay, but what makes it not a no true scotsman is that some people are guided by religious at their core whereas others are guided by their own ideas and bend a religion to fit.

Now this sounds like a false dichotomy. And I'm wondering how you define "religious at the core." The problem is that you are conflating principles of religion with principles of contemporary politics. And the two are not necessarily related.

Just as an example, you have some very conservative religious theologies embrace socialism, some conservative religious theologies embrace free market capitalism. Both Christian religious socialists and capitalists justify their politics by emphasizing different aspects of scripture. But both believe that their economic ideology is supported by god.

But would they become non-liberals if they lost their faith? And does everyone who shares their faith share their social and political convictions? I would say a probable no to the first question and a definite no to the second.

But the same answers often apply to political conservatives as well. Do political conservatives magically become political liberals when they loose their faith? No. Does everyone who subscribe to a particular religious position (including atheism or agnosticism) share social and political convictions? No. Further, I'll ask another question, is it possible for a person to change political convictions without changing their religious orientation? Yes.

Just for some notable examples, you have Karl Rove who is a neocon agnostic. Christopher Hitchins who changed his political orientation from left to right without changing his religious orientation.

Pfffft, sacred duty, eh? Deontology means never having to say you're sorry - after all, you were only following orders.

Well, many atheists and agnostics have some deontological beliefs as well. But does it matter the source of those beliefs when "at decision making time" the result is that we both agree on the same political agenda? The counter-argument is that I share some sort of solidarity with Rove and Hitchins just because we are all members of the "reality based community."

And my mention of the radical/progressive split on the left wasn't meant as a troll, but as a practical example where shared atheism/agnosticism does not mean we share a common political agenda. Progressives who prioritize electoral success will argue one shouldn't criticize anti-gay Democratic candidates in close races. Radical believers in social justice tend not to accept the argument that criticism of oppression should be reserved for the most convenient time.

The fact that we both are atheist doesn't mean squat "at decision making time" when it comes to politics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:36 AM on January 10, 2007


Quantitative approach:
Theological Question - Does God exist?


I had an experience several years ago that empirically demonstrated to me the existence of God. I can no longer possibly continue to act as though God does not exist (after having had this experience) unless I lie to myself every single day. It is as though someone explained to you the composition of dark matter, or the origin of electroweak breaking - you wouldn't be able to consciously force yourself to 'forget' this knowledge - even if there was a whole room full of angry non-believers screaming at you every day.

You have to continue working under your new paradigm. My new paradigm caused me to change jobs and start a new life - committed to the tenets of Christianity as laid out by the founder in Matt 25:31-46 and in the beatitudes.

Some of us believe there is a hidden architecture to this universe - which, through careful study - can be rendered into laws that will benefit mankind.

I see that you do not believe there remains mysteries to be uncovered, higher orders or structure to be puzzled at, or any form of sentiency greater than that of your own small, isolated mind.

What a joyless world that must be.

It was the works of Jung and Eliade that helped me frame my new understanding of reality and interconnectedness. I highly recommend reading them.
I also recommend The Language of God by Francis Collins. You can get it used for nine bucks, and it's a very balanced take on Christians in the hard sciences.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:38 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


IRT KirkJobSluder's comment above,
I became much more politically liberal after converting to my denomination.

Prior to taking up this path, I worked in business and thought poor people deserved what they got. I pretty much thought only of myself and would rather have worked on Sundays - building up my tiny, temporal empire - than have spent any amount of time in careful contemplation.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:41 AM on January 10, 2007


and... by 'a balanced take on Christians in the hard sciences,' I mean - a book written by a Christian who is also a scientist and would like to explain to you why God exists.

Not balanced in the sense of, "presenting both sides of the argument as equally valid," but balanced in the sense of, "Not a crucifix-waving, hell-fire-preaching, foaming-at-the-mouth attack on secular thought."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:43 AM on January 10, 2007


About the only issue I can think of where atheists and agnostics possibly have a common political cause is separation of church and state. But on the other hand, that is also an issue where many people of faith also have a vested interest. Some believe excessive entanglement often leads to favoring one branch of one religion over others. Some believe that secular and religious authority should be independent on principle. So there also any political practice is likely to involve "interfaith" coalitions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:58 AM on January 10, 2007


"I see that you do not believe there remains mysteries to be uncovered, higher orders or structure to be puzzled at, or any form of sentiency greater than that of your own small, isolated mind.

What a joyless world that must be."


I don't see where anyone's said that, B_B; the existence of such mysteries, orders of structure and sentiency does not require the existence of God.

It's possible to have joy and wonder in one's existence and one's interrelation with other people without believing in God.

I should say that I personally believe in (that which for sake of easy conversation I have to name) God and the connectedness of all things, but not in the Christian way.

I think it's unfairly judgmental (and perhaps even aggressively derisive) of you to declare someone's life to be joyless just because they don't believe in God, even if you yourself can't imagine it to be otherwise. Just because you can't imagine it, does not mean it cannot be.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:35 AM on January 10, 2007


I see that you do not believe there remains mysteries to be uncovered, higher orders or structure to be puzzled at, or any form of sentiency greater than that of your own small, isolated mind.

And I see that you believe that you already know something of the nature of these mysteries and orders. This would seem to make them kind of pointless and empty, when compared to the almost boundless possibilities a godless universe contains. On top of that, you're prostrating yourself before a "greater" sentience, thus belittling your own mind and its potential to solve these puzzles, and you're also limiting yourself to only those solutions which please that sentience. You've already placed your Ultimate, the limit of your world, whereas my world goes on forever and ever. "World without end", you might say.

What a joyless world you must live in, indeed!
posted by vorfeed at 11:55 AM on January 10, 2007


KirkJobSluder, never mind the exact political affiliations that theists have, or that atheists have - of course they can vaey irrespective of religion - what I'm addressing is the "reachability" of the people holding them. If your views are informed by reality, then I can debate you on them. If your views are informed by an unimpeachable "God sold it, I bought it, that settles it" then you are unreachable.

It's all well and good when liberal theists have views that happen to coincide with those of your liberal reality based community, but when they don't...? How do you deal with the religious convictions of someone when those convictions are vicious and venemous?

If you've already accepted that it's okay to have political views based on religious convictions when you agree with the outcome, on what basis do you disagree with someone's harmful convictions? All of a sudden it's not okay to have faith based politics? How do your religious allies respond to that?
posted by fleetmouse at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2007


What a joyless world that must be.

You wanna talk about a joyless universe, how about one where none of this is a mysterious beautiful miracle but merely a parlor trick conjured out the sleeve of some big sky daddy wizard like a train set built for his amusement?

That's exactly the view that devalues nature in the eyes of evangelicals - nothing can have intrinsic value, it's only a means to an end, it doesn't matter if the coral reefs die and leopards become extinct because all this is a transitory launching pad for good souls waiting for Jebus to return.
posted by fleetmouse at 12:34 PM on January 10, 2007


The terms might differ but the question remains "who dictates reality?"

How did PK Dick put it? Reality is whatever's still there when you stop believing in it.

Excellent post BTW, some great one liners in there. Cheers.
posted by fleetmouse at 12:41 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: KirkJobSluder, never mind the exact political affiliations that theists have, or that atheists have - of course they can vaey irrespective of religion - what I'm addressing is the "reachability" of the people holding them. If your views are informed by reality, then I can debate you on them. If your views are informed by an unimpeachable "God sold it, I bought it, that settles it" then you are unreachable.

Well, if you were really talking about "reachability" then you should have said so to start with rather than to bring in something about politics involving war, abortion, and women's rights.

But here again, I think you are making a false dichotomy. I don't consider theistic views to be automatically unimpeachable, and I don't think that secular ideologies are necessarily reachable. Atheists can be just as stubborn and unwilling to honestly engage in debate as some theists when their pet theory is questioned. Take for example, Pinker's views of social science, or Dawkin's views of the sociology of religion for example.

It's all well and good when liberal theists have views that happen to coincide with those of your liberal reality based community, but when they don't...? How do you deal with the religious convictions of someone when those convictions are vicious and venemous?

Well, this is just my personal perspective as someone who actually studies communities, but I don't think that there is a "liberal reality based community." There are no common visions, norms, or structures. One of the best comments on the misuse of "community" as a buzzphrase is that the group of all people who buy socks from a website is an impoverished definition of community. Likewise, I think that calling you and I a "community" is betraying a very impoverished definition of community.

I find dealing with people with vicious and venomous convictions to be mostly a waste of time and energy regardless of whether those convictions are secular or religious in origin. I have just as much hope of changing the mind of Christopher Hitchins, as Fred Phelps. That is, next to zero. And I find Christopher Hitchins to be ultimately more dangerous.

And here I feel the need to take a concept from Martin Luther King. The fence-sitting moderates are more frustrating than the vicious and venomous. Well meaning moderates will express sympathy while standing in your way. So this was the group that MLK saw as group he needed to change by repeatedly confronting them with visible and undeniable evidence of the injustices they tolerated.

If you've already accepted that it's okay to have political views based on religious convictions when you agree with the outcome, on what basis do you disagree with someone's harmful convictions? All of a sudden it's not okay to have faith based politics? How do your religious allies respond to that?

In 15 years of doing queer-rights education work, I have never convinced anyone to treat me as a human being by saying, "you know, god just doesn't exist."

I have had success in convincing people to treat me as a human being by saying, "look, I'm an out bisexual man, and this is how I've been harmed by heterosexism, and these are the things I feel is necessary to reduce those harms for future generations."

It is possible to critique prejudice and injustice by critiquing prejudice and injustice. I don't need to metaphysically prove the non-existence of god to make a case for social justice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:25 PM on January 10, 2007


And I'm trying to understand exactly what you are advocating here.

Are you just saying that I should be aware that religious leftists don't share my basic beliefs about the universe? Well, duh!

Or are you saying something more? That I shouldn't work with religious leftists even when we have common goals, a common culture, and a common community?

Or are you saying that I should give my primary identification to a mythical "reality based community" in spite of the fact that many members of that community actively and passively work in ways that harm me and mine?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:38 PM on January 10, 2007


Well, if you were really talking about "reachability" then you should have said so to start with rather than to bring in something about politics involving war, abortion, and women's rights.

Sure, OK, but those were the first examples that came to mind of a disagreement between faith and facts.

But here again, I think you are making a false dichotomy. I don't consider theistic views to be automatically unimpeachable

Of course you don't. You're not a theist.

and I don't think that secular ideologies are necessarily reachable. Atheists can be just as stubborn and unwilling to honestly engage in debate as some theists when their pet theory is questioned. Take for example, Pinker's views of social science, or Dawkin's views of the sociology of religion for example.

I think that's just plain wrong. If the human head contained nothing but saline solution, even Pinker would be forced to consider the existence of an immaterial soul. Dawkins I am sure would concede that Lamarckism holds true, if the evidence supported it. As for his views on the sociology of religion, what views does he hold that you think are unchangeable? What evidence do you think it would take to change them? I think he could be convinced that religion is a positive, reasonable thing, but only with evidence that will never, ever exist in this world. ;-)

Well, this is just my personal perspective as someone who actually studies communities, but I don't think that there is a "liberal reality based community." There are no common visions, norms, or structures. One of the best comments on the misuse of "community" as a buzzphrase is that the group of all people who buy socks from a website is an impoverished definition of community. Likewise, I think that calling you and I a "community" is betraying a very impoverished definition of community.

OK, good point.

I find dealing with people with vicious and venomous convictions to be mostly a waste of time and energy regardless of whether those convictions are secular or religious in origin. I have just as much hope of changing the mind of Christopher Hitchins, as Fred Phelps. That is, next to zero. And I find Christopher Hitchins to be ultimately more dangerous.

Horseshit. Hitchens has already demonstrated that he is capable of changing his mind. And regarding dangerousness - who would you rather wake up next to nude in bed - a hungover and armed Hitchens, or a hungover and armed Phelps?

And here I feel the need to take a concept from Martin Luther King. The fence-sitting moderates are more frustrating than the vicious and venomous. Well meaning moderates will express sympathy while standing in your way. So this was the group that MLK saw as group he needed to change by repeatedly confronting them with visible and undeniable evidence of the injustices they tolerated.

I don't care how frustrating you find them - they're reachable if they're reachable, and the fact that they're moderates is a step up from the fellas who want to lynch ya. Do you know what happens to gay men in Muslim theocracies? Something a bit worse than being ignored by moderates, I tell you what.

In 15 years of doing queer-rights education work, I have never convinced anyone to treat me as a human being by saying, "you know, god just doesn't exist."

And I have never cooked dinner by wiggling my nose like Samantha on Bewitched - so I guess there's no hope of ever cooking dinner, eh?

I have had success in convincing people to treat me as a human being by saying, "look, I'm an out bisexual man, and this is how I've been harmed by heterosexism, and these are the things I feel is necessary to reduce those harms for future generations."

That will never have an effect on someone who believes you are possessed by demons of gayness. You have to address your demons before you can be cured of homosexuality, after all.

It is possible to critique prejudice and injustice by critiquing prejudice and injustice. I don't need to metaphysically prove the non-existence of god to make a case for social justice.

Well, okay, you can never prove a universal negative. But if someone's acceptance of what you perceive as prejudice and injustice springs from a fanciful, absurd and unfalsifiable belief system, you would do well to give it a good shaking. I have seen people change their minds about religion and its consequent beliefs, but only after a sustained assault on their religion. You have to get it by the roots.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:03 PM on January 10, 2007


Or are you saying something more? That I shouldn't work with religious leftists even when we have common goals, a common culture, and a common community?

I'm saying even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but it's wrong the rest of the time.

Any time you have people reading the Bible as a holy text rather than as a mixed bag of wisdom, barbarity, history, fantasy and literature, you're going to end up with some readers deciding that gays are an abomination, that you shall not suffer a witch to live, that demons cause insanity and disease, that speaking in tongues actually means something, that there has to be a war in the middle east so Jebus can return, etc. etc. etc.

I think that religion, which came about out of the human necessity to create order and civil society, often puts the desires of an imaginary God above and beyond the desires and needs of men. Ironic isn't it? I think it's a roulette wheel and it can land on bloodshed as easily as blessing.

Do you think that's good? I don't think that's good. Oh well.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:35 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: I think that's just plain wrong. If the human head contained nothing but saline solution, even Pinker would be forced to consider the existence of an immaterial soul. Dawkins I am sure would concede that Lamarckism holds true, if the evidence supported it. As for his views on the sociology of religion, what views does he hold that you think are unchangeable? What evidence do you think it would take to change them? I think he could be convinced that religion is a positive, reasonable thing, but only with evidence that will never, ever exist in this world. ;-)

Well, to explain those examples further. The first half of The Blank Slate is basically a straw-man attack of Behaviorism in the social sciences. Pinker is also a regular writer for Skeptical Inquirer which has also published detailed critiques of Pinker's straw-man of 20th century Behaviorists. So it seems that Pinker has been confronted with evidence that Behaviorism is more nuanced than he is willing to credit it, but that still has not changed his mind.

Dawkins has been pimping memetics as an explanation for religion for over 30 years now, in publications such as The Humanist which also present much better (in the scientific sense) theories about the sociology of religion. However, he shows little sign of saying, "whoops, perhaps memetics is not the best way to go about looking at this."

In both of these cases, you have two "reality based" people who appear to be willing to reject evidence that contradicts their particular ideological views.

Horseshit. Hitchens has already demonstrated that he is capable of changing his mind. And regarding dangerousness - who would you rather wake up next to nude in bed - a hungover and armed Hitchens, or a hungover and armed Phelps?

Well yes, HE is capable of changing his mind. Since I'm a member of the kind of left that Hitchins considers not worth considering, I have little hope of changing his mind.

And there are more types of danger than just waking up in bed naked next to someone. Hitchins publishes articles in respectable newspapers on a monthly basis justifying a policy that results in thousands of deaths a year and an unwillingness to examine the administration that is attempting to expand the war. Counter-protesters to Phelps get more press inches than he does.

I don't care how frustrating you find them - they're reachable if they're reachable, and the fact that they're moderates is a step up from the fellas who want to lynch ya. Do you know what happens to gay men in Muslim theocracies? Something a bit worse than being ignored by moderates, I tell you what.

Well, yes, which is why I spend my time working on moderates vs. extremists. And I'm starting to get the view that you are "unreachable" on this issue.

And yes, I have had close and personal relationships with gay men from the Muslim world who point out that the status of gay rights is a bit more complex than you would like to paint.

I have had success in convincing people to treat me as a human being by saying, "look, I'm an out bisexual man, and this is how I've been harmed by heterosexism, and these are the things I feel is necessary to reduce those harms for future generations."

That will never have an effect on someone who believes you are possessed by demons of gayness. You have to address your demons before you can be cured of homosexuality, after all.


Well, I don't find convincing those people to be worth my time. And why are they worth your time if they are "unreachable?" I also don't find convincing secular anti-gay bigots who see me as mentally and physically ill to be worth my time. Do you have a point here (or at all)?

Which is where I think one of the social change theories that are better tested than memetics really helps. It is much more effective to address the mid-late adopters than the active resistors who may never change their views. As a tactical issue, that's throwing good money/time/energy after bad.

Well, okay, you can never prove a universal negative. But if someone's acceptance of what you perceive as prejudice and injustice springs from a fanciful, absurd and unfalsifiable belief system, you would do well to give it a good shaking. I have seen people change their minds about religion and its consequent beliefs, but only after a sustained assault on their religion. You have to get it by the roots.

I'm still trying to see what the heck this has to do with working with religious leftists.

If you want to engage in the quixotic pursuit of evangelical atheism that's your prerogative. Personally I'm burned out on the theism/atheism debates. It's just not a big deal to me, and I find metaphysical debates about the existence of god or the justifiability of particular belief systems to be painful to participate in. Simply put, arguing about theism with a theist is to willingly be the mark in a game of 3-card monty. At any point, they are going to just change the definitions around. I've long found that it's more productive to nod my head politely and change the subject to ethics or politics where I've found surprising points of agreement, often using related logic.

And I find it tedious to open up Free Inquiry or The Humanist to read yet another apology for atheism or critique of theism. The obsession with what others believe is IMNSHO the worst failing of secular humanism, when talking about secular humanist views on criminal justice, art, philosophy, education and medicine are more exciting. Atheism is not the central axis of my social and political identity.

And again, what does the existence of religious bigots have to do with my willingness to work with religious leftists?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


“How did PK Dick put it? Reality is whatever's still there when you stop believing in it.”

Well, as I said - you’d say it’s false. But you’re now talking about objective reality. Which I agreed with you (and Dick) on.
However, there is also transmission of reality through symbol - which Dick delved into quite deeply. So there are symbols and there is reality. The map is not the territory. But someone controls the map. Until some years back teachers were teaching the solar planet sort of model of the atom - suddenly that became outmoded and it became probability feilds.
“Reality” changed.
Not objective reality of course, but the symbols we use changed, therefore our understanding shifted. SOMEbody did that. Some method was used. That the method improved and clarified our understanding and perception of the natural world does not change the fact that our interior symbols were modulated. That it’s a favorable change also doesn’t negate the fact that a change occured.
But hell, you’ve read Dick, you know.
Clearly - there’s a great responsibility in making sure the map isn’t distorted in a negative way (indeed, it’s the core of your argument). I’m just pointing out that the responsibility exists.
Certain facts are reducible to concrete, empirically verifiable propositions (Bertrand Russel). Someone states, or otherwise relays those concrete facts to others.
In zen, however, once something is transmitted, it’s falsified because the pure experiential reality is subtituted for words.

So while I accept Baby_Balrog’s direct experiance of the existance of God - in as much as I dislike the term “God” itself - I recognize the rather nifty pairity between the scientific method which asserts the need for the universal repeatability of the experiance (sorry for the imprecise terminology - I mean metaphorically one can’t shout “Eureka” and claim to have changed lead into gold without repeatability for peer review) and the zen assertion that any experiance at all is distorted in symbolic transmission.
(I stole most of that from Thomas Merton)

So the scientific response to Baby_Balrog is that his assertion is false because it’s non-repeatable. In zen, his assertion is irrelevent, because any statement however concrete can’t replicate direct experiance of reality. So, to paraphrase: “I saw God” Science: “I see no evidence of that.” (Or in some cases) “No you didn’t.” But, in Zen: “So what?” or rather, pointed silence.
It’s not only possible to have joy and wonder in one's existence and one's interrelation with other people without believing in God, it’s possible to have joy and wonder in one's existence and one's interrelation with other people without any sort of running commentary. (for lack of a better word)

But I’m a bit of a purist there. No frills.

And for all intents and purposes, using the cleanest, noiseless signal in transmitting objective reality amongst ourselves is the best possible method of discovery of other - anything. And that’s pretty much science.

"Cheers."
Salute
posted by Smedleyman at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmaus: I'm saying even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but it's wrong the rest of the time.

Well, again, what is your point? What are the practical implications of this? You are the one saying that secular leftists should not "reach out" to religious leftists. What exactly do you want for us secular leftists to do?

The problem here is that your are STILL conflating theism/atheism with politics and culture. Let me draw you a picture:

Theism
Atheism
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Marxism
Liberalism
Libertarianism
Capitalism
Pragmatism
Radical Feminism
Conservatism
Ecological Movements
Socialism

These are two entirely separate domains. I can't assume that my fellow atheists are going to agree with me on my politics. I can't assume that my fellow leftists are going to be atheists.

And it is my experience that political ideologies do more to shape how a person views political reality than theism/atheism.

Any time you have people reading the Bible as a holy text rather than as a mixed bag of wisdom, barbarity, history, fantasy and literature, you're going to end up with some readers deciding that gays are an abomination, that you shall not suffer a witch to live, that demons cause insanity and disease, that speaking in tongues actually means something, that there has to be a war in the middle east so Jebus can return, etc. etc. etc.

So many things wrong here, and I'm trying to decide if it is worthwhile to start.

Not all theists view the Bible as a holy text.

This is a false dichotomy for many Christians.

And most Christian sects have doctrines that say logic, reason, and personal conscience should be influential in interpreting scripture.

I think that religion, which came about out of the human necessity to create order and civil society, often puts the desires of an imaginary God above and beyond the desires and needs of men. Ironic isn't it? I think it's a roulette wheel and it can land on bloodshed as easily as blessing.

Do you think that's good? I don't think that's good. Oh well.


You do realize that the first Humanist Manifesto was drafted by clergy?

Perhaps this is the core of the debate that you see religion as a magic roulette wheel that randomly produces bad people. And I use the word "magic" intentionally here because your belief in this aspect of religion is just as irrational and ungrounded in basic reality as the belief that I'm inflicted with demons.

Where as in a reality based view of religions, it's not a roulette wheel, but a social structure that is interdependent on other social structures. Religious systems can be forced to change by internal and external pressures. While I'm not interested in forcing religious groups to be more feminist and gay-friendly, I don't see the profit in turning my nose up at those who do.

Do I think religion is good? Well, in an ideal utopia I don't think there would be religion. I don't live in an ideal utopia. I live in a world in which the varieties of oppression kill and harm people. Therefore, I'm struggling to see what I should do with my religious allies when I have more important concerns on my plate.

So again, what exactly do you want for us secular leftists to do to our religious allies? I've been trying to understand if you actually say that secular leftists should actually do something about religious leftists. Or if you are just taking an opportunity to express your own irrational and apparently unreachable prejudice?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:45 PM on January 10, 2007


Do I think religion is good? Well, in an ideal utopia I don't think there would be religion.

Why? What's wrong with it?
posted by fleetmouse at 4:37 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: Why? What's wrong with it?

Well, just my opinion. The belief in a supernatural god often gets in the way of having a relationship with the universe as it is, rather than as we want for it to be.

But, as far as irrational and silly beliefs go, I don't find it particularly harmful or problematic. It is both unfalsifiable, and unprovable. On its own, it does not mandate any political ideology, economy or expression.

In contrast, you have the belief that some classes of people are more inherently more deserving of status than others. I find this belief to be dangerous, and the core of many social problems. Most of its claims have been falsified, and it mandates ideologies such as sexism, economic bias, and harmful speech.

So you can probably see why I find it more important to work with feminists against sexism, than with atheists against theism.

Again, what exactly do you want for us secular leftists to do to our religious allies?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2007


"Is there a god?" strikes me as silly, unprovable, and ultimately trivial. (In the sense that answering this question is probably not going to have any pragmatic value.)

Other questions in this class include:

"Is the scientific method a sufficient epistemology for humanity?" (My answer is no, but I can't prove it. This is perhaps slightly less trivial than the first one.)

"Are there other universes?"

"Do we live in an anthropic universe?"

"Is there a soul?"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:08 PM on January 10, 2007


On its own, it does not mandate any political ideology, economy or expression.

You are stark raving mad.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2007


"I see that you do not believe there remains mysteries to be uncovered, higher orders or structure to be puzzled at, or any form of sentiency greater than that of your own small, isolated mind."

I said nothing of the sort. There may be such mysteries. But theology is not a possible route to knowledge of them. The only possible route is an epiphany such as you described when you said:

I had an experience several years ago that empirically demonstrated to me the existence of God. I can no longer possibly continue to act as though God does not exist (after having had this experience) unless I lie to myself every single day.

However, I come across people quite often who have had experiences that empirically demonstrate to them the fact that the government controls them via radio receptors in their brains, or the fact that reptilian aliens are running things. I see no more evidence to support your point of view than theirs. That is not to say that you are schizophrenic, although the line between religious ecstasy and madness is quite fine. It is just saying you can not possibly expect me to believe what you believe without experiencing what you did.

It strikes me that God must be somewhat perverse, the way he gives these experiences to a select few people, who must then live with the frustration of having so many people doubt them, while simultaneously allowing great swaths of the world to labor under mistaken beliefs thay may or may not condemn them to eternal suffering when it would be so easy to show them the light.
Feels quite a bit like we are living in an ant farm.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:32 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: On its own, it does not mandate any political ideology, economy or expression.

You are stark raving mad.


No I'm not. There is both a logical argument, and an empirical argument that shows that belief in a supernatural god on its own is irrelevant to politics.

Logically, the existence of a god does not mean that god acts in the universe, or concerned with human well-being or behavior. So you have religious humanists, pantheists, and deists such as Einstein who say, "god exists, but is irrelevant to politics, ethics, and economics."

Empirically, it's trivial to show that both atheist/agnostics and theists are advocates of most major political ideologies. So you have Karl Rove and George Bush as neoconservatives, Einstein and E. O. Wilson as humanists (not to mention the authors of the original humanist manifesto,) you have secular Marxists along with advocates of liberation theology, secular and religious feminists, secular and religious animal rights advocates, vegetarians and vegans, secular and religious pacifists.

In fact, I have never been part of a political group that was not an "interfaith" coalition, nor have I ever taken a political position where at least one of my opponents identified his or her self as an atheist.

So at this point in time, I think the burden of evidence is overwhelmingly on those who would claim that belief in a god mandates or dictates some political position.

And you still have not answered the question that started this whole discussion. What exactly do you want for us secular leftists to do to our religious allies?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:45 PM on January 10, 2007


Whoops that should be, "nor have I ever taken a political position where at least one of my opponents did not identify his or her self as an atheist."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:50 PM on January 10, 2007


Wow - you two are still going at it?!?

I kid, and imo KJS is winning. But Fleet had a couple of good points.
posted by vronsky at 7:55 PM on January 10, 2007


Logically, the existence of a god does not mean that god acts in the universe, or concerned with human well-being or behavior. So you have religious humanists, pantheists, and deists such as Einstein who say, "god exists, but is irrelevant to politics, ethics, and economics."

Excuse me, but into whose mouth are you inserting that doubtlessly apocryphal quote?

IIRC Einstein was more of a pantheist than a deist. And pantheism constitutes atheism by equating god with nature (nature in the sense of all-that-is, not "nature" as opposed to "supernature"). Heck, I'm a pantheist. And an atheist. And deists, historically, are atheists who dare not call themselves atheists openly.

And humanism? If you're going to call that a religion, you've deformed the term so far it could include small engine repair and contract bridge. And yes, I recognize that clergy were involved in the writing of the humanist manifesto, but as I noted earlier, it's not easy to get through the seminary without discovering that there's no God.

In any case, there's no such thing as "theism" - it's a category, not a religion. Actual religions, particularly Abrahamic religions, are not merely statements that there is a supreme being. They're descriptions of what he/she/it/they is/are, how we should live our lives, what's clean and unclean, when it's okay to kill, what to do with your wee wee, what we can expect upon death, what we should eat, what kinds of behaviours are tolerable, intolerable and commendable, and so on. How can that not have political, social and economic implications? Granted not all religions or subgroups of the same major religion will have the same exact doctrines, but I never claimed they did.

vronsky - I mostly stopped taking him seriously after he called me fleetmaus and started asking what I want him to "do to theists" or however he phrased it. Why, I want you to bulldoze them into mass graves, you big silly.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:43 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: IIRC Einstein was more of a pantheist than a deist. And pantheism constitutes atheism by equating god with nature (nature in the sense of all-that-is, not "nature" as opposed to "supernature"). Heck, I'm a pantheist. And an atheist. And deists, historically, are atheists who dare not call themselves atheists openly.

Which requires some idiosyncratic (to the point of "stark raving mad") redefinitions of atheism, pantheism, and deism. A kinder interpretation would be to say that the dividing line between theism and atheism perhaps not quite so clear-cut as many people would like to claim.

In my mind, equating god with "all-that-is" is just a sanitized theism. Rather than anthropomorphism of volcanoes and weather systems, you've anthropomorphized the whole universe, and opened the door to thinking and talking about it is some sort of a sentient thing. Belief in a god as "all-there-is" is just as silly, foolish, and ultimately trivial as belief in a supernatural god.

But to me this is yet another edition of your earlier no true scotsman where belief in a god only means belief in a god when in supports your views. And doesn't mean belief in god when it doesn't support your views. It seems that I've walked into another game of 3-card monty here.

And humanism? If you're going to call that a religion, you've deformed the term so far it could include small engine repair and contract bridge.

I don't recall calling it a religion. I used it as an example where both professed atheists and professed theists often converge on a common political or ethical ideology. That is, one can be a theist or atheist and believe that politics and ethics should be defined in human terms.

And yes, I recognize that clergy were involved in the writing of the humanist manifesto, but as I noted earlier, it's not easy to get through the seminary without discovering that there's no God.

Including those that signed modified statements to better accommodate their beliefs in god? (This is the time for your no true scotsman here.)

In any case, there's no such thing as "theism" - it's a category, not a religion.

Certainly, and I thought your problem was not just with religion, but with the belief that there is a god. (AKA theism.) If you wanted to talk specifically about specific religious traditions or religion as more than just a belief in god, then you should have been clear and precise from the start.

Actual religions, particularly Abrahamic religions, are not merely statements that there is a supreme being. They're descriptions of what he/she/it/they is/are, how we should live our lives, what's clean and unclean, when it's okay to kill, what to do with your wee wee, what we can expect upon death, what we should eat, what kinds of behaviours are tolerable, intolerable and commendable, and so on. How can that not have political, social and economic implications?

Because you have added a whole mess of assumptions and theological claims beyond just the statement that there is a supreme being. You've added, "god created humanity" and "god has revealed laws to humanity." In the vast span of religious thought, not everyone has agreed with these.

And even if you agree with these, not everyone agrees with how Abrahamic scriptures should be interpreted. Some people interpret those scriptures in such a way that they become radical leftist peacenicks. I'm trying to understand why you think that it's "stark raving mad" to see differences of political theory and praxis within religious traditions. In fact, my interpretation of the New Testament is that liberation theologists have a better grasp of what was intended by the early church than neocons.

I mostly stopped taking him seriously after he called me fleetmaus and started asking what I want him to "do to theists" or however he phrased it. Why, I want you to bulldoze them into mass graves, you big silly.

Well, I suspect that you are primed to take offense at an innocent cognitive slip because you are, to use your own word, "unreachable" on this issue. I was not even aware that I did it until you complained just now. Your association of "maus" with nazism rather than Strauss operas says more about you than me.

But I'm still wondering. You brought up the problem of liberal atheists "reaching out" to theists. What do you propose we do about this problem?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:35 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: And we do ourselves and them a disservice when we try to gloss over and ignore that difference. Because eventually we're going to come to a decision making time - on abortion, on stem cells, on foreign policy as it relates to prophecy - where we want to make decisions based on reality and they want to make decisions based on fantasy. The differences we swept under the rug are going to come back to haunt us.

This is particularly interesting now that you've outed yourself a believer in a fantasy. Should I be anxious that you will suddenly make a different decision based on your fantasy, or trust your stated political goals? Will the differences between my reality and your fantasy come back to haunt me if we ever work together politically?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:52 PM on January 10, 2007


In my mind, equating god with "all-that-is" is just a sanitized theism. Rather than anthropomorphism of volcanoes and weather systems, you've anthropomorphized the whole universe, and opened the door to thinking and talking about it is some sort of a sentient thing. Belief in a god as "all-there-is" is just as silly, foolish, and ultimately trivial as belief in a supernatural god.

It's not so much equating God with nature as returning to nature some of the attributes that have become abstracted into the idea of God. Spinoza took the medieval notions of God - that led to things like Anselm's ontological argument - to their logical extreme and showed that of course God exists, but isn't God at all. Not sentient, not anthropomorphic, not any of that. In effect, pantheism heads theism off at the pass. It's philosophical jiu jitsu. I think it's the best argument against theism.

Because you have added a whole mess of assumptions and theological claims beyond just the statement that there is a supreme being. You've added, "god created humanity" and "god has revealed laws to humanity." In the vast span of religious thought, not everyone has agreed with these.

I'm sure you can find all kinds of exceptions but in the context of this thread we've been discussing Western monotheism - no?

I'm trying to understand why you think that it's "stark raving mad" to see differences of political theory and praxis within religious traditions.

I don't. Once again, I think it's stark raving mad to think that belief in God - and I mean here a creator God, a personal God, a God that is a deity, not the sleight of mind metaphorical construct of pantheism - doesn't have political consequences. I mean, here:

Some people interpret those scriptures in such a way that they become radical leftist peacenicks.

...and in another post above - you were talking about how people you know are leftist liberals because of their religious convictions!

Can we please recognize that theism - religious belief - has consequences? Is that so difficult?

My point, once again in case it isn't clear, is not that the consequences of religion are alway negative or always predictable - but that it's right and proper to be leery of worldviews based on the existence and desires of imaginary entities. "God" is "telling" your friends to be peacenicks? Great! He's also "telling" other folks to start piling faggots around the faggots. And you validate the latter by validating the former.

Well, I suspect that you are primed to take offense at an innocent cognitive slip

Nah, I'm just funnin' ya.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:40 PM on January 10, 2007


fleetmouse: It's not so much equating God with nature as returning to nature some of the attributes that have become abstracted into the idea of God. Spinoza took the medieval notions of God - that led to things like Anselm's ontological argument - to their logical extreme and showed that of course God exists, but isn't God at all. Not sentient, not anthropomorphic, not any of that. In effect, pantheism heads theism off at the pass. It's philosophical jiu jitsu. I think it's the best argument against theism.

I'm not not just an atheist because I don't believe in a supernatural god, I'm an atheist because I don't believe that definitions of god are meaningful. Either they point to something that doesn't exist, or engage in linguistic 3-card monty to obfuscate what they really mean. Why not also, "god as love" or "god as the ground state of the universe" or "god as the set of all coffee cups throughout history."

And it's not as if apologists for theism have not thought of it first. There is no lack of Christian theologists playing the same philosophical jiu jitsu in defining god according to some vague metaphysical something. You also have to accept some forms of polytheism in which "Gods" are considered to be symbols for some metaphysical this-that-or-other. For example, not everyone who worships Ganesh or Tara believes that those Gods exist except as symbols for some underlying metaphysical object of meditation, and not all Pagans believe in gods as literal supernatural people walking around and doing things.

Which is fine. As I've said, I find this sort of three-card monty to be tedious and about the point where I change the subject to movies I've seen lately. I consider such metaphoric gods to still be fantasies with the potential for distraction rather than clarity.

I'm sure you can find all kinds of exceptions but in the context of this thread we've been discussing Western monotheism - no?

I had not been working under that assumption, no. And it's probably because I didn't become an atheist directly from Western monotheism. I became an atheist because I realized that such metaphorical "slight of mind" was just another way to avoid understanding reality on its own terms.

I also dislike the obsession of many atheists on Western monotheism and try not to talk in terms of Western monotheism where possible.

I don't. Once again, I think it's stark raving mad to think that belief in God - and I mean here a creator God, a personal God, a God that is a deity, not the sleight of mind metaphorical construct of pantheism - doesn't have political consequences. I mean, here:

As you point out, there is far more to one's religious convictions than just belief in a personal creator God. Belief in a personal creator God alone does not explain the diversity of political thought in either contemporary or historic Christianity. To understand why Christians are divided on issues such as the War on Terror we need to look beyond just belief in a personal creator God, and look at how various groups interpret scripture in different ways to justify the various stances from engaged non-violence to just war doctrines. And you also need to look at community and family norms and politics as well.

I have family members who believe in a personal creator God but are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. So if there are political consequences to belief in a personal Creator god, I can't identify them.

My point, once again in case it isn't clear, is not that the consequences of religion are alway negative or always predictable -

Perhaps this is just a big misunderstanding brought on by the sloppy use of terms like religion which I find to be big and messy. Along with addressing specific religious doctrines such as the belief in a personal creator God.

I still stand by my earlier statement that belief in a supernatural god on its own does not mean much in terms of politics or economics. Belief in a supernatural god in the context of other doctrines and community practices can be quite important.

...but that it's right and proper to be leery of worldviews based on the existence and desires of imaginary entities. "God" is "telling" your friends to be peacenicks? Great! He's also "telling" other folks to start piling faggots around the faggots. And you validate the latter by validating the former.

That's an obvious fallacy. The fact that I'm willing to work with religious people when we share common political goals is not a validation of their theism. Even if it was, it is entirely kosher to say that one group is good because they work for social justice, and one group is bad because they work against social justice. My admiration for Martin Luther King in no way obligates me to have admiration of the KKK.

I also think that libertarians and progressives are full of shit in many respects. But I'm still willing to work with them as long as we share common political goals.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:07 AM on January 11, 2007


It's not so much equating God with nature as returning to nature some of the attributes that have become abstracted into the idea of God. Spinoza took the medieval notions of God - that led to things like Anselm's ontological argument - to their logical extreme and showed that of course God exists, but isn't God at all. Not sentient, not anthropomorphic, not any of that. In effect, pantheism heads theism off at the pass. It's philosophical jiu jitsu. I think it's the best argument against theism.

Not really, no. Religions often accept that God must be in some sense big, remote and alien. This does not change the fact that God must have some capacity for entering into personal relationships and manifesting in anthropic form when it suits Him. This is in fact a large part of the theology commonly supported by younger, contemporary Western Christian clergy. God is everywhere and immanent in the world, but can also be personal and speak through the faith.

Your argument is kind of like saying that my computer is so powerful, so stuffed with RAM and tandem processing mojo, that it can't possibly be as limited to the tasks a standard user can perform with a basic knowledge of Windows. This is true, yet Lo! I play freecell.

What I find interesting is that when you combine Atran's comments with Dawkins; arguments, it makes as much sense to get rid of God as it does to get rid of love. Like God, love is categorically absurd. It's a set of behaviours and responses with clearly natural origins without a particular defining essence. If you support love, you must be against reason and science, for a couple of reasons:
1) Love is a category mistake that refers to other processes. If we were *really* honest we would talk about specific mate selection instincts and behaviours.
2) As Dawkins notes, we must confront falsehood resolutely to really value truth, no matter how inconvenient it might make things. This means that we must never talk about being "in love," because this is an obviously fictive category. I should instead tell my wife about my brain states and various degrees of tumescence.
3) Oh sure, I can talk about qualia, but Dennett knows its a fraud and, like belief in an intelligent designer, this is inspired by our instincts (I think I feel love, the eye looks like it was fashioned by a divine hand, whatever). The likelihood that all of my brain states and physiological reactions create something called "love" is another Ultimate Boeing 747 scenario.
4) So if you believe in Richard Dawkins (and especially if you are the man, who's married to the woman who used to play Romana II on Doctor Who), you can't tell anyone you love them without being something of a hypocrite. The fact that people insist on believing in love is no excuse; nor is the idea that it's useful and convenient to believe in love. Since love is a lie, it *cannot* by useful. Hormones make me kiss my wife, not "love." Bereft of utility, love is merely claptrap, just like God. Exactly like God.

This does not prove that God exists, so much as the Dawkins/Dennett campaign to oppose religion is deeply stupid.
posted by mobunited at 12:45 AM on January 11, 2007


1) Love is a category mistake that refers to other processes. If we were *really* honest we would talk about specific mate selection instincts and behaviours.

Sight is a category mistake that refers to other processes. If we were *really* honest we would talk about retinal stimulation and visual cortex activity.

So don't tell your wife you 'saw' your friend today - tell her that today your retinas were stimulated in a manner which your visual cortex and facial recognition centers deemed familiar.

Sometimes we use smaller words to convey bigger topics. It doesn't make them lies. The love argument has no bearing on the god argument. Love *can* be reduced to physical phenomena, much in the way a delicious meal could be reduced to small piles of proteins, carbohydrates and minerals. In both cases the reduction is less satisfying than the combination.

What can God be reduced to?
posted by bashos_frog at 5:30 AM on January 11, 2007


The fact that I'm willing to work with religious people when we share common political goals is not a validation of their theism.

earlier you said "But my political bedfellows include the wide spectrum of faith from people who "lifestyle accessorize" to Quakers, Catholics, and Jews whose liberalism is grounded in some very conservative notions about religious faith. Politically, I don't think in terms of faith/not-faith, but in terms of commitments. As a result, I trust people who consider social justice a sacred duty more than I trust secular progressives who would play games with lives to win elections."

If that's not a validation and defense of their theism, at the expense of secularism, no less...!

If you're going to be honest with yourself about your atheism, you can't lionize religion when it leads to something you like and vilify it when it leads to something you don't like. It's the same mess of irrationality and superstition either way.

Even if it was, it is entirely kosher to say that one group is good because they work for social justice, and one group is bad because they work against social justice.

Sure, but you're an atheist and you judge different groups and their visions and interpretations of God and religion in human terms, by human criteria. Any Christian apologist worth his salt will tell you that God is the standard you should be judging by. And that's why it's unassailable and unreachable (up until they deconvert or are beset by enough serious doubts...) - God is beyond reproach, your mere human criticisms are misunderstandings, and that's why it's scary and distasteful to me even if they happen to be nice and agreeable.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:48 AM on January 11, 2007


“What can God be reduced to?”

(unknown...and you need not know it)

Although that’s always been part of the problem, innit? Buncha people contemplating the unknowable and standing up and saying “Well *I* think it means this!” and pushing in that direction. And then someone asks “How do you know?” And the inevitable reply is “God told me.” And of course, no one else can independantly verify that. Or indeed, has had an experiance wherein God told them something completely different. It’s always struck me as odd that one equates social justice or indeed whatever ideal how noble or base with the totality of “God.” Certainly that’d only be one component of “God.” But if so - why not simply say that?

A:“HEY - I just had an experiance which leads me to believe we should work in peace and harmony with all mankind!”
B:“Was it God?”
A:“That really doesn’t matter to the self-evident truth of it!”

You’d think netfolk would be more savvy to that concept and the appeal to authority fallacy.
And from what I’ve seen, there are other aspects of “God” that aren’t so nice. But some folks worship, say, Kali the destroyer as a necessary part of a whole eternal cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Tough to put forth as a social program tho.
A:“HEY - I just had an experiance which leads me to believe we’re all energy which cannot be created or destroyed and we must be creatively transformed or stagnate!”
B:“Was it God?”
A:“That really doesn’t matter to the self-evident truth of it! Here, let me cut your throat for you! Or you cut mine!”


So I think you’re on to something there. Part of the problem is buying into the reducibility of totality into some *label*“good”*stamp* thing and part of it is putting forward a social agenda based on that concept.

Of course, philosophical Taoists don’t formulate a social tao. *pat pat pat self on back*
Although that can be frustrating to other folks as well.
A:“HEY - an experiance!”
B:“Was it God?”
A:“...”
B:“Uh...well, how do I have one then?”
A:“Aw, I dunno man. You’d have to figure that out for yourself. Anything I say could confuse you further.”
B:“Well, what the hell kind of a thing is that?”
A:“It isn’t any kind of thing. It can’t be known.”
B: *throws chunks of mud at A*

It’s instructive to note there are more Kali cultists than philosophical taoists.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:50 AM on January 11, 2007


Not really, no. Religions often accept that God must be in some sense big, remote and alien. This does not change the fact that God must have some capacity for entering into personal relationships and manifesting in anthropic form when it suits Him. This is in fact a large part of the theology commonly supported by younger, contemporary Western Christian clergy. God is everywhere and immanent in the world, but can also be personal and speak through the faith.

Good essay about that here.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:53 AM on January 11, 2007


Metafilter: Here, let me cut your throat for you! Or you cut mine!
posted by fleetmouse at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2007


And Smedleyman nails it with a very concise definition of theology:

"Buncha people contemplating the unknowable and standing up and saying “Well *I* think it means this!"

Sure sounds like a science to me.
posted by bashos_frog at 12:33 PM on January 11, 2007


But it's not until they can publish evidence from a repeatable experiment.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:49 PM on January 11, 2007


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